Twenty Years of Schooling and They Put You on the Day Shift

 

pleroma

from CG Jung’s Red Book

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[1], 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).

Podiatrist shortage critical - checking pulse (original)

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). [2]

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.

The Waking

BY THEODORE ROETHKE

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Of those so close beside me, which are you?

God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go.

 

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Great Nature has another thing to do

To you and me; so take the lively air,

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

 

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.