Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Subtext, or Were We Having Fun Yet?

Preparing lecture notes for tomorrow's class in genre fiction sent me on a trip back to my years in a gulag.

The lecture will focus on Aristotle (the Greek writer) and his valuable take on what story is--and is not. My take on story is expressed by a series of questions:

Who wants what?
From whom?
What happens if he/she does not get what he/she wants?
Why now?

That seems a pretty straightforward approach; it works as well with Hamlet as it does with the remarkable new work, Divisadero, from Michael Ondaatje.

Subtext is the narrative context of a story or poem that does not appear in the text, either in narrative or dialogue, but which becomes apparent to the reader and is in fact a part of the writer's design.

Hey, isn't that a pretty good definition for irony?

Yes! The behavior of the characters expresses one set of behavior while at the same time the subtext reveals--betrays, if you will--an altogether different, possibly polar intent.

So what about this gulag stuff?

Gulag is an acronym in Russian for a corrective labor camp, a place with the serious subtext of workers being given chores of such boring, humiliating, and forcefully introspective vectors that the inmate reconsiders his/her individualistic, often rebellious nature, accepting the Common Wisdom, be it political, religious, educational, or a combination thereof.

I was an inmate of this gulag from ages twelve to fourteen. It was located at the intersections of McCadden Avenue and Sixth Street, a relatively nice residential area with comfortable, single-dwelling homes, in midtown Los Angeles, named after the naturalist writer John Burroughs, officially recognized, even to this day as John Burroughs Junior High School.

The buildings were functional, a kind of brick-and-mortar sturdiness suggesting order, even discipline, but nothing resembling the smug excesses associated with the novels of Dickens. The Boys' Vice-Principal was a tweedy, affable man with gangling good looks. The Principal and Girls' Vice-Principal were Dickensian in appearance, each having the kind of head and face you'd expect to find on a fifty-dollar bill or a bottle of Lydia Pinkham's Tonic. Most of the faculty had the haunted appearance of guards in a maximum-security prison movie, men and women who seemed honor-bound to inculcate us with responsibility and discipline. One of my classmates, known for his odd reading habits (Kafka and DeMaupassant) argued that when they spoke of responsibility and discipline, it meant they were warning us about the dangers of masturbation. Another, a girl who wrote poetry, argued that with one or two exceptions, the faculty were all lapsed monastics and that if John Burroughs Junior High were hell for us, it was purgatory for them.

At John Burroughs Junior High School, I learned to eat mashed potatoes drenched in a gravy that reminded me of library paste, and believed the girl who wrote poetry when she told me that the cafeteria cooks were ordered to put saltpeter into them in an attempt to keep boys from acting out on urges best saved for high school. I also learned that behavior was equated with intelligence to the point where, if you did not behave well, you were proving your unworthiness of good grades. I also learned how to make rockets from paper matches and the foil from cigarette packages; how to grow radishes and carrots, how to make radios that worked without electricity, and had committed to memory the steps in raising thirteen to the thirteenth power, the favorite punishment of my math teacher. I knew those numbers so well that I was able to sell copies of the exercise for twenty-five cents to other rebellious boys.

One of my great chums and fellow prisoners survived this gulag, then went on to do his undergraduate work and law school at Harvard, suggesting that the Common Wisdom might not have been all that bad. Perhaps. Any number of inmates, male and female, went forth to pursue professional careers, some with distinction. There were actually two teachers I admired and respected, although when grades were given, the A's they assigned to me caused me grief with the teachers whom I neither admired nor respected, each of whom would warn me that they were watching me.

It is true that I was neither a good student nor a model prisoner although I had been a good student in every one of the six grammar schools I attended, and probably began to do better, as they say, in high school, out of sheer relief from being out of junior high school.

And what is the subtext of all this? It is that junior high school threw me well off the course of Received Standard Education to the point where now, when I talk about the places where story abides as a thriving thing, I think of the school, the college, the university, the faculty meeting as the petri dish filled with agar agar, waiting to be fed some strain of mischief.

1 comment:

lettuce said...

we had just the same kind of gravy at our school.