Thursday, July 14, 2011

Proust and Talmud

"How different they were! And neither told a lie. This was a marvel, that two souls, two such separated tonalities, so to speak, could between them describe the true map of life."

- Cynthia Ozick, The Cannibal Galaxy

     I'm reading two books right now. One's a mystery/thriller called Christine Falls by Benjamin Black. The other is The Cannibal Galaxy by Cynthia Ozick. Sometimes I'm in the mood for Black, sometimes Ozick. Sometimes I'm in no mood for reading at all! 

     Every so often, when reading multiple books at the same time, an amazing thing happens. The two authors enter into a kind of dialogue with one another. Black meets Ozick for a cup of coffee. Of course this imagined cup of coffee doesn't take place in a local coffee shop, but rather in my mind: the mind of the reader. I'm fairly certain that Black doesn't actually know Ozick. More than likely I'm the first person in human history to be reading these two books simultaneously. The juxtaposition is even more unlikely because it's totally random and unplanned. It's no great feat, but it is interesting: different authors, different genres, different decades...  And yet, somehow, Black and Ozick are in dialogue with one another because of me. 

     Lately I've been pondering the concept of "integration." In reading The Cannibal Galaxy, I stumbled upon an insight that resonates with me: if you put two thoughtful individuals in a room, each will have something to say to the other. Meaningful and transformative dialogue can occur without anyone compromising their own unique point of view or surrendering their subjective "truth." That's the realization that Joseph Brill, the protagonist of Ozick's book, uncovers. 

     Brill is a young man hiding from the Nazis in the basement of a Parisian convent. Surrounded by Christian and secular books, he passes his time by reading. For Brill, reading fills the void left by the deportation of his entire family. Clearly traumatized and alone, Brill eventually musters up the courage to turn to the one Jewish book that, by happenstance, he has brought with him: the Talmud, tractate Ta'anit. He opens to a random page, reads a random rabbinic tale, and then sets the Talmud down. For no apparent reason he then picks up a random book, written by Marcel Proust, opens to a random page, and reads a random section. As he reflects on his reading he remarks to himself: "How different they were! And neither told a lie. This was a marvel, that two souls, two such separated tonalities, so to speak, could between them describe the true map of life." 

     Integration is a process. It's the process of creating a meaningful dialogue between two different forms of knowledge. The process of integration can take place internally or in a social context. Integration can be the result of careful planning and deliberate curricular decisions, or it can emerge from the normal juxtapositions and tensions that exist from living in a complex and interconnected world as symbolized by Black and Ozick/ Talmud and Proust.

     In the case of Joseph Brill, the integration of Talmud and Proust, was an integration that resulted in synthesis. For Brill, Talmud and Proust, though speaking in different "tonalities" played complimentary roles in helping Brill to further define the "true map of life." During a period of profound personal trauma, the awareness of an integrative possibility transforms Brill's mental and emotional reality. 

   But integration needn't always be smooth. The dialogue between different ideas can affirm difference and incompatibility as well as commonality and reconciliation. Black and Ozick might be a marriage made in heaven or oil and water. The process of integration doesn't dictate a certain outcome. Instead, habituation to the process of integration creates a cognitive and spiritual space that allows for the possibility of meaningful connections and juxtapositions. 

    As I've indicated elsewhere, integration is a paradigmatic human experience. It's a process that promotes spiritual and emotional health as well as intellectual creativity. The more accustomed we are to integrating different ideas, experiences, and other forms of "input," the more likely we are to figure out how the pieces of our or world fit together to form a "true map of life." 

    As educators we can model the process of integration by habituating ourselves to creating coffee dates where "separated tonalities" can engage with one another through the process of integration. Whether the outcome is compatibility or difference we can be transparent about our integrating by sharing with our students and colleagues. If students see us, not as transmitters of content (sage on the stage) but as more mature learners (guide on the side), then they will be inclined to emulate and eventually internalize the processes of integration. If we want our students to be critical thinkers, imagineers, creators, and connection makers, then we need to show them how. 


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