Thursday, May 1, 2008

Lasagna, Dives & Lazarus, GTA4 & Goths.

From blue-collar Ohio, for thus we know it as labeled and, until the election, attended to with sighs and sympathy by our well-funded presidential trio of campaigners (who total about half a billion dollars in their personal bankbooks, not counting their fundraising coffers):

Ms. Dunaway, a homemaker, used to splurge on the ingredients for homemade lasagna, her husband’s favorite, before food prices began to surge this year.
“Now he’s lucky to get a 99-cent lasagna TV dinner, or maybe some Manwich out of a can,” she said. “I just can’t afford to be buying all that good meat and cheese like I used to.”

“Recession Diet Just One Way to Tighten Belt” Apr. 27, 2008, New York Times.

It’s a leap from this lasagna anecdote into my own class antagonism before landing on a review article by B. R. Myers in the April 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, with its ads for a $14,615 four-minute exercise apparatus, a Goldman Sachs mutual fund, and what I’d like, a lap pool, not to mention a piece on where to stay in Kashmir. The economy's taking a nosedive. Perhaps this'll sober millions of us who've guzzled gas and gained ass. Dunaway's hapless statement, moreover, reminds me of the cluelessness of many of my fellow citizens. I thought from the article's title people'd be wising up and buying more fresh fruit and taking long walks on the beach (or Lake Erie). But, no, they're merely eschewing home-cooked carbs to shove down manufactured lard. And I'll be underwriting their Medicare bills via my paycheck when they get workmen's disability.

Who better to lob snobbish putdowns and totter into dizzy stumbles than me? I'm a woeful product of dinners from a childhood home of cold canned peas and tepid fruit cocktail as sides for a main course of a ground round patty topped with generic processed cheese. (Never munched a Manwich, luckily.) Dunaway's lament reminds me of my mom, circa 1973's recession. Dad out of work for eighteen months. I think we went years without eating steak.

How do I bridge the chasm between my own dismal working-class (despite what my wife jeers) upbringing and today's May Day attempts to live the examined life? It’s responsible for much of my ingrained skepticism. Last week, I confessed to a professor whom I have known a dozen years (a lifetime given the attrition, layoffs, and tendency of those where I teach to jump ship for calmer waters; I cannot chart my landing into a steadier cove) that my own tendency to see so much of our nation in terms of class had been bred into me. He had told me nothing rankled him more than such a mindset. He denied that class divides any of us. For me, it’s a filter through which I instinctively if not always rationally perceive the injustices doled out to billions around the world-- not least of all privileged me. Cognizant of my own dissonance, as I type this on a couch on a breezy spring day with no distractions and a full belly, I also know how I may have to answer to a Maker in whose existence I hesitate assent, of my own tendency to stick by Dives more than succor Lazarus. Call me a hypocrite. For, verily, my dogs eat better in the same fashion as that condemned in Jesus’ parable. Along with class consciousness goes unrelenting guilt.

I defended myself last week in spirited conversation with that colleague (who grew up in a tonier ‘burb not far north of where I did; he also earned his Ph.D at UCLA in English Lit., but a decade earlier—- he and I now the only surviving reps of our beleaguered field at our two sister campuses) when he derided me for my liberalism. All I had done was admit that higher taxes, if (a big qualification) they were spent more wisely, might bring about greater good. He attacked FDR. I forget to respond that my uncle got a job with the CCC when his whole family went without work for years. I also recall now a more recent situation in my family. Cal Grants, scholarships, and work-study allowed me to attend a private university. UC’s then-affordable tuition enabled me to continue with grad school. I could even afford a Ph.D. at our alma mater. I graduated debt free. Therefore, I could afford to teach. Taxpayers, your investment, I hope, paid off as I educate California’s residents. My fellow Bruin had begun as a leftist, but now he chooses on the sole question of whether the candidate will raise taxes. If so, he votes against him or her.

I told him that my spouse tags me as practically a fascist. She admitted in a subsequent exchange with our friend who’s a PETA, KPFK, ACLU supporter-- to say the least-- that I was more a libertarian by comparison. Well, I demurred from allying myself with selfish capitalists who admired Ayn Rand, but I am unpredictable. Neither the accumulation of wealth nor the admiration of the poor move me ideologically. Curiously, my colleague had also raised the libertarians as appealing to his own leanings; I defended both to him and our radical pal the need for third parties that we’d actually have the guts to vote into office. She, on the other hand, blames my Green membership for Bush’s victory. Every Democrat I know refuses to consider any other possibility than to continue with the status quo, for fear of a far worse scenario if the Dems lose. But, living in a perpetually gerrymandered Latino district, my vote counts about as much as if Tammany Hall ruled L.A. City Hall.

I told both my conversationalists that while the GP remains too far to the left for me (its PC refusal to admit that endless waves of immigration as part of demographic increases leads to environmental destruction rankles me no end), I curmudgeonly cannot find any party aligning with my own unpredictable mishmash of opinions. I stopped being a Democrat with Clinton’s refusal to admit wrongdoing his second term. My disgust at developers, capitalism, imperialism, and consumerism ill fits any two-party mindset. I fail to see that anyone beholden to lobbyists and PACs will care about the common people. You cannot get elected without a war chest. Look how far John Edwards came, despite his own $50 million squirreled away, when he refused to take special-interest moneys.

Such mentalities, that expect us to believe Hilary’s on the side of the little man if she has a better bowling score than Obama, or whether McCain’s marriage to a Busch heiress, by the same logic, convinces us he’d be more in touch with the gal downing brewskis between knocking down ten-pins, do show the level to which we Americans have again plummeted. I’ve complained often about dumbing down and the effect that so many ignorant people, recent party-crashers and established couch potatoes both, have on lowering the standards in our schools. Added to this, the indifference most people have always had to culture or literature. Now, Plato in his own fashion also lamented demagogues and demotic ignorance. We have always laughed with Erasmus, Mencken, or Aristophanes, and we live among our cloudcuckoos, praisers of follies, and mobs of the boobosie.

Yet, here I am laboring on-line on this blog, off-line in research, and in college classrooms to rectify this twenty-four century decline. My own roots, without romanticizing or condescending, may intersect with some of those who sit and (pretend to) listen to me for hours a day. That is, coming from a home where you did not know people who’d slept at summer camp let alone gone to Europe or Asia. Whose parents did not wear a tie or a business suit except for a wedding or funeral. Who considered a dinner at Sizzler a rare treat. Who tended to regard the professional or academic worlds with remote befuddlement; what you’d see on a sitcom or the evening news tended to fill your gaps in knowledge. Of course, my own introverted bookishness set me apart. This tension-- the class division my colleague denies exists-- widened my own alienation as I hated my own surroundings. I also seethed for I knew too that the pastoralia of an Ivy League or Study Abroad Year would never be mine.

In this, I differ from Richard Rodríguez, whose memoir “Hunger of Memory” incisively tracks his own path out of Sacramento’s barrio to Stanford and the British Library. In many other instances in his story, however, he shares my own mindset, borrowing from Richard Hoggart’s analysis of “the scholarship boy.” I heard Rodríguez speak when I was a LMU senior, and his tale probably mitigated my own unease at my aspirations even as affirmative action and preferential hiring would, in my own subsequent experience, alter my own academic trajectory by degrees that as a blue-eyed straight male would separate me unavoidably from Rodríguez’ own story of how he obtained his Ph.D. in English literature, also from a faraway period so removed from his mundane origins. He rejected the plum tenure-track post when he realized better-qualified classmates gained no such offers. I have my own narrative that parallels this, across three of the institutions already mentioned here in disarmingly repetitive resumés, but I leave this tacitly to on-line discretion.

Unlike most of those who now lecture at more selective colleges, despite their talk of inclusion and diversity, I find myself daily alongside those who do find themselves on the other end of the class divide, but who wish to better themselves. They don’t have the funds to while away a junior year in Italy. They rely on loans. They come for a series of classes aimed at getting them into a career so they can make money. My classes tend to be those for which they have, so they perceive, no practical interest. They must take them because credentialing bodies demand for a bachelor's degree a broader curriculum than a vocational education itself would provide. Yet, I never can shake the feeling that if our administration could ax what I teach and still grant the students a diploma, tomorrow their rhetoric of enrichment would immediately vanish. As it is, we offer no electives, only bare-bones basics.

My students won’t graduate (at least for now) from Stanford or UCLA or LMU. I teach immigrants and their children-- the vast majority of my students if you combine these two categories— that they must learn to find what “educators” (those paid to teach teachers who as we all know only teach because… so the cliché goes) call an erring writer’s “patterns of error.” I will not always be brandishing my fountain pen to hunt for their run-ons or to peck out their comma splices. They will find themselves typing memos or assembling reports without my intervention soon enough. This tiresome work, as the other day I faced twenty-five drafts to less than two hours during a peer (them) and instructor (me) review workshop, so discombobulated me that I stumbled home and barely registered son and wife, for which I apologize. I’ve been grading essays for most of my past twenty-four-and-a-half years. Yet, it never gets easier.

How does my own stint in the trenches—where very few tenured profs are forced to crouch— goad me to trudge into territory that B.R. Myers explores in a response to Ian Robinson’s “Untied Kingdom”? Keeping A Civil Tongue

Robinson’s spent probably twice as long than I have in colleges, albeit arguing with the types of colleagues who occupy that elite British level that Rodríguez neared in his own dissertation preparation in London. Myers, after praising Robinson’s “The Survival of English” (1973) that attacked lazy, smug uses of the language, sums up the author’s later assault. He’s concentrating his efforts in the enemy’s camp, “believing instead that meaningful change can come only from the ‘clerisy,’ or educated elite, he has spent most of the past few decades trying to talk sense into British universities, and their English departments in particular. Deconstruction, political correctness, ‘new historicism’: Robinson has argued persuasively—- often in the excellent journal Words in Edgeways -—against these and other contemporary orthodoxies. Unfortunately, the same triumph of the half-educated that he criticizes has prevented his work from exerting much influence.”

How do we who claim to be more fully educated fight our good fight? How when so many today cannot recognize, say, the echo of Scripture in the previous line? Myers, as with this blog’s immediately preceding post today on Leon Wieselter’s critique of Martin Amis’ “The Second Plane,” despairs at our society’s flabby lack of resolve, morally and intellectually, when faced with overwhelming changes demographically and attitudinally.

“We Americans shouldn’t feel too complacent about the relative success of our melting pot, which has never had to melt down such an enormous chunk from the Islamic world. Nor do we take the words e pluribus unum as seriously as we used to. The many immigrants who now refuse to learn more than a little transactional English are in effect saying that an economic community is all they want to be part of. We are told not to worry: these new citizens will boost our own prosperity too. So what if we can’t talk to each other? Americanness, which once meant so much that only a shared language could carry it all, is contracting to a mere matter of wanting a bigger income— or should I say more “flair”? The obvious irony is that a nation without one unifying language will end up poorer in economic terms as well.”

As I'm paid, however insultingly, to get some of these immigrants and their offspring “to learn more than a little transactional English,” I sympathize. I teach at an uneasy mix of a four-year college as a for-profit institution, so my complicity in this creation of desires for monetary gain among my students (and those under whom I labor who monitor me closely in the name of dividends) does present me with a few possible contradictions. The students who enroll in my classes have no choice if they wish to graduate, but they are not brought to me out of any predilection for literature, eloquence, or the cultivation of a personal aesthetic. If they have these, despite the left-brain tendencies of the majority of my colleagues as well as students, it’s a statistical anomaly. It’s back, as even Myers admits, to peddling English and the liberal arts, in the lightweight portions they’re restricted to, “in economic terms as well” and that such courses “will boost our own prosperity too.”

In this pursuing of “a mere matter of wanting a bigger income,” our students where I teach are recruited and retained. Every subject we offer stays on the curriculum only if it must. This means that I must adjust my own mandarin preferences with the realities of MTV, BET, YouTube, and the latest franchise, electronic or celluloid. It’s a given that my course objectives prove that I’m preparing my students for their technical or entrepreneurial careers.

Yesterday, I started my course on “Contemporary Literature,” the only one left on my schedule of assigned classes that allows me to share what my doctorate’s trained me to teach, reflecting on the breathless reviews in the New York Times and on NPR about the previous day's release of “Grand Theft Auto IV.” Challenging my students, many of whom were gaming programmers or electronics engineering majors, to recognize narrative conventions across the media, in books, movies, games, songs, and graphic novels, I told them of my own unfamiliarity with much of what's hawked as worthwhile entertainment. Here, I might sympathize with Myers and Robinson. Yet, they do not have to teach students, some not long out of ESL, with little understanding of the intricacies of Western literature, art, religion, and history that underlie so much of the legacies that readers of The Atlantic cherish. Therefore, I also told my drowsy charges of my own convictions that given the realities of where they had learned (if unwittingly) more about storytelling from their spare time rather than in an anthology, that this is where I started my investigation of why we tell tales and how we expect them to unfold.

Myers continues in a paragraph I have much in common with. I hated the same film that Myers does here. I wondered too at its contradictory moral that an adoring NPR demographic salivated over, oblivious of its inanity.

“Robinson is a conservative Christian, but one doesn’t have to be religious to know the feeling aroused in him by popular culture that “if this is the world, I live somewhere else.” I felt the same way the other day while watching Little Miss Sunshine on DVD. Much honored by award committees (always a bad sign), the film invites us to chuckle fondly at a foul-mouthed heroin addict who teaches his little granddaughter a mock striptease. And yet the only people who actually object to this sort of thing are the religious right. We of non-faith either applaud the “pushing of the envelope” or look the other way; it’s just culture, after all. It seems to me, then, that when Robinson writes in his new book of a nation that has “lost its mind, a state that prevents it from taking anything seriously”—of an “auto-destruction of thinking” that he calls “The Misery”—he could just as easily be talking of America. Untied Kingdom, as this bold and eloquent book is called, diagnoses The Misery in all areas of British life, while calling on the remnants of the country’s educated to restore thoughtful judgment. The author doesn’t mind being called a reactionary, and says readers shouldn’t mind, either: “There is no need to accept that the word modernize as used by [political] leaders … has any meaning beyond drifting with the stream.”

Nevertheless, as I spent years in my academic preparation with Joy Division on the college radio and a copy of “Sir Gawain & the Green Knight” (in the original: two of gloomy Northern England's finest) on my lap, which may account for my lack of scholarly promotion subsequently, I also find elsewhere in Robinson (at least as ably summarized by Myers) a predictable but annoying antagonism to pop culture. Myers admits that Robinson has little patience for a serious critique that respects as well as ridicules rock music, for example. Myers finds that (to my disappointment as a future reader of "UK"), Robinson gives up another necessary battle, against “millionaire rebels,” with barely a fight.

Fraternizing with the enemy, I used a site on intertextuality that couples old poems and new lyrics from popular songs, dreadful though some may be, to present students with an accessible entry into recognizing literary motifs in creative expressions in the media. It also pairs paintings with poems that were inspired by them. This website will be a basis for this week's homework.

Now, here’s a solution, as I see it, for the non-U, non-Stanford, college students in our admittedly sub-standard American third-tier colleges to rise up. We start as any good teacher does with what they know. We use metaphor; we link what we don't understand with what we do. From there, we show how a “higher” or at least supposedly less accessible rung on the cultural or intellectual ladder can be grasped more firmly. It's critical thinking. This ascension from real into allegorical, everyday up towards anagogical, immediate back to typological, helped medieval audiences comprehend Dives & Lazarus more vividly. A precursor to our graphic novels, split screen broadcasts, and busy website displays. Although I bet fewer in a Gothic nave needed explanation of importuning lepers, imperious gluttons, or begging dogs under their groaning table of flagons and spelt.

Speaking of Goths, a Mexican-American young man with a snood and eyeliner nodded when I pointed out the Cure (he wore their t-shirt) titled “Killing an Arab” from Camus; the assigned website juxtaposes Rilke’s “I Am Too Much Alone” with “Pictures of You.” By such small constructions, the gap that Myers and Robinson bemoan can be bridged. Rodríguez and I have done so, in our own efforts, as well for our own audiences.

Illustration thanks to Wikipedia. Not quite old school Gothic, but Romanesque? I always liked this Carolingian style of art. Recalls Roman(esque) in its lettering, poses, and colors.
Captioned: Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Top panel: Lazarus at the rich man's door. Middle panel: Lazarus' soul is carried to Paradise by two angels; Lazarus in Abraham's bosom. Bottom panel: Dives' soul is carried off by two devils to Hell; Dives is tortured in Hades.

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