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University, Grad School
One of the stories in my academic bestiary tells of a professor and class failing to “learn” an already “known” something I endeavored to “teach” them: that there’s no such thing as a final analysis. I’ve been meaning to tell a parallel incident: and having seen a film the other evening in which the characters ask, What if there’s no such thing as coincidence, I’m prompted to tell it now.
Gordon Ray, prodigious Victorian scholar, editor of whole series of academically responsible Victorian reprints, novels by the likes of Dickens and Thackeray and Eliot, taught at NYU Graduate Arts & Science. I took his Victorian novel course. A Dickens novel a deal less routinely read than others, Martin Chuzzlewit, was assigned. I’m not recalling whether this occurred before or after my stint of teaching for a couple of years. The date would have been c. 1967 or 1970. The date counts because by the second half of the Twentieth Century readers were reacting against Dickens’ earlier dominance. As a child in the 1940s I’d loved Dickens: though perhaps not as much as my father’s generation. As an undergraduate in the 1950s his Victorian largesse of verbal redundancy hurt my modern ears. It was difficult in the extreme for this slow reader to finish a Dickens novel once begun: and the beginning of a Dickens novel for me might take in itself several dozen months. A Christmas Carol I knew verbatim from childhood. Great Expectations I wolfed down, yelping with delight, howling with indignation: all at the appropriate times. Yet I’d graduated from Columbia as an English major and drifted on toward the army draft before getting involved in my second full length Dickens novel, A Modest Proposal. It took me a great while there to read the first hundred pages : its cuteness weighing heavily : and the rest of the afternoon to read the remaining seven hundred pages. Literary devices you see go in and out of fashion. Audience sophistication varies from literary period to literary period. Things that made Ibsen’s audience mistake his plays for reality now make audiences hear creaking scenery.
Anyway, by 1967-1970 Dickens’ use of coincidence was infamous. As I read Martin Chuzzlewit I was appalled. But once I arrived near the end, I had to reevaluate. It turned out that all of the characters in that novel had relationships that both the main character and the reader are kept ignorant of till the denouement. In the middle of the story some character is seen to run across some other character: coincidence. No: because, by the end of the story, we learn that character two had been following character one, spying on him: that’s not coincidence at all! Is it coincidence that it’s the girls’ bathroom wall that has the knot knocked out to make a spy hole?
So: Gordon Ray (a big man) stood before a hall of graduate school students: nearly all of them currently teaching in either public school or college. Some of them were already in school administration, unable to make principal until they completed their doctorate. And Gordon Ray stood there while the student body pelted Dickens with verbal tomatoes over the coincidences.
Through much of my studenthood, I would have assented to the tomato throwing: simply because it was rare, rare for me to have read the book within the same decade as the class discussion. My adult life has been commandeered by my student years in a doomed attempt to actually read everything on the lists. I couldn’t do the work in four years: I can’t do the work in sixty, going on seventy years. But this time I was ready. I had read the novel, the whole damn thing. And I couldn’t take another minute of the class’s ignorant boorishness. (What could possibly be more benightedly hebetudinous than a bunch of teachers? (Answer: a bunch of anybody.) I stood. I raised my hand. My manner commanded acknowledgement. Ray nodded at me. I stretched myself the more erect. “There are no coincidences in Martin Chuzzlewit,” I said. “There only seem to be.”
“It turns out,” Gordon Ray responded, “that all the characters have been following each other around.” He nodded assent. And then stood there : a great mountain of blue suit, worn shinny in the pursuit of Victorian studies : as the bulk of the students went right back to their blandly chic, non-sentient Dickens bashing.
And I freshly recalled the young art teacher’s rude guffaw at the Colby faculty meeting when one of the old guard fatuously asserted that the faculty was devoted to the “pursuit of truth.”
It would be interesting to test these “teachers” to see what other end-of-the-book revelations they also missed. Did they ever read a novel to its end? What would they think Madame Bovary was about? A Romance, no doubt. Or Vanity Fair!
Peter Sellers’ Shot in the Dark has Elke Sommer, looking and acting at her most delicious, found at murder scene after murder scene with the smoking gun or knife dripping blood in her hand. By the end of the movie it’s clear that Inspector Clouseau was right: she didn’t do it! Would these teachers think she had done it? Because that’s what the superficial evidence implied? Perhaps they’re ready to go back to believing that the earth is flat: or that the earth is the center of the solar system. Perhaps they never stopped believing that!
bkMarcus just called and I told him that I’d just mounted this story. As I re-narrated it to him I may have added a detail or two to Gordon Ray’s tolerance of the Dickens bashing. In any case I emphasized that once I’d spoken, Ray could have said, Ah, here is an ally, and, feeling thus aided, could have tried to counterbalance the anti-Dickens (and anti-evidentiary) bias of the majority.
Nope, bk said. He stood there and took the money to “teach” from those whose turn might come to receive. I paid my dues. Now I’ll collect the dues. Just like the Mafia, bk concluded.
pk reflects: one other thing: these were the teachers who were going on for their doctorates, slogging away, well on past youth some of them (us). These are supposed to be the better teachers. Well, I’m glad it’s been a long time since I’ve had much contact with the worst!
In Hunt for Red October Alec Baldwin is en plane with the stew fussing over him, telling him to get some sleep. I can’t, he says: the turbulence. Turbulence is beyond her, so he explains, or tries to: you know, hot air rising? Oh, she says. Well then, “Try to get some sleep.”
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