Saturday, February 11, 2006

Poetry Break: "Anamnestic Dementia"

I know that you're all ready for another one of these poetry breaks.


Okay, so you're not, but I am. This poem -- like "Preteritic Memories" -- was inspired by my reading of Hans Blumenberg's Legitimacy of the Modern Age, but has little to do with Pynchon's epic, Gravity's Rainbow.

It has even less to do with Laurie Anderson's song "Gravity's Angel," though I was listening to this and to her other words back then, in 1984:

Last night I woke up. Saw this angel. He flew in my window.
And he said: Girl, pretty proud of yourself, huh?
And I looked around and said: Who me?
And he said: The higher you fly, the faster you fall. He said:
Send it up. Watch it rise. See it fall. Gravity's rainbow.
Send it up. Watch it rise. See it fall. Gravity's angel.

That was Anderson, for Pynchon.

In 1984, I had recently moved to Berkeley, tired of the commute from Stanford and exhausted from the break-up with my 'significant other' (as we used to say back then and there). Needing to start a new life for myself, I fell into a reading group with Tom Long and Lionel Jensen.

Lionel, I've mentioned before, but not Tom.

Tom had the largest personal library of anybody I've ever known and the most all-encompassing, encyclopedic knowledge of sociological and political theory. He was working on a big project for his doctorate, a metatheory that would peg each theory into its place within a schema of eight-by-eight variables ... or something like that.

Now, this wasn't number crunching, more like concept crunching.

At the time, I was too ignorant to provide Tom with much feedback, but I knew enough to recognize his quiet genius. Yet, he had difficulty sitting down and writing out his thesis. When I left Berkeley for Europe, we lost contact. On a visit to Berkeley years later, I asked Robert Bellah what had happened to Tom. Bellah looked somewhat sad, and replied:
"Tom has fallen off the edge of the earth."
I must have looked puzzled, for Bellah explained,
"We've lost contact. Maybe I didn't give him enough guidance."
I tried internet searches, using Bigfoot back before Google, but no luck. One day, a Berkeley friend, Scott Corey -- who also didn't make it in academics, though he finished his doctorate -- emailed to say that in Cody's Bookstore, he had run into Tom, who was living somewhere in Oakland. Scott had gotten an email address from him, so I sent Tom a message but heard nothing in reply. Perhaps it was a dead end.

If only he had finished writing his thesis, but he just couldn't sit down and do it because he had to keep tinkering with his metatheory. A kind of writer's block, I think.

Yet, Tom wasn't really blocked -- he could stand up and spontaneously present a great lecture on difficult theoretical topics in sociology and make them clear and simple without oversimplifying, which explains why Berkeley's Sociology Department had him teaching the sociological theory courses back in the eighties.

If I had that part of my life to do over again, I'd tell him:
"Tom, I want you to present your thesis to me in lectures. I'll record them all, and when its finished, I'll edit them for you while you go back and provide the sources. That way, you'll get the damn thing written and go on to the brilliant career that you deserve."
I wish that I'd said that back then. But I didn't.

So, here's to Tom Long, wherever he is. He read Blumenberg with me, and he liked this poem:
Anamnestic Dementia

Perhaps we thought he would be with us always here,
And we with him, practicing our maieutic art
Upon one another as some community
Of whores might -- like them, we stalked the marketplace,
Brazenly plying our profession, seducing
Through sweet discursive reasons those more reluctant.
Did we forget the inevitability
Of death, or just not make the morbid inference
So obviously implied by our odd doctrine;
Is it senility afflicts us now -- we are
Born old, and age visibly in this temporal
Stage, and our failing faculty forgets more than
Ever we could recall -- or degeneration
Engendered by disease we picked up in the streets
Of Athens, where epidemic thoughts run their course?

An exotic strain of exoteric regions
In the east has sorely weakened our resistance,
And we succumb to every new influence
In the air, our feverished minds sickly dreaming
Grand systems metaphorically we never dared
Before, suggesting great cosmologies beyond
What once were limits we had set above ourselves.
Incomparable Socrates, of soundest mind,
Suffered hallucinations as death flowed into
His limbs -- we should not expect more lucidity
Than he enjoyed when in those few precious hours
Of life, he presented his virulent vision,
A revelation to us, you may be sure, for
With spastic turning of his head we were returned
Around toward that which once we resolutely spurned.
Jeffery Hodges
Copyright 1984



At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sweet, sad tribute. I'm just starting on Blumenberg's "magisterial" LEGITIMACY... That's how P. Rabinow describes it. I've just begun my journey. Your words are inspiring- truly. So call me Tom.

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, 'Tom.' Thomas means "twin" in Aramaic, so perhaps you're Tom's intellectual twin.

I'm glad that someone appreciated this tribute to Tom. I do wish that he had made his way in the academic world.

Blumenberg's text is a kind of 'world-historical' undertaking. You'll gain a lot from it.

Jeffery Hodges

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