When I taught senior English back in the Eighties, Nineties, Aughts, and Teens, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf played a pivotal role in the curriculum. We used the text to introduce students to psychoanalytical criticism, to show them that formalism – or “New Criticism” as it is sometimes called – is not the only avenue for analyzing literature.
If our schedules allowed a convenient free period, I’d invite colleague and Arch-Trickster Bill Slayton to engage in a short colloquy with my AP seniors on the Magic Theater sequence of Steppenwolf. One of Bill’s many talents as a teacher was to relate whatever the kids were reading to their lives, to make it relevant.
He’d begin the discussion by asking where they planned to attend college. Probably afraid they’d jinx themselves, they clamped shut and fidgeted, but Bill coaxed from them an admission that they’d narrowed their prospective lists to a finite number. Then he’d detail the inexorable winnowing that lay ahead by cataloguing the progression of self-limiting choices forced upon them – declaring a major, joining a fraternity or sorority (and its attendant conformity), specializing in a profession (divorce law, podiatry, the poetry of George Herbert).
The Podiatrist of Avon
Jungian psychology, he explained, is all about the opposite – expanding your mind by getting in touch with the hidden potentialities Jung called archetypes, cultivating the accountant within (if you’re Lord Byron) or your internal Lord Byron (if you’re Henry James). 
Bill subtly suggested that the Western Tao, i.e., mindless materialism, accompanied by a continuing narrowing of focus and interest, might not be the way to go. Of course, for most of our ambitious and high-achieving students, he might as well have been King Canute demanding that the sea desist (or, to update the allusion, Donald Trump screaming at the Coronavirus to stop spreading).
Bill didn’t mention having children, which, of course, is the ultimate wing-clipper in existential freedom flying. After my marriage to Judy, before we had children, I’d sometimes court danger, learn by going where I should not go, to echo a line from Roethhke. However, after my sons Harrison and Ned arrived, no more non-touristy Jamaican dance halls, no more high-octane chemical cocktails for I-and-I. Obviously, the responsibilities of nurturing and cultivating offspring are enormous. In my reckoning, dying foolishly before the job is done would be dereliction of duty.
Come to think of it, a Jungian analyst might deem my erstwhile adventurous Hemingway wanna-be shenanigans over-kill, an imbalance of energy. Transferring energy from oneself to others is a necessary step in mind expansion, a pebble-drop in the pond of consciousness that generates concentric circles expanding outward.
Of course, you don’t have to have children to accomplish this expansion – Mother Teresa comes to mind – and having children doesn’t necessarily accomplish it either. Selfish parents ignoring or exploiting their children is as old as the Bible and Greek mythology; Huck’s dad, Pappy Finn, is still alive, (if not well).
Teaching literature isn’t only about reading and writing and expanding vocabularies; it is also about employing literature as lens through which to observe the compressed lives of others. I think Bill’s point was despite the inevitable constrictions that the transition from childhood to adulthood entails, an open and inquiring mind is essential in a life well-lived.
 For Freud, you can’t go wrong with “Fall of the House of Usher.” For Jungian criticism, Thomas Wolfe’s “Child by Tiger” is also an effective text.
 According to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, in 1717, “Byron established himself in Venice, where he began a year and a half of debauchery that, he estimated, involved more than two hundred women.” Henry James, on the other hand, died without ever having a significant other, at least in a sexual sense.
Has there ever been an unrequited love that’s paid more poetic dividends than WB Yeats’s decades long pursuit of unyielding Maud Gonne?*
[cue Robert Johnson: “All my love’s in vain.”]
Here’s a slight sampling:
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
“Down by the Salley Gardens”
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
“When You Are Old”
Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children’s children shall say they have lied.
“He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved”
O Heart! O Heart, if she’d but turn her head
You’d know the folly of being comforted.
“The Folly of Being Comforted”
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
“Never Give All the Heart”
I could go on and on, but allow me just one more:
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
Given this inspiration, perhaps I should lament I’ve never suffered unrequited love.
I have, on the other hand, suffered numerous unrequited crushes, but compared to the unstaunched hemorrhaging of Yeats’s heart, my rejections add up to so many mosquito bites scratched to the point of bleeding but fairly soon forgotten.
Not very inspiring, not the stuff of poetry, merely the stuff of doggerel.
The Lazy Muse of Unrequited Crushes
She sleeps till one each afternoon,
The lazy muse of unrequited crushes.
Never gazes at the waning moon,
Stomps around my brain on crutches,
Lisping doggerel with an interrogative lilt,
Ransacking my drafty garret,
Looking for an obscure line to lift
From Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett
Browning. Womp, womp.
*When Yeats told Gonne he wasn’t happy without her, she replied, “Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.” Norman A. Jeffares, W.B. Yeats, a New Biography.
I’ve decided to designate the 20th of each month as the day I’ll publish a recurring post called “Pet Peeve of the Month.”
Yes, I’m aware that the Republic is burning, that Bill Barr is making John Mitchell look like Atticus Finch, that police throughout the nation are reprising the Chicago Democratic Convention of ’68 while idiotic anarchists topple and deface statues of Ulysses S Grant because they hate the Confederacy. Not to mention a global pandemic dispatching hundreds of thousands of human beings and laying waste to world economies. Given all this, my carping about minutiae might strike some as self-indulgent, Nero picking up his Stratocaster to lay down some riffs as flames devour the nation.
Well, what do you expect? I’m a boomer, born in the waning days of the Truman Administration, the beneficiary of parents striving to provide a better life than the ones they suffered during their Depression Era childhoods when dressed in rags they scoured the Dickensian streets of their sepia-tinted cities looking for coppers, someone just a bit too young to go to Nam, someone pampered by indulgent college professors who inflated grades to the proportion of Macy Thanksgiving Parade cartoon balloons, someone who spent his working years at an posh independent school where the only fight he ever witnessed ended abruptly when a bell signaling the end of lunch rang. Of course, with a bio like that, I’m bound to be self-indulgent.
Anyway, let’s get to the main feature, the petty thing that this month irks the hell out of me.
June’s Pet Peeve
It really, really bugs me when I’m watching a PBS nature series and the narrator says stuff like the panther chameleon’s eyes have been engineered by nature to rotate independently as they stalk their prey.
Panther Chameleon (photo by Robbie Labanowski)
Really? Engineered? Does the creature depicted above seem to you to be the product of a drawing board?
Note to the science writers at Nature: check out Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. Natural Selection ≠ Engineering. Natural Selection is a horrifically random process that includes genetic mutations, asteroids colliding with the Earth, etc. Your use of the word engineering suggests the decrepit teleological intelligent-design argument (as if having an asteroid smack into the planet is a nifty way for an engineer to facilitate the rise of mammals).
I’ll give Robert Frost the last word on this topic:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
Now, that’s what I call engineering: a Petrarchan sonnet that through pattern debunks the argument from design.
Do you know the TS Eliot poem “Preludes?” It’s one of those early 20th century extended sighs where the sum of disjointed parts equals alienation. Walking through smoky London, we encounter a progression of fragmented images: “grimy scraps of withered leaves,” “broken blinds and chimney pots,” “faint stale smells of beer from the sawdust-trampled street.”
At one point, Eliot writes
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms
Oddly enough, Eliot’s lines came wafting up from the mental basement I had stashed them in as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed yesterday.
Before I wax unkind, let me say that I find Twitter a useful tool in information gathering. On election nights, it’s invaluable, providing returns much faster and more eclectically than broadcast television.
I follow mostly journalists and writers I admire, who hook me up (as we heroin addicts say) with links to The Guardian, The Economist, MotherJones, etc.
And some of the personal stuff is cool. Yesterday, Emily Nussbaum and her husband Clive were drunk on Scotch wondering if they could pay people not to do podcasts.
On the other hand, some of the people I follow retweet “fellow resistors,” as they call themselves, seem needy as they plead for more followers (“I only need 650 more to hit 10K”) or whine about their lack of a birthday party during the quarantine or announce to the world that their parent or spouse or Pekinese has just died and that they are devastated. What they want, I assume, is an astronomical number of hearts illuminating their posts, equating quantity with quality. What do you say to a stranger who’s grieving? There’s, in fact, little you can say to a loved one. Hugs help, but I doubt that virtual hugs do much good.
Still others cultivate a cult following, young cynical clever know-it-alls who consider not wearing a mask the equivalent of assault and battery, the flip side of those who consider wearing a mask an act of ovine cowardice. You rarely meet anyone in the middle who might wear a mask indoors but eschews one sitting on a park bench by himself.
Anyway, it seems that many of these people spend the majority of their days and nights on Twitter, which to me conjures the lines above, though I should probably update them: