Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Colleges and Nobel Prize Winners: Herta Müller at Dickinson College

     Last week Herta Müller gave a reading at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, about two hours drive from here. So five of us piled into a minivan and set off across the rolling hills, not quite singing songs but definitely in a good mood as our classes were done and our papers corrected. With the semester just behind us, a road trip to see a Nobel laureate seemed like an adventure we could afford.

     Dickinson has wonderful eighteenth-century buildings. The campus is compact and lovely, the old stone buildings set within a few feet of each other. Graduation was about to unfurl and the town was filled with excited parents. Carlisle has a string of classy restaurants and they all seemed to hold cheerful families circled around one beaming youngster. The undergraduates were different than the lot I usually encounter. The women were polished and artsy; the men soft and thoughtful. Not an athlete in sight.

     At Penn State all you ever hear about Dickinson College is that the law school is wandering over to University Park, but after strolling along the historic center of Carlisle, I thought it might be more pleasant if Penn State moved in next to Dickinson College. But to the main event: Herta Müller was visiting Dickinson to receive an honorary degree and to participate in the commencement activities. Her connection to the place reaches back to the 1990s when she was a writer in residence there, at a time when she was by no means expected to win the Nobel prize, when she was known only to a handful of professional critics who included Romanian German writers in their portfolio.

      Now her great novel, Atemschaukel, has appeared in a fine English translation as The Hunger Angel, and the edgy artist who used to bristle easily was on her US tour, Harvard, Chicago, Carlisle, PA. Dickinson College chose well, not just the faculty who invited Herta Müller, but also the administration who sustained the relationship over many years.

     Sitting in a state-of-the art lecture hall, packed with attentive listeners, I was reminded of the other Nobel prize winners that I had heard speak at little, well-endowed colleges. Colleges seem better equipped to handle the delicate relationships inherent to artistic patronage. Back in the late 80s, I listened to Seamus Heaney read from Station Island in another well-built lecture hall at Bucknell College. Ostensibly I was at Bucknell for an academic conference on Romanticism, so I wondered who this wavy haired Irishman was who kept alluding to Wordsworth as if he were a peer—even the grandest English professor does not compare his writing with such a canonical figure. Then as the poems rolled out, my epiphany commenced, and for years thereafter, I would read Heaney and see him speak with an eager desire to relive the wonder of first hearing him speak his own poems. Several times I heard him in New York swaggering in front of a large audience with fellow poets on the stage, my delirium continued, but always with a sense that the Bucknell reading, quiet and elegant, was the most wonderous.

      Hearing Herta Müller at Dickinson brought out that college delight at literature, but almost in reverse. I had heard her before in high-profile events in Berlin where all sorts of luminaries huddled around the bar until late in the evening. Now in Dickinson, the audience was a little more naïve, but it was a real pleasure to hear the nervous undergraduates ask their questions. For well-heeled colleges with their intimate seclusion train students to believe that if they listen and read carefully enough, then they will be able to speak with the smartest people in the world. The close reading techniques that Liberal Arts colleges teach their students build in them a reservoir of confidence, that allows them to tip toe up to a Nobel laureate, unafraid to ask their modest question, so that they may then receive the sharp, swift answer from a foreign writer unfamiliar with privilege.

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