What’s under the rock

I was at a high-stakes meeting at a top research institution the other day. Mousy, elderly female humanities Professors of the Practice are not usually included in high-level gatherings, so I folded my hands in my lap and switched into listening mode. At the meeting, a terrifying, extremely eminent social-sciences professional pointed out with some fervor that a university Slavic program in the 21st century has no business “throwing Tolstoy at students.” What frivolity to read made-up stories at a time like this! It’s a tough world out there and time is money (время – деньги). Give students a toolkit of basic words and concepts; train them in how to gather facts and summarize arguments in crisp, convincing memos.

Polish the student up, slap on a robe and mortarboard and send that product on over to Washington to save the world. 

Before I clawed my way up into the lowest tiers of the Ivory Tower, I worked as a diplomatic interpreter and translator for the US Department of State. Mostly I was based in Geneva at nuclear weapons talks — the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the now-defunct Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, things like that — but I also spent a fair amount of time at various gritty sites, including rickety nuclear power plants in Eastern Europe (Kozlodui, Ignalina). 

The purpose of these meetings was to keep the world from blowing up, but the language was mundane. Once you’ve learned the terms for the delivery vehicles — intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched cruise missiles, heavy bombers and other nouns — it’s just a simple matter of counting these things, moving them around, keeping track of them and figuring out how to destroy them without hurting anybody. Garden-variety verbs, numbers, indicative sentences. Despite what was at stake, weirdly, the language was easy. 

Not like what Dostoevsky throws at you. 

I was not “trained” in this skill of shifting words between languages; I was educated. I spent years in graduate school (and decades after) reading dead Russian writers’ novels and criticism about them, and countless hours discussing these books with other people, living as well as dead. The books were not “thrown at” me; rather, I threw myself into them, such that at times it was hard to find my way out. 

Still is.


Anyway, one evening I interpreted at a one-on-one dinner at a very fine restaurant in Geneva’s old town. Candlelight, three different kinds of wine, five courses, deferential waiters with starched white napkins draped over their forearms, the whole show culminating in a stupefying Teutonic chocolate torte. “One-on-one” means two ambassadors, but of course it’s actually “two-on-two,” if you count the invisible language personnel. The pattern was for each of us to interpret into the other language: I listened to my guy in English and spoke in Russian, and the other interpreter went in reverse. 

The Russian diplomat was one of the most erudite, broad-minded and engaging men I have ever met: he shared provocative thoughts and questions about the business at hand (those pesky weapons), military history, nuclear engineering and suchlike matters as you might expect, but also about the differences between our two countries—our histories, value systems, educational institutions, pet care routines, peanut-butter sandwiches, fishing tackle, current TV shows.  The interpreter was a genius, too, and subsequently he became famous as a political analyst. In the moment I was profoundly grateful he handled the “peanut-butter sandwiches.” As it happened, the diplomat was fluent in English too — but cagy enough to turn that part over to his interpreter. 

By contrast, my guy — though a trained expert in his field — had not wasted any time studying history or philosophy or reading literature or, clearly, anything else. He was razor-focused on getting the deal. So mostly what he said was, in the pauses, “Oh, that’s interesting,” or, in exciting moments, “That’s very interesting!” Which, frankly, is a breeze to translate. This was one of the rare occasions when as an interpreter I was able to actually eat the food — normally my guy talks so much I have to be interpreting the whole time, which means dinner will be Cheez-Its from the hotel mini-bar.

In short, a delicious evening, a master course in conversation and in translation and the easiest job I ever did. But I did — and still do — harbor a twinge of embarrassment. Who “won” this diplomatic exercise?

My Duke Follow-the-Rublers are familiar with a book by economist Morton Schapiro and literature scholar Gary Saul Morson called “Cents and Sensibility,” which is about the challenges facing scholars conducting interdisciplinary work. The most toxic of these challenges is what they call “disciplinary imperialism,” that is, the presumption by some professors that their field explains the entire world and that therefore there is no need for any other kind of inquiry.  The worst offenders, as objective data appears to show, are social scientists — notably, economists (disciplinary imperialism; I know you’re in a hurry, so just scoot ahead to minute 7:00).

I had to give a trigger warning in class the other day. One of the characters in the book we’re reading goes very deep into that part of the human brain and conscience that we rarely allow ourselves to access. There are some terrifying thoughts lurking down there, kind of like when you are out by the creek and flip over a rock and see all the creepy-crawlies underneath. Homicidal urges, illicit desires, feelings of guilt, revenge or dread, tabooed thoughts about Apocalypse. And of course, the horror you feel when confronted with the rawness of the universe. 

Mrak, the darkness of the soul. 

The clean, shiny surface (data, logic, empiricism, research, observations) makes such sense. The solutions seem so easy. Just conduct a few polls, lobby the right politicians, pass a law and presto: No more injustice! 

Then suddenly some psychopath gets elected Chief Executive.

I have never pulled anyone out of a burning building or a roiling river; I have never knocked a gun out of some maniac’s hand or wrested the nuclear briefcase from the President’s twitching fingers. Believe me, when that moment comes, I hope someone steps up. I have not solved the problems of climate change or nuclear Armageddon (though my students and I, along with the writers we read, sure give them a lot of thought). I get that some people go to toxic waste dumps and wind farms and measure things, and that this is important, if the world is to survive. I even vote! 

But on the battlefield of education, I refuse to concede the value of what we do in literature study.

Which is to force, yes, force, students to read mind-blowing books, to slip inside the brains of the people who live in there and to experience their world; then to come back out and discuss their impressions with others, participating in a conversation that human beings have been having for centuries about things that matter. 

And to be honest, I’d rather send one random student who’s been through this process to a negotiating table than someone who learned a set of facts, mastered a few practical skills, wrote some memos and jotted down everything the professor said.

Professor Carol Apollonio has been teaching Russian literature at Duke for 40 years, and this is her final semester. Her column, "Final Rants from the Podium," typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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