Episode 3: Billy Flesch

Brandeis University campus

15 February 2019


[Rachel] Hi, welcome to the OpenBook Podcast, I’m Rachel Moore, one of the UDRs for the English Department

[Rebecca] And I’m Rebecca Kahn, one of the UDRs for the Creative Writing Department, and we’re here today with Professor Flesch. Would you like to introduce yourself?

[Billy] I’m William Flesch, and I teach in the English Department.

[Rachel] Thank you for being here today. We just have a few questions so we can get to know you a little bit better and so the rest of the English Department and Brandeis University can get to know you a little bit better as well. So, to stay topical, can you tell us about something that you’re reading right now or something you’re looking forward to reading?

[Billy] Well, I just finished a really really wonderful book by the Spanish novelist Javier Marías called Berta Isla which is a kind of espionage novel of a Graham Greene or John McCrae type crossed with Henry James or with Proust –

[Rebecca] Interesting

[Billy] – and it’s really powerful, really moving. I finished that a week or so ago and it made a big impression on me. Right now, I’m reading Éric Vuillard’s Order of the Day, which is a kind of fictionalized reconstruction of the complete shallowness of the people who got Europe into World War II, just from their point of view. So, a novelistic account of various meetings they had and just the silly little thoughts they were thinking as they were having these meetings.

[Rebecca] Cool

[Billy] I can say – it won the Prix Goncourt in France a couple of years ago and it was just translated into English.

[Rebecca] On that note, what do you feel is exciting about the current literary scene, and what do you expect to see in the near future?

[Billy] Oh, if I knew what would happen in the near future, things would be good.

[Rebecca] [laughs]

[Billy] I think there’s just a lot of really great international writing that’s going on and that US readers are becoming more aware of than before. It may partly be that there’s a little bit of a kind of played-outness of the late-20th century American novel, at least the main sequence of that novel. If you think of all the important white male writers who were part of that sequence, and then things started fanning out and spreading out both within the US and then outside of the US, and I think that in translation and also English language, but not US and Britain, there have been a lot of really exciting things, new things, different things, that are available, and one aspect of that, which is always an aspect of reading, even within your own culture, but if you’re reading slightly outside of your own culture, is that you’re responding to things in your reading that people within that culture would find familiar but you don’t, and so the very fact that you have a somewhat skewed or off center relationship to it makes it as much about you thinking about your own attitude towards what you’re reading as it is you simply evaluating what it is that you’re reading and that can make it that much more exciting.

[Rachel] Such an interesting practice. I think I read recently, someone called that subject positioning and reading with literary empathy –

[Billy] Yeah

[Rachel] – so, I think it’s such an interesting idea.

[Rachel] What is a book you could or have reread many times just because you wanted to?

[Billy] Well, so there are several versions of that. One book that I’ve reread many times, and I’m happy every time that I read it is The Maltese Falcon, and it’s odd to reread a mystery a lot, except that the mystery part isn’t what really matters, it’s the characters that really matter. Salinger, I’m a huge Salinger fan. I’ve reread Catcher in the Rye as well as Franny and Zoe a whole lot. I tend to do poetry a lot more than fiction, and of course the whole idea of poetry is that you haven’t read a poem until you’ve read it a million times, and so there are lots of poets that I reread all the time.

[Rebecca] Changing gears, what were you like in college?

[Billy] Oh, you know, I was just like now, really. I think I shouldn’t really comment on that one, but I think you’d be surprised, but you wouldn’t be surprised. How’s that for an answer?

[Rebecca] What about for those of us that don’t know you personally?

[Billy] I was like the kind of student that gets surprised that they get a good grade from me because the fact that I was like that kind of student makes me much more interested in what it is that they’re thinking and doing than people who are not like that kind of student would be or maybe are when they’re in college. Does that make sense?

[Rebecca] That does make sense.

[Rachel] That’s a great answer. Could you have ever foreseen where you are today when you were in college?

[Billy] Yeah, I think I wanted to be a teacher of some sort since I was in high school because I had some really really great English teachers in high school, and also a really really great math teacher. My original plan was to double major in Math and English, which still survives a little bit in some of the courses that I teach here. The problem being that you had to go to math classes to pass them when you were an undergraduate, and the math classes tended to be in the morning, and I tended to try to get up by dinner. So, I didn’t go to many math classes, and you didn’t really have to go to English classes to pass them, so I could miss a lot more English classes than math classes. I regret missing a lot of those classes, but it also meant that I had a whole lot of time to read.

[Rebecca] What do you think you would be doing if you hadn’t had two amazing teachers like that?

[Billy] I don’t know. My parents wrongly, if they wanted me to do this, were pushing me really hard toward law school. They didn’t realize, as they should have, the kind of push-back they would get. Had they not pushed me, it’s possible. There was a time when I was really really interested in medicine just because the science was fascinating, and I was a little bit of a science jock in high school as well, and math. I could imagine that. I think that that’s a good thing to do with your life if you’re really devoted to it. But I probably would have been a loss below replacement if I’d been a doctor. That is, the average doctor probably would have done more good in the world than I would have done, so it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t.

[Rebecca] Fair enough.

[Rachel] Interesting take. Now, you’ve been at Brandeis for a while, do you have a favorite spot on Brandeis campus?

[Billy] It depends on the season –

[Rachel] Ah, fair.

[Billy] Fellows Garden is just great when the cherry blossoms are out, and it’s fun to walk there then. Although it’s always just a passage you’re walking through. I like the view from the top of Rabb steps in the fall. I kind of sometimes like Usdan just because it’s bustling, and I like the library, I like books.

[Rebecca] Yeah. What’s your favorite course and/or topic to teach?

[Billy] I really really really like teaching close reading and poetry. So, most of the teaching that I do, in one way or another, has a lot of close reading in it. So, there is the course which is Theory and Practice of Close Reading, and I generally really really really like to teach that. I like teaching Shakespeare a lot. A class that I teach – I team-teach a class with Eli Hersch in the philosophy department on Wittgenstein, and I like teaching that. I teach a class that I’ve taught in various incarnations maybe five times now called Thinking About Infinity, which has a lot of math in it, so there’s a return to my misspent youth. The math in the class – it’s interesting because it attracts math types and computer science types, and they generally know more math and computer science than I do, but there is some stuff that I know that they don’t, which is more basic than what they know. One of the things that happens in math education is that you learn a lot of stuff before you learn the concept of proof, and it’s in seventh or eighth grade that you start proving things. And before that you just learn things the way you learn dates, and the reason you do that is the stuff you learn before you learn the idea of proof is stuff that is really hard to prove. And it doesn’t occur to you that it needs proving. But once you start thinking that maybe it does need proving, there’s really really interesting, very very basic stuff that you can start thinking about and that raises philosophical issues. So, this class, Thinking About Infinity, ranges from literature in which people are trying to complete the infinite – one example would be the sermon in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in which the students at the high school that Stephen Dedalus goes to are scared witless about how long eternity is if they’re going to go to hell. So, there’s an amazing literary evocation of infinity. Then there’s a lot of infinity in the history of art if you’re trying to think about how perspective works and the perspectival convergence of the visual field that you’re seeing which is geometrically – the convergence occurs at infinity. There are philosophical issues about whether infinity exists or what kind of existence it would have. It’s a major place where set theory comes from is thinking about the relation of sets to their subsets and the question of whether there actually is such thing as an infinite set, and then there are mathematical results that you can have about infinite sets. But then you go back to someone like Borges, the Argentinian writer, who is thinking about these issues and turning them into stories. So, it’s a class that goes all over the place, which is something I really like. I’ve been known to digress, but I actually think – and this is something that I think really passionately – is that digression is an absolute good in a humanities class because the whole point about the humanities is not to master a set of facts about some particular thing but to see how whatever you’re thinking about has an effect or should have an effect on how you think about everything. And it should give you analogies, it should give you pathways into and out of everything else. It should spiral outwards and maybe spiral back inwards, and a class like Thinking About Infinity is a class which is also thinking about digression.

[Rachel] Now, it sounds like you are really passionate about the classes that you do teach, but is there a class that you would love to teach that you haven’t yet?

[Billy] One thing that I like about Brandeis is that because it’s small and because it has a tradition of improvising, it’s been the case that ever since I got here and really ever since I got tenure and didn’t have to prove to the people who were going to decide whether I got tenure or not that I really knew a field, which you do have to prove before you have a chance for tenure, but after that, Brandeis has, pretty much anything that I’m interested in, there is a place at Brandeis that’s available to fill with that. It’s not that I could decide to teach any course that’s being taught here, because I certainly couldn’t. The thing about departments in general, not only English departments, but all departments, is that people get territorial. If they’re the expert on Chaucer, for example, then someone who is a total amateur about Chaucer, like me, shouldn’t be teaching Chaucer. But then we didn’t have anyone teaching Chaucer here for a year or two, so I got to teach Chaucer which is great. And the kinds of things I’m interested in, there are not that many other people here who are interested in teaching courses in those things, so I pretty much get to teach whatever I want, but not because I can teach whatever I might want. It’s that what I want to teach, generally, there are openings for me to teach it. So that hasn’t really been an issue. I’m teaching a new class next fall I think on ‘30s movies, or at least I proposed one.

[Rebecca] Oh, that’s cool.

[Rachel] So interesting.

[Billy] So, well, I have one general piece of advice for being an undergraduate, which comes from something that Beckett – it’s in “Waiting for Godot,” and Beckett thought that St. Augustine said it, but in fact he didn’t, this is my expertise as an early modernist, it was William Tyndale who said it at the end of the 16th century – but the story, as you probably know, in the Gospel is that when Jesus was crucified there were two thieves who were also crucified with him. And there are lots of paintings of Jesus and the two thieves, and in one version of the Gospel, but only one, one of the thieves makes fun of Jesus, and the other thief tells him not to do it because look, Jesus is dying, too. Why would you do that? And Jesus turns to the second thief and says, “Tonight you will dine with me in paradise.” So, St. Augustine supposedly, but William Tyndale in reality, gave the moral for this story, which is Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. So even if you led a life as a thief, and you were doing something that was going to get you executed, and you do get executed, even so, don’t despair, because one of the thieves was saved. But do not presume, because one of the thieves was damned. That is, don’t think you can wait until the last second, and everything will be fine. So, my advice is, if you fall behind at school, as everyone does always, don’t despair, it’s never too late to catch up in your classes, to catch up in your work, to rescue a semester that seems to be going really badly. But don’t make the mistake – which I really did make as an undergraduate – of thinking that because it’s always possible to catch up, you can just wait until you need to catch up. So, try to keep up with your work, but don’t make the mistake that I did that you can always catch up, that one all-nighter sets everything to rights, that you can spend an all-nighter writing the eight papers that are now late, because that’s really hard to do. So, don’t assume that you’ll be able to catch up, but also do understand that no one does all the work, and that everyone will have to do some catching up, and that even if you have really blown it off a lot more than you should’ve and a lot more than you promised yourself – or you promised yourself you wouldn’t do it yet again, and yet you’re doing it yet again – it’s never too late to rescue where you are. But don’t count on that fact. In other words, don’t act with a view of making things better later, but always be aware that now is a time when you can always rescue how you’re doing. So, talk to your professors.

[Rachel] Thank you for that. Let’s see, changing gears a little bit, what is something that you like that other people seem to hate, or vice versa?

[Billy] [laughs]

[Rachel] And that can be, really, anything. You can move beyond literature if you would like to.

[Billy] I really hate anchovies.

[Rebecca] [laughs]

[Billy] I think of anchovies as … imagine anchovies as the worst possible vegetable there is, and then make it a smelly fish, and that would be anchovies. But other people seem to like anchovies. There’s probably some really strenuous and demanding books and movies that I like, that I used to like just because they were strenuous and demanding, but that eventually I got to like just liking them. And Jeanne Dielman might be an example. You ended up liking it.

[Rebecca] I actually did like it, yeah.

[Billy] I really like Chantal Akerman, I really like this Australian writer Gerald Murnane, who some people, most people, probably wouldn’t give more than two or three pages to.

[Rebecca] What’s an activity you enjoy doing outside of work?

[Billy] I really like opera. Does that count as outside of work? I really like museums. I like travel. I like hiking.

[Rebecca] Those count.

[Billy] Okay.

[Rachel] What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever been?

[Billy] So, yeah, I was thinking about that. So, there are different ways of being interesting, and maybe the most novel place that I ever went, in certain ways, was Malta, which is just a rock in the middle of the Mediterranean that has an 18th century city on it, and it’s beautiful and strange that that should be true. I really liked Cyprus a lot, and I really liked Taiwan a lot. So, those are places that are vivid for me as memories.

[Rebecca] Well, those are the end of our questions. If you have any parting words that you want to offer …

[Billy] Reading is fundamental, I don’t know.

[Rebecca] All right, well, thank you so much, this was fun!