Online learning and MOOCs are all the rage. Pardon me if I restrain my enthusiasm. Though I have dear friends that swear by the merits of taking classes in front of an Apple screen, for me, that’s not how the best learning takes place.
You can learn from books, you can learn from great poetry – those can be done in silence, in one’s own room. We learn from experience – that’s where what we learned from books burns in; or doesn’t. But a vital catalyst for learning is knowing learned people. The “Aha!” that comes when we realize, “I want to be like that.” Not necessarily that. But something like that. More like that than what I was. It’s a direction rather than goal. That “Aha!” comes from classroom discussions, office hours, reading all the recommended reading and casually mentioned reading. These teachers or mentors model better ways of thinking, better ways of feeling, better ways of being in the world. Sometimes it comes from a grade-school teacher, or an aunt or uncle, or it can happen at any point in one’s life. Poet Dana Gioia has told me about the influence of Elizabeth Bishop when he was at Harvard. Steve Wasserman has written of the influence of Susan Sontag‘s friendship on on him as a young man. I was fortunate to have Joseph Brodsky as a student in Ann Arbor, and much, much later Czeslaw Milosz – and very late in life, René Girard, too. I consider myself very lucky in that regard – but so do the others; anyone, really, would know the difference. Like having a great dinner at Chez Panisse versus looking at photos of food in Gourmet magazine.
“In the summer of 1996, I spent two weeks driving around Greece with my girlfriend and my undergraduate adviser. We argued all the time: me and my girlfriend; me and my adviser; my girlfriend and my adviser. One stop was particularly memorable for its unenjoyableness. We spent a day and a night at Monemvasia, a fortified Crusader town on a massive rock off the coast. The whole time, my adviser berated me to learn more about the extensive history of the place and turned his nose up at my girlfriend, who wanted to find a nightclub on the island.
“To be fair, my adviser was not actually on the trip. He was in my head, or rather, I had internalized him. I couldn’t have a conversation without hearing him remark on the substance (or lack thereof) of my comments. He haunted my relationships and my thoughts. I carried him everywhere, like Anchises on my shoulders.”
The third party had a name – Antoine Raybaud, 1934-2012. Dan studied with him in Geneva.
I didn’t have to take his classes. Still, a tiny group of us kept on coming back. Despite the hardships, Raybaud’s classes were mesmerizing. He interpreted texts like a magician, making meaning appear where we could only see words. The seminars became less painful, as Raybaud slowly warmed to us. But he never relented in his expectations. Every single paper I submitted to him, from my first essay to my final thesis, he made me rewrite. Once, on my way to his office, I bumped into him in the hallway; he glanced at the first few paragraphs of my assignment, then handed it back, saying, “Allez, refaites-moi ça.” (“Do it over.”) I went home and spent hours trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Eventually I rewrote the entire paper; even I could tell that it turned out much better.
Natacha, Bernard and I were his last students; he retired the year we graduated. His last seminars were luxurious: we spent six months, just the four of us, reading “Un Coup de Dés.” During that last seminar, it became clear we were initiates. We had come close to being broken, but had broken through.
This was akin to what the Russian Nobel laureate told his Columbia class, including Harper’s editor James Marcus: assigning a short paper for class, he warned them “Assume that this may be the last thing you write. … Don’t forget, you could get hit by a car after you hand it in. Keep that thought in mind.” While it would have been “grandiose nuttiness” from anyone else, he concluded that Brodsky was extending his own “high seriousness about writing to his students,” few of whom deserved it. (I tell the story in the introduction to my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations.)
You can read about Antoine Raybaud in Geneva, and Dan’s ill-fated trip to the Greek island here.
Postscript on 7/6: One regular reader has chimed in already, and reminded us to temper our language, especially when posting at the end of a long day. From Margaret Watson: “Living in a small town off the coast of Maine, my opportunity for educational experience is minimal. But happily for ten weeks this spring I was involved in a very active group with Eavan Boland and Ten Pre-Modern Women Poets from Stanford (your “place”). I learned an enormous amount not only from her guidance and knowledge but also from the Stegner Fellows at Stanford who introduced us to the “modern” approach to poets as it is happening today. Then we could participate with either an essay or a poem written in the way of the poet of that particular week. Being introduced to these poets of the past is fodder now for a long time to come. No, I couldn’t be there, but in my heart and mind, I was.”