Show White, Bruno Bettelheim, and High School Seniors

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A few years ago, the principal at my school asked that the English Department develop elective courses to provide students with choices suited to their particular interests.

I came up with a course I called “Psychoanalytical Criticism, Modernism, and Paris in the 20’s.”

I spent the summer before its debut culling public-domain texts I could publish in a “reader,” a quite laborious undertaking —  almost overwhelming — but I managed to amass 376 pages of essays, short fiction, and poetry.  In addition,  I required students to purchase Hesse’s Steppenwolf and a copy of Hamlet.

I started with Freud, providing an overview of his theories,

then delved into fairy tales, using Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment as a guide.

I began with “Snow White” because Bettelheim does an excellent job of synthesizing Freud’s stages of psychosexual development with the plot of the tale.

He writes

While, psychologically speaking, the parents create the child, it is the arrival of the child which causes these two people to become parents.  Thus, it is the child who creates parental problems, and with these come his own [. . .] As soon as the position of the child in the family becomes a problem to him and his parents, the process of the child’s struggle to escape the triadic existence has begun. With it, he enters the often desperately lonely course to find himself – a struggle in which others serve mainly as foils who facilitate or impede the process [. . .] In “Snow White it is the years Snow White spends with the dwarfs which stand for her time of troubles, of working through problems, her period of growth.[1]

Typically, fairy tales don’t deal with a child’s pre-oedipal history, and “Snow White” is no exception.

“Snow White” begins

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.” Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White. And as soon as the child was born, the queen died. A year later the king took himself another wife.

Bettelheim associates the drop of blood with menstruation, “a pre-condition for conception.”

Although her mother died in childbirth, and Snow White has a stepmother by age one, she doesn’t face problems until she starts to mature, and then her narcissistic stepmother takes notice.  Bettelheim points out that “[n]arcissism is very much a part of a young child’s make-up” and “a child must gradually learn to transcend this dangerous form of self-involvement.”

He adds that “all children are jealous, if not of their parents, then of the privileges the parents enjoy as adults [. . .] Since a narcissistic (step)mother is an unsuitable figure to relate to or identify with, Snow White, if she were a real child, could not help being jealous of her mother and all her advantages and powers [. . .] If a child cannot permit himself to feel his jealousy of a parent (this is very threatening to his security), he projects his feelings onto this parent.”  The child wants to be rid of this parent, which again, according to Bettelheim, is projected onto the parent, i.e., the child perceives the parent wants to get rid of her.

So, essentially, Snow White’s oedipal struggle is not repressed. The queen hires a hunter, a father figure, to murder Snow White in the forest, but “he fails to take a strong and definite stand,” not following the queen’s demand to murder her stepdaughter nor doing his moral duty of rescuing her. Rather, he abandons Snow White, expecting her to be killed by wild animals. “A weak father is as little use to Snow White as he was to Hansel and Gretel [. . .] It is such fathers who create unmanageable difficulties in a child or fail to help him solve them.”

Since Snow White is more beautiful than the queen, she has charged the hunter to bring back Snow White’s lungs and liver, which she cannibalizes, though, of course, she’s actually devouring the lungs and liver of an animal the hunter has slain.

Bettelheim:

The pubertal child is ambivalent in his wish to be much better than his parent of the same sex because the child fears that if this were actually so, the parent, still much more powerful, would take terrible revenge.  It is the child who fears destruction because of his imagined or real superiority, not the parent who wants to destroy.  The parent might suffer pangs of jealousy if he, in his turn, has not succeeded in identifying with his child in a positive way, because only then can he take vicarious pleasure in his child’s accomplishments.  It is essential that the parent identify strongly with his child of the same sex for the child’s identification with him to prove successful.”

Which, obviously, isn’t the case with Snow White. She ends up escaping her original home and stumbling across the dwarf’s dwelling in the forest. To satisfy her hunger, she takes a little bit from each of the dwarf’s plates, which Bettelheim suggests shows that she can control her “oral cravings.” She does the same with the dwarf’s beds, settling eventually in the seventh dwarf’s bed.  When these workaholics come home, the seventh dwarf “slept with his companions, one hour with each, until the night had passed.”  Bettelheim argues that “Work is the essence of [the dwarfs’ lives]; they know nothing of leisure or recreation [. . .]  and the price of living with them is conscientious work.”  He adds, “dwarfs are eminently male, but males who are stunted in their development [. . .] They are certainly not men in any sexual sense – their way of life, their interest material goods to the exclusion of love, suggest a pre-oedipal existence.”

Snow White’s sojourn with the dwarfs symbolizes the latency period, yet it is not a time free from dangers.  Her stepmother reappears in her life and tempts her three times, first with stay laces, suggesting that Snow White is now an adolescent.  Disguised as a peddler, the stepmother laces Snow White so tightly that she faints from a lack of oxygen.  Bettelheim argues that here the queen stands “for a parent who temporarily succeeds in maintaining his dominance by arresting his child’s development.”  Bettelheim posits this incident denotes Snow White’s becoming “overwhelmed by the conflict between her sexual desires and her anxiety about them.”

Indeed, vanity also plays into the queen’s second temptation, the poisoned combs that she places in Snow White’s hair.  The final temptation, of course, is the poisoned apple, which Bettelheim argues is a symbol for love and sex, harkening back to the Eden myth and the Judgement of Paris. The queen divides the apple in half, eating “the white part herself, while Snow White accepts the red, ‘poisonous half.’”  Bettelheim goes on to add, “Repeatedly we have been told of Snow White’s double nature: she is as white as snow and as red as blood – that is her being has both its asexual and its erotic aspect.

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“Eating the red (erotic) part of the apple is the end of Snow White’s innocence. The dwarfs, the companions of her latency existence, can no longer bring her back to life; Snow White has made her choice, which is as necessary as it is fateful. The redness of the apple evokes sexual associations like the three drops of blood which led to Snow White’s birth, and also menstruation, the event which marks the beginning of sexual maturity.”

He ends the essay by stating that the tale “teaches that just because one has reached physical maturity, one is by no means intellectually or emotionally ready for adulthood, as represented by marriage.”

“Like Snow White,” he writes, “each child in his development must repeat the history of man, real or imagined.  We are all expelled eventually from the original paradise of infancy, where all our wishes seemed to be fulfilled without any effort on our part. Learning about good and evil – gaining knowledge – seems to split our personality in two: the red chaos of unbridled emotions, the id; and the white purity of conscience, the superego.  As we grow up, we vacillate between being overcome by the turmoil of the first and the rigidity of the second (the tight lacing, and the immobility enforced by the coffin). Adulthood can be reached only when these inner contradictions are resolved and a new awakening of the mature ego is achieved, in which red and white coexist harmoniously.”

***

Depending on the student, these high school seniors either dismissed Bettelheim’s analysis or had their minds’ blown.  I emphasized that Freud was not what I would call a scientist, that his theories are not empirically based, but that they do offer sometimes extraordinary insight into the realm of the unconscious.  I stressed that it’s not necessary to buy into a paradigm to be able to employ it in interpretation, that whether you believe in Freud’s theories or not, being able to synthesize them into a coherent argument is good exercise.  Indeed, for their exam, I provided them the text of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and had them provide a Freudian interpretation.


[1] Bettelheim is no fan of Disney’s version.  “[A] bowdlerization,” he writes, “which unfortunately emphasizes the dwarfs, who failing to develop into mature humanity, are permanently arrested on a pre-oedipal level (dwarfs have no parents, nor so they marry or have children.”)

Free Lesson Plan: Teaching Point-of-View

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In fiction, especially short fiction, determining the point-of-view of the narration is often key in analyzing the piece.  From whose perspective do we experience the action?  From godlike omniscience; a particular character; or an objective, camera-like recorder?

Take Hemingway’s often anthologized story “Hills Like White Elephants.”   Hemingway presents the action from the objective point-of-view, showing an unmarried couple at a railroad station in Spain arguing about whether they should maintain or abort a pregnancy.  The subject is never explicitly mentioned, nor do we enter either character’s mind.  Essentially, the male is browbeating his lover into having the abortion, though she is hesitant.  Because the presentation is objective, the reader doesn’t necessarily take sides, the way he or she would if the narration had been first person or limited objective from the man or woman’s point-of-view.

Take a peek at the painting above, Pieter Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Imagine it’s fiction, not a painting.  What if the story were told from plower’s point-of-view or the shepherd’s?  They may have heard the splash but would not have seen Icarus  plummeting into the ocean, or to quote Auden,  “the white legs disappearing into the green water.”  I suggest to students that the omniscient point-of-view is the best mode to depict the action of the painting.

So what follows is an overview of the various points-of-view with an original narrative depicting the same scene from various perspectives.

Here are the basic points-of view:

omniscient

limited omniscient

objective

first person

second person

stream-of-consciousness

Omniscient Point of View

The omniscient point of view provides the author with the most freedom because he is, as the word omniscient suggests, all-knowing.  The narrator can see all,  go anywhere, knows all, can read multiple minds.  This point-of-view is excellent for wide ranging narratives like WW2 sagas and offers excellent economy but is somewhat distancing and demands the action to be rendered in rather straightforward prose.

Here’s the central narrative of this lesson told from the omniscient point of view.

Abby Huffington, an attractive young brunette in her early twenties, sat at her desk before a blank sheet of paper preparing to write a dear john letter to her boyfriend, Ashton Gray.   In the distance a lawnmower sputtered its dull ceaseless hacking growl as an irritating accompaniment to the hangover that clouded her thoughts.  Abby had met Ashton not long after her breakup with Bennington.  She realized now that shouldn’t have jumped into a relationship so soon.  She swung her head to the side, slinging her brown bangs out of her eyes and placed her pen into the corner of her mouth. Just at that moment a bluejay chased a wren from the bird feeder just outside her window.   Taking the pen out of her mouth, she wrote “Dear  Ashton,” thought better of it, then scratched through “Dear.”

Meanwhile, across town in his second story apartment, Ashton Gray with trembling fingers looped his madras tie in front of the mirror over his dresser.  It had been a rough night last night.  Something was bothering Abby.  At Taco Boy she was slinging down Singapore Slings like a sailor.  Now, at the last minute, she had decided that she wasn’t going to accompany him to church.  He walked over to his bedside table and picked up her photograph. Putting it down gently, he turned to retrieve his blazer from his closet and caught sight of his roommate’s calico cat on the hood of his car.  Opening the window, he shouted, “Hey, Jo-Jo, get off of there.”

Note that booth characters and their thoughts are presented in two different settings. This is impossible from the limited omniscient and first person points-of-view.

Limited Omniscient

In limited omniscience, all of the action is experienced through one character’s perceptions but is expressed in the third person.  The narrator intimately knows the character, can step outside of her for description’s sake, can read her thoughts but is tied to her perceptions; therefore, the character must appear in all scenes.

Abby Huffington, a young woman in her early twenties, sat at her desk before a blank sheet of paper preparing to write a dear john letter to her boyfriend, Ashton Gray.   In the distance a lawnmower sputtered its dull ceaseless hacking growl.  It wasn’t that Ashton was a bad guy; it was just that he was no Bennington. At the thought of Bennington’s name, she sighed. Why had she rushed into this relationship with Ashton?  It’s not as if she hadn’t been warned.  Her mother had warned her, Jaclyn had warned her, even her hairdresser had warned her.  She jerked her head to the side, slinging her brown bangs out of her eyes, and placed her pen into the corner of her mouth just as a blue jay chased a wren from the bird feeder that hung just outside her window. Taking the pen out of her mouth, she wrote “Dear  Ashton,” thought better of it, then scratched through “Dear.”

From this point-of-view we’re likely to take sides with Abby because she’s in the center of the action; we read her thoughts, not Ashton’s.  It’s more intimate than the omniscient rendering.

Also, I point out to students the name symbolism, Huffy Abby, dull, gray ASH-ton, and how the bluejay chasing the wren off parallels her chasing Ashton off.  I ask my students if they think the author consciously intended the symbolism, and if they say no, I remind them that I wrote it.

Objective

On the objective point-of-view, the narration is limited to camera-like observations in plain prose.  It’s akin to a stage play or movie and has the advantage of immediacy and verisimilitude. Its major drawback is a lack of economy.

A slender young man in his mid-twenties loops the bottom of his madras tie into position with trembling fingers as he peers into a dresser mirror.  Leaning into the mirror, he bares his teeth to inspect them, then turns and walks over to his bedside table and picks up a photograph of a smiling, fresh-faced brunette. He shakes his head as he gently places the picture back.  Turning, he glances out of the window, suddenly rushes over to it, flings it open, and shouts, “Hey, Jo-Jo, get off of there.”  A calico cat has left eight paw prints on a Dodge Neon sedan parked in front of the building.

Here we’re hardly aware of the central conflict, unlike the the omniscient version where we see both sides in very few words.

First Person

Obviously, in first person a character narrates using the pronoun I and speaks in his or her own voice.  The limitations are the same as limited omniscient, and it’s important to realize that narrator might be unreliable, though readers tend to side with a first person narrator even if he’s a murderer.

I don’t know why I decided to dump Ashton that Sunday.  My splitting headache might have had something to do with it.  I guess I could have delivered the news when he called to see if I wanted to do breakfast before church, but I chickened out, told more or less the truth, that I felt like hell.  His reaction was typical – quiet whining, I’d call it.  Even though he didn’t say anything, even though I couldn’t see him – it’s hard to explain – it’s like I could feel him whining through my cell.  I mean Ashton’s a nice guy and all, but he just didn’t do it for me.  Let’s face it.  I wasn’t over Bennington.  Anyway,  I was hungover, a lawnmower was roaring outside, birds squawking outside my window, so I got out a piece of stationary and had at it.

Note the prose can be as informal and as ungrammatical as you like.

Second Person

In second person, an imaginary you narrates in second person, so essentially it’s just like first person.  Ask students why an author might choose second person instead of first.

It’s Sunday morning, and you’re getting ready for church, trying to whip a half-Windsor into shape.  The problem is you have an awful feeling. Your fiancée has been acting weird lately, really weird.  Last night at Taco Boy she was so drunk she actually started smoking cigarettes.  You ended up practically having to carry her into her apartment, rooting through her purse to get the keys.  You really hope no one saw you, but you bet someone did.  Of course, she’s backed out of going to church. Unlike you, the model of moderation, she’s party, party, party.  You can even see it in her face in that photo you pick up from the end table.   That little sly smile.     You glance outside the window.  Not that cat again.  There he is tracking dirt on the hood of your car.

Stream of Consciousness

Here the narration consists of a person’s stream of disjointed thoughts.  It’s poetic, can reveal deep psychological insight, but too challenging for most readers.

Round and round we go, where we stop is a half-windsor, a half-windsor, son, a half windsor is the most distinguished knot.  Round here, we always stand up straight. Taco Boy, Salem Lites for petes’ sake..  Round here, something ain’t right.  Look at her, look at her.  What you smiling about, girl?    Round here, we stay up very very very late.  What the?  “Hey, Jo-Jo, get off of there.”

So that’s it.  Use the above with my blessing however you see fit.  I have narrative essay assignments for each (except stream-of-consciousness).  If you’d like to use them, let me know how to contact you in the comments.

Wesley Moore

Adventures in Editing

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A few years ago when I chaired an English Department at an independent school, it occurred to me that I could save my employer literally thousands of dollars by replacing the ridiculously expensive textbooks of our survey courses with compilations we put together ourselves.  After all, 90% of our texts fall in the realm of public domain.  Rather than forking out $145 a pop for an anthology, we could download the material, format it, print and bind it for $20 each.  Although the volumes would lack background on historic periods and authorial biographies, we could provide the cultural underpinnings of the Augustan Age or Ernest Hemingway’s gallivanting via lecture. Even better, the kids could keep the books and therefore annotate the texts.  Since it was my big idea, I volunteered to do the amassing, formatting, and editing myself.

O, dear readers, that was a promise I wish I could have undone.  Formatting was nightmarish.  Any slight correction would send the text gaping open, sliding along the screen, the blocks of prose or poetry gaping open here and there, like this:

 [. . .] afraid of Jim; he was a drunkard, but he could twist the law to suit his client’s needs as no     other man in all western Kansas could do; and there were many who tried. The lawyer closed    the door gently behind him, leaned back against it and folded his arms, cocking his head a little             to one side. When he assumed this attitude in the courtroom, ears were always pricked up, as it    usually foretold a flood of withering sarcasm.

Plus I needed to number lines or paragraphs, which further disjointed the format.  We’re talking hours, days, weeks, a summer of uncompensated labor.

One aspect I came to enjoy, however, was providing footnotes.  Ever since I was a child, I’ve dug footnotes (endnotes not so much). Anyway, I started traditionally enough:

Passage: A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay,” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away,”

Footnote: From Act 5.1 of Hamlet, the graveyard scene, when Hamlet contemplates Alexander the Great’s corpse decomposing into clay and Alexander’s clay ultimately being used to plug up beer barrels.

However, as time passed, I started relating the material to works they had read the previous year.

Passage: “The false society of men —

— for earthly greatness

All heavenly comforts rarefies to air.”

Footnote: From George Chapman’s (c. 1559 – 1634) The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey. Chapman, by the way,  is the translator Keats lauds in “On First looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

As even more time passed, I became self-indulgent and egocentric.

Passage: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged (sic) our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one    of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Footnote: Psalm 137.  Also, the first two lines are the beginning of the Reggae great Jimmy Cliff’s “By the Rivers of Babylon,” a lament about Jamaicans’ colonial enslavement. Slaves of the Americas identified with the Israelites of the Old Testament.

 

And then even more egocentric.

Passage: Porphyrogene!

Footnote: Literally “born to be purple,” as in of royal blood. Cf. the composer of “Purple Rain” and ”Little Red Corvette.”

Then downright sardonic:

Passage: “The evil that men do lives after them.”

Footnote: This famous line you should know, damn it! (BTW, you don’t get footnotes like this at the Magnet).

Passage: It is the excess of the suggested meaning — it is the rendering this, the upper instead of the undercurrent of the theme — which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists.

Footnote: Not exactly a ringing endorsement of ol’ Ralph Waldo and his gang.

Passage: The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.”

Footnote: Why spend all those days and nights studying Latin unless you get to flaunt your learning with an unnecessary, showoffish phrase or two?

At any rate, I managed to complete the project in time, and now, even in my retirement, I continue to edit the Readers as my former colleagues add and subtract entries.  It’s not nearly as burdensome now that I don’t have classes to prepare for or summer reading to complete.

The Fringe Benefits of Teaching

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I cringe whenever I encounter anyone cluck-clucking about the plight of teachers, those noble souls who have forsaken the glint and bling of wealth to follow their calling [quiet fanfare]: educating rising generations of young Americans!

I wonder, did a god/intuitive-inner-voice whisper vocation into my high school Spanish teacher’s ear one monumental day in first or second grade after she had plopped her plump seven-year-old self into the seat of one of the tiny desks arranged in rows facing a green board riveted to a concrete wall painted a pale urine-tinged yellow inside of whatever squat penal-red brick elementary school she attended?[1]  Did she hear an inner voice? “Be a teacher!  One day you can wipe the noses of and teach the alphabet to little boys and girls just like you.”

Bet not.

Perhaps my high school Spanish teacher’s decision to enter the profession came later when some energetic young man or woman teaching Español Uno initiated her into the exotic world of piñatas and “La Cucaracha.” This teacher may have inspired the future Sra D____ so that she modeled her life after her mentor’s and became a high school Spanish teacher.

It’s possible.

But more likely, she was very good at Spanish, received positive reinforcement, fell in love with the language, then the culture, so she wanted to study both.  Not talented and/or wealthy enough for the bigtime world of serious postgraduate scholarship, given the choices that lay before her, she took up teaching, the road not less traveled.

No matter what had prompted Sra  D____ to take up teaching, when I suffered through her Spanish II class ( 48 years ago), something had gone wrong with her work ethic. From Michigan, married to a sailor stationed in Charleston, she looked twenty-five or so.  Sour-faced and an acetic-tongued, she plopped down behind her desk each morning, leaned over, and clicked on a tape recorder (one that had to be hand-threaded).

For the entire class period, we echoed in unison the tinny foreign sounds emanating from the machine’s dime-sized speakers.  Cheating on tests was so rampant in her class that a couple of boys audibly hummed the Mission Impossible theme whenever they extracted cheat sheets of conjugations from beneath their artificial alligator belts.

One day a friend, Sharon Mallard, leaned over and whispered, “You could train a chimp to do what she does.  Have it come in every day and turn on the tape recorder.”

James Grafsgaard Gran Flamenco

***

I don’t mean to imply that many teachers aren’t underpaid, only that some are overpaid and others fairly paid.  For me (albeit underpaid), the fringe benefits of teaching more than compensated for the monetary rewards of professions that demand year round onerous office hours (e.g., law/medicine/engineering) or that deal in the ultimately trivial enterprise of merchandizing non-essentials (e.g. 5000 sq. ft. houses for families of four).

If indeed time is money (rather than time’s being a chain of chemical reactions flashing sentient beings deterministically through a process that ultimately culminates in their demise), then the free time that teachers possess is a treasure trove, not of accumulated cultural artifacts, but of hours of freedom to pursue pleasures – in my case, reading, writing, traveling – pleasures that ideally made me richer in experience and knowledge and therefore theoretically a better teacher.

Because we periodically changed what English classes and grades I taught at my school, my job demanded that every few years I reread Great Expectations, Julius Caesar, Pride and Prejudice, Heart of Darkness, Song of Myself, Steppenwolf, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Hamlet.

The horror, the horror!

As I grew older, I cross referenced my interpretation of those texts with earlier readings, discovered previously unnoticed nuances, explored criticism that might prod me to read something of Nietzsche’s I hadn’t (e.g., Beyond Good and Evil) or something of Jung’s I hadn’t (e.g., “The Difference between Eastern and Western Thinking”)

Of course, grading essays was burdensome; however, at least I was dealing with something I actually love – words – and helping a young person acquire a valuable skill, [i.e., writing (i.e., diction, syntax, logic, illustration, mechanics, etc.)].

As self-serving as it sounds, I wandered into teaching not because I heard a calling (how awful it would have seemed to me at 16 to spend forty more years in high school) or because I particularly liked children (I didn’t), but because I wanted employment that provided me a comfortable living with enough free time to cultivate my own interests.

What I didn’t know when I stumbled into my first classroom at Trident Tech was how much I would enjoy interacting with students.  There I taught ex-cons, single mothers, semi-English-literate Philippine-born Navy veterans, frugal intellectuals, and curious grandmothers.

In the far different situation at Porter-Gaud, my students enriched my life in ways that are too numerous to catalogue.  Of course, I taught a few pains-in-the-ass as well, but I can’t ever remember encountering a former student anywhere (even one who failed senior English and didn’t graduate with his class) who wasn’t glad to see me or I to see him or her.

Moral: Don’t pity teachers; envy them.


[1]One critic* notes: Not only does the sentence effectively capture the visual ugliness of a typical public school setting but also the sheer boredom of school routines, with those dreary participial phrases stretching out like the periods of the day, a Bataan Death March of detail: Oh, when will the sentence, like the school day, ever end?

*I.e., I-and-I

 

My Last Class

I guess it’s apt that I taught Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest for my very last class.  It was Wilde, of course, who claimed “life imitates art,” and in my case it was true, in a way, as I chose Hemingway’s Jake Barnes and Humphrey Bogart as my public masks, assuming the persona of a hard-drinking cynic, eschewing public tears as a failure of, if not character, at least temperament.  I didn’t weep at my parents’ funerals or at Judy Birdsong’s memorial service.[1]

So I was somewhat surprised to find myself yesterday in that last class on the verge of tears.  My friend and colleague Bill Slayton, a hell of a teacher, who is also retiring, asked if he could sit in, and I was happy he was there. The class had just finished Heart of Darkness, which was serialized in 1899, four years after the debut of The Importance of Being Earnest. I postulated that Marlow could be sitting on the deck of the Nellie in the River Thames telling his dark tale of jungle boogie, starring Kurtz and featuring severed human heads, while at the same time across town Wilde’s Algernon might be “tickling the ivories” and ordering his manservant Laine to fetch some cucumber sandwiches.

I suggested they were in the same town at the same time but in different centuries.

Bill talked of Tennyson and Browning and their raging against the decline of culture.  He quoted the last lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wilde, he said, instead of tilting against the windmills of civilization’s decline, went with the flow, enjoyed the farce, embraced the titillation of sense organs and the idea that art existed merely for its own sake. [2]

The kids politely listened as Bill and I more or less had an adult conversation about art and civilization as the classroom clock wound down to dismissal.  As I wrapped up, I told them how much I had enjoyed teaching them.  Bill rose from his chair and said he’d done some calculating and over my career at Porter-Gaud that I’d taught over 30,000 classes and didn’t they feel privileged to be sitting in on the last one.  The kids were standing and clapping, and I was about to lose it until I managed to growl Yeats’ epitaph, “Cast a cold eye/, On life, on death/Horseman, pass by.”

I shook hands with them as they left.  A couple of the girls were teary eyed, but by then, my Bogie mask was back securely in place.


[1]Though behind closed doors for Judy I’ve done more than my share of sobbing.

[2]Until, of course, he found himself on his hands and knees scrubbing the latrines of Reading Gaol.

Portrait of the Drudge as an Old Man

 

God knows how many hours I’ve spent grading essays over the last 33 years. [1]

Outside of faculty meetings and writing report cards, assessing essays, — i.e., untangling twisted syntax, striking through flaccid phraseology, performing CPR on near-dead verbs (not to mention dealing with grammar and mechanics)[pant, pant] – is for me the least enjoyable aspect of teaching English.

How many essays over the years are we talking about?  Let’s see.  Seventy some odd [2] students writing ten compositions a year comes to – drum roll – 700.  Multiply 700 by 33, and you get 23,100.

[Cue the Godfather, James Brown]: Good Gawd!  That be way more than an ass/shit/truck load!

How high would they reach if stacked one-on-one?  My pal Horatio is cutting me off: ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.”

Let’s just leave it like this: I’ve spent approximately 5,775 hours of my life correcting papers – i.e., 240 days, the equivalent of eight months, i.e., three-quarters of a year, one percent of my life.

But here’s the thing. That percentage is going down.  I’m retiring.  I only have 232 to go!

[Sigh]  An ass load.


[1]God knows precisely, but goddammit, I’m going to try to figure it out.

[2]And some odder than others

How Not to Teach “The Most Dangerous Game”

The first lesson I remember teaching in high school was the Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” one of the most idiotic short stories ever written.  Not only does plot pull the plug on your “suspension of disbelief,”[1] but also the prose is as bad as grammatical prose can be.

For example,

“You’ve good eyes,” said Whitney, with a laugh, “and I’ve seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards, but even you can’t see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night.”

Girls and boys, this is called exposition, background information, and, of course, no one talks like that.

“Hi, Judy, your balding husband of twelve years has arrived home after teaching high school English to a group of high achieving, mostly upper-income adolescents who live in and about the city where the Civil War began!  How about rustling me up a Heineken, stay-at-home mom, since it’s 1985 and feminism hasn’t kicked in yet down here?”

Actually, the late Lawrence Perrine put the story first in his text Literature, Sound, and Sense to demonstrate why commercial fiction shouldn’t be taken seriously.  Of course, most of the kids liked the story before I began my butchering.  You got clearly defined good and evil, not to mention “Malay Mancatchers” and “Burmese Tiger pits.”  My method was to mock the story in the mode of stand up comedian, to act out some of the scenes.

The plot goes like this. Sanford Rainsford, an American big game hunter, is talking on a yacht in the Caribbean about how he has no sympathy for the prey he pursues.  Happily, in an act of idiocy that could land him a Darwin Award nomination, he falls overboard.

[After hearing gunfire,] Rainsford sprang up and moved quickly to the rail, mystified.  He strained his eyes in the direction from which the report had come, but it was like trying to see though a blanket.  He leapt upon the rail [as if that would help] and balanced himself there, to get greater elevation; his pipe, striking a rope, was knocked from his mouth.  He lunged for it; a short, hoarse cry came from his lips as he realized he had reached too far and had lost his balance. The cry was pinched off short as the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea closed over his head.

As he swims toward Shipwreck Island, he hears more gunplay, and we’re treated to perhaps the most ludicrous dialogue prompt in the history of world literature:

“Pistol shot,” muttered Rainsford, swimming on. [Here I pantomime an Australian crawl, and as my head emerges from the water I mutter “pistol shot” and then continue swimming].

As it turns out, Shipwreck Island is the home of proto Bond villain General Zaroff, a Russian aristocrat so cartoonish he makes Boris Badenov from Bullwinkle look like Fyodor Paviovich Karamazov.

Rainsford makes it to the island, manages to sleep on the beach until “late afternoon” and begins to engage in Cartesian interpretations of physical nature:

“Where there are pistol shots, there are men.  Where there are men, there is food,” he thought.

He discovers some human footprints that lead to General Zaroff’s compound.  Oddly, Rainsford loses confidence in his powers of observation, like maybe he’s flashing back on some windowpane acid he dropped back at Yale after WW1.

“Mirage,” thought Rainsford. But it was no mirage, he found, when he opened the tall spiked gate.

Whew!

At the door he’s greeted by Ivan, Zaroff’s henchman, “ a gigantic creature, solidly made and black-bearded to the waist.”

ZZ Top meets Andre the Giant.

Rainsford is conducted to a room where “Ivan had laid out an evening suit.”  As he puts it on, Rainsford notices “that it came from a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke.”

Oh, those were the days.

Zaroff serves Rainsford a vague meal consisting of unspecified “cocktails” and “a particularly well cooked fillet mignon.”  Was it cooked to perfection or cooked well done? Who knows?

As it turns out, the tables are turned on Rainsford.  Zaroff’s hobby is hunting human beings, i.e., “the most dangerous game.”

When Rainsford voices outrage at the concept of hunting humans, Zaroff replies, “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life.”

Boo! Hiss!

The game doesn’t seem all that fair to this non-hunter.  Ivan supplies Rainsford with hunting clothes, food, and a knife whereas Zaroff gets a pack of hounds, Ivan, and an armory of high-powered weaponry.  If Rainsford manages to elude his predator for three days, he’ll be placed “on a the mainland near a town.”  Zaroff adds, “I will give you my word of honor as a gentleman and sportsman.”

So now the fun really begins.  As Zaroff tracks Rainsford through the jungle, Rainsford engages in the very un-Darwinian habit of talking out loud to himself.

“I will not lose my nerve, I will not.”

Cat and mouse. Rainsford fashions a “Maylay man-catcher” and – the highlight of the story for me — a Burmese Tiger Pit.

Rainsford “stepped back from the quicksand a dozen feet or so, and like some huge prehistoric beaver, he began to dig.”

A Beaver!  Why a beaver?  Remember studying about pre-historic beavers the size of mastadons? I don’t.

Of course, good triumphs over evil. Trapped at the end of the story, Rainsford jumps off a cliff, presumably to his death.

Here’s how it ends.

When the general and his pack reached the place by the sea, the Cossack stopped. For some minutes he stood regarding the blue-green expanse of water. He shrugged his shoulders. Then be sat down, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame Butterfly.

General Zaroff had an exceedingly good dinner in his great paneled dining hall that evening. With it he had a bottle of Pol Roger and half a bottle of Chambertin. Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was the thought that it would be difficult to replace Ivan; the other was that his quarry had escaped him; of course, the American hadn’t played the game–so thought the general as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur. In his library he read, to soothe himself, from the works of Marcus Aurelius. At ten he went up to his bedroom. He was deliciously tired, he said to himself, as he locked himself in. There was a little moonlight, so, before turning on his light, he went to the window and looked down at the courtyard. He could see the great hounds, and he called, “Better luck another time,” to them. Then he switched on the light.

A man, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, was standing there.

“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get here?”

“Swam,” said Rainsford. “I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.”

The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You have won the game.”

Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast at bay,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice. “Get ready, General Zaroff.”

The general made one of his deepest bows. “I see,” he said. “Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.” . . .

He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.

So that’s it. Rainsford puts on his pajamas and falls asleep in Zaroff’s bed.

The end, no contemplation of what he’d just experienced.  Let’s hope he loots the joint or at least cops that duke grade tuxedo.


[1]This is Coleridge’s term for our willingness to allow magic carpets to defy Newtonian physics for the sake of the story. However, we readers (or movie watchers) will tolerate only so much.  Cf. Mystery Science Theater 3000.