Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Mere Mortality

If pressed, I think many graduate students will admit that there are always important books on the exam list that we never wind up reading. Indeed, if pressed, we will admit that we know that we never will read the damned book, especially after passing our comps. You listen in seminar, you learn a few canned remarks to bring up when the book is mentioned and you dodge it. Maybe the first time you wanted to read it, but you just didn’t get there that week. I know we’ve all been there. The next time you encounter the book, it winds up assigned in a similar bad week. But you’ve bluffed your way through once before and it’s easier to fake it the next time. After all, you remember what everyone said last time and seminar often winds up being the same tired conversation with the same tired subplots and variations. Yadda, yadda. You know the drill.

And each time you get by without reading it it gets easier to blow it off the next time. Following the impeccable logic of Italo Calvino, you hear the book summarized so often that it becomes as if you did read simply because everyone else has. But you didn’t read it and you know what seminar analysis is really worth. You know if there is something there, that unless you read it and rip it apart yourself, that you aren’t really going to get it. So sometimes you finally read it out of guilt. And sometimes you decide the book was probably an overrated piece of shit anyway, so you yawn, stretch, say “Oh well” in that most self-satisfied and smug of tones and move on. Hobbes defines contempt as being utterly unable to be made to prefer an object, no matter what other object you could choose in its place. It can be an easy emotion to take toward a book.

Every now and then a student in one of your classes makes it by that way. It’s a little more irksome given how much less reading there is. This is especially true in many of my intro classes because, being focused on critical reading, I really care about them ripping one text apart, as opposed to absorbing facts from many texts. As a teacher, you try to individualize the system as much as possible to make sure that each student, especially they highly gifted ones, are challenged at the frontier of their skill set. But, you have to create a system that is fair to the whole class and that means one of the smart ones is eventually going to slip through. But I do my damndest and am proud of my success.

One of the shortcomings of my personality is that I’m a harder working teacher than I am a student. Admittedly, the former is a more satisfying, creative job. Plus the incentive structure is such that you can’t be a good teacher unless you prepare thoroughly. You can’t bluff being the teacher. It shows. Being a student is similar, but the logic of defection is easier. There are twenty other students. The teacher knows if you haven’t prepared. But when the rest of the students haven’t prepared either, there’s lots of room to hide from individual accountability.

Well, life is basically God’s course. And he’s a really, really efficient teacher. The Good Lord has a ruthless sense of economy and the course is perfectly individualized and the instructor is quite patient. If you skip a book that you’re supposed to read and bluff your way through seminar, He’ll eventually find a way to get you to read it. He can wait. I don’t know what the Good Lord calls the book that I’ve been avoiding, but I call it Mere Mortality. Perhaps when I’ve learned the lesson I’ll call it something less melodramatic. But I’ve been interested in the Heroic Ideals part of the syllabus. I’m good at that shit. Fuck Mere Mortality. Who the hell wants to read that?

When I was young, I was really good at bluffing my way through that week on the syllabus. Yes, I acknowledged that I was finite in my mind. Of course I had limitations. I’m a klutzy geek; it is clear, for example, that I will not be an athlete. When I joined the queer rugby team, it became rather apparent that if I wanted any prayer of keeping up with the other guys on the pitch (I kept up at the pub quite nicely, thank you) I would need to quit graduate school and go to every single supplemental run in the hopes of building up some athletic ability. It took me about a month to make the decision, because I love those guys and graduate school really sucks. Being unable to organize my way out of a wet paper bag, I wasn’t even able to be a good fan. That hurt way more than not being an athlete. Accepting physical limitation has always been easy for me.

But I believed, in my heart, that there were spheres in which I could achieve what I imagined. So long as I felt that I could control those spheres, that I was not subject to limitation in them, then I was content. Yes, I knew in my mind that there were limits in those spheres. But I didn’t have to look at those limits in any real emotional sense because I could do so much more than anyone else I knew. It wasn’t that I needed to be better than others as a thing in itself. That’s tacky, egocentric and unloving. I wasn’t that crude. But I needed to know that I was better because it meant that I was damned good and I couldn’t live without knowing that I was damned good. I can’t bear to plod. But plodding is relative. To know whether or not you’re plodding, you need reference points. Yeah, I acknowledge that you can’t both want to be better than everyone else and not want to be better, but feelings don’t resolve themselves into neat rational categories. People only bring their feelings in contact with reason when life forces them to. For that reason, God has given me the gift of multiple sclerosis, which brings my feelings into direct analysis. No really, mere mortality. You’re going to read this one.

He knows that I’m good at bluffing my way through seminar and mouthing the correct words. When I took my methods course with Mark Smith, Mark used to give us these question lists to prepare for seminar. He even made us read over Christmas. He freaked me out as a first year student, because I thought he was raising the bar, that if I didn’t know the answer to every question, I hadn’t prepared for class and I’d get raked over the coals. So I knew most of the answers going in. When people didn’t answer, I did, Mark called me into his office and suggested to me, in that soft-spoken voice of his, that moments of silence sometimes help the other students think things through and get to their answer. He looked like he hated saying it to me more than I hated hearing it. I suck at staying quiet. So the next seminar I took with Mark, I made sure I didn’t talk too much by handicapping myself. I didn’t buy the textbooks and I didn’t read for class. I spent the first two-thirds of the seminar listening to the other students’ comments and debate, piecing together what the text must have argued. At the end of the class session, I’d just make some nifty incisive comment, I’d look at Mark, Mark would look at me and we’d have a moment. It was beautiful.

It was beautiful, that is, until about Week 7 or so. The other students were having trouble and kept dancing around central points in the text. Naturally, I inferred the obvious missing point, except apparently the obvious missing point was apparently quite blatantly represented in the text. Mark caught on to what I was doing instantly. To make matters worse, the next week we read Wilson’s completely non-theoretical description of the federal bureaucracy. One can’t infer the argument from a non-theoretical piece. I did my usual routine of providing interpretive insight. But Mark was ready for my particular brand of bullshit and kept asking me for concrete examples from the book. Indeed, Mark looked at me and I looked at Mark and we had a moment. The next week, I bought the damned book and read it. Mark put up with me talking a bit more.

Mere mortality, apparently, is a big deal on the Good Lord’s syllabus. I didn’t read it, so now I get to live it. So I plod. I fuck up. I come to an understanding of my weakness. It still pisses me off. I’m still working it out.