Monday, March 24, 2008

Dreaming of Sleep

Though I hesitate to say that all of my problems stem from sleep, it is certainly true that most of my problems are exasperated by my continuous struggles with it. For so many people, sleeping is like eating or drinking–simply a biological function to be turned on or off as occasion demands. My father can fall asleep in five minutes if he wants to, and he could do it even if a marching band were parading through the room just as he closed his eyes. For him, it’s merely a matter of deciding when he should go to bed–though it does generally help him if the TV is on, soothing him to sleep with lullabies of infomercials and tests of the emergency broadcast system.

It’s never been that easy for me. I can’t sleep if a TV is on–or if music is playing or anything else is happening that my mind can attach itself to when my eyes are closed. But even without the outside noise, I can distract myself easily enough with my own constantly running internal monologue. Perhaps, then, it is because I am alone when I am supposed to be sleeping, even if I am sharing a bed, that my mind either imagines a calm, carefully planned conversation, or it picks up the pace to a frenzied stream of consciousness. I can retreat inside myself and close the door, and think merely about what I think is interesting, not having to wait for that perfect segue–or, worse, trying to manage the delicate steering of conversation myself, an effort that usually goes awry despite my best intentions. If someone were to ask me what I was thinking, I would reply, Nothing, because it’s nothing they would be interested in, even if I managed to express it coherently.

I once read in high school that there are two types of insomnia: initiation insomnia and another one for which I have since forgotten the name. My mother has the latter–she’ll wake up several times a night, sometimes on every hour (or thereabouts). I always thought that would be frustrating, reaching the enveloping warmth of sleep only to have it yanked away again by the demanding red numerals of the alarm. Instead, I have initiation insomnia, as does anyone else who has to wait more than a half an hour for sleep to claim her–I cannot fall asleep in under an hour, and generally it takes me closer to two to finally mentally wear myself out to the point of exhaustion.

It was nice finally having a label to attach to my problem, but I was already well aware of my constant wrestling with sleep (or lack thereof). Everyone in my house knew I couldn’t fall asleep quickly, because when I was about eight, I took it upon myself to let everyone know I was still awake. That was about the time that meditation–or rather, the theory of meditation–was introduced to me. I would lie in bed for about a half an hour, then get up and go to my mother, who was normally reading a book in bed at the time, relaxing under the golden light of a lamp as a pair of oversize glasses perched on her nose. "Mom, I can’t fall asleep," I would say, undoubtedly in a voice perilously close to a whine.

She would slide her glasses down her nose, balancing them carefully on its tip, a feat that always impressed me. They were made of real glass and so were incredibly heavy, as far as glasses go, and her ability to maneuver them so well was a source of admiration for me. "Try counting backwards from one hundred," she would suggest, in an updated version of the counting sheep cliche, and then she would send me back to my room to my cooling sheets. I would do as she said, obediently starting at ninety-nine and working my way back, being careful not to exclude any numbers. Once I reached zero, I would get back up and tell her I had tried that, but it hadn’t worked and I was still awake. She would tell me to do it again.

"But Mom, it doesn’t work."

"Just try it."

She would even walk me through the steps of meditation, teaching me to be aware of my breathing, coaching me as I slowly relaxed each part of my body. My toes. My feet. My calves. My thighs. And I would move this invisible line of relaxation until it was at my head and I would close my eyes and pretend to turn my brain off, though I had no real power to do so. I would lie on my stomach, my hands tucked into the creases of my thighs, as though pinning my arms to the bed would somehow trick my body into thinking it were already asleep. It never really worked at the time, but to this day, I must be lying on my stomach in order to go to sleep.

Sometimes she would pour me a glass of milk and heat it up in the microwave. She would say something about the hormones putting little girls to sleep faster, but all I knew was that I hated the taste of warm milk, and I hated how she made me brush my teeth again after I had forced myself to drink it. It never seemed to help–at least, I never felt any more tired after I drank it. The only thing I really liked drinking at night was cool water. I would put it in my mouth and lay down, swallowing it so it traced a cold path down my throat as I snuggled into my blankets. It was always risky to bring water into my bedroom, though, because I had the propensity for awkwardness that so many children have, and I was liable to spill it all over myself if I wasn’t careful.

What finally tipped me over the edge from childish impatience with home remedies to panic, however, was when my mother started going to bed earlier. When my sleep struggles first started, she would stay up late and read or watch TV–the sound of the laugh tracks was soothing to me, and even today I feel nostalgic when I hear the theme song from Cheers, though I’m sure I’ve never seen a single episode before. The sound of it was proof that my mother was awake and watching over the house, which is what my final thoughts were before I finally drifted off to sleep.

Over time, however, my mother’s anemia caught up with her, and she started going to bed earlier and earlier. I would hear her start to brush her teeth and wash her face, and I would know that soon she would be asleep and wouldn’t be watching the house–but I would still be awake. The thought would clench my stomach. It didn’t matter that my father would probably still be up. I wanted her to be, and I would stare at the clock beside my bed in mounting panic as she completed her nighttime ritual and shut her bedroom door. Ten o’clock at night and all’s well.

But ten o’clock would fade into eleven, and the closer it got to midnight, the more worried I became. I had learned in school that the average person needs eight-and-a-half hours of sleep, and, counting backwards on my fingers, if I fell asleep right that second, I would only get... seven hours of sleep. It is difficult to describe how truly terrified I was of this, and being awake quickly became my nightmare as night after night the bright red numbers mocked me from my night stand. I had to get eight-and-a-half hours of sleep to function, or I wouldn’t work right the next day. As the minutes to morning fell away before my open eyes, I fell apart as my fear became reality. I expressed myself the way any child would–I began to cry. And cry. And cry.

I don’t know how long this lasted, but I would cry every night and well into the early hours of morning, until my eyes became so sore and swollen I finally fell asleep from pure exhaustion. My parents were at their wits’ end, not knowing what to do to help me–or make me–go to sleep. Nothing seemed to work, and my crying became so bad that they finally said, "Either stop crying or sleep in the basement." We had a big bed downstairs with a quilt top that was soft to lay on, but I didn’t feel that as I lay on top of the sheets and rocked on my back, hot tears burning their way down the sides of my face to pool in my ears and at the base of my neck.

Finally, I was screaming in the basement, my head pointed up just in case my parents couldn’t hear me, and the door to the downstairs bedroom slammed open, my father’s slim figure silhouetted by the glow from the nightlight behind him. He stomped to the edge of the huge bed and said in a voice I had never heard from him before, "Come here." It was the first time I had heard him sound so angry and mean.

I was confused and gurgled something through my tears, but when he raised his hand, I scrambled backwards, afraid he would hit me because I was being such a pain. I was being difficult, both for them and for me, but there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to stop. I yelped and crab-crawled away from his raised arm, but he was merely bringing it up to make an emphatic gesture downward, pointing toward the corner of the bed he was standing next to. "Lindsay, come here. Now." I gulped and crept forward, before he grabbed my wrist and hauled me out of the room, not gently, but not with the force one might have expected from one sleep-deprived for so many nights in a row. He dragged me upstairs and, to my shock, opened the back door and pushed me out into the cold Denver air. "Stay out there until you stop crying." Then he slammed the door closed and left, presumably to go back to bed.

I don’t remember how long I stayed out there–probably not long, considering my thin pajamas–but I do remember the feeling of absolute frustration. I cried for a while longer, just feeling sorry for myself now, before I went back inside. Perhaps that moment out in the cold best defines my relationship with sleep. It mocks me–always–but there’s nothing anyone else can do as it slips through my reaching fingers. I finally figured out that my parents couldn’t do anything to help me fall asleep, and crying about it would only keep them up. It was just better if I let them sleep while I struggled with the problem on my own.

Even today, I still do these mental calculations at night, counting on my fingers the hours until I must get up to begin my morning routine, and even today, the knowledge of my consciousness in the early hours of the morning can distress me. I’ve learned however, how to solve this problem–I no longer have a clock with lit numbers. Instead, I have a cheap plastic clock with a face that you can’t see unless you push the button on top to turn on a small yellow light. It still takes me hours to fall asleep, but I’m no longer painfully aware of time as it crawls by and I have only the darkness at which to stare.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Literature and Education

In my opinion, one thing that stands out about the study of literature is that it is never over--I don't think one can ever reach the pinnacle of any branch of knowledge, just because there is so much to learn and know, but what makes literature slightly different is that everyone has read at least one book and wants to talk about it. Upon finding out that I am an English major, the conversation will inevitably progress something like this:

Them: You're an English major?
Me: Yep.
Them: Oh, have you ever read [insert random book title here].
Me: ...uh, no.
Them: It's really good. [Uncomfortable silence.] You should try it
Me: Okay. [Secretly thinking that there are hundreds of books that I've
read that are really good and he or she should read some time.]

This has happened numerous times and includes (but is not limited to) the following: Wuthering Heights, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Da Vinci Code, Don Quixote, The Lord of the Rings, etc. Yes, I was an English major and continue to be an avid reader. No, I have not read every book ever written, and nor will I ever do so.

This is what makes literature stand on its own, I believe; if I were to go around telling people I was an engineer, they wouldn't immediately think back to the one thing they remember from high school (uh... e=mc^2?) and want to discuss it. (Plus, even if they did, math and science are fields where you start at the beginning and progress from there, so anything you and I learned in high school math, an engineering major has not only done it, but has gone so far beyond that point that we would bore him or her by even trying to discuss it. Literature, on the other hand, does not start at the beginning and work its way up--there is no beginning, and there's very little in the way of a logical path from that non-existent beginning as far as lesson plans go).

So I started thinking more closely about the education system in general--how do you decide who reads what, and what books are on the "You Absolutely Must Read This To Be A Complete Human Being" list? I know I have a list of books that I think everyone should read, but how does that list compare to anyone else's list? And what about students who are developmentally unable to read some of the books on this list? Do they have a separate list that they "must" read? How do we determine what is on this list?

Curious, I did a little research and found that the California Department of Education has a suggested reading list for students in grades 9-12. Having been an AP English student at a California public school that (I believe) has since become a "California Distinguished School," then gone on to study literature at the University of California, I was a little surprised to see what titles and authors were "suggested" by the state to be worthwhile reading. (The list, for anyone who wants to see it, is below).

Recommended Reading from the California Department of Education:
Aeneid, The Virgil,
American Dream, and the Zoo Story, The Albee, Edward
Americans' Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology Pinsky, Robert (editor), Dietz, Maggie (editor)
Ariel Plath, Sylvia
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter Vargas Llosa, Mario
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Franklin, Benjamin
Billy Budd Melville, Herman
Blood Wedding Lorca, Federico Garcia
Book of Luminous Things, A Milosz, Czeslaw (editor)
Bosnian Chronicle Andric, Ivo
Collected Poems Auden, W. H.
Coney Island of the Mind, A Ferlinghetti, Lawrence
Crucible, The Miller, Arthur
Cyrano de Bergerac Rostand, Edmund
Death in Venice Mann, Thomas
Democracy in America de Tocqueville, Alexis
Doll's House, A Ibsen, Henrik
Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds Zindel, Paul
Fences Wilson, August
Fire Next Time Baldwin, James A.
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf Shange, Nzoke
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang Oates, Joyce Carol
Frenchtown Summer Cormier, Robert
Glass Menagerie, The Williams, Tennessee
Good Earth, The Buck, Pearl Synderstricker
Hamlet Shakespeare, William
Hatred, Bigotry, and Prejudice: Definitions, Causes and Solutions Baird, Robert (editor), Rosenbaum, Stuart E. (editor)
Hedda Gabler Ibsen, Henrik
House That Crack Built, The Taylor, Clark
Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Hugo, Victor
In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations Bierhorst, John
Into Thin Air Krakauer, Jon
Ivanhoe Scott, Sir Walter
Julius Caesar Shakespeare, William
Jump Ball: A Basketball Season in Poems Glenn, Mel
King Lear Shakespeare, William
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft Heyerdahl, Thor
Life Doesn't Frighten Me Angelou, Maya
Little Women Alcott, Louisa May
Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, The Thomas, Lewis
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time Sobel, Dava
Macbeth Shakespeare, William
Major Barbara Shaw, George Bernard
Master Harold and the Boys Fugard, Athol
Maus: A Survivor's Tale Spiegelman, Art
Maus: A Survivor's Tale, II: And Here My Troubles Began Spiegelman, Art
Merchant of Venice, The Shakespeare, William
Metamorphosis, The Kafka, Franz
Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare, William
Mind's Eye Fleischman, Paul
Moll Flanders Defoe, Daniel
Murder in the Cathedral Eliot, T. S.
Navajo: Visions and Voices Across the Mesa Begay, Shonto
Never Cry Wolf Mowat, Farley
Nobel Lectures in Literature, 1991-1995 Allen, Sture (editor)
Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel Avi,
Novemberland: Selected Poems, 1956-1993 Grass, Gunter
Oedipus the King Sophocles,
One Hundred Years of Solitude Garcia Marquez, Gabriel
Othello Shakespeare, William
Out of the Dust Hesse, Karen
Paradise Lost Milton, John
Playboy of the Western World; and, Riders to the Sea, The Synge, J. M.
Poems of the Aztec Peoples Kissam, Edward
Profiles in Courage Kennedy, John F.
Rhinoceros Ionesco, Eugene
Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Coleridge, Samuel
Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare, William
Roots Haley, Alex
Rule of the Bone Banks, Russell
Scarlet Letter, The Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Secret Sharer (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism) Conrad, Joseph
Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas Rothberg, Jerome
Shorter Novels of Herman Melville Melville, Herman
Silas Marner Eliot, George
Silent Spring Carson, Rachel Louise
Six Characters in Search of an Author Pirandello, Luigi
Sonnets, The Shakespeare, William
Spoon River Anthology Masters, Edgar Lee
Stop Pretending Sones, Sonya
Story of King Arthur and His Knights, The Pyle, Howard
Streetcar Named Desire, A Williams, Tennessee
T. Rex and the Crater of Doom Alvarez, Walter
Tales from Shakespeare Lamb, Charles, Lamb, Mary
Tempest, The Shakespeare, William
This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World Nye, Naomi Shihab (editor)
Threepenny Opera, The Brecht, Bertolt
Twelfth Night Shakespeare, William
Twenty Years at Hull-House Addams, Jane
Two Trains Running Wilson, August
Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts Beckett, Samuel
What Have You Lost? Nye, Naomi Shihab (editor)
Wild Ocean: America's Parks Under the Sea Earle, Sylvia A.

Of the 93 books listed, I read only 21 of the books in high school and an additional 11 in college. In addition, of the books that I hadn't read in either high school or college, I had read 11 books written by listed authors but not the specific book mentioned in the list, and I had studied (but not nexessarily read) 9 of them. That means that, of the 93 books and authors listed, I have absolutely no experience with 41 of them, and I was a literature major!
That raises the question, then, of what this means. Does it mean that my education was sub-par? Is the list poorly written, despite the fact that it was designed by the state of California? Or is the topic of "good books" more subjective than can be pinned down in a simple list?

One thing we must consider is that around 8 of the books contained on the list are anthologies, and one anthology can very easily substitute for another. Though there are anthologies that stand out as being particularly well-edited, most anthologies contain the same basic "classic" works and then have differing addititional poems and stories. There is also an emphasis on 20th Century American literature, as well as what seems to be a smattering of Native American and Afro-American writers (while most of my secondary and post-secondary education has had an emphasis on British Literature), it becomes clear why I might not have read all of the books recommended by the California Department of Education.

In addition, however, there are many books that are nowhere to be found in the list that I think probably should be, and some books that I think shouldn't be required of the average high school student. For example, I think that a fifteen-year-old boy will get much more out of reading A Separate Peace by John Knowles than from reading Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. While de Tocqueville's book is absolutely necessary for anyone studying the history of political science or sociology in America, there is far more in A Separate Peace that a fifteen-year-old is going to be able to sink his teeth into and therefore get a real benefit. There is also no Orwell on the list (every high schooler should read either Animal Farm or 1985, if not both), while Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb should be superfolous if students are reading all of the Shakespeare plays also contained in the list. Therefore, I would think, it's easy to see that any list of "recommended reading" is going to have some kind of weaknesses to counterbalance its strengths.

I guess the point I'm trying to reach is that I think the educational system should not be standardized to the point where every student is reading the exact same book at the same time, for a number of reasons. First, if every student read the same 10 or 15 books a year, there would be no need for any other books to even be in high school libraries, because no one would be reading them anyway. If variety is the spice of life, than a varied curriculum is necessary for our youth to form the ability to have discussions from different points of view with different levels of knowledge. And, last but not least, I believe that individual teachers should be able to pick and choose what they teach and read in their classes, because a teacher's interest in the subject material and resulting enthusiasm is the strongest motivator in our educational system. So, while "recommended reading" lists are a good place to start to form lesson plans, they leave much to be desired and should not be followed as the gospel truth.

Therefore, even though I am expected in the course of a normal conversation to have read The Count of Monte Cristo and Wuthering Heights, it's unrealistic to expect myself--or anyone--to have read every good book ever written, and we must do the best we can to get the most we can out of what we teach and have been taught.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Laughter and Community in James Agee's A Death in the Family

James Agee's A Death in the Family begins with an absolute insistence on community and group identity; the five-page prologue, one of the few sections in the book that is told in first-person, sketches a summer evening in Knoxville, Tennessee that clearly defines not only the families that live in the community, but the fairly strict family roles that are played out in each household. The only one who seems not to fit as well into his little compartmentalized role is the narrator, who ends the sections with a prayer for his family and says, "and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever, but will not ever tell me who I am."[1] This idea of shifting identity is carried throughout the novel as Agee deftly shows that it is group dynamics--as evidenced by laughter--that determines the roles we play.

Part One of the novel begins with Rufus and his father going to the movie theatre to see a Charlie Chaplin film. In this case, the theatre serves as a symbol for community: all audience members face the flickering screen in the dark and laugh at the antics of the crazy tramp. In the first three pages alone, the words "everybody laughed," or something roughly equaling them, is repeated ten times, emphasizing the fact that each person in the audience identifies with their role and laughs on cue, falling into place in their little one-night community. Almost immediately, however, the reader discovers that that Rufus never really identifies as being part of the "everybody"; even when he is laughing with them, he seems to have an awareness that, though he is with them, he, unlike his father, is not of them.

Throughout the novel, Rufus seems to have a special sensitivity to laughter and its purpose in conversation; early on, it is pointed out that laughter does not necessarily signify that something is funny or humorous when his father laughs at a joke that has become tired over time: "His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always the laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father."[2] The laughter is serving to connect the little family, which Jay and Rufus' mother, Mary, already know and the little boy is just discovering. It is laughter that serves as a kind of glue for groups of people, even people who do not know each other, as Rufus and Jay do not know the men in the bar they meet after the movie: "Somewhat timidly, but feeling assured that his father was proud of him and that he was liked, and liked these men, he smiled back; and suddenly many of the men laughed. He was disconcerted by their laughter and lost his smile a moment; then, realizing it was friendly, smiled again; and again they laughed." [3] It is this laughter that helps people to bond, for it is a sharing between friends that is both automatic and nonverbal.

Much as laughter can help forge relationships, however, it can easily exclude those who do not know what the laughter is about; even the laughter of just one person can create a boundary that excludes others,as Jay feels excluded when his mother is laughing but will not explain why:

"He did not know how to ask her what she was amused by and as he watched her,
wondering what it was, and she watched his puzzlement, she sometimes looked more
amused than ever, and once when she looked particularly amused, and he looked
particularly bewildered, her smile became shaky and turned into laughter and,
quickly taking his face between her hands, she exclaimed, 'I'm not laughing at you, darling.' and for the first time he felt perhaps she was." [4]

Often times, this exclusion can be inadvertent, either because it was unintended, as Mary's laughter seems to be in the quotation above, or through simple miscommunication, as when Mary's mother through her deafness does not understand a joke: "[...] they all roared, laughing their heads off, while Catherine sat there watching them, disapproving such levity at such a time, and unhappily suspecting for some reason they were laughing at her; but in courtesy and reproof, and an expectation of hearing the joke, smiling and lifting her trumpet." [5] Even this laughter, however, takes on a tinge of cruelty when "they paid no attention to her; they scarcely seemed to know she was there." [6] Though they are laughing so desperately as something she has said, they cannot be bothered to explain to her the joke, because it would disrupt their laughter and ruin the moment, the sense of belonging that they get at her expense.

Rufus is often the butt of this cruel kind of laughter, a deliberate exclusion by the older boys who go to school. Though he wants so badly to belong to a group, to identify with them, they single him out to pick on him, taking amused pleasure from his awkward attempts to fit in: "Why was it that when some of them were asking him, and others were backing them up or just looking on, there was some kind of a strange, tight force in the air all around them that made them all seem very much together and made him feel very much alone and very eager to be liked by them, together with them?" [7] Even Rufus, who is just a little boy, can recognize this kind of group affiliation and want to be part of it: "The more alone he felt, the more he wanted to feel that he was not alone, but one of them." [8] Though he has no reason to like them and every reason to dislike them, still he wants to be liked by them.

This shame and longing to belong on the part of the ostracized individual is only strengthened by those accepted into the fold of the laughing group, as evidenced by the family's laughter at Rufus' younger sister Catherine: "[...] and they laughed and Catherine looked at them and began to realize they were laughing at her, and [...] that made them laugh some more, and even Rufus joined in, and they only stopped when Catherine began to stick out her lower lip and her mother said, 'Mercy, child, you've got to learn to take a joke.'" [9] In this way, the group relinquishes all responsibility for the wounded feelings on the part of the butt of the joke, blaming hyper-sensitivity and an inability to take a joke. Unfortunately for Rufus, the boy accepts the shame imposed by the group, attaching it to himself and his name when the bullies pick on him.

And so it is that Rufus is willing to do nearly anything to belong to this group; at the movie theatre, he laughs at Charlie Chaplin's escapades with eggs, though he secretly feels sorry for the tramp: "[...] and Rufus' father nearly tore his head off laughing and so did everybody else, and Rufus was sorry for Charlie, having been so recently in a similar predicament, but the contagion of the laughter was too much for him, and he laughed too." [10] Though he personally knows how painful it is to be the target of a group's laughter, he joins in an effort to belong. He even goes so far as to brag about the death of his father to gain admiration and respect: "He could now see vividly how they would all look up when he came into the schoolroom and how the teacher would say something nice about his father and about him, and he knew that on this day everybody would treat him well, and even look up to him, for something had happened to him which had not happened to any other boy in school, any other boy in town." [11] He feels that his father's death, though tragic, gives him distinction which might lead to the group accepting him into their fold; unfortunately, however, "He felt even more profoundly empty and idle than before." [12] He knows that an acceptance bought with his father's deathwould be worthless, were it ever to work in the first place.

Ironically enough, it is only those who are outside the group who can recognize where the shame truly should lie; when Jay's friend, "Uncle" Ted, tricks Rufus into thinking some cheese will jump off the table when whistled at, it is Rufus' mother who comes to his defense: "'He's got plenty of common sense,' his mother flashed. 'He's a very bright child indeed, if you must know. But he's been brought up to trust older people when they tell him something. Not be suspicious of everybody. And so he trusted you. Because he likes you, Ted. Doesn't that make you ashamed?" [13] Because she is neither in the laughing group nor the ridiculed individual, she recognizes that it is Ted who should feel bad, not her son; Jay, because he wishes to be on good terms with Ted, does not criticize Ted's actions, however much it may humiliate his son. He is part of the laughing group, and so does not realize that the guilt is as much his as it is Ted's.

And so, though the roles of the individuals change, depending on who is the easiest target, one thing remains constant: "'Doesn't anybody like to be laughed at.'" [14] And while Rufus struggles with his desire and seeming inability to belong to a community, the reader recognizes that he does belong to a group, though it is a group of which he is completely unaware. There is an entire community reading the book through the eyes of Rufus, outraged by the boy's mortification, who thinks the older boys going to school are brats and Uncle Ted is an ass and they all deserve a good kick in the pants; so, though Rufus will never entirely belong with any of the groups in the book, we the reader identify with him and are, in a way, a community to which he cannot belong but which is shaped by his experiences and, ultimately, by him.

Work Cited:

[1] Agee, James. A Death in the Family. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc: New York, New York. 1998. Page 7.

[2] Page 11.

[3] Page 15-6.

[4] Page 93.

[5] Page 153.

[6] Page 153.

[7] Page 198.

[8] Page 199.

[9] Page 220.

[10] Page 13.

[11] Page 240-1.

[12] Page 240.

[13] Page 222.

[14] Page 220.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Know It When I See It

It is interesting to me what people consider to be "good" poetry and how strongly they voice their views regarding said poetry--or literature, or movies, or whatever medium we happen to be dealing with. I'll admit that I've been guilty of this, myself--a friend of mine was dating a girl who happened to mention at a party that she thought Byron's poetry was "so beautiful, so romantic." Little did she know that I was hip-deep in a Later Romantic Literature class taught by a radical feminist scholar and had developed very strong views on the Romantic poets--Tennyson, Shelley, Wordsworth, and, of course, Byron.

I could actually feel the whiplash in my neck as I spun around and pointed an accusing finger at her, shrieking, "You think Byron is romantic? He had sex with something like 2,000 women! The only woman he might have loved was his half-sister with whom he had an illegitimate child! Have you actually read anything Byron wrote? God! If you want romance--real romance--try Keats. That's romance." Then, disgusted with the world in general and her in particular, I sniffed and turned back around, finished with the conversation.

I must point out, however, that we were not debating the quality of Byron's poetry. I'll be the first to admit that the man was a genius, both in his writing and in the cultivation of his public image. He was the equivalent of a modern-day rockstar. He was witty and charismatic and complex. Don Juan is the only book that had me so enthralled that I was willing to call in to work to finish reading it (insofar as one can finish reading an unfinished work). I enjoy his poetry, but I also recognize that it is not romantic in the Valentine's Day sense of the word; I wouldn't want Byron quoted to me by someone on bended knee, if only because I would get a distinct uh-oh feeling from the experience.

Some people, on the other hand, draw good/bad lines in the sand about poetry and expect me to fall blithely onto one side or another. My cousin's boyfriend is taking a 19th Century American Poetry class and asked me if I had ever read anything by Emily Dickinson. He let me ramble for a bit about "I heard a fly buzz" and "Stormy, Stormy Nights" and the fact that she is such an interesting character to study before he finally said, "You liked her? I think she sucks." (Point of interest: other "sucky" poets, in the eyes of this young man, include Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, and William Shakespeare. I asked him to name someone he liked, but I unfortunately had never heard of any of them so I don't know quite what his criteria are for a poet to not "suck.")

How can we so blithely attach good/bad labels to poetry? I'll admit that I've been known to claim that a poet is overrated, but even that is based on the assumption that there's value to the poetry and it is just over-emphasized in curriculum. (For example, as much as I love Shakespeare, I've read Hamlet nine times. Reading a play nine times seems like an awful lot when there's so much more out there that still remains to be explored, but it is also the most beautiful example of literature I can think of.) But there are very few poets who I will say are "bad." Do I like all poets? Hardly. But do I feel qualified to single-handedly declare a poet's work to have no value for any reader and to therefore be "bad"? Not very often, no.

That is not to say that all poetry is "good." Trust me, I've seen some pretty rank examples of verse, the most notable being a twenty-page epic that started with, "She went into the house / and cleaned until not even a mouse / could think of setting up house / with a louse" and ended with the main character going to the beach to drink a bottle of bleach. I'm probably misquoting that slightly, since I think it may have been in pentameter, but it definitely wasn't, "She walks in beauty..." I would hesitate to call that real poetry--verse, yes, rhyming lines, yes, but poetry? I'm not so sure.

So the real problem for me is not determining if poetry is "good" or "bad." It's determining if a particular piece can even qualify as poetry. I've taken literary theory classes and learned philosophical takes on poetry from Aristotle to Benjamin, but I guess I've still never heard a definition better Justice Potter Stewart's from 1964: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . . "

So, no, I don't think Emily Dickinson "sucks," because there's never been any poetry that I thought was so bad as to deserve the verb-like adjective. I've read sucky would-be poetry, but having aspirations toward poetry is not the same thing as being a poet.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What's Wrong with Housewives from Nantucket?

Well, now I'm feeling guilty for writing off all house wives from Nantucket. Grr. I'm afraid I've already let my intellectual snobbery shine through, which was probably my real reason for not wanting to join a book club or online discussion forum in the first place. I've had the misfortune to develop a slight sense of superiority regarding literature, which means I tend to have a problem listening to the opinions of those who haven't necessarily received a solid background in the classics. There are exceptions to this rule, of course; you can't hate everyone who didn't study literature, but if someone with a GED crows that she "just loves Shakespeare--Romeo and Juliet was so good," I'm always hard-pressed not to roll my eyes in an incredibly obnoxious manner.

The problem with snobbery, though, of which I'm sure we all are aware, is that when one is hyper-aware of a hierarchy and is constantly looking down one's nose at those below him or her, there is always the niggling knowledge that there are those who are above, as well. This is probably why I was in complete awe of some of my professors at UCLA; they're geniuses in their field, and I definitely felt like they were out of my league on an intellectual level. (This belief was encouraged by the publish-or-perish disinterest the professors took in their undergraduate students. We were a way for them to acquire funding for their research, lecture was a way for them to listen to themselves talk for an hour and a half, and office hours were a requirement of the university, not a personal choice.)

So, upon seeing my favorite professors in the hall, I practically genuflected in passing and was incredibly flattered if they looked like they even knew who I was... and the one or two who might know my name made my week. I didn't attend office hours because I was convinced that I couldn't possibly have anything to say that they hadn't already heard a million times, and I therefore have no letters of recommendation from any teacher, which will make it difficult if not impossible to get into grad school any time soon. I've therefore made my place on the hierarchy semi-permanent; I won't be moving up any time soon, ensuring that there will always be those whom I feel are qualified to despise me for my ignorance.

When I once mentioned my penchant for arrogance to an acquaintance, a comparative literature grad student from Germany, he responded, "I've discovered that if you look at the deepest, darkest part of yourself and acknowledge and embrace your weaknesses, you'll never feel superior to anyone." He was quoting someone--Freud? I've forgotten by now--and I lay awake that night, unable to sleep. What if my greatest weakness is my leaning towards being an academic asshole? Acknowledging that fact doesn't make anyone else appear any smarter in my eyes, it just reinforces my own superiority and inevitable inferiority complex.

(In my defense, I attended a community college and took many online literature courses which were serving as liberal arts G.E.s for the majority of the students taking them. They were no more interested in reading and writing than I am in physics, so the discussion threads fell apart almost immediately. I would go on-line, post my mini-essay of brilliance, take a few half-hearted stabs at other people's poorly stated opinions, and log off, thereby ensuring myself an A and a heart full of gratitude on the part of the professor for actually pretending to have a discussion. This instilled in me a general impatience for those who posted paragraphs of fluffy nonsense merely for the sake of posting something, as well as a sense of being--if not the smartest one in the school--at least the smartest one in the class.

I suppose this whole soul-bearing process is a way of trying to apologize to those whom I so easily dismissed in my first post, and I must admit that taking part in an on-line discussion where everyone is actively interested in the topic and wants to take part in a debate would be infintely better than the half-assed threads I was forced to endure for a year.)

Well, shit, I'm practically guilting myself into joining an online book club just to prove I'm not as small-minded as I've made myself feel.

To Blog or Not To Blog...

I'm still trying to decide just how nerdy this blog is going to turn out. Knowing me, it will probably end up being nerdier than is cool but not nerdy enough for real geeks to enjoy (although the title alone will probably drive anyone who self-identifies with "cool" running for the hills, anyway). I've been desperately seeking an outlet for my more bookish interests; since I have graduated, I've missed the entire process of reading something "great" (whatever that may mean), thinking it over, talking about it, thinking about it some more, and then writing about it.

I almost joined a book club (and by "almost," I mean I bought the book and read half of it before deciding not to go to the meeting). How could we possibly cover in one hour everything that was so desperately begging to be covered? And online discussion forums don't interest me all that much, if only because forums are so cold and impersonal, and I wouldn't personally know anyone involved.

That somehow led me to the idea of a blog, where I can write about what I'm reading and I'm doing, without the expectation that it will be read. (How this seems to me to be any less cold and impersonal, don't ask me. But somehow, writing for my own personal enjoyment is more appealing than trying to defend my interpretations of Great Expectations when it is being criticized by a 45-year-old house wife from Nantucket.)

I guess the real question, though, is whether it is worth it to blog in the first place--a blog seems very personal but is public in a I-wonder-if-anyone-is-even-going-to-read-this kind of way, and dangers of the over-sharing kind abound. But, on the other hand, when historians look back, they will probably call this the Age of Blogs; like the Age of Enlightenment, which took place in the Industrial Revoluiton, technology has exploded, allowing more intellectual freedom in the online community. But it is important to remember that, unlike the Age of Enlightenment, there is no way to guarantee that reason will rule as supreme.

Here's to hoping, I guess.

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