Rereading a Thirty-Year-Old Letter


I’ve never been very good at keeping journals. I’d always start well, but then I wouldn’t keep it up, and I would leave blank pages to fill in later, and sometimes I would, and sometimes I wouldn’t and … let’s just say that I’ve noted some pages in the third journal from the 1984 trip that have dates and places at the top, but nothing else below. But, thirty years later, even those bits of information — date and place — are useful as one tries to reconstruct the past.

Knowing, I think, that I’d never be able to keep up a full journal, I decided to kill two birds with one stone: I would write letters and keep carbon copies of them in the journal. And that’s what the first entry in the journal is: dated “February 21, 1984,” it’s a letter to S. describing my first couple of days in San Francisco. Reading it now brings me back to the days before e-mail, Skype, and cell phones made keeping up a long-distance relationship so much easier. These were the days of letters and stamps and really expensive long-distance calls.

The letter is something of a hybrid, an odd mixture of love letter and travelogue. My recollection, now, is that S. ultimately came to feel that my letters to her were too much of the latter and too little of the former. So the moving scene with which it begins — the tearful good-bye at the airport — and with it with the hope that we will rekindle our relationship in Paris three months later, quickly gives way to an account of the plane ride, a conversation with two guys who were college buddies at Williams, the meal on the plane, and a movie called Brainstorm that I apparently watched.

I don’t really recall any of that — in fact, I must confess that I don’t actually recall the tearful goodbye — but I do remember visiting San Francisco for the first time in the company of my uncle, my mother’s half-brother. (I’d only recently discovered that he was actually my uncle and not an “uncle” in the sense that Filipinos often use the term, as a respectful way of addressing an older male relative — but that is another story.)


In the intervening years, I spent a lot of time in the San Francisco Bay Area. My college roommates C. and J. moved there, my wife’s dear college friend lives there, and I did a post-doc at Berkeley for two years after graduate school. It’s fun, though, to look back at the wonder with which I first saw the city. I wrote (in full travelogue mode):

San Francisco is such a wonderful city to walk around in; I’ve never seen such a naturally scenic city. Surrounded by the the bay, which is truly beautiful, and the hills in the distance, all green (the entire city is wonderfully green now — it took me a while to realize what it was that was so different from NY), one seems constantly to be stumbling onto one beautiful view after another. The hills of the city only add to the effect, as one turns a corner only to see a steep street — unlike any in New York — angling up into the distance, lined by those short buildings. Downtown, of course, could be any American city with its tall buildings and spare sunlight.

[N.B. Hard as it is, I am resisting the temptation to edit now what I wrote then.] I did note the oddity having a former maximum security prison be a major tourist attraction, “its name on bumper-stickers and tee-shirts.” And, where else, I wrote, “is the transit system a major tourist attraction.”


Apparently, though, I didn’t actually get to ride the cable cars during that trip: the system was being rehabilitated. That probably accounts for my spending an entire day riding every line the next time I visited the city.


I closed the letter with the hope that someday S. and I would “take a trip out West together. … We could visit here, then drive down the coast to L.A.” S. and I would indeed take that trip a few years later.

And just to continue the theme of nostalgia, guess what I’m doing tonight, thirty years later …





Posted in Scholarship and Teaching | Comments { 1 }

Around the World, Thirty Years Ago

Thirty years ago today, I embarked a trip around the world. My parents had given me the plane ticket as a present after my college graduation, and I had saved money for expenses out of prize money awarded to my senior thesis on Finnegans Wake and from six months of working as a programmer for IBM. (I used to work as a programer each summer after college. I loved doing something that was different from literary study for a while each year. My father always said that I did the wrong Ph.D.)

The first fourteen weeks of the trip were structured around destinations in Asia and the Middle East where I knew people: a family friend in Beijing, relatives in Pakistan and the Philippines, and a college friend doing a Fulbright in Cairo. Between those major destinations, I would spend a few days in places I simply wanted to visit: Tokyo, Hong Kong, Delhi, Istanbul. The second half of the trip would take place in Europe, where I’d be traveling with my college girlfriend S. and then my sister. Itinerary relatively open, but S. and I would be meeting in Paris.

I’m something of an archivist (or “packrat,” my wife would say), and I’ve recently unearthed two notebooks from the trip (a third, alas, was left in the seat pocket of a train) and digitized all of the slides that I took during the trip. I plan to revisit those materials here in the coming months, reflecting on the trip and the changes that the intervening years have wrought both on me and on the places I visited.


My attitude throughout the trip was that I didn’t have to “see” everything. I considered these visits to be initial forays; I was sure I’d be back in the years to come. Alas, the budget and the work schedule of the graduate student and then a young professor in literary studies didn’t accommodate as much travel as I had hoped. Some places I visited again relatively soon; some I’ve just revisited recently from my current base in Abu Dhabi; and some I’ll be seeing again soon. Many places I have yet to return to. But hey, as the poet said, I still have miles to go before I sleep. With luck, some of those will be frequent flyer miles.

In any case, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can picture  that massive gray convertible nylon backpack with the internal frame that I schlepped around for those seven months. Thirty years ago today, I had it on my back as I arrived at my first destination: San Francisco. The first entry in the first journal is dated “February 21, 1984.” Tomorrow I’ll revisit it.

Posted in Travel | Comments { 0 }

Dramatizing Ideology: Lethem’s Dissident Gardens

Jonathan_Lethem,_Dissident_Gardens,_coverToday’s “Review” section in The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper, includes my review of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens, which dramatizes the lives of three generations in a family of American Communists and post-Communists. (Click here to go to the review.) The novel is a Rabelaisian feast, which jumps forwards and backwards in time, includes lots of sexual activity, and paints a vigorous portrait of New York — particularly Queens and Greenwich Village — from the 1940s to the present.

What struck me most as I read it was how canny an account it was of the workings of ideology — not just ideology in the classical Marxist sense of “false consciousness,” but also ideology in the neo-Marxist sense of systems of representation. In an essay that has always been a touchstone for me, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation),” the French neo-Marxist theorist Louis Althusser famously wrote that “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The essay appeared in English in the volume Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, which also included Althusser’s elliptical but provocative “Letter on Art”: “What art makes us see, and therefore gives to us in the form of ‘seeing‘, ‘perceiving‘ and ‘feeling‘ (which is not the form of knowing), is the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes.” In Althusser’s view, great writers — for example, the novels of Tolstoy, Balzac or Solzhenitsyn — “give us a ‘view’ of the ideology to which their work alludes and with which it is constantly fed, a view which presupposes a retreat, an internal distantiation from the very ideology from which their novels emerged. They make us ‘perceive’ (but not know) in some sense from the inside, by an internal distance, the very ideology in which they are held.”

It was Althusser’s work, together with the work of Raymond Williams, that opened up ways of thinking about the relationship between text and context while I was in graduate school. Althusser’s formulation paved the way for a kind of committed cultural studies, that included but was not limited to late twentieth-century Marxist criticism, by pointing out what ideology and literature shared in common: both were forms of representation. Ideology thus became a kind of neutral term: it was an extended language of words, ideas, symbols, and stories that enabled groups to cohere, a shared vocabulary that enabled members of a cultural group to communicate with one another. Ideology was the representational glue that first held groups together and then transformed groups into cultures.

sacvanThe cultural historian Sacvan Bercovitch has devoted his career to the study of American rhetoric and ideology: in such books as The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975), The American Jeremiad (1978), The Office of the Scarlet Letter, and The Rites of Assent (1992), Bercovitch continued down conceptual the roads opened up by Althusser and Williams and deepened our understanding of how American ideology works by incorporating dissent into its very fabric. (Yes, Virginia, there is an American ideology.) Emigrating to America from his native Canada, Bercovitch writes that he discovered a “capitalist culture, based on enterprise, risk, and the veneration of the new, [that] had found [through its] ideological tenets the means of eliciting protest in such a way as to absorb the new, and to direct enterprise and risk into channels of acculturation.”

Lethem’s novel is animated by a similar conception of ideology, and it occured to me that Bercovitch’s biography is, in some respects, a heightened version of Lethem’s. As I mention in the review, Bercovitch’s parents were anarchist painters in Montreal in the late 1920s, and Sacvan was named after Sacco and Vanzetti, who were executed for their anarchist politics. Bercovitch’s given name was a concocted tribute to the executed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Lethem also had an interesting leftist upbringing: his mother was a Jewish political activist and a hippie who was once arrested protesting on the steps of the US Capitol; his father was an avant-garde painter and Lethem and his two siblings grew up in a commune in Brooklyn that was full of artistic types.

In Dissident Gardens, one of the central characters is named “Lenny” — short for “Lenin.” According to an online biography of Bercovitch’s father, Alexandre, Bercovitch’s sister was named “Ninel” — yes, “Lenin” backwards.

Lethem’s novel opens with a scene in which Rose Angrush, the character inspired in part by his grandmother, is about to be drummed out of the American Communist Party for committing the sin of sleeping with a married African American police officer who is a fervent anti-Communist. What Rose confronts that night is ideology in its restricted meaning: as a form of dogmatic thinking and ritualistic behavior. Rose describes the men who appear in her living room as nothing but “drones, men costumed in independent thought who’d become slaves of party groupspeak.” Yet even, after she has been eschewed, Rose remains a true believer, unable to see that she too is wrapped up in a veil of ideology. Rose’s daughter Miriam, who has fled from Sunnyside to pursue her own form of Bohemian resistance in Greenwich Village, thinks to herself that “in Rose’s lava of disappointment the ideals of American Communism had gone to die their slow death eternally; Rose would never die precisely because she needed to live forever.” What we discover, however, as the novel progreses is that Rose’s view of ideology is limited. Unlike Rose, Dissident Gardens adopts what we might call a post-Marxist perspective.

In the course of the novel, Lethem pays homage to a number of the literary and intellectual sources that probably contributed to the development of this perspective. For example, during a sequence in which Lenny is fleeing from a group of IRA hitmen who are pissed off about a business deal involving gold coins, Lethem’s prose seems to pay homage to the tough-guy style of early Norman Mailer, and Lethem acknowledges the date by having a party supposedly being thrown by Mailer play a role in Miriam’s scheme to lose her virginity. Stylistically, however, most of the novel adopts a realist style that recalls both Philip Roth and Ralph Ellison. Roth’s The Great American Novel (1973) and I Married a Communist (1998) immediately come to mind as significant precursors, while Lethem’s naming his African American character Cicero strikes me as an nod to the protagonist of Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), whose career in the “Brotherhood” (the Communist Party) is launched by his skill as an orator. Cicero, however, is resolutely post-Marxist, and he notes with scorn that “Roses’s Marxism quit with Marx.” Through Cicero, Lethem pays homage to the intellectual influence of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose study Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) faulted classical Marxism for underestimating the role that desire – both materialistic and sexual– plays in capitalist society. From its first line to its final scene, Dissident Gardens is full of sex, which is frequently contrasted with the coldness of abstract dogma.

Given its post-Marxist orientation, the novel knows that ideology isn’t only abstract dogma or the “false consciousness” that Rose, the classical Marxist, thinks it is. In terms that echo the work of Bercovitch and other recent theorists of ideology, Dissident Gardens describes ideology as “the veil of sustaining fiction that drove the world, what people needed to believe.” The disaffected professor Cicero sets as his life’s work the attempt “to unmask and unmake, to decry and destroy” ideology, but the novel suggests that such a project is not only futile but also undesirable. Ideology is a necessary aspect of social life because it creates consensus and belief. But, the novel suggests, we must constantly subject our beliefs to scrutiny and let them adapt to meet changing conditions and new ideas. Great fiction, Althusser suggests, offers us resources that help us to scrutinize our ideological assumptions, perhaps because ideology and fiction have parallel projects: the making of representations that help us to make sense of the world. I suspect that Jonathan Lethem would agree.

Posted in Books, Scholarship and Teaching | Comments { 1 }

Cosmopolitanism and the Liberal Arts

It was great fun speaking on this subject last Friday at Harvard. Thanks to everyone who came to me over the next couple of days to talk further about cosmopolitanism and its implications.

Below is an approximation of what I said. I would love to hear from anyone who has further thoughts or questions about the topic. Leave a comment below or drop me a line at my NYU e-mail address.

emerson-headshotRalph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher and Harvard alumnus, once wrote that “Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.” I’m going to talk to you today about the virtues of shooting across gulfs and crossing boundaries—boundaries of nationality, race, class, gender, sexuality, language and—let me stress this—academic discipline.

I’m a literary scholar by trade, but I’ve always been interested in the intersections between literary study and other disciplines. One of my favorite courses among those I’ve been teaching lately is called “The Cosmopolitan Imagination.” It asks students to think about why it is the human beings tell stories and what constitutes so-called “great literature.”

rusi-estrellaMy parents were boundary-crossers by virtue of their coming from Asia to the United States and eventually marrying one another. My father is a Parsee, born in Karachi, when Karachi was a part of India. My late mother was a Filipino. They had met at the International House at Columbia University, my father coming to study mathematical statistics, my mother to study literature and drama.

In matters of religion, however, they were fairly conventional. They weren’t active believers, though we did attend dinners that were held to mark the Zoroastrian New Year (at least until those dinners were moved to Westchester) and we did celebrate Christmas, making it a point to attend the Christmas Eve services at Riverside Church, in New York, a few blocks up the street from where we lived. My mother sometimes liked to attend Easter services there as well.

zarathushtraIt was always assumed that I would have a religion and furthermore that I would become a Zoroastrian like my father. As my mother explained it, it was so that I could keep my options open. I could convert to Christianity, but not to Zoroastrianism, because Zoroastrianism didn’t accept converts. But, when the time came during third grade for my navjote ceremony to be performed, we couldn’t find a priest. We kept hearing excuses along the lines of, “I would do it, but my mother-in-law is very old-fashioned.” The problem was that my mother was a Christian.

Finally, we managed to secure the services of a priest from Mumbai who was traveling in the U.S. and spending some time in New York. Four years later, we had to go to London to have my sister’s ceremony done. And then, there were moments during the preparation for the ceremony when my aunt had to deputize for my mother, because Christians weren’t allowed in certain areas of the Zoroastrian temple.

I’ve told this story many times at NYU Abu Dhabi, where I’m teaching these days, often at the admissions weekends when we meet and evaluate prospective students who have come from all over the globe. For those of you who have never heard of it, NYU Abu Dhabi was New York University’s first portal campus, a degree-granting unit of the university located in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. Now in its fourth year, NYU Abu Dhabi is a globalized liberal arts college that also offers engineering; it’s intended ultimately to be about the size of Swarthmore with about 2,000 or so undergraduates. With four classes totaling about 600 students presently enrolled, NYU Abu Dhabi’s student body comes from 102 nations and speaks 98 languages. It’s designed to take the global education that was implicit in what we all got at Harvard and make it explicit.

When my freshman roommate wanted to spend his junior year abroad at American University in Cairo, perfecting his Arabic and enhancing his understanding of the Middle East, he had to jump through hoop after bureaucratic hoop in order to get the year abroad set up and approved. The attitude that seemed to prevail was, “You’re at Harvard. Why would you want to spend time anywhere else?” Things are apparently different these days. According to the website for the College’s office of admissions, “about 60 percent of Harvard students integrate international experience into their undergraduate careers,” through “enrollment in a foreign university,” “enrollment in a program sponsored by another U.S. college or university,” “participation in field and experiential programs,” or “programs administered by Harvard Summer School.”

NYU is trying to go further, to create what the president of NYU, John Sexton, describes as a “global network university,” an integrated collection of campuses and study-away sites designed to counteract the parochialism that beset most U.S. universities in the second half of the twentieth century.


At NYUAD, I present my anecdote as example of parochialism, which taught me an early lesson in the dynamics of culture: my parents’ marriage was an emblem of cosmopolitan cultural mixing, while the priests’ belief in the importance of cultural purity served as an emblem of all the forces that are arrayed against cosmopolitanism. The term “cosmopolitanism” is used with great abandon in both New York and Abu Dhabi, often to denote a worldly perspective that involves a lot of travel and the cultivation of good taste. At NYUAD, we’ve tried to get the students to think more deeply about what a true cosmopolitanism actually entails.

The term “cosmopolitanism” has had something of a reboot in recent years. Derived etymologically from the Greek word cosmopolites, meaning “citizen of the world,” it was traditionally used to describe a form of universalism that was directly opposed to the idea of nationalism. But its meaning has shifted—away from universalism toward a more pluralist conception, one that is conceived not only in contradistinction to nationalism but also in contradistinction to universalism itself. Universalists try to find common ground amongst peoples; they want to be able to make generalizations that apply to all human beings. Cosmopolitans are more interested in human diversity. For universalists, difference is a problem to be solved. For cosmopolitans, it is an opportunity to be embraced.

The evolution of cosmopolitan theory owes something to the triumph of multiculturalism in the aftermath of the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s. Multiculturalism led to the recovery of neglected histories and artistic traditions, and it fostered a greater sense of toleration (and even appreciation) for various kinds of difference.

Along with the gains, however, there were costs, including increasingly rigid ideas about identity politics and a reluctance to offer critiques of practices across cultural boundaries. Multiculturalism, as institutionalized in the U.S., often pushes its commitment to pluralism so far that we get a kind of cultural impasse. The result is a skittishness, a reluctance to speak across cultural boundaries.

The logic goes something like this: “I like my culture because it’s mine. But I respect yours. I want you to respect mine. I prefer mine because it’s mine. And I imagine that you prefer yours because it’s yours. I really can’t comment on yours because it’s yours and I don’t belong to it. I cherish my long-standing practices and values; out of respect, I’ll refrain from commenting on your long-standing values and practices. If I happen to find some of your long-standing values and practices distasteful or even repugnant, well, we’ll just agree to disagree.”

When I tell this to students, they often nod their heads. Then I say, “So what do you do when one of those long-standing practices happens to be slavery? Is that okay? Don’t we want to be able to say something about another country’s long-standing practice of slavery?” That makes them think.

What I suggest to them is that cosmopolitanism gives us ways of respecting cultural boundaries but also of crossing them. The cosmopolitan experience is all about finding sameness across gulfs of difference, but it isn’t about eradicating gaps in cultural experience: rather, it’s about bridging them.

kwame-anthony-appiahTheorists of cosmopolitanism like the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah stress the importance of conversation as the primary means through which such cultural bridges are built. Appiah invokes “conversation in its older meaning of living together, [of] association” as well as in “its modern sense” of simply talking with one another. The kinds of conversations that Appiah has in mind, however, are much more than simple chit-chat or the exchange of pleasantries. They are dialogues in which we are willing to put our central beliefs on the line: we commit ourselves to conversations in which we are willing to have our minds changed about cherished beliefs and values.

I’ve come to think about my own field—literary scholarship—in precisely these terms. In my NYU Abu Dhabi course called “The Cosmopolitan Imagination,” I ask students to think about whether the kind of cosmopolitan perspective I’ve been describing might be a hallmark of all “great” literature, which asks its readers to experience otherness by opening themselves up to another person’s words and thoughts. The promise of literature is that it takes us out of our own subjectivities and into the subjectivity of another. It enables us to experience different ways of thinking, different ways of being in the world, than those to which we are accustomed. And it’s in that meeting of minds that the so-called meaning of a literary text is produced. “Meaning” isn’t something that an author puts into a text to be decoded by its reader. It is instead, a collaborative production, the result of a “conversation” between a text’s author and its reader through the medium of the text. A text that’s never read doesn’t mean anything.

A well-designed liberal arts curriculum forces students to become critically aware of the complexities of meaning-making and knowledge-production. It relies not on distance learning but on close, face-to-face learning, at its best across seminar tables. It asks students to engage in cosmopolitan conversations—with their professors, with their readings, with their classmates—across divides of nationality, race, class, gender, sexuality, language and—academic discipline. It’s a good when thing when engineering students are asked to take literature courses like mine that require them think outside of their comfort zones; it’s a good thing when literature majors have to take courses that require them to be in labs or to deal with numbers.

steve-jogsTalking to you here in this building that’s famously shaped like a Polaroid camera, reminds me something that Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson: “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics. Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

Thinking and conversing across boundaries leads to innovation and creates citizens of the world. What a good liberal arts curriculum teaches students is that you don’t have to be a genius to find those intersections; you just have to be willing.

Posted in Scholarship and Teaching | Comments { 0 }

1983 Thinks Big


The panel on which I spoke yesterday was called “1983 Thinks Big: 5 for 10.” Here’s how it was billed: “Modeled on Harvard Thinks Big and Ted Talks, five classmates who are professors in various fields and at various universities each give a 10-minute talk on their work and ideas.”

These were the talks:

Obesity and Diabetes: The Science of the Epidemic
Tony Hollenberg, Professor of Medicine and Director of Clinical Investigator Training Program, Harvard Medical School; and Chief of Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

From Nasty to Normal: Reframing the Study of Adolescent Girls’ Sexuality
Deborah L. Tolman, Professor of Social Welfare and Critical Social Psychology at the Hunter College School of Social Work and The Graduate Center of The City University of New York

Cosmopolitanism and the Liberal Arts
Cyrus Patell, Associate Professor of English at New York University and Visiting Associate Professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

Automatically Scalable Computation (or “Why don’t my programs run any faster now than they did in 2003?”)
Margo Seltzer, Herchel Smith Professor of Computer Science, Harvard University School of Engineering & Applied Sciences, and Architect, Oracle Corporation

The Evolution of a Career
David Gessner, Professor of Creative Writing, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Writer

Tony spoke about research into pharmaceutical solutions for obesity, noting that exercise does far less than dietary adjustment, which does far lest than bariatric surgery, which isn’t really practical as a large-scale solution to the problem of obesity that has beset the U.S. in the last thirty years.

Deb discussed her research into adolescent girls’ sexuality, urging us all to think of it as “normal” behavior that is a part of the process of maturing into adulthood. (She described interviewing adolescent girls about their experience with fellatio and offered up a slogan about perceived sluttish behavior that was on everyone’s lips for a while after the session: “Anal is the new oral.”)

Margo talked about why increases in computer processing power haven’t translated into faster execution of software and described research into predictive parallel processing that turns your computer’s cores into “minions.”

David offered an account of his career as a non-fiction writing and his vexed (and not entirely voluntary) transformation into a “nature writer.” He concluded with this amusing video about transformation:

Stay tuned for an account of my remarks.

[Photo by Mark Kingstone, HR '83]

Posted in Scholarship and Teaching | Comments { 0 }