Tag Archives: Genius

Greetings From Austenland

388px-Jane_Austen_coloured_versionAs an English teacher and someone who devotes considerable time to writing, I’m always interpreting and positioning words. Every day, I look for (and create) patterns, searching for fresh and resourceful arrangements that communicate thoughts separate from my physical setting. I suspect my world is different from some people’s. At least, I hope they experience life more directly—without so much analysis, commentary, or judgment.

Reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park hasn’t been good for me. Austen’s hikes through internal landscapes make mine look like speedboat tours. Ten minutes of Fanny Price’s thinking—roughly four pages—considers seven angles on one aspect of Mr. Crawford’s reaction to her body language after his failed proposal. Sir Thomas says six words before the 500 addressing their meaning to him, the situation, relationships (past, present and future), and the nature of social interaction in general.

I’m barely exaggerating. Austen’s prose evokes thoughts and emotions so subtle I start to feel like a cartoon chameleon crossing plaid. It’s hard to keep up.

Early on in life we’re taught to anticipate, rewarded for guessing, and urged to see beyond this moment. History and current events interpret more than they report, and we assess now by comparing it to our expectations. Partly, that’s what humans do. Our survival relies on seeing some distance. Yet many religious traditions—particularly Buddhism—encourage us to “be here now,” to allow “present” to live up to its name.

Austen would make a lousy Buddhist. After reading Mansfield Park, I step out of the novel as off a treadmill. The world won’t be still. The implications of every moment outrace time, and everything is more (and less) than it seems. Here’s Edmund Bertram telling Fanny about his angsty courtship of Miss Crawford:

I know her disposition as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of the former companions makes her seem—gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.

Meaning slips and slides all over the page as Edmund asserts what he knows (but clearly doesn’t, or he wouldn’t need to speak) and then unravels it in repeated reclassification and qualification (her professed opinions, echoed from former companions, to her conversation, sometimes, a tinge, speaking but not thinking, only playfully). What do you grip here?

Before Edmund begins the attempted explanation above, he tells Fanny he “Can’t get the better of ” his thoughts, and, the trouble is, neither can I. What’s actual and imagined switches places constantly. Austen loves characters who build reality from ideas that carry them far away from here-and-now. I go with them.

The 2013 movie Austenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) describes Jane Hayes’ (Kerri Russell) visit to a theme park based on Austen’s novels. She spills her savings to go, and (without spoiling too much for you) discovers only the fruition of Austen’s stories satisfy. The rest—murky motives, couched comments, pretense that isn’t really but could be, and notions of yourself and others neither you nor any other person can pin down—all that is a special sort of agony, a ring of hell Austen’s romantic reputation doesn’t advertise.

For me, Samuel Becket has nothing on Jane Austen. He may give a reader little to assemble into meaning, but she gives so much that, at least until the last few chapters, won’t assemble. No surprise, then, when Jane of Austenland decides, “I don’t want to play anymore… I want something real.” That’s my reaction too.

Don’t get me wrong. Austen’s effect does her credit. I admire her artistry. Sometimes, I just wish she weren’t so good, so in sync with the way I perceive, think, feel, and live. She makes me hungry for moments my mind quiets, the positions, angles, and relations of objects become plain, the scene around me solidifies, and the sun discovers a room more real than my mind’s wanderings.

I think, “Hey, it’s pretty nice here. I really should get out of my head more.”

 

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So Creative…

Manage-Stress-Get-Creative-C1In a writing workshop, one of my classmates called my poem “creative,” and my teacher held up his hands and shrugged.

“What’s creative,” he asked, “what does that word even mean?”

My answer finds trouble at each turn:

1. To be creative is to, well, make something, but making something new isn’t enough. If creativity and novelty were perfect synonyms, art would be easy. Recombining letters and words—or notes or pigments or movements or gestures—would suffice. But artists seek a different sort of novelty mixing the strange and familiar to find truth. Sometimes we call “creative” what we should have noticed or known but didn’t. “Creative” isn’t the same as “odd”… though that could be what my classmate meant.

2. And can something be creative only once? Is a cliché a cliché only if you’ve heard it? Which standard of freshness shall we apply—the absolute or personal? What’s more stultifying than absolute? What’s more finite than personal?

3. New and right to me may not be, and no assay or measure will establish what “creative” means definitively and universally. Its elusiveness is welcome magic.

4. For the artist, creativity consumes itself. Art loses heat the instant of completion. The object signals creation’s (and imagination’s) end. Though audiences warm their minds on the ashes, they examine artifacts of an artist’s experience and thus reassemble. Interpretations add perspective. Yet, from the artist’s outlook, they stir spent coals.

5. Creativity is more pursuit than achievement, never accomplished finally or entirely. Its only purpose may be prompting more of itself.

6. Some creativity arrives only when exhaustion looms and nothing remains. What once appeared creative proves an earlier stage.

7. Genes, circumstance, sensory equipment, or disposition fence artists. Makers want to leave themselves and be creative but find an unexamined patch of their own yard instead.

8. Maybe some artists are demi-gods, just naturally original, endowed with genius and a special touch, but, if so, their attributes won’t sustain them. Exercising your voice until it’s worn out isn’t creative. Art requires subverting, rejecting, and redefining all you think you know, continually.

Which is what I’m guessing my teacher was trying to say. His patience ran out. He wanted us to stop talking about what was or wasn’t creative and get to work.

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Thoughts of a Struggling Diarist

photo 1-33Lists of famous diarists run many pages, going on so long you begin to believe anyone who desires merit must keep a diary. I know I’m confusing correlation and causation, but journal writing has been urged upon me so many times, there must be something to it… that so far eludes me.

In my backpack I keep a notebook where I occasionally jot ideas. It includes recommended books and movies, sentences revised and re-revised, odd overheard statements, and strange sights. My attempts at a daily journal, however, typically fail. A few days in, I ask why I’m telling myself what I already know or why it’s vital to describe in tiresome detail events that just occurred and hardly seem worth remembering. Writers laud journals as practice, which certainly makes sense, but my skepticism rears. What kind of practice? My audience, myself, will accept any old thing, and, though he’s unimpressed with the familiar, gets little else. If I perform the way I rehearse—which most people do—journaling won’t create brilliance. Quite the opposite.

I never re-read. Though writing-to-think is a valuable process, my journals meander in the dark, prodded by obligation, trying one direction and another and hoping, half-heartedly, to trip over treasure.

If you’re a journal-er, you’ll say my problem is the author. I do wonder—if I can commit, will I discover how life changes when I record it? Since school ended, I’ve been trying again, scheduling a regular visit to a blank sketchbook filling up with scrawl and doodles. The secret, I tell myself, is to think of this journal as a savings bank where investments in self-examination will grow.

According to Susan Sontag, it’s “Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate.” For her, the journal is not a place to “Express myself more openly than I could to any person,” but a place where, “I create myself.”

“People who keep journals have life twice,” Jessamyn West said, and Anaïs Nin called her diary “My kief, hashish, and opium pipe… my drug and my vice.”

One of my former colleagues kept journals and, during one of his free periods each day, covered exactly one page. I watched, without reading, as he somehow spent thoughts to die out on the last line. He didn’t share his entries with me or anyone and said he had shelves of journals dating back to the sixties that he never, never, never revisited.

His writing was, I’m guessing, a continual reshoring, a levee preserving his sense of himself. Without reading a single entry, I picture him reassuring, encouraging, redesigning. In my imagination, he plans how to be, his range and domain.

But my experience so far tells me I’m romanticizing. My entries are dull, larded with worries about productivity and self-worth… which, it turns out, are often the same thing.

Virginia Woolf said she’d like her journal to:

Resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art.

I’d like that too. But how do I become Virginia Woolf? How do you ask so much so regularly? How do you battle the relentless, regular tide of personality? How can you try so hard when no one watches or cares?

These mysteries I can only settle over time, I tell myself. Right now, my journal feels like investment, pretty in its script and drawings… but vapid. I have almost no interest in history, being able to say on such and such a day such and such happened, but then what am I interested in, what steady voice emerges?

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one,” Joan Didion says, “inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

Maybe my journal writing will only become important as it approaches compulsion, as it embraces no justification beyond blind obsession.

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Going Long: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

o-THE-GOLDFINCH-900Tolstoy and Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, masters of the long novel, have a rival in Donna Tartt, author most recently of The Goldfinch. Reviewing her work, critics call it “Dickensian,” and with good reason. She’s just as ambitious, just as intent on immersing a reader in her narrative.

Finishing a long novel sometimes produces a sort of post-partum depression. If the characters are companionable and the scenery engrossing, the next day may feel a little flat, as if excitement just departed and gray routine took its place. Tartt, however, seems after something a little different.

People say form follows function, but perhaps the opposite is just as true. The effect of a form often arises from that form. Unlike movies, novels (any novel but longer ones particularly) aren’t intended to be consumed in a single sitting, and thus a moving story haunts a reader between encounters. The reason students should write about books in present tense, their teachers explain, is that whatever a reader discusses is still happening, right now, between the book’s covers. The reader my wander off, but the book has its own life. It’s easy to believe fiction continues even when no one watches.

With long novels, form governs a reader’s response even more vividly. Dickens’ painstaking attention to minutiae fills his fiction with shadowy corners and unopened but real rooms. His subtle presentation of even the most minor characters leaves them lingering in a reader’s imagination even when they’re offstage. As different as his worlds are—and they grow more different year by year—they seem actual, complete.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt demonstrates similar ambitions. Theo Decker, narrator of the novel, moves from New York, to Vegas, back to New York, and on to Antwerp, and each place has idiosyncratic light and space, odd smells and colors, distinctive possessions and detritus. Characters, in all senses of the word, populate these peculiar places. Theo Decker may hold the center, but the characters winging in orbit around him are powerful influences too. His friend Boris is particularly well-drawn, as a reader may never really believe he’s gone even though he exits the story, seemingly for good, multiple times.

Yet Tartt’s novel also renovates the form. Where Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, and especially Tolstoy, rely on essayistic passages to abstract the action and address broader concerns, Tartt never really leaves her action for long—at least, until the last few pages. In other authors’ work, these passages are a sort of respite for the reader, and Tartt offers little. She leaves her story in disarray. The burden of each moment’s concerns can create discomfort and enervation, itchiness akin to wearing a cast or sitting trapped in concert with a bad cough.

Dickens infuses characters with sweetness by placing them in dire but nonetheless hopeful contexts. Critics in his own time and since have justifiably accused him of sentimentality and bombast. Tartt seems intent on eluding his influence by denying nearly every character any lasting sweetness. Figures a reader might like—Theo’s unrequited love Pippa and his benefactors Hobie and Mrs. Barfour—are often ineffectual. Or they are victims of Theo’s relentless missteps or colored by cynical judgments. A reader may find it hard to encounter The Goldfinch without wanting to scratch… or come up for air.

Many contemporary authors test the lower limits of exposition, and novels like Gone Girl seem made to antagonize readers as well as attract them, often at the same time. Readers, it turns out, like watching traffic accidents too… the question is only how long. Like Gillian Flynn, Tartt tests readers’ patience, perhaps even their perseverance. Theo screws up on nearly every page and, if Tartt hopes his inherent goodness allies a reader to him—the decency beneath his theft, drug-use, apathy, denial, ignorance, and sometimes obsessive and aggravating grief—she also means to make liking him challenging. At the end of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, or Bleak House, a reader takes big bites to reach a desired destination. By the end of Tartt’s novel a reader may want escape and relief, an end to an all-too-full meal.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Goldfinch, one spoiler is necessary: it will end well. Though developments lift a reader at times, they won’t offer hope as frequently as some readers might like. Tartt makes it quite easy to believe that, any moment now, the pudding can still turn to excrement, and the end is still hundreds of pages away.

Some readers will celebrate her innovation and achievement, but some will want a more comfortable and companionable narrative, a book more like the long novels they regret finishing. The Goldfinch isn’t that sort of long novel.

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Battling Literature

literature-versus-traffic_obKyL_11446Suggesting books occasionally leads to conversations like this:

“What were you thinking?”

“What?”

Crying of Lot 49. I almost quit with five pages left. That was the longest short book I’ve ever read. I’m not sure I understood a word of it.”

“I’m sorry—“

“You are going to have to explain to me why anyone would consider that great literature.”

“You didn’t like it?”

Among lists suitably retitled “100 Books You Should Suffer Through Before Dying” or “50 Books Smart People Know” or “Bragging Rights: Books” are some troublesome texts, and, as an English teacher, people sometimes want me to name them. They ask me what was the strangest book I read—A Void—or the most complex—Name of the Rose—or the most troubling—Blood Meridian—the most baffling—Tie: Pound’s The Cantos and Joyce’s Ulysses.

I regard these conversations as getting-to-know-you banter, but my listeners sometimes hear them as recommendations:

“You are one sick dude.”

“What?”

“You told me about that book Disgrace. Christ, could it have been more miserable? I wanted to jump off a bridge.”

“You didn’t like it?”

A special person undertakes books as challenges. You have to love puzzling, carrying a riddle around all day hoping the tiny metal ball will somehow—while you’re not watching—nestle into its dimple. You have to put aside knowing and settle for guessing. You have to feel good about having a sense of meaning.

“Do you think anyone really understands The Sound and the Fury?”

“I don’t know. Maybe people who study it.”

“Why would anyone study it? It’s just so bizarre. I was completely lost.”

“You didn’t like it?”

Right now, in one of my classes, I’m teaching Time’s Arrow, a narrator’s account of living within his “host” as the host’s life reels backwards toward a horrendous past. Every event is presented in reverse—tennis players gather the ball out of the net or backstop and then bat it around until someone, seemingly arbitrarily, grabs the ball from the air and pockets it. The narrator doesn’t understand what we ought to, but actually we don’t understand it without effort either. We have to rearrange, read in reverse, talk about it. In class, that process might lead to discussion:

“I don’t get it.”

“What specifically?”

“Anything. What is the point? I mean, if the narrator is confused, how are we supposed to know what’s going on?”

“Because you figure it out.”

“But that’s impossible… or, anyway, really, really hard. Too hard.”

“What, you don’t like it?”

As a high school student I gathered my book badges, the arcane and long-hair novels I’d read on my own—Moby Dick, The Metamorphosis, Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, and Pale Fire. I can’t say I understood them all or grokked them as fully as I did later, but I didn’t expect to. I accepted that I was exercising, matching my brain against brains much more complicated and potent than my own. As an acolyte, what more might I expect?

Some of my students take the same perspective. They love the process even if it leads to no material result, and they revel in conversations about what might and might not be known. They experience singular excitement over not understanding entirely. Being at sea, they recognize, is sometimes wonderful. In literature, there’s certainly less harm in being mentally adrift than actually being lost in a lifeboat, and they don’t mind feeling dumb if they also feel stimulated, tested.

“I love the language.”

“What?”

Remembrance of Things Past

“Do you get it?”

“No, not really, but sometimes.”

“So are you understanding it?’

“Sometimes, but that’s enough, I guess.”

“You appreciate it.”

“Yes.”

“So you like it?”

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As It Should Be and Is

HughAtkinsOntheBeachweb_0The second in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…

Maybe all teachers have models they’d like to be or become. I’m been lucky. I’ve met many exemplars with diverse styles and talents. If you ask me which teacher I’ve envied, however, I can reduce the number to one.

Forget that he finished tasks well ahead of deadlines and without sweat, that he graded and returned papers sometimes on their due date, or that he, unaccountably and invisibly, forged consensus among members of a department trained in making barely differentiated but essential distinctions. Forget that he discussed every new book, read every magazine, already knew anything you might mention having seen or heard—after probably having absorbed them all at once in his armchair, watching sports. The work engaged him, yet he found time every school day to write exactly one page in this journal, an ellipsis dotting the last sentence at the end of the page. He made teaching look relaxing because he loved it, every day. He made time to reread and mark new passages. He found time to doodle. He found time to laugh. Students universally admired him and loved talking to him and, no matter how busy he was, he always had time for them.

He seemed built for professional longevity and spent each moment in the moment. Hilarious and moving, playful and dramatic, organized and improvisational, demanding and fun, spontaneous and steady, he never seemed to be working, though undoubtedly he was. Around him, everyone worked hard (and obviously) to look half as capable.

He could be fiery. No one wanted to disappoint his expectations twice. Yet his approval meant more. It meant more than awards, and, whether students feared or loved him (or loved and feared him), he pulled the best from them. We taught fall and spring versions of the same course, and I watched students stretch well beyond themselves in his tasks, his papers, his final projects. I wanted to know how he did it—his secret—and asked frequently. But the key is he did it. I didn’t inspire my students nearly as vividly and, at times, felt dispositionally disadvantaged staring at the last minute, half-baked products of my charges’ labors. His students produced mobiles with albatross wingspans. Mine floated a walnut shell sailboat in a shoebox lid full of catsup. His spoke eloquently about justifications and implications for every choice. Mine said, “I just felt like it.”

With his returns, I might discover fuel to teach forever.

Yet I knew, almost instantly, I wouldn’t become him. I couldn’t draw as much from students because I wasn’t and would never be him.

That discovery was my first disillusionment as a teacher, the first intimation of my limits and unwinding clock. My parents taught me that labor could overcome any deficit, but sometimes not. Perhaps every profession illuminates people so suited to its tasks, so observant, and so shrewd they grow into “naturals,” but they seem especially rare in teaching where you assume you can always master something novel, where belief in self-improvement is unshakable faith.

My triumphs have been exhausting. I’ve been diligent. I’ve been self-consciously personable. I’ve been painstaking. I’ve been earnest. I’ve stumbled upon success through effort and desire, but mostly effort.

One question education won’t prepare you for—how long can learning last? For years, I’ve become a more efficient, sensible, and composed teacher, but dependability and predictability mix finally. I’d like to be new everyday, as my model was, but returns diminish. Your desire to pull a lesson from a folder overwhelms ambition, and, for most older teachers, little appears fresh anymore.

The few who find the sweet spot between work and play promise hope and envy, an ideal, an aspiration stretching ahead, a picture of what could—and should—be.

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Thoughts in Third Person (8-15)

hqdefaultThe second half of the lyric essay posted on Wednesday 6/5.

8.

After hundreds of pages, Henry Adams’ illeism feels different. His chief complaint about the modern world is that it had no place for him. He never exactly says so, but his alienation seems plain nonetheless. The rest of humanity sees matters one way, and he another. Yet he can’t help feeling right. Perhaps he hopes others will agree.

9.

Writers sometimes inject themselves into narratives, as when a character sits down across from a novel’s author on a train or, after presenting a stray bit of dialogue, the narration identifies the speaker as the book’s author.

These moments ostensibly announce artifice. Lest the reader forget a story has a creator, there he or she is, suddenly present and intruding. The author, this sudden appearance may imply, is merely another character, another fictional creation.

But why couldn’t an author’s reality be a nod to fact? 18th century novels sometimes referred to characters as Mr. ___________ because they wished to protect identities when, actually, authors fabricated these identities. If the author lands suddenly in a scene, then perhaps he or she was there recording, did live these events, even if much of the rest the author dreamed. Is the creator’s appearance artificial or the closest brush with witnessed reality?

10.

Maybe fiction means to disorient, to lull readers into false security and then shift the rule of horizon, earth, and sky and make up down and the opposite, to establish everything as chosen and arbitrary. Everything becomes intention. No place remains for comfortable observers, and everywhere is someplace deliberately strange.

11.

The conceit of modernism—and post-modernism after it—is that it’s all fiction.

12.

Episodes of the 1960 children’s program “Romper Room” included an odd moment with an emptied hand mirror. Through the open space where reflections normally appeared, the host peered into the camera and said, “I see Gwen, and I see Alan, and I see Debbie, and I see David….”

These names may have been random—or perhaps producers harvested them from fan mail—but, to some of the program’s audience, such encounters must have seemed real and frightening. Children usually protected by confident subjectivity may not have been prepared to be called out and seen by everyone—or by television, as close to “everyone” as a child can consider.

13.

Despite his multiverse and third-person stance, Henry Adams creates companions in readers. They sit to listen, and, in doing so, expect something they know. They also expect to hear what they don’t know, but only sympathy compels them to keep silent and still. They expect to be drawn in. They desire it.

14.

Notes after a loved one’s death sting with sympathy. They are sweetly painful and elicit the oddest gratitude. A shared appreciation and acknowledgment of pain seems an essential stage of separation. “You will move on,” these notes seem to say, “but you’re permitted to revel in the exclusivity of your grief. You may mourn.”

15.

Henry Adams had hands and feet. He sat in trains, laughing with friends, and perhaps strangers. He turned his head to scan the landscape slipping through the window and smelled smoke and pollen, food and filth, perfume and decomposition. His eyes moved to his wife. His eyes moved to his memory, to the page of handwriting before him.

He gathered everything he made and pored over it, grooming the words until they spoke just what he wished or the closest he could come. He must have thought of readers, even if he invented them.

They would know him. He would have to be sure of that, I’m sure.

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Thoughts in Third Person (1-7)

henry-adams-2Another long lyric essay in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention…. the rest will appear on Saturday, 6/8

1.

Henry Adams, great grandson and grandson of presidents, Harvard history professor, and early voice of modernism, wrote a third person memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. In it, he skips over twenty years—much of his marriage—and only obliquely refers to his wife’s suicide. He cannot name her or discuss the event and includes only a description of his visits to the Saint-Gaudens monument he commissioned for her grave.

Is his third-person omission love or cruelty? Did he wish to erase her or was he saying she, and his years with her, were the one aspect of his life beyond words?

2.

After his wife’s death, Adams wrote John Hay, “The world seems to me to have suddenly changed, and to have left me an old man, pretty well stranded and very indifferent to situations which another generation must deal with… I have been thrown out of the procession, and can’t catch up again.”

Adams tastes bitterness in everything, and, even if he never utters Clover Adams’ name in his autobiography, her absence seems another shadow in a dim and disappointing life. Any report of comfort is missing too.

3.

Using third person doesn’t shake the message from the messenger, nor does metaphor, imagery, or elusive syntax. Observers see the author hiding in the scene. That dwindling candle is his longing. The photograph without a frame is his conception of life in our age. Light scattered through that crystal bowl is a spectral vision of idiosyncratic perception.

Authors remain as long as readers look to find them.

4.

Michel de Montaigne believed, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Montaigne thought even his idiosyncratic observations and revelations would be understood because his readers must also be idiosyncratic in their own ways.

Moderns are not so sure. Henry Adams coined the term “multiverse” to describe the product of irreconcilable perspectives. Subjectivity destroys the uni-verse because two people never experience the same scene or reach exactly the same understanding of it.

“Exactly” seems key phrasing. Any degree of disagreement signals the impossibility of a shared perspective. To speak in third-person, as God might, is just as much an invention as speaking as oneself.

Montaigne said he could express himself and humanity all at once, but, apparently, he was wrong—humans don’t know anything, least of all themselves.

5.

Writers sometimes prefer first person narration because they think they can speak directly using a voice that, if not themselves, is at least some facsimile. Yet first person can be challenging too. As inventions, first person narrators must communicate character, and not just in what they say but also in their expression, the fingerprints of their voice.

And omission is no less critical. First person narrators omit without noticing. They still leave gaps for readers to fill and, in the process, allow readers to observe more than the narrators notice themselves. They grant readers judgment, just as third person narrators do.

6.

Hidden authority is ominous. A voiceless, faceless perspective dictates what’s known and also what world readers occupy. Insufferable first person narrators can be smothering, but readers can walk away, rejecting this character’s take on the world. Third person leaves little choice but to believe. Third person says, “This is real.”

Yet it may not seem so.

7.

When a person uses third person to describe him or herself it’s called “illeism.”  Lebron James, the Big Lebowski, and Bob Dole are notable examples, and when they slip outside themselves and look back, a listener senses oblivious—often comic—egotism. Once a reporter asked the baseball player Wade Boggs why he always referred to himself as Wade Boggs, and he replied, “’My father always told me not to be a braggart, not to say I, I, I.”

It’s hard for a person to voice his or her name without elevating it. To go third person is to go big and expand a solitary view into something cosmic.

Parts 8-15 on Saturday…

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A Defense of Studying Literature

fume-hoodWhen people call physics and chemistry “hard sciences” they refer to those subjects’ basis in mathematics and quantitative reasoning. In the lengthy definition of “hard,” such subjects fit best with 7a,“1. firm, definite; 2. not speculative or conjectural: factual; 3. important rather than sensational or entertaining.”

By that definition, my own specialty—reading, thinking over, and writing about literature—is decidedly soft. Many people probably assume the earlier definitions of “hard” don’t fit English either. Because literature classes don’t require mastering complex and rigorous physical laws, they aren’t seen as being as difficult as classes involving equations, graphs, and experimental data. Literature is fuzzy, subject to slippery interpretations and airy whims. You can say anything about a story, novel, or poem, the reasoning goes, so what you say is insubstantial, variable, and, on some level, false. Some people think English teachers should grade easier because there’s nothing really to grade. If you can’t do numbers or master analyzing figures, it appears you’re better at bullshit than anything else.

As might be expected, this sort of thinking makes me defensive. Anyone who has read Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Dickinson, Woolf, Joyce, Pynchon, Wallace, and countless others knows literature aspires to considerable complexity. Some works offer challenges equal—in their own way—to calculus, advanced economics, or quantum physics. The absence of hard information creates distinctive burdens. Nuanced interpretations rely on sophisticated understanding of language, fine differentiation, scrupulous decoding, and resourceful observation. Saying something new about texts pored over for hundreds of years isn’t easy.

Nonetheless, some might say less is at stake. People see literary analysis as arcane. No one calls an English teacher for an emergency opinion on Jane Austen, so we’re all diddling, expending valuable mental energy on silly pursuits. Nothing we talk about or write about is real because none of it is practical, none required. If I say understanding the human condition is real and necessary, a boon to living if not absolutely essential, some may say, “Yes, but it’s fiction, right? It’s invented, not the granite foundation of existence.”

I wish people understood hard sciences the way I understand literature, as a way of seeing, produced by a distinct sort of curiosity providing one valuable angle on reality. How did the quantifiable become so privileged? How did it become the preferred means to truth—and sometimes regarded as truth itself? When did we begin believing exclusively in the explainable, the graph-able, and the hitherto undiscovered minutiae of physical processes? How can the definitive be all we should notice? When did we decide only knowing certainly matters?

Sometimes I think everything we call “hard” in those terms—the factual and verifiable—is actually the lowest lying fruit, subject to mechanical processes of discovery requiring more discipline than invention, more scrutiny than inspiration, more brute data-picking than art. I know that’s not so. Experimenters rely on insight as well. They follow hunches about where and how to look. Scientists and mathematicians require creativity also. I see that.

These hard subjects are clever and rigorous, but I want to beg respect for my own specialty and request acknowledgement of literature’s effort to seek truth. If humans only find answers to the questions we think to ask, shouldn’t we ask all sorts of questions and address reality from every angle of inquiry, hard and soft?

The other day, a senior at my school said, “I’d like to go into medicine, but I’ll probably end up studying English instead.” Her assumptions were ready to be read. She knows she may have to settle. Medicine may be too hard, and English is simpler. Maybe, but even if that were so—and it shouldn’t be—the value of any study can’t rest on how easy or difficult it is. Academic disciplines arise from what they add to understanding, how they train minds, educate, and humanize.

I’d argue this country produces as many bad scientists as bad English majors. And our educational system as a whole fails when it ranks pursuits as fruitful and less so, as real and unreal. Of course the world needs scientists and mathematicians, and, because rigor probably has scared people away, it’s important to urge others to fill those roles. But we also need brilliant people who can accommodate soft thinking and appreciate elusiveness and uncertainty and—dare I say it?—beauty. Education will be healthier if it can recognize the value of complexity without groping for definitive, hard answers.

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The Other Spider

spicafAnother parable…

Most spiders build well or beautifully. A special few do both, their art being function and their function being art. Dewy mornings display their webs’ perfect parallels and perfect circularities, and, though their work couldn’t be more visible, they catch wary prey looking too close. Drawn like moths to light, their victims barely struggle in the sticky strings of arrest. Acquiescence overcomes will. Even things that once flew know they’re had, and the web maker feels no impatience to meet and complete its kill. You’d call that sort of restraint self-control, but it isn’t control exactly when command requires little effort. Such a spider issues such a web, and waits. It seems made for that life.

There’s another spider, though, whose webs are neither expert nor special. Its abdomen is stuck open and launches filament after filament in a tangled, impatient mass. Its eight perpetually scrambling legs carry it from place to place, away from its leavings and toward any empty cranny, dragging its ductile chains. Design may govern even things so small, but this spider knows little government other than compulsion, moving because it must, because it cannot not. You’d recognize its webs—after so much practice how could they be anything but consistent?—but, unless you mistake uniformity for artistry—you’d find little to admire, especially when comparison is so easy and ready.

This spider feeds on the accident-prone, insects wandering from common paths and into shadowy niches. Bad fortune carries the spider’s food to the wrong places, and the spider, ever grateful for the least attention, wraps victims almost before they know they’ve been duped. The spider knows its clientele and strings the landscape with traps. It can’t do otherwise because no advantage lies in one well-made thing when making rather than capture dictates life. It wants to eat, that’s all. It needs to express sticky strands, so a diet of gnats is as good as a grasshopper.

The work of peers passes as the spider moves to undiscovered places. You’ll see no grumbling in its steps. There isn’t time but there also isn’t envy. Part of knowing place is knowing context. The spider sees its ways relative to others, and their judgment is his own. Sometimes, passing under the great arc of a masterpiece, the spider dips its head and recommits to the path before it, but whether that’s bowing to emulation or oblivion is unclear. Neither shows in its next effort in any case.

An ending to its restlessness might be welcome. Were its supply of web to cease, the spider could be content to play caretaker, to wander among its many webs watching to see if anything unsuspecting remains to be caught. Eventually the spider would see all the strands break and maybe then it would feel loss as its life dwindled, but perhaps not.

What future awaits has little place in the spider’s attention. It looks for new space. It means to work.

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