Showing posts from February, 2009

Flop Sweat

"The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who will go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow poets, while the usual audience consists of myopic school teachers, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias and his fellow poets." -- W. H. Auden

I stopped performing on stage a few years ago, or maybe it's better to say that for the past few years I've tried to stop myself from performing on stage. The funny thing is that I've always been pretty good in front of a crowd: relaxed, audible, and emotive. Even so, I've come to dislike being on stage. Perhaps this comes from seeing other people at poetry readings. That I might be as obvious and needy in my desire for approval is mortifying. So I have tried to stop wanting to perform. But that's the point, isn't it? Being on stage doesn't bother me. It is wanting to be there.

In The Performance of Self in Everyday Life, the sociolo…

Good Bad Books

George Orwell used to talk about reading “good-bad” books. These were well-written books whose aims were not particularly serious. Eric Ambler was a writer of such books. I recently read him for the first time. His novels have all the gimcrack of genre fiction: rising plots and action, but the writing itself is damned good. Here’s a section from early in his novel “A Coffin for Dimitrious.” An Englishman named Latimer is in Smyrna treating an ethnic Russian named Muishkin to dinner.

At the Russian’s suggestion they went out to a restaurant, a place of subdued lights and red plush and gilt and stained mirrors, where French food was served. The room was full. Many of the men were ships’ officers but the majority were in army uniforms. There were some unpleasant-looking civilians, but very few women. In one corner an orchestra of three laboured over a foxtrot. The atmosphere was thick with cigarette smoke. A waiter, who was very angry about something, found them a table and they sat down …

The Betrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Adverbs

I heard someone quote the last line of The Great Gatsby the other day and it sent me back to the book. I read it every few years. It is still the American novel in my estimation. Whenever I read Fitzgerald, too, I pick up on something I did not note before. This time it was adverbs. Most creative writing teachers will urge you to avoid adverbs because they tend to tell rather than show.

But Fitzgerald loves adverbs.  He uses them to create internal tensions or to emphasize points-of-view.  People intrude deferentially and their eyes roam speculatively across empty ballrooms. At one point, Gatsby's house is lit like Coney Island at night, with every door and window wide open. As Nick turns away, he speaks of the house "blazing gaudily on." Moreover, Nick describes how Gatsby loved Daisy unscrupulously and he notices Gatsby's guests helping themselves to the liquor unsparingly. Fitzgerald's adverbs are the subtle insertions of Nick’s judgments, and Nick is a narrat…

Reasons to Live

Well, we launched into Gulliver's Travels today and all is sunny and bright. Then again we've only discussed the first voyage. Gulliver doesn't begin to darken until he's reached the end of voyage two. There he will attempt to defend his world to the Brobdingnag King with little effect other than to reinforce the King's opinion that humanity is vile and loathsome.

So I asked my seminar students a hypothetical question at the close of class today. I said, "Say an alien space ship landed in front of the UN and announced that we had 24-hours to come up with a reason why the universe in general (and planet earth specifically) wouldn't be better off if humanity were destroyed. Lacking a compelling reason, extermination will begin."

Their answer was guilty silence (or questioning the premise of my hypothetical). In the past some classes have offered up representative humans in our defense. Gandhi and Mother Teresa are popular candidates for some reason. I usu…

Dumfounded Silence

Yesterday was depressing. In my morning class I had them watching a film version of Chekov'sUncle Vanya. We've been studying realism and naturalism as cultural movements in the late 19th and early 20th century. Now I realize that Chekov is not everyone's cup of tea. But you have to give it a shot, right? Attempt to understand what it's all about. But not the kid sitting in the second row. The minute the film begins he sinks his head onto the desk, face first, literally stares into the desktop for the next forty minutes.

I might as well have been pulling his fingernails off one by one. He sees my class as a form of ritualized annoyance, and if he can just take it long enough, he'll pass. Then, in my afternoon seminar, we were discussing a book by the classical scholar Martha Nussbaum. Her thesis was that literature has a special capacity to awaken our empathetic imagination. It can--better than any other medium--emotionally arouse a sense of compassion in us for peop…

Little Odious Vermin

We start Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels on Monday, which will get us into the 18th Century, an era that witnessed a great flowering of science, democracy, journalism, economic theory and literary and philosophical expression-- all of which continue to inform current debates. In one sense this flowering was a continuation of humanist ideas that arose in the Renaissance, which itself was a rebirth of the classical Greek and Roman idea that human rationality was capable of understanding and improving the world.

When people in the 18th Century looked to their recent past they saw a century's worth of bloody combat that arose in large part out of conflicting beliefs concerning the nature of God and religious doctrine. The idea that science and reason could provide humanity with a less murderously passionate way forward must have appeared highly attractive in such a polarized religious climate. There was no Catholic science or Protestant science (or Muslim or Hindu science, …

Exeunt on a Dead March

I was wrestling with how to teach KingLear in the freshmen honors seminar one night last week. The day before one of the students had asked if the battle in heaven in Paradise Lost was supposed to be a metaphor for something. Instead of answering, I replied, "Well, what was going in Europe during the 17th Century?" There was silence for several seconds. Then a small, tentative voice said, "The Crusades?" "Um, no," I said gently and waited a few beats more. Finally another student ventured a guess: "The Hundred Years War?"

Sometimes I forget just how much of the past is unknown to my students. They have little awareness that various people calling themselves good Christians were slaughtering each other with keen enthusiasm a mere few centuries ago. They have no idea how convulsed with violence and change the 17th century actually was.

The Reformation had overturned the idea that salvation filtered down through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church (…

Where did all the grown-ups go?

Just recently I found myself in need of a pair of rubber overshoes. I went to Target but had no luck. Went to shoe stores, hardware stores, you name it, but I could not find a pair of black rubber overshoes anywhere in this town. Not long afterward, I thought it might be nice to buy a lunchbox. I knew just what I wanted: a simple black metal lunchbox with a soup Thermos. To my amazement, I discovered they do not make them anymore. Okay, when did this happen?

More and more the objects I assume always to be there just aren't there anymore. It turns out the black metal lunchbox has not been manufactured since 1986. This is all very upsetting. You are just living your life and one day you realize there are no more wax milk cartons, no more chalkboards, no more pencil sharpeners affixed to the walls in college classrooms. And while we're at it, what happened to metal coffee cans (so handy for sorting nails)?

Not to be too Andy Rooney about it, but I've made another unsettling dis…

Querulous Rooks

For a long time I have been curious about the way poetry sticks in my brain. Not a day goes by without some line popping out of nowhere into my thoughts. So a week ago I decided to make a list of each time this happened to see if there were any patterns. I was also curious to see which poets popped up the most. Here's what I discovered. Eliot, Yeats, Dickinson and Shakespeare were by far the stickiest poets. In the past week lines from Prufrock came up three times. Those bloody mermaids! I was also rubbing some moisturizer on my hands and suddenly found myself thinking of the opening line of Eliot's Gerontion: "Here I am, an old man in a dry month."

Yeats appeared a few times as well. Walking across campus one afternoon I noticed that most of the students were heading the other direction. Suddenly I was thinking of the line from Easter, 1916: " I have met them at the close of day." And I noticed the full moon the other morning and thought of his line about &…

No justice, no peace

King Lear, which we started discussing in class yesterday, is a profoundly disturbing play-- more so than I ever realized when I first read it years ago. Shakespeare strips away our illusions about the moral order of the universe, but also the lies about love we insist upon perpetuating. If we will be honest about life, Shakespeare seems to suggest, we may have to acknowledge that love is a fairly insignificant answer to the problems of existence.

Even in our personal relationships it cannot prevent us from wounding and disappointing one another. Lear loves Cordelia, but so what? Cordelia loves Lear, but so what? Same for Edgar and Gloucester. Near the end of the play, too, Edgar sees Lear and muses, "He childed as I fathered." That parents and children love each other might just be irrelevant to the pain that may have to be endured by both. As Harold Bloom points out, these five words are about as good a way of summing up the play as has ever been written.

And here’s the rub:…

And then Blossom Deary Died

I was dreading last Monday. The committee to revise the Core met to micro-edit the proposal for new outcomes. Nothing is more wearying than wordsmithing by committee. But we soldiered through each parsing of phrase and may even have lurched upon a good set of outcomes. Then there were the papers to grade, the perpetually growing stack of student essays that never really ends until the semester is over: always this anxiety, always this sense that there is something else I should be doing. By semester's end I will have graded close to 1,500 individual pieces of student writing. That's a lot of missed apostrophes.

My 1:00 pm honors seminar was lethargic and quiet. I am not teaching with my mouth shut. I am not using the latest advances in active learning. I'm not incorporating clickers, Youtube, Twittering, or any number of the flashy gimmicks needed to engage the text-messaging generation. I'm merely gassing on like the worst professor I ever had, a logorheic buffoon who …

Eye of the Beholder, My Eye

There are two cliches that inevitably arise in the course of my senior seminar, a class in which students review the meaning, use and significance of their liberal arts education. The first concerns history.

Without fail, someone will utter the old saw that "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Yeesh. Aside from being demonstrably false, it imputes a special wisdom to historians, who--let's face it--are a fractious, disagreeable lot. To make matters worse, this commonplace is almost always offered by a student who loathes studying history.

The second teeth-gnasher arises when we begin to discuss aesthetics. Ten minutes into the conversation I am guaranteed to hear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I should note that this banality is never offered as a philosophical statement. The speaker is not seeking to establish the inherent subjectivity of the aesthetic experience.

Rather, it's put forth as a kind of cruise missile defense of bad …

Shocked and Appalled

In 1944 George Orwell penned an essay entitled Raffles and Miss Blandish. In it he contrasted the Raffles crime novels of E. W. Hornung with a more contemporary thriller, No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Both were examples of popular fiction, and as such they provided Orwell with insight into the public’s taste. He noted that for all their criminality, the Raffles novels never undermined the Edwardian-era values of King and country or the code of polite behavior.

He found the Miss Blandish book, however, pruriently laced with murders, animal mutilation, rape, torture, suicide, and—more remarkable to Orwell—an equivocal, almost accepting attitude toward crime and violence. Only two decades earlier, Raffles had atoned for his gentleman safecracking by dying for empire on the South African veldt, but, Orwell noted, the popular imagination no longer needed the fa├žade of redemption or any fey nostrums that crime did not pay. He wrote,

Today no one would think of looking for heroes and villains…

Losing the Beat

What turned me off of beat literature? Good question. Mostly I think it is just aesthetic temperament. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche divided aesthetics into two camps: the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The former loves art that's free, energetic, emotional, filled with longing and sensuality. This is the impulse that guides most of beat literature, and in the American tradition it goes right back to Emerson and Whitman.

In A Supermarket in California, Ginsberg calls Whitman "dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher." And in On the Road, Kerouac captures this Dionysian impulse perfectly while describing Sal Paradise following Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx through the dark streets of New York:

... and I shambled after them as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, who... burn, burn, burn lik…

Some track lighting, a few throw rugs...

Note: I am indebted to my freshmen honors seminar for the following insight:

In his essay A Confession, the Russian novelist turned guru Leo Tolstoy recounted his own spiritual mid-life crisis. He tells of his various searches for meaning: the turning toward pleasure and the arts, the several attempts to believe in rationality and progress, and even his efforts to sink himself back into the simple faith of the Russian peasants. Nothing worked, of course, and by middle age Tolstoy was near incapacitated with doubt and the feeling that life was an absurd, cosmic prank accompanied only by the inexorable enfeeblement of his faculties and vitality.

A Confession also outlined four attitudes one might have toward the absurdity of existence. First, Tolstoy noted, there is ignorance. If you are lucky, you may not yet have probed the notion of life's pointlessness too deeply. But if you have, well, you’re screwed, for it is impossible to reblind yourself once you have fully realized how compl…

A Useless Education

In my senior capstone seminar, students have to review their college education and identify what has been meaningful to them. Inevitably, they vent. The following is a response I recently wrote to a student who complained that much of her education has been irrelevant to real life:
I was impressed by the depth of self-reflection in your first portfolio paper. You certainly satisfied the demands of the assignment, which was subjective in nature. The college wants students to engage in this reflection before leaving. That’s all that was required, and you did it well. I hope you’ll forgive me, however, if I respond to your paper at length. Something you wrote affected me. In your analysis, you selected a variety of courses, but primarily those that were applicable to something you called “real life.” You also said that you do not enjoy taking classes that cause you to ask “when am I ever going to need that information again?” I always feel an immense sadness whenever I hear students say t…

Cultural Studies and Green Plastic Army Men

When I was a kid, you could buy a bag of plastic army men in any toy store for less than two bucks. In each bag there were 15 to 20 olive drab, well-armed infantry men. There was the guy lobbing a hand grenade, the guy with the bazooka, the walkie-talkie guy, and the guy with a Thompson sub machine gun casually held in one arm, while with his other he was motioning for his buddies to “Attack!” And if you looked closely, you could even see his rolled-up sleeves, ammo belts and muscle-rippling physique.

The toy soldiers of my boyhood were tiny movie stills, each a dynamic pose representing the grunting, sweating male persona at war. Army men from earlier times—say from the Victorian or Edwardian eras—were wooden drones in shakos, uniformly at attention or marching in lockstep on parade ground. It is tempting to say that this change in toy fashion came about because of TV shows like Combat, or movies like The Longest Day with John Wayne. It’s tempting to argue that after the advent of mo…