by Alex Mika ’21 (CLAS)
In his musical, Company, Stephen Sondheim describes Manhattan as “A city of strangers. Some come to stare, some to stay, and every day, some go away…” Professor Fred Roden, who lives in Manhattan and teaches at the UConn Stamford campus, found himself “landlocked” when the pandemic swept through and closed the theaters, coffee shops, and other spaces of communion. Many of his neighbors went away. Roden stayed. He stared at the architecture of Columbia University’s campus. He stared at the monuments in the parks. But mostly, he stared at the flowers that were beginning to blossom in the pots, in the gardens, and even in the cemeteries. Life persisted everywhere, and nature continued as nature does. Equipped with his phone’s camera, he began documenting this budding process daily. The collection of these photos resulted in a small, self-published book filled with hope and promise: A Floral Journal of the Plague Year: Saving Graces.
AM: When did you decide to begin working on this project?
FR: What I really would say is that some of the most important things that give us meaning aren’t planned. One of my heroes, Viktor Frankl, the psychoanalyst who was a Holocaust survivor, wrote that man’s search for meaning focuses so much on this idea of how we respond to the circumstances that life may hand us. Frankl was responding to the existentialists, who thought that you had to become engaged in order to find meaning, and Frankl’s belief was that there’s inherent meaning: life is going to pitch you plenty of things that you’re going to have to reckon with in some way.
Being grounded to my feet in a neighborhood that was maybe at 50% capacity, I was walking every day. Walking was a form of meditation for me. I can’t say that walking made up for taking the train to Connecticut and seeing my students and my colleagues and the great folks on campus, but it was contemplative. What I felt most connected to on these walks was the natural world. Our timing with the pandemic shutdown of late March was very appropriate in so far as a “winter thought.” So, the message there for me was really this sense that at this moment, when in March 2020 the New York city area was being called an epicenter, and there was a sudden and acute loss of human life, the fact that the natural world was undergoing its natural cycle of renewal, whether it was the first crocuses coming up or hints of buds on otherwise bare branches, it gave me hope. I needed a kind of visual version of a journal so that I might reflect on how this was sustaining me. I could, with no technical or aesthetic training whatsoever, simply whip out my iPhone and take a picture of something that made me feel good; it was as simple as that. It became something to look forward to.
AM: You mention in the introduction to the book that you were inspired by the Romantic notion of “The Beautiful.” When you were taking the photos and trying to capture this sense of The Beautiful as it is, did you edit the photos at all, or did you leave them just as you had taken them?
FR: I really wanted to let things be as they were. I didn’t edit the photos with respect to cropping or changing the color or light or anything like that. I wanted to leave them be. And I actually felt a little ambivalent that the particular technical program had to fit them into the frame when I uploaded them, but that was the best that I could do as a person who doesn’t use a lot of technology. It was incredibly important for me to have things as they were. I’m laughing internally about this because it doesn’t exactly correspond to how I might live my life otherwise. When I stopped going to hair salons, I kept coloring my hair at home every two weeks because I didn’t want to have my gray hair showing. And when I couldn’t go to have a haircut, I cut my own hair. So, I’m aware of that question of modification; there’s a little bit of irony here.
I occasionally teach a course on Oscar Wilde. In some ways, he would say that the world of art is greater than the world of nature, and that art shouldn’t be simply imitating nature. Art stands in its own space. The very fact that I’m privileging things as they are, rather than as I might help them to be, is a little bit anti-Wildean, or going against the “art for art’s sake” movement. I guess I’m just drawn to the authenticity of beauty where we find it, including in brokenness.
AM: How else has the present moment found its way into the literature you teach? How does the work you teach in turn inform the present moment?
FR: In this particular semester, it was very much the case that I was concerned for my students to be reading Holocaust literature: literature that was traumatic to read in normal circumstances.
I was very concerned that we had enough spaces to process these sorts of things. At the same time, in literature, there are themes like renewal, exile, loss, and new beginnings that recur throughout. They give us an opportunity for not simply connecting with our particular experiences, but for deeper feelings of meaning. These degrees of identification can be, on the one hand, escapist: we’re able to move into the realm of art so that we get a little break from the world of life, but we also can find meaning in so far as knowing that others have struggled.
At the time of 9/11, I was teaching the medieval literature course. We’d just been reading Beowulf, and it occurred to me that in these catastrophic events in civilization, we’re drawn very much to these stories of people that give us insight into personal or individual feelings, but we somehow need the kind of collective experience. So, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art reopened at the end of August last year, I walked over there. I spent a lot of time in the ancient galleries because I was drawn to the fact that not only did these objects endure, but that the civilizations and the experiences of people living in those particular times and places were in fact traumatic. Their worlds were often upside down. It brought me some sense of comfort in knowing that we may feel that our world is turned upside down now, but so, too, have other human beings. It’s the gift of literature to know that even if the circumstances are so greatly different from our own, there can be resonances of human feeling across time and place.
AM: Now that spring is returning, have you continued working on this project, or is there something else in store?
FR: Like a lot of people in the Northeast, I’m probably destined to become a snowbird one day; Florida is probably in my future. There has always been the sense for me, probably starting around October, where at a very primal level I start feeling the sense that once the autumn and the winter comes, the reptilian part of my brain is saying, “Spring is never coming. The sun is going down, and it’s not coming back.” There is beauty in winter, but that’s not where I find life. And now as we’re back at this time, with the little buds pushing up again, I’ve taken photos of snowdrops. I’ve taken photos of crocuses and various things I’m beginning to see on my walks again. I don’t imagine that this will necessarily turn into another photo book. It’s again triggering in me that same feeling of hope with a hesitancy, with a slowness, with a moment of saying, “Stop. Wait. Pay attention and see what this is communicating to you now.” So, I guess it never ends, but this project was from a particular time and purpose. Knowing that change is possible and that things aren’t set in stone has been the single most important source for spontaneity, creativity, and freedom in my life.
Frederick Roden is Professor of English at UConn, where he coordinates for the department at Stamford and is affiliated with Judaic Studies and WGSS. He is the author of two books on religion and modern culture, editor of guides to Oscar Wilde studies, and has edited volumes on queer Jewish and Christian themes, as well as a translation of an 1896 sexological work. Roden has also written a commentary to the medieval theologian Julian of Norwich.