I work some days in Gleeson Library on University of San Francisco’s campus; there’s a handful of study rooms in the library USF has allowed faculty to reserve for work purposes while the administration keeps closed every other building on campus to save money. There’s a lot of talk about how it’s to save lives, prevent transmissions, but the science isn’t there. It’s to lower USF’s costs of electricity and paying custodial staff while it weathers the financial sides of this health crisis.
The semester is over. Our Class of 2020 graduated today via Zoom webinar. I spent this afternoon reading interviews with John Cage, to find some inspiration about other forms of artistic processes I might use for my Nonfiction Studio course in the spring. I sit, when I’m on campus now, in 235 Gleeson, a windowless study room with dimmable overheads and a door that can close. It’s a room that in normal times could seat 12 students, though maybe not comfortably, but which earlier this year was converted for just 6 people safely distanced from one another. Naturally, I’m the only person in the room. I sit all the way in the far corner so that I can face the glass wall that looks out into the 2nd floor stacks.
Standing surrounded by high library stacks is among the safest feelings I can summon. As much as I try to accept and even embrace chaos, standing surrounding by high library stacks always brings an order I’m grateful for. It’s a swaddling blanket. I’m a baby there.
Anyway, John Cage and his interviewer were talking in 1990 about the Gulf War and intention in art-making, and either the purpose(s) of making art or its function(s) in society—I was indulging myself in unfocused reading after a semester just full of it. His interviewer mentioned some ideas of John Dewey’s that I found myself responding to, and she mentioned they came from his book, Art as Experience. I kept reading. Interviews are like podcasts but better, in that you can read at your own pace and it’s easier to skip through the gab. Soon, I felt continually distracted by gab, wanting to get back to the ideas, and I thought: I should just go to the source.
And then I looked up at the stacks and realized I could.
Dewey’s book was N66.D4, which was on our library’s 3rd floor, and so I got my mask on and walked upstairs and found it, a tiny 6×4″ hardcover from the book’s 3rd printing in 1938. Here’s what it looks like:
It’s a perfect book shape.
That morning, walking to work, I thought about people who won’t wear masks these days because they see it as an affront to their civil liberties. Americans should be free from the tyranny of having to wear a mask, seems to be the idea. I’ve written about these ideas before, and my friend Beth put my laments in similar terms in a recent reply-tweet to a Post story I’d tweet-linked about South Dakota:
Beth’s right. Or, at least, I agree with her, and this morning I wished that more of us had opportunities to be encouraged to check in and see if we were really thinking for/from ourselves or others, which is another topic I’ve written about recently. One of the men quoted in that Post article, I could see, felt that his refusal to wear a mask or take any vaccine felt very much like thinking for himself. When everyone around you is doing one thing and telling you that you have to do it too, it feels very much like freedom and independence to decide Not Do That Thing.
But “I’m Not Wearing Any Mask” isn’t thinking, it’s feeling. It’s another received idea that, by speaking it aloud, shows evidence of not-thinking. Which to me is evidence of being not-free. And this morning I wished we were talking about forms of personal freedom that didn’t involve obedience to the state or abandonment of it.
I was clearly the only person in library today. I knew because the positions of the stall doors didn’t change every time I stepped back into the men’s room, nor did the levels of the paper towels hanging out of their dispensers. I rarely see anyone across the 6 or 8 hours I spend there. There’s always lots of silence, and Cage was big on silence.
I put aside the book of Cage interviews the moment I got back to 235 with Dewey’s little book in my hand. His main task is to posit a(nother) theory of art, and his claim in the opening chapter is that any theory of art can’t begin the way art usually begins today—i.e., distinguished in arenas separate from everyday life. We put art in museums, we make opera expensive and keep it in distant theaters, etc. It’s an old argument, but still a useful one. Art comes from the desire to embellish everyday experience, says Dewey, and so we must look at that experience to understand art’s use and forms:
Direct experience comes from nature and an interacting with each other. In this interaction, human energy gathers, is released, dammed up, frustrated and victorious. There are rhythmic beats of want and fulfillment, pulses of doing and being withheld from doing.
Reading that passage reminded me for the first time today that I was lonely.
When I finished the chapter, I grabbed my laptop charger out of the wall plug and wound the fraying cable around its tines, and I packed my laptop and travel mug and Cage books into my backpack. I left the door open behind me as I walked out to the hallway, because I’ve found through experience that it helps regulate the temperature such that the room doesn’t get too hot or too cold when I return. And when I return, the door is usually open, even days later.
Downstairs, I walked up to the circulation desk opposite the library’s entrance. “Can you still check out books?” I asked, even though I knew from previous circ-desk interactions that the answer was yes.
The only person sitting at the desk was a gal younger than me by ten years, with a mask and a cast on her left arm swaddled in a sling. “I’m sorry?” she said, getting up from her desk.
“Can one still check out books?” I said, revising my approach.
One could. I handed over the little Dewey book and my ID and took a couple steps back to about 6 feet. I saw a nearby bottle of hand sanitizer, and I squirted its goo in my palm as an extra show of civic-mindedness. There was a problem with my barcode, so she had to enter my number manually, typing slowly with the only hand’s fingers she had at her disposal. I loved everything about how long this was taking. As much as I wanted that book back in my hands, as eager I was to feel the freedom of being allowed this thing, if only for a while, I would have happily waited seventeen hours while she worked this barcode issue. Instead we had a short chat.
“How’s your day going?” she asked.
“Pretty good,” I said. “Just doing some of the reading I want to do, now that the semester’s over and students are all done turning in work.”
“Right? It’s nice to have a little break I bet.”
“Yeah, I imagine it’s like how parents feel when the kids go off to college. Like, ‘Ahh, we can finally focus on ourselves.'”
She laughed at this, and typing it out now I regret the simile, its inaccuracies, but that’s why I’m a writer and not a public speaker. She took the book and ran its spine two or three times along the scanner, demagnetizing it, and told me it was due back on May 28th 2021. I took Art as Experience and held it in my hand all the way home.
It had rained while I was in there. I’d had no idea.