Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, the editor of Michigan today.
Welcome to the latest edition of “Listen-In Michigan,” where my guest is Ralph Williams, Arthur F Thurnau Professor Emeritus of English language and literature. Ralph Williams is a name known to countless University of Michigan alumni, dating back to 1970 – when he earned his Ph.D. here and began his career as a professor. This is his fifth-decade teaching courses in medieval and renaissance literature, Shakespeare, and biblical studies among many other things. And ask anyone who’s taken one of his courses and you’ll soon discover Williams is more than a scholar. He is a passionate teacher deeply committed to the one-to-one human connection. In 2009, he was honored by U of M students with the first-ever golden apple Lifetime Achievement Award which was supposed to mark his quote-en-quote retirement. Just two years later, Ralph Williams was back in the classroom entertaining and educating students with his distinctive teaching style. As academic year comes to a close next month, he took time out of his classes because I thought it would be fun for his former students and even those who never even took one of his classes to hear Williams’s voice again as he ponders some of life’s big questions. We start with an especially timely topic in light of the current political climate in this country. Williams, a Canadian by birth, has a unique take on what he describes as the paradox at the core of the American project. Here’s Ralph.
Ralph Williams: I came to think of America as a project — something paradoxical. Something which was not replicated elsewhere in the world, really, in the same way. A place where people were invited to come: people of all languages, all races, all religions with their social customs and allowed to be themselves. And yet, what seems paradoxical to form out of those who came here, one society, while still allowing them to be who they are. And what I came to understand at least what I think – thought then and still think – is that you can resolve a paradox like that which you can live it better or worse. You really can. If you try to solve the paradox, generally what happens is that either the society disintegrates into its constituent parts, or you try to go the other direction and have a single society made up of people whom you try to make uniform. But you can’t do that, because to do that you have to destroy people’s memories, and their memories are their identities But you can try to live it, better or worse. You really can, and experience the richness while still trying to maintain something of the singleness of the project for us all. It’s an ongoing project and for me, the American university, public university particularly, as an institution set up by the society. In my best understanding, to bring to it those of the peoples who have significant stake in this society. All of them, and set them in conversation with one another about the shape of their future cohesion as a society. What memories do you bring to afoot, what ideas, what issues, what economic social issues, what issues in constituting what is to be a fully independent mature human? What insight does your group have? And instead of insisting that everybody be one according to someone’s model, you asked them to contribute what comes from their background to an understanding of what we as a group can be in the future. How we might cohere as a society. Because if we don’t have representatives of all of the parts of our society, then those who are excluded won’t be dedicated to it, will be loyal to it. They don’t have a stake in it. And if we don’t attend to them, we lose the richness, which is not the unique strength but particularly the strength of this country. And particularly the strength of the ways in which we try to learn here. We talk a great deal about diversity now and we covet and we need it. It is essential to the American project and the project of a public university. But it’s not enough to have diverse populations here. This is the time in their lives, and this the place, where they come to sort out personal identity, to conceive it, to enact it, and social identity. And that takes conversation. It’s a sacred space. It’s a clearing to use Toni Morrison’s term where we come. And for a while we’re more perhaps than at any other time of our lives asked to listen, to speak, to imagine, and for that there needs to be a space of freedom where one can think and speak if not with total impunity because there is hate language and that stops the process of communication. But with maximum openness to hearing and responding to the thoughts, the contributions, the emotions of others in a certain way what needs to go on here is the way in which we can be in what I call the full human presence of one another.
Holdship: Before we get too carried away in these deep and profound topics, I wanted to include one funny anecdote about the way Williams learned to read as a boy.
Williams: I’m the youngest of five. So, when I was 3 or 4 years old my brother’s would be sitting in armchairs, reading. I would tottle on up and I’d stand in front of them, and they’d point out to me the letters, so I learned to read upside down. And to this day, I can read just about as quickly upside down as I can normally because that’s the way I learned!
Holdship: One of the great pleasures and talking to someone like Ralph Williams is that you can kind of ponder the nature of love and happiness and the meaning of life. Listen to this.
Williams: Happiness is not a station to which you fall. It’s a choice of the will, and it’s always against odds. I’m not Pollyanna, and I am in anguish and moral anger at the pains and injustices of the world. I’ve studied, and studied, and studied, but the grand answers out there are frequently not available, and so you need to make a choice. And I don’t know frankly, whether as a race we’re going to make it, whether as a society we’re going to make it. I don’t know, finally, know whether love is at the basis of the universe. What Dante speaks of is the love which moves the sun and other stars, right? But what makes a commitment, finally, if one chooses that that’s the way it should be and tries to work that out. All right? And that’s an arduous thing.
Holdship: Anyone who knows Ralph Williams will tell you it doesn’t take long in a conversation for Shakespeare to arise. Here’s Ralph discussing the nature of harmony, disharmony, and what it means to be human.
Williams: I was thinking this morning of a passage from The Merchant of Venice. It’s one in which Lorenzo is speaking to Jessica. And it’s night, and it’s still, and there’s music and he says to her “Sit Jessica, then look how the heavens are thick inlaid with patents of bright gold. There’s not the smallest orb the thou beholds. In his motion like an angel sings, still acquiring to the unhide Cherubin. Such harmony is in immortal souls, but well of this muddy vesture of decay death grossly close it in. We cannot hear it.” The belief was then that the orb circled and like one of those singing tops we had as a child, they made a sound, and the sound was harmony. But then the point, which he puts in the mouth of Lorenzo, is such harmony is in us. But the pitch isn’t one we can hear. Alright? And the struggle to achieve a harmony, personally or in society, is to me, an engrossing object of attention. And it’s why I am where I am in the arts. Because it’s there wherein a way, not exclusive to the arts, but particular to them certainly, someone will try to put into words, into motion as in a dance, into the visual arts. They’ll struggle to inscribe somehow the world with the harmony which is in their souls, sometimes tempered sometimes distempered, all human. And to watch the way in which humans try to work out the good in themselves, and then work out the good in the society around them, is to me is the joy of life and why I’m here and why I continue teaching. And it’s in full view of the fact that the grand answers might not be available to me, might not be available to us, but we have a project going (Laughs). And the project is one toward a harmony which holds dissonance together, and difference together in one society and the University of Michigan as a place where you can work on this and work it out.
Holdship: Since Ralph Williams is an acclaimed biblical scholar it made sense that we should spend a little time talking about such light fare as God, morals, and the Bible.
Williams: The Bible — it’s really a library in itself. And if one reads it intently, it is at least arguable that what one finds oneself, first of all, confronted with and then if one chooses to engage with it, immersed in is centuries, and now millennia-long debate on how if one chooses, one lives with that God, and one lives with other people. And you hear the voices of the ancestors of that tradition, if one chooses to engage with it, in sometimes very heated debate with one another about how we constitute the groups in which we suppose we live. Who’s in? Who’s out? Is God good? Does God do good only? Or if a god sometimes will do bad stuff? Well, how do you live in the face of that? How do you act toward others? Well, who are the others? How do you constitute them? Why do you constitute them that way? How might you live better with the other? How might you make them part of us? How might we make us fully sympathetic with them, and willing to be with them? To enter that textual system, is precisely to be ethically, morally engaged in questions which are sometimes presented in the form of questions but then in narratives, which involve at times enormous pain. And then little human vignettes of Peter having promised he’d never, he never, he’d never deny Jesus, and then finds himself under pressure. And then “I don’t know!” and then going out weeping bitterly. If anyone who reads that hasn’t been in the situation where one time, one’s friends were being maligned, ill-spoken of in a group or that friend wasn’t there and didn’t speak up because you didn’t want to disturb the group. You know that feeling. You want to go out weep bitterly, and you sit and think about what loyalty is, and loyalty against social prejudice. So there’s all of that and more.
Holdship: Quite often at the beginning of class, Williams greets his students with the Shakespearean phrase: “the wind is very much up.” So I asked him about that, where it comes from, and what it means to him.
Williams: “The wind is very much up.” It has a reminiscence. It’s from Shakespeare in some ways, it’s a reference to the end of The Tempest. And after all the agony involved in that play, there is at the end of the play the general shape of a reconciliation, and life will go on. And so it’s that sort of wind, which I hope to provide for my students in their education. It is always a possibility that the winds of life will turn into a tempest. But winds can also be that which helps to bear one on in the voyage of life, and in the voyage of an education. And it’s alright, let’s live in these winds now but the winds are up and there they are well-intended winds. They’ll catch you from afar and take you where you need to go, I think if you’ll engage with that. And so, “I’ll deliver all,” says Prospera, “and promise you calm seas, auspicious scales, and say also expeditious that she’ll catch her royal fleet afar. My Ariel, the spirit of the air chip. That has that charge. Then to the elements, be free. And there you will.” And so both parts of that the promising of the attempt to give auspicious scales. But it’s one which I hope will carry them along to freedom. In what is the setting free. I have students who will be in my presence possibly for as long as four years. And the goal of that is to set them free then to realize their own humanity in what I hope will be an increasingly free society. I wish desperately, I’m 74, I’ll be 75 in May. I wish desperately, that my hope to leave to the next generation a society and a world in better shape than it was during the Second World War when I was born. And I wish desperately I will be leaving it in better shape than it is now. Freedom, their freedom, the freedom of the generations I’ve taught, with whom I’d learned. Their freedom will be the freedom to challenge the distortions and evil in the world around them and to create that wider freedom which I think is the nature of the American project, and the project of this university. And I hope that, in that, they fair well.
Holdship: Well, that seems like the perfect place to end. Thanks so much for listening. If you’ve got your own stories to share about Ralph, please do so in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Hope to have you back next month, and as always, go blue!
The “American project”
Conversation is a rare and wonderful commodity in today’s world of email, text, and Twitter.
In this episode of the Michigan Today podcast, “Listen in, Michigan,” we tap into that rare and wonderful commodity in the form of a chat with Ralph Williams, PhD ’70, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus in the Department of English, Language, and Literature.
Few conversational partners speak with such erudition and elegance. And even fewer can quote from the Bible or Shakespeare’s work as freely as Williams. As for topics, how often does one discuss the meaning of happiness, the future of mankind, or the “paradox” at the heart of the American project?
If you’re a former student of Williams’ we hope you enjoy hearing his voice again. If you never took one of his courses, we encourage you to listen. It’s a short philosophical trip that simultaneously soothes, encourages, and challenges the listener.
Friend of the mind
Williams, born in Canada, has been teaching at U-M since 1970. In the past five decades he has served as associate chair of the Department of English (twice) and as director of the Program on Studies in Religion. He was instrumental in creating and developing the Royal Shakespeare Company Residency program at the University.
Williams has studied 15 languages, including Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. He specializes in Medieval and Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, literary theory, comparative literature, and Biblical studies.
In 2009 students awarded him the first Golden Apple Lifetime Achievement Award, at which time he delivered his “last lecture.” But Williams found he could not stay out of the classroom, and returned to teaching in 2011.
Share your memories about Williams in the comments section below.