Tutors Talk Books: Sarah Davis on Anthropology, Don Quixote, and the Quest for a Unified Life

August 20, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis

Tutor Sarah Davis in Madrid, Spain during her sabbatical.

Sarah Davis has been a tutor on the Santa Fe campus since 2012. 

Tell me about your background and how you came to St. John’s College.

I did my graduate work in cultural anthropology. I was too philosophical for the social sciences, though, which is in large part how I found my way to St. John’s. I’ve always been drawn to big questions about reality, existence; about being. And, insofar as these are powerful issues for all human beings (and anthropology is the “logos” of the “anthropos”), I believe one should be able to ask such questions in the context of anthropology, but that’s not really where the social sciences are these days. I have truly relished the opportunity St. John’s has given me to push my deepest questions with the help of the great authors we read. That being said, I feel like I’ve been coming back to my anthropological roots lately, and craving the details, the texture, the lovely mess of the human experience that doesn’t always fit seamlessly into an argument about the way things are.

You’re just returning from a sabbatical year in Madrid, Spain with your family. Was living abroad related to this desire to get back to the anthropological?

Yes. I think I was really yearning to sort of look up from the books during my sabbatical year. When you live in a foreign culture, the details of life start to pop out, and the world can come alive in a way that is not entirely unlike what happens in seminar. At St. John’s, we engage with texts that feel foreign and mysterious to us, which shed light on our own lives in new and unexpected ways. In a sense, we get woken up to the extraordinary character of our ordinary existences. Studying anthropology and experiencing foreign cultures is another way of doing that. When we don’t have a seamless fit in our everyday activities, the texture of the world sort of announces itself, and everything from the language we speak to how we greet people to the tastes, rhythms, sounds, and smells of life are called into relief. Such experiences can be the source of wonderful questions and thinking for me, but part of the fun of it is that you can’t simply think your way through these challenges, you have to live them—to speak that new language, to suffer through your own bumbling, and to rejoice in moments where you achieve connection and ease.

You seem to be touching on a dichotomy between the intellectual life of books and everyday life. Can you say more about that?

This idea of looking up from the books leads into a deep question for me about the relationship of profound philosophical thought and everyday life. In philosophical thought, you take issues and push reason as far as it can go to understand the world and your humanity. You learn a tremendous amount, and that experience of thinking rigorously alongside these books can open up aspects of life that you have never considered. I always wonder about the relationship between those big “aha” moments that seem to restructure everything you thought was true—which are just such wonderful moments—and, for example, a Saturday soccer game with my son. If I’m honest, this has been a struggle for me during my time at St. John’s. What we do at the college is so intense, in a good way. But driving down from school, going back to the world of making snacks for my kids, listening to them talk about what they did at recess, can be difficult. And I don’t think it’s good enough, given who I am, to compartmentalize them and say, “there are the beautiful insights I have up on the hill, and then there are the ordinary walks through the world.” That’s not a good enough, thoughtful explanation of how this human experience works, and frankly it’s just not true. Those two aspects of life do speak to each other. If they don’t, I think we’re doing something wrong.

Is this question one that comes up in the study of anthropology?

Yes, I think it does. Anthropology starts from the particularities of human life and tries to get to something bigger—or maybe I should say something deeper—about human beings. But the field justifies that move, from particularities to something more general, in various ways, not all of which I find satisfying. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote a book called The Interpretation of Cultures, which is particularly interesting in this regard. He thinks a lot about a practice of anthropology in which you describe everything as thickly and with as much detail as you can, but without the goal of trying to pin it down once and for all. He cites the example of a boy winking, contracting his eyelid. The wink could be an involuntary twitch, but it could also be a conspiratorial signal to a friend, or it might even be someone mocking another’s involuntary twitch, etc. The job of the anthropologist, for Geertz, is not to provide a kind of final code to foreign words, gestures, and cultural activities, like an encyclopedia of cultural behavior. Rather, the anthropologist’s job is to thickly describe them, in their contexts, so that their meaning begins to emerge. What I like about Geertz is that this does not slide into a kind of empty relativism where we cannot make any deeper claims about the meaning of things.

At St. John’s we say there are no final answers, that we bring questions back to the table day after day. We can learn from these books, from these questions, forever. I think this also applies to how we understand the world. It’s a process which is ongoing, never final. And this is not because we don’t have enough time in our limited lives to investigate thoroughly enough, and it’s not because science hasn’t progressed far enough. Such understanding is never final because there’s something unknown or indeterminate about the very fabric of the world that we are trying to understand—twitches on top of winks on top of fake winks on top of parodies on top of rehearsals of parodies, and so on. If we want to give an accurate account of the way things are, we are going to have to build that indeterminacy in.

And how does one represent that unknown or indeterminate quality in anthropology?

Well, here is where ethnography can start to look like literature, or even philosophy. When you’re reading and trying to understand good literature, there can be an urge to try to pin down what things mean, but the authors we read at St. John’s don’t often let us. I think of Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov. He is the wild and raucous Karamazov brother. He’s so emotional and raw. I find him kind of lovable, but he’s a slippery character. It’s hard to know where his edges are, what his wildness makes him capable of. I think if you’re honest about your experience reading the book, you can’t pin him down, you can’t say “this is the kind of guy he is.” But that doesn’t mean we don’t get to know Dmitri. We do know Dmitri, and we can sit and think about him for a really long time, wondering about how he fits together as a person, but also what kind of human being he is, what he teaches us about humanity. He’s complex, contradicting, and problematic, which is another way of saying, in a sense, he’s human. And in that way, we can have a relationship to him and learn from him. And that’s like a certain kind of cultural anthropology that I’m interested in.

Good anthropologists have to be extremely perceptive and pick up on different aspects of the cultures they are studying. Then, writing ethnography involves weaving the details together to evoke the kind of living world the anthropologist has experienced, including its paradoxes, contradictions, and loose ends. The fact that the story of the culture is not finished, not tied up and fully coherent, does not mean we can’t learn from it. In fact, I think it is in examining these tensions where the real learning happens.

So you almost become a novelist yourself, because you’re telling a story about these complicated characters and how they live with each other. 

Yes, and that reminds me of what I’ve been thinking about in Don Quixote, which I’m reading in preparation for Junior Seminar. It’s such a wonderfully strange book! I’m just finishing Volume I, and one of the things I’m thinking about is how many stories within the story there are. So many of these mini-stories are about love triangles, or stories of unrequited love, all very soap opera-ish. They have lots of intrigue and tension, and then most resolve perfectly. But in the backdrop is the greater narrative—what’s happening with Don Quixote and Sancho. Their story is nothing like the coherent, nicely tied-up stories. They wander into all kinds of messes, which just get messier as they go. It’s very funny, and can also make me uncomfortable. I’m left wondering about the kind of satisfaction we get with these romantic stories, and what it is we like so much about everything working out (even if that means everyone dying). And then, what it is that Cervantes is doing by putting such stories side by side with the ramblings of Don Quixote? In some respect, I think I’m being asked to think about which is more real. The instinct might be to say that Don Quixote—this crazy man who has declared himself a knight—is somehow living in a fantasy, and it is this fantasy that leads to all his bumbling about. But there’s something about the friction and mess of Don Quixote’s adventures (as opposed to the satisfying neatness of the other stories) that allows the indeterminacy that we were just talking about into Cervantes’ written text. It is uncomfortable, but this discomfort evokes something true about our experience, something that “satisfying” storytelling can often mask.

Does Don Quixote help you knit together your St. John’s thinking and your kids’ soccer games?

I think it probably does, though I’m still working on it. I think it’s when I forget that, like Don Quixote and Sancho, my walk through the world is full of unpredictability, absurdity, and adventure that soccer games can seem rote and (perhaps) uninteresting when compared to soaring thoughts that turn the world on its head. But when I remember that I truly don’t know what life has in store, no matter how familiar it has become—that no matter how much time and love and life I’ve devoted to my children, I don’t know who these beings are down to their bottom—it is in those moments that I feel depth in the surface of ordinary things. I’m not sure if I would be able to have such an appreciation without reading texts like Cervantes’. In some way, the most profound articulation of this extraordinary character of the ordinary has come for me from books I’ve read at St. John’s. But I also think that getting out of my comfort zone from time to time and forcing myself to negotiate a different “ordinary”—most recently in Madrid’s windy streets of the Barrio de las Letras where Cervantes lived and worked—revives a certain sense of wonder and awe that is as true about soccer games as it is about any of the texts we read. Cervantes ingeniously weaves the readers themselves into his text, blurring the line between the book and the world, and it seems to me that the blurring goes the other way as well. It may seem ridiculous to liken a Saturday morning at the Downs soccer field in Santa Fe to one of Don Quixote’s sallies, but spend a little time with the book and then ask yourself again, is it really so ridiculous?

Sarah Davis was living in Madrid, Spain with her husband and two sons when COVID-19 hit and they needed to suddenly return to the U.S. At The Kitchen Table is a short piece Davis wrote about the struggles and joys of the weeks she and her family spent in Rhode Island when their Santa Fe house was still occupied. The piece is published in its entirety below with the author’s permission.

        At the Kitchen Table

By Sarah Davis

Every morning now I sit with Noah at the kitchen table. The morning is quiet, and the light is grey as the northeast day wakes up. It is spring, but still blustery and cold at the end of March.  There are many windows in this kitchen though, so I don’t mind the grey. Until Corona ramped up in Europe, our family was spending the year in Madrid, Spain, for my sabbatical. We lived in a lovely apartment, but it had little natural light, so these mornings, I sit with my cup of coffee, cherishing the light and my closeness to my 9-year old, still in his P.J.s, yawning, confused about the world, but healthy and still hopeful. I am grateful.

Noah and I have developed an unspoken routine. Before breakfast, he opens my computer and logs into his school account to see what his day will be like. He’s doing online learning with his Madrid school, so we start 6 hours behind. We listen together as his teacher, Ms. Luna, gives the schedule, watching her cursor on the screen demonstrate different links to activities and assignments.  I write the date at the top of my notebook page. Noah has a notebook for every subject, which he stuffed into a brown paper bag to bring home on the day after they announced that schools were closing in Madrid. They gave the schools one day (Tuesday, before the Wednesday closing) to stay open in order to give the students instructions, and for the kids to organize all they needed to bring home. Many things didn’t make it—Noah’s spelling book, an art project he had been looking forward to sharing with us, his lunchbox—but the most important things did, notebooks with months of work in them, and I’m proud of him for that.

The notebook I write in is small and green. It was the only one I had in Spain during our nine months there. It has scribblings of observations, of feelings, of my thinking. It has my notes on what Spanish I was learning—phrases and the past tense constructions. It has lists of things I was supposed to pick up from the mercado for dinner, it has my to-do list for my sabbatical year plans, phone numbers of new friends, addresses of restaurants, museums, and parks that I wanted to go to. And now it has Noah’s daily school schedule. 

March 30, 2020, I write at the top. Then we make the list: P.E, Spelling, Reading, Math, Writing, practice recorder, Spanish. I ask him how he wants to organize his day, which three things he wants to do before our first break around 10 when he gets a pack of Match Attax soccer (fútbol) cards to add to his collection. 

I have recently started a Match Attax collection of my own. One day I realized that Noah didn’t seem too enthusiastic about receiving his new cards. Just a few weeks earlier getting soccer cards from the kiosk at his bus stop in Madrid was one of the most exciting parts of his week. He would romp off the bus. “Please!” he would look at me with wide eyes. “It’s Thursday, you promised!” We would approach the kiosk and Noah would ask in a Spanish accent that only a child could acquire in 9 months, “¿tienes tarjetas de fútbol?” The kiosk owners love little boys who love soccer. “¿Quantos?” the kiosk guy would ask Noah. “Cinco!” Noah would respond beaming. Ripping the packaging off as soon as the cards hit his hand, Noah would devour the contents—reading all the statistics, gleefully reporting what new cards he got. David and I bought up all the Match Attax cards we could find before the kiosks closed for good.  Now we give Noah one a day at his morning break.

But, in the last couple of weeks, it seemed that he had stopped caring. It made my heart ache with all the sadness and dread that fills these days. Noah made really good friends for the first time this year.  He was the one I was the most worried about on this Spanish sabbatical adventure.  He is less gregarious than his older brother, less confident, and moving to a new country where he didn’t speak the language and starting a brand-new school felt overwhelming to him and to me.  But not only did he do it, he thrived.  Tears come to my eyes just thinking about it. I’m so proud of him.

Anyway, I started to think that maybe Noah was less excited about his cards because there was no one for him to trade with. Noah’s best friends at school also collected Match Attax and Noah loved to show off his new cards and to make trades. I decided the best way to deal with this was to start my own collection from his reject cards. I filled one of his empty fútbol card notebooks with the discarded cards I found around the house. Noah’s front pages are filled with his best cards. They have rankings in the 90s and 100s (which are very good). Some of the cards are signed or limited additions. My cards peak in the 80s and tend to hover around 70, but that doesn’t seem to bother Noah. We make trades every day, and when he has flipped through the new cards he gets, I inevitably get a few that don’t make his cut, which makes me happy, not because I get to add to my collection, but because Noah spark is still there, which it turns out is what these days are all about for our children, holding onto the spark.

Noah tells me which three classes we’ll do first, and then while his dad makes him breakfast, Noah works on a times table chart through the 12s. 6 minutes is the record to beat. For me, some of the best parts of the routine come later—in his Reading class, listening with him to the story of the brave Danish family that helps a Jewish family escape to Sweden in WWII, talking about the reading questions with Noah, helping him think through his own historical fiction piece he’s writing, watching the gears in his mind turn and how he lights up when he comes up with a detail or plot twist. People are calling this the “silver lining” of the pandemic. That’s okay, but it’s not enough. It’s true that homeschooling Noah is something I never would have agreed to do in other circumstances, and being put in this position has given me the gift of knowing how much I love learning with him. But, these mornings, this deep love, isn’t just the upside of all this downside. Somehow, they belong to the same side. In ways that are just so easy to forget when we’re grinding out life, I am aware of Noah, and my older son Jackson, and my husband David, as full people, people whose worlds are unfolding with thought and emotion and vigor and fear, as fully and presently as my own is.  In part this is just having the time to pay attention.  But it’s also because I’m living with the fear of loss, even when I’m not conscious of it. The radio, the internet, the empty streets and masked faces, the tones of voice on the other end of the line. They all speak of fear, of worry, of threat.

We are impermanent, in the large scheme of things our sparks flicker and then go out.  Living with this edginess, where we face our mortality not at the outskirts of life but in its dead center, opens up a whole new layer of meaning to things. I put my hand on Noah’s knee, squeeze it and kiss him on the cheek. I am grateful for that warm cheek, for his curiosity and openness. I want desperately for all this to pass, for him to pick up where he left off, with friends, with confidence, with hope for his future. But unlike the frantic Madrid mornings of looking for shoes, packing lunchboxes, and rushing out the door to catch the bus, I don’t lose sight of this hope as the day gets going. It stays with me. Sometimes it feels like fear and worry, even deep loss. Sometimes it looks like stir-craziness and family fighting. But other times, it arises as gratefulness, love and a powerful surge of recognition that we are all alive, together, right now.