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There are many domesticated Modernists, but Gertrude Stein is not one of them.
Of course, the truth of this statement rests (at least in part) on a particular understanding of “domesticated”; in this case I mean that quite a few of the previously controversial Modernists have acquired a patina of respectability, whether through exposure or reputation, so that it’s pretty easy to teach Joyce, WCW, Wallace Stevens, even (certain) Pound, and expect that my students will either have read something by them previously or, at the very least, been exposed to a teacher-approved text that resembles them. This makes my job slightly easier, though also less risky – because a text which has been “approved” is one which must be respected, if not necessarily read (much less loved), by which I mean the kids listen dutifully as we talk about them, and take notes. Whether or not they think about these notes ever again is an open question.
(This is also shows that I teach at a university where many of the kids have had decent high school English preparation, which is a theme for another post.)
Here is where I have to lay on the line the fact that I have no particular qualifications for teaching poetry in my classroom. I am not a poet, nor am I a particularly comprehensive reader of poetic texts, so in some ways my students’ previous experience as self-conscious “students” of poetry is a good thing; I’m in the sad position where I can’t really provide a comprehensive introduction to the very poetic texts I like the most, so I’m happy that my students don’t outright revolt when I throw Wallace Stevens/Marianne Moore/H.D. at them. In fact, I get a great deal of buy-in.
Except, of course, that outright revolt is sometimes an excellent thing. When I teach fiction it’s one of my favorite responses – which is why I try to teach “The Indian Uprising” whenever I can. Outright revolt can be its own kind of buy-in; in fact, if responded to in a non-aggressive fashion, it can provide the spark for a really fun class.
Which brings me back to Tender Buttons.
For the record, I love Tender Buttons. Maybe it’s because it’s (only nominally) prose, or because I enjoy word play – emphasis on “play” – or because I’m appreciative of the way in which it draws close attention to the status of words as signifiers (or the implausibility of the very concept of “definitions”), but I find it a particularly invigorating text.
But its particular force as a teaching tool stretches beyond any of my particular aesthetic concerns. Tender Buttons is exciting to teach because certain students really dislike it, and their visceral dislike gives a sense of consequence to the discussion. Other students sit up, take notice, and try to provide responses to this dislike. Some people defend the work; other people ask questions – lots of students want to know “what it means,” or “why” Gertrude Stein would have written something like this.
Which is what I mean when I say that Stein isn’t a “domesticated” Modernist. She’s still debatable, not at the level of text – what is WCW’s “poetic project?” – but at the level of the allowable, as in: is she even allowed to do this?
My impulse, of course, is to yell “of course she is,” especially considering all of the fertile crosscurrents between aesthetic and political/sexual freedom – that which is “allowed” being a topic which we’re always debating throughout these territories, whether we want to say we are or not!
But in the classroom I find that the students tend to come to this on their own, provided I playfully force them to engage with the text. I have them read shorter sections out loud. I play them audio of Stein reading (which makes some students laugh, and others loudly groan.) I have them listen to me read a section, and then free-write in response. I make sure that by my insistence I show I care about the work, but I don’t ram my love of it down their throats. Their resistance, after all, is what started the conversation in the first place.
I’ve had many teachers tell me not to teach what I love, because the students’ lack of interest will often disappoint you. One never has that problem with Stein. The students may not come to embrace her, but she never fails to invest a room with energy, which is one of my favorite environments to teach in.
After all, as Stein asks: “What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.”
Or, less (more!) seriously: Sugar is not a vegetable.
Like a surprising number of adjuncts I know (considering poor pay, no benefits, and little professional respect) I enjoy teaching – a lot. I enjoy talking over the function of narrative with students whose perspectives are different from mine, and I enjoy forcing myself to try to communicate the aspects of writing (and literature) that I think are important, without being able to rely on shared experience and aesthetics to carry the day. It’s remarkable how much of a reflective bubble your personal circle of writer friends can be, simply because you’ve got a common project and a common set of standards. But students… well, students have a way of taking your deepest assumptions about writing and turning them on their head.
But more than that, I like teaching in Philadelphia. Not just because I enjoy my brief commute (although I do), or because the idea of moving for another academic job is terrifying (although it is), but because the place where I teach is enough of a local institution that the students who come through my classroom have recognizable stories. I usually know the neighborhoods they come from, and I sometimes know their high schools – not as well as I could, being a coddled private school kid myself, but enough to place them in a kind of framework, and their perspectives bring up parts of the city I might not have visited, places I only know on the surface. They’re doing me a favor, and deepening my experience of the world, the city that is ours.
That, to me, is the importance of a sense of place: a commonality the can be expanded with each piece, made sharper and deeper.
Recently I had a conversation with an old professor of mine, in which we discussed professional issues. He pointed out that I’ve got enough classes on my CV that I could look for other places to teach, to which I replied that I like it in Philly, and that my current school (Temple) seems like one of the better situations in town.
(Of course, I’ll soon be looking for more schools than Temple, but that’s the life of an adjunct, and not worth elaborating in this post.)
It might seem stubborn, my insistence on staying in Philadelphia. An academic career is made by being flexible, by taking opportunities on a national scale, not a local one. Certainly there are limited opportunities to teach fiction as it is, and someone looking for a long-term (not to mention tenure-track, that grand dream!) fiction position had better be prepared to range far and wide in search of it.
I’m only a novice, of course, but I think my experience with Philadelphia informs my teaching, and makes it better. I like that I have points in common with my students, even if those points are only geographical; we can find some kind of shared ground to discuss. “I thought you’d like that one,” students have said to me, “because I felt like it was about the city.” Part of this is selfish, of course – I like the perspective the students gift to me – but I don’t think it’s all one-sided. I think the students appreciate having a teacher who has common reference points.
It’s a common theme among fiction writers who end up teaching: the sense that the pressure to grade and respond alienates you from your own work and distracts you from writing. I feel that; the sense of time slipping away is sometimes palpable. But one of the great rewards of teaching in the city you’re from is that connection points spark, day to day, that keep you from feeling disconnected. Just the other day a student of mine wrote a story about a Korean BBQ place, and since I know where he’s from I spent the rest of the day wondering which spot he was talking about, where in South Philly it was located, and whether I’d ridden by it on my bike, one of those day when I used to rent a studio west of Broad – strange times, those were!
(Times I’d been forgetting, until that story about Korean BBQ brought me back.)
Which is what I mean about shared place – and another reason why, professional development be damned, I’m staying put in this town until somebody carts me away.
This semester, as part of a course on horror fiction, I’ve been teaching the Stephen King novel ‘Salem’s Lot, which I picked for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it’s a fairly quick read, and sometimes that helps the students who are weighed down by end-of-semester work to continue doing the reading for my class! I also enjoy it because it’s so explicitly intertextual, continually referencing examples from the weird tradition, both high and low.
I thought I was familiar with the drawbacks of King going in – sloppy prose, a tendency towards sentimentality when it comes to children and romantic relationships – but what’s struck me, this time through, is how conservatively King interprets horror tropes, especially in the context of ‘Salem’s Lot, a vampire novel. As is the case with a lot of vampire novels, the blood-sucking aspect is rendered as a fear of sexual desire, but I was also distressed to see how the oncoming wave of vampirism follows (to some extent) class dynamics; i.e., the poor people who live in trailers spread their disease of ignorance onto the rest of the populace.
This got me thinking – is there something fundamentally conservative in the American horror tradition, or is this only a matter of looking at a few isolated, paranoid names, like Lovecraft? Certainly the spread of vampirism through ‘Salem’s Lot reminded me of some of Lovecraft’s more inspired tales of xenophobia and class suspicion, like “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
I wrote earlier about how much I enjoyed horror for its sustained attack on the bourgeois idea of self, and how it refuses to take for granted many of the assumptions of stable societies and personalities that some literary fiction merely glides over, but it occurs to me, reading King, that this attack can be rendered in a less progressive way. In other words, in the hands of a conservative, sentimental writer, the attack on self (and society) can be rendered as a menace, and in the process a writer like King can end up implicitly romanticizing and endorsing an illusory vision of happiness and tranquility: in King’s case, 50′s era small town American life.
Of course, I don’t want to force this sort of interpretation on my students – but I also don’t want them to uncritically accept the world which King is creating, and since ‘Salem’s Lot is the last text on our reading list, I worry that they’ll forget the more radical vision of a work like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House in favor of the good v. evil / desire v. duty / innocence v. sin dichotomy King represents.
Some have suggested that horror itself is a conservative form – that because societal mechanisms of control (the state, the market) themselves exercise this control through the form of fear (fear of foreigners, fear of poverty, fear of death), the manipulation of these fears is intrinsically anti-progressive. I don’t agree with this idea – there’s no reason that an author can’t use fear to expose the rifts in seemingly whole systems of living, thereby criticizing them – but I do see how, as in King, the assault on the self that horror exercises can be turned in such a way that the reader turns toward comforting illusions of family and society for shelter. The trick, I think, is to avoid even this illusion: to reject all comfort, and press onward into the dark.
It can be very dispiriting to consider the dynamics at play when teaching a creative writing workshop. No matter how hard you work to create a comfortable, trusting atmosphere, no matter how much you privilege respect towards the readers (preliminary editing!) and the authors being workshopped (don’t be a dick!), you always know that there are tensions and rivalries simmering below the surface, at a level you’ll never be able to notice, much less ameliorate. (Not that you’d want to; monkeying with the lives of students being a point for an entire other post.)
But of all the pernicious (and ultimately unnecessary) sorts of infighting that go in our workshops, the one that bothers me the most is the intense impulse on the part of the students to rank each other. “How is my work in relation to other people’s?” they ask – and, “who do you think is the best writer in class?” “So-and-so was doing really well, but their last piece was, well…” “I feel like so-and-so is my competition; I think that I write better than them, but people like their style more.”
The first impulse is to brush off this kind of behavior. I mean, this is undergraduate creative writing, after all – the impulse to take oneself and one’s peers too seriously is a common part of being in college, and certainly not the most serious of sins. Better that young writers take themselves too seriously than that they ignore your class entirely, right?
Maybe – but there’s something grating to me about the application of this kind of yardstick, because the undergraduates are by no means the only ones applying it. If anything, they’re only reacting to the sort of competitive urgency present in the larger culture, and the literary culture, specifically.
You see it in MFA programs – the angling for “star” status, the sense of favoritism between professors and grad students – and in the world of publishing – the sense of publishing in the “right places,” or of receiving the best awards. In a world where writers feel increasingly marginalized (even though the writer in English has a larger potential readership than previous generations could ever have imagined), the fight over the scraps of praise and acclaim can be brutal. We’re all desperate for affirmation, in a culture which we feel leaves us with little respect, and so we take out our insecurities on our communities: our classrooms, our writers’ groups, our teaching circles.
Of course, I’m guilty of this as well – I’ve made my fair share of swipes at others for petty aesthetic gripes. But if I actually had the authority to drop wisdom on my students I would try to tell them that the yardstick approach is a banal and ultimately unhelpful way to approach one’s own work and the work of one’s peers. In the rush of pronouncing judgment on “good” or “bad” work – all the while hoping that some outer force will pronounce the judgment of “good” on their own fiction – students miss out on appreciating the various and weird approaches of their friends and classmates. And as this sense of exterior judgment and approval moves up the chain, from undergrad to grad, all the way up to the petty gripes of our professional Franzens, it has the effect of limiting the discourse to that which can achieve recognition within a fairly narrow aesthetic framework.
I’m not saying we should pretend as if there are no aesthetic standards, and that all writing is equally valid. I just wish – especially in the early going, since it’s hard to teach a grad student new tricks – that all of us could stop looking at fiction with the reductive worldview of “is this successful,” when we know from experience that “success” is not always a good indicator of artistic merit. There are more undergraduate writing classes in America than there have ever been, and students learn their habits early. It seems to me that if we want to foster a more vibrant, diverse American literary culture, it wouldn’t hurt to try to fight the urge to compete, and encourage the urge to listen to each other as equals.
This semester I’ve been teaching a freshman Honors English class at Temple University entitled “The Uncanny in Horror Literature.” Overall it’s been a delight; the kids are sharp and lively, and getting to design my own syllabus for a reading-intensive class means I’ve been able to teach writers I love and that I might not get a chance to teach again: Lovecraft, for example, and also Shirley Jackson. But it’s also brought up interesting questions concerning my own work, and about the delineation between “horror” and so-called “literary fiction.”
We started the semester with Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson.” The former most people know, the latter is probably less familiar (though no less interesting). Teaching them, I was struck by how experimental they are, how relatively unburdened by the necessities of realism (which makes sense, considering Poe was writing before the French-inspired doctrines of naturalism started to take hold in the States). I was also struck with how dark and pessimistic they are, and I’m not just talking about the sort of dark comedy or gothic inflections you might find in a well-crafted “literary” novel like the Virgin Suicides; I’m talking about a total denial of the power of self, of the breakdown of personality.
For example, “William Wilson” is about a boy named William Wilson who is tormented by the appearance, at his boarding school, of a student with the exact same name and physical features as his own – but it’s more complicated than that, because at first the original William Wilson enjoys having his double around; he’s been lonely at school, and feels himself superior to other students, so the emergence of someone he can relate to has a sort of perverse attraction. That is, until all hell breaks loose, and the double becomes malignant and unbearable.
This thread – the self under siege, doubled or distorted or outright attacked – runs through all of the writers I assigned this semester, without me even realizing it, and as we’ve worked through the texts together the students have picked up on it, too. In Lovecraft, it’s the sense of containing an Other inside of you, as in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” where the narrator slowly realizes he carries the blood of an alien race of fish-people in his veins. In Shirley Jackson, the barrier between the self and others is so permeable that Eleanor, the protagonist of “The Haunting of Hill House,” is always trying to take on aspects of other characters for her own, until the haunted house she is supposed to be studying possesses her mind and destroys her.
After a day of teaching this literature, I often find myself feeling drained, less because the class is difficult than that the literature – if you pay attention – invokes such a dark side of human experience. And when I sit down to write, I find that the work I’m producing is similarly concerned with the divisions of self, and the ways in which personality is always under siege. Funny how much “literary” fiction, for all of its linguistic investigation, is really concerned with reifying the individual: making personality seem consistent and round, applying an arc to human experience which is satisfying and even moral. (Of course, in the best “literary” fiction, like Woolf or Proust or even Flaubert, the act of trying to complete the self is a difficult, painful project, which complicates my dichotomy.)
What’s delightful about horror fiction, at its best, is its complete lack of concern with such a project, and although this sense of personal nihilism can be hard to face from time to time, its also a bracing corrective to the assumptions of a great deal of our literature. I wonder – is the legacy of American horror (or “weird” fiction) a sort of counter-tradition, an oft-neglected strand of 19th/20th century American writing?
The best books (or at least the ones I like the most) are the ones that seem to set out with a particular aesthetic project in mind; that is, when you read them you can sense that the writer has set a problem in his or her head and is working it out, piece by piece, as they go along. This could be a narrative conceit, ala Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (man develops glory hole as anti-sexual harassment strategy, and it somehow succeeds), or it could be a particular stylistic choice, ala George Perec’s A Void (don’t use the letter “e”), but the sense of risk – of posing a difficult problem for oneself, one that entails a real sense of working something out, even if it leaves the reader with a difficult reading experience – seems essential to the best works of fiction.
Of course, one does run the risk of sterility with this approach. For example, when I give my students Borges to read (as I often do, because Borges is delightful) many of them respond half-heartedly; this guy’s obviously very smart, they say, but I didn’t find anything to connect with. Or, others say, it just wasn’t very much fun. I hear that, and I’m open to the criticism that my perspective on great fiction privileges the intellectual gamesmanship of narrative over it’s more emotional rewards. The fiction I like is interesting, but it can also be icy – too cool for its own good.
Which brings me to this novella by Cesar Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which manages to both solve a complicated narrative puzzle and explode the constraints of that puzzle, all in ninety-odd pages.
You might call the book’s initial project a pseudo-biographical investigation of a nineteenth-century German landscape painter. In this, it seems like one of Borges’ vignettes, in which a man’s biography is used to interrogate aesthetic and philosophical assumptions. In this case, these assumptions are about the beginning of naturalism, specifically the sort of universal German naturalism of Humbolt, in which a unified field theory of science and aesthetics could lead humanity to higher enlightenment.
At first glance, this seems like a recipe for the kind of over-intellectual coldness I described earlier. In order to be successful at this project, Aira needs to be very scrupulous about adhering to some of the conventions of both biography and art criticism, and in doing so runs the risk of losing some of the more immediate, emotional power of narrative. If we’re too busy describing aesthetics, the character of the painter himself, Rugendas, ends up looking like a cipher; we can’t identify with him as an individual.
What’s so lovely about An Episode, however, is that as soon as it’s managed to establish its aesthetic project, it begins undermining it. As the book progresses, it slowly admits bizarre touches – loved those Indian attacks, and the horse-drawn carts that are too long and slow for reality! – and these bizarre touches complicate the reason and scientific investigation that undergird the biographical project in the first place. The main character, Rugendas, thinks he’s going to the pampas to paint truly “natural” scenes – to implement some sort of artistic “process”, but once he find himself on trackless terrain the gonzo elements take over, making his whole aesthetic process (mimicked by the pseudo-biographical process of the narrative) insufficient, if not totally meaningless. Credit to Aira for making this transition from a certain school of realism to the complete repudiation of any such school subtle and credible. Give him all the Nobels.
At the half point of the book lightning strikes, and the subjectivity of Rugendas gets totally scrambled; this is how Aira manages to both fulfill and exceed my expectations for great literature. Once he pokes a hole in the careful structure he’s created, a flood of visceral imagery overwhelms the reader, providing them with everything they’ve missed in the pseudo-biographical beginning.
The second half of the book essentially undoes the first half. All attempts towards reason (even on the level of the sentence) pretty much go out the window – which is remarkable, considering how successful the initial narrative was at establishing its pseudo-scientific bona fides. Instead the furious, almost demented activity of Rugendas tries in vain to establish some new kind of cosmology in the place of his destroyed aesthetics, and all kinds of wackiness ensues: Indian attacks, stockings worn as a mask to blot out the sun, complete breakdowns of perspective, space and time – heady stuff.
At 88 pages, this novella manages to accomplish and exceed the sort of narrative goals some writers take a thousand pages to accomplish. Are there any other Aira lovers out there? I’ve started reading Ghosts, and so far it hasn’t lived up to the promise of An Episode. Any of his other novels approach the level of this fascinating text?