Monday, September 20, 2010

My Childhood in the 1970s: More Teachers and Pedagogic Weirdness

(Jacqueline Bisset turned 66 on September 13)

My memories of my earlier schooling are profoundly fragmented. Being a "perceptualist", indeed an outright "sensualist", (if not at times even "hedonist"), I see in images and in syntax.

Other times I don't exactly think or feel but seem captured and possessed with and by a mood, seemingly provoked by a mysterious and incoherent exterior world, a world sort of like William James' "blooming buzzing confusion" but nevertheless at times a joyous creative, rather than destructive, confusion. In short, given this fragmentary nature of my memories, I feel a more extremely episodic approach is in order, one tending toward the aphoristic but nevertheless rooted in concrete and bodily sensation rather than instruction and abstraction per se.

I remember the first teacher I had a crush on. This was very early, perhaps second or third grade. Long before bewitching and lusty Carla who was to come in earliest adolescence. It was a few years before my double dating of Sally and Lydia at that "hippie" free school.

(If you will recall, Sally and Lydia were two of the few times in my first two decades where I actually fell for girls who were actually peers. Unfortunately I couldn't decide between Sally and Lydia, and each of them expressed their competitive jealousy in mostly passive aggressive ways that eluded me. When I met Lydia's mother I decided it was the mom that I really loved, because, well, she looked a bit like Gloria Steinem which was an improvement over the daughter's Helen Reddy imitation. Better yet, rather than listen to those Bee Gees records like her daughter, mom actually listened to Miles Davis! Lydia was so hurt that I didn't want to come into her room but would rather stay with her mom, gazing into the mom's eyes, at her short skirt, and wondering how I could ever begin to talk about Miles Davis with her - if my mother ever stopped babbling with Lydia's mom at any point).

And that English teacher? I remember that she taught English and we called her Mrs. Miller. Above all, I felt her features resembled Catherine Deneuve, a French star who had begun to fascinate me when I saw her on the screen in the many French films my father snuck me in to see.

I remember writing Mrs. Miller a very thoughtful and careful marriage proposal declaring my feelings. I even included an apple: all of this (I thought) was done anonymously and discreetly, since I placed it under her table when I thought nobody was looking.

(I apologize, dear reader for this brief digression into traditional narration, especially after my introduction where I lead one to expect something more unconventional. This is a bit more continuous story, more narration and less image and fleeting sensation, or intellectual idea. Sometimes a story may take shape after all, despite my warnings about fragments).

And what did I get for my first foray into romance, and my utter bravery at self expression? A talk from Mrs. Miller about my feelings were not correct or appropriate (though this last word was luckily not then in vogue) for someone of my younger age. It was as if she were chiding me for my feelings being incorrect. I cannot think, in retrospect, a more "non-1970s" way to have handled my youthful sensitivity. Perhaps underneath her sexy exterior she had the internal character of some dowdy, old school matron from a previous century. She seemed utterly lacking in humor and did not appear at all amused at receiving such a gift from someone of my age. She apparently had no sense of "cute".

But as I wrote my proposal I imagined her after class waiting for me in much the similar pose you see at the photo at the top of this column. You see, though I was a child, I thought and felt as if I were an adult. I had no proper sense of being a kid. And I knew that adults married. What better choice than Mrs. Miller, especially if she so reminded me of Deneuve. Perhaps I could take her away to France, away from the provincial climate of southern redneck South Florida.

However, as this woman actually had a conversation with me, albeit an unkind one, this was a vast improvement over my first contact with the opposite sex. This was when a girl - a complete stranger - approached me from the trailer park next door only to grab my crotch and drag me to the dirty, liquor- glass infested gravel and cement. She was like a wild animal or creature and I had known no behavior like it from any peer. Later it was rumored she was carried away from her "home" by city authorities, possibly for insanity, doubtless to end up in some children's mental ward.

Is it any wonder that I would spend hours in rapt fascination with Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Kate Jackson, and last but not least, the great Jacqueline Bisset (who turned 66 this year on September 13)?

But I know I promised talk of teachers and pedagogy and I shall digress no more.

I remember isolated cases of authorial weirdness. There was of course Mr. Hightower with his beard and customized van. Then there was Mr. York. York was a short lived principal of another equally weird independent school. I think it was called York's Academy.

Aside from York's view that classes should never be indoors since to put growing kids inside was like a prison for children, his most notable distinction was his extraordinary capacity to speak blatant falsehoods to his class as if they were gospel. He came into class like a merciless storm, a beady, sweaty, blob of a man. There were no books or chalkboards. Just a rant:

"Everyone is exactly the same. It may seem to you that we are different but we are all identically the same. We might forget that. Always remember that!"

I am not paraphrasing him. I HATED his message; it was an obscene assertion that had been empirically discounted and demolished in a most violent fashion by just about every human contact I had experienced in my life, and just about every observation I could make of the wild kids of all ages in his own class. Unfortunately I made my disagreement publicly known, which made for more than one meeting with my parents. Why nobody else found cause for dissent was beyond me.

In this particular school they threw different ages together on the grounds that age did not mean anything and was a form of discrimination and labeling of kids. This made his words yet more hallow of course.

Even worse was his claim that jazz was invented in the country of Germany! I knew something about jazz and tried to talk of New Orleans and Kansas City, only to find myself, of course, in York's office after class. At least he didn't physically beat me like that Southern military styled principal did at that Prep academy. But was the free school an improvement over the Prep school? Not likely, especially with a regime of enforced ignorance in a loose, casual presentation.

That man should have been barred from teaching anywhere in this country, never mind being a principal! But in the free wheeling, localist, decentralized, chaotic culture of 1970s free schools anybody with a building to lease could put up a shingle labeled school or academy and do anything their deepest and darkest heart desired with any group of kids - free from any regulation from city or state!

Worse yet, this willfully ignorant and arrogant principal allowed the older kids to take us for rides on the dashboards of their muscle cars while they smoked weed. Me and my buddy George might have enjoyed this, but it was woefully irresponsible. (Though I did get to hang out with some beautiful teenage girls and actually watch them make out with their surfer boyfriends).

Worst of all, this principal allowed the romantic couple of the class - a retarded lanky boy in Sears toughskins with bad acne complete with visible puss who would compulsively masturbate in public and dump food and drink on anybody within his vacinity, and his mate of choice, a mousy, unkempt and barely literate girl who had a problem with compulsive laughter and giggling - to make out openly in class. It was not a pretty sight and soured me for many years on the prospect of any intimate relations between any two people.

My best friend George was in that school with me and I often ask him to repeat the story just to have a witness to make sure I really saw and heard what I did as I remember it. Did he tell us everybody was the same? Yes. George assures me he did. Only in their wisdom, others kept quiet. It was left to me, in my naive stupor, to think nothing of pointing out such an error. It was as if he told us that objects could fall upwards.

That principal did not last. He was brought up on charges of wrongful sexual advances to one of the youngest of the female students.

His replacement was a husband and wife team (!) who were into seminars and group workshops.

Both husband and wife were impossibly obese and were obsessed with all sorts of human potential movement movements and fads. I remember that, unable to get along with my peers I would wander the grounds endlessly talking to the man of the couple about my discovery of Marx and socialism. (His wife was always in a bad mood and liked to hide in the office. You will note too the continuation of the no homework, no traditional classroom rule, as well as the idea that class should be outside as much as possible). We often wondered what the wife did all day. Why did she hide out? The explanation by the husband was that she was "not a people person".

Mr. Leo (I'll call him because he LOVED Leo Buscaglia) was not so keen on socialism or Marx. He was keen on what he called feelings. He always wanted me to get in touch with my feelings and talk about my feelings with him. Luckily he didn't apply too much of Buscaglia's hugging techniques. I was a fairly touch averse child.

Leo would go on and on about how I was okay and he was okay, about how it was okay to cry. I told him that not was all okay, but he would reply that this was an illusion on my part.

The only time I remember being inside a classroom was when we were forced to listen to that Marlo Thomas song from Free To Be You And Me as sung by football star Rosie Greer. He seemed upset that I did not have strong histrionic emotions and was more interested in art, literature, and the future prospects of the another kind of class struggle. He argued against me saying I wasn't giving myself "enough space". He loves that word space a lot. Perhaps it was my parents who were the problem; maybe they didn't have enough space. His favorite book was a book called Values Clarification. I actually read that damned book and reported back to him on all of its flaws and errors in logic.

He played that single song over and over again. He even made us repeat it back to him like a kind of Maoist ditty or chant. Pretty song we would be crying alright - crying to get back outside and be bored, anything to be away from that song. I presume some of the males in the class felt it was a "faggot" or sissy song. I did not indulge in such hatred myself. I wanted to dream instead about...Jacqueline Bisset and Fanny Ardant.

Not all experiences with school officials were negative. There was Mrs. Hammer in one of my first science classes. Now Hammer was the hardest face to experience, so painful she was to the eyes. She carried the more unpalatable marks of old age to new depths of abjection, so many lines, creases, warts marking a shrunken withered head. Moreover, her voice resembled Mercedes Macambridge's voiceover for the devil in The Exorcist.

Mrs. Hammer believed in me though and wanted me to grow up to become a scientist. She felt a I had a gift for science. Little did she know how terminally boring I though it all was, so immersed in a humanistic and artistic approach to life at an early age.

Unfortunately her encouragement of this science "stuff" left me vulnerable to the dogmatism and domination of my father. I had to build two elaborate science projects. One concerned a report on the evils of unnatural food: a science report I entitled the "the chemicals in your breakfast." I basically listed all of these chemicals then in use like red dye no.4, various emulsifiers, and preservatives and had to list evidence that they caused cancer and deformity in laboratory rats. My final "proof" came in the form of using the chickens that belonged to the extreme right-wing anti-Castro immigrants who lived near the family factory.

Armed with pounds of Fruit Loops, Count Chocula, BooBerry, Frankenberry and other kids oriented junk breakfast food, I poured the offending guilty food stuffs onto the withered, brown, tan and yellow grass of the immigrants' land. Not a single chicken stopped to eat the cereals. They eyed it with suspicion and walked away. My father's conclusion? That the so-called lower animals had more wisdom about health and nutrition that "we humans" in my father's phrase.

Mrs. Hammer actually gave me an A on that report.

That, however was not the only report I was assigned. There was my father's insistence that my final "science report be called "ESP and you". I had certainly done naturalistic magic tricks with cards in public outside of school but my father made me do a card trick with no trick. That is, he assured me that, through the combined "mental powers" of him working through me, the kids would "guess" with accuracy each card.

Of course the end result proved to be a disaster. Not only did not enough of the students guess the right card to determine anything of consequence but the whole science class "report" made me look like a fool, turning the entire class against me. James Randi the skeptic would have been proud but since, as my father had taught me, the whole point was to "prove" ESP, the result was not a positive one. Mrs. Hammer saved the day though by using it as an opportunity in a lesson in critical thinking and proper evidence.

Of course I was wrong to expect that, through some special mental powers, I would make the whole class psychic, at least temporarily. Actually I gave it little thought at all, so concerned was I with the graphics, the construction and design of it all. I did beg my father to let me do the tricks the usual way. Perhaps I was already the budding skeptic, skeptical of my father's compulsive credulity towards all things New Age, magical, holistic, natural, occult, spiritual etc. But, alas, I was left alone in the class, hoping and praying more than a couple kids would guess the right card. I think only one or two. Hammer had lots of wisdom to offer on scientific method, proper sampling, the trouble of randomness and the difference between causation and coincidence.

I never recovered any decent status in class after that. I became a pariah, and doubtless that led to being shipped off to yet some other school due to behavioral conflicts with other students.

This same dreary cycle would be repeated yearly only until I finally reached Interlochen Arts Academy in sophomore year of high school, in 1983, which was like an enlightenment for me, a magical transformation, the first school I was at that had good teachers, great wisdom, something like real nurturance and inspiration through the arts. It was far away from home, in the remote woods of Northern Michigan. But it was the first time I felt at home with being a budding intellect and creative personality. My relations with other students were far from great. But they were tolerable and at times pleasant, and we often shared much in common. And the teachers were genuine mentors and intellectually curious.

And that, in the end in my long journey through various schooling. At a rate of about a school a year K-12, you can imagine my sense of alienation, dislocation, and confusion at such change, both culturally as much as emotionally and intellectually. Aside from the bedrock that is "bred in the bone", the world of my two parents, and the vast plethora of adult friends outside my home, those schools and especially the lack of attachment and emotional instability they engendered in me, went a long way towards making the person I am today.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Childhood in the 1970s Part Eight: Weird Teachers

I finally discovered why Mrs. Perkins, that evidently inspired (like W Bush from a higher authority) yet uninspiring and mediocre Bible teacher I had in that year of Christian Junior High, singled me out for special attention concerning her new found love for character actor Joe Don Baker. It appears Joe Don Baker was in a movie with my very name in the title. It wasn't called Mitch a la STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, but it was called MITCHELL.

I am absolutely sure that my teacher, Mrs. Perkins, did not restrict her love of Baker to the cop show EISCHIED. No this was, after all, "our greatest living actor." She took that love to the theater. Her love, or lust, for Baker was so great she must have seen the following movie when it played at the local buck a movie "grindhouse" in Tampa. I am equally sure she did not mention this movie to me even with the happy coincidence that it had my name on it because it was an R RATED movie, thus strictly verboten.

Did Mrs. Perkins sneak off to see MITCHELL herself, the way her male colleagues at that time would sneak off to THE PRIVATE AFTERNOONS OF PAMELA MANN or the EMANUELLE series? Is this what critics mean by the concept of "guilty pleasure"?

The only reason I could have missed that movie was that, during its particular run for the week, my mother had put her foot down and prevented my father from taking us to enjoy it, all the more reason to avoid it in my mom's mind was that it had my name on it and she didn't want me getting any negative ideas. Perhaps she felt I would be "cursed".

Clearly Mrs. Perkins must have remembered she had her very own MITCHELL in her class: that "radical" Southern boy with the longish Robert Morse styled hair and polo shirts and classic cotton chinos who didn't take to The Bible with the enthusiasm she had hoped for, and was always talking about the EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT and how "not everything in The Bible was necessarily s0" (to quote Ira Gershwin. Musically, Mrs. Perkins' tastes ran more towards Merl Haggard and Waylon Jennings).

Her student Mitchell was bright but he was far too concerned with EARTH WIND AND FIRE and MILES DAVIS and BACH records and heaven knows what else. And besides, he didn't want the girls to only rake leaves. He called it "chauvinism". He wanted them playing sports too alongside the boys, when Mitchell didn't know a thing about sports himself and couldn't be less concerned with them. Why, when we were supposed to bow our heads in prayer for a winning season for the Tampa Bay Bucs, that Mitchell refused on grounds of something he called "freedom FROM religion."

Friday, September 10, 2010

In Memoriam Frank Kermode (1919-2010)

"Men in the middest make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle. That is why the image of the end can never be permanently falsified. But they also, when awake and sane, feel the need to show a marked respect for things as they are; so that there is a recurring need for adjustments in the interest of reality and well as of control"
Frank Kermode

I am now more sure than ever before that had I not become involved in serious music studies at the Conservatory and beyond I would have liked to have trained in the arts in general and English in particular. Thus it is with the greatest sadness that I learn that Sir Frank Kermode died in August. Last year it was my favorite American critic, Richard Poirier, who died. This year it is my favorite British critic who has died. As the news of Kermode is all around me, I should like to say a few words on a great man.

Frank Kermode started his teaching at the University College of London but also taught in the United States in the 1970s and '80s, at Harvard and Columbia University. He was perhaps best known as a chief Shakespearean scholar. However, as his age was one not as enamored with specialization he worked in all sorts of areas, from theology, to the implications of apocalyptic thought, from modernism in the arts to poetry of all eras. My special fondness for Kermode lies chiefly in the fact that I agree with him, both about how a work of art works, as well as how best to enter into art's mysteries. He also, as evidenced in examples here, wrote English well.

Kermode was interested in both specificity and universality. For Kermode, themes in art admitted of a certain transcendence of local conditions. This is precisely opposite from the approach of today's critics: today if you read, say, Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare, (in Will In The World for example), despite Greenblatt's extraordinary erudition, which is commendable, and despite the emphasis on personal biography (which might be disingenuous given the contradiction with Greenblatt's tendencies to historical, rather than, individual determinism), you get the sense that Shakespeare is some sort of "construct", but an effect of the Elizabethan period in which the plays are created. Moreover, you get the sense that England's particular culture might trump more universal considerations.

Now when Frank Kermode wrote a book on Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Language, his interest in specificity was, as announced in the title, for language. Yet this approach, (one akin to the "close reading" of the so-called New Criticism, of which I am partially a champion), is to pay close attention to the local detail - how the characters speak, the most important part of Shakespeare's plays, really - in order to finally get at global concern. Wisely, Kermode in that book also argues against a populist Shakespeare and instead reveals a highbrow Shakespeare, an innovator, an artist and poet who was difficult for his audiences and colleagues, pushing difficulty against the familiar narratives that form the basis of the plays, enlarging upon what would ordinarily be straightforward entertainment.

Above all, it is by attending to the specificity of language that anything can be revealed regarding the largest questions of human nature: How am I to live? What is justice and jealousy? What are the important differences between blood ties and chosen love? What is the nature of agency, choice, and intentionality (in Hamlet)? Such questions are little broached by knowing every detail of English life in the 16th century, or being able to delineate how different they were to us in today's time. Worst of all, in today's academe such questions have been all but abandoned, partially in the pseudo-scientific interest of playing to various audiences and their perceived differences, partially in the interest of placing pleasure at the center of life and art under the assumption that moral seriousness might simply be stuffy, alienating, or simply offensive to somebody somewhere.

Frank Kermode, during his whole career, was always interested in the widest possible considerations. Thus, in what I regard as his most important book, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING, he is not so much interested in the topicality of specific crises and the class struggles that create them - the way a commentator today would regard "the end" - but rather, in a universal need for crisis to be interpreted arising from our never ceasing temporality. Indeed Kermode's concerns could be of cosmic significance. As he best puts it, once again with the example of Shakespeare:

"What then can Shakespearean tragedy, on this brief view, tell us about human time in an eternal world? It offers imagery of crisis, of futures equivocally offered, by prediction and by action, as actualities; as a confrontation of human time with other orders, and the disastrous attempt to impose limited designs upon the time of the world. What emerges from Hamlet is-after much futile, illusory action-the need of patience and readiness. The bloody period of Othello is the end of a life ruined by unreasonable curiosity".

Kermode is interested in Shakespeare as he exists for us in the here and now, not because Shakespeare is populist or accessible, (although Shakespeare had the uncanny gift of speaking to practically everybody) but because he is a writer not beholden to the age in which he was stuck but rather aims to communicate with capacious intent.

The most interesting and contentious theme in The Sense Of An Ending is his distinction between what he calls myth and fiction. Over the past decades that have transpired since the publishing of the book, the word myth has accumulated mostly positive associations over time: partly through its role in popular psychology and various forms of Jungian scholarship and non-fiction commercialization, and partly through readings of artwork or artwork itself which sees myriad possibilities in myth as a positive, indeed necessary force. Kermode saw things otherwise and in his dissent was actually going back to a far older view - that of Philip Sidney in Sidney's Defense of Poesy - a view that attempted to see value in art precisely because it parted company from propositional beliefs or sacred touchstones. As far as fiction and myth goes, I'll leave the distinction to the master himself:

"Literary fictions are not subject, like hypotheses, to proof or disconfirmation, only, if they come to lose their operational effectiveness, to neglect. Myth operates through the diagram of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanations of things as they are and were; it is a series of radically unchangeable gestures. Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the need of sense making change".

Later on:

"If we forget that fictions are fictive we regress to myth (as when the Neo-Platonists forget the fictiveness of Plato's fictions and Professor Fry forgets the fictiveness of all fictions). Fictions are not myths and they are not hypotheses; you neither rearrange the world to suit them, nor test them by experiment, for instance in gas chambers."

These are strong words indeed. (But the casual, offhand critique of Northrop Frye, another great critic, is amusing: that is, if one accepts, as I do, Kermode's distinction). But it is important to understand that Kermode is really discussing literalism rather than myth per se, or rather, if he can be faulted in his account, if we wish to save myth from Kermode, Kermode is emphasizing the ossification and rigidity of myth into its uses as courtesy or, worse, servitude towards the past.

This is a rather different criticism of myth than the sort of thing one encounters in the Marxist or anarchist tradition, which sees in myth a synonym for mystification or ideology. Ironically that tradition is just as stuck in mythic (or unduly symbolic) thinking because it is concerned with the discovery of truth and falsity rather than the special nature of artistic representation. After all, when or if a Pasolini or Matthew Barney uses myth, it is in Kermode's sense for the most fictive and non mythic of purposes.

Kermode is aware of the appeal of myth:

"It may be that treating literary fictions as myth sounds good just now, but as Marianne Moore so rightly said of poems, 'these things are important not because a / high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are / useful'."

I take Kermode's "fiction" to be akin to representations and art in the most general sense. But today, like Kermode's mode of teaching and scholarship, the mode of being able to understand what art actually is and how it functions is in great danger of being lost, partly because of the domination of culture by news and forms of representation that are dependent on emotional investments in reporting and "documenting".

To use an example from popular culture, in a climate in which evidently David Letterman and a whole host of otherwise averagely intelligent people could not tell that Joaquin Phoenix was blatantly putting on a performance on a talk show, and that he was "in character" for purposes of rather dark and awkward comedy, (a conclusion that could be gleamed just by the sheer weirdness and excessive calculation of Phoenix's performance), people have generally lost the ability to suspend concern for issues of verification long enough to enjoy performance. And this inability is after the fact that so many actors have performed pranks or hoaxes all of the time on major talk shows (the cast of Cassavetes' Husbands on Dick Cavett, Crispin Glover on Letterman, practically the entire career of Andy Kaufman)- an inability that must stem from a failure to understand the notion of traditions in performance practice. Audiences are so desperate to know the "real" actor that they have lost the ability to enter into the actor's gift of performance.

But then again, the kind of criticism Kermode practiced, criticism that aimed towards the universal, and that was predicated upon a close reading of the text rather than a constant push and pull argument between world and text, is probably dying.

But the concerns Kermode raised can't die, so long as we remain recognizably human in the sense that has a semblance of constancy through time.

Lest one thinks that Kermode was some kind of conservative, note that he was one of the first professors in England to embrace the new theorists from France like Barthes, Lacan, Foucault and Derrida. When others fought their innovations and influence Kermode championed them. Of course, when he saw the results of how they were put to use, in later years he grew to disagree with some currents of English teaching and criticism. Yet he did remark that good work was still being done. In all likelihood his criticisms had been due to some misuse of those French radicals in cultural studies and other disciplines.

It may be true that with Kermode's death, much will die with him. As essayist Adam Kirsch remarked in a piece on Kermode, (, it may well be the end of an era.

Yet the vital questions remain: how to live? What is a good work of Art? What is time? What does it all mean? It was good that we had a Frank Kermode to study how some of the greatest minds tackled just such questions.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Blog in Which I indulge Certain Philosophic Notions

I have been told that a blog must be interactive and visually entertaining. I really have no idea how to properly design the present blog. I am afraid it is too textual and abstract to create in mind a specific image or video clip. There is this however, which has nothing to do, (I hope), with what follows.

This blog is one wherein I become rather abstract and heavily philosophical. Please disregard the more unwelcome tones that come with such talk. Instead, dear reader, follow my words more for their content, with an open mind, and always subject to revision.

The following paragraphs or notes are experimental meditations. They are meant to be candid, honest, and forthright. I am going to state a few assertions wherein I make rather clear where I stand on some matters of great and minor consequence, the purpose of which is to open dialogue and, in the process, find out what we all truly believe, free from cant, conformity and compromise.

I do not believe the world is "one". I am not a holist. I am aware that holism is the default faith these days of most people, but that is but an inconvenience for me and is no evidence in its favor. I do not believe in a single unitary system that can be labeled and understood as such.

This puts me at odds with both the political right and left. The Right thinks there is simply a traditional body of wisdom which we ignore at our peril: to ignore the verities is to invite ruin. The Left condemns the present because it is run by some overarching oppressive system that goes by several names: patriarchy or capitalism and so on. Both Left and Right think the world is more rational (or more irrational, if one aims to condemn) than it really is.

In truth one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing.

Lest I am misunderstood: I am not saying that there aren't connections between things and there aren't meanings to be drawn from such connections as that word (meaning) is normally understood. I am merely saying there is not a single center in charge, not an apex where everything works out, whether in a literal conclusion, in the fullness of time - neither in an Utopian rebirth or renewal, nor an apocalyptic end. All previous attempts at such understanding are hampered by a kind of presumptuous holism.

Moreover, I believe individual temperament and character complicates, compromises and evades the powers of any existing system. This refusal of the prefabricated and the alternative drive to play and disrupt, is what any poet does who sets down to write, or any creative artist does who sets out to make their object. The Abstract Expressionists alone showed this when they did things with flat colored canvas. Proust did it in prose. If you are aware of Albertine and company (in Proust) as fulfilling habits and fashions of their time you are comprehending but the smallest part of that great novel. To be sure, the context and milieu is there, but Proust begins exactly after such matters end. Put another way, though The Dreyfuss Affair figures in the narrative in Proust, you would be mistaken to think that novel to be in some sense "about" that particular political controversy in France.

For any example I may be given of how a human being is made by an impersonal structure that predates their existence, whether it be familial or political, or biological, to say nothing of metaphysical, I am fully prepared to offer disproof in the form of inconvenient facts. Please give me your examples. I shall take on all comers.

If it is true that we do not live in a world that is unitary then questions of theodicy become moot. We can understand evil as so many defects within a larger whole. We can see goodness as so many bright spots that come and go but never stay around for long. We praise the heavens when brightness comes and are thankful, but we know that it can't continue indefinitely. Just as we cannot say that there is an essential goodness from which we come and to which we must return, likewise, we cannot excuse evil as a grand growing pain along the road to full maturity. We must condemn evil. It is insufficient to explain it away as a metaphor or illusion borne of our shortsighted blindness. (The mistake of certain Christian and New Age Pollyanism). We are not essentially any one thing: we are many things. These many things do not necessarily add up to a rational and logical whole.

Lest I be misunderstood: don't mistake the foregoing conclusion for "nihilism". Meaning and value does not have to add up to a whole to be meaningful and valuable. Conviction that nihilism is the logical result without a central authority or totality is a historical mistake borne of many traditions: for example, Platonism and Judeo-Christianity in the West.

We have invented things like the Internet and Facebook because we have a craving to merge, to make our belief in the"one" a physical and even spiritual reality. We believe in it so much that, if we see no evidence for it in our lives, we have a compulsion to create it, or at least a virtual form of it. We cannot bear the possibility that we are not one. We do not love our separateness enough. For it is in fact our separateness that makes our life interesting. The Internet will one day prove to make our life truly boring. The dream of essential unity is a totalitarian dream.

If we could truly love our differences without becoming at all like the other from whom we differ, without having to "learn from it", but just to love it, with the full knowledge that the difference must surely serve some need for which we are insufficiently aware - only then could we begin to live together as individuals without SYMPTOMATICALLY living as a whole. (This is what the Internet is: a symptomatic defense against the truth and beauty of our separateness.) Separation has a negative connotation because we identify it with violence and vivisection, with alienation and loneliness.

The main art we have lost, an art at which the 18th century excelled, is the art of DISINTERESTEDNESS. To be disinterested it to be someone for whom nothing human is alien.

What I am putting forth here was relatively and generally known to the American Transcendentalists. Unfortunately their wisdom was lost in the triumph of the social sciences in general and Marxism in particular. All of our current theories are system theories. Functionalism, cognitivism, Radical (as opposed to Liberal) feminism, Marxism, and the fashionable anarcho-primitivism are similar systems.

Here is (one admittedly extreme) example of how systems reason: the world was good when we hunted and gathered but, alas, then we fell and created this awful civilization of ours. That civilization inevitably created the automobile as it can only make the worst and most wasteful choices.

The same can be said for the other systems. Today psychology is such a system. Humans have these inevitable stages in which they pass through. A teenager is supposed to do such and such, likewise a mature adult. There is appropriate and inappropriate behavior for every stage. This is systematic thinking.

Lest I be misunderstood: I am not denying there is something particular and even required in being a child, a teen, and so on. It is simply that we make too much out of it, and place too much store by it. But it is to deny making a dogma out of such a commonplace fact.

At its worst, systems theory can result in conspiratorial paranoia. There is THE MAN out to get me and he and his system must be destroyed. There is our safe haven of goodness and those outsiders aren't to be trusted.

A theory that posits but one world is a world-denying theory. It denies what is most irreplaceable and mysterious in us: the existence of an unaccounted for Being and Soul. Or, if it tries to account for such mystery it reduces is to a vacuous, ever receding unity.

The major problem in culture today is what I would call cults and cultism. Cults don't have to be religious, they can be interpersonal in nature. There are thousands of cults today: political, psychological, national, familial, (think of domestic violence). The cult view of life, not conceiving of a genuine freedom from systematic thinking, wants to impose, through act of will, a better system to replace the evil one that is the status quo. But in so doing, a cult just reinforces our deep attachment to oneness and unity. Cultic thinking also attempts to dominate others in order to make them either confirm or deny, or destroy or defend a system.

Cults then may be a metaphor or an image for what happens when we deny the marvelous prickly individuality that exists at any given time. Such freedom of spirit shows that in the whole, if we must admit that there is a whole, there is at the very least, room to roam.

We humans are curious: we are local and global; we have universal desires and the most excruciatingly divergent ways of expressing those desires. VIVA LA DIFFERENCE should be our slogan again. As long as, of course, nobody is hurting others.

Finally, believing the world is one won't save us from war. We go to war when we refuse others space to find their own way. We go to war to impose a false unity. We don't go to war because we forget how much we are all truly alike. Rather, we go to war because we have not yet made peace with the manifestations of our differences. We have to BEGIN from an assumption of difference. We could discuss our differences without seeing them as so many threats. To look for an underlying or overarching sameness when difference is apparent, to view difference as but a superficial mask under which hides an ultimate unity is to only belittle and underestimate the values people hold dear. This alleged "unity" is too fragile and flimsy a basis on which to create dialogue. Let us at most admit we are all human and then get down to cases.

The kinds of things to which we cling so that we may deny difference and prevent conflict are also the most trivial things about us: our wish to avoid pain for example, or our need to survive. There is an atavistic need to hold to such things as if they were mystical touchstones.

Stephen Prothero in his new book GOD IS NOT ONE: The EIGHT RIVAL RELIGIONS THAT RUN THE WORLD - AND WHY THEIR DIFFERENCES MATTER makes essentially the same argument but in the world of religious belief. He wants us to not yield to the temptation to find underlying unity to all of the worlds' faiths. Rather, one faith's incompatibility with and exclusiveness from the others is more to the point. He rightfully reasons that we would have less conflict in the world if we did not project onto others our visions and translate others' beliefs into another version of our own.

One book recommendation is perhaps one too many in these busy days of ours, especially if you have read this far, but I do recommend this new book by religious scholar Stephen Prothero. It applies to much more than religion.

See also:

Thanks for your patience.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

My Childhood in the 1970s Part Seven: Psychology

Some of my memories are quite jumbled. Indeed, some of them may not fall strictly under the province that we call the 1970s. But if we keep to historian Bruce Schulman's "long 70s", which extends until roughly 1984, we are well within appropriate boundaries. However, the concepts of both appropriateness and boundaries are thoroughly fashionable and contemporary and as such have no place in my thinking today. It is in that spirit that these blogs are written.

I went to a child psychologist for a few months. I do not remember exactly why I went, whether it was an incident on my part, a complaint from the parents of my classmates, or a note from a teacher or principal.

Reflection upon what might have motivated this rash decision makes me think of that Christian Junior High in which I did time for a year. The inciting event may very well have been my decision to beat up that boy who physically molested a girl. What disturbed people was my ruthless relish in beating the poor kid up. I really enjoyed taking out that boy: I felt as if I were stamping out evil personified. I had thought I was defending the girl's honor, (the boy, after all, had taken his hand and groped her crotch in a most untoward fashion), but in the end my "handling" of his misbehavior only made me lonely and alienated from the whole school. Other kids were sort of afraid of me, as if what I did to that boy was far worse than anything that girl might have felt in response to his predations. (It hadn't been the first time he bothered her).

The other controversy I started was when I protested the school's decision to segregate the sexes and have the boys play basketball and the girls rake leaves. Freshly inspired by my early love Carla's example, I openly proclaimed myself a "feminist" decried what I called the chauvinism of the school. Neither girls (who were just as happy to not have to play basketball) nor boys supported my "political activism".

The other memorable moment from that wretched school involved the teacher for Bible study. We had to have a whole class in which we read the entire Bible from what seemed to me to be a rather perverse perspective (talk about spoiling a good book!) The teacher in question was Mrs. Perkins and after class she requested to see me. I was at first a little nervous so you can imagine my astonishment when she revealed her real purpose in seeing me after class. It was so that she could tell me about this great television show and how important it was that I see it so that I could see "Christ at work in the most unlikely of places". Above all, she spoke to me of her "love" for southern "character" actor Joe Don Baker.

Mrs. Perkins told me in a breathless exclamation "I love that man!" "He's one of our best living actors!"

Joe Don Baker, our best living actor? Mrs. Perkins was a fan of this rather dumb and short lived cop show he was in. She could barely contain her excitement, an excitement she never seemed to bring to our study of the scriptures. Her favorite part of this series was when the Baker character, a chief of detectives in New York City (!) would say to his "boys" when they cracked the case at the end of the show: "You done good. You done REAL good boys." With her flapping jowls, her pinched mouth and this suffocating polyester "jolly green giant" plaid pantsuit, Mrs. Perkins would use this phrase in class with increasing frequency, especially when someone recited a Bible passage with a certain feeling. She certainly never told me that "I done good."

Somehow though, with all of the trouble I was immersed in, (though as you can see the adults and teachers sometimes liked me), I landed in a psychologist's office. But this wasn't just any psychologist: he was a PSYCHIATRIST, which was supposedly a more "advanced" profession, one more scientific and trustworthy. Above all, what excited me about this psychiatrist was that, according to my father, he was Burt Reynold's psychiatrist (while we are on the subject of Southern actors).

The prospect of seeing Burt Reynold's shrink excited me because, when I wasn't enjoying the French cinema of Diane Kurys ( her PEPPERMINT SODA, which was a delightful coming of age film about girls that taught me much more vividly about menstruation than even Carla's pamphlets and talks) and Francois Truffaut (The "Doinel" films with Leaud) or the Italian cinema of late Fellini (especially ROMA and THE CLOWNS), I was enjoying those commercial yet odd American "Southern" comedies with Burt Reynolds like GATOR, WHITE LIGHTNING, and HOOPER. My interest in Burt Reynolds was part of my enjoyment of such "low" cinematic fare, especially comedies, more generally.

Sometimes the theater was as much of an attraction as the movie. I saw many of the Burt Reynolds movies in a dollar movie theater, a theater whose atmosphere was as close to an adult theater as a theater could get while still showing mostly GP (as it was labelled then) fare. On one occasion I witnessed a physical riot in the theater when TIDAL WAVE was shown with Lorne Greene. The film was so ineptly made, an incoherent pastiche of Japanese monster movie stock footage, nature documentary footage of storms, with intercutting of Lorne Greene looking angry and official. Eventually the "redneck" audience began throwing beer cans at the screen and demanding their money back, and yelling at the top of their lungs "R.O. Rip Off!" Worse yet, my father had joined in with the chanting as well. However, eventually my father had the good sense to pick me up and take me out of there unscathed.

But I always did enjoy the Burt Reynolds movies even though my parents disapproved of his movies. I liked the way he handled himself in situations and his general sense of humor about life. I think they disapproved of his movies mainly because they were so macho and Southern or "unintelligent", to use my mother's word. I did not feel then and I do not feel now that there is a realm of human life unsuitable to artistic form. The only question remaining was one of interest or quality which comes down in the end to STYLE. You might say that Reynolds himself had a certain style. I was always in the unenviable position of liking movies that were either too highbrow or too lowbrow. Movies that seemed to my parents a bit too extreme for comfort in some way. I might like movies with car chases and stupid jokes and movies in which people spoke in quite intricate and subtle conversations for half an hour at a time. The question ultimately is: is there something identifiable of life in it? An even better question is: do you learn something from it. Sometimes, as in the case of Burt Reynolds, pleasure in itself can be a form of knowledge.

Thus I was hopeful I might get to see Burt Reynolds in person. Would he be in the waiting room around the time I was?

It was not to be. I never got to meet Burt Reynolds. My father gave me explicit instructions not to mention Burt Reynolds because of something called "patient confidentiality". You can imagine how hard it was not to bring up Burt's name during the few sessions we had, not to ask Dr. Anderson details of Reynold's life and loves.

There was no Burt Reynolds but there was Bob Anderson my psychiatrist. The first thing I noticed about Anderson is that, like many larger than usual men, Anderson had the unfortunate habit of wearing his trousers too tight and too low, so that his gut only appeared larger than necessary and hung above his belt like a second belt. Being perceptually driven, it was hard to ignore that for some time.

When we started our sessions I also noticed that he had a free wheeling and associative style. The subject of sex and love came up and he told me that he was sure that "Jesus had sexual fantasies and masturbated".

This statement seemed unrelated to anything in the session that had previously come up. I was quite skeptical. How did Dr. Anderson know, since he wasn't there? It just couldn't be, I reasoned, that men's desires were the same in all times and places. Surely there were men who had no sexual interest whatsoever. My own parents seemed like that: they certainly appeared to have no sexual desire at all within themselves. Maybe Jesus was like my own parents. And if Jesus did have sexual fantasies what did that mean? Would Jesus have liked Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Farrah Fawcett Majors, and Jacklyn Smith the way that I did? (I had not yet discovered Jackie Bissett).

This was a far cry from the asexual image of Jesus that had been painted for me at the Christian Junior High. I cringed at the thought of how serious Christians may have felt in response to such an assertion, were they unlucky enough to find themselves among Anderson's patients and on his couch. I didn't really care for the sterile debates over whether Jesus was God or man or both. But I knew millions did care and that the world was not the easygoing liberal place Anderson and I wanted it to be.

I remember asking him why he bothered to marry his wife since at that time marriage seemed such an enigma to me. His answer was as puzzling as his biographical assertions about Jesus. "Well I fell in love with a few different women and decided to pick one and marry her". Of course we never got into what motivated his choice since, of course, the sessions were all about me. How many? Did he fall in love with them all at the same time, as I seemed to do with Lydia and Sally, or one after the other? And what did this falling in love mean anyhow?

I liked Dr. Anderson. I appreciated his free unorthodoxy and frankness, but I saw him more as a friend than someone who could really help me. The main reason we ended is that he didn't feel I needed his services. He arranged a session with my parents present and told them that "there was nothing wrong with me. I was an okay and bright boy."