Musings reading writing

Elizabeth Ammons and Diana Wynne Jones

Today I bring tidings of two minor projects I’m working on as a result of the Grad School Bug: reading Elizabeth Ammons’ Brave New Words, a call for optimistic, inclusive, and activist teaching in the humanities, and writing an essay exploring the concepts of truth Diana Wynne Jones develops in four pivotal poems in her novella “The True State of Affairs” and her related series the Dalemark Quartet.

The Ammons book is another rescue from the bookstore where I work, and I turned to it because I needed a break from twisting my brain into relativism-pretzels (I’d glanced in it enough to know that Ammons opposes “postmodern fundamentalism”).

I’m not finished yet, but I hope to finish it in the next day or two. I’ve learned several important things from it:

  1. I may be a postpositivist realist, a term Ammons attributes to Satya Mohanty. Postpositivist realists believe that truth is to be accessed through experience, including both empirical evidence and reasoning, believe that conclusions must always be tentative and subject to revision, and believe that objectivity, while impossible, is an admirable goal. I think I agree with all of this and as a result, really want to read Mohanty, even though I find that most writing with strong political agendas as his sounds like it does alienates me despite my theoretical approval of it, which brings me to….
  2. I am deeply conflicted about politics. Apparently being liberal or conservative is reflected in genetics and brain-wiring, and I sort of suspect that I am a hard-wired conservative who’s been reared and taught to be liberal and, thus, forced to acknowledge against my innate tendencies that (in general) liberals are a lot more right than conservatives both morally (alleviating suffering and promoting choice is extremely important; capitalism, meritocracy or supposed meritocracy, and even the truth about some pragmatically unimportant things are less so) and factually (climate change exists and is to a significant degree humanity’s fault). To be more specific, much liberal writing drives me nuts even when I agree with its main thrust (largely because of a tendency to relativism, lack of nuance, and what fees like fanaticism), and intelligent, thoughtful conservative writing appeals to me viscerally even when I think it’s despicable. In a related problem, intellectually, my circle of sympathy is almost infinite: I am not sure that I should be able to buy books when other people are starving; I believe that people should be respected and given the best life possible regardless of their (race/ethnicity/gender/sexual orientation/ability/insert category here); I strongly suspect that the word “person” should not be synonymous with the word “human”—cats and dogs and birds (the only nonhuman animals I’ve hung out with for any length of time) seem in a very real sense to be people too.  Emotionally, and, as a result, practically, my circle of sympathy is not, I think, as large as most people’s, and I have no desire even to sacrifice my intellect to pointing out -isms in literary texts when I could be analyzing those texts’ emotional effects on me, the philosophical stances they reflect, the ways in which they are beautiful and sublime, and in general my strong, broad, instinctive intellectual reactions to them—let alone sacrifice my time to figuring out ways to combat problems in the real world—or my slim financial resources to feeding the hungry—or my health to, like, not enslaving, killing and eating probably-sentient beings with feelings much like mine. I agree that activism is important, probably even more important than “the work in itself,” but it interests me about 300% less. Ammons’s book reminds me of my ideals and makes me want to adhere to them at least a little more than I do now. I am also grateful that Ammons does not want to throw out less altruistic forms of literary interpretation entirely and sees value in them.
  3. Good God, humans in general and privileged humans in particular can be really, really, really awful. I already knew this in theory, but I think it’s healthy to be reminded of it in other ways, as long as you don’t let the awfulness drown you.
  4. I have some non-white, less-privileged writers to explore.

Meanwhile, I’m more than halfway through my Diana Wynne Jones essay, which is a lot of fun to write. I have missed academic writing, as I’ve said, and I find it especially exciting and rewarding to write about a favorite author who (at least, I wrote this once) “crawled into my brain and lives there.” I thought I’d share a poem I wrote about her (probably not in its final form):

Diana Wynne Jones, 1934-2011

Atheist priestess
of Imagination.

Mirror of a world
gone mad—mundanity

is the false face of coercion
(own yourself and overthrow it) whereas particularity

is a red study
witches sculptors elephants and griffins
Renaissance reenactors singing madrigals
sisters (the beautiful one, the theatrical one,
and Diana herself, the smart one)
tying their hair in knots or
almost suffocating
to be pantomime fairies
or ballerinas or
professors of English literature. Higher truth

is a pattern within, a goal above, a contradiction between,
a refuge

a locked garden
of bees and altars, the call
of distant bagpipes, a feast
laid by the piping river god,
your true love,
your buried self,
a voice
telling you
what you didn’t want to hear.

Forget the gray
purveyors of rules, and remember:

magic is wide,
and big.


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