Ginzburg’s essay reminds me that my role as an art professor, advisor, and mentor is to help young women and men stand on unsteady feet and gradually overcome their loss of vocation-equilibrium.
I recently purchased Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues at a discount book store. I was unfamiliar with the author and picked out the collection of essays because of my interest in topics related to virtues and character. Later, scanning the table of contents, I was pleased to find an essay titled, “My Vocation.” Written in 1949, when she was in her early 30s, the essay traces her development as a serious writer. It’s clear from Ginzburg’s biography that vocation was always creeping from her room, to borrow a phrase from a a Jeff Lynne lyric.
She was born Natalia Levi in 1916 in Sicily; her Jewish father and Catholic mother raised Natalia and her four siblings in Turin. She married Leone Ginzburg when she was 22, and they had three children. After her first husband died in the hands of Fascist torturers she remarried, to Gabriele Baldini in 1950. She moved to Rome and later served as a member of Parliament from the Left Independence Party, and she died in 1991. Her life and work have enjoyed a resurgence of critical interest outside of Italy due to new English translations of her writings.
“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time,” opens the essay. Much of the essay reflects on Ginzburg’s self-awareness of changes in her calling as a writer, as a girl who wrote poems, to an adolescent who created stories more original than her poems, and then, after her children were born, as a mature woman who wrote novels and wrestled with the inevitability of her vocation. The last half of her essay is especially rich; she describes her vocation as beautiful, restless, domineering, saving, dangerous, and finally self-consuming. Ginzburg struggled to find her voice as a woman, she recounts, until she had children, lived through a period of not writing, and then returned to her “beautiful” vocation, writing as if she had never written anything before.
It wasn’t until Amanda Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Must Climb,” that I realized the more subtle and insidious tragic failing that threatens us. In our own lives the failings are often smaller and less histrionic than tragic failings of an Oedipus, Hamlet, Othello, or Lear. For us, the danger is settling for “just is” instead of “justice.” Gorman’s homophone warns of the seemingly small slippage from our true end and aim into weary, complacent, resignation. These small tragedies will, if they are great enough in number, led to further national tragedy.
Biden’s inauguration occasioned another flurry of internet chatter and reflections on his often used quotation, “when hope and history rhyme,” from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles Philoctetes. Making “hope and history rhyme” has always s been an inspiring phrase for me, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the literary genre of tragedy and its usefulness to vocation, I was struck by how apt tragedy is for educating us in the type of civic engagement that lines of Heaney and the young poet Amanda Gorman call us to.
Vocation studies can tend toward the exalted, the passionate, the high and the noble, and it can take itself so seriously that, like a tragic hero, it becomes blind to a fundamental irony, namely that it can set students up to do everything but live their current, actual lives.
Recently, while listening to a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Politics by Paul Cantor, I was struck by the usefulness of Romeo and Juliet in thinking about vocation. Cantor explores the distinction between tragedy and comedy by comparing Romeo and Juliet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both written in the same year and both focused on young lovers and romantic love. It struck me that comedy has a long-haul wisdom and love of the ordinary that is all too often absent from talk and teaching about vocation. Vocation studies can tend toward the exalted, the passionate, the high and the noble. It can take itself so seriously that, like a tragic hero, it becomes blind to a fundamental irony, namely that it can set students up to do everything but live their current, actual lives.
It has been a very difficult week at Pepperdine University.
Just a few days ago, on Wednesday November 7th, the shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill occurred, and there were a number of Pepperdine students there. While all were severely traumatized, one precious first-year student, Alaina Housley, was killed. As many other campuses, schools, faith and social communities know all too well, the ripple effects of such violence reach far into a community. Thursday, we gathered for what was to be an initial prayer service on campus where pain, sadness, and anger were palpable. The grieving process for our campus community, not to mention that of other communities, will be slow and long. I can only imagine what it will be for the affected families. What can we do but hold each other and start to lift our feeble voices in prayer? Continue reading “Vocation in a Time of Crisis: Reflections from Pepperdine, November 2018”