pk School Stories: University, Grad School
Who’s the Greatest?
The beta dog puts up a fuss, the alpha dog puts it down. Schmeling put Louis on the canvas? Not this time, Bozo. Joe wades into him. Wham. Wham. Konko.
It used to be they fought till somebody couldn’t get up. If you were horizontal, you weren’t king of the hill.
But we can’t put Mike Tyson into the ring with John L. They’re not in the same generation. So we have to imagine.
Whether I like Nephertete or not, I can’t make love to her: she’s been dead for thousands of years.
Human attention demands a winner. We can have only one God, one state ordering us about (at a time), one wife (at a time) … Even the beer commercial goes out of its way to admit that if it tastes great then it can’t also be less filling. No. We can only have one hero. All else must be horizontal.
The Greeks didn’t have to worry about who their best poet was: it was that old blind guy who declaimed at the fire side every night. Homer. He’s the one we asked to sing the stories.
At least it seems clear three thousand or so years later: when we don’t know any of the competitors. 1595, 1601, 1603 … Sure that Shakespeare guy was good. Everybody agreed. But no one would have agreed, not automatically, that he was the best. And the idea of weighing him in against Homer was unthinkable.
But no longer. Now Shakespeare’s superiority is a foregone conclusion, as assuredly, here, as the consideration is forbidden, there.
When votes were actually counted, Truman beat Dewey. That is, supposedly, he got more votes. Who was a great president: Washington? or Lincoln? That one never went to the poles.
No. For me and Nefertiti, Ali versus Jack Johnson, Nixon versus Hitler … or Rod McKuen versus Dante you need experts: state-appointed teachers. You need a note from your doctor.
My theory of Macroinformation [see my blog of that name] suggests that contests between the classics of some previous century and yesterday’s pop charts might be possible if only we had a sophisticated enough understanding of information. If we can’t actually measure a greater quantity of information from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik than from the Beatles I Wanna Hold Your Hand, we should shut the hell up. All comparisons are odorous. And if we won’t support Macroinformation — either refute it, or help build it sensibly (but you have to understand it before you can meaningfully refute it) — then we should shut up about everything that doesn’t have the victor standing and all others horizontal. If Homer wins, Homer should burn Shakespeare’s manuscripts. Dante should purge McKuen from the bookshelves.
Or: have Homer and Shakespeare and McKuen … and let anybody read what they want. What do we need champions for? Champions are a solution for contention over finite space. Only so many elk may breed this season. Only one company may have the telephone monopoly.
Well. You see I am in favor of developing objective standards by which art may be measured. Once measured, what can’t be compared?
At all points it must be remembered that where measurement is possible, mis-measurement is possible. We don’t want the colorblind in charge of mapping Cézanne’s color sense.
Still, there are two choices: Help develop Macroinformation: then Hamlet could be publicly weighed (the result challengeable by the not colorblind); or sit down and shut up. That is to say: depend on experts. Let some priest tell you, Jesus is holier than Mohammed. Or, Moses is better than the Pharaoh’s magicians. Or, Milton is greater than Pope.
I scribble the above to introduce a story from graduate school. The protagonist is always pk. Here the antagonist is Kenneth Neal Cameron: the Percy Byshe Shelley man. At NYU, 1964 or so, a lecture class on the Romantics, Cameron presiding, someone in the class, some high school English teacher needing a Masters degree to earn more money from the state, wanted to know why Shelley was such a big deal. Instead of analyzing some lines macroinformationally (the concept not yet invented), following a formula (not yet invented) to gauge average quality, then comparing the reading to readings for other poets: Homer, Shakespeare, Rod McKuen …, Dr. Kenneth Neal Cameron merely appealed to authority: HIS authority: as an expert. I paraphrase:
Experts agree that Shelley is among the top half dozen poets ever to compose in English.
There’s simply no question about it.
The second line there is not paraphrase but exact quote.
Kenneth Neal Cameron
God, how I hated Professor Cameron based on that class. But I hadn’t waited till he defended Shelley’s status strictly by authority, not by arguing from quality. I hadn’t read his pedigree. I didn’t know his professional work. As I came to, I had to revise my low opinion way upward. Cameron was an excellent scholar. But in my experience he sure sucked as a grad school lecturer. He wanted a paper for every class: insane. (More about that in a moment.) He regularly committed one of my cardinal teaching sins: he assumed some error in the class, then corrected it. Thus: he assumed that we all thought that “romantic” meant counting flowers, ooshy-gooshy, chaste love … (Christ! Didn’t anyone know how to READ?!) So he corrected us: Romantic poetry is about rebellion, about fundamental challenges to society’s institutions …
I didn’t mind the lesson; I minded being put in the dunce’s corner in order to receive the lesson. He assigned us straw-man roles without checking who we were. He went by statistical probability, not by examination.
For my paper-a-day I satirized the class, the assignments, some of the scholarship assigned. I protested the expert’s tendency to substitute themselves for the subject. Studying Shelley, we were actually studying Cameron and colleagues. It wasn’t Shelley’s name we had to spell right, it was Cameron’s. I didn’t even want to know Cameron until I was familiar with the basic Shelley texts. But that’s not how school works: certainly not graduate school.
Anyway, I thought my papers were clever. “I can’t read these, don’t know what to make of them,” wrote Cameron’s reader to Cameron. So Cameron made no attempt to read my papers himself either: just gave them a C!
I still have those papers, if anyone wants to see pk satire c. 1964. It was science fiction, rocket ships, slapstick …
For my orals I didn’t know how to get away from him. It turned out he was the only professor of five on my committee who was straightforward and fair in his examination of me. This time, this once, he actually listened to what I was answering: the only professor to do so. As a result, he loved me. Thought I’d performed off the charts. Sure. Of course. Funny thing was, suddenly, I loved him too.
Seriously, it was only later that I actually read some of his scholarship. That’s when I came to respect him.
gotta recompose so much of this, I leave it though as a first draft.