Saturday, December 30, 2006

A backward glance: my year 2006

There is a theory about expatriation that goes something like this. For the first few months the exile is in heaven, contentedly exploring all the delightful opportunities of his new country. Suddenly, though, this euphoria yields to a kind of field reversal. One wonders, “How could I have done this? I just want to go home.” Finally, after a year or so, the expat stabilizes, and starts to traverse a plateau that combines appreciation with rational understanding of the downside. I have tried expatriation twice--first to Italy, then to England--and I found that the template sketched above is basically valid.

Lo and behold, it is true of retirement as well. Two years ago I stopped going to work at Hunter College and started staying home, collecting my pension. The first few months were indeed splendid. Then I ran into a snag, as my partner of many years self-destructed and our relationship ended. That was a complicating factor, but I probably would have experienced some letdown about retirement anyway. Now I have assumed an even keel.

In fact I have never felt better. Cleaning up the apartment is proceeding slowly, but it is getting done. Of course the place will never qualify for one of those photo shoots that appear in Better Homes and Gardens. Instead my home will always be a kind of loft, a cluttered nest where I produce my creations, with all the paraphernalia I might require.

And what are my creations? Two years ago I became a pajama person, making postings every other day or so on my blogs. Unlike some enthusiasts with itchy fingers who go on line with short bursts every few hours, I prefer to write essays, meditating on them for several days if necessary. My main blog is After getting that one up and rolling, I created to house a book that I had compiled about homosexual language. (I may have been unwise to recycle the word Homolexis, the title of a book I wrote twenty years ago. The new effort is entirely different.)

In September I returned to teaching at Hunter with a course described as “From Symbolism to Abstraction.” All the old synapses kicked in—as they should, for I had been at Hunter College for thirty-three years. Over the summer I resolved to master the areas of Symbolist literature that I had not studied. This meant hard work, grappling with dense French texts by Huysmans, Mallarmé, and Villiers de l’Isle Adam. But it paid off; I was well prepared for my class. I posted a record of my findings at my third blog,

Two of my blogs ended up being books of a sort, one on language, the other on Symbolism. We are said to be living in the twilight of the Gutenberg Era, so maybe this means of publication is adequate. Readers are few, but that is the case with most academic books as well.

Still, I continue to acquire printed books. Last year I abandoned several hundred in my office at Hunter College (mainly ephemeral novels and such), and now I am trying to give some of the other ones away. As I have few takers, most of the rejects end up in a kind of informal library we have established in the basement of this building.

Nowadays few would attempt to create the equivalent of my 20,000-volume library. The general concept is based on the Warburg Institute in London, where I spent many profitable hours as a grad student in the sixties. At that ideal collection I noticed that the emphasis on original works extended to translations of them in various languages. Thus I have Dante’s Divine Comedy in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The Internet serves mainly as a supplement to the books. I have grown fond of Wikipedia, which I also consult in foreign languages. The other day in search of material on Jan Toorop, the Dutch Symbolist, I found (no surprise) that the Dutch version of Wikipedia was the best source.

What with all the hassle at airports (much of it unnecessary) I find travel less appealing these days. I did have a rewarding trip to Germany in July. The draw was a comprehensive exhibition of the work of Caspar David Friedrich in Essen, an interesting but little-visited industrial city in the Ruhr. I also paid nostalgic calls at Aachen and Cologne, the latter especially delightful. My German had become rusty, so I threw myself into some serious reading when I got back. I now have 23 volumes of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work in a splendid German edition. Needless to say, I did not read all of them—just a few key items. Having this set is akin to owning the complete CDs of Mozart and Bach, which I bought in a cheap Diamond edition. Of course, I have other favorite recordings, especially of Bach, and I doubt if I will ever listen to the whole of either set. Yet as with Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle and others of that kidney, it is nice to know that it is all there!

Since the days of “run city” in the mid-seventies, the quality of life has steadily improved in New York City. I have no qualms about my decision to retire here. In addition to major art exhibitions, which I still faithfully attend, there is a cornucopia of performing-arts events. These come in all prices—from $100 (which I paid to attend the first part of Tom Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia”) to zero bucks (for a wonderful Gagaku presentation at Riverside Church). The gratis option means I’ll be able to keep going out even if my pension declines because of the folly of the current administration in Washington. I trust that things will not get that bad. Global warming is a reality (though not for the reasons usually given), so winters in New York look to be mild. At least this one is, so far.

Today my situation is more placid than it has been during some earlier periods. So be it. Each stage of life has its distinctive advantages and pleasures.

Let me wish you a rewarding 2007, as you would like it!


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