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Posts Tagged 'edward watts'

“Why are you here?” as a research paper

The mandatory class for first-semester History graduate students was an interesting exercise. It was, as I’ve said before, largely the opportunity to read a number of things I wouldn’t have otherwise read, and to get a sense of whence certain ideas originate. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities was worth thinking about, and popped up a couple of times in interesting contexts; one of the books I read for my Readings in Ancient Greek Forensic Oratory course referenced it, and it rather slapped me across the face when I volunteered for the Indianapolis International Fair last month (which should eventually be its own blog post). Foucault I still have more to say about, as I keep threatening.

For the final paper, there was a temptation to write a detailed response to Foucault, expanding on some of the ideas I discussed earlier. However, my final response paper, along with watching all of Christopher Nolan’s movies in chronological order (which should also eventually be its own blog post), suggested a different avenue that would be more interesting.

A rubric for the final paper which the professor offered as an experiment was to answer the question “Why are you here?” as a historical research paper. Using the last response paper as a jumping-off point, as well as drawing from the readings for the last week of the course, I decided to try to formulate the answer in a way that would examine the nature of my own memories. Foucault still wound up making an appearance, but it’s really only a cameo, and played for laughs.

It’s long; the assigned length was 15-20 pages, and with notes and bibliography I turned in something that was 32 pages long. (I turned it in five days early, however, so hopefully that gave the professor time to deal with it.) The title and the structure definitely reflect the influence of Christopher Nolan, but I really hope that it comes off as more than a party trick, because I don’t mean it as such.

Something I found out that surprised me was the direct role that the oil industry played in some of the circumstances of my life; I suppose, given my Alaskan origins, this should not have been a total shock, but I truly had no idea.

Anyway — here’s that up with which I came. (Or something. Sometimes not dangling one’s prepositions is awkward.) I can’t imagine I would have much of a venue for it otherwise.

(By the way — even if you don’t normally read notes, read notes 4 and 38.)

Memento Mori:

The Question “Why Am I Here?” and the Unintentionally Unreliable Narrator

By

Richard Barrett

Historicizing one’s own memories is a tricky proposition, for we are too often our own “unreliable narrator.” We may very well make our own history according to Marx,[1] but as Margaret MacMillan observes, “Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events; indeed, sometimes the opposite is true.”[2] For one thing, if one is working with their own memories, then by definition one is already dealing with an unfinished, ever-changing product – “a perpetually active phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present[.]”[3] To put it another way, if you have memories, you do not have all of the memories you will ever have – but if you lack the ability to make new memories, then you are either dead or there is something else wrong with you that likely renders you unable to communicate your own memories in a sustained, systematic fashion. History is the story of something that has already happened, but one’s memory is something that is still happening. A concrete example is this very essay; I do not yet remember having finished writing this paper, or turning it in, or getting it back with a grade. I cannot thus incorporate this essay into its own subject matter, at least not in full – but without the ability to make new memories, I would not be able to write the paper. This, combined with an inherent lack of objectivity dealing with personal memory, should give significant pause to the historian considering such a method.

This is not the only problem, however – how does one document their memory in a truly reliable fashion? At best, a historian can make the argument that somebody has claimed to remember something, but there is no empirical method by which one can actually verify the truth of that claim. I can claim that I remember what I was doing on 23 June 1989,[4] and perhaps somebody can even verify that I was doing what I say I remember doing, but nobody can prove that I remember what I claim to remember – the flipside to the problem of somebody claiming to not remember something, which is equally unverifiable.

Still more is the problem of making individual memory historical in and of itself. Is an individual’s set of memories a history? Or is real history a sorting through of the memories of a collective? Even then, what if one is the sole survivor of a particular community, and their memories are the only possible source of a particular kind of data – such as Jussi Huovinen, the only remaining “rune singer” of the Kalevala, the mammoth collection of Finnish poetry that represents their own collective cultural memory? While it is true that the text remains in print, he is the one man left alive who remembers this body of work incorporatively and not only inscriptively.[5] When he is gone, what will be lost?

What I aim to do with this essay is to examine the role of memory in the formation of an individual’s personal narratives. Personal histories, by definition, can only be constructed after the fact – we cannot remember what has not yet happened, and trying to do so is perhaps best called “conjecture,” or depending on how one spins that conjecture, “fear” or “hope,” which may well often (but not necessarily) be at odds with history. These personal narratives must also be reconciled with the histories of the communities with which the individual interacts – but how to best do this? As Elazar Barkan asks in the issue of American Historical Review current as of this writing, “Does constructing a ‘shared’ narrative mean giving equal time to all sides?”[6] How does the historian engaging in a self-reflexive historical study “[maintain] credibility and the appearance of historical impartiality[,]” particularly given the problem of memory and community?[7] Is it possible to “preserve the goal of not distorting the data to fit one’s conviction” when one is both subject and object of the study?[8] To put it another way, how can I, the individual historian, explore how I use my own memories to negotiate a place within the various communities I have had to exist in over the years, and in doing so “put the subjectivity of history not in the service of controlling or reversing the past, but rather to the delicate task of narrating the past in a way that enriches the present”?[9] How can I answer the question Why am I here? and know that I am in fact giving a truthful and complete answer and minimize the possibility of being self-serving, self-pitying, self-congratulating, and self-deceiving? What are the broader implications for the methodology of any historian of any period and any subject?

I seek to do this by constructing a narrative out of my memories that asks exactly the opposite question asked by most narratives. If “history binds itself to strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things,”[10] then by unhooking memories from that continuity, perhaps it will create a space in which memory may be examined as memory rather than as a point along a progression. Therefore, rather than providing a series of events that prompts the reader to ask, “What happened next?” I will arrange the chronology of the account so that the reader instead should ask, “What happened before that?” I argue that narratives are in fact initially constructed by the narrator looking backwards in the first place; that is to say, for the historian, causality may only be seen in reverse. Foreshadowing is a literary device, not a historical method. We remember an event and muse about why it happened, prompting the recollection of a previous event to contextualize that one. The tapestry must be unraveled before it can be woven back into one piece; thus, the goal here is to examine the threads as they are pulled out – that is, before they are re-synthesized into a bigger picture.

Where possible, I will refer to primary sources – letters, diaries, blog posts, and other pieces of evidence from the period of my existence. Perhaps this will lead to an experience such as Timothy Garton Ash’s, where what I claim to remember now is different from what I claimed to remember then.[11] Where appropriate, I will also aim to provide a greater historical context, both in terms of the greater world as well as the state of the historical field contemporary with the events being described, seeking commentary and context from an issue of American Historical Review contemporary with the events being narrated, as well as other literature as necessary.

If I am answering the question Why am I here? then it is necessary to define what the question means, which to some extent involves an inventory of current memories and ways of constructing my identity. “Why” is a question that for present purposes will assume the current state of things as a telos, subsuming the question of “how” but also assuming the existence of some kind of impetus forward. “I” means a thirty-three year old man, married to another full-time graduate student, no children yet, living nearly three-quarters of the way across the country from where I grew up. “Here” means at the end of my first semester of graduate school as a matriculated, full-time student in the Department of History at Indiana University.

Previous to this semester, the memories closest at hand which appear relevant center around 20 February 2009, when I returned after lunch to my then-day job on campus as Office Services Assistant at the Archives of Traditional Music. Checking my e-mail, I discovered a message from Edward Watts titled “Re: Good news from the History department.” “Dear Richard,” Professor Watts wrote. “Congratulations! I am very happy that this has come to pass…”[12] Congratulations? Why? Wait – this was a response to something else, but what? I scrolled down, to find the original e-mail “Good news from the History department” from Wendy Gamber. “Dear Mr. Barrett,” the e-mail began. The key information was in the very first line:

Congratulations! I’m delighted to inform you that you have been admitted for graduate study to the History department with a multi-year funding package.[13]

Good news, indeed – my wife Megan was perhaps even more thrilled than I was, crying tears of joy when I told her – and it was only the beginning. I had also been admitted to the West European Studies M. A. program starting that semester, but I was still a part-timer, and WEST was more of a way to put a Masters degree together out of the thirty-plus graduate credits I already had so as to not leave IU with a jumble of hours that could never transfer anyplace. Nonetheless, within a couple of weeks of History’s offer, WEST also awarded me a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship for both the summer and the next academic year, meaning I now had a funding package with two fellowship years, and I would be spending my summer in Greece. With all four of these possibilities having come to fruition – WEST, History, and both FLAS awards — I had an undeniable embarrassment of riches. No longer was I to be “de-territorialized,” a “diasporic [person] [rooted] physically in [his] ‘hostlands,’ but… [being] refused assimilation to [it].”[14] No, I now had unambiguous permission to make myself at home at Indiana University. My blog from March reads:

One way or the other, this has all been a rather stunning turn of events for me. Although my path has remained less-than-linear, to say the least, it’s been a real game-changer of a year, let me tell you. Δόξα τῷ θεῷ πάντων ἕνεκεν![15]

Four eggs, four hatched chickens. Ricardus est insufficiens petitor neque enim, Deo gratias.[16]

My employers were thrilled for me, and the sadness for everybody was that it was a position in which I had jelled nicely during the year I had been there – for me, a singular occurrence at Indiana University. On the 5th of June I left the Archives of Traditional Music for the last time, and I posted the following:

I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done and with whom I’ve worked, I leave on good terms with all of those people, I leave not having counted down the seconds till I could quit, and without anybody saying to not let the door hit me where the good Lord split me. To put it in show business terms, I’ve been able to leave ‘em wanting more, and in a good way. It’s a really nice feeling. I close this chapter excited to see what happens next, but sad to be leaving this behind. I am moving on to the next thing without desperation for perhaps the first time in my life.[17]

On 10 June 2009 I got on a plane and flew to Greece, returning on 5 August; orientation for the fall semester started on 24 August.

Teasing out the thread of memory a little further, I come to Thursday, 16 October 2008.

Before I explain the significance of this particular date, I must explain that my original schedule for the fall semester of the 2008/2009 school year had me taking second year Syriac and first year Coptic. However, in a fit of despair over the apparent improbability that I would ever find a path that would make use of those languages, I consolidated those two courses into one, trading them for first year Modern Greek.

J. B. Shank’s assertion in the October 2008 issue of American Historical Review that “approaching the notion of historical change through the notion of crisis is not entirely misguided”[18] does not exactly inspire confidence, but he nonetheless concludes the following:

Accepting that historians are not empirical natural scientists but practitioners of a particular kind of hermeneutical science, one with deep connections to storytelling, the question, then, is not whether they are warranted in deploying the concept of crisis at all, but rather the kind of deployment that is appropriate.[19]

Certainly, the outcome of my own crisis was indeed a marked historical change for me. I discovered quickly that my study of Ancient Greek greatly facilitated the speed at which I was able to absorb the modern vernacular, and that the coursework I already had would be easily applied to a Masters degree in West European Studies. I would perhaps require two classes and a thesis to finish the program. The Greek instructor, an earnest, supportive man looking for graduate students to help build a program, was more than encouraging of my application. I began to contact professors for recommendation letters.

Professor Watts’ response took me rather by surprise. He said yes, that he was happy to write me another letter, but had I considered re-applying to History? We made an appointment to meet and discuss the matter further, and so I found myself in his office the morning of 16 October.

I was up front with Professor Watts; I had not considered re-applying to History, since the faculty member who had spoken with me when I was rejected the first time had said rather unambiguously that I need not consider that an option. “Well, I know you now, Richard,” he replied. “I’ve taught you, and I know how you think. You’re far more sophisticated than you were when you first came to see me three years ago, and you’ve got a lot more that you can prove you have to offer. You’re plenty competitive now, and I will advocate for you as much as I can. I can’t promise anything, but I think it’s worth the fifty bucks for you to throw your hat into the ring.” He suggested that I talk with Professor Deborah Deliyannis about what we had discussed, so that she could know what to say in her letter of recommendation as well. When I met with her, she was very much on board; on the other hand, as accustomed as she was to having those conversations with me by this point, she teasingly referred to me as a “professional applicant.” I had to admit I knew what she meant.

A blog post from the end of that month makes the following reference:

I’ll wrap this up for now by saying that my application for West European Studies has been submitted, and that now it’s just a matter of my letters of recommendation rolling in. Hopefully I’ll know something soon. In the meantime, another option has come up in terms of a departmental home, and the person who suggested it did so unprompted. I don’t want to say much more about it for the time being. For right now I’ll just say that I’m flipping two coins, West European Studies and this other possibility, and we’ll see what comes up. Maybe both will come up heads, in which case I’m decidedly not opposed to leaving IU with more rather than less. Maybe both will come up tails, and I really will have to leave here with 30+ worthless graduate credits. We’ll see. Meanwhile, a near-annual conversation with a particular faculty member about said options has led to this person dubbing me a “professional applicant.” I suppose he/she isn’t wrong.[20]

The next thread of memory picks up seven months earlier, on 3 March 2008. Work was miserable, as was now the daily norm, with my support staff position in one of the campus recruitment offices having grown unbearably precarious over the previous year. I had not started looking for other jobs because I hoped to be a full-time student in the fall anyway. Still, e-mail had brought no good news yet, which meant that every day I checked the postal mailbox when I got home to see if bad news had come instead.

On this particular Monday, I flipped up the lid of the box on my front porch, and saw an envelope from the Indiana University Department of Religious Studies. I knew what it contained before I even opened it, and I almost threw it away still sealed rather than force myself to read the words.

“Thank you for your application…due to a high number of strong applicants…” I stopped there, crumpled it up, and tossed it in the trash. I sent a confused e-mail to the faculty member in Religious Studies who had encouraged me to apply, called in sick the next day, and started applying for other support staff positions.

I posted the following to my blog a week later:

So, Cheesefare Week, as noted earlier, started off with some bad news. I had been obliquely informed about a month ago that good news would come via e-mail, and bad news would come via postal mail; therefore, when I saw the envelope in my mailbox on Monday, I knew exactly what it contained before I even opened it. Bottom line: I will not be a matriculated graduate student this fall. Ricardus est insufficiens petitor.

Exactly what is next for me is unclear. I was instructed to thank God for keeping me from going down this path since He obviously has something better in mind for me, so I’ll start there. There are some well-placed people who have told me they absolutely believe I can do this and want to talk about what happened and what they think I can do from here; I’m more than happy to listen, but in the meantime, I am beginning to consider what my other options are, up to and including the possibility that, being 31, perhaps my window of opportunity just isn’t open anymore.[21]

The next month was a series of very understanding nods and deep sighs from the well-meaning people who had written my letters for this application. What I tended to hear, including from the faculty member who had suggested that I would be welcomed with open arms in the first place, was that whatever impression I might make in class, whatever my grades and test scores were, whatever my letters might say, the details of how I looked on paper were problematic, at least as far as an admissions committee for a humanities program at a big liberal arts university was concerned. “If you spoke to our Director of Graduate Studies right now, she’d probably sound a lot like History did a couple of years ago,” one person told me. “You’re just going to have to go someplace where they aren’t freaked out by a music degree,” said another. I recount one of these conversations in my blog:

So, I had a conversation a couple of days ago with one of the people who wrote letters of recommendation for me. This person wasn’t directly involved with the admission process, but had knowledge of what had happened, and was pretty up front with me about it. I wasn’t told anything I hadn’t already figured out, but this person remained encouraging, and had some concrete suggestions about better paths for me.

The bottom line seems to be this — there’s not really a way to make me look like a conventional applicant on paper… It’s one thing for faculty members to say, “Well, he doesn’t fit in this particular box, but he’s very capable, he’s a known quantity and has proven himself,” but when it comes down to having to make hard decisions, admissions committees have to look at me and say, “He may be capable and a known quantity, but he doesn’t fit into the same box as everybody else we’re admitting.” Without a liberal arts undergraduate degree, my application goes into a different pile than those who do, and that’s not the pile which makes it to the next round of cuts, regardless of my other qualifications. There was the hope on the part of those who supported me that I would be able to transcend these limitations, but sheer numbers did not allow for that.

As I said, this wasn’t anything I hadn’t already figured out. Two years ago I was told what ducks I needed to get in a row for grad school, but the person giving me this advice also said, quite bluntly, “Even then, if it’s somebody like me reading your application, you’re not going to have a lot of luck.” With a non-liberal arts background, plus the fact that within five seconds it becomes clear that it took me eleven years to finish a four year degree (i.e., I was a dropout), I was told, my letters of recommendation appear to be talking about a totally different person and can’t be seen as reliable. The person I was talking to on Tuesday told me that, unfortunately, all of that may be harsh, but it is not necessarily wrong, particularly when a humanities department is faced with more graduate applications than they’ve ever had before. “The reality is, we’re admitting people who have the option to turn us down to go to Princeton, Yale, Duke, and Columbia,” I was told. There is also the issue that my particular academic interests are generally more specifically addressed at religiously affiliated institutions, not big liberal arts universities. Being a “non-traditional applicant” combined with my interests being, in the long run, not the greatest fit in the world for how things are done here, and the work I’ve done over the last couple of years simply does not level the paper playing field.

So what will? In an ideal world, my interests would have been identified, encouraged, and fostered during my early teens, I suppose, but this isn’t what happened, and in the woeful absence of a Time-Turner, I must find a different path.[22]

My employment situation reached its nadir towards the end of the same month; thankfully, I was offered another position just as that crisis peaked, and I started at the Archives of Traditional Music on 21 April 2008.

Among my duties at the Archives was to schedule use of a meeting facility in Morrison Hall known as the Hoagy Carmichael Room. On 23 April, I received an e-mail from Debra Melsheimer, graduate secretary in Religious Studies, cancelling one of the two reservations they had for the room during the coming Fall Orientation. “Since we will have no ‘new’ incoming graduate students for the AY 2008-09 we will only need to hold one (1) meeting time…”[23] I politely confirmed the cancellation and angrily forwarded the e-mail to friends of mine in the department, asking if they knew what was going on. In short, everybody to whom they made offers were, as I was told, prospects who could turn them down for schools such as Yale and Columbia, and that is exactly what all of them did. Unfortunately, nobody turned them down in time for the department to be able to make other offers.

Thursday, 19 January 2006 is the next point along the timeline to which my memory turns. I had graduated from the Indiana University School of Music with my B. Mus. the month before at the age of twenty-nine, having taken eleven years to finish a four-year degree. My entire final semester of my undergraduate career, my focus was taking a wild turn from the operatic career I had come to Indiana University in 2003 to pursue. I spent the term embracing my new identity as a scholar who happened to sing rather than a singer who liked to read, and my course on Early Music History gave me plenty of opportunities for this – as did an undergraduate survey course on Medieval History taught by Professor Deborah Deliyannis. Much of the personal reading I had done over the past three years came in handy in both classes, to say nothing of the experience of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical cycle (enhanced by taking on choir directing duties the previous summer). Perhaps my areas of interest and the approach I found myself taking meant that I was complicit in “failing to break the grip of a history that roots humanity’s origins in Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago” at a moment when there was “an intellectual and moral imperative” [24] to not fall into that trap, but so be it.

A conversation one day with Prof. Deliyannis led both of us to the conclusion that if I was looking for a post-opera path, perhaps History was the way to go. She said she was willing to write a recommendation, and she thought that it would probably be no particular trouble to admit me as a terminal Masters student, given what she had seen in class. She suggested I talk to Professor Ed Watts, and also said it would help if I could find a summer Latin program somewhere, but encouraged me to go ahead with the particulars of the application.

I took the GRE. I asked for letters of recommendation from the instructors for my more academic courses in the School of Music. I met with Prof. Watts. I found a summer Latin program at University College Cork in Ireland. I submitted my application to the Department of History.

Graduation came and went, as December graduations do. In January, I took a job as a bank teller, figuring I wasn’t going to be there past June if I was going to Ireland for the summer.

Then, an e-mail from Prof. Deliyannis came, strongly suggesting that I set up a meeting with a particular professor regarding my graduate application. I entered this person’s office on 19 January with knots in my stomach, knowing that this likely was not a promising development.

In short, what I heard was, “I don’t think you can get there from here.” Prof. Deliyannis had meant well, I was told, but was unfamiliar with the particulars of how the History department handled graduate applications. In the first place, History did not offer a terminal Masters. In the second place, History did not admit anybody they did not fund. In the third place, whatever my letters might have said about me and whatever my grades and test scores were, a B. Mus. simply could not be given the same weight as a B. A. and thus my letters and my grades could not be taken as seriously as they might be otherwise. In the fourth place, I needed at least some Greek and Latin before I could be admitted.

So what do I do? I asked.

“If I were you, I’d take classes as a non-matriculated student for a couple of years, and then apply elsewhere,” this person told me, stressing the word. “If it’s somebody like me reading your application, there’s very little you’re going to be able to do to make yourself competitive here.”

I left that office devastated (to say nothing of late for work). I had no idea that History would be so fundamentally different from the School of Music, where essentially the non-funded students paid for the funded students. Well, there was nothing for it; if I had to make myself a better applicant on paper, then that was exactly what I would do. By June I had found an on-campus job that had a tuition benefit, and fall of 2006 I started first year Ancient Greek.

A letter I wrote to a friend at the end of February 2006 provides this account:

I graduated in December. It only took me eleven years to finish a four year degree, and I am now sufficiently B.Mus’d (bemused). I don’t know exactly what’s happening with me next; I’m not doing another music degree here, and it frankly seems unlikely that I will be doing another degree at Indiana University, period. Megan’s program is opening all kinds of doors for her; she’s spending seven (paid) weeks in Germany this summer, she starts her PhD in the fall, and so on, but all of my attempts to figure out something useful to do in this environment have failed miserably. Medieval History seemed like a quite likely candidate (and it still does, just not here); I made a wonderful impression on a professor in a non-School of Music class last semester, and she started recruiting me. It seemed like a good fit (and still does), given my natural interests and proclivities, and I was able to get some strong letters of recommendation. Well, I can’t say that I know exactly what happened, except that in January, I was suddenly whisked into the office of somebody higher up in the food chain of the History department, who in no uncertain terms told me that the department’s interest in me had been vastly oversold, and that I needed to look at ways that I could make myself an attractive candidate “someplace else.” Like I say, I don’t know exactly what happened; the most I could get out of this person was that my recommendations didn’t really match the background my transcript showed, and that the recommendations aside, I’m just not competitive “on paper” as far as they’re concerned, coming from a music background. It rather came across as, “On paper, you look like an intellectual lightweight trying to change fields on somebody else’s dime.” What the professor who had been recruiting me said was, “I know what you’re capable of, I know your abilities, I know how you think and how you work, and I think you’re plenty competitive—but it’s not up to me.” I don’t know if, at the end of the day, my research interests…just didn’t match up well enough with those who actually had power to make decisions, or if this was more of an internal political conflict, or what. The plan of action from here, insofar as there is one at present, is to take a class or two a semester as a non-matriculated student for the next two or three years, and then when Megan is done with her coursework and exams, we can try to find a program where I can do my graduate studies and she can do post-doctoral work. I have to say, after the humiliating disappointment of my three years at the School of Music, this whole thing really took out of me whatever wind I had left in my sails.[25]

As we get farther away from the immediacy of the present, however, my memory is increasingly, but less-intentionally, elided. The same letter also contains this section:

To briefly sum up the various happenings of the last nine months… I am not at St. Vladimir’s. The idea was always that it would be fall of 2006 anyway, not fall of 2005, but that is not likely at this point. Perhaps fall of 2009 or 2010. In short, I visited there in October and loved it. Everything about the place impressed me—the location, the faculty, the campus life, the educational environment, the pastoral approach, and so on. Most especially, the centrality of the chapel in the rhythm of campus life just blew me away. However, two things happened—first, Megan, quite correctly and justly, decided that she was enjoying teaching and did not want to walk away from the remaining three years of her funding. Second, every person I talked to at St. Vlad’s gave me the same advice: wait as long as you can before coming. The answer was motivated in different ways by different people—the liturgical music professor said that they’re revamping the program so that it is aimed more towards people with a solid musical background, but that it’s going to be another five years or so before they get there. The dean of students said that spiritual maturity was going to be vital to one’s survival and education in that environment, and that a few years’ worth of time for things to settle would only help me. A student told me, “They will challenge everything you think you know, and your faith will need to be solid as a rock to withstand it. Let as much water run under the bridge as you can manage.” Excellent advice, all of it. I took it to heart, and combined with my wife’s circumstances, I hope to wind up there at some point in some capacity, but it won’t be this next year.[26]

Reading this section of the letter, I remember an entire series of events surrounding a campus visit to Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in October of 2005 and the exploration of the possibility of the priesthood. It was a trip that seemed so seminal, exciting, and which pointed an unmistakable way forward, but which rather spectacularly came to nothing in the end. Even so, it seems like I would at least remember it without prompting for purposes of a footnote, but it does not occur to me to remember it until faced with its record.

Tracing backwards from there, I am led to 13 February 2005. It was my fourth semester at the School of Music, and my penultimate term as an undergraduate. I had auditioned for the Masters program in Vocal Performance and was admitted, and I was still waiting for word on my funding to come through. My audition was good; it showed clear improvement during my time here in terms of range and musicality, and there was the matter of my article in The Journal of Singing making me the first School of Music person in some years to publish in the professional publication for voice teachers. At the beginning of March I was traveling to New York for the first time, having been invited to audition for the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and I felt like I was singing well enough to feel good about such an opportunity.

It was in the midst of these hopeful circumstances that my wife and I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity on the second Sunday of the month, the day before Valentine’s Day. Our first confessions were heard, we were anointed with oil, and we received Communion for the first time. With some irony, the only family either of us had in attendance was my decidedly atheist father.

Larry A. Braskamp suggests that the interest in religion for students represents a “[search] for meaning and community… [which] often leads them away from the organized religious practices and beliefs of their past, [but] is… [nonetheless] a journey toward a more complex spiritual and religious identity.”[27] I can agree with him, but only partially; the “more complex spiritual and religious identity” in this case was far more organized and equipped with beliefs and practices than those of our past. It was amidst the collective memory of the Christian East, a memory both inscribed and incorporated, that I was faced with the “essential historicity of Christian religion,”[28] and I saw – or was shown? – that I had no other option than to find that compelling.

A handwritten diary records the following:

He [the priest] very nearly forgot to anoint our ears. Somewhat ironic, given what we do.

I am fighting a cold and sore throat, so I wound up not singing at all. However, several parts of the homily stuck with me. Deacon Lawrence preached, and he quoted several Church Fathers on the matter of choosing God’s will over one’s own. There are three options, one wrote. God’s way, our way, and the Devil’s way. The man who has not chosen God’s way is somebody who will clearly be ill at ease, who will find everything to be not right, who will not truly be at peace with anyone. That simply describes Dad to a “T”, I’m sorry to say.

Communion was very nearly over before it began; I carried my chrismation candle up to the Chalice with me, which was a touch awkward, and the spoon was in and out of my mouth before I really realized what had happened. No neon signs flashed in the sky, and truth be told… I didn’t need them to.

[…] While describing to Dad the night before just what he’d be seeing, it occurred to me that in many ways it would look like our wedding—we’d process to the front of the church, we’d answer questions, take some vows, and have jewelry put on us. As it worked out, gifts were also another similarity. We both now wear crosses that were given to us by our sponsors; my mother gave us a lovely pewter candle-snuffer; several of our friends made donations to All Saints’ building fund in our honor; the parents of our friend Benjamin also gave us a large ceramic pigeon we’ve named “Melvin”.[29]

It was after this affirmation and proclamation of faith that everything fell apart. The School of Music offered me less financial support than I had received as an undergraduate. My voice teacher pleaded with whom he could, but the most they would do is put it back to my undergraduate level, and they indicated to him that I should feel grateful for that. My New York trip was a fun first visit to the Big Apple, but that is all it ended up being – the audition yielded nothing. The final nail in the coffin was the audition for the fall’s operas, where inexplicably I simply had no high notes anymore. If I were to take my newly professed faith seriously, it would appear very much that God was closing the doors through which I was not supposed to venture.

Thinking that perhaps I could still stay in Music, I spoke with faculty members I knew in Musicology and Choral Conducting. Perhaps these would both be disciplines where my faith and how I practiced it could inform what I did without needing to be fundamentally challenged. As I would be studying specific practices rather than institutions or development of particular beliefs, I hoped that somehow I could be free of questions of “What is ‘religious’? How do we align our definitions with those of the persons we study? Where do we draw the disciplinary boundaries of ‘religious history’?”[30] Both departments told me the same thing, however – we would love to have you, they said. You would be a natural fit in either program. Unfortunately, we have no money at the Masters level, and if you come in as an unfunded student, it would hurt your chances of getting funding at the doctoral level.

Another letter from me to a friend reports the following:

Given how the graduate funding issue shook out, I decided to not accept the slot in the Master’s program here… [B]eing on the cusp of my thirties (having turned 28 this last November)… I do not feel like I can responsibly continue going into an indefinite amount of debt for an indefinite amount of time, while having no solid career prospects on the table. That raised the question, however, what are the implications of that for my career path? The blunt reality is that I don’t really have a career path at this stage of the game. By March of this year, in every respect, it had become quite plain to me that I could not, realistically, get “there” from here.[31]

The last (or is it the first?) of my memories to be strung along this thread is Saturday, 11 June 1994, the day of my high school graduation, being seventeen years old. There was so much to do, and the plan for the weekend had been formulated along very strict lines. Dad would fly in from Anchorage on Friday, the ceremony was on Saturday, there would be a family celebration following, and then he and Mom would fly to Anchorage together on Sunday, leaving Seattle for good. On Monday, I would supervise the movers as they packed up our house. A couple of weeks after that, I would fly to Anchorage myself, returning in the fall to start college at Western Washington University.

Dad had returned to Anchorage in the fall of 1993 to see if his luck might be better in the place where he had made his fortune to begin with; the idea of things getting any worse in Seattle was terrifying. His money had been too tied to Alaska for it to survive the so-called 1986 Oil Price Collapse,[32] and he had never sufficiently planted professional or financial roots in the Pacific Northwest to ride out the crisis. Since taking a loss of $100,000 on the house – to say nothing of having to sell virtually everything else that was not nailed down – in 1988, we had bounced more or less annually from rental to rental, each one less expensive than the previous, hoping that somehow things would turn around. Unfortunately, the rise of big box stores like Office Club, Office Depot and CostCo[33] were making it very difficult for the small office supply retailer to be competitive. Ironically, if we had just been able to hold on to the house for another six months, we would have caught the beginning of the suburban real estate boom in Seattle.[34] After five years of struggling unsuccessfully to make it work, returning to Alaska seemed to be the only option. My mother stayed behind so that I could finish high school where I had started, and since I was going to be starting college anyway, it seemed like a natural break.

The plan was executed neatly and efficiently, point by point. Dad flew in on Friday, I walked on Saturday, and they left together on Sunday. I drove my parents’ car back to our townhouse from the airport, which in its strewn-with-boxes state was no longer really “ours” except that I still lived there for one more day, and went to sleep that night as its sole occupant. The next day, the movers came. In the late afternoon I watched them drive the truck away with everything we owned in it, including my parents’ car. With it went any sense I had of any particular place being “home”; my parents now lived someplace I did not, and while it did not follow that I now had a new home as well, my old home (which itself had only been “ours” for nine months) was no longer mine to occupy. While surely not exactly what Steven Ruggles had in mind when he made this argument, I could have nonetheless independently confirmed his thesis that “a rise in economic resources of the elderly” – to use the term broadly – “…would have resulted in an increase of residence with kin[.]”[35] His larger argument that “the past century has witnessed a radical transformation of residential preferences [of families]”[36] was surely something to which I could also attest, having experienced the bizarre reversal of growing up, graduating high school – and having my parents move away.

Much as I began by observing that I cannot remember this project’s completion and outcome while still working on it, I must end with something else of which I can have no memory and must rely on the memories of others – or, rather, my memory of their memories. (Or, even more to the point, my claim to remember what they claim to remember.) My parents met in Anchorage, Alaska in 1974. In the same year, Lynn White, Jr. wrote that “[p]eople are organized… by the basic presuppositions – often unverbalized – that they share: their axioms.”[37] If this is true, then perhaps it is no real surprise that my parents were always disorganized. Both had been born in Alaska, but there the similarities effectively end. Dick, my father, was the second youngest of a large merchant-class family; his own father, Jack, had owned the first Piggly-Wiggly grocery stores in Alaska.[38] My mother was from a working-class family; her father was a truck driver for a dairy (ironically, a supplier to my other grandfather’s stores). The family business, of which my father was president, was Barrett Office Supply, a thriving supplier of office furniture in an economic environment fueled, as it were, by the 1968 discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay on the state’s North Slope.[39] My mother had started working as a receptionist for Barrett Office Supply at nineteen shortly after her first divorce; my father was also recovering from his own first divorce.

The ferment of post-1960s sexual mores being what they were, it seemed like a good idea to the office to try to cheer Dick up by sending him to Hawaii – with Shirley, with whom he had never exchanged more than a few, intimidating (by her recollection) words. It is tempting to digress here into an examination of how the supposed liberation from the bourgeois repression of sexuality, in reality, set up an environment in which it was acceptable for a man and a woman to cede sexual agency and be “drafted,” more or less, into a sexual relationship which not only resulted in consequences not intended by the “drafters” (such as this author), but also in which were located many axes of power – an eight year age difference, inequality of family status, a status/power difference at a mutual place of employment, income disparity, and so on.[40] However, this would not further discussion of the main point at hand. Suffice it to say that shortly after their return from Hawaii, they moved in together. In 1976, the year the French language edition of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction was first published, a second trip to Hawaii in February led to my birth on 21 November. They were married on 13 May 1977 – a Friday the 13th, incidentally, and just over a month before the first barrel of oil would be pumped from Prudhoe Bay into the newly completed Trans-Alaska Pipeline on 20 June 1977.[41]

Thus is the chain of memories upon which I draw to answer the question “Why am I here?” – but do any of them really answer the question? Can these disparate pieces actually be synthesized into a historical argument, or do they represent a draft of Richard Barrett, The Early Years: A Reader? Can I actually answer that question myself, or will it require a later historian to assemble the fragments into a mosaic? Would the picture that historian might assemble look like anything I would recognize myself as my own life? Is it my responsibility to remember in a way convenient for the historian? If the references to American Historical Review as a sort of historian’s Greek chorus show anything, it is that  how I remember things and what the discipline of history would like me to do with those memories are not always the same thing – for example, whether or not historians are entirely comfortable with the word “crisis” does not impact my experience of an event as a crisis. Good historians analyze memories, better historians synthesize them, but it does not follow that what they (or we, as I must remind myself) need to accomplish those tasks will instill a sense of obligation in the individual recounting their own memories to remember the way the historian would find ideal.

What forward-looking narratives might be assembled from these pieces, anyway? Am I here because God ordained it? Am I here because of how fluctuations in oil prices in the mid-1980s interacted with suburban expansion? Am I here because of how the Sexual Revolution manifested itself in Anchorage, Alaska? Am I here because intense feelings of abandonment led me to seek out community and identity in a highly structured religious environment, rich in traditions and practices that lend themselves to study? Am I here because my great-great-grandfather won at Palmetto Ranch? Am I here because I just plain was too dumb to know when to give up? All of these things? None of them? Even if I, as a Christian, lean towards the first of those explanations, it is incumbent upon me to remember that “the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer.”[42]

Can I be trusted to be reliable with my own memories? I already know that some of the other parties involved recount some of the same events differently from how I do, but that does not change how I remember those events. In any case, it should be clear that I have elided, compressed, omitted, selectively emphasized, and otherwise edited my memories for public consumption, even if I have not done so intending to mislead. There is the matter of the abandoned pursuit of the priesthood, which I had entirely forgotten to remember until I saw my own words describing it. Did Professor Deliyannis really “recruit” me in 2005, as I told my correspondent? I thought that word appropriate at the time, but now I am not certain. It is unambiguously fitting for Professor Watts, who suggested of his own volition that I apply, and there is the not insignificant matter that I was actually admitted this time around. As well, the memories presented here certainly do not answer all questions about everything, and substantial gaps are left. The simple fact is that to “tell everything” can only be a pretty-sounding fiction.

Even within the convention I have attempted to follow of presenting memories in the order in which I access them, it is still necessary to contextualize and construct and narrate, to tell things in the order of before and after at least to some extent, in order for them to make sense. To the extent that there is such thing as “purity” of memory, it would seem that it might only be preserved as long as the memory does not need to be communicated to anybody else. That this problem begins to touch upon and intertwine problems both of an epistemological as well as an ontological nature greatly concerns me, but what to do about it? It suggests that I can only truly know what I think I know as long as I have no need to pass it on, in which case it becomes what I claim to know and must be held in suspicion by, above all, myself. However, if I cannot exist without some need to communicate with others, than what I think I know is constantly in tension with what I am, or perhaps what I need to be. The problem here is that I am neither philosopher nor theologian; I cannot dwell on such questions for too long without my head starting to hurt. I know what I know, and I remember what I remember, or at least I think I do. What can I say except “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it”?

“The power of memory is great, exceedingly great, O God, a large and limitless inner hall,” writes St. Augustine. “Who has come to its foundation? Yet it is a power of this my soul, and it belongs to my nature, but I myself do not grasp all that I am.”[43] Maybe I am unable to answer the question “Why am I here?” I can produce my memories of what I think are the relevant events that led up to being here, but I cannot myself yet see the beyond the present moment sufficiently to synthesize those events into a meaning. Perhaps it is also telling that the greater the distance from the event being remembered, the easier time I have putting that event into a historical context – thus, again, I am too close to now to be able to see it in perspective. If I am so unfortunate as to draw the attention of another historian – or worse, a biographer – down the road, then perhaps that person will be able to construct a forest for the trees.

Which is all to say – that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Works Cited

Ames, Christine Caldwell. “Does Inquisition Belong to Religious History?” American Historical Review 110, no. 1 (2005): 11-37.

Ash, Timothy Garton. The File. New York, NY: Random House, 1997.

Barkan, Elazar. “A. H. R. Forum: Truth and Reconciliation in History. Introduction: Historians and Historical Reconciliation.” American Historical Review 114, no. 4 (2009): 899-913.

Barrett, Richard. Letter, 26 February 2006.

———. Letter, 15 May 2005.

———. “13 February 2005.” Personal diary. Bloomington, Indiana, 2005.

———. “Counting Hatched Chicken #4.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “Counting Hatched Chickens, Nos. 1-3.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “In Which the Author Finds Himself Intentionally, Joyfully, and yet with a Tinge of Sadness, Unemployed.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “More on the Alleged Plurality of Means by Which One May Remove Flesh from a Feline.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “On Forgiveness Sunday, the Alleged Plurality of Methods by Which One May Relieve a Feline of Its Flesh, and Other Musings.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “Things You Think About When You’re Trying Not to Fall.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

Braskamp, Larry A. “The Religious and Spiritual Journeys of College Students.” In The American University in a Post-Secular Age, edited by Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, 117-34. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Florovsky, Georges. “The Predicament of the Christian Historian.” In Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, edited by Walter Leibrecht, 140-66. New York, NY: Ayer Publishing, 1959. Reprint, 1972.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Reprint, 1990.

Gamber, Wendy. Electronic mail, 20 February 2009.

Hippo, Augustine of. “Confessions.”

Hunt, Jeffrey. The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Koepp, Stephen. “Cheap Oil!” TIME Magazine, 14 April 1986.

Lee, In. “Office Depot’s E-Commerce Evolution.” International Journal of Cases on Electronic Commerce 1, no. 2 (2005): 44-56.

Lynn White, Jr. “Technology Assessment from the Stance of a Medieval Historian.” American Historical Review 79, no. 1 (1974): 1-13.

MacMillan, Margaret. Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History. 2 ed. New York, NY: Modern Library, 2008. Reprint, 2009.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 594-617. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978.

Melsheimer, Debra. Electronic mail, 23 April 2008.

Naske, Claus-M, and Herman E. Slotnick. Alaska: A History of the 49th State. 2 ed. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.” Representations no. 26 (1989): 7-24.

Parra, Francisco R. Oil Politics: A Modern History of Petroleum. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004.

Peirce, Neal, Curtis W. Johnson, and Betty Jane Narver. “The Peirce Report: 1. Congestion and Sprawl: A Thousand and One Delayed Decisions Are Taking Their Toll, and Environmental Time Is Running out Fast in Puget Paradise.” The Seattle Times, 1 October 1989.

Ruggles, Steven. “The Transformation of the American Family Structure.” American Historical Review 99, no. 1 (1994): 103-28.

Shank, J. B. “A. H. R. Forum. Crisis: A Useful Category of Post-Social Scientific Historical Analysis?” American Historical Review 113, no. 4 (2008): 1090-9.

Smail, Dan. “In the Grip of Sacred History.” American Historical Review 110, no. 5 (2005): 1337-61.

Spiegel, Gabrielle M. “Presidential Address: The Task of the Historian.” American Historical Review 114, no. 1 (2009): 1-15.

Watts, Edward. Electronic mail, 20 February 2009.


[1] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978)., 595.

[2] Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, 2 ed. (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2008; reprint, 2009)., 44.

[3] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989)., 8.

[4] It is not relevant to the discussion – or is it? – but I was at the Luxury Alderwood Theater in Lynnwood, Washington, seeing the movie Batman on its opening day.

[5] Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989)., 72-104.

[6] Elazar Barkan, “A. H. R. Forum: Truth and Reconciliation in History. Introduction: Historians and Historical Reconciliation,” American Historical Review 114, no. 4 (2009)., 903.

[7] Ibid., 908.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 913.

[10] Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.”, 9.

[11] Timothy Garton Ash, The File (New York, NY: Random House, 1997)., 9-11.

[12] Edward Watts, Electronic mail, 20 February 2009.

[13] Wendy Gamber, Electronic mail, 20 February 2009.

[14] Gabrielle M. Spiegel, “Presidential Address: The Task of the Historian,” American Historical Review 114, no. 1 (2009)., 12.

[15] Richard Barrett, “Counting Hatched Chickens, Nos. 1-3,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009). The Greek means, “Glory to God for all things!”

[16] ———, “Counting Hatched Chicken #4,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009). The Latin means, “Richard is no longer an unworthy applicant, thanks to God.”

[17] ———, “In Which the Author Finds Himself Intentionally, Joyfully, and yet with a Tinge of Sadness, Unemployed,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009).

[18] J. B. Shank, “A. H. R. Forum. Crisis: A Useful Category of Post-Social Scientific Historical Analysis?,” American Historical Review 113, no. 4 (2008)., 1096.

[19] Ibid., 1097.

[20] Richard Barrett, “Things You Think About When You’re Trying Not to Fall,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009).

[21] ———, “On Forgiveness Sunday, the Alleged Plurality of Methods by Which One May Relieve a Feline of Its Flesh, and Other Musings,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009). The Latin means, “Richard is an unworthy applicant.”

[22] ———, “More on the Alleged Plurality of Means by Which One May Remove Flesh from a Feline,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009).

[23] Debra Melsheimer, Electronic mail, 23 April 2008.

[24] Dan Smail, “In the Grip of Sacred History,” American Historical Review 110, no. 5 (2005)., 1361.

[25] Richard Barrett, Letter, 26 February 2006.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Larry A. Braskamp, “The Religious and Spiritual Journeys of College Students,” in The American University in a Post-Secular Age, ed. Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008)., 133.

[28] Georges Florovsky, “The Predicament of the Christian Historian,” in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, ed. Walter Leibrecht (New York, NY: Ayer Publishing, 1959; reprint, 1972)., 141.

[29] Richard Barrett, “13 February 2005,” (Bloomington, Indiana, 2005).

[30] Christine Caldwell Ames, “Does Inquisition Belong to Religious History?,” American Historical Review 110, no. 1 (2005)., 13.

[31] Richard Barrett, Letter, 15 May 2005.

[32] For a contemporary account of the issue, see Stephen Koepp, “Cheap Oil!,” TIME Magazine, 14 April 1986.

[33] For background on Office Depot and Office Club as an example, see In Lee, “Office Depot’s E-Commerce Evolution,” International Journal of Cases on Electronic Commerce 1, no. 2 (2005)., 45.

[34] For a contemporary account of the economic situation in the greater Seattle area in the late 1980s, see Neal Peirce, Curtis W. Johnson, and Betty Jane Narver, “The Peirce Report: 1. Congestion and Sprawl: A Thousand and One Delayed Decisions Are Taking Their Toll, and Environmental Time Is Running out Fast in Puget Paradise,” The Seattle Times, 1 October 1989.

[35] Steven Ruggles, “The Transformation of the American Family Structure,” American Historical Review 99, no. 1 (1994)., 126.

[36] Ibid., 127.

[37] Jr. Lynn White, “Technology Assessment from the Stance of a Medieval Historian,” American Historical Review 79, no. 1 (1974)., 1.

[38] Jack’s own grandfather (my great-great-grandfather) was something of a footnote in Civil War history, being Colonel Theodore H. Barrett of the Union, commander of the 62nd U. S. Colored Infantry Regiment, winner of the Battle of Palmetto Ranch, the final conflict of the War Between the States – over a month after Appomattox. See Jeffrey Hunt, The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002).

[39] For a brief overview, see Francisco R. Parra, Oil Politics: A Modern History of Petroleum (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004)., 269.

[40] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1978; reprint, 1990)., 120-7.

[41] Claus-M Naske and Herman E. Slotnick, Alaska: A History of the 49th State, 2 ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994)., 265.

[42] Florovsky, “The Predicament of the Christian Historian.”, 166.

[43] Augustine of Hippo, “Confessions.” Book 10, ch. 8. Translation mine.

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Embracing paleostructuralism

It is late afternoon on Wednesday, and I have somehow managed to accomplish everything I needed to accomplish by this time. On Friday, this seemed like a goal that was unattainable, so I am reasonably pleased.

Somebody mentioned to me this last Saturday, “I occasionally read your rants against post-structuralism.” It had not been explicitly discussed in class that Foucault and company actually constitute an “-ism”, so I’m sure I was a deer in the headlights for a second while I figured out what my friend meant. Flesh of My Flesh has been explicitly exposed to more theory than I have, so I’ve been hearing about the supposed difference between signifier and signified for some time, but again, that this movement had a name was new information for me. A couple of things clicked once I understood the label; this is the same friend who a few years ago overheard me saying that it made no sense to me to read modern ideas of sexual equality and identity into texts for which those ideas would be anachronistic, and consequently chided me for “not believing in gender theory,” adding, “Applying theory is not ‘reading something into’ anything. That’s just you having an ideological problem.”

For all I know, maybe he’s right. He’s in the English department, and maybe there’s a way these things actually make sense from the standpoint of literature. Maybe, too, this is the difference between a “scholar” and an “intellectual” — I do not give a fat, furry, flying rat’s hindquarters about theory. I have not entered an academic discipline because I am interested in the “isms” which seem to plague the humanities right now. (I am told that “thing theory” was rather well-represented at last week’s Byzantine Studies Association of North America conference, which makes me want to tear out my own teeth with a rusty screwdriver.) I have entered an academic discipline, because, funny and naïve and idealistic as it may sound, I am actually interested in, and even like, my subject of study.

What does that make me? A paleostructuralist? If so, then so be it. (“Paleostructuralist” sounds cooler and more dignified than “anti-post-structuralist” anyway.)

I still have more to write on Foucault in this space, but it’s going to have to wait a bit yet while I finish some other things. In the meantime, my most recent (and last) response paper for my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course starts to sketch out some of the thoughts that will show up there. Certain elements will be no surprise to those who visit here somewhat regularly, there are a couple of moments where it will be evident that I just got through watching all of Christopher Nolan’s movies in chronological order (which merits its own post), and the couple of somewhat coy suggestions that certain things should be discussed elsewhere will be developed in my final paper for this course.

The Safe Retreat into Omniscient Third-Person:

The Problem of Historicizing Oneself

Or

A Response to Kate Brown’s “A Place in Biography for Oneself”

(As Well as a Number of Other Bits and Pieces from the Fall 2009 H601 Course)

“Historians,” writes Kate Brown in her essay “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” “expose other people’s biographies, not their own.”[1] How can this be, however, when according to Marx, “[m]en make their own history” [2]? How, ultimately, may historians be their own agents of history while being true to their own profession? How might historians assume the first person voice in their own work, that is to say, our own work, or still more to the point, my own work – honestly?

To expand Marx’s quote, men make their own history, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” Brown certainly did not choose her circumstances. She is from a small Midwestern town whose economic history could have stepped out of the pages of The Marx-Engels Reader; in her home town of Elgin, Illinois, as she tells it, the beginning of her life intersected with a narrative of Western expansion, labor strife, industry flight, economic redevelopment, and gentrification.[3] Her own retelling of the story gives significant credibility to Marx’s claim that “[t]he tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”[4]:

From Elgin… I came to understand how closely one’s biography is linked to one’s place… I recognized the impulse to bulldoze and start over, to push on toward a brighter, cleaned-up destiny, which meant abandoning some places and people and losers of an unannounced contest.[5]

The past – that is to say, one’s history – and its relationship to location are a weight that one must learn to carry or learn to jettison. Perhaps this can be understood as an inversion of the opening line of Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides – rather than the wound being geography, the anchorage, the port of call, it is geography, and the confluence of circumstances that one encounters in that geography, that is the wound.

All well and good — but how real is this confluence of circumstances? How objectively may its existence be assumed? Per Benedict Anderson and his analysis of how seemingly disconnected events make up the front page of a newspaper, perhaps not much:

Why are these events so juxtaposed? What connects them to each other? Not sheer caprice. Yet obviously most of them happen independently, without the actors being aware of each other or of what the others are up to. The arbitrariness of their inclusion and juxtaposition… shows that the linkage between them is imagined.[6]

What, then, is the difference between one’s life and the front page of a newspaper? Do they both represent a constructed – that is to say, not objectively real – and affected way of arranging events? For the historian, how does that construction and that affectation influence how they read history, view history, and write history? How does understanding how one’s life interacts with one’s work impact either, for better or for worse?

As a scholar, I have been carefully trained to avoid using the first person in my work. “Don’t ever say things like ‘We can see the following…’ in your research,” I remember being told in one undergraduate course. “This is not a journey ‘we’re’ going on together. It’s a research paper.” My training in languages also tends to inform how I view texts – “Read what it says, not what you think it means,” my first Greek instructor repeatedly told our class. My research goal, therefore, is typically to state a clear, impersonal thesis and then get the hell out of the way of my own argument, simply letting the facts and the observations speak for themselves as much as possible. If I present it as something that “I” think, then I will have fundamentally devalued and undermined my argument – why should anybody care what I think?

Naturally, there is far more to it than a hope to rest comfortably on objectivity. Why should anybody care what I think, indeed. I’m a nobody, a college dropout from nowhere, a first generation college graduate at the age of 29, having taken eleven years to finish a four year degree (a B. Mus. at that, not a liberal arts degree), who then, even with good grades and test scores, still had to do three years of coursework as an unmatriculated student before there was any way to be competitive for graduate schools, all the while hearing from a chorus of professors, “I’m more than happy to write you a letter of recommendation, but I’m not sure you’re going to be able to get there from here.” Why should anybody care what I think? Good heavens, I will need to make sure I publish under a pseudonym just to be taken at all seriously. Better yet, I should somehow indicate on my C. V. that I simply sprang forth fully-grown from the head of Zeus with my PhD already in hand.

But there is still more to it than that, surely. I’ve been at Indiana University in one capacity or another since 2003, somewhat ironically making it the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. My family bounced around a lot for reasons best recounted elsewhere, and even now, they live, quite dispersed, in places I have never lived, in houses I never called home, in zip codes I never visited until they moved there. Brown can rely on her connection with the place of Elgin, Illinois as an anchor for where she is now, but I am literally from nowhere, in the sense that I have had to construct my notion of “home” from different raw materials than place and family, and I find it very difficult to relate to concepts of home that do center around place and family. If my family moved around for reasons having to do with the military or career development, than I might be able to legitimately claim – as a friend of mine, the son of a prominent Russian History scholar, does – to be a “citizen of the world,” to be from everywhere. Alas, I can claim nothing quite so romantic or interesting. Robert Frost once said that home is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you, but the places where that is even marginally true are places that have never actually been a part of my life. If Brown is correct that one’s biography is closely linked to place, than I truly am the Nowhere Man – so again, why should anybody care what I think?

But, of course, there is still more to it than that.

“In my quest to explore the human condition,” writes Brown, “I have hidden behind my subjects, using them as a scrim to project my own sentiments and feelings.”[7] There is an undeniable connection between who somebody is and what interests them; for her own part, Brown describes this connection by saying, “I believe that I was able to see stories that had not yet taken shape for other historians because of the sensitivities I acquired in my past.”[8] My advisor, Professor Edward Watts, is potentially an example; he is an academic raised in a family of academics. His parents are both academics, and his sister is an academic. What was the subject of his dissertation? Rhetorical education in Late Antique Alexandria and Athens. As I told him after I read the book, it is difficult to not see his work as having an aspect of meta-commentary on the academic life. He chuckled and said, “You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.”

Beyond that example, I saw with my own eyes how the personal connection between historian and subject might manifest with my colleagues during orientation and initial class meetings:

“Hi, I’m Roberto Arroyo, and I’m interested in Latin American history.”

“My name is Isaac Rosenbaum, and I do Holocaust history.”

“I’m Lakshmi Patel, and I’m studying the history of relations between India and Pakistan.”

The Late Antique Byzantinist whose last name is not “Ioannides” or “Sotiriou” is left at something of a disadvantage in such company. Yes, there is, in fact, a personal reason that connects me to my subject of inquiry, a personal reason that should not be too hard to surmise for the careful observer (but one that is best discussed in another setting), but a personal reason that is nonetheless internal, abstract, and conceptual rather than immediately and concretely constructed by place or family – that is to say, by the circumstances which I did not choose. I have personal stakes that led me to my areas of interest, but because they are of my own choosing I must be circumspect in how I speak in terms of “I”, “we”, and “our” if I am to be seen as having sufficient distance from my subject to be credible as a scholar. Edward Said and Dipesh Chakrabarty appear adamant that cultures and societies must define themselves, that to not allow such self-definition is cultural imperialism,[9] and yet this mandate of courtesy with respect to communal identity does not appear to extend to those who have embraced certain communities voluntarily.

Of course, I also have the problem that I am not interested in my subject from a critical point of view; I find it anachronistic to explicitly read whatever my own political beliefs and values may be – and, for today’s purposes, we may broadly describe them as uncomfortably conservative as Russell Kirk defined the word, which according to contemporary definitions probably makes me liberal – into my historical subject, but per Elizabeth Blackmar as quoted by Ted Steinberg, we historians are not supposed to evade the question of politics.[10] According to Steinberg, the role of the historian in the present day is evidently to explore “the history of oppression,”[11] and this attitude is one I see largely borne out in my cohort. Nonetheless, the reality is that such a history is not the history of the Late Antique Eastern Roman Empire I have any desire to write. I have better things to do than study something with the express purpose of tearing it down. I fundamentally believe it is possible to be more productive and constructive – but do I only believe that because of my other beliefs in the first place? Is my choice of the word “constructive” itself telling, possibly signifying that I would rather buy into the social constructions that historians are supposed to deconstruct? The 3rd person voice of objectivity keeps me from having to mess with such potentially treacherous questions.

If men make their own history, but not under circumstances they choose for themselves, and history is supposed to be the history of oppression, then must a historian writing their own history engage in self-hatred by definition? Brown does not appear to write a piece of self-hatred, but it is clear that she is uncomfortable with the implications of her own essay – “My palms sweat as I write this… The intimacy of the first person takes down borders between author and subject, borders that are considered by many to be healthy in a profession situated between the social sciences and the humanities.”[12] Chakrabarty suggests one possible way out, explicitly referencing autobiography and history as two separate and distinct genres[13] – so not only is autobiography, the history of oneself, not history, but history isn’t a discipline anyway, it’s a genre. But here is the rub – if history is a genre somewhere “between” the social sciences and the humanities, and a historian writing their own history must find a methodologically honest way to not engage themselves at the level of self-hatred, which then in fact moves the work into a different genre altogether, then the historian can never actually engage in a real work of self-historicization that is not self-mutilatory.

At any rate, can we claim objectivity anyway by avoiding biographical detail or the first person? In a post-structuralist world where we must assume a fundamental disconnect between signifier and signified, does it really matter to begin with? Or is a research paper written in the omniscient third person much like Bruno Latour’s depiction of the laboratory[14] or Bonnie Smith’s history seminar and archive[15] – a socially constructed, that is to say false, space of knowledge-based privilege that can assert authority it does not actually have simply because a particular group of people have become convinced that it does?

I do not have answers to my own questions, posed at the outset of this musing. I am not certain where to go with them. My inclination is to say the various circumstances of my own life may appear as arbitrary as Anderson insists the front page of the newspaper actually is, but by virtue of the very fact that I in fact experience those circumstances in chronological order, I nonetheless perceive them as my own narrative. My inclination is to say that I cannot be forced to historicize my own life as a history of oppression any more than I can legally be required to self-incriminate in a court of law. My inclination is to say that nonetheless, I am better off keeping my arguments in the third person and keeping my “self” out of the voice of my own work, that regardless of what I think, we all know what a coffee table will feel like if we rap it with our knuckles, and that in saying that I am not privileging people who have hands or who do not have nerve damage. My inclination is to say that there must be a world outside of our own minds, and that there must be a way we can discuss it, even if our own minds tell us how we’re going to organize our perceptions of that world. Are these words and ideas too strong, too dangerous, too naïve, too uninformed? I do not know, but I do not know where else to start.

And perhaps that is why it is good I work in a period many people find irrelevant. It keeps me from becoming a danger to myself or to others.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 2 ed. New York: Verso, 2006.

Blackmar, Elizabeth. “Contemplating the Force of Nature.” Radical Historians Newsletter no. 70 (1994).

Brown, Kate. “A Place in Biography for Oneself.” American Historical Review no. 114 (2009): 596-605.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?” Representations no. 37 (1992): 1-26.

Latour, Bruno. “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.” In Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, 141-70. London: Sage, 1983.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 594-617. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Reprint, 2003.

Smith, Bonnie. “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research.” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998): 1150-76.

Steinberg, Ted. “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History.” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002): 798-820.


[1] Kate Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” American Historical Review, no. 114 (2009), 603.

[2] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978), 595.

[3] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 600-3.

[4] Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 595.

[5] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 604.

[6] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2 ed. (New York: Verso, 2006), 33.

[7] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[8] Ibid., 605.

[9] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003). Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?,” Representations, no. 37 (1992).

[10] Elizabeth Blackmar, “Contemplating the Force of Nature,” Radical Historians Newsletter, no. 70 (1994)., 4. Quoted in Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002), 804.

[11] Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” 802.

[12] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[13] Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?”, 8.

[14] Bruno Latour, “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World,” in Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, ed. Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay (London: Sage, 1983). Accessed online at http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Latour_GiveMeALab.html on 9 November 2009.

[15] Bonnie Smith, “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research,” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998).

Week 5 of grad school and all is well

The last couple of times I had a hiatus in blogging, it was because things weren’t altogether well for me.

This time, to be honest, I’ve got nothing to complain about. Things are going really well.

I’m going to repeat that, just for emphasis and the sheer joy of being able to say that truthfully and unreservedly, perhaps for the first time since moving out here over six years ago:

Things are going really well.

The last several weeks have been something of a whirlwind; after getting back from Greece I had two papers to finish, a godson’s wedding to hold crowns for, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it — er, wait. That is to say, two days after the wedding, Orientation Week started, during which I had to take a Latin and a Greek diagnostic exam; then the semester started for real, and it was off to the races.

Im photographing them being photographed. Theres something kind of uncomfortable meta about this, dont you think?

I'm photographing Matthew and Erin being photographed. There's something kind of uncomfortably "meta" about this, don't you think?

Matthew and Erin’s wedding was wonderful; we were in South Bend for the three days leading up to it to help out with various things, and it was a joy to be part of it at every step. Fr. George Konstantopoulos at St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend served with Fr. Peter, and this was a lucky match for everybody — Fr. George has decades of experience and knows all of the little things that often get left out in the simplified versions of services that are often done these days. For example, I was a lot busier as the koumvaros at this wedding than I was for another one at All Saints last year — at that wedding, I just stood there. Here, I did the crown exchange and the ring exchange — and let me tell you, I was sweating it during the ring exchange. Oh, I thought. These rings are very small, and my fingers are very big. And all three sets of hands are shaking. If I drop them it will be very bad. Now I remember why I don’t do brain surgery. Fr. George also had the gravity and authority (to say nothing of the beard) that comes from many years of doing this, and it complemented well Fr. Peter’s still-youthful energy (he’s 35, I guess it’s not inappropriate to say that, right?).

The next morning, the newly-crowned Mr. and Mrs. Wells met us at St. Andrew’s for Divine Liturgy, and Fr. George gave them a big ol’ head pat during the announcements — “Matthew and Erin from Bloomington were married here yesterday,” he said, “and this morning they were here for Divine Liturgy. To me, that is an example of what living life as an Orthodox Christian is all about.” His meaning could hardly be plainer had he hoisted a neon sign saying, Please take being here as seriously as they do.

I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan...

"I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan..."

Before driving home, we headed to Chicago to see our friend Tessa Studebaker, an old singing colleague of mine from Seattle whom we hadn’t seen since before we moved to Indiana. When I met her ten and a half years ago, she worked at Barnes and Noble for the discount and was still in high school; now she’s in her upper twenties, is a college graduate, took a job in France for a while, moved back, and is possibly getting serious about somebody. It’s incredible to think that the last ten years have gone by so quickly that all of that could have happened, but there we are. It’s even more incredible that the majority of that ten years has been spent here in Bloomington — it means I’ve spent more time here than I spent in Seattle after dropping out of college the first time. It means that the address I’ve had the longest in my entire life (four years) has been here. It means that by the time I’m done with my PhD, I’ll have spent probably over ten years at a place I thought maybe I’d spend three years at the very most.

But enough with the existential pondering for the moment. I guess seeing old friends has a way of bringing that out of me.

Orientation was more or less a non-event; I’ve been here for six years, I know where the library is, my e-mail account hasn’t changed in all of that time, so there wasn’t really any particular novelty for which I required context. That said, a couple of things stick out for me — one, Ed Watts, the Director of Graduate Studies for the History department here (who also happens to be my PhD advisor), strongly impressed on everybody to find a schedule for working, a rhythm of grad school life, that gets the job done and can be adhered to, and then to stick to it. Coming from a situation where I was trying to fit being a half-time (or more like three-quarter time) student in around having a fulltime 8-5 job, that advice really resonated with me; I’ve done my best to take that to heart, and I think it’s served me well thus far.

Secondly, I observed this kind of thing while students were introducing themselves:

“Hi, I’m Jacob Goldstein, and I’m doing Jewish history with an emphasis on Holocaust education.”

“My name is Sankar Ramasubramanian, and I’m interested in modern Indian history.”

“I’m Ramon Santiago, and I do early modern Latin American history.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? It seems that who one is can’t help but inform their research interests, and the correlation there appears to be entirely natural and predictable. That said, the same correlation appears to be viewed with some amount of suspicion when it comes to Christians doing Christian history. I haven’t directly experienced that among my cohort yet, but I’ve seen it in other contexts, and something I’ve picked up on a bit is a certain point of view, perhaps almost subconsciously held, that can be expressed as, I’m interested in history because I want to prove that everybody has always been as petty, nasty, and not to be trusted as they are now. It’s a fundamental skepticism of humanity bordering on loathing (but ironically, I think its proponents would probably self-identify as humanists), and it seems to cross disciplinary and ideological lines. I’m not exactly sure what to make of it.

My Greek and Latin exams evidently went well enough; for each language, I had three passages, a dictionary, and an hour. In each case I got through more or less the first passage and the first third to the first half of the second. I don’t remember what the passages were, but they didn’t generate any particular concern. I was worried, when I next saw Watts, that he’d get a concerned look on his face and say, “We need to talk,” but that didn’t happen. He just said I did very well with the Greek, and while the Latin wasn’t as good, it was still pretty good. I figured the Latin would be the weaker of the two anyway.

Then it was time to actually start classes.

So, I’m taking three classes for real, sitting in on two, and then doing some individual reading with Watts for one credit. I’m taking third year Modern Greek, a mandatory “Welcome to the History Department” course called “Introduction to the Professional Study of History,” and then a course in Classical Studies where we’re reading Ancient Greek judicial oratory — Antiphon, Lysias, and Demosthenes, namely. Modern Greek I have to take for my funding (and I should be doing as much with it as I can, anyway), and then Watts wanted me to take some upper-level Classical Studies courses so I could have a chance to sharpen my Greek a bit. The one credit of individual reading we’re doing finds us reading St. Jerome’s Life of St. Hilarion, so I’m also getting some Latin in this semester. Since I’m ahead of the game a bit in terms of my coursework, Watts thought it was important to give my languages some extra time, and he’s right — it’s been a good thing.

(Watts and I have had a couple of simpatico moments with our iPhones — today, for example, we were reading Jerome and needed to look up a word. I pulled out my sketchy little pocket dictionary, and he said, “I’ll one-up you there.” With a gleam in the eye only recognizable by the fellow geek, he pulled out his iPhone and asked, “Do you know about the Latin Dictionary app?” I didn’t, but within two minutes I had it along with its companion Greek Lexicon by the same developer.)

I’m also sitting in on an undergraduate survey Watts is teaching on the Late Antique Roman Empire, as well as a seminar in Art History called Problems in Early Christian Art. The former is really useful background, and I’m doing it instead of taking Watts’ actual graduate seminar on the same material (since I’m actually at a point where it’s vital I take seminars from people other than him). The latter is a result of recognizing a) that my interests, the way I want to talk about them, are interdisciplinary, and b) given certain realities, I will be best served doing some of the interdisciplinary work on my own time. The course is basically dealing with Christian art up to Iconoclasm; the reading is actually highly useful stuff for me, and I’m learning a lot, with certain things I can already talk about being discussed in a very different context than that to which I’m accustomed.

Anyway, it’s a lot, but it’s not a back-breaker of a schedule by any means. Yes, it’s a good amount of work, but I’m finding it easier to manage now than I found it to manage less work while having to juggle a fulltime job. It means I’ve had less time for blogging, yes, but it’s been for a good reason. I think I’m at a point where I understand the rhythm well enough that I can post a bit again.

So, in brief, that’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. Coming up, there’s another wedding this weekend, that of a certain Daniel Maximus Greeson and Chelsea Coil, plus I’m also supposed to run a book review for these folks by 10 November. Plus there are any number of other things for me to talk about regarding what I’ve been reading and what I’m thinking about — it’s more “Where the heck do I begin?” than “What do I have to say?” Let me tell you, these are all problems I am thrilled to have.

I will close this post in the manner which I think I may start closing for the time being — that is, with a rundown of what I’ve recently finished reading and what I’m currently reading.

Recently finished:

Currently reading:


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