Friday, May 3, 2019

Remarks on the retirement of Jonathan Morse, 3 May 2019

Our scripture for today comes from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 1919.

"Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense . . . and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order."


And later in the essay:

"There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide."

This quotation is significant, both because Jon Morse began his career as a scientist, and because he went to school to become a Modernist and scholar of T.S. Eliot (and everything else). He worked for Eli Lilly from 1964 to 1973 (as a microbiologist), and returned to school to get a degree in English from Indiana University. He taught at Wayne State from 1973-1977, and then came to Hawai’i. And the rest, as they say, is now history. History, I might add, its operation in language and by way of image, has been his primary obsession as a writer and professor.

Jon Morse came to my house years ago to deliver a book or some photographs. He got down on the living room floor and took a photograph of our cat, Tortilla. Tortor was part of a tradition; he had been Gaye Chan’s cat for 10 years, before he became ours. The photograph of him by Jon became a painting by my mother-in-law, Anne Waters. When I look at Tor’s painting, I think of layers of history that include Jon as an important catalyst. He was the finely filiated platinum, the catalyst, for this feline memory.

Jon proved a catalyst for many of his students, as well as becoming a vital part of their histories. One student we shared long ago, Louis Bliemeister, brought me a bowl he’d made to represent “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He later renovated both our bathrooms (there ARE jobs for English majors!), and wrote this to me today apropos of Jon’s influence: “his passion for everything written, from Gilgamesh to Pinter, helped instill a lifelong passion for words in me."

For the past many years, Jon has maintained a blog called The Art Part, on which he writes about old photographs, history, art, and on which he puts pictures of his cats, with titles like . . . "Victorian prosody: the Laureate discovers a rhyme for 'crannies'”--the photographis of a cat that resembles Tortor, his face pressed against a cracked cement wall.

This blog continues his long engagement with literature and history. I returned to his 1990 Cornell UP book, Word by Word: The Language of Memory, this past week. I suppose the book was sold as “literary criticism,” but it strikes me as more a meditation on language and history by way of literature. It’s a very smart book, sure, but it’s also a wise one.

At both the beginning and the end of this remarkable book—whose range of references is stunning—Jon quotes Wallace Stevens’s poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the one whose central figure is a woman walking beside the sea, ordering the world in her song. In the introduction he writes this paragraph, which I will use as a farewell into a happy and productive future for Jon:

To enchant is to cast a spell over by means of song. A song is a sound that can come to its measured end. Now that we know it is over, we can sing it in the past tense, as history. We make history of ourselves, word by word. And as that history passes through us on its way to the past tense, we shape ourselves around its words. And that is why readers continue to read the life of Emily Dickinson. They know their history. They know that history can tell us only one thing, but that one thing is enough. History tells us this: At the end of the story, we can begin to mean.”

Welcome to meaning’s onset, Jon Morse!

1 comment:

Jonathan Morse said...

Thanks enormously!