Sunday, February 24, 2013

Squalid Cash Interpretations

In the Sunday Times I ran across this curious bit of literary insight by Jackie Collins, the author of such gems as The Stud, The Power Trip, Thrill! and Hollywood Husbands.  Commenting on her favorite love stories, Collins remarked,
The Great Gatsby has always been a standout as far as love stories go. Jay Gatsby is such a mysterious and sexy character, and as a reader one can feel Daisy’s yearning to be closer to him, yet he always manages to pull away. Creating sexual chemistry on the page is organic, and I think F. Scott Fitzgerald had it down.
Reading this, I couldn't help remembering the first time I taught Gatsby.  I was assigned a room full of bored undergrads who were  fulfilling a literature requirement during summer semester.  Half of them had failed Intro to literature in the spring, and the other half were international students, most of them engineering majors from the state university up the road.  One of my Saudi students said that he and his roommate had discussed the novel and were appalled by the lack of morality exhibited by the major characters, including Nick, the narrator. 

"This book does not speak well of America," he said shaking his head. 

My American students were surprised by this.  "I didn't see that at all," one young woman responded.  She was adamant that the novel was a love story.  "Think of all Gatsby did for Daisy," she argued.  "He loved her.  He did it all for her."

Somehow I could never get either side in this debate to see that the novel was both a love story and an indictment of what William James called our "exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS."   Jay Gatsby wasn't a noble hero with a fatal flaw.  He was a nobody whose flaw was to be deluded about nobility. 

I suppose in their own way Collins' novels do oddly echo The Great Gatsby.  They afford readers with an exculpatory "tsk-tsk" at the same time they license their fantasies of success.  I doubt, too, that the new Gatsby movie--with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role--will do much to capture the novel's schizophrenic attitude toward success. None of the other film versions has ever pulled it off.  

In Hollywood, only love stories get the green light.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Leo Szilárd and Unapprov'd Thoughts

The other day in the first year honors seminar we were discussing Book IV of Paradise Lost, which begins with Satan's magnificent confession of guilt and his decision to double down on his crimes by drawing mankind into sinful ruination. As usual we debated Satan's predicament. He knows he's wrong, yet he won't give up. Ironically, I pointed out, his best revenge would be to repent. After all, he's a crucial part of God's unfolding plan. Without him, Adam and Eve aren't presented with a choice.

To what degree, I asked, is Satan God's unwitting tool? And if he is, how can he be blamed?  One or two students wrinkled their noses and another scrunched up her face and muttered, "This poem makes my brain hurt." And so we began the merry-go-around of dizzying questions provoked by Paradise Lost.
  • How can anyone be at fault if this is all part of eternal providence?
  • If God set this all in motion knowing what would happen, how can he escape blame?
  • Why make this so complicated? Couldn't God have given us free will without all this rig-a-marole?
Indeed, was Satan even necessary? After all, he managed to tempt himself.  Sin sprung from his head ex nihilo the moment he conceived of rebelling against God. Couldn't Adam and Eve have done the same at some point?  Could they really have gone through eternity resisting all curiosity about the fruit on the tree of knowledge?   Perhaps evil might have sprung unbidden into their thoughts as well.  Come to think of it, is there any way to stop human beings from thinking sinful thoughts?  Is there a knowledge or idea we ought not never to let pass through our minds?  In Book VI, Adam tries to comfort Eve after she dreams of eating the forbidden fruit.  He says,

Evil into the mind of God or Man
May come and go, so unapprov'd, and leave
No spot or blame behind...

So I asked the class if there is anything that ought to be forbidden knowledge.  After a moment, someone said, "Well, maybe nuclear weapons."

Then I told them the story of Leo Szilárd, a Hungarian physicist, who was in London in 1933.  Szilárd read a Times article reporting a speech by Lord Rutherford, the leading British physicist of the day.  Rutherford had dismissed the idea that anyone would ever find a way to harness the energy in atoms for practical purposes. Rutherford called such ideas "moonshine." Szilárd was so put off by this dismissal that his mind began to work the problem. Then, walking the streets of London, it suddenly occurred to him how the energy locked within atoms might be set free.  He was in Russell Square near the British Museum and waiting to cross the street.  The author Richard Rhodes describes the moment this way:
The stoplight changed to green. Szilárd stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street, time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woes, the shape of things to come.
Was there any force on earth or heaven that could have prevented Leo Szilárd from thinking this idea?  Was the bomb inevitable? Was the Fall?  And if so, what need for Satan?   All of which makes one wonder if Satan isn't the patsy of all patsies, the ultimate Fall guy.  He wasn't even necessary.

Oh, good old Pardise Lost.   I love you--you beautiful, thought-provoking, messy disaster of a poem.  You make my brain hurt.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...