Monday, March 20, 2017

Feeding on the syllabus

We've reached the point in the semester when every class period provides an opportunity to share with students a sentence, stanza, or entire story that inspires me to employ the word "favorite" (although if they're all favorites then the word loses its meaning), to open their eyes to literary works that simultaneously provoke argument and awe.  

Today, for instance, my Concepts of Nature students discussed Louise Erdrich's story "Line of Credit," in which contractor Jack Mauser crows about his creative abilities--"I do things from plans. I make them real. I could build myself if I could get a guy that could design me"--only to have his hubris challenged by farmer Moen, who looks at the field of sunflowers that Mauser wants to transform into a housing development and says, "The more you fill it up the emptier it gets."

We had to chew on that concept a while: how can filling the land with houses make it emptier? Emptier of what? Why does it matter?

On Wednesday in American Lit Survey we'll look at Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" and interrogate that word "good," asking how accurately characters judge "goodness" and what happens when they're left without a leg to stand on, and then we'll look at Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith," in which Sergeant Nathan Marx returns from  Germany in the waning months of World War II with a heart hardened by the horrors of war but finds a softening beginning when an incident sparks a memory:
I felt within as though a hand had opened and was reaching down inside. It had to reach so very far to touch me. It had to reach past those days in the forests of Belgium and the dying I'd refused to weep over; past the nights in those German farmhouses whose books we'd burned to warm us, and which I couldn't bother to mourn; past those endless stretches when I'd shut off all softness I might feel for my fellows, and managed even to deny myself the posture of a conqueror--the swagger that I, as Jew, might well have worn as my boots whacked against the rubble of Munster, Braunschweig, and finally Berlin. 
I'm not a huge fan of Philip Roth but that last sentence feels delicious on the tongue (that half-rhyme of "warm" and "mourn"!) while packing in immense understanding of the human condition.

But will my students feel and understand what great stuff they're reading? I wonder how they'll take tomorrow's reading in Creative Nonfiction: "Whaling Out West" by Charles d'Ambrosio, who wastes no tenderness on the gray whales finds about as attractive as bridge abutments:
Gray whales don't look especially dirigible. You'd hate to have to park one. They have a lumpy crudeness of design, a banged-up body and a crimped ugly mouth and a dented snout, a color that seems to come from a supply of government surplus paint, and all around they have an unrefined and ancient and also untrustworthy aspect; they look like a mock-up of the kind of practice animals God was making in the early days, before he hit his artistic stride and started turning out wolves and apes and chipmunks; and they've got that useless megaton bigness, a gigantism that's pretty dramatic in a circus-freak way or like other types of colossi or prodigies, the sheer extravagant enormity of which inspire sublime fascination or wonder or fear, but don't register much at the refined and fragile end of the emotional spectrum that includes the various colors of love or tender or chummy feelings of any sort.
It's kind of amazing how he manages to convey a real affection for the animals while describing them as repellent. I love his massive baroque sentences that wander on and on effortlessly, making the short, simple sentences stand out so much more sharply, like "You'd hate to have to park one." Yes you would. Yes indeed.
I look ahead and see on my syllabi Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver, Billy Collins, Li-Young Lee, Jeff Vandermeer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Bishop, and more and more, and I want to thank my past self for arranging such a marvelous menu for my future self. So thanks, Past Me! I don't know whether my students will be quite so grateful, but at least I'll enjoy the feast of words.

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