Sunday, September 8, 2013


During the first week of the term I had to straighten out my course outlines, which involved a fair amount of anxiety about whether the plans that make sense on paper can be realized in the classroom--in spite of the fact that I've been teaching now for 37 years.  I've had to deal with graduate students and arrange meetings and do the and paperwork that's part of being the new Graduate Chair.  In spite of the fact that I was tired (my beginning of term anxiety sometimes makes it difficult to sleep), my classes on Thursday seemed fine:  I have found that a good way of introducing students to some of the theoretical issues we'll deal with during the term is to ask them to apply those models to something they know more about than I do.  So in the fiction class, where I want them to think about genre as well as the techniques of fiction, I introduced three models for describing a genre and then let them talk about the genre fiction they read.  In my class on Britain in the Sixties, we considered how difficult it would be to create a coherent yet honest narrative history of the present moment, and they talked to me about the technology they carry in their pockets (I do not even have a cell phone) and the way that influences their social and intimate relationships with people, and then considered the other things that go into history:  events, ideas, important people.  Besides being the experts, they could clearly see that writing a history is a vexed undertaking.

So in light of the chaotic and anxious week, what did it mean that I was "hungry" to work on the little quilt above?  The basket blocks are about 4 inches square and the setting triangles are made of dozens of different fabrics.  I'm still not sure why I invited such chaos into my workroom, but I did have fun.  This might be partly because you cannot over-think a project like this.  Although you might start out organizing those little setting triangles by colour and contrast, eventually you run out of options and just start putting things together.  And because there are so many fabrics and so many colours, they work.  (Though that's largely because they are reproduction fabrics and they all have the same amount of grey in them:  there are no bright colours that stand out.)

While I worked, I thought about human hungers.  I thought about how often they are antidotes.  Overwhelmed with work, we are hungry to be lazy; in the middle of masses of detail, we want to do something large and crazy like play baseball; finding we are at the end of our bank-account of self-restraint, we want to find a way to feed ourselves and turn to chocolate or caffeine or sugar.  I have often thought of desire as a social wild card.  Think of African American's hunger to be equal, to have equal opportunity, and all the social questions that raises.  Think of women's desire for equality, which I find eroding in startling and unnerving ways.  Think of sexual desire and the many, many ways it challenges the social contract.  I've just finished reading Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which explores how desire shakes up the class structure and the authority of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  I hope soon to watch Victim, a Sixties film with Dirk Bogarde in which Bogarde plays a closeted lawyer who attempts to challenge a blackmail ring that is terrorizing gay men.  The film not only made Bogarde's career (though sadly he did not let the world see his long-term, stable, and loving gay relationship), but is credited with provoking the British Parliament into begin questioning its laws against homosexuality.  Desire can sometimes open the gate to equality.

But I also wondered how often our hungers are our own.  I've watched with some curiosity while New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, concerned about the epidemic of obesity, attempted to enact laws against over-sized sugary drinks. People railed against a politician who attempted to tell them what was good for them, a politician who attempted to rein in their desires.  The freedom to satisfy your own hungers seems to be an inherent part of who we are.  Yet I also know that companies do research on getting the balance of salt, sugar, and fat just right in order to make some foods more addictive.  Are we always agents of our own desires?  Yesterday I was certainly seduced, in part, by the whole discourse of comfort and creativity that infuses the world of quilters:  what speaks more to the idea of comfort than a quilt, particularly a quilt made of fabrics that look like those popular in the mid nineteenth century?  Is that idea part of my own history, my own aesthetic, or is it something that quilt magazines have convinced me of?   I am also aware of how beautiful so much advertising is, particularly for cars, and the way our leaning toward that beauty is often a leaning away from what might be ethical, practical, affordable, or environmentally responsible.

These are all questions I have no answers to, and in any event my own answers would not be yours.  Our desires, like our sense of beauty, are at best particularly our own.  At worse, they urge us to eat and spend mindlessly.   Yet they can also be a source of deep satisfaction and even social change, a prompt to think through what matters to us.

My apologies for craning your neck.  While my camera knows how to get a face in the right orientation, it hasn't learned that quilt baskets have a right side up.

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