Passion is the privilege of the insignificant… You are insignificant because you are finite. Yet the more finite a thing is, the more it is charged with life, emotions, joys, fears, compassion… So try to stay passionate, leave your cool to constellations. Passion, above all, is a remedy against boredom.
– Joseph Brodsky, ‘In Praise of Boredom’, 1989
“So who’s heard of Charles Dickens before?”
“I’ve read his stuff.” One of my favourite students pipes up. “Like, Oliver Twist and Huckleberry Finn.”
“Ah, well done on the Twist, but Finn isn’t by Dickens. Does anyone know who its author is?”
“Here’s a clue. His first name is Mark.” I put down ‘Mark _________’ on the whiteboard.
4 blank stares v. 1 blank space; 4 Generation Z teenagers v. 1 Generation Y teacher. Just as I’m about to answer my own question, crestfallen, another student calls out in a tone that suggests he’s reached an ‘Aha’ sort of epiphany:
“Oooh I know!” Yes – I think to myself, score! Let’s have it! Let’s hear the names of literary greats trumpeted loud and clear in this classroom! Hail to the American novel tradition! Hail to the Victorian realist canon! Hail to –
“It’s Mark Zuckerberg, amirite??!!”
There’s an uncanny link between what I do for a living and how I live.
Part of my job has to do with teaching ‘close reading’, but most of my time is spent ‘close reading’ the daily interactions and incidents that transpire around me. While the realms of my ‘reading’ hitch-cock between text and life, the spirit of scavenging for connections from word to word stays largely similar.
In my classes, I often get students to find links between seemingly unrelated things and to write about them afterwards. As such, they live out the Updikean creed of ‘giving the mundane its beautiful due’, of making the pedestrian profound, and of making sense out of nonsense. Last week, I threw my writing class one helluva curveball with this essay title:
‘On Coconuts and Books’
In fact, I’ve noticed that this exercise in finding links between things has proven to be manna for the brain, if not a bulwark against monotony. This is why, in the past few weeks, I’ve started to practise what I preach: Before I turn in every night, I ask myself how my day’s work (teaching reading and writing) and leisure (me reading or writing) relate to one other. In a question, it usually spells out as:
How does what I’m reading right now remind me of those I’ve been teaching lately?
So far, it’s been a fun pet project in convincing myself that organic unity – one of the key tenets of Romanticism and New Criticism (Close Reading’s transatlantic cousin), exists in both literary criticism and daily living, with one informing the other through practice.
By ‘practice’, I mean the act of interpretation, whether it be of written or spoken words. Interpreting words is actually something that all humans do on a regular basis, it’s just that some of us don’t read much into its implications, nor in fact see much need for it. So I’m really more stating the understated than advocating some Ivory Tower version of Dianetic auditing, which apparently involves “the action of asking a person a question (which he can understand and answer), getting an answer to that question and acknowledging him for that answer”. Wuut.
Anyway, my meta-exercise in ‘close reading how others close read’ is probably just a nerdy residuum of all the research I did for my final-year dissertation, titled ‘Is there a “Life” in this Text?’ Matthew Arnold, F.R. Leavis and (the) ‘Living’ in ‘Criticism’, which you may consider to be just as esoteric- and voodoo-sounding as the Scientology definition I cited.
Then again, I suppose ‘esoteric- and voodoo-sounding’ is literary scholarship in a nutshell anyway. At least to most people.
A Series of Uncanny Events, as relates to 2 Recent Reads and 2 Current Students
(1) Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
If you’re sick of the hype that (still) surrounds Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and just don’t get how it came to be canonised as one of ‘the best 100 novels of all time’, then Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will restore your faith in the Bildungsroman.
Its 9-year old narrator, Oskar Schell, is basically a post-9/11 version of Holden Caulfield, except less angsty, so more likeable, and more legitimately angry (his dad dies after jumping off the World Trade Centre), so less annoyingly whiny.
Without giving too much away, the book is about a son embarking on an urban journey, as he traverses the highs and lows of NYC to wade through ancestral backwaters for clues about a key left behind by his father. This is also where I stop lest I spoil the plot, which would be a real shame because I’d really encourage you to read it – I’ve not read such a moving book in quite a while.*
The uncanny link
In a writing class three weeks ago, I showed my students a picture of cracked coconuts as inspiration for an essay topic. I then asked them to come up with as many concept-words as they can in relation to coconuts. This is what a student wrote down:
‘HA-HA’ *evil grin*
Huh, kid’s got a morbid imagination, alright. Cause for concern? Dude’s probably just been playing too many video games. Besides, he’s not wrong: coconuts crack open after falling to the ground, and humans die after falling from great heights. In fact, kudos to him for seeing the parallel.
On my home-bound metro ride that night, however, I came across a description in Extremely Loud that wonderfully subverts this logic of ‘falling –> death’. It’s a moment when Oskar the 9-year old narrator talks about dropping his cat, Buckminster, off a building:
I’d brought Buckminster to school for a demonstration only a couple of weeks before, and dropped him from the roof to show how cats reach terminal velocity by making themselves into little parachutes, and that cats actually have a better chance of surviving from the 20th floor than the 8th floor, because it takes them about eight floors to realise what’s going on, and relax and correct themselves.
I said [to the class], “Buckminster is my pussy.” Jimmy pointed at me and said, “Ha ha!” The kids cracked up in the bad way.
I didn’t get what was so hilarious.
(p.190, Penguin edition, 2005)
Cracked open v. “cracked up”, falling v. being fell, dying v. not dying, a kid’s dubious cackle – what are the odds? The coincidence was just too en pointe for me not to share, so I emailed this extract to my student. His response was, to say the least, predictable:
“IKR. Ha ha.”
I, too, thought it was quite hilarious.
(2) Jose Saramago’s Small Memories (2006)
A few days after that lesson, I chanced upon another reference to falling while reading Saramago’s memoir on my way to work:
Our home in Rua dos Cavaleiros had been an attic room as it would be in Rua Fernȃo Lopes. When I looked out the back, the building seemed extraordinarily high, and later, even as an adult, I would often dream that I was falling from there, although the verb “fall” should not be taken literally, that is in the sense of plummeting helplessly earthward, because what actually happened was that I would drift downward, slowly brushing past the balconies on the lower floors, with their washing hung out to dry and their flower pots, and alight gently and unscathed on the cobblestones of Rua da Guina.
(p.49, First Mariner Books edition, 2012)
This is an arguably more ethereal take on what it’s like to fall, to fall gently into place, as opposed to plunging apace: violent, instantaneous, gone without a spoken trace. Hence the author’s use of the word ‘alight’ as a way to de-solemnise his reference.
Had Saramago not qualified his intended meaning, however, the reader could have (mis)interpreted his ‘dream’ as an acrophobic nightmare. On whether or not knowing the author’s intention matters at all to interpretation, however, I’m reminded of something that a student asked me after class last Wednesday:
“So I’ve been reading that Saramago book – Blindness – you recommended, and I’m almost done with it. The thing is, I have no idea what he’s on about. Like, I just don’t get the story. What is he trying to say?”
“Well, what do you think he’s trying to say?”
“Eh, I don’t know. Basically, what I want to know is: what’s the main message of the book???”
“I don’t think there is one, really. I guess you could say it’s about being human.”
‘Exactly’, not as in ‘exactly’, well done on not accepting that a book can overcome Sparknotesque reductionism, but as in ‘exactly’, that’s what being human feels like most of the time – walking about parading one mahoosive “HUH?” brandished on our foreheads.
In a way though, I empathise with my student’s confusion: had I read Blindness at 16 (her age), I doubt if I would have understood it as well as I do now. And perhaps in a decade’s time, I’ll understand things about it that I just won’t see even if I were to re-read it twenty times at this stage.
The uncanny link
Anyway, after I got home that night, I decided to revisit pages of Blindness that I had dog-eared when I first read it months past.
Just as I pulled out the book from the top shelf, a wrinkly piece of paper fell out of it: lo and behold, it was a flyer for a memoir titled Adventures in Human Being, written by an Edinburgh-based doctor and author called Gavin Francis, whose book-signing event I attended back in May while travelling around in Scotland. How it managed to find its way into the book though, I’ll never know.
By the way, Blindness features an eye doctor who loses his sight, after which he begins to understand what life’s like on the other side as a blind patient. Again, so many layers of uncanny…
Coda: Joseph Brodsky’s On Grief and Reason (1995)
In his essay ‘On Grief and Reason’, Joseph Brodsky offers, in my opinion, both one of the finest demonstrations of close reading and one of the worst insights into critical scholarship. While his understanding of Robert Frost’s poetry is at once human, touching and aesthetically attuned, his comment that “one abhors literary biography because it is reductive” does criticism a grave disservice.
Having read Saramago’s Blindness, I decided to read his memoir not because I wanted to unearth some autobiographical ‘clue’ or interpretative key which would unlock the ‘meaning’ of his fiction, but to understand him as Human before Author.
To some, the memoir may not be as much of a big dawg as fiction or poetry, but as a ‘memo’ in the literary landscape, it exists to remind all readers of the human link in literature, and to drive home the truth that real words are the only genesis and agency of fictional worlds.
As in the exchange between a husband and a wife in Frost’s ‘Home Burial’:
“Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.
Though I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.”
She moved the latch a little. “Don’t – don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief.”
(Lines 41-2, 56-62)
The couple, it seems, are missing a crucial link – that of a human life lost. The woman has just had a miscarriage, and the man wants to know where the baby’s symbolic grave is. He who feels deprived of paternal rights refuses to fall, to succumb or “come down”, yet she who has fallen from maternal grace refuses to speak, to “tell” him about that “something human” which once was the agent of their bond but is now no more.
‘Tis the face of human tragedy – no words exchanged, no life re-lit: their worlds do not collide.
Meanwhile, I can only hope for a better union between my life and my lit, whether it be the kind that is read or writ.
* A heads-up to all mah’ lit-lovin’ sistas and bruvas out there: literary pastiches are usually hard to do well (a failed example being Thomas Pynchon’s parody of Senecan tragedy in The Crying of Lot 49), but Safran Foer nails it with his poignant rendition of the Yorick scene from Hamlet. Anyone who upstages the Bard can only be a plus for moi. So all the more reason to give E.L.I.C. a go.
Photo credits: jadeisabelle (falling coconuts sign), ripol livejournal (brodsky and his cat), otherwise all photos my own