Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

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Henry Miller has such a reputation, I was rather expecting something racy and exciting, and then again, there’s the title. In that respect, this one was a bit of a disappointment. It’s like reading Jack Kerouac all over again, but with more of a message.

When peace comes it descends upon a world too exhausted to show any reaction except a dumb feeling of relief. The men at the helm, who were spared the horrors of combat, now play their ignominious role in which greed and hatred rival one another for mastery. The men who bore the brunt of the struggle are too sickened and disgusted to show any desire to participate in the rearrangement of the world. All they ask is to be left alone to enjoy the luxury of the petty, workaday rhythm which once seemed so dull and barren. How different the new order would be if we could consult the veteran instead of the politician! But logic has it that we ordain innocent millions to slaughter one another, and when the sacrifice is completed, we authorize a handful of bigoted, ambitious men who have never known what it is to suffer to rearrange our lives. What chance has a lone individual to dissent when he has nothing to sanction his protest except his wounds? Who cares about wounds when the war is over? Get them out of sight, all these wounded and maimed and mutilated! Resume work! Take up life where you left off, those of you who are strong and able! The dead will be given monuments; the mutilated will be pensioned off. Let’s get on – business as usual and no feeble sentimentality about the horrors of war. When the next war comes we’ll be ready for them! Und so weiter . . . .

This makes me think about the veterans I’ve taught – for example, a twenty-one-year-old Marine with brain damage from an IED in Fallujah, which prevents him from operating a motor vehicle, and yet he can’t get any sympathy or slack from college professors in terms of attendance policies or length of assignments. Yes, war is bad, but my protest of the Iraq War does not consist of limiting opportunities for success for the kids who fought in it. They’re just filling a need – it’s the politicians who create the need, and they are the ones responsible. But they sometimes have no military experience of their own, or they felt the experience to have built their character or some such nonsense, so they don’t let themselves think of the thousands of lives they put at risk every day. One of the things I really liked about Obama was the fact that he worked with veterans, so he had seen the effects of war and its impact on the daily lives of the young people we send into the world. When he talked about finishing our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he had specific faces in mind, people he knew who had been there. I didn’t get excited about all of his military decisions, but I respect the position from which he made those decisions.

Miller also addresses the immigrant experience.

But the real reason, as I soon discovered, was that I wanted to be among English-speaking people; I wanted to hear English spoken twenty-four hours of the day, and nothing but English. In my weak condition that was like falling back on the bosom of the Lord.

Yes. Leaving Saudi Arabia to vacation in Paris was amazing and fantastic and all of that, but sometimes we need to be surrounded by our native language. Language is an essential part of identity, and it is overwhelming to spend a few years being constantly reminded of what isolates you from the people around you. The irony is that Miller leaves Paris for London, but his writing is riddled with late-1930s, early-1940s American slang. He makes it across and talks with the border guards, but they speak a different English than he does, and they reject his visa application and send him back across the Channel. Speaking English does not make us all brothers.

My favorite story of the collection is the longest, “Astrological Fricassee.” It is about Miller’s meeting with a gay Hollywood astrologer, after which he goes to a huge party the astrologer is hosting. Miller fakes an interest in the zodiac to get in, apparently to drink free liquor and meet girls. The feigning becomes pretty obvious, though, so he’s not as successful as he would like with the ladies, but he’s very successful with the drinking. It becomes clear that Miller is not the sort of guest one wants to have, because he’s still there hours after everyone else has left, after the host’s boyfriend comes around and starts acting affectionately (after the party, remember what year this is), after the host has stopped being polite and has started asking him pointblank to leave. Eventually Miller and the two other obnoxious guests who won’t leave make enough noise that someone calls the police, and the gay couple disappears into the night. I guess alcohol gave people some leeway, or they gave themselves permission to be what they truly were when everyone else was elevated. It’s a world that I have a hard time understanding, because for me proximity to alcoholic beverages was a result of coming out of the closet, not being inside it.

I didn’t have much love or laughter from this book, and toward the end it just gets weird. If you’re on a Henry Miller kick this won’t hurt you, but if you want a good introduction to him, I’d choose one of the more celebrated works, like Tropic of Cancer. I may not have read it, but it must be a better sample of the goodness of his writing.

Those of you who read this blog to keep up with the developments in my life will be pleased to know that I’m going to publish a number of posts that I wrote without putting online. Back at the end of May, I was losing my patience with my relationship, and that frustration sort of exploded one day while I was writing. I wasn’t sure if he was monitoring my online activity, so I kept it on my hard drive, along with the next few months of posts where I worked out what to do. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have worried so much – after the first few months with him, I wrote a letter about the frustrations I had then, and he said that I was just blowing off steam, so he gave himself permission to disregard the honest expression of my feelings. Shortly thereafter he asked me to stop verbalizing everything I was feeling because I was too up-and-down for him. Well, I never stopped being a volcano of turbulent emotion, I just stopped sharing with him who I am. With thirty years in the closet, I have a lot of experience in hiding inconvenient feelings. But I’ve moved back to North Carolina, and he didn’t break up with me, but he didn’t come with me either. A wise friend suggested that he’s going for a slow fadeaway instead of an immediate breakup, and that seems right, and one more example of how I feel he’s not fair to me and doesn’t respect or understand my emotions. He once accused me of being a coward because I dislike conflict so intensely, and while that may be true, I’m not the one who’s afraid of being single.

The plan?

Simple.

Murder multiple motherfuckers, save one asshole.

McCrary has a few lines that are absolute gems, like this one. Most of the book, though, was not very satisfying. It’s a tawdry action flick written down. The titular Remo is a New York defense attorney, severely alcoholic and addicted to Ritalin (keeps him focused because he comes to work drunk), who is on the run because of the singular good deed he’s done in his life. He threw a robbery case, found and dug up the money, and donated it to a charity that supports the families of the people who were killed in the robbery. He’s sort of worthless as an action hero, but that can lead to funny situations sometimes. However, McCrary’s is a grim sort of humor, at its best.

Leslie likes to fuck men. Sometimes she ends up fucking some dudes that she doesn’t really like. It happens.

So what?

When you’re a thirty-three-year-old woman living in New York and you like to fuck men, you may find yourself bedding a few pricks. Yes, the literal nature of that statement is understood, but you get it. An attractive woman in a demanding job, working ridiculous hours, surrounded by men of loose moral fiber may have to drop her standards in order to get some.

Sex or the high road. The low road has an impressive win/loss record. Again, it happens. All of this swirls around Leslie’s pretty little head as she nudges back and forth on her back. On a desk. In the dark. Having sex with one of those previously-mentioned pricks.

Reading this book and wondering why anyone would either write or enjoy it, it seems like pure wish fulfillment. Remo is rich as anything (and we poor people would love to be rich like that), but he’s also miserably depressed (and we poor people want to believe that rich people are deeply unhappy and morally bankrupt). Yet, he is also approachable, because most of us can identify with being bored with our jobs and yearning for a life with more meaning and focus. I know, since I’m a teacher it’s practically blasphemy to admit that my professional life is not a constant blend of Mr Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, and To Sir, With Love, but there you have it. It’s a job, not a divine calling. My life feels focused and meaningful not when I’m teaching writing, but when I’m actually writing – using words instead of explaining their use.

And, in the end, justice is done. The bad guys get killed, Remo connects with the son his ex-wife keeps away from him, and the get-away driver who converted to Jesus takes it as his life mission to keep saving Remo. The Acknowledgements section implies that he was killed in an early draft, but that a test reader encouraged McCrary to keep Lester alive. Saving Lester does make for a better book, and since this one spawned a whole series, I’d predict that he becomes a sort of sidekick. I find the idea of my continuing the series to be rather unlikely. There’s so much unhappiness, and not much humor to lighten it up. If you like tight, action-packed thrill rides, go for it. It reads quickly and easily. But I’ll go back to my Victorians.

Given the option to teach literature again this month, I was firmly against repeating The Old Man and the Sea, so I chose the other option for a really short book that the company had in inventory. I hadn’t read it before, and reading a new book to teach it was a really strange experience. I kept looking for new vocabulary and literary elements, thinking of ways I could assess my students’ reading instead of enjoying my own. It’s like knitting projects to sell – it turns a hobby into work, and I’m not that fond of working. It takes the joy out of it.

Steinbeck was working on crossing the line between prose and drama, so this novel is set up like a play. Each chapter begins with a description of the scene, and everything happens in that confined place. There’s a lot of dialogue and not really a lot of action. It’s mostly, people walk on, sit, and talk. It’s a three-act tragedy, with each act having two scenes (six sections that are not actually named chapters).

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in California during the Depression, a time and place that are practically owned by Steinbeck. George is little and sharp, Lennie is the opposite, large and dull. My international students were fairly familiar and comfortable with the idea of Lennie being a grown man with the mind of a small child (one of them has a relative with Down’s Syndrome), and I don’t have the training to diagnose his particular brand of developmental delay. George grew up in the same town, so he keeps him around. Lennie is a habit he just can’t break, even though he complains about how much fun he’s losing out on. He could be going out and getting drunk and laid like all the other guys if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Yet, the two of them have plans for the future precisely because he does take care of Lennie. Other migrant workers drift without a sense of direction, but these two have a definite plan to get some money together and buy a specific plot of land. They’ll have a house and animals, and Lennie will take care of the rabbits. He loves touching soft things. They’re starting a new job, which is the exposition.

The big trouble at the new job is with the boss’s son. Curley is a little guy who likes to fight, and he’s stupidly jealous of his too-sociable wife. He thinks Lennie is laughing at him because of his wife’s wanderings, so he starts a fight that he can’t finish. Lennie breaks his hand. That’s the climactic turning point that leads the wife of the pugilist to cast her eye on the over-big child. Now, at their last job, Lennie started touching a woman’s dress that was soft like a rabbit or a dead mouse, and she freaked out and he couldn’t figure out what to do except close his hand tight and hold on for dear life, while the poor woman is screaming Rape just as loud as she can. George had to whack him over the head with a fence picket and they ran off to keep from getting killed. Curley’s nameless wife lets Lennie pat her hair, and then when he clamps on and can’t release she starts screaming, but he covers her mouth to shut her up and accidentally breaks her neck. At this point all George can do is shoot Lennie before the lynch mob hangs him.

At one point Steinbeck said that this woman wasn’t actually a character; she’s just a symbol of evil, a piece of forbidden fruit. Lennie falls because he can’t resist, even though he remains innocent, just like Billy Budd. I’d like to argue for a minute that she’s a real person. She grew up in a little town, dreaming of something better, and then she met a few men who promised her Hollywood and glamour but didn’t deliver, though I imagine she delivered her goods to them. Then she meets a guy who’s little but strong, and instead of promising fame he promises love. It sounds like a good deal, but then it’s all isolation on a farm outside Soledad CA. Every time she tries talking to anyone, her husband shows up and makes trouble. It’s not her fault there aren’t any other women around. Some people are cut out for solitude, but some aren’t. This girl needs people, society, conversation, but all she gets is trouble and loneliness. I didn’t notice any evidence of domestic violence, but I think more careful readers have made a case for it. Her life is miserable. She found acceptance in the past by treating men a certain way, and now she’s punished for it. The Depression may make the workers’ life miserable, but hers is just downright untenable. Then someone defeats her guardian monster, and she shows a little interest, but the new champion is even worse than the old one. He kills her. Lennie didn’t slut-shame her like everyone else on the ranch, but I’d say death of the body is worse than death of the reputation. The explicit narrative centers its pathos on Lennie, but in a time when there was no good treatment or care options for the developmentally delayed or mentally ill, his fate is inevitable. Hers could have been avoided, if the author had seen the woman as more than the instrument of a man’s downfall. You know, if he had bothered to give her a name.

Race is another isolating identity. Crooks works in the stable, and lives in a little room off the main part of the barn instead of in the bunkhouse with the other hands. He’s crippled from getting kicked by a horse, showing just how little valued the lives of black men are. In his isolation, he becomes misanthropic instead of social, with a sort of self-protective hostility. Lennie doesn’t notice and befriends him, but not too closely.

Candy is isolated by his age. Ranch work is for the young and strong, and he is neither. It doesn’t help that he only has one hand. But he’s the right sort of different, because George and Lennie make space in their plans for him.

When it comes to the others, mainstream society, it’s a toss-up. You could get Slim, who’s compassionate and a real friend to George, or you could get Carlson, who sees that George has just killed his best friend and says,

Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?

A lot of people are just not good at emotions. Carlson is a bit of a psychopath, intent on killing whoever doesn’t serve him, like Candy’s smelly old dog. It’s unfortunate, but hard times like the Depression bring out the utilitarian in some people. I have to confess to having this unsentimental streak as well, because circumstances in my life are also sometimes difficult and necessitate parting with people or things that I would prefer to keep. It doesn’t help that I love people who aren’t good for me. He’s working at being better, these last few weeks, so I’m hopeful for our future. I know I should be thinking about how good I am to him too – I am a bit self-centered. I do my best for him, but I express my own needs to myself more clearly than he expresses his to me, so it’s easier for me to evaluate whether my own needs are being met than his. Yes, I need a break from these fatalistic modernist texts, but it’s nice to come back to the real world and know that there are people who care about me, and that there’s a handsome man I’m going to sleep next to tonight, and he loves me.

I have only ever read this book for school assignments, I have refused to purchase it, and reading it for my students this week has not changed my dislike.

Before he was The Old Man, he was Santiago el Campeón, a Cuban sailor who made runs to the coast of Africa. Once in a bar in Casablanca he won an arm-wrestling match that had lasted twenty-four hours and made his fingernails bleed. But generally, he watched the lions on the shore and was happy. Now he’s an old fisherman. He’s lost none of his strength and courage, the determination to win. After all, arm-wrestling is generally won not by the stronger competitor but by the one who wants it more. I was never very good because I never could care very much about competitions of strength.

The old man has been eighty-four days without catching anything. His apprentice has been sent to another boat, so even though Manolin takes care of him on shore, at sea he is alone. So now, Day 85, he catches a tuna and throws it in the bottom of his boat. Then, one of his hooks farther down gets something big. It’s an eighteen-foot marlin, and it tows him out to sea for the next two days. The first night he eats the tuna. The second night he catches a dolphin, which he eats about half of, along with the two flying fish he found inside it. The third afternoon the marlin circles a bit, and he brings it in for the kill. It’s too big for his boat, so he straps it alongside. That afternoon he kills four sharks and seriously wounds two more, as they come for his fish, but after it gets dark he can’t see them any more and by this point he’s too tired and weak to do anything about it. By the time he gets home, all he’s got is a big old marlin skeleton.

It’s utterly depressing. This is a book about someone who has never been defeated in his entire life being destroyed by the thing he loves most. Despite his persistent unreflected-upon Catholicism, he has a real animistic view of nature – all the animals are his friends, the sea is his lover, even the stars are his friends. He has a strong love for life and the world, even though when considered independently of his perspective it doesn’t care about him. Hemingway makes him a Christ figure, the suffering servant who kills the brother he loves in order to feed the community, and I know this is the classic Modernist view of things. I’m more interested in how the old man compares himself to Icarus – he wasn’t defeated, he destroyed himself by letting the marlin pull him out too far.

Which means, consider the third implied comparison: Is Jesus Icarus? Jesus doesn’t take a middle path; he calls others to a higher standard of social and personal morality, starting from his Sermon on the Mount comment “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Like Icarus, Jesus aims high, only instead of looking for personal glory or whatever it was about the sun that entranced Icarus, he aims for the good of the entire community. But his goals are too high. Frankly, the god of the Old Testament always aims too high. Moses brought down a huge list of commandments, the drunk people were fornicating in worship of a golden calf, he breaks the list and goes back up the mountain and comes back with only ten. By the time of Jeremiah, this same god says that if ten is too much, they can follow just one commandment and he’ll save them from Nebuchadnezzar, but that one was too much. Many Christians have this idea that they are expected to follow this list of rules, but it was always aimed a little too high. It’s common to see Jesus as the one who makes everything easier and doable, who stops us from being Icarus because he gives people grace, forgiveness for taking the middle road between godliness and devilishness. But our stories of Jesus, the ones that made it into the New Testament, characterize him as perfect. He aimed for the sun and fell into death and infamy, though both were only temporary. For Icarus, death is the end. There is no recovery from defeat. For Jesus, there is always a victory coming.

Which is true for the old man? Is this the end, or is there a future victory waiting for him? For me, it feels like the end. All his optimism and confidence carry him through the catching of the fish, but when the sharks come, despair enters his heart for the first time. There is nothing he can do. The sea will not allow him to take this victory. It’s like this whole experience was intended to teach him that he has reached the limit of his power. He’s no longer the champion. Instead, he’s like that guy in Casablanca – they had a rematch once, but it ended quickly because he had lost his confidence. Now that the sea has beaten him, he’s going to expect to be beaten and he’s going to die a loser.

In real life, none of us are gods. We have to learn how to lose. The old man hasn’t had to learn to lose gracefully, so I think this defeat will destroy him. Me, on the other hand, I’ve been beaten so many times I can’t count. There are some ways that this has shaped me – for example, I don’t like competition and tend to avoid situations where there is a winner and a loser – but I haven’t adopted this as my identity. I’m not of the Beat generation. I fall, I get back up, I keep going. Sometimes in a new direction, but always forward.

I’ve been thinking of this in terms of my profession, lately. In our culture people think that teachers can never be happy or fulfilled doing anything else, as if we all feel this sacred calling, as if we were nuns or something. I’ve gotten past that. Teaching is a job, and though it’s one I do well, I don’t think it’s the only one I could enjoy. There are lots of ways to help people; teaching them to communicate is only one, and it’s not even the one I spent six years in college for. I went to school to help people understand, and I’ve spent the last ten or eleven years teaching them to speak. Giving people a voice is a powerful thing, but my lack of explicit training in it means that my professional life is dogged by uncertainty. There must be a better way than the one I’ve worked out on my own, but I’m little motivated to go research teaching strategies or get the MA in TESOL or education that would qualify me for the work I’m already doing. As I think about it, I realize that I feel like my life is being controlled by forces that I don’t understand and therefore cannot manipulate, specifically, money. I’d like to study economics or finance or accounting or something so that I stop panicking when I think or talk about money, so that I can use it to make my life better instead of feeling like it’s a dirty stranger that lives in my wallet. I want to make money familiar to me and I want to learn to make better choices with it. I’m sick of being so goddamn poor all the time.

This one has been floating at the edge of my life for quite a while now. My ninth grade students had to study it this past spring, and now some of my intermediate language students are reading a simplified version. One of the advanced students retold it for her “Write a love story” assignment, so I decided to stop fighting the world’s tide and reread it.

One of the things that strikes me is how unified the play is. Typically Shakespeare gives a minor plotline that converges on the main story, like the Fortinbras part of Hamlet, or the Beatrice and Benedick love story in Much Ado. There’s some displaced focus when we think of the Capulets’ scheme to marry Juliet to Paris, but that part is so closely tied to Juliet’s despair that it doesn’t feel like an interlude.

When I was in grad school, my Shakespeare professor made the comment that things don’t make much sense to us in Twelfth Night because it’s a world run by teenagers, Olivia and Orsino being fairly young. I think R+J has the same feel, even though the parents are more adult. I’ve met some people who became parents as teenagers and have become unusually mature for their age group; I’ve also met some who abdicate responsibility for their children (giving them to Juliet’s Nurse, for example), and so they never really grow up. Lady Capulet is actually a sizable role, but she’s not the type of parent I want to be.

Reading it this time, my attention was centered on Friar Laurence. I suppose that’s because, as a teacher, he is the main character I have the most in common with. He wants to fix all of society’s problems, but in aiming too high he kills his students – an outcome I have avoided, and hope to continue to avoid. I was also struck with the similarity between him and Benvolio; they both try and fail to keep the peace, and they serve the same function, the innocent witness who reports the murders. And for all that he is typically portrayed as getting drunk with Mercutio at the Capulets’ party, there is something a little monastic about Benvolio.

I watched the video of a performance at the Globe Theatre, which I can now compare with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann films. In this performance, Romeo and Tybalt are black; I can appreciate the effort to get some different ethnicities into the play (Friar Laurence is a nonwhite New Zealander), but did they have to make the two murderers black? And no one else? In terms of racial stereotypes, this is not exactly a step forward. I prefer Luhrmann’s choices, of using black actors as the authority figure and the victim. Mercutio gets caught in the middle of a fight between white people, which is sort of what happened to the entire continent of Africa. If Adetomiwa Edun were amazing as Romeo, like Harold Perrineau is as Mercutio, I might not have been too bothered, but frankly, I thought most of the Globe’s cast was fairly wooden. Romeo bounces all over the stage like a nutter on Ritalin, even when he’s supposed to be desperate because of Rosaline’s indifference. Benvolio is one of those guys whose acting style is, “The director told me to stand here and talk, and on this line he told me to walk to this point and watch Romeo talk.” There’s very little natural movement or heartfelt emotion. I was impressed with Fergal McElherron, who plays three of the minor parts but plays them all very differently, and their Mercutio, Philip Cumbus. The audience pretty much ignored the verbal sparring and laughed only at the sex jokes, but Cumbus managed to do both very well. I like my men to be a little cocky, and Cumbus and Perrineau both do Mercutio very well. That being said, I prefer Zeffirelli’s take on the death scene: in his film, Tybalt and Mercutio only play at fighting; it’s not serious until Romeo comes between them and Tybalt accidentally kills him. The Montagues laugh all the way through his “plague on both your houses” speech because they still haven’t figured out that he’s being serious, or that he’s been seriously injured. Luhrmann’s film is more violent in general, so when Mercutio gets stabbed with a shard of glass it’s upsetting but not surprising. The Globe’s fighting is always straightforward, which in some ways robs it of the shock that the other two films have.

I have never been terribly interested in Romeo. He’s always so generic. All anyone cares about is whether he’s handsome, and actors generally are, so there’s not much to say about him. I’m a much bigger fan of Tybalt. Especially John Leguizamo. He’s so badass. I suppose there’s a part of me that responds to Tybalt’s rage; for a single-emotion character, I always find him very appealing.

But what about Juliet? I find Zeffirelli’s Juliet completely forgettable (my apologies, but that’s the most complimentary I can be). Claire Danes is fine I guess; her Juliet is very similar to her Beth March, sweet and innocent and affectionate, the kind of girl every boy wants to marry. But Ellie Kendrick really makes Juliet interesting. Danes is educated and intellectual in her real life, but I didn’t see much of that in this performance. Kendrick’s performance is the first smart Juliet I’ve seen. Unlike most of the actors, with her I could tell that she knew what her lines meant. She doesn’t just reel them off as quickly as she can so that no one can understand her (Romeo and Benvolio, I’m looking at you); she puts thought and expression into everything. I found myself growing impatient with the scenes that didn’t have her in them; she was clearly the best part of the show. I especially liked the scene where Juliet learns of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment; I felt like I was watching a mad scene in an opera, as in Lucia di Lammermoor. Her Juliet has an Ophelia quality that most of them lack.   When Danes pulls the gun on the priest I’m always a little confused at her sudden intensity, but Kendrick makes a believable transition between happy innocence and suicidal grief. And yes, her characterization here is similar to her role in Being Human, so maybe she’s a cute nerdy girl in real life, but that’s not really a problem for me. Every actor brings to a character some aspects of her real self; the trick to good acting is knowing which aspects to bring to which character. Like any other art form, acting is a mode of self-expression.

No matter what people say, Romeo and Juliet is not the greatest love story ever. It has become one of the most recognizable, the most copied, the most archetypal, but never the greatest. Two kids fall in love and kill themselves a few days later – this isn’t a grand passion, it’s deranged. Let them live in love for more than a week. Let them overcome obstacles instead of faking suicide (and then really committing suicide) at the first hurdle. Capulet has nothing but good things to say about Romeo at the party, but Juliet never gives her parents a chance to approve of the match. Basically, these kids would rather die than tell their parents they’re dating. The behavior of the fathers at the end of the play makes me think that they could have buried the hatchet without their children dying – the marriage with no possibility of divorce (or annulment, since they consummated) would have done the trick. It’s not like they took ten minutes to think about it; they jumped straight into reconciliation as if they’d been wanting this for a long time without knowing how to do it without a pretext.

Maybe this play is like Oliver Twist; I’m getting too old to enjoy it. My own love stories are very different. I might be attracted to someone at first glance, but I need more than a few flirty puns to fall in love. And I can recognize the difference between infatuation and real love. I may fall in love quickly, but I’m not going to let it cripple or kill me. I’m determined to stay alive no matter what my emotional state may become. If getting divorced didn’t kill me, I’m not going to let anything else.

I first read this book by listening to it; the library had an audio recording of Alan Rickman performing it. Listening to that much Alan Rickman is an experience in itself, and then to have his deep, carefully enunciated voice telling a story of such tragedy . . . it stirred some powerful emotions. My response to Clement Yeobright is one of the things that convinced me (1) that I’m gay, and (2) being gay is sufficiently important to me that I need to act on it.

While Hardy presents us with an entire community, there are six primary characters.

Diggory Venn is the local reddleman. He travels around, selling the red dye that farmers use to mark their sheep. We can brand cattle because we don’t care what their pelt looks like, but we have to be more careful with sheep because we sell the fleece. The dye is transported in large bags, so farmparents always tell their little farmboys and farmgirls that if they don’t behave, the reddleman will take them away, which means that Diggory Venn has become the local boogeyman. He used to be a respectable farmer, but a few years ago he wanted to start a relationship with Thomasin Yeobright and she turned him down, so he turned to a life of solitary wandering. The redding has dyed his clothes and skin a bright red.

Thomasin Yeobright, in my opinion, doesn’t have anything special about her to make men love her. No extraordinary beauty or accomplishments or virtue, just the average amount. I don’t say that to imply that I don’t like her, or that she’s not sympathetically drawn, I’m just saying that she’s a normal girl, pretty enough, good enough, sweet enough, etc. As the book opens, she’s being taken home from a failed marriage. She and Damon Wildeve had good intentions, but the license was made out for a different town than the one they were in, so they couldn’t get married that day. Thomasin (familiarly, Tamsin) suffers quite a bit, but Hardy doesn’t focus on her very much.

Damon Wildeve is the closest thing we have to a villain, and he’s actually not that bad a person. In terms of class and social position, he’s the best thing Egdon has to offer a young girl, so he has a hard time sticking to just one. Basically, he goes with whichever girl likes him the least at the time. He is in love with Eustacia Vye, but she’s too mercurial to woo straightforwardly, so during one of their breaks he courts Thomasin instead, but when their first marriage attempt doesn’t go through he goes back to Eustacia for a time, then he fights with her again so he goes and marries Thomasin. I think that in truth he only loves himself, but he comes closest to loving Eustacia. The whole Tamsin business is unfortunate. He only appears in the book when he’s causing trouble.

Eustacia Vye is a beautiful girl with aspirations beyond her expectations. She wants to get into the beau monde, but she’s stuck living on the heath surrounded by furze-cutters. She toys with Wildeve, even though he’s her best shot at the type of life she wants. But when Clement Yeobright comes back from Paris, she throws all her energy into catching the dream of him that she’s created, no matter what his reality may be. She reminds me a lot of Gwendolen Harleth from Daniel Deronda, which was only published a couple of years before this one. The neighbours think she’s a witch.

Clement Yeobright, generally known as Clym, is a handsome, intelligent man who is sick of selling jewelry in Paris, so he comes home to rural Wessex to do something else. Anything else. His plan is to teach, but in all the reading he has to do to prepare he overstrains his eyes and he ends up cutting sticks for firewood just like everyone else. There was a time that his mother wanted him to marry his cousin Thomasin, but neither of them has ever been really interested in the other. His attachment to Eustacia is unfortunate; she’s not necessarily a bad girl, but she’s bad for him. When they get together she thinks that she can change his mind and get him back to Paris, even though he thinks the diamond industry and the “high” culture it represents are for effete losers.

Mrs Yeobright has always had high hopes for her son Clym, who is more intelligent and more beautiful than anyone else around. She was content to miss him when he was away being so successful, but she gets angry at the way he “throws his life away.” She also raised Thomasin, but always with the sense that Tamsin was not hers. Mrs Yeobright has very strong emotions but seldom talks about them, a novelist’s dream come true (cf the Brontës).

These are your main players, but there’s a whole community here; Hardy does really well with minor characters (cf Mr Dickens, who wrote those complicated novels with dozens of characters). Timothy Fairway is the natural leader of the working class; tall, strong, authoritative, but without being removed from the people themselves. He’s a department supervisor, not a store manager. Grandfer Cantle once trained to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, and has seen himself as a hero ever since. People always remind him to behave like the venerable sage he ought to be, but in his heart he’s still twenty-one years old. His son Christian is afraid of literally everything. Susan Nunsuch is convinced that Eustacia is doing black magic to make everyone miserable, a prime example of a person fancying herself significant in the life of someone who never thinks of her. Her son Johnny runs errands for the comparatively wealthy sometimes; he’s a good kid. Olly Dowden, Humphrey, and others are on hand when we need an extra body to fill in a scene.

It is important to remark upon Egdon Heath. This is unenclosed public land where everyone lives and gets their living. Some readers have said that the heath is a character itself – Hardy remarks on its changing face and its voice, and characters are always represented in terms of their relationship to it. Loving and knowing the heath makes someone good; disliking it means that someone is likely to dislike himself. Dissatisfaction can make for a good story, but it doesn’t make people good or happy.

I imagine that there are a lot of people who identify with the troubled feelings of Eustacia and Wildeve, but their type of relationship is not for me. I don’t see love as something that changes constantly; I don’t see the value of the irresolution that characterizes their romance. We make choices, and then we abide by them. Wildeve chooses Thomasin (because Eustacia won’t choose him), but then he keeps going back to Eustacia. It’s awful; it’s rubbish; it’s no way to treat people. And this is what I’ve explained to my new beau’s daughter. She’s worried because he tends to pick guys who will cheat on him, so she and I had a private talk about constancy. I’ve chosen him, and he’s chosen me. So this is what we’re doing, for now. We’re not committed for life, but as long as we keep choosing each other there’s no reason to look for anything different.

When Hardy writes a hero, he covers him with nature, sometimes quite literally. This is sort of a long passage, but just in case you wanted to see the kind of guy who draws me powerfully:

The face was well shaped, even excellently. But the mind within was beginning to use it as a mere waste tablet whereon to trace its idiosyncrasies as they developed themselves. The beauty here visible would in no long time be ruthlessly overrun by its parasite, thought, which might just as well have fed upon a plainer exterior where there was nothing it could harm. Had Heaven preserved Yeobright from a wearing habit of meditation, people would have said, ‘A handsome man.’ Had his brain unfolded under sharper contours they would have said, ‘A thoughtful man.’ But an inner strenuousness was preying upon an outer symmetry, and they rated his look as singular.

Hence people who began by beholding him ended by perusing him. His countenance was overlaid with legible meanings. Without being thought-worn he yet had certain marks derived from a perception of his surroundings, such as are not unfrequently found on men at the end of the four or five years of endeavour which follow the close of placid pupilage. He already showed that thought is a disease of the flesh, and indirectly bore evidence that ideal physical beauty is incompatible with emotional development and a full recognition of the coil of things. Mental luminousness must be fed with the oil of life, even though there is already a physical need for it; and the pitiful sight of two demands on one supply was just showing itself here.

When standing before certain men the philosopher regrets that thinkers are but perishable tissue, the artist that perishable tissue has to think. Thus to deplore, each from his point of view, the mutually destructive interdependence of spirit and flesh would have been instinctive with these in critically observing Yeobright.

As for his look, it was a natural cheerfulness striving against depression from without, and not quite succeeding. The look suggested isolation, but it revealed something more. As is usual with bright natures, the deity that lies ignominiously chained within an ephemeral human carcase shone out of him like a ray.

I don’t agree with the idea that thinking and personal beauty are incompatible. I’ve met intelligent, thoughtful people who are simply beautiful. I think that beauty, especially as we age, comes from an internal peace and happiness. If you want to continue turning heads as you get older, you have to learn to be content with yourself. If it’s true that we all get the face we deserve by the time we’re forty (and I’m not saying it is), then it’s because our true selves push their way into our features. It becomes more difficult to hide who we are. And for most of us, less desirable.

Vague misgivings about her future as a deserted wife were at an end. The worst had once been a matter of trembling conjecture; it was now matter of reason only, a limited badness. Her chief interest, the little Eustacia, still remained. There was humility in her grief, no defiance in her attitude; and when this is the case a shaken spirit is apt to be stilled.

People sometimes talk to me of the delights of anticipation, but I seldom feel it. I’m more on Tamsin’s side; once the worst has happened, it stops being scary. I’ve had several things that I thought were the worst happen, and once it’s over, that’s it. Life simply becomes a matter of finding the next thing to do. And disasters often make it very clear what we must do next. Some people are alluding to another workplace catastrophe that might be coming soon, but it doesn’t frighten me. I’m certainly not frightened enough to take a job teaching elementary school in China. I love my own children, but other people’s make me uncomfortable. They’re like half-tamed animals; they don’t know how to live in society yet, but we get them to talk, walk upright, and use the toilet, and then send them to school. Some days it’s like working at a no-kill dog shelter. Frankly, if this job ends, I’m sort of excited about seeing what I’ll do next. I want to see what I can offer that isn’t teaching.

Hardy is good. His characters still feel real and relevant, even after 130 years. I may not say that this is my favorite Hardy novel, but it’s the one that got me into him, and Clym is my favorite Hardy hero. None of that puppy-doggish feel of Giles Winterbourne. So, strongly recommended, especially if you have a strong value for country living and rural communities.