Monthly Archives: November 2009

Talking to Bartleby

Another experiment…

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is a long short story by Herman Melville about a narrator’s encounter with a legal copyist who first refuses to review copy—his famous line is “I prefer not”—and then declines to work altogether.  Though the narrator is solicitous (and some readers think he’s too solicitous), Bartleby can’t be rescued.  The narrator’s solution to the mystery is the news that Bartleby worked in the dead letter office before joining him, but many readers find that clue inconclusive.  Bartleby remains an enigma.  As I was teaching the story recently, I started thinking about Melville’s character and wrote this response.  I’m not sure it helps at all with the story, but it collects some of my thoughts about it…

Don’t blame the question.  The question was simple, calling for just a word or two and not particularly unusual or striking ones.  And don’t blame him.  The quiet surprised him as much as us.  When he reached into his word-hoard—paltry as it was—he found it entirely empty.  He had nothing to say.

Looking back, we might have guessed.  Many words and ideas are recycled, echoes of ones we’re presented.  His phrasing followed patterns discernible in retrospect, subtle grammar but grammar nonetheless—noun, verb, noun and the like—inventive only in seeming novel.  Truthfully, we’re all form.

He might have thought, “There’s nothing new under the sun” and swallowed the cliché before it emerged.  He might have said, “I have nothing to say” but decided on action.  He can’t tell us.

Perhaps some shift in vast invisible forces slid wheels and cogs into place and closed a great dam.  But, if so, nothing was behind the wall—not a finger-wide stream, not a trickle deep in the sand, not a drip of pooled dew on rocks—nothing gathered.  He wasn’t holding back.

We want to blame his standards and tell him anything is fine, but his eyes have answered already. They’re focused on some other inexpressible surface, a place words don’t describe.  He looks on from elsewhere.

Prodding won’t do.  We have no recourse but to watch and wait, hoping he walks a circular path that returns before he dwindles.  Every moment, however, takes him away—each silence another step into a darkness between stars vast enough to make escape probable.  We want to pull him from quiet, but there’s nothing to grab.

Soon we’ll forget he ever spoke and wonder if we dreamed him from dust instead, a new Adam from an Eden wholly imaginary.

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Filed under Art, Education, Experiments, Fiction, High School Teaching, Parables, Prose Poems, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes, Words, Writing

Catcher in the Finn or The Adventures of Huckleberry in the Rye

Teaching Huck Finn after Catcher in the Rye, I’m struck—again—by how much the second book owes the first.  Both boys suffer in their doubt.  They navigate without maps but, even if they had them, neither boy seems capable of reading a map’s signs.  Despite their impressive independence, neither can sustain himself, neither can accept help, and neither can pray.

Most of my students find Huck more likable.  Huck uses of the n-word heavily and, maddeningly, fails to abstract his affection for Jim into a rejection of Slavery. But Twain’s implicit affection for Huck usually wins readers over.   Huck is a liar like Holden—they see themselves as terrific fiction makers—but students often think Huck kinder because he witnesses violence without adopting it.  He is a victim.  Huck’s father Pap beats him regularly and, before Huck’s escape, chases him around a locked cabin with a knife, calling his son the “angel of death.”  Huck overhears thieves planning to kill one of their own.  He spies on a feud and the death of a new friend.  He watches an assassination of one man by another and the impotent crowd that wilts in the killer’s righteousness.  Yet Huck doesn’t take up violence himself.  Disillusionment never really sticks.  He remains a nice boy.

In contrast, Holden experiences little violence—a pimp punches him in the stomach over the price of a “throw”—but he often imagines violence.  He wears “a people-shooting hat” and thinks about chopping a guy’s head off with an ax, and pictures slamming the heads of profanity-writers against the steps until they are “good and bloody.”  He calls someone “a royal pain in the ass” in a fit of anger, and readers hear about his punching out all the garage windows after his brother’s death.  My students know he has a fuse and scoot back in their chairs when I ask if they could be Holden’s friend.  He may be more perceptive than Huck—not a wise fool but a wise smartass—yet readers trust him less.  His disillusionment galls them.  Most waffle over whether he’s a nice or not.

The difference creates reverse polarities. Some readers appreciate Holden in the end, but loving him requires heroic empathy and generosity.  You have to see his flaws—and who can’t?—without blaming him.  Every class contains a healthy number of Holden haters, people entirely intolerant of his voice.  At the opposite extreme, my students forgive Huck so much.  Though I find the escape Tom orchestrates for Jim unfunny, the pointless torture of a gentle and affectionate man, my students excuse Huck because resisting Tom isn’t in Huck’s nature.  And they laugh.  They are ready to see tearing up the letter revealing Jim’s location as a rejection of Slavery when it isn’t.  Many leave the book eager for a sequel despite Huck’s abject misanthropy in the last few paragraphs.

When students ask which book I like better, I hide behind art and say both have merits.  Salinger did not rewrite Huck Finn.  He was not “copying,” but transmuting what wasn’t new even in Twain’s time.  After all, how many naïve protagonists is an experienced reader likely to meet?—I could be writing about how Twain rewrote Tom Jones.  Salinger places his hero in a world less blessed with landmarks and thus speaks to his own zeitgeist and personal battles. Huck has the great issue of his century to define himself against. Holden has no clear moral imperative to orient him.  They are books, I say, refitting literary conventions to new times.

Still, my answer is a dodge.  For me, they are equally agitating—one because the main character’s affability can’t save him from unconscious cruelty and the other because the hero’s failings kill most of his credibility.  A solicitous reader sees these books are not what they purport to be.  Are readers meant to embrace either Huck or Holden?  One’s sweetness masks bile.  The other’s bile drowns its sweetness.

I’d be cutting my own throat if I said what I’d like to—my students aren’t asking the right question.  Are we supposed to read only what we like?  As unpopular as it is to say so these days, books can be medicinal.  While it’s wonderful to enjoy reading, some great books go well beyond entertainment, and some aren’t entertaining at all.  I’d like to tell my class to look for works that bother them.  I’d like to tell them to stop thinking about “good” and “bad”—I’m so exhausted hearing about it—and study their response.  A better question may be, “What does your reaction to Huck or Holden say about you?”

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On Quiet Desperation

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

hear me read?

At the peak of Texas summer, my brother sometimes challenged me to walk barefoot across hot asphalt in a who-can-go-slowest race. I needed to disconnect brain and legs.  My knees couldn’t bob.  No strain could show when, reaching the other curb, I had to say  (without saying), “No big deal.”

Perhaps you feel a metaphor coming on.

I’ve been thinking recently about “The right stuff,” not the web-defined, “Essential abilities or qualities like self-confidence, dependability, and knowledge necessary for success in a given field or situation,” but the sort suggested by Tom Wolfe’s book of that name.  Wolfe says the right stuff extends so far beyond what’s apt that “self-confidence, dependability, and knowledge” are givens, the bedrock of your being.  The right stuff is so placid and nonchalant, so James-Bondsian that it can be neither shaken nor stirred.

And, for me, it’s mostly an act.

Pretending tranquility can’t fool everyone.  The people closest to you know it’s make-believe.  Those who have seen your sudden temper, seen your peevishness and general dismay, they recognize you get bothered.  They begin looking for signs of earthquake.  And with the rare few for whom you’re transparent, being read is disarming and strangely comforting, as if everything you’ve lost suddenly rolls into view.

Most people, however, want to fall for your act.  Juggling is impressive only when it adds calm as it adds clubs.  I try to carry all my clubs serenely, but most of the time I’m settling for appearing to.  Knowing it’s not okay to just scream, I say “I could just scream” instead.  I figure keeping cool is good for those around me, and what’s the harm in acting the way you want to feel?  Frequently I’m just idealistic enough to believe thinking can make things so.

Still I feel split.  People who suffer panic attacks say their episodes well so suddenly, incongruously, and strangely that the attack seems to happen to someone else. I know that situation in reverse, wondering why I’m not more upset, how I could be racked and so pain-free. When people tell me appalling things, I gulp and say, “Oh.”

I wonder if I’d ask to shower and shave before my execution.

Medicine might tell me the right stuff is the wrong stuff.  No one can inhale a hurricane without internal damage, and a few heavy sighs won’t dissipate it.  But when you’re sitting on the edge of a precipice, you don’t dare let the hurricane out.

I’d like to ask if everyone feels as I do and am afraid to.

The other day a colleague praised my “poise,” and I answered, “I don’t feel poised.”  But I only said it. How can you know how far away that other curb is?

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Four (and a half) Lessons of Running

Riding home from the Illinois State Cross Country Championships yesterday, as the athletes slipped on headphones, turned to homework, or focused attention on computers, the van finally quieted enough to reflect.  My mind stretched back and out—to my own running experience, to my experience parenting a runner on our team, to serving as an assistant coach. I began thinking of the lessons of running, and this morning I wrote them down:

1. It’s the work that matters:

We call it “background mileage,” but it’s fundamentally familiarity, hours of stride chained to stride, all to habituate you to effort, all to find your best effort.  The doing makes you better.  Runners’ bodies become more efficient, but the real progress occurs elsewhere.  Their minds resize to accommodate greater expectations.  What seems Herculean becomes ordinary.  Ordinary becomes a way station to something longer, faster, harder.

2. Some days the bear will eat you, some days you eat the bear:

Besides being a Joan Armatrading song—and a common saying—this lesson becomes clear quickly.  You have “it” sometimes and other times not.  The successful runner must be resilient and recognize that, as much as everyone would like progress to be linear, it’s more like a planet in the night sky, looping in retrograde motion.  When you fall down, you get up. Sometimes your worst day falls on the wrong day, which keeps you needing another day and another and another.

2.5. Hard work trumps talent when talent doesn’t work hard:

If only this lesson were entirely true!  Day-in day-out labor brings surprising rewards that, over time, help you overcome untrained runners.  Believing in pure work keeps plodders dreaming.  Past a certain level, however, talent will win.  Every serious runner absorbs this lesson in humility: if you desire success, you must make the most of what you have—whatever you have—knowing it still might not be enough.  The pay-off is discovering that, though you’d love to have the work ethic AND the talent, you can satisfy for the work ethic.

3. Someone is always faster than you and someone always slower:

The real truth in the last lesson: no matter how talented or hardworking you are, you can’t expect to be the best in every single outing.  You will have bad days (see #2), others will have good days (see #2.5), and it’s not about where you finish in the end anyway (see #1 and #4).  I’ve stood at the finish line enough times to recognize all runners run the same race.  They have different, but equal, reasons to be proud.

4. Glory is everywhere:

For a runner, the glory is in diligence, hope, and survival.  No winner can claim those qualities exclusively.  Good luck, bad luck, good day, bad day, yesterday I watched some runners charge through the line, and others drift or limp over it.  I imagine some of them are still high from their triumphs and some still sore from their perceived failure.  Who’s to say who’s better in the end?  The attempt means everything and teaches the ultimate lesson: you have strengths to discover.

I made it all this way without alluding to Chariots of Fire, but now I can’t resist.  After winning a race, Eric Liddell, the flying Scotsman, tells a crowd of working people, “Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.”

These lessons may emerge from any sport or any endeavor that requires devotion and labor.  However, as a coach, a runner, and the father of runners, I’m biased—what’s within makes my sport glorious.

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My Extra Hour: On Complaint

As an exercise today, I wrote for exactly the extra hour the departure of daylight savings time allowed me…

I believe in healthy fictions—those not-really-true things you tell yourself  because, if you can only believe, life might be better.  I choose to believe I’m not absent-minded.  I think I can elude all those male stereotypes some people say are rooted deep in my gender.  If I leave something on a counter in the faculty lounge, I won’t accept it will be gone the next day.  I think positively.

But I also believe in complaining.

When I was growing up, my mother used to say, “Complaining won’t help,” and, as often happens with parental edicts, I’ve heard myself say those words.  Yet, as also often happens, I wonder if I’m parroting her.  My mother was right my complaining didn’t help anyone around me.  In fact, my whining may have made everyone in my family miserable.

And when my children come home from school and complain about all the work they must do before bed and I say, “Complaining won’t help,” I mean it won’t help me.  I have a great deal to accomplish in those hours too.  I fear a helpless, hopeless cloud will descend on us all and we won’t escape.  I don’t want to hear about it.

When my mother told me not to complain, I didn’t.  If I was ill or sad or resentful or peevish or hurt, I struggled to say nothing.  In a family of five children, you gain stature by being the maintenance-free one, the least fussy one.  Though I never attained that stature, I envied anyone who could swallow tears.  Spock on Star Trek was my hero and, just behind him, my older brother.

My stomach quickly filled with tears.  Perhaps I’m more sensitive or take everything as personal to myself, but my complaints sat barely arrested at the base of my throat.  Sometimes I couldn’t stop them.  Often stopping them meant removing myself altogether and living with the loneliness.  Other times I stopped them only to have them reappear like the contents of a finally-caught shark who disgorges lighters, beer can insulators, and hats.  Still, I never questioned my mother.

My son questions me.  He asks, in effect,  “Why isn’t it okay to feel the way I do?” and “Can anyone convince you how to feel?”  If keeping complaints to myself had worked, I might answer easily, but I understand what it’s like to have no right to your own feelings.  I’m sympathetic.  Part of me wants to capitulate.  “Go ahead,” I’d like to say, “complain if it will help you be heard, if it will help you move on, if it will help you feel loved.”  I also want to leave the room, but with more courage, less fear I’d be infected by complaint, I’d stay to listen.

Complaint is unbecoming, and, as writer, I also want to curb the dissatisfaction moving me to speak. Composing a tidy essay sometimes means imposing order on unease and false, insincere writing.  My students complain what a downer literature is—they don’t want to hear it—but if a writer can’t be heard, where will the tears go?

My petty complaints, I’ll keep to myself.  My big ones, my the-universe-is-all-wrong ones, I can’t.  In exchange for the ears of those around me, I’ll listen… as long as we can negotiate a reasonable time limit.

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