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October 24, 2002 Essential Englsih thoughts by Dana Dragunoiu



Dana Dragunoiu

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Scott McRae

Think-O2 sits on English professor Dana Dragunoiu’s bookshelf, just above several library books on philosophy. It is just the brand name of a dietary supplement, but one could be excused for making more metaphorical connections. Thought seems to be an essential part of Dragunoiu’s everyday existence.

Since arriving at Concordia last fall from a post-doc at Princeton, this affable young professor has been busy with teaching and research. She is an expert on the writings of Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, and talks passionately about his work.

She admires his bizarre and unprecedented narrative structures, his innovative use of Russian and English, and the utter aplomb with which he writes.

Her interest in Nabokov led to a dissertation that examines his work in the context of turn- of-the-century Russian and European philosophical traditions, and she is currently in the process of turning this work into a book.

Like Nabokov, Dragunoiu’s first language is Russian, but she adopted English as her primary tongue when she and her mother abandoned Ceausescu’s Romania in 1983.

“It was terrible,” Dragunoiu said about the government. The country was corrupt, totalitarian and mired in hardship. “You would have to stand in line for toilet paper.”

Canada was a great change. The first question she was asked when she arrived was, “Do you know who Michael Jackson is?” She had not.

Nor could she understand the Ontario school system. In Bucharest, she had been learning trigonometry and political economy (“which was all political propaganda,” she added). In Windsor, her fifth-grade classmates were learning their multiplication tables and had independent reading sessions. “School felt like playtime.”

In a sense, school is still a place where she plays. She took an undergraduate degree out of a love of reading and a master’s degree out of a love of the academic lifestyle.

Now her enthusiasm for teaching keeps her going. “I love being at the front of the classroom.”
One of the courses she conducts is a master’s seminar on on her current research interest, an interdisciplinary exploration of the mind-body problem. This problem, given its modern formulation by Descartes in the 17th century, has left four centuries worth of philosophers in an intellectual quandary. In Dragunoiu’s words, we are all Descartes’ orphans.

Descartes believed mind and matter were separate entities and was puzzled by why they interacted.

Hegel later conflated the two, and proposed that matter was a degraded form of spirit, a view which had brief currency until Marx turned Hegel upside down and argued that mind arose from matter. Most intellectuals now subscribe to Marx’s materialist conception.

To determine how this materialization of the mind is affecting modern culture, Dragunoiu is rummaging through everything from William Gibson’s science fiction and the nascent scientific field of consciousness studies to a novel by an author whose entire body is paralyzed and who dictated his book by blinking (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, by Jean Dominique Bauby).

It is a lot of work for a new professor. “I’m wedded to my job,” she said with a laugh, then admitted that she does find time for other activities. “I swim. I go tobogganing in my neighbourhood.”

She is happy to be living in Montreal and says that she admires its diversity and cosmopolitan nature. “I like the culture of immigrants that we all are committed to. We are absorbing [immigrants], but not cleansing them [of their history and culture].” This is an ideal environment in which to nurture students: “They won’t feel alienated.”

It is also an ideal place for her to nurture both her professional and academic goals. “I love it here.”