Take 5: English professor Leslie Brisman

Take 5 offers a brief introduction to Yale faculty members in a Q&A format. The featured faculty member selects 5 out of 10 questions to answer.
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(Photo by Michael Marsland. Design by Michael Helfenbein)

Take 5 offers a brief introduction to Yale faculty members in a Q&A format. The featured faculty member selects 5 out of 10 questions to answer. Any opinions shared are not necessarily those of YaleNews.

Leslie Brisman, the Karl Young Professor of English, teaches courses on the major English poets, Spenser, Milton, Romantic poetry, Victorian poetry, traditions of elegy, the Bible as literature, and Freud as literature. His most recent scholarship is mostly in biblical studies. He is the author of “Milton’s Poetry of Choice” (1973), “Romantic Origins” (1978), and “The Voice of Jacob” (1990). He has taught at Yale since 1969 and has been honored with two of Yale’s top teaching prizes: the Sidonie Miskiman Clauss Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities (2000) and the William Clyde DeVane Medal (2001).

What scholarly/research project are you working on now?

I’ve undertaken as a scholarly project addressing the single most troublesome question that my students have raised, over and again, in the “Bible as Literature” course: Where does the idea of vicarious atonement come from? When it emerges in Isaiah 53, it seems to be related to, but decidedly different from, three earlier forms: animal sacrifice (including the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus); prophets who take on their shoulders the sins of the people; and passing the buck down the generations. My work reviews these related but different ideas and finds another pathway to a notion so abhorrent to Judaism, so crucial to Christianity.

What important lesson(s) have you learned from your students?

My greatest of mentors, Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom, have modeled for me the most important lessons that my students daily reinforce: dare to go wrong. Of course I treasure the great moments when, in class or on paper, I feel that a student has come up with a better reading than I have found in print; but this is nothing compared to the insights one gains from hearing or reading a student go wrong and being jolted into the need to see just why. A few hours ago I was reading an essay by a student about David and the Gibeonites, an essay that faults God for sanctioning David’s sacrifice of Saul’s descendants to the brutal vengeance of the Gibeonites. If this student had not misattributed David’s brutality to God’s wishes, I would not have confronted, as never before, how significant it is that God is absent from the hideous middle of this story.

What world problem would you fix, if you could?

I have always tithed, and encouraged my children to do likewise. They have taken a special interest in trying to make whatever small interventions they can as close to the root of a problem. Thus they are not particularly excited by my idea that private persons should offer a little prompt, say $95, for every young “invincible” who signs up for health insurance before Dec. 15. Similarly, they’ve asked that I look into the causes of homelessness rather than throw money at The Coalition for the Homeless. In the spirit of their values, I would pick, if limited to one world problem, that of overpopulation. I should so much like, for example, to make a contribution towards the replacement of free trade with fair trade. Why is it that my beautiful new herringbone wool sportscoat costs only $50? What were the Bangladeshi tailors paid who made it?  But as disturbing as such a problem is to me, I think overpopulation is at the root of this and so many other world problems, from hunger to global warming, so if I must pick one, overpopulation it must be.

I should add, however, that I haven’t had much luck making even a minor contribution in this matter: Most of the organizations in India to which I’ve given heavily have folded or proven ineffective; and at home, even my attempts on the most local level to urge the immorality of having more than two children have failed deplorably.

What is your most treasured classroom memory — either as a student or a teacher?

I love teaching and love learning from my students and colleagues; every class I teach is a learning opportunity for me, and every class I attend that is taught by a colleague is a foretaste of heaven. Still, if I must select (looking back at 45 years of teaching and occasionally auditing colleagues’ classes), I’d have to pick one of two most seminal moments.

The first was in a class on Yeats’s “Among School Children” by Paul de Man. Deconstruction had not yet been so named, but de Man so gently but so cogently destroyed every attempt to say what Yeats is saying in the final stanza that what he left us was something like the fuzz ball that an infant’s transitional object becomes after months of cuddling. I “treasure” this memory in the sense that I recognize it as a “spot of time” in the history of my own teaching that became a source of remembered terror and ever-renewed determination never to do that to a poem.

This “remembered terror” has its twin in a class by James Nohrnberg in which he read the various great mountain scenes across the two testaments as being, in a grand typology, the same mountain. Before that class, I had learned to respect Paul’s zany typology; and I had even learned to recount without wincing Northop Frye’s insistence that typology is the way of reading the Bible. But it was Nohrnberg’s typological reading that taught me what I have to teach: not that, not that by any means. There are colleagues — Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, David Bromwich, John Rogers, David Kastan, among others — who have given me exemplary moments of brilliant reading; but I would credit de Man and Nohrnberg, gentle, loving, brilliant souls that they were and that Nohrnberg still is, who showed me, by contrast with what they were doing, what the work I have to do truly is.

What do you do for fun?

Five years ago, I would have answered this question very differently. I would have thought of a pyramid of joys with gardening, perhaps, at the base, enjoying a meal with a friend next, opera in the headier regions, and playing with a grandchild as the apex. But my wife’s hideous illness has changed all that, and though what was pleasurable is still pleasurable, nothing can rival the daily joy of arriving at my office for eight or nine hours of concentrated intellectual life. It is a joy daily repeated to remember that work is joy.

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