Free Lesson Plan: Teaching Jung Via Borges (Machete Edition)

Background

One question teachers abhor is “Did I miss anything in class yesterday?”

Seniors, what follows is what you missed in class Tuesday. Teachers, if you’re looking for a lesson plan in teaching Jungian literary criticism, scroll down to “More Background.”

Although I don’t consider Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious scientifically valid, I do think it offers a compelling example of how humans tend to project their biology onto Nature/the Cosmos in the conjuration/production of myth/scientific theory.

To oversimplify, Jung believed that each human inherits through her genes a vast network of unconscious latent symbols – what he called archetypes – and that this inherited, universal set of unconscious preconceptions answers the question: Why do religions and myths parallel one another? These preconceptions take root and bloom in the context of various climates but maintain many similar, basic characteristics despite being products of unique cultures.

According to Jung, both Taos tribesmen and Tibetan monks possess the self-same archetypes – the same building blocks of mythology – and, though separated by 12,458 kilometers and profound cultural differences, both produce medicine wheels/mandalas out of sand that – well, see for yourself:

navajo_sand_painter original_1345070734

 

 

 

 

 

Joseph Campbell popularized this idea of the universality of mythic motifs with his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it he charted the prototypical hero(ine)’s journey. Often, the hero is the product a miraculous birth (Moses, bulrushes) and is called upon to begin a quest (God, Moses), but sometimes he ain’t too keen on it (Moses, stuttering).

2013-02-28-HeroesjourneyThe journey starts with a Departure from the Homeland and a passage across a Mystical Threshold into a strange Other World. There the hero(ine) undergoes trials, receives supernatural aid, visits the Underworld (e.g., Hades/the belly of a whale), and finally returns with special knowledge to become Master/Mistress of Both Worlds. Variations abound, but the basic motifs are universal.

Campbell supports his universalist argument with an epic catalogue of examples from a broad range of “primitive, Oriental, and Occidental” hero myths.   Once again, to oversimplify, the circular journey of the hero(ine) is in essence the journey of maturation from childhood and adolescence into adulthood — through mid-life crisis — and finally into the realm of wisdom.

In other words, the trials of the mythic hero are an outward projection of an individual’s inward journey into his unconscious where the individual unearths archetypes, brings them to the surface, and harnesses their energy.

Jung called this process of bringing archetypes to light individualization.

Individualization

If you’ve read Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, you’ve vicariously undergone individualization.

Here’s an amphetametic synopsis of Steppenwolf with Jungian archetypes in bold:

steppenwolf-001Harry Heller’s has confused his ego with his persona (public mask), which reduces him to a mere intellectual, a self-important bore who c/rudely criticizes the household art of a former colleague who has invited him to dinner. Haller attributes his gauche behavior to an inner beast, his shadow (instinctual territorial/sexual badness), which he calls the Steppenwolf. (Think Jekyll/Hyde, Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk).

Haller’s ego has decided to cut his/its throat, but in a bar meets Hermine, his anima/doppelganger (inner female/twin), who teaches him how to dance, arranges for him to get laid, and blows his mind in a trippy Magic Theater where he discovers his two-dimensional view of himself as intellectual/wolf is over simplistic bullshit. *

Unfortunately, Haller never quite comes to understand that it’s his narcissism that makes his so wretchedly unhappy. Haller can’t, as Pablo, the Self archetype (inner Buddha/Jesus) points out, laugh at himself.

Okay, here’s how Jung claims individualization ideally works: Your ego recognizes that your public face (persona) isn’t the real you, that there’s something lurking beneath, the shadow. You tend to project your dark side, your shadow, on individuals who outwardly exhibit repressed negative aspects of your psyche that you don’t want to face (e.g., I hate the comedian Dennis Miller because he’s an arrogant, pompous, vocabulary-brandishing, ideologically opinionated asshole).

The anim/a/us* (the opposite sexed component of your psyche) plays the role of mediator by introducing your ego to its shadow. The ego knowingly incorporates the shadow’s negative but powerful instinctual wisdom into your waking consciousness, and presto, the ego has incorporated three submerged archetypes – the persona, the anima, and the shadow — into conscious recognition, which deepens and cultivates its/your humanity.

*Choosing “bullshit” instead of “hogwash” suggests I have successfully incorporated my shadow.


More Background

I teach a course called “Psychoanalytical Criticism, Modernism, and Paris in the 20’s.” Here’s what we did in class Tuesday, which I’m going to present as if it’s a lesson plan for teachers surfing the web for ideas about how to introduce students to the Jungian concepts of ego, persona, shadow, and doppelganger (mysterious twin).

Free Lesson Plan

Rene Magritte : Not to be Reproduced.

Rene Magritte : Not to be Reproduced.

This lesson occurred in an 85-minute block class, but, of course, can be divided into two or even three 40-45 minutes classes (i.e., if you incorporate the previous day’s lesson).

On the day before this lesson, Monday, I gave a lecture on the hero’s journey, socratically eliciting from students examples of heroic magical births from popular culture. E.g., Me: “You know of any heroes who had miraculous births?” Student: Yeah, Superman. Me: Explain, etc. We followed Campbell’s designated steps (see above) full circle with students citing parallel situations from other stories they’ve read.

For Tuesday’s homework, they read John Galsworthy’s “The Japanese Quince,” a freebie from the Public Domain you can download HERE.

Amphetametic synopsis of “The Japanese Quince”:

Mr. Nilson, “well known in the city,” with “firm, well-coloured cheeks” and “neat brown moustaches” and “round, well-opened, clear grey eyes” is troubled by a strange sensation in his throat and “a feeling of emptiness just under his fifth rib.”

Uncharacteristically, he walks outside to “take a turn in the Gardens” and hears a “blackbird burst into song.” The blackbird is “perched in the heart” of a tree in bloom. Mr. Nilson smiles and pauses: “the little tree was so alive and pretty! And Instead of passing on, he started there smiling at the tree.”

Feeling smug that he’s all alone there exclusively to enjoy the tree, he discovers that a “stranger” is standing next to him. He recognizes the stranger as his next-door neighbor Mr. Tandram, “well-known in the city” and who is “of about Mr. Nilson’s own height, with firm well-coloured cheeks, neat brown moustaches, and round, well-opened, clear grey eyes.” Both wear identical outfits and have newspapers clasped behind their backs.

The two engage in an awkward conversation about the tree, which they discover is a Japanese Quince because it is labeled.

It suddenly strikes Mr. Nilson that “Mr. Tandram looked a little foolish,” so he says “good morning” and retreats back into his house as does Mr. Tandram in the identical fashion.

The story ends with this sentence: “Unaccountably upset, Mr. Nilson turned abruptly into house and opened his morning paper.”


Amphetametic new critical reading of “The Japanese Quince”:

The protagonist, whose name can be transposed as “Son-of-Nothing” is a flat, static character who isn’t conscious of the story’s central conflict: that he leads a static, loveless life (note he feels an emptiness beneath his fifth rib where his heart should be).

In his adventure outside he encounters organic nature, the glories of spring, beautiful birdsong, but his encounter with his alter ego/antagonist Mr. Tandram, whose name can be transposed as “drop of boredom,” drives him back inside the sterile confines of his constricted existence.

The fact that protagonist and antagonist are both flat static characters beautifully meshes with the story’s theme of soulless materialism and the difficulty of overcoming entrenched routine.

Amphetametic Jungian reading of “The Japanese Quince”:

An ego who has confused its persona with itself is confronted by the doppleganger archetype who attempts to have the ego to see the absurdity of its persona in a mirror..  The story also can be read as a non-hero’s journey: he leaves home, crosses the threshold into a mysterious land, only to be frightened and to retreat home without having gained the secret to existence.


Before we discuss “The Japanese Quince,” I ask my students answer the following questions on paper in 100 words or fewer: Who am I? Where am I headed? Why? I assure them that I’m not going to take up their writing nor have them read their responses outloud unless they want to.

I then hand them this short piece by Borges:

Borges and I

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

Obviously, once again we have here a conflict between an ego and persona. Elicit Socratic responses from the students so they understand the nature of the conflict.

We then discuss “The Japanese Quince.”

I then have them read another piece by Borges called “El Etnógrafo.” I’m indebted here to William Rowlandson’s essay ” Confronting the shadow: the hero’s journey in Borges’ ‘El Etnógrafo,'” which you can purchase for $32.95 + tax HERE. If I weren’t teaching an 85 minute class I would have assigned the story for homework.

Here it is in English:

The ethnographer

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley

I was told about the case in Texas, but it had happened in another state. It has a single protagonist (though in every story there are thousands of protagonists, visible and invisible, alive and dead). The man’s name, I believe, was Fred Murdock. He was tall, as Americans are; his hair was neither blond nor dark, his features were sharp, and he spoke very little. There was nothing singular about him, not even that feigned singularity that young men affect. He was naturally respectful, and he distrusted neither books nor the men and women who write them. He was at that age when a man doesn’t yet know who he is, and so is ready to throw himself into whatever chance puts in his way — Persian mysticism or the unknown origins of Hungarian, the hazards of war or algebra, Puritanism or orgy. At the university, an adviser had interested him in Amerindian languages. Certain esoteric rites still survived in certain tribes out West; one of his professors, an older man, suggested that he go live on a reservation, observe the rites, and discover the secret revealed by the medicine men to the initiates. When he came back, he would have his dissertation, and the university authorities would see that it was published. Murdock leaped at the suggestion. One of his ancestors had died in the frontier wars; that bygone conflict of his race was now a link. He must have foreseen the difficulties that lay ahead for him; he would have to convince the red men to accept him as one of their own. He set out upon the long adventure. He lived for more than two years on the prairie, sometimes sheltered by adobe walls and sometimes in the open. He rose before dawn, went to bed at sundown, and came to dream in a language that was not that of his fathers. He conditioned his palate to harsh flavors, he covered himself with strange clothing, he forgot his friends and the city, he came to think in a fashion that the logic of his mind rejected. During the first few months of his new education he secretly took notes; later, he tore the notes up — perhaps to avoid drawing suspicion upon himself, perhaps because he no longer needed them. After a period of time (determined upon in advance by certain practices, both spiritual and physical), the priest instructed Murdock to start remembering his dreams, and to recount them to him at daybreak each morning. The young man found that on nights of the full moon he dreamed of buffalo. He reported these recurrent dreams to his teacher; the teacher at last revealed to him the tribe’s secret doctrine. One morning, without saying a word to anyone, Murdock left.

In the city, he was homesick for those first evenings on the prairie when, long ago, he had been homesick for the city. He made his way to his professor’s office and told him that he knew the secret, but had resolved not to reveal it.

“Are you bound by your oath?” the professor asked.

“That’s not the reason,” Murdock replied. “I learned something out there that I can’t express.”

“The English language may not be able to communicate it,” the professor suggested.

“That’s not it, sir. Now that I possess the secret, I could tell it in a hundred different and even contradictory ways. I don’t know how to tell you this, but the secret is beautiful, and science, our science, seems mere frivolity to me now.”

After a pause he added: “And anyway, the secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it. Each person has to walk those paths himself.”

The professor spoke coldly: “I will inform the committee of your decision. Are you planning to live among the Indians?”

“No,” Murdock answered. “I may not even go back to the prairie. What the men of the prairie taught me is good anywhere and for any circumstances.”

That was the essence of their conversation.

Fred married, divorced, and is now one of the librarians at Yale.

8465_originalHere, as Rowlandson points out, we have the journey of the hero, Murdock, a “respectful” and trusting young man, i.e., uninitiated, who leaves his university to live with Native Americans who represent Jung’s shadow.  Through his initiation Murdock learns “to dream in a language that was not that of his fathers.” As Rowlandson points out, one of Murdock’s ancestors had been killed by “Indians” who in Western culture have been traditionally denigrated as “savages.” After a series of trials, the shaman of the tribe gives Murdock “the tribe’s secret doctrine.” He then returns home an utterly changed human being.

Note the difference from him and Mr. Nilson/Tandram

I end the class by having volunteers read their answers of who they are, where they are headed, and why.

So, yes, absentee, you did miss something Tuesday. You should borrow someone’s notes.

You Won’t Believe These Killer, Innovative, Somewhat Offensive Halloween Costumes

[cue puppy ahhhhhhh]

[cue puppy ahhhhhhh]

As far as I’m concerned, Halloween should have an “AKA Mental Health Day” attached to it. I’m sure there are several studies out there that argue being reminded of your own mortality in a jocular way is a healthy thing. Plus, children get to transform themselves into princesses, Ninja Turtles, or adorable zombies.

Adults, too, can disguise themselves, don costumes that project their dearest archetypes (pirates) or mock creatures/institutions they despise (Jehovah Witnesses/The Chamber of Commerce).

Plus, in disguise, it’s almost like you got a license to get Dionysianly drunk but somehow forgiven for that extra-marital flirting, that making an ass of yourself in general..

So with that in mind, I thought I’d share with you five innovative, inexpensive, costumes that you can whip together in no time — just in case you get that last minute invitation (I’m still waiting for mine).

Ebola Heath Care Worker

backpack optional

backpack optional

Okay, before you start flailing away in a tizzy of outrage, remember that Halloween’s all about death and mayhem. Admit it, you don’t know anyone who has ever died of, much less contracted Ebola. If it’s okay to dress up like a hobo/homeless person, what’s so wrong about dressing up like an Ebola health worker? I bet more homeless people freeze to death on the streets of Detroit this winter will die of Ebola in the next decade.

Assembling the Costume: Go to Walmart and buy a disposable paint overalls, wading boots, rubber gloves,  goggles, and a breathing mask. Bingo!

Charlestonian

slider-21-1170x683bucksThanks to global warming, we’re no doubt looking at another sweltering Halloween, so the regulation seersucker Charlestonians sport will be not only comfortable, but, let’s face it, slimming. Fellows, a bow tie is a must; ladies, I suggest some sort of hat. Both sexes need to always have a drink in both hands.

Dr, John, the Night Tripper

If you don’t know whom I’m talking about, shame on you. Skip to the next costume. For the cognoscenti, this costume comes in two vintages, the Old Dr. John, which, though fun, is complex. See illustration.

DRJOHN11 drjohn200-341bc5b44a7808bf984e964aac6c68f09c0340a5-s2-c85

I suggest the contemporary Doctor John with pasted-on van dyke (if you’re not sporting one already), purple blazer, green shirt and matching funky fedora, necklaces, etc.

Ladies, don’t let this look be off-limits. It’s easier for you to pull off than a “Gertrude Stein.”

zurich james joyceJames Joyce

Of course, no one is going to know who James Joyce is, but that should make you feel even more superior than these bourgeois losers who decided to invite you only at the last minute..

All you need are glasses, an eye patch, a suit, some sort of a hat, and a cane. Presto.

Hassidic Jew

7e1e17e7ada66b3d8256c61cd03c2416A last minute desperation choice and in as poor taste as dressing up like Aunt Jemima but nevertheless covered by the First Amendment.

Just add a hat and braids to last year’s Hamlet costume.

Here’s a LINK where you can cop a hat with braids.  Better overnight it.

Zen Lullaby

Morpheus and Iris, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1811

Morpheus and Iris, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1811

Poets for centuries have lauded the serenity that sleep can bring. From Rolfe Humphries’s gorgeous translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, here’s Alcyone in Book 11 addressing Morpheus, the God of Sleep:

O mildest of the gods, most gentle Sleep,

Rest of all things, the spirit’s comforter,

Router of care, O soother and restorer . . .

O, to be able to sneak off on a weeknight to Morpheus’s cave where

[ . .] No bird

With clarion cry ever calls out the morning,

Dogs never break the silence with their barking,

Geese never cackle, cattle never low,

No boughs move in the stir of air, no people

Talk in human voices.  Only quiet.

From under the rock’s base a little stream,

A branch of Lethe, trickles, with a murmur

over the shiny pebbles, whispering Sleep!

Before its doors great beds of poppies bloom

And other herbs, whose juices Night distills

To sprinkle slumber over the darkened earth.

There is no door to turn upon its hinge

With jarring sound, no guardian at the gate.

Me rather:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

We’re talking two the three a.m., brothers and sisters, the illuminated digits of the alarm clock silently progressing towards Morpheus-bereft morn and its traffic-choked slow progression to an awaiting electronic mailbox teeming with emails cajoling, demanding, chuckling, warning, applauding, joking, alerting, reminding.

What we need is a 3 a.m. surefire lullaby for adults that will allow “[t]he kind assassin Sleep” to “draw a bead and blow [our] brains out” (Richard Wilbur, “Walking to Sleep”).

However, brothers and sisters, this ain’t it:

art and lyrics by Wesley Moore

collage and lyrics by Wesley Moore

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

What Exactly What Does a Comet Smell Like; Plus, Why Is It So Hard to Describe Smells?

Osmanthus fragans

Osmanthus fragans

Words certainly fail us when it comes describing smells – flowers, sewers, and as it turns out, comets.

How, for example, can we convey the odiferous deliciousness of Osmanthus fragans (aka tea/sweet olive), that evanescent wafting olfactory hint of autumn?

The adjective “sweet” doesn’t do much good. Cherry sweet? Peach sweet? Rancid wino-breath sweet?

No, sweet olive smells like sweet olive.

Essentially, all you can do to attempt to replicate the experience of smelling is to employ a noun and have the reader associate that noun with the smell: pine, smoke, cedar.

Fred Swan, a wine expert, offers this explanation of why:

Aromas bypass the thalamus entirely. They go from the olfactory bulb to part of the amygdala. The amygdala is also crucial for processing long-term memories and some aspects of emotion. So, with apologies to the brain surgeons among you who will be writhing in pain at this generalization, our sense of smell is uniquely tied to our memories and emotions but is more separated from our words than the other senses.

Yes, for me, sweet olive whispers of childhood, Mama Blanton’s backyard, football season, pine cones shedding, shredding, littering the ground and sidewalks in flakes of orange and brown.

I certainly won’t live to see the day when our computers are able to reproduce smells by a stroke of a keyboard. You can digitalize a photo, digitalize a sound, but you can’t digitalize an odor.*

This inability to capture odors isn’t that big of a deal, unless you’re trying to imagine how something alien smells — like a wild boar, a 19th Century Parisian courtesan, or say, a comet.

the author wishing he had a gas mask

the author wishing he had a gas mask

News flash: According to scientists at the University of Bern, comets exude an impossible to imagine combination of hydrogen sulphide (rotten eggs/farts), ammonia (horse shit), formaldehyde (fetal pigs ripe for dissection), hydrogen cyanide (almonds), methanol (rubbing alcohol), sulphur dioxide (vinegar), and carbon disulphate (who knows?).

The nose boggles trying to conjure the combination. Certainly the obvious go-to phrase “smells like shit” won’t do.

Calling Father Arnall:

Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of [a comet]. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of [a comet]. (Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man}

Or something like that.

*Hat tip to Aaron Lipka.

Going Back in Time Down Highway 162 South

drowning treesBecause we don’t work from June through July, Judy Birdsong and I tend to take trips to far flung places like Chicago, New Orleans, Lisbon, Paris.

We had planned last summer to head out on a whim in late July to a yet-to-be-decided somewhere, like Nova Scotia or the Pacific Northwest, but just after the 4th, Judy was diagnosed with PTCL-NOS, a more-often-than-not fatal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

I’ll spare you the Lifetime movie of our dealing with uncertainty, calling our sons with bad news, the cheery waiting room posters pushing upcoming studies for the recently relapsed. To make a long, painful story short, after four rounds of in-hospital 96-hour continuous EPOCH chemo, Judy’s last PET scan came back “completely normal.” Although the process is far from over, the quick disappearance of the cancer bodes well for a permanent cure.

Time, then, to celebrate. We hadn’t vacated town since last October’s Leaf Festival to see Dr. John and the New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels*, so we decided to drive down to Edisto last Sunday before Judy’s fifth round of chemo** and visit Botany Bay, 5,000 acres of what once were cotton fields from plantations that are [cue “Tara’s Theme”] no more.

Botany Bay’s main attraction, though, is a three-mile stretch of pristine beach whose bleached dead trees succumbing to the assault of the encroaching ocean serve as poignant symbols of what the ravager Time has in store for all of us. The copious shells that crunch under your feet and decorate the trees along the strand like grave ornaments offer their own testimony that time, time, time, ain’t on our side.


*Click HERE to see a video of Judy, the Soul Brothers, and Dr. John in action.

** She still has two more rounds of chemo, a stem cell transplant, and perhaps radiation before it’s over.

 The Drive Down

Rantowles

This trip down to Edisto took us right past the first house owned, a brick-veneer 3-bedroom ranch-style monstrosity custom-built by a good ol’ boy who couldn’t believe we were taking out the red and orange shag carpet he had just put in last year. We didn’t have the heart to tell him the red sink in the green bathroom was also slated for removal. The house’s redemption was that it overlooked Logbridge Creek, which connected to the Intercoastal Waterway. The view from the backyard and bedroom bay window was like, as my friend Steve Rey put it, a cover off of South Carolina Wildlife.

Judy and Me at our first house in Rantowles

Judy and Me at our first house in Rantowles

So Judy and I detoured right down Chaplin’s Landing Road to check out those digs of yore.

Guess what?

It’s changed. Our old dirt road is now a paved street lined with handsome houses that make our original seem like an embarrassing uncouth great uncle, you know, the one who wears suspenders that clash with his flannel shirt. A large Beware of Dog sign graced the busy front yard with its un-pruned Azaleas, garden do-dads, and array of automobiles.

Hollywood

Once we got back on Hwy 162 headed towards Edisto, we discovered that things haven’t changed that much since the early ’80’s, in fact, haven’t changed much since I was a boy.

Lining the road stood small modest domiciles, a mixture of wooden cottages, manufactured homes, and dilapidated house trailers. Business establishments include Parry Ruth’s Beauty Parlor, Youmans Natural Gas, small engine repair shops — lots of family owned businesses. The one incorporated town you pass through, Hollywood, hasn’t suffered the ever growing proliferation of traffic lights that plague the Charleston area. However, I don’t remember this antique store whose outside sentinel certainly headembodies the theme of the post.

Nevertheless, on the drive down, I felt as if I were once again in the Old South, here where black country folk seem to outnumber white country folk, and what a pleasure to see brothers and sisters in all of their finery chatting on the steps of an AME church.

Well, a couple of things had changed. The house trailer we remember perched on concrete block stilts is gone, along with a full sized mattress that hung like a hammock with four chains dangling from the boughs of a giant live oak, each chain attached to one of the mattress’s four corners.

Hollywood to Botany Bay

churchOnce you’re out of Hollywood, you enter even deeper into the disappearing South, pass through tunnels of moss-festooned live oaks, transverse bridges offering marsh vistas, pass a generous sampling of white-washed churches of various denominations. Genteel establishments like the Old Post Office Restaurant closed on Sunday stand as mute reminders of days gone by.

 

The Beach at Botany Bay

Natural Resources runs the Preserve, so you have to stop and sign in. The friendly ranger, who looked like he might be a volunteer, provided us a map and warned us of what not to do (collecting a shell can cost you a $470 fine), and gave us a brief history of the plantations that once stood on the property.

The beach is being engulfed by the sea, which has created a sort of graveyard of entangled trees, some blanched white and prone, others with beautiful swirls of root wood, other’s standing alone in the ocean like a crazy old doomed King Canute.

A variety of shells carpet the sand, but a chambered nautilus I saw not among the Darwinian litter.

tangleHow wonderful to be alive on this island of the dead! How wonderful to know the little that we know.

The Plantation Ruin Tour

Ain’t nothing left to speak of — an ice house, a tabby tool shed, dikes, and part of a plantation house’s foundation.

I couldn’t help but think of the slaves on this Sabbath, their only day off, nothing much to look forward to.  Their cottages used to line the Creek, according to our map.  Evil.

The six mile dirt road drive was pretty enough, but after four so hours of unrelenting beauty, I longed for the familiar squalor of Chico Feo’s.

We hauled ass home opting for the short cut via Toogoodoo Road where you can go 60 and not encounter another car for miles and miles.

shellsbutterflies

James Dickey and Me

james-l-dickeyIntro

Like hundreds of other po-dunk wannabe poets, I took James Dickey’s verse seminar course when he was poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. That semester — the Fall of ’76 – ended up being a significant one for Dickey, who in the course of its 15 weeks became a widower and a bridegroom.

I had first heard of Big Jim Dickey from my high school English teacher Mrs. Clarice Foster, who described him as “a brilliant young poet who had written a fairly good novel.” The novel, of course, was Deliverance, which came out in ’70, my senior year, two years before the release of the movie. Deliverance the movie made Dickey famous, a drinking buddy with Burt Reynolds, but perhaps exacerbated his propensity of making a colossal ass of himself.

Big Jim Dickey (by Robert Fowler)

Who started calling

Big Jim Dickey

Big Jim Dickey?

Big Jim Dickey,

That’s who.

Bobby’s poem summarized what the slumming literary crowd I hung around thought about Dickey. The cat could write dazzling poems, but his my-genius-gives-me-the-license-to-breach-the-customs-of-polite-society got old fast. He could make you feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, like your own father could in your late teens when you started to figure out a lot of what he pontificated was bullshit. I lacked compassion back then, I thought I knew more than I did, and I now rue my lack of respect.

James Dickey was a near great, if not great poet, and I squandered a chance to learn more from him.

From “Cherrylog Road”

We left by separate doors

Into the changed, other bodies

Of cars, she down Cherrylog Road

And I to my motorcycle

Parked like the soul of the junkyard

Restored, a bicycle fleshed

With power, and tore off

Up Highway 106, continually

Drunk on the wind in my mouth,

Wringing the handlebar for speed,

Wild to be wreckage forever.

James Dickey

dickey with hatFall Semester 1976

Smiling, stooped, gregarious, he sat at the head of the seminar table wearing two or three watches on both wrists. Dickey was often – I wouldn’t call it drunk – but more like inebriated – eloquent, narcissistic, rarely bothering to comment on the fixed-form ditties he had us crank out each week.

More typically, he’d talk about himself, famous poets he’d known, the goings-on of the set of Deliverance.   He called the good-looking females in the class “Sugar Face.” One week on Tuesday and Thursday, without providing us the text to see, he read aloud the same essay by Sir Herbert Read.   No one mentioned to him the error on that Thursday when he began reading the piece for the second time – not I-and-I, not the hanger-on poets who attended the class every semester without registering, not his grad assistant.

In short, he was a terrible teacher that semester, that is, until some veins in his wife’s esophagus ruptured, which he described in class with a graphic eloquence that was at once paradoxically impassioned and detached. It was like watching a poem coming to be in 3-D – he at first thinking a burglar had attacked her when he encountered her limp body bleeding profusely on the floor of their house. He held her in his arms there on the floor as she lost half her body’s blood.

Warning: the Following Contains Off-Putting Name Dropping

Several years ago our friend Jo Humphreys, author of Dreams of Sleep and Rich in Love, invited Judy and me to a party in honor of her mentor Reynolds Price. After Jo introduced us, Mr. Price and I got on the subject of James Dickey who had recently died. Price told me he had great affection for “Jim” but that Jim was “insane” in a way that was hard to characterize and that it was impossible to be a woman and to be his friend.   Mr. Price also said that one time at a party, Dickey had picked him up off the ground and said something to the effect of that though he — Dickey — didn’t sleep with men, if he ever were to, he’d want to sleep with him — Price.

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Fall Semester, continued

Mrs. Maxine Dickey survived that night and hung on for a month or so before she died. While she was in the hospital, Elizabeth Bishop came to campus for a reading. Dickey — or his graduate assistant — arranged for us during our class time to meet Bishop and hear her read a poem or two.   The meeting hadn’t been announced, so we followed Dickey, leading the way down the street from our classroom to a Victorian house a block away.

So we met Elizabeth Bishop, I ignorant of what an honor it should be. She looked like an Episcopalian grandmother with her neatly coiffed white hair and  matching plaid blazer and skirt. Her demeanor utterly contrasted with Dickey’s, like George Will versus Screaming Jay Hawkins.

What I didn’t know was that Elizabeth Bishop and her friend Robert Lowell held Dickey in contempt. Later that night after the official reading, Dickey asked Bishop to sign some books and pose for a photograph with him and refused, saying, “Sir, I do not pose for pictures.”

One of the great things about having Dickey on campus was the writers he could summon. During my time in Columbia, in addition to Elizabeth Bishop, I got to hear Robert Penn Warren, Archibald MacLeish, and Robert Lowell.

For the Last Wolverine

They will soon be down

To one, but he still will be

For a little while    still will be stopping

The flakes in the air with a look,

Surrounding himself with the silence

Of whitening snarls. Let him eat

The last red meal of the condemned

To extinction, tearing the guts

From an elk. Yet that is not enough

For me. I would have him eat

The heart, and, from it, have an idea

Stream into his gnawing head

That he no longer has a thing

To lose, and so can walk

Out into the open, in the full

Pale of the sub-Arctic sun

Where a single spruce tree is dying

Higher and higher. Let him climb it

With all his meanness and strength.

Lord, we have come to the end

Of this kind of vision of heaven,

As the sky breaks open

Its fans around him and shimmers

And into its northern gates he rises

Snarling   complete    in the joy of a weasel

With an elk’s horned heart in his stomach

Looking straight into the eternal

Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all

My way: at the top of that tree I place

The New World’s last eagle

Hunched in mangy feathers    giving

Up on the theory of flight.

Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate

To the death in the rotten branches,

Let the tree sway and burst into flame

And mingle them, crackling with feathers,

In crownfire. Let something come

Of it    something gigantic     legendary

Rise beyond reason over hills

Of ice   SCREAMING    that it cannot die,

That it has come back, this time

On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:

That it will hover, made purely of northern

Lights, at dusk    and fall

On men building roads: will perch

On the moose’s horn like a falcon

Riding into battle    into holy war against

Screaming railroad crews: will pull

Whole traplines like fibers from the snow

In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.

But, small, filthy, unwinged,

You will soon be crouching

Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion

Of being the last, but none of how much

Your unnoticed going will mean:

How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage,

The glutton’s internal fire    the elk’s

Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

The pact of the “blind swallowing

Thing,” with himself, to eat

The world, and not to be driven off it

Until it is gone, even if it takes

Forever. I take you as you are

And make of you what I will,

Skunk-bear, carcajou, bloodthirsty

Non-survivor.

                                        Lord, let me die       but not die


Out.

James Dickey

the author in 1976 photo by Judy Birdsong

the author in 1976 photo by Judy Birdsong

Fall Semester completed

In the other class Dickey was teaching that semester, Dickey had met his soon-to-be new wife.   He married her, one of his students, Deborah Dodsen, two months after Maxine’s death.

I myself had met and fallen in love with my future wife Judy Birdsong that semester.

Later Contact

When I started teaching high school in the mid-Eighties, I called Dickey to ask him if it would be all right if I had a student writing a paper on Deliverance phone and interview him to so he could use the author as a source.

Mr. Dickey — as I addressed him over the phone — couldn’t have been nicer. He asked what year he had taught me, who my friends were, claimed to remember me, and welcomed the student’s call.

The last time I saw Dickey was in ’97. He had selected a poem of mine to be included in anthology of his students’ work published by USC Press. There was a reception for the poets where we could buy books and have him sign them.

He was a changed man, thinner, the combover replaced by a buzz cut;  he was calmer, almost courtly. We chatted as he signed three books I had bought for my parents, my in-laws, and a friend.

I really regret that I didn’t have him sign one for me, but the line was long, and I didn’t want to be that person.

A Teachable Moment Botched

Time is the school in which we learn — John Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Yesterday before class, a petite, clear-eyed fifteen year-old announced that she has decided that she doesn’t want to grow old, that she wants to make great contributions to the world, and then die at 60. She added, “Mr. Moore, that means that if that happens, then 25% of my life is over!”

This is what we call in the my business[1] a “teachable” moment, and I botched it. I should have called on Alexander Pope, that four-foot, six-inch[2] colossus:

In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,

While from the bounded Level of our Mind,

Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,

But more advanc’d, behold with strange Surprize

New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!

So pleas’d at first, the towring Alps we try,

Mount o’er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;

Th’ Eternal Snows appear already past,

And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:

But those attain’d, we tremble to survey

The growing Labours of the lengthen’d Way,

Th’ increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,

Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

Although our flowers fade (I too had pretty plumage once!), the world becomes increasingly more interesting as we gain perspective, and as the social preoccupations of adolescence dissipate, the “cool people,” if given the choice, would rather hang with Charles Bukowski than Wink Martindale, with Joan Didion rather than Kim Kardashian.

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian

Joan Ddidion

Joan Didion

But, like I said, I botched it. I turned to of all people Marcus Aurelius and paraphrased the following:

Were you to live a thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest life amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, not yet what is still to come — for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess?

Like, I said, I botched it. I told her and the rest of the students to think lineally only so far ahead that they can salvage more of the present for their enjoyment, in other words, to get that rough draft out of the way early Saturday morning so it won’t be squeaking like a wobbling wheel in the back of your mind all day. But I told them not to think too far into the future, not to dream about their freshman year at Duke or their wedding day or their future contributions to humanity.

I write this as my beloved is receiving a blood transfusion and have come myself to live the advice I gave those students yesterday. It’s always now. The future is not ours. The past is kaput. I hear a bird’s staccato chirp outside my open window on this gorgeous Saturday and wish him or her the best.


 

[1] Schools, alas, have taken on the corporate model, though they still give lip service to the “family” metaphor.

[2] 1.37 meters for my European readers