A rich inner world of learning
June 21, 2008
One of John Berryman’s most famous poems (“Dream Song 14”) has the line in which his mother tells him that “ever to confess you’re bored/means you have/no Inner Resources.”
I will essay here to relate how I acquired those inner resources in a conjunction of my specialized hunger to hear with a tangential way of teaching. The paradox of my life is the contrast between the social isolation of being deaf with the richness of the sonic inner world that I’ve built in spite of it.
When I first came to Aspen for the winter of 1962-63, I was running away from my family and from the huge Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota. In the spring of ’63, I left Aspen to spend a second summer on a backcountry trail crew in Grand Teton National Park. I returned in the fall for another two years because I had found a personalized university in an Aspen bookstore that was only 10 feet square and exactly right for me at the time.
In The Aspen Times of October 4, 1963, there was an announcement of a literature discussion course, to be moderated by Ivan Abrams at his Quadrant bookstore. Among those attending, besides myself, were Barbara C (Sr.) and Barbara A (Jr.), the wife and elder daughter of the local enviro pioneer Bob Lewis; all three are dead now, as is Ivan, who died in 2002.
Ivan was then 43 years old. He was blind in one eye, about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and totally unathletic. He had dropped out of a doctoral program in comparative literature at Stanford in 1955-56, where he had taken his Woodrow Wilson fellowship from Columbia. He had discovered that he “would rather wind up on the Bowery than teach.” During my first winter here, Ivan was doing the night cleanup at Sara Armstrong’s Copper Kettle restaurant in exchange for high-end leftovers and some cash.
The middle room of Ivan’s house was an art gallery space, where he was exhibiting the paintings, sculpture and copperwork of the late Irv Burkee. I got to know Irv’s family through Ivan. Irv’s elder daughter, Brynn, was to make a pair of silver rings for my first wedding, in 1968. Jill, his younger daughter, was to have long relationship with Jack Hardy, whose father, Gordon, was president of the Aspen Music Festival. In a singularly affectionate moment, Irv once exclaimed to me that, “If Ivan didn’t have this bookstore, he’d die.” For Ivan, the bookstore was a place where human contact would come to him. After the mid-80s, he descended (or ascended, depending on your point of view) into a culture of spiritist mysticism that all but erased the scholarly person he had been before. I never spoke to him for the last 15 years of his life, but that doesn’t negate his importance to me in the early years.
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I did not have to start from educational zero when I came here. I had shelved books in two university libraries before dropping out. I had the “textbook” knowledge to know the historical context of almost everything Ivan had in his shop. The one book that made everything come alive for me was Erich Auerbach’s “Mimesis,” a critical work that was a sort of anthropological survey of how Western lit learned to depict reality. It whetted my appetite with bilingual excerpts. It legitimized my study of Romance languages, in spite of the fact that I would never be fluent. Parsing phrases in a foreign language that are on a page that doesn’t move is much easier than trying to lip-read my mother tongue. Lipreading is like trying to read fine print that’s moving very fast.
It has been my choice, since I was nine years old, to have nothing to do with the ethnic deaf as a child or with the special-education world as an adult. I have been in Aspen for 40 of the last 46 years. In all those years, I have never met another adult signing deaf person who had settled here. Other than Deaf Camp employees, I’ve met exactly two hearing people who signed.
I finally did get a B.A. degree, from Colorado U., in 1968, in spite of being too deaf to take my own notes. When I returned to Aspen, I started receiving book-sale catalogs from dozens of universities. My intellectual history of the last 30 years is one of studying one subject for a year or more and then doing the same with another subject, another language. From ’02 to ’05, I studied music theory. This year, I’ve immersed myself in refining my understanding of my own voice, an instrument that I can always learn to use better. My veneer of high culture is thick and of high quality. It has always mitigated my feelings of frustration, self-pity, rage and hostility over being deaf.
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