Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Scholars in Love: What the Nation Needs from A. S. Byatt's Possession

In Possession, mismatched pairs meet in opposition to each other and end up in love.  We're in the world of romantic comedy, fresh and fun as it was for Shakespeare's ardent lovers in Arden forest.

Yet Byatt's real subject is the world of scholarship, where passion for documented and precise truth is a driving force as potent as erotic attraction.  I write from experience.

Byatt's novel is a layered delight. At base is the love affair between two fictional Victorian poets. One, R. Henry Ashe, highly celebrated in his lifetime, was married to Ellen; the other, Christabel LaMotte, modestly successful, lived in seclusion with artist Blanche Glover.

The next layer is made up of what they made up. Ashe wrote verse monologues and epics, a la Browning. LaMotte published dark tales of mermaids and witches, verse replete with Dickinsonian dashes, and her foray into the masculine realm of epic poetry. They and those close to them also wrote letters, numerous, allusive, and lengthy.  Of course, these are all A. S. Byatt's labors of love, appropriate to the 19th century, fitting to the personalities, and inter-textually woven with threads of her story.

At surface is the outwardly civil community of literary scholars, ca. 1986. Roland Michell, a graduate specialist in Ashe studies, comes across a letter drafted in Ashe's handwriting that seems to make  overtures to a woman who was a fellow house guest at a country home. Naturally, appropriately, professionally, Roland investigates.

But he conceals his find from his boss, Professor Blackadder, and he is soon deep in ever-closer contact with the up-and-coming world expert on LaMotte.  Now we see what's under the surface of "scholarship," the ambition, resentments, back-stabbing, and bribery.  By the novel's end, rival scholars representing different nations, generations, and sexual orientations have converged for a finale as packed with action as a bunch of pasty-skinned paunchy professors can muster.

Scholarly pursuits are so intense for the characters that romance is a relief.  Planning a getaway with Roland, the LaMotte expert Maud confesses she wants just to get away: "I just want to look at something, with interest, and without layers of meaning" (291).

I know what that's like.  My advisor at Duke set me up with Professor Irving Holley, promising, "He'll make a scholar of you."  Did he!  (Read my memories of him, "The Essence of Education".)  So deeply was I immersed in uncovering the origins of the drama program at Duke that I recall the thrill of finding a box of playbills from the 1940s more vividly than most classes or relationships in four years there.  Even more than my essay, I remember the excitement of writing "content" footnotes to explain arcane details from Duke's drama club performances in the early and middle decades of the 20th century.

A year later, I worked obsessively on a Senior thesis about Henry James.  For months, I read every novel, many novellas, many stories, and the Master's prefaces to late editions.  Studying at Oxford for the summer, I felt a rush of affection when I recognized him from across a vast hall at the National Portrait Gallery.  When my friend Bess gave me a book about Ibsen's influence on Henry James, I devoured the book, and digested its contents in my final draft.

Yet I felt a bit sheepish.  I'd spent two years tracing James's use of the  word "no" in his novel The Ambassador.  Offered a chance for a PhD, I demurred.  Enough of scholarship, I thought: let's try real life.

The other way to look at my work, though, is to see how very much there is to know about even a very small topic.  Professor Holley used to say that we were digging deeply into territory the size of a postage stamp.

Now I wonder if the nation is suffering for lack of understanding what scholarship entails.  Sure, it's easy to make fun of the nit-picking and esoterica that comprise scholarship, but the whole machinery of the academic world is designed to build our store of truth.  Scholars document sources, check provenance, avoid jumping to conclusions.  How arrogant people are who presume to know enough about big things, such as immigration policy, climate change, or Islam, while they dismiss the work of the scholars possessed with a passion for precise, hard-won truth.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Cycling on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur caps ten days of atonement with a prayer ("Ne'ilah") for God's "closing of the gates" to the central part of His temple.  One online commentary counters that traditional view with a more comforting thought: He shuts his people in, as keeper, protector.

Maybe it's the Yom Kippur prayer that my Education for Ministry class (EfM) recited Tuesday night, or just the change of season, but I had gate-closing thoughts all Wednesday.

With the holy day off from school, I spent the early afternoon on my bike, enjoying blue sky and temps in the mid-70s. But, though I finished at 3:00, it was already too chilly to enjoy the ride.  In November, I'll ride in Mississippi with my original biking buddy Jason, but this must be one of my last rides of the year.  I took a couple photos to mark the event.

Earlier, in no rush to shower and dress, I sang along with a recording of Streisand from 1971 that I hadn't played in 20 years.  I was struck by how some songs and arrangements had not aged well.  Then I was struck by another thought:  I'm 57 now; Dad and his dad died at 77; If I wait another 20 years, I may already have heard that CD for the last time. Gate closed.

Should I feel a pang of regret? Naw. I'm a gate-closed-in kind of guy.  Besides the cheesy stuff,  some of the pieces are still strong.  The album, when I first heard it in middle school, taught me to appreciate sparse accompaniment, ostinato, and the difference intentional phrasing can make.  I loved it, I learned from it, and I don't need to hear it again.

Here's how I see it: the contents of my life are piled high, safe behind God's gate. Now I'm outside,  moving forward.  Those contents are an immense store of experiences and people I've loved but see no more.  How can I regret that?  It's no coincidence that "contents" and "contentment" grow from the same stem.

I go forward, as on my bike, stripped down to my tee shirt and Spandex, content to have so much behind me, watching the meter to see how much I may have ahead.  If I've covered that much more distance, I'm that much closer to the end of my ride. That's good.

PS - Moments after I finished drafting this, I was seated in a circle with 7th graders who encountered "The Road Not Taken" for the first time.  Resonances abounded, including their appreciation of the lines, "Knowing how way leads on to way... [I may never] come back."

The boy who said, after first reading, "I don't get any of this," had the last word in class: "I never took a poem seriously before.  I really liked this."

Monday, October 03, 2016

Dinner with Mom

(Photo at Shillings by M. S. Rouse, earlier this year)
Mom doesn't like to be surprised by things that she's supposed to remember, so she posts notes to herself, "Dinner with Scott every Sunday at 5:30."  Today, I called at four just to be sure.  She was annoyed: "I'll go, but this is the last time."  I assured that she didn't have to go; she said, "Fine. I'd rather not.  Good-bye."

What did I hear in the voice?  Resentment that, so far as she recalls, her son's care for her is just dinner on Sundays?  Resentment of the assumption that she's grateful for such a little thing?  I don't know; it was not nice to hear.

But at 6:00, she phoned to find out why I hadn't picked her up.  She'd had so much fun with people on the front porch that she hadn't called earlier to find out why I was late.  I told her that she'd canceled, and "it kinda hurt my feelings."

She was apologetic, had no idea why she would say such things, and we had a great time as the sun set on Marietta Square.  Our waiter knew our orders at Shillings, we loved our wine and martini, enjoyed our dinner, remarked on people passing by, and had a good talk about former students who express gratitude years later.

When we got back to her apartment, her boyfriend Bill was there waiting, and I left her laughing.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Middle School Drama Teacher: Memo to Self

Going into our performance of A Wrinkle in Time, adapted by Morgan Gould from Madeleine L'Engle's classic novel, I was feeling pretty much like a failure.  With missed cues and hesitant lines, our dress rehearsal ran an hour and twenty minutes, more than twice the show's expected running time.  I looked back over weeks of rehearsal for ways I could have exerted tighter control, pushed kids harder, drilled more.

Then, after a dinner break, kids performed the show under 40 minutes; the large ensemble stayed in character, eerily disengaged or openly passionate as needed; the principal characters looked into each others' eyes, touched each other with tenderness or urgency, spoke lines with total conviction and clarity; a simple shift of lights cued the audience when we were moving from one locale to another.  Not a failure after all, I was a genius.

Let's remember a few things.

Those stupid improvisation games make a difference.  
Before I'd assigned parts, we sat in a circle to read portions of the script and spent precious rehearsal time on those time-killing drama games that kids love.  We played "group shape" ("form a giant shoe in ten seconds, using everyone's body as a part"); we warmed up as "blank pages" who stared straight ahead while someone tried to make actors laugh; we played the mirror game; in a circle, successive actors exaggerated a gesture that the first one presented.  In the end, these games were basic to the Ensemble's best moments - as creepy automaton cheerleaders on planet Camazotz, as a giant swan for flight over the planet Uriel, as an entourage of mimics when young "Charles Wallace" is possessed by "It."

When you stop rehearsal to get at the feeling of a moment, don't worry about lost time.  
I beat myself up for all the afternoons we didn't get through our schedule because we worked on a certain confrontation or a quiet response.  In the end, it was the actors' conviction during those moments that made the audience willing to overlook a delayed exit or the tangling of the long white cloth.

Cue-to-Cue does help.  
In my panic, I created a "cheat sheet" for the Ensemble and me, and spent thirty minutes the afternoon of the show simply calling one cue after another, by nick name:  "Giant Swan!  Soccer game from Hell!  Make a Wall!  March!  Take a Wall!  Prison! Bowling Pins!"   With no principals to flub a cue, movements became fluid, and the principals, watching, suddenly saw their place in the scheme of things.

Even more time with the principals alone could have been a help.  
The father, mother, children, and "witches" met with me 90 minutes in the second week, just to improvise as family, to discuss backstories, to get familiar with each other in character.  In the last week, I called off a run-through of the show to let the principals work just the final two scenes.  It was risky not to rehearse with lights and cues, but we all felt surer of where we were headed after that. We could have benefitted from reserving half an hour every week for that kind of work.

It doesn't take much to make a splash. 
We had a black stage, black curtains, and black clothes.   Still, we had spectacle: stormy lights on a girl's attic bedroom stage right; the dancing of a long swath of white tulle in figure eights around the principals to transport them; and the "galaxy" light.  People talked later about the sudden emergence of "The Red Eyed Man," a satanic figure twenty feet wide and ten feet tall.  He was a puppet, voiced by three boys in unison, his face a blank red mask suspended from a fishing pole,  swooping down into the faces of his interlocutors, his gesturing arms ten-foot poles topped with work gloves, his shimmering black robe nothing but plastic from Party City.     Everyone was creeped out! Our final effect was achieved with a wide wall of black cloth that encircled "Meg" while the Ensemble chanted "Hate! Hate!" isolating little "Charles Wallace" stage left to say, in silence, "No one.  No one loves me."  It was our finale: Meg broke through the black enclosure to embrace her little brother, and the ensemble, backing up against the black back wall, simply raised the black cloth over themselves to disappear instantly! (We'll forget the time that the cloth got twisted, exposing one frustrated sixth grader who did his best to look invisible.)

All's Well that Ends Well.