Saturday, August 29, 2015

Surely

In what was to be your introduction to teaching graduate-level students how to add the necessary elements to their narratives while at the same time removing the unnecessary ones, the individual who hired you set you off and running with a brief discussion of the university bookstore and library as resources.  "Surely,"  he said, "you'll want The Aspect of the Novel for a text, so why don't I order that for you now?"

You, naive narrator that you were then, as well as now, replied, "Of course.  Thank you."  Whereupon you headed to the library in those pre-Google, pre-Internet days, a visit to the pre-Lapsarian equivalent of the Internet, the Card Catalogue, in whose oaken drawers you learned that Aspects of the Novel was located at 808.3 of the Dewey Decimal System and PN 33353 FT.6 in the Library of Congress System.

All well to heft the book, thumb through it, check it out, and on your way to your car, say to the book, "So, we are to become friends, are we?"  At the time, you had reason to doubt only that you'd got through your years as an English major without having heard of the book.  This did not leave you feeling intelligent. It  also set you up for another surprise a few years later.  You were joined first by a student then as a fellow faculty member a man who would become one of your greatest friends.  "Surely,"  he said, "you use Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (also at 808.3)."

This was at about the heyday of one of the longest serving department chairpersons in the history of the program in which you taught.  "Surely," he said, " you will use Aristotle's The Poetics as a teaching tool.  This was also at about the time another wide swath of reading had caught up with you, spilled into the nooks and crannies of your cortical tissues, and begun to make what you liked to think of as independent connections.

Soon, you were in the chairperson's office with the most dire greeting a subordinate can hear from a superior, "Come in and shut the door."

After some time, he began to tap his index finger on his desk, a gesture that, if heeded straight on, can be taken to mean the equivalent of "Listen up."  If the tapping continues, the superior is trying to frame a position statement that will in all likelihood not cause you pleasure.  "What's this I hear about you telling your students they didn't need Aristotle, they could instead use a newspaperman who hadn't even a college education?"

"He was," you offered, "an autodidact.  He had undoubtedly read Aristotle."

"Help me to see why that would matter when there is access here to Aristotle.  You were suggesting they read, I believe it was--"

"Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby."

"Help me see."

"If you were to read the Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, you'd see the principals are exactly the same and--"

The tapping of the finger began again.  "--and?"

""--and the language is more modern.  A bit over the top.  Some potential racist implications because of the dialect, but--"

"--but?"

"It shows characters in action."

The results would have been the same even if you'd have managed to have written and published your handbook.  Readers, whether they be student and instructor, instructor and department chair, or writer and editor, are not bound by any convention to reach the same conclusion after they've read a piece.  

Nor is it to a writer's discredit if there is this great aura of ambiguity about the final meaning.  There can never be, in so many words, a single, simple, direct meaning, even though responses to poetry, drama, and narrative may agree on certain basic inherent elements.

You had few thoughts ten of such matters as post-modern theory as it related to what you do.  to be sure, there was a growing handful of men and women writers you gravitated to on your journey from the far reaches of recorded language to the present times,  You knew you were growing more impatient with formula, theory, and a rigidity of regard and format to content.

Why are you in this in the first place, you asked yourself?  What were you reading for?  And why was the increasing number of things you read causing you to feel less reverent about anything?

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