28 February 2017

What Love Has to Do With It!

I had recently screened again Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours, with a script by David Hare. The Hours, is a film based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and appears to be a film about how three women over three generations confront suicide, and event central to the novel. I returned to the original text:--Virginia Woolf’s novel,--and I sense though death, mortality and suicide are themes of the book, for me the novel speaks to an intense yet fragile love of life. Clarissa Dalloway loves life. From the opening pages the narrator, speaking clearly from within Clarissa’s consciousness (if it is not actually her consciousness we follow), declares “For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same . . . they love life.” Yes, Clarissa loves life though not always specific people in it: for example, she does not like Mrs. Kilman at all, and Hugh Whitbread seems rather stuffy, and Lady Bruton doesn’t invite her to lunch though Lady Bruton welcomes Richard, Clarissa’s husband. And Mrs. Dalloway has suffered illness and is constantly aware of her mortality. As she walks through London on the day of her party (ah, she wonders, why does she organize these parties; why, why?) Clarissa “felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged.” Life was so fragile that “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” To love it so much as to suffer the danger that at any moment it might be lost: as it was for Septimus Smith whose experience during World War I had left him permanently damaged and who throws himself out of the window to put an end to his despair. I think Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is about the nature of love in the world of the twentieth century and following the experience of the first world war. And I think that for Mrs. Dalloway love exists in the ordinary, the mundane, and the daily routine of life. Love is expressed in the diurnal activities in which people daily engage. Love does not reside in the great passions on display sometimes on the stage or the screen, or that is written about in even the great novels; love resides in the ordinary sometimes even inarticulable expressions we haltingly make as we go through our daily lives, as in Richard’s sudden desire and purchase of roses for Clarissa and yet his inability to say to her “I love you,” when he gives them to her, though she knew from his gift what he was saying. Love exists in the daily. What Clarissa loved “was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab.”
     And I am thus reminded of J.D Salinger’s book Fanny and Zooey. Franny Glass has suffered an existential crisis, a spiritual breakdown, and taken to her bed seeking some salvation and spiritual uplift by her recitation of the Jesus prayer. She has become immobilized, and in her search for some transcendent and ultimate purpose lost touch with the daily life. From a different room in the apartment her brother Zooey calls on the telephone and tells her to “go on with your Jesus Prayer if you want to. I mean that’s your business.” But he reminds her that when she did suffer her break down she did not search the world for a master spiritual guide; rather, she came home and he feels justified to serve now as a lowly spiritual counsel to her. “You’re only entitled to the low-grade spiritual counsel we’re able to give you around her, and no more.” He has something to say to Franny!
     Zooey’s counsel to Franny returns me to Clarissa in Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Zooey demands that Franny look at the ordinary activities of life as sources of joy and love. He chides her: “You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup Bessie ever brings anybody around this madhouse.” In her quest for the ultimate Franny has missed the sacredness of the ordinary.” He asks her, “How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don’t even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it’s right in front of your nose?” It is life and life only that must be loved. Once, Zooey tells Franny, his older brother Seymour had advised Zooey that even though they performed on a radio show he ought still to polish his shoes: “He said to shine them for the Fat Lady,” though he never revealed the identity of the Fat Lady. And Zooey says to Franny, who in her search for purpose and meaning in life suffers such anguish, “But I’ll tell you a secret—Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady . . . Don’t you know that—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. Its Christ’s Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.” The Fat Lady listening to the radio or sitting in the cab is the holy, and the constant recitation of the Jesus prayer serves to deflect Franny from attending with care and with love to the Fat Lady listening to the radio—to miss the sacred that inheres to daily life . . . and to the fat lady in the cab!   

16 February 2017

Returning to Middlemarch Again

I am finding it difficult to talk about school these days because to talk about school I must also talk about the students in attendance there, and I don’t want to make general statements about ‘students’ that apply only to individuals. The same, of course, applies to talk of teachers. But . . .  I have grown weary of hearing students talked about as our ‘clients and customers,’ transforming the role of the teacher to a salesperson whose function is to keep the customer satisfied. It seems to me that the function of the teacher is to do just the opposite: make the student just a bit uneasy, uncomfortable, and strange.
     In George Eliot’s Middlemarch Mrs. Cadwallader, the rector’s wife, urges Dorothea, now a young widow, not to remain isolated in the house at Lowick where once she lived with her sophistical, obscurantist husband, Mr. Casaubon. To Dorothea’s good fortune, her dessicated husband, and Dorothea is released from a stultifying marriage and a mission that had imprisoned her. But, after after a suitable period of mourning during which Dorothea resided at her uncle’s home, she returned to Lowick in the environs of Middlemarch where she intended to remain living her solitary life engaged in various liberal and progressive social programs that she hoped would improve the lives of the more oppressed and disadvantaged workers. No one in Middlemarch criticizes her determination though they sometimes express concern for her method. And so on a visit to Dorothea, Mrs. Cadwallader, the rector’s wife, cautions Dorothea not so much about her social intent as about the solitude she intends to maintain to accompany her purpose: “You will certainly go mad in this house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by” (Eliot, 537). Mrs. Cadwallader cautions Dorothea that to remain sane in this world takes some effort. The ease of insanity seems so much more appealing, Mrs. Cadwallader admits, and she acknowledges that “for younger sons and women who have no money, it is a sort of provision to go mad.” Dorothea is subject to neither condition. Mrs. Cadwallader urges Dorothea to assume the exact opposite of an antic disposition: Dorothea must, Mrs. Cadwallader says, “get a few people round you who wouldn’t believe you if you told them” when “in your sovereign isolation you come to believe that you rule the weather.” Mrs. Cadwallader urges on Dorothea the company of what might appear not skeptics and ironists but realists
--acquaintances who might with disdain doubt her ideal assumptions and purposes. Mrs. Cadwallader urges on Dorothea an adherence to the social norms that from the beginning--even ironically in her marriage to Casaubon-- Dorothea has rejected. These sane realists of Mrs. Cadwallader are nothing but conformists; she urges that Dorothea must “call things by the same names as others.” But Dorothea responds to Mrs. Cadwallader, “I have never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did,” and when Mrs. Cadwallader nods her head and declares that at least Dorothea now acknowledges her error, Dorothea denies it. “No, I still think that the greater part of the world is mistaken about many things. Surely one may be sane and yet think so, since the greater part of the world has often had to come round from its opinion.” Alas, not always but that is not reason enough not to continue to not call things by the same name as others.
     Dorothea defines for me the role of the teacher: one who does not call things by the same name as others. This practice will inevitably raise not a few eyebrows and inspire scorn from those others onto the nonconforming teacher, but often the world may come round from its opinion. At least, that is what we in our insane sanity who refuse to call things by the same name as others earnestly hope. Until then, I suppose we keep on keeping on.

09 February 2017

On Pronoun Reference

I’m big on pronouns. I tell students that pronouns replace nouns and therefore, when they use a pronoun they must be certain that there is a noun which precedes it¾and if there are two nouns that precede the pronoun they must be certain to ensure that the reader knows to which noun the pronoun refers. I also advise students that the pronoun must agree in number and gender with the noun which precedes it.
     The decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco delivered this evening declared that “It is beyond question that the federal judiciary retains the authority to adjudicate constitutional challenges to executive action.” The President, the Court said, has the power to judge whether executive actions are constitutionally acceptable. This ability of the judicial branch is central to the division of powers established by the Constitution of the United States. We are not to be governed by a monarch or dictator no matter how benevolent that monarch or dictator thinks itself to be!  We have a Constitution.
     Soon after the court ruled, Trump tweeted (imagine, a President of the United States ruling by tweets?) “See you in Court.” And I am wondering to whom does the President of the United States refer when he says “See you in court.” Does the pronoun ‘you’ refer to the United States Court of Appeals in San Francisco? In which case Trump threatens to see the Court in Court. Or is this ‘you’ referring to the people of the United States? Someone should teach Trump grammar.
     Trump’s behavior is more than reprehensible: it is unconstitutional and borders on the criminal.