The Puritan writer Edward Taylor (c. 1642-1729), whose work I teach during my American Literature I lecture course, wrote a series of poems that he called Preparatory Meditations. The poems were written as a way of preparing for the sermons that Taylor would give before administering the monthly communion to the members of his congregation who had made a declaration of faith. A total of 217 of these poems survive, written between 1682 and 1725. Each of the poems begins by citing a verse of scripture, presumably the text about which Taylor was planning to preach.
The introduction to Taylor in the text that I typically use (the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume A) tells us that “these poems, written for his own pleasure and never a part of any religious service, . . . gave the poet an occasion to summarize the emotional and intellectual content of his sermon and to speak directly and fervently to God. Sometimes these poems are gnarled and difficult to follow, but they also reveal a unique voice, unmistakably Taylor’s. They are written in an idiom that harks back to the verse that Taylor must have known as a child in England — the Metaphysical lyrics of John Donne and George Herbert — and so delight in puns and paradoxes and a rich profusion of metaphors and images.”
My favorite of these poems is “Meditation 8,” which cites John 6.51 (“I am the Living Bread”) and then livens up this familiar image by imagining it literally rather than metaphorically. Here are verses 3 and 4:
In this sad state, Gods Tender Bowells run
Out streams of Grace: And he to end all strife
The Purest Wheate in Heaven, his deare-dear Son
Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life.
Which Bread of Life from Heaven down came and stands
Disht on thy Table up by Angells Hands.
Did God mould up this Bread in Heaven, and bake,
Which from his Table came, and to shine goeth?
Doth he bespeake thee thus, This Soule Bread take.
Come Eate thy fill of this thy Gods White Loafe?
Its Food too fine for Angells, yet come, take
And Eate thy fill. Its Heavens Sugar Cake.
This term I’m going to try some preparatory meditations of my own on this blog in advance of each of my lectures for the course “Conversations of the West,” which I’m teaching this term. They won’t be poems, and I can’t promise that they’ll feature “puns and paradoxes and a rich profusion of metaphors and images,” though I’ll do my best.
The first meditation appears after the break.
The full title of the course I’m teaching is “Conversations of the West: Antiquity and the Nineteenth Century.” It’s part of the Morse Academic Plan, the College of Arts and Science’s core program and is required of first-year CAS students, as well as first-year students in the Stern School of Business and students from a few other program. I first taught it three years ago, looking for a new challenge after spending many years teaching our department’s required American Literature I lecture course. The MAP program was looking for new lecturers to liven up what some students felt was a dreary required course, and I was looking for new ways to proselytize about Moby-Dick, the text that had become the signature feature of my version of American Lit I.
So the course that I teach really is “Con West Moby-Dick.” It makes the arguments that you can understand crucial aspects of both mid-nineteenth-century American culture by reading Moby-Dick and that Melville’s novel offers a superb case study in the ways that a writer can inherit and also challenge the traditions of Western antiquity.
My goal, however, was also to get students to think about the premises of a course called “Conversations of the West” and to subvert the typical expectations that accompany both a standard Western civ course and NYU’s version of it. So in addition to limiting my treatment of the ninteenth century to a single text, I decided to shake up students’ conception of what constitutes the West by introducing Zoroastrianism as a precursor to both the Greek and Biblical traditions — a move prompted both by Melville’s use of Zoroastrian motifs and my own personal history as a lapsed Zoroastrian.
I then decided to use Moby-Dick as a prism through which to choose those books of the Bible and those classical texts that I would include on the syllabus. I would teach the texts that Melville’s novel inherits most directly. So I made my list, and then I compared it with the list of recommended texts supplied by MAP. The two lists were very similar! (More on that at some point in the future.)
An implicit theme of the first year was the idea of cosmopolitanism, which I treated in its modern sense as an alternative not only to nationalism, but also to universalism. It was in the second iteration of the course two years ago, however, that I made the idea of cosmopolitanism the center of the course and decided to begin the course not with Zoroastrianism as I had the year before, but with Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism. Appiah’s account of cosmopolitanism was seemingly tailor-made for my course because of its stress precisely on the idea of “Making Conversation,” which happens to be the title of his introductory chapter. It’s been rumored that a committee is proposing to change the course to something called “Text and Idea,” to entice a greater variety of instructors to teach it. I could teach the same course I’m teaching now, and it would be called “Text and Idea: Moby-Dick and Cosmopolitanism.”
So tomorrow I’ll introduce my students to the idea of cosmopolitanism, but I’ll begin by having them examine and start to take apart the MAP’s description of “Conversations of the West”:
Through exploration of contrasting and complementary works in the humanities from different periods, Conversations of the West provides a historical, literary, and philosophical context for education in the liberal arts. . . . The classes share a concern with some of the ancient civilizations that have shaped the development of cultures in the West. Conversations of the West is not a survey, but rather an examination of how texts influence subsequent thinking, create traditions, and reflect societal ideals. Conversations of the West thus aims to provide a richer understanding of how cultures are constructed, modified, and represented.
This usually leads to a discussion of disciplinarity vs. interdisciplinarity and allows me to introduce the idea of the “horizon of expectations,” a concept I’ve found useful ever since reading Hans Robert Jauss’s essay “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” in grad school. This year, however, I think I’ll explicitly introduce Raymond Williams (and his model of dominant, residual, and emergent cultures, which has been such a large part of my work for the past 15 years) and Louis Althusser’s model of ideology as a “system of repressentations.” Because the course’s discussion meetings are taking place on Thursday and Fridays (rather than on Wednesdays after my lecture), I’ve decided to assign some additional reading for the discussion sections: a couple of chapters from Williams and Tom Bender’s essay “New York as a Center of Difference.” My goal is to make the students realize from the start that the course is going to be challenging.
I also, however, want to send the signal that it’ll be fun, so I’ve got some music to play before class (Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” and Dire Straits’ “Once Upon a Time in the West) and after (“Talk of the Town” by the Pretenders).
And to keep it appropriately conversational, I think I’ll eschew written notes, make sure to ask questions right away, and just use my PowerPoint slides as a road map.