Friday, December 14, 2012

I Wear the Chains I Forged in Life

I watched a movie version of A Christmas Carol last night, with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. It's kind of hard to imagine Captain Jean-Luc Picard being as mean as Scrooge was, but after a while I believed he was a very bald Scrooge. This movie version was an adaptation of Dickens's short novel, and it changed some of the dialogue quite a bit, but it kept some of the best lines, like "Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?" and my favorite, Jacob Marley's "I wear the chains I forged in life!"

I've been reading Marx recently, and The Monthly Review, a Marxist journal, so I saw in Dickens's novel more of his indictment of capitalism than I had noticed before. Some of his other novels, like Hard Times, take on capitalism more explicitly, but Scrooge's words in A Christmas Carol are uncannily close to what a lot of Republicans say now: that we shouldn't give money to support lazy poor people, that we already do enough for them (in Dickens's time by sending them to debtor's prisons and work houses), and that there are too many of them anyway. Scrooge is a classic one percenter, without the lavish lifestyle. He keeps his employee's wages as low as he can, and is obsessed with cutting his overhead, even to the extent of keep the office freezing cold. (Unlike modern one percenters, though, his own office and home are cold and bleak as well.)  The ghosts are like Occupy protesters, who attempt to show Scrooge real poverty and the effects of his hard-heartedness on poor children in particular.

 However, Dickens is no Marxist, and his "solution" to the ravages of 19th century capitalism seems to be just individual charity on the part of people like Scrooge, who should make donations to provide for the poor. Apparently he could not imagine or propose a more systematic economic leveling of society. Marx was busy doing that in 1843, in another part of Europe, but Capital was not published until 1867, twenty years after A Christmas Carol.

Dickens was no Marxist, but he was an acute observer of human psychology, uncannily so. The ghost of Christmas past takes the narcissistic, self-absorbed, angry, humorless adult Scrooge back to his own bleak childhood, to a time when he was left alone at a boarding school for the Christmas holidays because his mother had died and his father did not want him. Dickens rightly places the source of adult narcissism in childhood neglect and abuse, even when it's sporadic: eventually the father reclaims the child Ebenezer, so that Ebenezer both fears and idolizes his father, a combination of feelings that leads to great confusion that can only be resolved by an inner world where the impaired self idealizes an attacking, omnipotent, but loved object. The stage is set for Ebenezer's problems with love in adult life: he eventually becomes obsessed with idealizing wealth--his new omnipotent object-- and he can't  be close to his fiancee, who regretfully must leave him. The old man Scrooge shouts at his younger self, "Why don't you speak to her?  Why don't you run after her?" But the young man Ebenezer is evidently too shut up in his own defenses against intimacy to do so.

Of course, Scrooge undergoes a total transformation of his personality in one night. This has always seemed unbelievable to me, but now I see it as a kind of metaphor for the way in which the real self can emerge from narcissism: it can't happen in one night, but it can happen through the kind of life review that the ghosts force upon Scrooge, who shrinks from the pain of this life review. By the end of the night, though, Scrooge has summoned more courage to face the depression that results when he must confront his "ghosts" and inner demons. This too is an accurate image of the increasing realism of the recovering narcissist.

Scrooge's narcissism is  contrasted everywhere in the novella  with the joy and spontaneity of the healthy people around him: his nephew Fred, and his old employer Fezziwig, and even the poor Cratchit family. And this brings me to the third thing I love about this story: the way Victorian English people celebrated Christmas. They celebrate by singing, dancing, and feasting. There is not a present to be seen in the whole story.  Instead there are a lot  of party games, singing around the piano, a little drinking, and fancy desserts. It was a one day winter holiday more like Thanksgiving than like the month-long shopping orgy that Americans "celebrate."

Scrooge is a reformed man at the end of the novella: a Christmas-celebrating benefactor of the poor who laughs and dances, no longer the grim narcissistic one percenter of the first few scenes. But don't let this make you think that you have to go out and buy a lot of plastic stuff at Walmart in order to keep from being Scrooge. Or  that you have to become a Bible-believing church-goer. (After all, the Puritans who banned Christmas were such.) To really "keep Christmas," we can do what Tiny Tim and Fred and Fezziwig did: bang our forks on the table in unison to celebrate the roast beast, play blind man's bluff, sing bawdy songs around the piano, and roll up the carpets for contra dancing in living rooms and offices.  You have nothing to lose but your chains!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Curse You, Teen Talk Barbie!

Thinking some more about cursing and why, in the red states in particular, it's so shocking to people that women do it. Today I was reprimanded (again) for saying damn. I said it because I was upset about several things: (1) I had to wait for an hour for somebody; (2) some students (again) didn't do their homework, even though they had two weeks to do it;  (3) other students (again) were so tired that they could not pay attention in class; and (4) some students (again) said that they were congenitally incapable of doing math.

I looked up cursing on the internet to find out what it really is. Profanity is a kind of blasphemy, apparently,  representing "secular indifference to religion or religious figures." That explains a lot of its shock effect: just using profanity means you are indifferent to God and the Church.  Even worse, profanity is "part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults, which laughed and scoffed at the deity or deities." That could be upsetting too to some people. But that's not  what I was doing. I was using "damn" as an intensifier, although I don't remember exactly what I said. I probably said something about the importance of doing your damn homework. This is the usual use of curse words in contemporary America: as intensifiers.

There's another meaning to cursing, though, and it's probably an older meaning,  a more literal meaning: using words to cause harm to somebody else, as in a hex or spell. Here is where it gets really ironic. I was using "damn" as an intensifier to indicate my passion about the importance of a good work ethic to academic success. Almost every school day, at least one of my students tells me that she knows she is no good at math, and that neither is her sister or her mother.  Note that in my (limited) sample, it is never the sons who hear and believe this message; it is always the daughters. Sometimes the family myth is that the son is good at math and the daughter is not. I have never heard of a family where the daughters were said to be good at math, but the sons were not.

It's hard to believe that in the 21st century, families are still telling their daughters to believe Teen Talk Barbie, who famously said that "math class is tough!" Yet it apparently still happens. And this, dear reader, is a curse. Girls believe it when their mothers or fathers tell them that they are not good at math. And then--surprise!--they are not good at math. In Asian countries, parents and teachers tell kids that success in math is due to effort, not innate ability. And so those students tend to do better in math than American students, who largely believe that you either got it or you ain't.

Stop cursing your daughters, parents of America. Start blessing them instead. Make them do their homework; tell them that success is largely due to a good work ethic rather than innate ability; and make them go to bed on time.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Watch Your Language

A friend told me a couple of weeks ago, "You need to watch your language." She was referring to the fact that I said a curse word in a conversation with her. I had said that somebody was a smart-ass.

Later I thought about this admonition, "Watch your language." In fact that's mostly what we English teachers do: we watch our own language, and the language of others. I'm teaching literature again after a hiatus of 25 years, during which I taught art history, writing, and math. But now I'm back to my old flame, literature, and I'd forgotten how different it is to teach people how to watch language. And now I'm teaching literature to younger students--ninth graders. And they are  home schoolers. So the whole issue of language is pretty loaded. One reason that they are home schoolers is that their parents don't want them to hear certain kinds of language, from teachers, peers, or books. You'd think it wouldn't be that hard to avoid the really "bad" words and concepts, but in fact, even (or especially) in a Great Books program like ours, these words just keep popping up! They refuse to be repressed completely.

For example, we're reading The Canterbury Tales now. The word "hole," meaning "anus," occurs in "The Miller's Tale." A poor wretch is tricked by a girl into kissing her hole. It's pretty graphic: her pubic hair is also alluded to. In the Middle Ages, it seems that this kind of explicit, bawdy humor did not get you thrown in jail. Chaucer totally got away with it. And then so did Shakespeare several hundred years later. Who can forget the immortal lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all!" (Wall is played by one of the rude mechanicals, as is the kisser, so they're both men.) Shakespeare stole this joke from Chaucer and made it even funnier, if that's possible, by adding a homoerotic element to it.

Fast forward to 1955, and Allen Ginsberg is writing Howl. (Oops, there's that hole again!) I watched a movie about the making of Howl last night. It's an ambitious idea: to make a movie about the writing of a poem. Filming dramatic scenes about writing is hard: usually writers just sit at a desk, or maybe pace around the room a little. It's not as exciting to watch as, say, Pollack's action painting, or Patsy Cline having fights with her husband. But I liked watching the actor use the old typewriter. Apparently Ginsberg was a hunter and pecker. And the camera zooms right in on the letters as they slowly emerge under the ribbon and keys. It almost made me want to get an old typewriter, so I could slow down my writing and think about each letter, and then hit it hard.

The typing scenes are interspersed with scenes of Ginsberg talking to an interviewer about  poetry in general, and where it comes from, and how a poet works. These explanations should be invaluable to young poets. There's one part where he talks about how the desire to make poetry comes from a feeling in the stomach that rises up through the chest and then comes out of the mouth, almost like a sigh or a groan, but with words attached: for him,  poetry is a bodily experience like sex. He even explains how he slowly built the line about "Moloch, whose eyes are a thousand blind windows." He had the rhythm of the line first, he says, then the image of the eyes, and finally the windows. It's as if Ginsberg is lifting the hood of a car and explaining to a young mechanic how it works, what makes it go, and how to fix it.

The line about Moloch brings me to one of my complaints about this movie: the director got around the "boringness," and the lack of visual interest in watching a writer work, by having an animator draw a sort of cartoon  illustrating Howl, and this animation rolls as the actor playing Ginsberg reads parts of the poem. I didn't think this worked very well. It was too literal, and it takes away the reader's freedom to visualize the poem herself. The representation of Moloch as a kind of big cow was particularly bad I thought.

It should have been enough to show the first reading of the poem in the Six Gallery in San Francisco. These scenes are wonderful in that they show the excitement and engagement of the audience, its amazement at hearing this new kind of poetry, and the listeners' awareness that some kind of barrier was being broken. Now we return to the admonition to "watch your language." Ginsberg had decided to just use his own natural language: he used the words "snatch," and "blow," and "cock." He talked openly, even ecstatically, about drug experiences and sodomy. His characters hand out Communist leaflets and sing The Internationale! One must remember that this was in 1955, at the height of the McCarthy era. My father was in the Navy, on an aircraft carrier called the Ranger, and we were not allowed to tell anybody--even other children--the name of his ship, for fear that other people might be Communists!  It was a secret that must be kept to save our father's life, according to my mother. Into a culture of psychotic suspicion and repression, Ginsberg threw a bomb made of Anglo-Saxon words.

After Howl was published, its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, was arrested and tried for obscenity. The movie intersperses the typing scenes and the performance scenes with scenes from the trial. The script for the movie was taken directly from the court transcripts. Various experts on literature testify  for and against the poem's literary merit, and in the process, bring up some big issues about literature in general: does it have to be morally elevating? What would that mean? Does it have to be comprehensible to the average person?  Can normal, demotic speech be used?  Does the fact that Ginsberg borrowed from Walt Whitman's style mean his work is not great literature? Are there parallels between the howl of pain in Howl, and Job in the Old Testament? The witnesses against the poem compared it unfavorably to other "great" works of literature, but the result of their comparisons in the end is not to diminish Howl, but to recruit "Song of Myself" and the Book of Job to the ranks of subversive books. You start to realize that perhaps many of the Great Books that you found boring in school were once wildly innovative works that challenged the decent folk of their times.  You also begin to wonder if perhaps medieval people were a bit more comfortable with the earthiness of everyday life than Americans in the 1950s were.

Talking to the invisible interviewer, Ginsberg says that he wants to write poems that are prophecies. But to him a prophecy is not simply a prediction of what will happen in the future. It's a work that embodies a feeling, and one hundred years later, a person reading that poem, or looking at that painting, can recognize the feeling and feel it also. Howl is now over 50 years old, and its power to throw a brick through the wall of repression, to speak of things that are not supposed to be seen, to speak for people who are not supposed to be heard, is undiminished. It still can't be taught in a home school Great Books program, although it is a great book, as great as The Canterbury Tales or A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Maybe in another fifty years.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Christmas, a pack of lies

Now that we've survived one winter holiday, it's time to start thinking about the next hurdle: Christmas.

It struck me today that Christmas is one big pack of lies, like that big black pack that Santa brings down the chimney. "He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!" First, there's the lie about the Man With All the Toys; that's obvious. That's the first lie you find out about. Then there's the lie about the Virgin Birth, which you figure out later.  Then, there's the lie that you have to go out and spend $700, pronto. Let's deal with these one at a time.

Why do people tell kids that there's a man that comes down their chimney (even if they don't have a chimney, which most new houses don't) and leaves toys for them that were made in China? And why do kids believe this patent nonsense? I figured it out this morning: it's a kind of initiation ceremony for kids. About the age of six or seven, you figure out that Santa is not real. Perhaps you discover a drawer in your mother's dresser that has presents in it, clearly intended for children. Perhaps it's a closet. Perhaps you just think one day, "This is an improbable story that doesn't conform to the laws of the space-time continuum as we know it."

And what is your next thought?

 "They LIED to me!"

This is the most important part of the initiation. You discover that you can't trust The Man. You discover that every edict handed down by the authorities should be examined carefully for inconsistencies and illogic.  It's especially important not to trust those in authority when they tell you what you will get if you are good. Because you will NOT get those things if you are good.  Being good is its own reward. This is a hard, but important auxillary lesson.

It takes a little longer to shake the idea that The Man is watching you: "He knows if you are sleeping. He knows if you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness's sake." (No, not for goodness's sake: in order to get the toys!)  I didn't fully shake this notion that somebody was watching not only my actions but my innermost thoughts until I was well into my thirties. I remember that I was driving down I-40, and I suddenly realized that it was not true that God or Santa was watching my every thought. Getting rid of that constant surveillance by The Man was really liberating, but I had to keep reminding myself for years that I was the only one who knew my thoughts, and that I could have any thought I wanted to, no matter how blasphemous, and nothing would happen.

I probably failed as a parent by not setting up this initiation ceremony for my son. I told him from the beginning that Santa Claus was a game that grown-ups like to play at Christmas. It was interesting to find that he did not believe me at first, because all the other grown-ups told him that Santa was real.  After one particularly bounteous Christmas, with a lot of remote-control robots and cars, he told me that now he knew Santa was real, because I could never have gotten him all that stuff! I reminded him that he was the only person under thirty in our family, and people over thirty love to buy toys for little kids that they wished they could have bought for themselves when they were six. This did not fly. He believed in Santa for a whole nother year. And there was never a satisfying "I told you so" moment. It just went unspoken that I was the only grown-up in the universe who had not lied about Santa to him. In the end, though, it worked out ok, because he is reasonably cynical about people in power now.

On to the second lie: the Virgin Birth. This disturbed me a lot as a kid.  We were always told as girl children that after you get married, God puts a baby in your stomach, and that's how you get pregnant. But, for mysterious and scary reasons, there were some girls who got pregnant BEFORE they got married!  We learned this because my mother was a volunteer at the Florence Crittenton Home for Wayward Girls. Apparently sometimes God got the sequence of things backwards, and when this happened, you had to leave your family and go live in this home until the baby was born, and then you had to give it away!  This thought was terribly frightening to me. I knew that somehow going to that home was shameful--you were "wayward"--but yet, God had done it, so...And then it happened to Jesus's mother too! For her, the whole thing worked out better: she was not sent to a home for wayward girls, and Joseph took her back despite the fact that somehow she was at fault for being pregnant with Jesus; the Bible said he had at first planned to "put her away quietly."  At age eight or so, I knew exactly what this meant: it meant she would go to the Florence Crittenton home. If it could happen to somebody as good as Mary, could it happen to me? Would everybody be so understanding? Or would I end up a wayward girl?

This lie clearly has to go.  The idea that you can get pregnant without having sex, or that a bodiless spirit can "overpower" you without your consent while you're asleep and get you pregnant, and that then you would be blamed and punished, is just pre-modern and unfair. There's nothing nice to say about it. The fact that Mary is idolized for the fact that this happened to her, while ordinary girls are punished for it, just makes it a more confusing, and thus pernicious, lie.

Growing out of this lie is a little different from growing out of the Santa Claus lie. First, you find out that ordinary girls don't get pregnant by the Holy Ghost; they get pregnant from sex with boys. But there's a kernel of truth to the old fears you had about impregnation by God: it turns out that you CAN be overpowered, and then blamed and punished! (And you can't necessarily "shut it down," as I hope everybody now understands.)  But the perp is always just an ordinary guy, not a god.  Apparently for this reason, you don't get a pass like Mary got, although it's not clear why there's a difference in culpability.

Finally, the lie I wrote about last year: the lie that $700 must be spent by every grown-up in America before December 25, or else. (Some people are clearly spending a lot more than that, because I'm spending a lot less.) I will link here to my previous analysis of this lie.  The only thing I will add is that this year Walmart employees decided that they did not want to be stampeded to death by Christmas shoppers on Thanksgiving night, and they took a stand against (among other things) the earlier and earlier encroachment of Christmas shopping onto everything that is sacred about Thanksgiving, namely food and a day off. I think this is great. I did not shop at Walmart on Thanksgiving or the day after, in order to support the  destruction of this lie about compulsory spending.

This is the one we need to work on outgrowing now. And like the others, outgrowing it is ultimately healthy, although embracing the reality around it can be hard. It may be true that some people will get mad if we stop spending money on them at Christmas. (Others might be relieved because then they can scale back as well.) It may be true that some retailers might not make as much money in December. But what is NOT true is that less shopping will collapse the economy. What is bad for our economy is borrowing and borrowing from China, in order to buy their plastic gizmos.

Let's face it: Santa doesn't bring the toys, there are no Virgin Births, and we can't keep borrowing like this. A reality-based Christmas could be a perfectly wonderful winter holiday. Could we try it this year?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Teaching Old English poetry to young English speakers

This week my small class of home schoolers is reading Old English poetry. We are starting with riddles, because they are short and intriguing, and because I found an excellent site where a few riddles are translated, interpreted, and spoken aloud in Old English.

I was curious as to how these 9th graders would respond to this poetry. On the one hand, the idea of the riddle is familiar to most people, and these students love Tolkien, so they remember Bilbo Baggins and his riddle contest with Gollum in The Hobbit. Since a new movie of The Hobbit is coming out soon, it seemed appropriate to talk about riddles some. On the other hand, Old English, while it may be technically English, is more like German than like modern English, and you can't just sit down and read it with no help. Fortunately that site provides a line by line glossary of the riddles, in addition to a text of the riddle in modern English. Looking at the line by line glossary, you see that there are a lot of words in Old English that modern English retains, such as "moth," "word," and "worm." They may look a little different in Old English, for example the word "moth" is spelled with the thorn letter for the sound "th" that modern English doesn't have, and "worm" is spelled, charmingly, "wyrme." But "word" is just spelled "word," although it means "song," as well as simply, "word." Also, "wyrme" not only means a worm, like the larvae of a moth, but it also can mean "dragon," or simply any annoying creature that bites!

The worm poem is about a book worm that devours words while eating the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon scribe, which were written onto vellum, or very thin leather. The commentary says that to the worm, it was just so much beef jerky, but to the poet, it is human culture that the worm is devouring. The riddle turns into a meditation on the ephemerality of human culture, and it implies a kind of critique of the new written culture, as opposed to the older traditional oral culture of the Anglo Saxons. The oral culture could be said to be less vulnerable to loss, because before writing, thousands of people memorized riddles, songs, and epic poetry. Now, in this new Christianized age of the manuscript, there is no need to memorize your entire literature: it's all written down in books! But beware the wyrme...

In another riddle, the "speaker" says that she or he is very valuable, "brung from the woods" on wings, and then bathed in a tub?!  And that she throws men to the ground and binds them, and takes away their control over their minds, hands, and feet. She is mead, the wine made from honey. My students were puzzled by the idea of the honey being "bathed in a tub." I said that honey back then came in a rather dirty beeswax, full of bee larvae, because there was no super on the hive that separated the comb with eggs from the comb without eggs. So, to make mead, all the honey and comb was bathed in water and then probably strained to get the beeswax, eggs, and comb out. The honey would be diluted with water before making mead.

Another beautiful riddle describes the old moon "with the new moon in her arms": that phenomenon where the waning moon appears to have a faint whole moon cradled in its crescent. The riddle imagines that the waning moon wants this glowing orb to light a special room that it will build onto its house. But the rising sun chases away the "thief" and takes back the "booty" that the waning moon has stolen. Then the waning moon disappears for several days (as it does before it returns as the new moon).

The biggest barrier for my students with these poems was not the Old English language; after all, we had translations. It was not even the highly figurative language: the "wonderlice wiht" with a glowing orb between its horns. It was the fact that the Anglo Saxon tool kit and worldview was so utterly unfamiliar: the bee skep, the books written on animal skins, the horn that was both a musical instrument and a drinking vessel, and even the movements of the moon through the night sky. The gulf between pre-industrial people and ourselves is indeed vast. We discussed all these technological references thoroughly, though, and that helped. The students' questions made me realize how interested the Anglo Saxons were in their own technology: the riddles are mostly concerned with How Things Work, it seems, and what they are made out of, and how they are made. I probably would not have noticed this without the students' questions.

A student also asked something about why people would spend so much time inventing and memorizing riddles and songs in an oral culture. I said that I thought that it was partly because there was nothing else to do in winter at night. It gets dark and cold in Northern Europe in winter: there may only be a few hours of sunlight every day. You can only sleep about ten hours, and then you wake up. When you go to bed at dark, you wake up around midnight, and so do other people. It's still dark and cold, so you lie in bed talking, telling jokes and stories, and maybe singing or making love. Then you go back to sleep for a few hours before dawn. This was called the first sleep and the second sleep. I'm guessing that during the awake time in the middle of the night, people composed and shared riddles. Modern students are as unfamiliar with the rituals of pre-industrial night-time as they are with the making of mead or the inscribing of illuminated manuscripts.  They didn't quite believe me when I said that if you go to bed at dark, you will wake up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. But that's what happens to me after a few days of early-to-bed, once I get over the cumulative fatigue of normal industrial life.

I made a writing assignment which was to write a riddle (in modern English of course). I challenged myself to write one too, and compose it orally, as Anglo Saxon people would have for centuries. It's also a "parody" of an Anglo Saxon riddle, sort of, since "parody" was one of our vocabulary words.

I am yellow      and some call me yucky
the poorer people     buy me in boxes
They melt me down    to a gooey gold
I fly through the food-gate     riding a round horse
Whose bones are broken     but I live longer
Down the drain      to the cauldron cave
Where finally as fuel     I end in energy.
Who am I?

Answer: Velveeta cheese