Sunday, October 27, 2013

Zen and the Art of the Catch-22

When I was in college I read a really good essay about writing that included the phrase, "When I read as I ought."  I still remember it for a number of reasons, one of them being the delightful professor, Carla Billiteri, and the other for its distinctive phrasing.

I'll modify it just slightly for today's purpose:

When I write as I ought...

I started by referencing school, and the truth is, as I've been thinking about what I wanted to write today, I didn't have much else positive to say about school.  In fact, there's another phrase that I was mulling: factory of mediocre thought.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I've had a bunch of memorable teachers, but even the best of them always seemed constrained by the invisible chains of mediocrity.  Or rather, to tie in the title I've chosen for these thoughts, Joseph Heller's famous Catch-22, taken from the name of the book where it was first coined.

Catch-22 is the idea is that you lose even when you win.  You just can't escape it.

And how do you end up with a Catch-22 in school?  By always insisting that your students write what you want or expect.  The closest I ever came to breaking from this, the closest I ever came to growing as a writer in school, was from a class taught by Kathleen Ellis.  This was around 9/11.  We were all warrior poets in those days, though.  But at least she had the good sense to have us read the other book eluded to in the title, Robert Pirsig's brilliant Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  The depressing thought was that I was the only student in the class who seemed to get anything from it.

But I guess that's another Catch-22.  You can't force people to read something and expect everyone to love it.

But you can foster better readers, and perhaps better writers, by encouraging them to express their thoughts, no matter what they are.  In fact, have the whole class taught as much by the students as the professor.  Some of my teachers sometimes seemed to get that.  But not enough of them, and never well enough.  And schools in general are all geared toward something far more mundane.  In general, they're factories.

And to say nothing of research papers.  Why are research papers considered so important?  The synthesis of thought should be encouraged from within.  If you want to be a reporter, there might be a different story.  But encourage independent, critical thought above all else.  And don't make it feel like a chore.

The most brilliant orator I ever had in school, by the way, was Welch Everman, who had his students read the most interesting books.  But he was also a little impenetrable.  Because his verbal thoughts were so completely out of the ordinary.  Not to mention the enthusiasm of Randy Howarth.  I had his class too early in the morning.  One of two times I had the privilege of watching Monty Python in school, by the way.  That you always have to appreciate.

What am I really driving at?  When I was reading Roberto Bolano's literary thoughts in Between Parentheses, I was struck all over again with the thought that some nations can have a good sense of their literary scenes.  Smaller ones, like Bolano's native Chile, especially.  That's not the case here in the States.  Not the case at all.  And I think we all suffer because of it.

After suffering through the factories of mundane thought, we're all shuffled into the hodgepodge of luck and ambition known as the adult world.  We're told to make a success of ourselves, and yet we're perhaps more keenly aware than any other country in the world about how fierce the competition is.  Worse than the Chinese.  Worse than Indians.  And those guys worry about occupying the same space at the same time.

It's nuts.  We have no perspective.  Certainly none whatsoever on our literature.  We churn official publications by the hundreds every week.  And the unofficial ones, why they're proliferating faster than rabbits.  And that's not even to cover all of the people who are absolutely convinced that they were meant to be writers.

And what to say of the readers?  I think they're an anemic bunch.

Most of them aren't even good readers.  Bolano spent a lifetime laboring over a comprehensive, categorical appreciation of literature, not only from his own country or region but all over the world.  Most Americans in the States couldn't be bothered looking outside a particular genre, and that's not just readers, but writers as well.

And I find that continually troubling.

And therein lies the crux of this Catch-22.  The products of the factories of mediocre thought are convinced, absolutely convinced that they're entitled to whatever they can dream.  I mean, you've heard the dogma of the American Dream.  That's what it's all about.  And not just in their creative ventures are they're convinced they're unassailable.  Everyone is convinced they're the most clever voice in the world, no matter what they write, and they can usually find more than one eager soul to agree with them.

And most of them are wrong.  Think of it as one of those classrooms.  The whole reason why there are grades at all is because we're a culture obsessed with hierarchies, even though we claim loud and clear that they absolutely don't exist.  The worst and most obvious hierarchies are the ones that claim they don't exist.

But there are grades to prove to someone that at least a select few are better than the rest of them.  And that's what we all believe because the dirty little secret is that it's true.  The problem, the Catch-22, is that the person doing the grading normally skewers on a curve so warped it's an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail.  Because everyone's happier the more simple and stupid something seems.  Even though everyone claims they're always looking for the best.  Catch-22.

When I write as I ought, I am always questioning myself.  I never trust myself.  I don't even trust myself this very moment, as I'm writing this sentence.

When I read as I ought, I'm doing the same thing.  That's the whole idea.

But the Catch-22 is, we're constantly told not to do this, even as everyone claims that they're saying exactly the opposite.

The sorry truth of the world is that it's full of people who are absolutely convinced that everyone will always believe what they're saying, even the people saying whatever it is they're saying, when the reality is that you should rarely believe what you hear, even when you trust the source.  You should not listen to anything you're reading from me right now.  In fact, I know you're not.  It makes everything so much simpler that way.

When I write as I ought, I'm saying things I know people will ignore.

And you can never control the message anyway.  It's not a matter of not trying, but of being aware that you're constantly opening the door to the opposing view, whether you're aware of it or not.

If I could have written like this, if I had been encouraged, in school, I sometimes wonder where I would be today.  I don't know if the education was much different for me, in Lisbon and Erie and Orono, than what they teach in, say, the ivy leagues (where the schools sport fancy ivy, and that's the ridiculous truth of it), if they let students read and write the best things as soon as humanly possible.  I don't begrudge my education, because I like to think I'm doing those things now, perhaps to make up for or at least continue the work of the factories of mediocre thought I knew when I was younger.

Anyway, that's the Catch-22 of it.

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