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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cordoba & Arrogance

Bound for Córdoba in the fall to give a talk at a modernism conference. But chance, it is in English. It will be called "An Elegy for Lorca Studies." I almost said a "Requiem for Lorca Studies."

These cities first came into my consciousness as names of automobiles. The Seville is a Cadillac. The Granada a Ford, and the Cordoba a Chrysler, so each of the big three Detroit companies had an Andalusian city car, with the connotation of luxury and Southern exoticism or Latin charm. (There was also a suburb in my town called Rancho Cordova.)

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Kenneth Koch has a one-page play about the death of Lorca in Seville. This is too funny because everyone knows Lorca met his death outside Granada. Americans can't seem to get anything right about Lorca. Whether this error is deliberate or not I have no clue. It's almost not funny enough to be joke, but too obviously wrong not to be.

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I just decided that I will also be big-name expert on Lorca's theater, leveraging my position as one of the main Lorca poetry scholars. How can I decide this? That sounds pretty arrogant, but all it would take is for me to write about the theater as well. It's not as though theater is so esoteric that it would take me five years to train myself in it. There are good scholars doing work in this area, and I think I can do work that is of comparable quality.

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There's a beer I order sometimes called Arrogant Bastard. There is a useful humility and a harmful humility. The same way, there is a useful confidence as well as a useless form of confidence which goes by the name of arrogance.

Useful humility: you know that you can make a mistake, that you don't know everything, and that other people have strengths that are not yours.

Useless humility: the kind that makes you unable to perform. Suppose you were trying to do some absurd bicycle trick flipping over five times. You have to think that you can nail it or you will kill yourself. Of course, you still might kill yourself. If you can't envision yourself doing something, that you won't be able to do it.

Useful confidence, then, is the secure knowledge that you have the tools to do what you want to do. It should almost be factual: I have this much time on my hands, this knowledge of the subject-matter, this particular ability to understand and analyze, etc...

I heard Julia's summer audition tape recently. I told her that she made it sound easy, like she was playing it how she wanted, without struggling to get to a higher level. She said people told her she played "like she didn't give a shit," meaning not a lack of effort or engagement, but a kind self-confidence. There were minor imperfections but in the context of a fluent flow of notes.

Useless arrogance is mistaking your own excellence for some deep-seated superiority. An ability to do something well is just that, and nothing more. It doesn't make you better than someone else, just better at doing that one thing, that you can do better.

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On the other hand, I think everyone should find something to do as well as possible. Why do we place such a high value on people who can do something better than someone else? The race may not be to the swift in every case, but sometimes it is. Sports is entertaining not just because of the entertainment value of the action, but because people really like to experience the struggle for excellence, whether directly or vicariously.

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