5:28 AM – Slept in for TGIF.
“Farewell to story tellers, hello to memoirists.” – Dr. Myles Werntz
*This is the disclaimer where I confess I’m drastically out of my element, but I’m going for it anyway.
After work yesterday I continued my pre-dinner ritual of drinking decaf coffee and reading Tim O’Brien’s If I Die In A Combat Zone when I came across an interesting sentence:
“The essential thing about the prairie, I learned, was that one part of it is like any other part.” – Tim O’Brien
I found this interesting because it reminded me of a line in one of my favorite classic novels, a book that I’ve highly recommended but for which few people have shared my affections, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. The sentence comes from Jim Burden as he and his family travel west across the plains. Jim says:
“The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.” – Willa Cather
What’s remarkable about these two sentences, besides how greatly O’Brien’s narrator echoes Jim Burden, is that neither character is actually speaking about the prairie or Nebraska. Jim Burden was actually referring to his own ennui of travels and his dreaded notions of a life lived isolated among the expanses of land and land and unchanging land. O’Brien metaphorically uses the prairie as a concrete symbol of something far more complex and abstract. Look at O’Brien’s sentence, embedded in a chapter about his hometown, in its fuller context:
“I tried going to the Democratic party meetings. I’d read it was the liberal party. But it was futile. I could not make out the difference between the people there and the people down the street boosting Nixon and Cabot Lodge. The essential thing about the prairie, I learned, was that one part of it was like any other part.” – Tim O’Brien
The double-entendre there jolts the reader’s attention. O’Brien expresses his boredom with politics through a concrete reference to the boring landscape. This is good writing. This is – although O’Brien published If I Die In A Combat Zone in 1975 – indicative of classic literature.
This also reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, when a distraught Tess roams down a country road in search of Angel, Alec has just been stabbed, and the narrator describes the road, its dying floral boundaries, as illustrative of Tess’s despair. The narrator never directly relays Tess’s emotions. Instead, the reader gets descriptions of dirty paths and wilting foliage, but we know we’re not really reading about paths and foliage. We’re reading about Tess.
I allude to Tess because I clearly remember reading that passage, and suddenly many things my English instructors tried to teach me about literature finally clicked into place. I read that passage many times. So many times that years later Tess still swirls up in my coffee while reading Tim O’Brien’s book about the Vietnam War, which, of course, is not actually about the Vietnam War.
Here’s the statement I want to make that my disclaimer pre-referenced:
One reason our modern literature, even our modern mindset, is no longer infused with the classical condition is because we have become more obsessed with what is inside ourselves than what is outside.
Let me say it like this. When Thomas Hardy or Willa Cather or Tim O’Brien want to express abstract internal emotions they used concrete external imagery. When Robert Burns says, “My love is like a red, red rose”, we snicker because it’s cheesy, but it’s also concrete. At least I can see a red rose. I can’t see bloody hell of Burns’ love. (Especially because Burns is so bloody hell dead.) Unfortunately, this type of writing and figurative language requires the writer – even the reader – to possess a vocabulary rich with the language of the world, not just the language of the self. And we’ve long abandoned such a bilingual education.
The sad reality of our singular self-speak became evident in class yesterday.
We’ve spent several days – if not the majority of the semester – discussing rhetorical analysis. How to pull apart a text. Examine it at various levels. Discuss the elements of the text rather than personal reactions to the text. Then we watched a documentary. I paused it often and modeled for them, early in the film, how to analyze the film. I asked questions. I told them things to look for. I stopped the film and asked them to take notes. When it was all over, I asked them to write a review of the filmmakers’ rhetorical devices. What they brought me back were combinations of climatic summaries and sentimental spittle about “I feel” and “I think” and “It was so sad.” And when they finished sharing their reviews I had to point out to them that only one person in nine actually wrote about the film. Everyone else wrote about themselves. Two days we spent watching a film about other people, about land, about big corporations, about injustice, about governmental sins, about death, about life, about making better choices – two days we gazed deeply into something larger than our immediate now – and all my students saw in any of it was themselves.
But I cannot blame them. This is their modern America. This is their country’s condition. If O’Brien looked out at the political landscape and saw only a vast expanse of repetitive prairie, I look out at our current creative capacities and see only a bumper crop of compact, handheld mirrors.