Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Literacy, Literature and 20-Year-Olds

This is the way my mind works. Something seemingly relevant pops up; I weigh whether to share it; share it if it's the right weight. Anyway, here's an example.

Random Mills Class Memory #1

I'm sitting in what is reportedly Perry Mills' toughest class: Arts Inquiry, aka Aesthetics. The report is true. This is no easy class. I'm scared, and I'm loving it.

One of our required texts is The Theatre and Its Double by Antonin Artaud. A dangerous text to introduce to an impressionable 20 year old. Consider:

Never before, when it is life that is in question, has there been so much talk of civilization and culture. And there is a curious parallel between this generalized collapse of life at the root of our present demoralization and our concern for a culture which has never been coincident with life, which in fact has been devised to tyrannize over life.

And, truly terrifying to a young mind recently entered into a reportedly serious academic institution (that report only being minorly true):

Either these systems are within us and permeate our being to the point of supporting life itself (and if this is the case, what use are books?) or they do not permeate us and therefore do not have the capacity to support life (and in this case what does their disappearance matter?)

Which I bring up, as example, in order to demonstrate the seriousness of this class and the basis for approaching the very nature of what thinking about culture might mean (what thinking itself might mean, perhaps) and in order to share this funny anecdote:

Mills: ...which is why, no matter what, Artaud can't be fully trusted.

Student 1: Wait, why?

Mills: Because even though he may be brilliant, he was a drug addicted lunatic who wrote a penpal letter to Hitler and gave terrible advice about moving.

Student 2: About moving?

Mills: What part of your body are you supposed to use to lift something heavy?

Student 3: Your knees.

Mills: Right. Now turn to page 34, fourth paragraph down.

(We do. Artaud suggests that, "as everyone knows", heavy lifting is meant to be done with majority pressure upon the lower back.)

Mills: Clearly bad advice, right?

Student 4: How do you do that? How did you remember where he says that?

Mills: I read the book.
Which brings me to...

Random Mills Class Memory #2

Mills suddenly brings up Flannery O'Connor (I do not remember the context).

Mills: ...which you can see come up in something like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" or, more likely, in "Everything Rises Must Converge".

There's a palpable blankness in the faces of his audience, if blankness can be said to palpate.

Me: I love Flannery O'Connor.

A pause. Mills looks visibly disturbed.

Mills: Okay, are you serious or you're just fucking with me now to waste class time?

Me: I'm serious. I read her back in a community college class in Alaska. I got chills when I read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find". I really didn't see that ending coming but when it did it made total sense. Inevitable, right?
The look on Mills' face went from disturbed to something that I can only describe as a faint brush with pleasure. We went back to business immediately after but I'm sure this fact touched him: someone in his class had actually read something serious.

I deserve no statuette or cookie for having read, or even for responding to, a typically assigned piece of American literature. But it gives me pause, even 12 years later, to realize how rare it was for Perry to come across a student who had done either or, certainly, both.

When I consider the context in which a mind like Perry's resigned itself to spend an enormous amount of its time -- sifting through a mill of 20-year-olds who don't read, need to be forced to do so, and who are notoriously hard to get to noticeably respond to anything subtler than a gas line explosion -- a great deal of understanding forms. Or, if a mind is sympathetic to the nature of such a choice and its consequences, should form.

Imagine a bright dog placed on a deserted island trying to convince a cluster of fallen coconuts that running for several hours a day has lasting benefits. The dog proves this by running several hours a day. The coconuts remain still.

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