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Posts Tagged 'the academic field of history'

Fr. Oliver Herbel’s Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church and other thoughts about West being West and East being, at the very least, “not West”

My professional categories are sort of screwy. I have an undergraduate degree in music performance, a Masters degree in History with a PhD on the way, specializing in late antique Byzantine history. I am also a practicing church musician who has made a few professional-level contributions in that field, such as it is. My day job as a historian, in which I study the social and political context of liturgy, is informed by my lived experience as a church musician; both of these categories are informed by my conversion to Orthodox Christianity, which itself was informed by musical and historical endeavors. I’m not a historian of American issues as such, but as a historian who is an Orthodox Christian in an American context, I wind up thinking about issues of “American Orthodoxy” a fair amount, and this blog winds up being where those musings wind up. My efforts where the topic of “American Orthodoxy” is concerned aren’t really formal enough to be considered “research” or to function well as journal articles, but the blog is a fine enough outlet for the level of what I do, and probably winds up having appropriate readership numbers as a result (i.e., slim to none). If somebody came to me and wanted to do an essay collection, I wouldn’t sneer at it, but I certainly don’t see that happening anytime soon, so the blog it is.

On this topic, I’ve commented about the problems the topic of “American Orthodoxy” has as a scholarly category, particularly when tackled by people who aren’t fighting their intellectual weight and who have a strict ideological/confessional narrative that they want to support rather than an objective of honest inquiry. I’ve pondered the category errors that converts to Orthodoxy seem to represent for some people. I’ve talked about the struggles that some Americans seem to have distinguishing between cultural encounter and religious encounter in Orthodox Christianity — both in terms of not differentiating enough between them, as well as differentiating too much. I’ve asked the question, both as an American and as an Orthodox Christian, is Orthodoxy ultimately a solution for a problem America doesn’t think it has? Is Orthodox Christianity just fundamentally in the wrong “key”, as it were, for it to be taken on its own terms in an American context?

I have struggled with this question both on an intellectual level and on a personal level, and I have struggled with it at levels micro and macro, internal and external, local and regional. It’s a question that people make about music and language and architecture and heritage and so on, but it’s not really about any of those things, I don’t think. Translating the services into English isn’t enough. Building Orthodox churches that look like Methodist churches with domes isn’t enough. Adapting to an Anglican-style choir-and-organ musical model isn’t enough. Welcoming converts isn’t enough. There’s still something wrong, some people tell me, there are still ways it’s just too “Eastern” for me to not feel like I have to pretend to be something I’m not. So what’s the deal? Where does this sense of things being a put-on come from? Why is it that when a Roman Catholic or Anglican priest vests he’s, well, vesting, but when the Orthodox priest vests, he’s putting on a costume? Where does this sense of English services coming across as defective Greek or Slavonic services come from? How do you adapt for American culture without it feeling so self-conscious that it doesn’t really matter if it’s a good or a bad adaptation, it just feels wrong for some people?

What’s the end vision for what an “American Orthodoxy” will look like? Democratic? Run by lay committees and commissions? English-language — but which register? Liturgically redacted and shortened, if not completely revised? The Synaxarion and festal calendars started over more or less from scratch except for a few “greatest hits”, so that we can hopefully have room for Ss. Joe and Bob and Amy and Jennifer down the road and we can stop hearing so much about Photios and Paphnutius and Varvara and Thekla? Musically simplified, maybe using Gospel music or Sacred Harp or some such? Iconographically simplified, so that we don’t have all that gaudy stuff hanging around that looks like the Renaissance never happened, but then we don’t go to the naturalistic extremes of the Renaissance either? Architecturally simplified, so that we basically go with whatever size big concrete box that we can afford? Maybe we pull out historically relevant Byzantine or Russian prototypes of various things to emphasize particular feast days, but on the whole we recognize that to do it all every single service is just overdoing it, plain and simple, and we dial everything way back? Will it all feel “Western” enough if we do all of that? Will it feel enough like Orthodoxy actually belongs in twenty-first America if it does all of that? Or is the issue still something else?

I don’t have answers to any of that, but all of those are things that I’ve heard people say, converts, ex-converts, and ex-inquirers alike. In some cases, the people I’m thinking of seem to have realized that what they meant by “Western” was “Anglican” or “Catholic” or “Baptist” or, for that matter, even “unaffiliated”, and subsequently went to those places. It’s enough to raise the question — in an American context, can ecclesiology ever really trump “culture”, whatever we mean by that? What would it look like for it to do so? We value heritage in America, we tend to treat religion as a category of heritage, but then we also treat religion as something one self-identifies as, which you can’t really do with heritage. We also have a culture of pluralism where both are concerned, which means that no religion or heritage is (theoretically) any better than any other. So then what happens when somebody self-identifies, that is to say self-consciously identifies oneself as, a particular religious category that somebody else identifies with in a non-self-conscious way as a result of heritage? Ostensibly the religion is the same — but it doesn’t mean the same thing. Eventually the people self-identifying either isolate themselves so that they’re only interacting with other self-identifiers, they make some kind of peace with the issues of heritage, or they decide that heritage really is the determining factor after all and seek out a religious category where their heritage seems more appropriate. Various flavors of Anglo-European being the dominant heritage in the United States, it’s less of a weird thing, perhaps, for a Greek to become an Anglican or some other flavor of Protestant, because that’s a minority assimilating, as is, some might argue, not only appropriate but respectful to one’s “host”. For an Anglo-European American to become Orthodox — well, you’re not assimilating, and you’re self-consciously embracing abstractions that the heritage practitioners may or may not relate to, so, yeah, sorry, that’s just weird, and you’re really playing spiritual dress-up at the core of things. Go back to being whatever you were. Go be a Catholic, since that’s probably what you really want to be anyway, you just don’t want to be one those Catholics who sings “Gather Us In”. Ecclesiology has nothing to do with it — this is America, and ecclesiology is basically irrelevant here.

Is that basically what it boils down to? I don’t know. To reiterate something I’ve noted elsewhere — as Neo says, the problem is choice, or at least pluralism. What does it mean to choose a religious tradition that self-identifies as an exclusive truth in a context of inclusive religious pluralism, and then what does it mean when our weird American heritage and identity issues appear to create a conflict with that choice? How do you resolve the problem without factoring out lived experience and reducing the religion to a set of abstractions, or feeling required to “go native”, or effectively choosing one’s own adventure and creating a “personalized” version of the religion? Can you resolve the problem, or is one of those three choices effectively inevitable (with the tacitly expressed fourth choice being that you throw up your hands and walk away)?

This brings us to Fr. Oliver Herbel‘s book Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church (Oxford, 2013). Fr. Oliver contributed some excellent essays to the site OCA News, he was a co-founder of the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas, and he also became a bit of a folk hero in some circles for taking a rather unappreciated public stand with a particular hierarch. Both his writings and his questioning of this bishop managed to annoy, shall we say, the right people, and his work influenced, in no small part, this piece of mine on historiography of Orthodox Christianity in America. The publication of his book, if nothing else, means that there is now on the shelf a serious monograph on the history of Orthodox Christianity in America by a serious Orthodox scholar, rather than, well, less-than-serious books by less-than-serious people who may be Orthodox but are obviously non-scholars.

Fr. Oliver’s book is, effectively, a collection of case studies of conversions in an American context. First, he looks at the now-St. Alexis Toth, the nineteenth-century Carpatho-Rusyn Eastern Catholic priest who converted to Orthodoxy after he moved to America and found the Catholic scene here rather less-than-welcoming for “Uniates”. Toth evangelized many of the Carpatho-Rusyns in this country, convincing many of them to convert (and ultimately laying the groundwork for what would become the Metropolia and the OCA). He also looks at the case of Fr. Raphael Morgan, an Englishman of African heritage who was baptized and ordained in Constantinople in the early twentieth century, and traveled back to the United States to evangelize about Orthodox Christianity to African Americans, providing something of a counter-narrative to Marcus Garvey. In this context, Fr. Oliver briefly discusses the “African Orthodox Church” that attempted to establish a distinct presence in, among other places, Uganda, only to fall apart and eventually become Greek Orthodox. He then studies the conversion of Fr. Moses Berry, who identified his experience as a black American with the experience of late antique Egyptian Christianity, and eventually became Orthodox via a path that included the Holy Order of Mans. Finally, he spends two chapters on the Evangelical Orthodox Church, who would notably join the Antiochian Archdiocese via a mass conversion in 1986; in particular, he complicates the “sanitized” narrative of the EOC’s journey to canonical Orthodoxy as presented by Fr. Peter E. Gillquist in his book Becoming Orthodox.

This is what amounts to Fr. Oliver’s thesis:

In many respects, the idea that such a traditional church in America [such as the Eastern Orthodox Church] would attract outsiders seems counterintuitive… paradoxically, what one encounters in the West… is a tradition of change, or an anti-traditional tradition, as found in the scientist, whose duty it is to find a flaw in the tradition that has gone before. The point is not that an exemplar of the anti-traditional tradition will reject any and all aspects of what went before, but rather that he or she may select some individual part of the preceding tradition in order to enact something entirely new or at odds with the tradition itself. American religion is also characterized by an anti-traditional tradition. As a phenomenon within American religion, it is denoted by a long tradition of mavericks who engage in religious choosing and novelty-creation by selecting and emphasizing a part of the religious tradition they inherited to create something new. The result over the last two centuries has been that the American religious scene has become ever more diversified and complex. Indeed, here one ought to think of the many restorationist movements dedicated to restoring, or re-embodying, the early Christian Church.

[…]In the converts studied here, their conversions demonstrated their Americanness in two different (though overlapping) ways: as a response to oppression and as an ironic species of the anti-traditional tradition… Though intended as a break from the anti-traditional tradition, by utilizing restorationism, the turn to tradition becomes an expression of religious identity creation in a very novel way. The conclusion (Eastern Orthodoxy as the Christian Tradition over and against a diversified, fragmented American Christian landscape) may at first appear rather un-American, since it is not the creation of a new subset of Christianity, much less a new religion, but the road to that conclusion is, ironically, precisely an expression of the anti-traditional tradition. Furthermore, inasmuch as these converts are seen as exemplars for other other converts, these conversion patterns themselves establish a tradition, one more tradition built out of the anti-traditional tradition. (pp3-6)

In other words, the way of solving the problem in an American context is to appropriate the cultural anti-traditional instinct (exemplified by a church called The Salvage Yard on the south side of Indianapolis that, when it opened, had as its motto “No Traditions, No Politics, No Baggage”, but then after six months or a year it took the sign down, presumably because it realized that it couldn’t honestly advertise those absences after a certain amount of time of being in operations), re-analyze it as its own tradition, and redirect the effort towards restoring the historical imaginary of the “early church” under some kind of rubric of “authenticity” rather than joining a lived tradition. No, we’re not becoming Orthodox; we’re restoring the real — or perhaps “authentic” — Apostolic Church in the West, and the Orthodox Churches are just being smart enough to validate our efforts. The EOC was hipster Christianity before there was such a thing as hipster Christianity, one might say.

(The thesis, by the way, reminds me of this essay that I wrote some six and a half years ago. There are a few things I’d perhaps put differently today, but this is a pretty good snapshot of how I was expressing and working through some of Fr. Oliver’s questions myself after maybe four years of moving in Orthodox circles.)

In terms of the thesis of anti-traditional tradition — I’m also reminded of this piece, specifically the part about the “culturally Western” critique of Byzantine chant. Basically, so some would argue (like a former EOC priest, for example), the received tradition of Byzantine chant itself isn’t “authentically” Byzantine but rather Turkish and Arabic (an outdated scholarly argument, but never mind for now), so re-appropriating parts of it, doing something new with them, and throwing out the rest isn’t just okay, it’s actually more authentically Orthodox to do so, because “real” Orthodox Tradition adapts to the culture it finds itself in. So, we don’t just get an Orthodox music that’s “more authentic”, we get an Orthodox music that’s “more American” at the same time. This is wrapped up in a number of concerns like Orientalism, a search for some kind of “original purity” (manufactured for the here and now if we can’t find it organically), and also a desire to assert some kind of American national identity in a religious context that claims catholicity but, practically speaking, has a sacred history that ends 39 years before Columbus sailed to the New World.

Anyway, the point is, it seems to me that implicit in the embrace of Orthodoxy in a context of anti-traditional tradition is an assent to the content while also including a critique of the form. To a certain extent, that critique may be legitimate in an American cultural context; the combination of how religion works in this country with how Orthodox Christianity came here deals a pretty crippling blow, at least for now, to Orthodox ecclesiology, and I don’t see that ideal managing to reconcile with the practical reality on the ground any time soon. If you’re in a country like Greece or Russia, then you can see the diversity that exists in those places as a deviation from a strong mainstream; a diversity in unity, if you like (while acknowledging some outliers like the Old Calendar breakaway groups). Here, though, while the cultural ideal is perhaps unity in diversity, what we actually kind of have is a plurality in diversity. It seems to me, anyway, that there are, in effect, multiple “Orthodoxies” in the United States with no strong mainstream holding them together.

In terms of Fr. Oliver’s EOC material, I must say up front that it’s a bit awkward for me to say much knowing personally some of the players involved, but I will say that there was very little in the EOC material I hadn’t heard before (Becoming Orthodox being a sanitized version of the EOC’s history, the EOC was authoritarian and cult-y, etc.) and there were a couple of things I was somewhat surprised not to see; new to me was how Fr. James Bernstein’s departure for the OCA in 1981 was handled (that is to say, poorly), the EOC’s welcoming of a cleric (I assume he means Fr. David Anderson) disciplined by the OCA being the reason why the OCA seemed not to be on the table as a possible entry point for the EOC, and Fr. Thomas Hopko’s involvement in the inter-episcopal discussion leading up to the EOC’s reception by AOCNA. Over the years, a couple of knowledgable individuals in the Greek Archdiocese have told me that, in fact, Constantinople had given the EOC a conditional “yes”, but the sticking points were that the EOC clergy would have had to go to seminary, and Fr. Peter was insisting on being received as a married bishop (something alluded to, but never explicitly stated, in Becoming Orthodox). The trip to Constantinople, according to them, was the EOC’s attempt at an end run around these logjams. If that’s true — oh, how much hair-pulling and sorrow perhaps could have been avoided if they had gone to seminary! Again, if everything had been normalized from the get-go in the context of “living tradition”, with a full dose of having to co-exist from the start with clergy who had always been in that living tradition, rather than being allowed to persist in what amounted to “American exceptionalism” turned into its own vicariate, we would be having a very different conversation right now about so many things.

Fr. Oliver does a nice job, I think, of setting up studies of a number of subsequent questions. What are the forces at play in terms of a group like the EOC, or HOOM, or the African Orthodox Church wanting to “become Orthodox” but insisting on doing so on its own terms? If they want to be Orthodox, what’s to stop them from converting as individuals instead of being “received” as a group? Why the necessity of preserving a distinct group identity? What are the cultural dynamics at work, with a predominantly white, Anglo-American group like the EOC being under the ecclesiastical authority of Arabs/Arab-Americans?

How does the “restorationist” impulse cast Orthodox converts in comparison to explicitly “restorationist” Protestant groups? At least here in the Midwest, there are a lot of converts from Campbell/Stone circles — and they all say the same thing, some variant of “You’re brought up to believe that you’re in the one true church; you realize very quickly that this isn’t true if you think about it for more than few minutes, but then you’re left with the conviction that such a thing ought to exist.”

How are forces of anti-tradition traditionalism and restorationism at play in the various American jurisdictions even without the issue of converts? He briefly looks at this at the very end, and I think it’s worth its own treatment. For American cradles who are accustomed to Orthodoxy as a lived tradition rather than a self-conscious “return to the early church”, “restorationism” can mean restoration of an “authentic” national Orthodox practice. In the Antiochian Archdiocese, for example, “Antiochian tradition” is a very complicated term that can mean one of four things — 1) “authentic” Patriarchate of Antioch tradition as practiced in Syria and Lebanon, 2) the parish practice of an “ethnic” parish in AOCNA (which is somewhat redacted from the first definition, and also depends somewhat on whether or not it’s a parish that was under Toledo or Brooklyn before 1975; those under Toledo seem to have been rather Russified, perhaps for obvious reasons), 3) Antiochian Village camp practice, and then since 1986 there’s definition 4) — practices imported by the EOC that have spread and been somewhat normalized. In the Greek Archdiocese, there are “restorationist” arguments about Byzantine chant, language, and so on — but at the same time, you have Greek-Americans for whom the music of Frank Desby and Tikey Zes are their “lived tradition”, not Byzantine chant. There is, of course, the issue of calendar and the “restorationist” overtones where that’s concerned; apropos to the book, I’m not sure that most of “continuing, real, authentic, Church Abroad in Exile” people who left ROCOR after they made nice with the MP in 2007 aren’t converts with a “restorationist”, or perhaps a “purifying”, impulse. Greek Old Calendarists are a somewhat different matter, but they’re certainly in the mix too.

I think there’s a bigger question too, of what “restorationism” means for people who convert. Is Orthodoxy in fact the intended end? Or is its function simply instrumental for another end? If its value is instrumental, why Orthodoxy in particular? Is it its relatively low profile in this country, making it attractive as something that can be “made over”, as it were? Is it a kind of paternalistic Orientalism, the taming of the exotic East by sympathetic Westerners both for its own good as well as for the good of other Westerners? Something else?

And, while I’m thinking about it, I will say that I’d be very interested to know what somebody who’s more up on race than I am as a historical category would make of Frs. Raphael Morgan and Moses Berry.

I still think that the definitive history of the EOC has yet to be written, but Fr. Oliver’s treatment of the material certainly outlines what I think some of the contours probably need to be. An idea that he outlines but never explicitly states is that one of the ways Gillquist sanitized the EOC’s history was to give the EOC’s objective, more or less from the start, as putting itself out of business and joining up with a canonical church. It’s clear from people I’ve talked to that this may have been a majority view, perhaps (and I do say “may”), but it was never universally held, and there were a good number of EOCers who wanted the EOC to be its own thing and to remain separate from the canonical churches. Some of this may have boiled down to xenophobia (something I still notice in a lot of oldtimer former EOC people), but I think some people just genuinely didn’t relate to the ecclesiological issues that Gillquist et al. were trying to push. I think on the whole there’s a lot more to be said — response to the ’60s hippie movement (it is very strange to me that nobody has done a scholarly comparative treatment of HOOM and EOC — same time period, same end more or less, but very different ideological starting point, different cultural context of NoCal vs. SoCal, and very different means to the end), Evangelical infighting (as Fr. Oliver points out), appropriation of “community” in a culturally conservative context (a former EOC cleric once told me that EOC communities were basically “right-wing communes”, and surely there is some hay to be made about the “fateful” meeting concerning the direction of the EOC in the early ’70s being entirely a group of middle-class white Protestant men), and the question of what “American identity” actually, particularly when counterposed with “Orthodox identity”. For the EOC, “American identity” seems to basically refer to the middle-class WASP, and they’re ultimately more liberal and syncretistic in terms of ecclesiastical practice; by contrast, former HOOM folks seem to be more inclusive in terms of race and class (Fr. Moses, Fr. Jerome Sanderson, etc.) but they embrace a far more conservative vision of Orthodox church praxis and polity. I think the lesson with both groups is “don’t receive groups as discrete bodies; receive individuals, period”, although obviously there are good things and good people that have come out of both (the priest my current GOA parish in Indianapolis is former HOOM, for example, and he’s wonderful; nothing guru-esque about him, to say the least). Indianapolis is an interesting case for all of this, actually; it’s very representative of the various Orthodox jurisdictions (except, curiously, cradle Russians; there’s a Bulgarian parish, a Serbian parish, and a Romanian parish, but no “mainstream” OCA parish or ROCOR parish — the cradle Russians all seem to have wound up at the big Antiochian parish over the years, which is perhaps not surprising given its status as a “Toledo” parish). Indy was home to an EOC as well as a HOOM community, both communities eventually became Orthodox (although the EOC group was one of the holdouts in 1986 and didn’t come in until later, and then under the OCA), and today there’s a lot of going back and forth between the two parishes. Indianapolis is also home to one of the splinter EOC remainder communities, and I’m told that the individuals who make up said remainder community are an interesting reminder of just how idiosyncratic these groups actually were.

I will note that I’m speaking from the point of view of presently being at a GOA parish, and that’s after I spent nearly a decade at an AOCNA parish that was never part of the EOC and was started by Greeks and Arabs, but functionally treated as an AEOM community because of its location in south central Indiana, ultimately becoming home to a plurality of Hoosier locals instead of the Greeks and Arabs who founded it, as well as sort of a home base for a big chunk of the Gillquist family. From my perspective, I once again say that it’s too bad that the EOC wasn’t “normalized” from the get-go. The idiosyncrasies introduced, and the way those idiosyncrasies have contributed to and exacerbated personal problems, have been counter-productive. Maybe it’s been a way to “engage America”, but I think it’s also set up false expectations about what Orthodoxy is and what it looks like.

Fr. Moses’ “flowers in God’s garden” image is actually really interesting in the light of the arguments about how to “Americanize” Orthodoxy. It’s fascinating to me that somebody like him can look at late antique Egyptian Christianity and see the continuity with Orthodox Christianity as well as with contemporary African American existence. And yet, we “Anglo” types are constantly wringing our hands over Orthodoxy not being “Western” enough or “American” enough or whatever. Somehow, Fr. Moses is able to see the flowers that look like him, so to speak, in Orthodoxy, where many Westerners cannot, or at least will not, see the flowers that look like us. What is that saying? Does it have more to do with Orthodoxy or with us? Is that, perhaps, a manifestation of white, or at least Occidental, privilege that we expect to be catered to and for things to be customizable for our ends? Again, does it boil down to a form of Orientalism and/or xenophobia that’s just culturally ingrained?

From a practical, pastoral standpoint (insofar as I have any business claiming such a perspective), much of what Fr. Oliver has to say about anti-traditional tradition is why I find myself at this point really resistant to self-conscious “Americanizing” efforts. How is it going to be helpful to make “American Orthodoxy”, whatever we mean by that, more idiosyncratic rather than less? Multi-generational models of lived experience are needed for the convert, I think, not reconstructions and restorations done by people who are still drying off from their baptism. The trouble with that, though, is that it’s counter to the American instinct to “do it yourself”, and for reasons I’m still not sure I understand, it seems that a good number of people think that the practical upshot of what I’m suggesting is that they need to “pretend to be Eastern”. I go to a Greek parish, I speak some Greek, I chant partially in Greek, and so on, but I don’t think of myself as “pretending to be Greek”; as far as I’m concerned, I’m just trying to understand how to be Orthodox, what that means and what that looks like, from people who have been Orthodox all their lives and whose families have been Orthodox for as long as they can remember. Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference; your mileage may vary.

A more immediate practical concern than “Americanization” is — yes, converts need multi-generational models of lived experience. Are we going to able to produce them ourselves if we experience them? To put it another way, is there a second generation that will come about by births, or is “American Orthodoxy” effectively the Shakers without celibacy, hoping to grow by conversion rather than procreation? I know my share of kids of convert priests who either left or are simply indifferent, and then geographic mobility means even if you stay, you’re probably not at the parish Mom and Dad went to/converted at/helped establish/etc.

Which brings me to this talk by one Fr. John Bakas of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, delivered in November 2010 at a conference of The American Hellenic Institute Foundation. The talk is titled “The Challenges Facing the Greek Orthodox Church in America”.

So, here we have a cradle Orthodox expressing perhaps exactly the opposite concern of the individuals studied by Fr. Oliver. Here is not restorationism, but the question of how to rearticulate a lived tradition in a new cultural context in a way that is distinctive but inclusive — and doing so to ensure survival, so that it doesn’t have to be “restored”. While I grant that Fr. John’s use of the word “Hellenism” probably will go over like a ton of bricks for some, but I think what he’s saying needs to be understood properly. To me it’s clear he’s drawing a contrast between “Greekness”, Greek heritage as simply Greek heritage, and “Hellenism”, which he’s using here in a very Byzantine way, to mean the best parts of “Roman” culture which both provided a framework for Christianity and which were also transformed by Christianity — and it’s telling to me that he uses “converting the Russians to Christianity” and “Hellenizing the Russians” interchangeably. (I recently read the Greek life of St. Maximus the Confessor, and one of the things it says is that St. Maximus leaves the service of Heraclius’ court to pursue “philosophy” — a very Byzantine way of repurposing the word for an aspect of Hellenic culture to describe something in Christianity — i.e., monasticism.)

I’m not going to disagree that this sounds way off-key to American ears, but again, in terms of what I think he thinks he means, I actually think he could do a lot worse. One can argue about it being an effective strategy for evangelism; “translated” properly, shall we say, he might have a point. I think he’s also explicitly agreeing with the statement “You don’t have to be Greek to be Orthodox” (which itself is a paraphrase of Isocrates saying in the Panegyricus that one is Greek by education and culture, not blood), as evidenced by his example of the African-American cathedral parishioner at the end.

Okay, fine, I can get that, but is that going to be a meaningful distinction, or paint an attractive picture, for anybody else? Is even an inclusive “Hellenism”, that is to say an inclusive lived tradition of Orthodox Christianity, going to look inclusive enough to mean anything to the person who can’t handle how “non-Western” it is once he/she sees Greek or Slavonic script (and let’s not even bring up Georgian or Arabic), or a three-bar cross, or a Byzantine-looking icon? Are restorationism and anti-traditional tradition really the only ways forward? Can it be “Yiayia’s church” and my church at the same time, or are those always going to be mutually exclusive categories?

Enough for now; we’ll talk more soon.

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One more hurdle cleared…

As noted back in January after I passed my Latin exam, yesterday was the date schedule for my oral qualifying exams. Preparation these last two and a half months has involved familiarizing myself with a bibliography of ~70 books (30 Roman history, 15 ancient Greek history, 15 medieval history, 15 relating to my dissertation topic), making sure I can talk with some authority about all of those areas of historical inquiry, as well as keep in my head the broad sweep of those histories, and produce (and be able to justify my choices for) syllabi for undergrad survey courses in ancient Greece and the middle ages.

Simple, right?

What I found during my preparation is that the hardest thing for me to do was keep the big picture in my head. This makes a lot of sense, really; most people start with a survey and then gradually narrow their focus. Because of how I got here, I really started with the details I was already interested in, and then had to figure out how to broaden my perspective so I could contextualize those details in a wider discussion. At some point I had to sit down, make a huge timeline from 753 BC to 1453 AD, divide it into periods, and force myself to refer to it constantly.

Anyway, without getting into a transcript of the exam, my committee members seemed pleased enough to tell me yesterday afternoon that I had indeed passed. The issue I describe above came up in their feedback, and what they said about definitely made sense and was helpful in terms of figuring out how to frame things in the future, but they didn’t treat it as a showstopping issue by any means.

It’s a step that feels very good to have done, and I left the room yesterday with both a sense of accomplishment (to say nothing of gratitude to my committee and everybody else who has helped get me here). So, on to the next step. I have a dissertation prospectus to defend now, and we’re trying to button that date down right now. It looks like it might be sometime during Orthodox Holy Week, possibly Holy Friday; we’ll see how it all shakes out. Once that’s defended, then I’ll be ABD (“all but dissertation”), and while I know this isn’t the case for everybody, the dissertation is the part I’m really looking forward to.

Your prayers up to his point have been greatly appreciated; your prayers moving forward are equally craved. I’m getting there, bit by bit…

An itinerary and a couple of labors of love

I’ve got three things to pass along, and I suppose I should relate them in order of interest from least to greatest. Otherwise, you’ll just read the first item and skip the rest.

First — I’m going to be mildly peripatetic in the coming months. 9-12 February I will be in New Jersey to participate in the Georges Florovsky Patristic Symposium, and then 12-15 February I will be in Boston to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. 2-4 March I will be in Emmaus, PA to give a presentation on church music as part of a Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church. Then, looking ahead a bit farther, 24-26 May I will be participating in the North American Patristics Society (NAPS) annual meeting in Chicago. I realize that maybe I’m up to three regular readers (counting my parakeet), but if you happen to be anywhere near any of those places when I’m there, by all means let me know. I had the odd experience at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute last summer of meeting a couple of people who said upon meeting me, “Oh! I read your blog,” and then I also met this gentleman at the Byzantine Studies conference this last October (although neither of us realized whom the other was until after we were both back home). Anyway, I won’t look at you funny or hiss at you if you introduce yourself, promise.

Second — my first peer-reviewed article, “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran”, has been accepted by The Journal of Early Christian Studies. It’s been an interesting road with this project; five years ago, during my initial year of being a non-matriculated continuing student, I took my first graduate seminar, a course on the Middle East in late antiquity, taught by the professor who would later become my advisor. It was my first exposure to scholars like Peter Brown and Susan Ashbrook Harvey and so on, and was a significant broadening of my horizons. The student makeup of the class was very telling; it was a History course that had no History students in it but rather three Religious Studies kids and me.

Anyway, among other things, we read Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s translation of the section of the Second Letter of Simeon of Beth-Arsham that deals with the martyrdoms of the women during the Himyarites’ sack of Najran, and the in-class discussion sparked something for me. Other students were focused on the gory nature of the martyrdom details for their own sake — I specifically remember one person commenting, “I never understood the connection people draw between martyrdom and sadomasochism before now” — but it was clear to me that there was something else governing how those details were conveyed, namely shared liturgical experience. I raised this point, and I still remember the look that I got as clear as day. Needless to say, it didn’t get a lot of traction in class, but when paper topics had to be proposed, I mentioned it to the professor as a possibility. “I can almost guarantee you I won’t buy your argument,” he said. “You’ll have to go a long way for me to see it as at all legitimate.” Well, that’s a challenge, now isn’t it? I wrote the paper, making what I saw as explicit as I could and relating it to known liturgical practices as clearly as I was able. I presented an overview in class, and the professor was quiet for a moment. “You know,” he said, “not only am I convinced, but now I can’t see it any other way. Good for you.”

Later, as I was applying for IU’s Religious Studies graduate program, the paper was used as my writing sample. At the same time, I was alerted to one of the big religious studies journals doing a themed issue on religious violence; I figured, hey, what the heck, if it gets in it can only help the application, and I sent them the paper. I also submitted it to Dorushe, a graduate conference on Syriac studies that was being held at Notre Dame. Well, the outcome of the Religious Studies application was detailed, if somewhat obscurely, here; as far as the paper went, it got into Dorushe, but the response from the journal was a little more ambivalent. The answer was ultimately no, but they included the reviewers’ comments, and said that if I were to revise it they would be willing to look at it again (while making it clear that this was not a “revise and resubmit”). Since at that point I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to go to grad school, publication didn’t really matter anymore, and I shoved the paper and the comments sheet in a drawer. The Dorushe experience was a little weird in some ways (maybe due more to some heightened self-consciousness on my part than anything), but I met some interesting people, and Sidney Griffith, at least, liked the paper, saying, “The way you lay it out, it’s obvious.”

After actually getting in to grad school, I thought to myself a number of times, I should go back and look at those reviewers’ comments, and finally last June I spent a few days thoroughly reworking the paper. I transferred it from Word to Scrivener, I restructured it following the reviewers’ suggestions, and did what was nearly a page one-rewrite so that it reflected better what my scholarly voice (to the extent that I might pretentiously assert the existence of such a thing) actually sounds like these days. Part of this involved reducing block quotes of secondary literature (a bad habit of which I was cured by the wonderful Prof. Sarah Bassett over in Art History, who in the three years that she’s been here has really proven herself to be one of the great, if somewhat unsung, reasons to study Late Antiquity at Indiana University) down to footnotes and paraphrases, and it also involved an overall refinement of the writing style. Don’t worry, I’m still wordy as hell, but I’ve tried to make the wordiness a little more elegant. Also, there’s some additional literature on the Najran incident that’s come out in the intervening five years, and I had to make sure that all got referenced properly. Anyway, once it was done, I opted to not go back to the original publication, instead sending it off to The Journal of Early Christian Studies. In September, I got a note back from the editor telling me that the reviewers’ recommendation was “revise and resubmit”, saying that this was good news and if I took the feedback seriously, there was no reason I couldn’t have a publishable article. By November the revision was re-submitted, and I got word back this last Tuesday that it was in. Now, I have some style adjustments to make before it’s totally done, but at this stage of the game it looks like it will be appearing in the Spring 2013 issue.

So, that first seminar five years ago got me my advisor, my overall area of interest (the interaction of liturgy and history), and my first published article. (Although, while the Najran paper is related conceptually and methodologically to where I think my dissertation is going, it looks like a paper I wrote for a class I took the previous semester, fall of 2006, served as a first stab at the actual dissertation topic. I’ll have more to say after NAPS, I think.) It’s been the gift that’s kept on giving, to say the least.

Okay, on to the final, and most interesting, bit of news.

Third — on or around 26 June 2012, assuming all goes well and without incident, there will be another Barrett on the earth. Yes, be afraid, my genes are propagating, insanity, puns, tendencies towards a prolix approach of oversharing, and all. Thankfully, this child will also be carrying the genes of Flesh of My Flesh, and those characteristics involve practicality, common sense, order, and normality. (To say nothing of great beauty and brilliance.)

We had intended for the last couple of years that we would start trying once Megan got back from Germany, and we were told to prepare for it taking awhile. Well, apparently not. By the beginning of November we at least knew informally, and then our first OB appointment was Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, which confirmed matters and indicated we were nine weeks along. We spent most of the drive to our Thanksgiving destination on the phone with my mother and then Megan’s mother and stepmother; my mom got the first call, since she’s the one parent who doesn’t have any grandchildren already, and she burst into tears immediately.

We’ve been telling friends and family ever since, but a couple of things made it desirable that we wait a bit before making it “Facebook public”, as it were. Anyway, here we are, and I suppose it will be a source of reflection in the coming months/years/etc. If you’re on Facebook and want to be kept more or less up-to-date, you can join the group “Fans of Baby Barrett“; there’s not a lot to tell at this point except that we’re choosing to not find out whether it’s a boy or a girl. We’ve got some name ideas, yes, but it’s hardly practical to openly discuss those when you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, so I’m not going to go there except to say that there are some “legacy names”, as it were, that might make sense, and you know that we’re going to be getting one of these. We’ll see.

By the way, if you happen to be having a baby in or around Bloomington, Indiana, I really can’t recommend Bloomington Area Birth Services (AKA “BABS”) enough. We’re doing their eight-week birthing class (cue Bill Cosby: “Natural childbirth… intellectuals go to class to study how to do this”), and while, I must admit, it’s a little more of the NPR-listening “educated class” culture than I really expected, it’s a lot of excellent information that’s provided very sensitively and accessibly. I kind of surprise myself with my own reactions to some things; it should really be no surprise that “birth culture” a) exists b) is hyper-feminized, but I find a certain kind of stereotypical “maleness” emerging in how I’m processing some of the information, and it is very much out of character for me. It’s probably mostly a reflexive reaction to the explicit hyper-feminization of what’s being presented, which probably has everything to do with me and nothing to do with them, because they really are terrific at what they do. I’m just really not used to what they do. Anyway, I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on, I think.

So, there’s the news. Two different kinds of babies, I guess. There’s a third kind of baby on the way that I hope to be able to talk about more in depth soon, but it’s an outgrowth of some of the musical efforts I’ve had going here the last couple of years. For now, follow this, and I’ll be able to tell all in the next month or so, I think.

Prayers for all of these babies, please, and prayers most of all for Flesh of My Flesh. She’s got to carry our child in her womb and write a dissertation.

Unlikely realities

Something that occasionally can seem like lazy historiography to me is when scholars call something “unlikely” to explain why they think it probably didn’t happen. It’s a way to argue with something that may show up in a primary source without necessarily having to reason your way through the disagreement; oh, well, such-and-such gives X account of this event but that’s “unlikely”, so we’ll assume it didn’t happen.

Here’s the thing. At the risk of getting all Dr. Manhattan on both of my regular readers, “unlikely” things happen all the time. I am an extraordinarily unlikely occurrence, given who my parents are, their personalities, their respective stations in life when they met, etc. It’s highly unlikely that my randomly going to a party one night while nearing emotional rock bottom should result, six years later, in me getting married to a person I met there (principally as somebody another friend of mine had a crush on). It’s highly unlikely that a college choir director deciding she was going plan a European tour should start a chain of events that would result in a conversion to Orthodox Christianity nine years later. And yet, these things defiantly happen nonetheless with callous disregard to whether or not a historian will later believe that they did.

A couple of other fairly unlikely things have happened to me in the last two or three weeks: for example, Megan and I, along with our godchildren Matt and Erin and our dear friend Anna, attended Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recent production of Tales of Hoffman. Not necessarily unlikely in and of itself (but since the last time we went to the Lyric was 9 years ago for Bryn Terfel’s Sweeney Todd, certainly not a regular occurrence), but consider the following: Hoffman was supposed to be produced at my first undergraduate institution, Western Washington University, my freshman year. WWU had put on a production of La Boheme a couple of years previous that had received national attention, was developing something of a reputation for being a good undergrad program for people who wanted to do opera, and Hoffman was going to be the big followup that would prove that Boheme wasn’t a fluke. Well — as the story was told to me in dribs and drabs from a few different people — political, economic, and practical concerns meant that this didn’t happen. Hoffman was nonetheless on my radar for the first time, and in short order the 1989 recording with Placido Domingo was the very first opera recording I ever owned. That disc featured people I’d never heard of before like Edita Gruberova and James Morris, and I played it over and over again.

Somebody who was in my freshman class was a soprano and cellist named Erin Wall. She was in 8am Music Theory with me the very first day of classes, we were in the same voice studio, and she was one of a group of Canadian students who were in Western’s music department for voice. She had a nice, full voice at a time when there were a lot of soubrettes hanging around; the last time I heard her during my time there was when she was one of the Flower Girls in The Marriage of Figaro in 1996, but after I dropped out I believe she got to do the title role in Susannah. Over the years I found out she was having quite the meteoric rise; she was a finalist for Canada in the Cardiff Singer of the World, she was part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s young artist program, and then she started to get really busy.

A few months after leaving Western in ’97 I went to work for a Major Software Company and, shall we say, did a reasonable impersonation of a tester for a few years while trying to get to the next step as a singer. One of the things I tested had to do with web browsing, and one day I happened upon a student website for a soprano at Rice University named Anna Christy. There wasn’t anything particularly distinctive about the website, but I always remembered that I had hit it, particularly when I started seeing her name in Opera News a few years later as somebody who would be singing at Wolf Trap and so on.

Fall of 2003, after just starting at IU, I was flown back to Seattle to sing as the tenor soloist for a concert of Bach cantatas with the Seattle Symphony, John Harbison conducting. It was the biggest professional thing I ever got to do, and except for the check, it was a real waste for me and for the Seattle Symphony people. I was cast in a role at IU that I was removed from over this; the Seattle contract had been signed months ago, and I was to be gone the second to last week before opening. I didn’t even know I was up for anything in this particular show, and I explained my situation as soon as I found out I was cast. “Take it up with the stage director when staging rehearsals start,” I was told. Well, as soon as the stage manager said at the first staging rehearsal, “We’re not excusing anybody for any reason from any rehearsals,” I knew I had a problem, and sure enough, I was kicked out. (This was, of course, considered to be my fault from the standpoint of the opera administration, but never mind that now.) Not only that, but as soon as I got off the plane in Seattle, I came down with probably the worst sore throat I’ve ever had in my life, and my ability to phonate, still reasonable at the first rehearsal, was in tatters by the concerts. It was the first (well, only) time I’d ever been on a gig like this, I had no idea whom to talk to or what to do, and while I managed to sort of scrape by in the concerts — well, funny thing, the Seattle Symphony folks never called me again. (My voice teacher in Seattle, who had sent Seattle Symphony my way in the first place, said that from what he had heard it wasn’t exactly a “He’ll never sing in this town again” kind of thing, but that I was remembered as somebody who had problems, and he’d have to specifically arrange an audition for me down the road when the time came. Needless to say, the time never came, and thank God.)

Anyway, the bass in the solo quartet was one Christian Van Horn, who had just won the Met auditions. I doubt he would have any memory of who I am, and if he did remember me I doubt he’d remember me well, given the circumstances, but he was a tough guy to forget — physically and vocally imposing, to say the least.

My second year at IU, a mezzo-soprano named Jamie Barton started her Masters. She distinguished herself quickly in operas like La Cenerentola, but she was also a frequent guest at Chez Barrett, back in the day when I used to host large gatherings of IU voice people over nachos on a weekly basis. (Hey, that’s how I made friends when I first moved here — I fed people.) She won the Mets a few years ago, and since then, she’s been one popular mezzo.

So Chicago’s Hoffman featured James Morris (from that first recording) as the four villains, Erin Wall as Antonia, Anna Christy as Olympia, Christian Van Horn as Crespel, and Jamie Barton as Antonia’s Mother. (As well as Matthew Polenzani as Hoffman, whom I had last heard ten years ago in Seattle as Almaviva in Barber of Seville.) And with me in the audience — what an unlikely confluence of people and circumstances! If I took a time machine back to that first day of freshman year in September of 1994 and told the 19 year old Erin what would be happening in seventeen years, she’d laugh in my face, I’m sure. (The set looking like it was reproduced from a Chris Van Allsburg book was also pretty unlikely. Fascinating looking at times, but unlikely.)

The second unlikely thing to occur was a week ago today. I’ve written here and there about my lifelong fascination with Batman; well, as I had known for some time, Michael Uslan, the Executive Producer of the Batman films starting with the 1989 Tim Burton effort — and really the guy without whom a modern Batman on screen doesn’t happen — was an IU alumnus. He’s spoken on campus a few times since I’ve been here, but I’d never been able to go, so when I heard that there would be a screening of The Dark Knight in the new IU Cinema facility with Michael Uslan introducing the film, I made it a point to clear my calendar for the day and to order a copy of his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batmanin time for the screening. As it happened, he gave a lecture in the afternoon in addition to the screening, and I was able to go to both. There is a brief account of the day here (hmmm — “RRB”, familiar initials, aren’t they?) so I’ll just say that the guy is one hell of an inspirational speaker, to say nothing of one hell of a self-promoter; he’s basically a comic book geek who has figured out how to make being so respectable, lucrative, and attractive. He was incredibly generous with his time at both the lecture and the screening; he kept answering questions until he was hooked off the stage, and during the book signing he talked to everybody.

So, chain of events — I find a book called Collecting Comic Books by Marcia Leiter at the Redmond Library in 1985, and my life is forever changed. Four years later on 23 June 1989, Batman introduces me to a way of thinking about movies that cares who’s in them, who directs them, who writes them, who designs the sets, who writes the music, and so on. I had been a Star Wars kid and then some, but I couldn’t have told you who George Lucas was. After the summer of 1989, though, damn skippy I cared who Tim Burton was and what else he had done and was going to do, who Danny Elfman was and what kind of music he did (followed by an obsession with Oingo Boingo for awhile), who Sam Hamm was and why it seemed he never wrote another movie anybody cared about, who Jon Peters was and why a former hairstylist was suddenly one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, etc. At the very least, without Danny Elfman’s score, my interest in classical music probably doesn’t happen. (And then there’s something about a girl in high school that gets me starting to take voice lessons, but that’s somewhat beside the point at present.) Anyway, I then go to Indiana University in 2003 for music, which just happens to be Uslan’s beloved alma mater, leading to last week’s events. Again — how incredibly unlikely!

No historian will ever care about any of these things, I’m certain. If one were to ever to try to reconstruct these chains of events and concurrences of people and places and things, surely it would strain credibility. This doesn’t mean we have to interpret all of these things teleologically, necessarily, but it also means that just dismissing them is not really reflecting on how life works and how things play out.

“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.

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).

More on the division of disciplines

"Whether or not the subject of a painting actually existed has no bearing on the painting itself." Really?

Tuesday’s meeting of “Problems in Early Christian Art” led to two fascinating developments. One was a classmate making the baldest, most militant statement I could imagine about enforcing the separation of Art History from History as a whole: “Whether or not the subject of a painting actually existed has no bearing on the painting itself.” I find that to be a truly remarkable statement on all sorts of levels.

Incidentally, this was the same person who told me, “You can’t do that,” when I attempted to relate what we were reading to St. Nectarios’ monastery, which makes the second development even more notable: after having told me last week that it was dangerous and problematic to try to apply Cormack’s line of questioning to a contemporary example, because “we cannot assume they are the same”, this student asked the professor at the end of this week’s class, “So, why is St. Nectarios’ monastery the same as everything else we’ve looked at?”

Discuss.


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