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Dear Colleague: Common and Uncommon Observations

Yi-Fu Tuan
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Dear Colleague
    Book Description:

    "Maybe the most influential scholar you’ve never heard of" was how a feature article in The Chronicle of Higher Education recently described Yi-Fu Tuan, a widely traveled Chinese-American geographer whose letters to his friends and colleagues, distilling observations, ideas, and experiences, have carried his insights, and his reputation, far beyond his chosen field. Culling the most characteristic thoughts and compelling moments from these prized letters, Dear Colleague at long last gives readers near and far the opportunity to share what Tuan’s correspondents have already enjoyed.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9426-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-x)

    To be alive is to have hope, and to a writer, no matter how old, hope is belief in one more work yet to be written, another book that is somehow the capstone or distillation of all that has been written before. At the time I was finishing my autobiography (Who Am I?), I thought this was it—my capstone or distillation. But even before the page proof came to me, I began to contemplate another work to complement the autobiography with an approach both more impersonal in the sense that it would be directed more at the world, and...

  4. Nature
    (pp. 1-20)

    In my sixteen years as a resident in Madison, I have sat almost daily in the Lakefront Cafe of Memorial Union and watched the changing scene over Lake Mendota. Only yesterday, however, did it occur to me to wonder what I would see if I were in a submersible at the bottom of the lakeʹs cold murky depth, where sunlight never penetrates. And I am a geographer! How extraordinarily limited—and conventional—oneʹs perception is. We are very much creatures of the surface, condemned to superficiality even in imagination and thought.

    Strange to think that we may know more about...

  5. Civilization and City
    (pp. 20-32)

    Converting nature into city is the most tangible hallmark of civilization. Geographers, perhaps more than planners and other social scientists, tend to see the change almost exclusively in terms of spatial organization and refinement. But we should not forget time. Civilization is—has to be—sensitive to time, for its characteristic activities and works are often of a scale and complexity, involving many people, that require exquisite temporal-spatial coordination. In response to both its own rules and necessity, civilization is under pressure to complete projects within set time periods. In the old days, for example, cosmological ritual might demand that...

  6. Politics and Ideology
    (pp. 33-48)

    With civilization come politics and ideology—explicitly formulated activities and ideas that can be quite controversial. My own are no exception. Strange to think that I can write about sex and religion (as I shall later) without raising the readerʹs hackles, but not about politics. So, diplomatically, let me start with a non-controversial, but still interesting (I like to think), commentary.

    One of the greatest state-and-religious rituals in history took place on June 2, 1953. I refer to the coronation of Elizabeth II. Among the theatrical gestures that the organizers threw into the works were the donning, Roman style, of...

  7. Culture, Society, Work
    (pp. 48-58)

    Culture is the product of imagination, and imagination is the ability to see what isnʹt there. When Michelangelo looks at a block of marble, he is supposed to see a David crying to be let out. This story is meant to illustrate Michelangeloʹs genius. But even the humblest artisan does the same. He or she looks at formless clay and sees a pot, looks at a tree and sees a log cabin. How else do we make anything at all?

    Culture is a kind of error. Some people say 2 + 2 = 3; others say, not so, 2 +...

  8. Home, Rootedness, Place
    (pp. 58-67)

    ʺHome is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,ʺ Robert Frost wrote. This is a cry of despair, for who would want to go to a place that has to take you in? Heaven does not have to take me in. God cannot be coerced. On the other hand, if I am bad enough, Hell has no choice but to accept me, just as on earth, the city jail must accept me when I have bashed a policeman on the head.

    In the famous Bible story, the prodigal son returned to his...

  9. Human Ties and Isolation
    (pp. 67-81)

    Modern novelists, unlike Tolstoy, tend to avoid depicting good people and happy events. Historians may be likewise faulted. They should heed what Saint Paul has to say in his letter to the Philippians (4:8): ʺWhatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise,think on these thingsʺ (I added the emphasis). How rarely we intellectuals think on these things. The fear of being thought naive so often lands us in excessive negativity and falsehood.

    Husband and...

  10. Ancestors
    (pp. 81-84)

    In the early 1970s Americans began to shift away from futurism—the idea that they are to be defined by what they can do in the future—in favor of roots and genealogy, the idea that it is the past that gives them legitimacy, identity, and pride. To follow the new fashion, I hung my ancestorʹs portrait in my Minneapolis office. No, it is not Confucius. It isHomo erectus pekinensis. One-upmanship requires that I trace my genealogy as far back as possible.

    The Chinese, unlike the ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians, quite early on sought to suppress what they considered...

  11. Sex
    (pp. 84-90)

    The joy of sex is a great gift of nature to the human species. I say the human species, because other sexual animals do not seem capable of enjoying it to anything like the same degree. I watch dolphins copulating, but they canʹt even embrace—their sexual act seems so passionless. Our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, can embrace, but apparently donʹt. More often than not, the male merely leans toward the femaleʹs back, placing one hand on it, as he makes his insertion. Squeaks of excitement there may be during the intercourse, but no divine madness. So Jane Goodall tells...

  12. Male and Female
    (pp. 90-96)

    The human male, it would seem, is a water-added version of the human female. A womanʹs body is 55 to 65 percent water, whereas a manʹs body is 65 to 75 percent water. One consolation for the male is that, by virtue of the greater water content of his body, he can hold more liquor.

    In America, men have a more romantic attitude toward their partner than women. Men, rather than women, are more likely to say, ʺWe are perfect for each other.ʺ In a survey of college students, 65 percent of the men, but only 24 percent of the...

  13. Power
    (pp. 96-101)

    What do we want out of life? Love, admiration, respect, honor, prestige, money, and so on. Maybe it all amounts to power. Even love, for as Henry Kissinger says, power is a great aphrodisiac. We academics are not free to be too open about what we want. Mobsters feel no such compunction. So, letʹs hear what a mobster has to say. To a reporterʹs question, ʺWhy be a mobster? Whatʹs so great about it?ʺ he replied: ʺItʹs the greatest thing a human could experience. . . . When you sneeze, 15 handkerchiefs come out. I mean, everywhere you go, people...

  14. Education, Teaching, Knowledge
    (pp. 101-118)

    Education is ʺthe training of human souls,ʺ according to Alfred North Whitehead.

    The wordconsidermeans ʺseeing the stars together, as constellations, or in relation to one another.ʺ What a beautiful word! No wonder I am always urging students to ʺconsider this,ʺ or ʺconsider that.ʺ I have to confess, though, that until recently I did not know that I was asking them to make constellations out of stars.

    The late medieval university maintained a core curriculum of ʺsoftʺ subjects for beginning students. These included natural philosophy, mathematics, and logic. Good students went beyond them to the ʺtoughʺ subjects of law,...

  15. Geography
    (pp. 118-131)

    The idea of love, in Sumerian, seems to embrace the idea of geography. This is how S. N. Kramer puts it: ʺThe Sumerian word for ʹloveʹ is a compound verb which seems to mean literally ʹmeasure the earth,ʹ ʹto mete out a placeʹ; just how this developed into the meaning ʹloveʹ is uncertainʺ (The Sumerians).

    The Greek wordethos, by the fifth century b.c., was understood to mean ʺcharacter.ʺ And this meaning is retained to our day: ethos, ethics, morality—character. But, according to Charles Chamberlain,ethosin Homerʹs time meant ʺthe places where animals are usually found,ʺ ʺanimal haunts...

  16. History
    (pp. 131-134)

    Many people seek to escape the horrors of the present age by envisaging an Eden or utopia long ago. I too periodically find relief in history, but what works for me is the awareness that however bad things are now, they were probably worse, overall, in the past. Here is an example. A knight, writing a letter to his humanist friend on October 1518, explained that life as an aristocrat left much to be desired:

    Do not envy me my life as compared to yours. Such is the lot of the knight that even though my patrimony were ample for...

  17. Aesthetics
    (pp. 134-147)

    The root meaning ofaesthetics(aesthesia) is ʺfeeling.ʺ To feel is to come to life—to be alive. Its opposite isanaesthesia, the deadening of the senses. Busy men and women tend to regard the aesthetic (ʺbeauty and all thatʺ) as marginal or superficial, a hobby that one might take up after money-earning work. Yet there is nothing superficial about coming to life, drawn by the beauties of the world and wanting to add to them. Human culture—everything from the well-turned phrase to great systems of thought, from cosmeticized hair to great works of architecture—is a striving toward...

  18. Intellect
    (pp. 147-161)

    I like to invigilate exams despite the burden of having to grade them later, because I derive a powerful aesthetic pleasure from watching students think. To me, no facial expression, no posture is more attractive. I feel privileged to be watching an event that is extremely rare—perhaps even unique—in the universe.

    The intellect doesnʹt rank high in human estimation, according to Montaigne. In support of his view, he quoted fromOn the Nature of Thingsby Lucretius: ʺThe first distinction that ever existed among men, and the first consideration that gave some pre-eminence over others, was in all...

  19. Language
    (pp. 161-170)

    I appreciate the following tongue-in-cheek observation made by the linguist Roger Brown inWords and Things: ʺMost people are determined to hold the line against animals. Grant them the ability to make linguistic reference and they will be putting in a claim for minds and souls. The whole phyletic scale will come trooping into Heaven demanding immortality for every tadpole and hippopotamus. Better to be firm now and make it clear that man alone can use language to make reference.ʺ

    Well, since this was written (the book was published in 1968), chimpanzees and dolphins—if not yet tadpoles and hippopotami—...

  20. Morality
    (pp. 170-191)

    ʺWhat is truth?ʺ Pilate asked. One who ought to know chose silence as his answer. Hannah Arendt noted that none of the higher religions except Zoroastrianism included lying among the sins. There is no simple commandment: Thou shalt not lie.

    For Goethe, propriety is a criterion of truth. Or, to put it another way, truth resides in a balanced vision in which religious, aesthetic, and moral perceptions are at one. Nietzsche admired Goethe for this view of truth, which he described as characteristic of the aristocratic mind; and to Nietzsche, Goethe was the last of the great aristocratic minds. Since...

  21. Religion
    (pp. 191-203)

    It is hard to tell a good Christmas story when Christianity has lost its mythic power and become just secular good works and mindless moral crusading. But I do have such a story. Some forty years ago, when I taught at Indiana University, I attended a social sciences conference in Lexington, Kentucky. The morning sessions were crushingly dull. I decided to skip the afternoon ones and go home. By the time I drove into Indiana, darkness blotted out much of the landscape and snow was beginning to fall. I checked into a hotel in a small border town whose name...

  22. Stages of Life
    (pp. 203-213)

    A frustrated human infant turns lobster-pink and can scream for ten minutes or more. Do the infants of other species show comparable rage when they donʹt get what they want? I believe not. The screaming infant is repellent to everyone other than its besotted parents. And yet, isnʹt this rage the first sign of a divine (satanic?) discontent, an arrogant refusal to adapt that drives the human being to create a world that, at a turn of the prayer wheel or a flip of the electric switch, responds to his every need?

    A young child stares. A well-mannered older child...

  23. A Sense of Ending
    (pp. 213-224)

    Afraid of dying? Yes, but I canʹt disentangle that fear from the fear of embarrassment. I wonʹt know how to behave. My body takes over and does things that make me feel ashamed. No one in my circle ever talks about dying, much less try to describe how he or she may feel when the time comes. So I was much comforted, as one would be in the presence of an intimate friend, when I chanced upon the following passage written by Thomas Browne in 1635: ʺI am not so much afraid of death, as ashamed thereof. It is the...

  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 225-225)