Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part III

June 9, 2012

Example of cattle car used to transport prisoners circa World War II (Source: Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team)

At the start of the next class, I divided the students into four groups, according to which of the four subjects they had chosen to explore in their journals.  I then asked each group to share their entries with their peers and prepare an informal group report, highlighting evidence that relates to their focus. After twenty minutes of sharing journals and preparing reports, I called on the first group and prepared to serve as their scribe at the board, listing key phrases, examples, and page citations.  Not surprisingly, the first group had to be particularly selective, as nearly every page in the novel provides some evidence relative to their subject, “the horrors and absurdities of war.”  They began their list with the death of Roland Weary in the cattle-car, a victim of gangrene from his feet getting shredded by the clogs that Billy had once worn; they noted, too, that Billy took the blame, and that Lazzaro promised to revenge Weary’s death one day (pp. 101, 106).  They also listed

    • The first prison camp: the freezing prisoners running through the scalding process of de-lousing (p. 107), the American getting his teeth knocked out for a comment a German soldier didn’t like (p. 116); in the Dresden slaughterhouse, where Billy’s body shakes with “ravenous gratitude and applause” (p. 204) as he and his fellow prisoners sneak malt syrup to nourish their starving bodies, nourishment that proves far too little to eliminate all their sores (p. 208)

Aftermath of the fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945 (Source: www.neatorama.com)

  • Dresden: the shooting of Edgar Derby, tea-pot thief (p. 274); the “fire-storm” that incinerated “everything organic, everything that would burn” (p. 227); Billy and other prisoners, who survived the bombing in the meat-locker, serving with shovels and wheelbarrows in the Dresden “corpse mines” (p. 273); the Official History of the Army Air Force that said “almost nothing” about the raid on Dresden, keeping it a “secret from the American people” (p. 244)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, White House, June 22, 1963 (Source: rolexblog)

The second group provided an equally disturbing list of the cultural decadence spawned directly or indirectly by the recurrence of ‘children’s crusades’ and the devaluation of life.  They spoke of Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer, who recruits children to sell subscriptions to the Illium Gazette and motivates them by telling them to “get off their dead butts and get their daily customers to subscribe to the fucking Sunday edition, too” (p. 212); they mentioned the bookstore that carries Trout’s novels as well as photographs of naked children performing sex (p. 256); and they cited a talk show focused on the “function of the novel in modern society,” one guest suggesting that books provide color in rooms with white walls, another praising novels that “describe blow-jobs artistically,” another favoring novels that give advice on how to behave in French restaurants (p. 264).  They also listed the racist American Nazi, Howard Campbell; Eliot Rosewater, the former infantry captain, who told Billy in the veterans’ hospital that psychiatrists will have to “come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living” (p. 129); and finally Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, both shot within one month in 1968 (p. 268).

Tralfamadorian (Source: complexoperations.org)

Turning to the third group, I asked if they had found more evidence of insanity or sanity in Billy’s responses to this corrupt, brutal culture.  Dafina, a member of group three, said that they had found several references to Billy’s mental or emotional instability.  Her list included Billy’s terror at the rim of the Grand Canyon, not long after his father had thrown him in the pool to ‘sink or swim’ (p. 127); his certainty that “he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage” to the enormous Valencia Merble, a “girl nobody in his right mind would have married” (pp. 137, 151); his daughter Barbara chastising him in 1968 for acting like a “child,” failing to turn on the heater in his freezing house (p. 167); a mother at Billy’s optometry office telling Barbara that her father had gone “crazy,” telling her son about Tralfamadore as he tended to his eyes (p. 172).  Dafina then launched into a second list, one that, in her words, “makes Billy seem the only sane person in the book”: Billy’s excitement on Tralfamadore when he learns that their planet lives “in peace,” a lesson he wants them to teach to Earthlings (p. 148); Montana Wildhack, stunned by his modesty and gentleness, coming to “love and trust Billy Pilgrim” (p. 170); and, in the aftermath to the fire-bombing at Dresden, the sight of horses pulling a wagon loaded with objects looted from suburban houses, but doing so “insane with thirst” and tormented by their “bleeding” mouths and broken hooves, a sight that makes Billy “burst into tears” (pp. 251, 252).

Gezim, spokesperson for group four, volunteered at this point that his group had also selected Billy’s tearful response to the horses as their prime example of the kind of intelligence and compassion that Faulkner charged all novelists with weaving into their fictions that tell the truth about an otherwise chaotic and violent postmodern reality.  I then asked the group to what extent Vonnegut’s dark novel engenders hope that humanity will endure its often self-inflicted suffering and “prevail” over its penchant for self-serving, destructive behavior. Gezim reported that they struggled with this question.  On the one hand, he explained, his group admires Billy’s acceptance of death as simply a moment, not to be feared (p. 180), but they also find it depressing to watch Billy Pilgrim’s death, the consequence of Lazzaro’s bullet to his forehead (p. 182).  Similarly, he continued, they admire Billy’s courageous acceptance of the randomness of experience, which allows him to get on an airplane he knows will crash, but they also find it discouraging that the report of the crash leads to Valencia’s death (p. 234).  Noting the same pattern—a note of hopefulness followed by gratuitous suffering and death—he explained that they admire Derby’s patriotic speech in defiance of the Nazi Campbell (p. 209), but that his patriotism makes it all the harder to watch him stand before the firing squad in the ashes of Dresden (p. 274).

“So you’re saying,” I asked, “that Vonnegut provides credible examples of badly damaged but admirable human beings, Billy and Edgar most notably, but that Vonnegut holds out little hope that Children’s Crusades will end or that we will quit assassinating those who dare to effect positive change, people like Kennedy and King?”  Members of group four all shook their heads “yes.”  Thanking the group for their thoughtful analysis, I said that the last page would seem to support their sense that cruelty and injustice will prevail, ending as it does with the birds’ meaningless song, “Poo-tee-weet,” and with the image of horses pulling a “coffin-shaped” wagon out of Dresden.  “Yet did you notice the next-to-last image?” I prodded.  Edita read it for us: “The trees were leafing out” (p. 275).

Budding trees (Source)

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part I

June 2, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut

In 1998, Mr. Vonnegut returned to Dresden, Germany; he revisited the slaughterhouse that served as an air-raid shelter during World War II where he and his fellow prisoners of war survived the fire bombing of Dresden. (Source: New York Times; Photo credit: Matthias Rietschel/Associated Press)

As the students settled in for our next session, Ragip accepted my invitation to read aloud the first two pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. When he finished, we talked about the autobiographical nature of this preface to fiction, Vonnegut’s insistence that “all this happened, more or less,” that shortly after Dresden had been fire-bombed to ashes, a soldier much like the character Edgar Derby really did get shot by a firing squad “for taking a teapot” from among the ruins, that a soldier much like Paul Lazzaro really did pledge to murder one day those who slighted him or his friends during the war, that Vonnegut “really did go back” to Dresden in 1967 with his “old war buddy” Bernard V. O’Hare to visit the Dresden slaughterhouse where they had spent their nights as prisoners of war (p. 1). After I asked why Vonnegut would want to stress this factual basis for his fiction, our conversation, much to my delight, turned back to Ernest Gaines, whose fiction about injustice and transformation also rooted in Gaines’s experience growing up in Louisiana in the 1930s and ‘40s, and to William Faulkner, who challenged all fiction writers to tell the truth about human brutality and the conflicts of the human heart, but also to uplift readers with evidence of “compassion” and “sacrifice.” Having congratulated the students on their insights to the great paradox of literature, the fictions that reveal truths, I asked them to keep Faulkner’s speech in mind as we discussed Vonnegut’s novel. “Has Vonnegut written one of those visions of despair that Faulkner condemned, or does he manage to tell these terrifying truths and, at the same time, to inspire hope that we—as individuals and as a culture—might not only endure but ‘prevail.’”

First edition cover of Slaughterhouse-Five: Or the Children’s Crusade (Source: Wikipedia)

Leaving this question hanging in the air, I noted Vonnegut’s admission of the futility of writing an “anti-war book” (p. 4), which he follows immediately with a description of himself in the late-1960s, materially comfortable but given to drinking too much and making late-night phone calls to old veterans of World War II (p. 5). “Does this description clarify why he would write this book, if he considers its anti-war position pointless?” I asked. Albana said that he seems haunted by the past, which leads to self-destructive behaviors but also to the need to talk to those who remember. “Maybe the writing comes from this same need to talk about it,” she offered. “Yes,” I responded, “and notice that he feels compelled to tell us again, the second time in six pages, that the story will end with ‘the execution of Edgar Derby’ (p. 6). Can you name another work we have read where we find out about the ending, an execution, on the first page?” Many voices responded with Gaines’s Lesson and the promised execution of another good man, Jefferson. “How might this up-front emphasis on the brutal, senseless death of a good man relate to the Faulknerian challenge for uplifting fiction?” I asked. Besa responded, suggesting the symbolic power of both executions, images simultaneously revealing our capacities for mindless cruelty and for goodness.

Applauding Besa’s interpretation, I asked the class to consider another image that Vonnegut juxtaposes to the execution of Derby, that of the “rabid little American” Lazzaro heading home from the war with “emeralds and rubies” he snatched from dead people “in the cellars of Dresden” (pp. 7-8). “Did you notice that after both images, Derby’s death and Lazzaro’s violation of the dead, the narrator says, ‘So it goes’? What do you make of this refrain, which you’ll hear throughout the novel?” Fidan suggested that line acknowledges not just the inevitability of death but also our inability to explain the injustice of men like Derby dying and men like Lazzaro thriving. “It just happens,” he said.

Naturally, I commended this intelligent remark but also stressed Vonnegut’s postmodern need to tell the story, to help us see what happened, however futile his protest against war and against “plain old death” might seem (p. 4). Vonnegut admits, I continued, that his story has generated a “short and jumbled and jangled” book because “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (p. 24); still, he must write to set the record straight, to discredit versions of reality that ignore or hide that record. “Can you recall examples from chapter one of Vonnegut exposing others’ invitations to close our eyes to the truth?” I asked. Blerta mentioned Vonnegut’s anthropology professor, who teaches that “nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting,” a theory that would make no distinction between Derby and Lazzaro (p. 10). Her example sparked Gezim’s comments on Vonnegut’s boss, a man whose military service took him no further than Baltimore, who sneers at Vonnegut as an enlisted man and approves of war as a way for officers to advance. Gezim then quoted Vonnegut’s reflection on this smug non-combatant: “the ones who hated war the most were the ones who’d really fought” (p. 13).

“What about the episode at the O’Hare house? What terrible truth about war does Vonnegut insist that we see here?” I prodded. Hearing no answer, I asked, “Why do you think that Vonnegut mentions taking his daughter and her friend with him when he visits O’Hare to talk about the war?” Dafina said they he took the girls along just to see Cape Cod (p. 15). “Yes, I agreed, “but he has Dresden on his mind, and he knows that among the masses who died in the firestorm were thousands of little girls. How does one explain fire-bombing to children? Do you recall why Mary O’Hare, to whom Vonnegut dedicates his novel, initially resents Vonnegut’s visit? What does she assume his book will declare about war?” Albana promptly cited Mary’s anger, believing that Vonnegut would write a novel celebrating war, hiding the fact that “babies,” not men, do most of the dying (p. 18). “Yes,” I said, “and do you remember Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” the ‘baby’ who dies in the belly of the bomber? How does Vonnegut respond to Mary?” Albana answered again, quoting Vonnegut’s promise to tell the truth about the “Children’s Crusade” in World War II, much like the Children’s Crusade that Vonnegut and O’Hare read about from the thirteenth century, when thousands of children were forced to fight in Palestine and then sold into sexual slavery (p. 20). Thanking Albana, I asked the class if they could explain why Vonnegut ends this chapter with an allusion to the Biblical story about Lot’s wife. Finding the reference, we all quickly agreed that Vonnegut the writer, like Lot’s wife, must “look back,” and he insists that we look, too.

Ethos, Logos, and Pathos in King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Part II

April 28, 2012

Dr. King in the Jefferson Co., AL Courthouse jail, Oct. 1967. During an earlier arrest, he wrote his famous letter from here. (Source: www.history.com)

Pleased by the students’ catching on so quickly to the power of rhetorical schemes and tropes, I asked them to turn next to the handout including Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To contextualize this famous essay, I contrasted King’s situation with Faulkner’s, the latter speaking from the “pinnacle” of high literary achievement, the former, 13 years after Faulkner’s speech, sitting in Birmingham’s jail for having led a protest march against segregation laws and practices.  Pointing to additional rhetorical terminology on the board, I said that Faulkner’s situation, as we had seen, called for ceremonial discourse; in contrast, King’s situation called for “judicial discourse,” the kind of rhetoric that accuses the unjust and defends the just.  But King also had to blend “deliberative discourse” with his judicial discourse, I argued, for he sought to dissuade Americans from tolerating racial discrimination and to advise Americans to live up to the high ideals of the country’s founding, especially the belief that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”   In other words, I explained, though King wrote nonfiction, he had the same goal that Faulkner urged novelists and poets to set, to ‘uplift the heart’ of a nation, to inspire his fellow citizens to endure and to prevail over the brutalities sanctioned by a racist culture.

Elements of Persuasion: Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle (Source: paulcharltoncoaching.com)

To achieve these dual aims of discourse, the judicial and the deliberative, King knew, I continued, that he would have to blend carefully the elements of persuasion.  Clearly, his letter could begin with exposition.  He would have to explain to his eight fellow clergymen, who condemned him in the local newspaper for his “unwise” and “untimely” demonstrations, why he had to leave Atlanta for Birmingham.  Then reading from the handout from Questioning, I said that his exposition would also explain “why he had to break the law, why he could wait no longer for freedom.  But he knew that mere exposition would not be enough; he would need to persuade the clergymen, his immediate audience, and the American people, his extended audience, that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ that the ‘stinging darts’ of segregation have made it impossible to wait any longer for freedom” (136).

Then I read one more excerpt from Questioning that provided a preface to our analysis:

To achieve his persuasive goal, he would have to provide plenty of logos, plenty of facts about his nonviolent movement, plenty of examples of lunch counters closed to black men and amusement parks closed to black children, plenty of cases of lynchings and drowning, plenty of testimony from prominent theologians who define segregation as “sin.”  He would also have to temper his outrage over such cruelties with cool reason, stressing the illogic of writing laws that apply to some but not to all.  Such logos, he knew, would build his ethos, his credibility, showing his skeptical audience that he knows the facts of injustice (informed), that he cares about his people’s long sufferings (generous), that he has told the truth about the brutal police.  As a preacher, he knew, too, that he could further build his ethos with pathos, the appeal created by emotionally charged words and vivid imagery imbedded in rhythmic sentences, calling us all, black and white, to rise from “the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” (137)

With King’s rhetorical purpose before us, I asked the students to look at King’s introduction, the first four paragraphs, to determine how he attempts to build his ethos in the presence of an immediate audience, the clergymen, who consider his persona to be entirely negative—an outsider, a trouble-maker, an instigator of “unwise” and “untimely” civic disturbances.  “How does King show his generosity toward these men who have publicly condemned him?” I prompted.  “Does he offer counter accusations?”  Arben responded, saying that King responds to their polite hostility be crediting them with being “men of genuine good will” who therefore deserve to be answered in “patient and reasonable terms.”

Thanking Arben, I reminded the class that a positive ethos must seem informed and honest as well as generously disposed toward the audience.  “How does King send these messages in paragraph two through four?” I inquired.  Several students answered at once, mentioning King’s credentials as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and his “organizational ties” to his Birmingham affiliates, who “invited” King to come, an invitation that never would have been sent, I commented, if he had no knowledge of Birmingham’s troubles or lacked the courage to help solve the problems.

“Then how does inject pathos, emotional appeal, in the next two paragraphs to underscore his honest, generous intentions?” I asked.  Students quickly responded by noting the parallel sentences and the comparisons.  Laureta said that by linking his “gospel of freedom” with that of the “prophets” and the “Apostle Paul,” King makes a comparison that clergymen would have to respect.  Then I wrote on the board the sentence that follows his famous parallel sentence about injustice “anywhere” threatening justice “everywhere”: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  “Can you explain how King intensifies these already strong parallel rhythms?”  Xhemile answered my question, pointing to the metaphors imbedded in the parallel phrases, helping us to see the “network” we must preserve and the “garment” we must all wear to ensure a “destiny” of justice.

Congratulating the students on their astute readings, I then divided the class into three groups of five or six and assigned them further analytical tasks on the blending of ethos, logos, and pathos.  After ten minutes of work, I called for a report from group one, who had been charged with paragraphs 6-11 and their contributions to ethos-building.  This group then outlined King’s attempt to “negotiate with the city fathers” to get “racial signs removed,” then, once that process failed, the “self-purification” process that King and his followers underwent to prepare for “direct action,” a non-violent but dangerous way of challenging an unjust government that would likely respond with police dogs, batons, and jail.  “So how does this use of logos, this evidence of his non-violent process of effecting positive change, build King’s ethos?” I wondered.  Ragip responded by saying that this process shows King’s courage as well as his patience and reasonableness.  “Yes,” I said, “and notice how he ends this section by injecting pathos again.   How so?”  Ragip followed up by noting the reference to Socrates, who also created “nonviolent tension” to liberate his people from “the bondage of myths and half-truths,” just as King and his people strive to “help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”  Praising his habit of citation, I stressed once again that the emotional appeal comes from couching vivid metaphors within parallel sentence structures, juxtaposing the “dark depths” or racism with “majestic heights” of equality.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery images in a larger, “slideshow” format.**

The next group, charged with finding more allusions, presented their list: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, the Boston Tea Party, the Hungarian freedom fighters, Jesus.  “So do these historical and philosophical allusions represent ethos-building, logos, or pathos?” I asked.  Hearing all three answers, I pronounced them all correct, explaining that each example of courageous resistance to tyranny counts as logos, and that such daring resistance stirs our emotions.  “And how do the names of theologians build King’s ethos?” I pushed.  Blerta answered that clergymen would respect the names of saints and that King did not just mention their names but quoted their advocacy for disobeying unjust laws.  I praised her response and noted King’s wisdom in citing the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the Christian theologian Paul Tillich, both defining segregation as “morally wrong and sinful,” a reference, I said, that no doubt made King’s “dear fellow clergymen” squirm.

Finally, the third group reported on paragraphs 24-26, where King expresses his disappointment with the “white moderate,” the expediential cowards who support King’s cause with their words but never take action to help.  The students found numerous examples of King’s blending of logos and pathos in his critique of these “lukewarm” allies, thereby strengthening his ethos as passionate and informed.  First, they noted the parallel structures that repeat King’s frustration with the willful ignorance and inaction of the white moderates: “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand….Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”  Commending their reading, I explained that this repetition of an opening structure of a sentence goes by the Greek term anaphora, and that it adds emotional intensity with its persistent beat: “Now is the time….Now is the time.”  I then asked if they saw King’s method—a strategy we had seen before—of intensifying the beat, a prompt that quickly yielded King’s metaphors imbedded in the parallel sentences, the white moderates’ obstructions becoming a “dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress,” failures to “lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”  I then asked why King used the disgusting “boil” simile.   Hearing no answer, I asked, “What happens when a boil goes unlanced?”  Besa responded that the infection can kill a person, precisely the point of King’s simile: if we fail to open the boil of segregation to “the air of national opinion,” the infection will spread through the national body and ultimately kill.

 As the class prepared to leave, I asked them to re-read King’s letter, focusing this time on the part of logos we had not addressed yet, his use of inductive and deductive reasoning to strengthen his case and to move toward his meditational, peace-making goal.  I reminded students, too, that they would find definitions and illustrations of induction, deduction, and meditational discourse in the handout from Questioning, 153-58.

Faulkner, King, and the Call to “Endure” and “Prevail”: Part I

This three-part series features my students’ responses to Faulkner’s Stockholm Address (The Faulkner Reader) and to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (Questioning, 137-58). When asking the class to read both nonfiction works, I explained that they would find in both pieces continued emphasis on our theme of “Justice and Injustice,” as reflected in the quotation from King’s letter on the first page of their syllabus: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Further, noting that they would hear in King’s letter his passionate concern with our other theme, families and the pursuit of the “American Dream,” I encouraged students to listen in both pieces for a challenge to look beyond selfish interests in pursuing justice and the “Dream,” a challenge, in Faulkner’s words, to “prevail” as individuals and as a nation by learning to “sacrifice.”

After the students submitted their final versions of their papers on Gaines’s novel, I asked them whether or not they would agree that A Lesson before Dying represents precisely the kind of fiction that Faulkner called for when he urged writers to write novels that ‘lift our hearts,’ that help us to “endure and prevail” by showing us evidence of humanity’s capacity for “courage…compassion…and sacrifice.” The verdict came in swiftly and unanimously in Gaines’s favor, with students citing Jefferson’s courage as he walked to his death like a man, Grant’s compassion at the end, inspired by the triumph of his student, and Emma’s sacrifice.

Elements of Persuasion: Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle (Source: paulcharltoncoaching.com)

Stating my hearty agreement with their view of Lesson, I said that I wanted them to appreciate not only what Faulkner says about the “duty” of writers but also how he says it. Referring the class to the terminology on the board, I reminded them that we had already spoken briefly in the Research class about the elements of persuasion—ethos, the credible persona; logos, the evidence logically arranged in support of a claim; and pathos, the word choice and sentence structure that color logic with passion. In this class, I continued, when we had used Aristotle’s communication triangle to define critical approaches to literature, we had talked about the varying aims of fiction—to create a unified work of beauty, to express the writer’s feelings, to mirror the real world, to persuade the reader to engage with a myth and its implications for our lives. But we had said nothing to date, I admitted, about the aims of nonfiction when it rises to the heights of literature; Faulkner and King, I assured them, give us occasion to do so.

The Rhetoric of Faulkner’s Stockholm Address

April 21, 2012

To begin our analysis, I read Faulkner’s speech aloud and then wrote on the board the two claims Faulkner makes to prepare for his conclusion about the writer’s duty: we fear being “blown up,” and therefore young writers write visions of despair, not “truths of the heart.” “Did you notice,” I asked, “that Faulkner provides no logos, no evidence to support these claims? Why not?” Waiting patiently for an answer that never came, I finally pointed to another term on the board, ceremonial discourse, and explained that when audiences come to public ceremonies—memorial services, inaugural addresses, presentations of high awards—they come to hear a speaker who has already established his or her ethos or credibility. Faulkner himself, I noted, says he has reached a “pinnacle” by receiving the Nobel Prize, the highest “acclaim” in literature, so no one expects him to provide evidence to support his claims or to describe the horror resulting from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki five years before, the cause of the universal fear of getting blown up. “His ethos, in other words, can rise no higher. But the audience,” I said, “does expect eloquence, passionate language that pursues the aims of ceremonial discourse, praising the honorable and blaming the dishonorable. In this case, he praises the power of literature to uplift us and of young writers with the skills to do so, but he blames those same young writers who have allowed their despair to distract them from their duty to ‘lift our hearts.’”

Pointing then to the definition of “pathos” on the board, I asked the students if they could cite some examples of powerful “diction” and emphatic “parallel sentence structures” that created the emotional appeal of Faulkner’s speech. To provide a nudge, I asked why Faulkner uses such formal diction in the first paragraph, why he describes his life-time of writing in “the agony and sweat of the human spirit” instead of ‘on the pain of human life’; or why he says he will find a “dedication” for the money “commensurate with” its “origin” instead of saying a ‘use’ for the money that ‘suits’ its ‘beginning’; or why he speaks of young writers as dedicated to “the same anguish and travail” that he has experienced instead to saying ‘the same pain and hard work.’ Gezim responded that my revisions sound too informal for such a high occasion. “Right,” I said; “Faulkner speaks as a learned, passionate writer speaking to other learned people; he needs to use language that matches his tuxedo, metaphorical language that underscores the seriousness of his challenge to young writers to become “pillars” to help readers “endure and prevail.”

“What about sentence rhythms?” I asked. “Where to you see and hear Faulkner setting up a beat that underscores his passion?” Dafina then read the charge in paragraph two that young writers have “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” I congratulated Dafina on her keen eye and ear, noting the parallel “worth” phrases stressing the heart-conflicts that writers feel compelled to explore, as we had recently seen in the poems about parents, in Gaines’s novel about Grant’s inner struggles, and in Willy Loman’s inner anguish. I then referred students to two other rhetorical schemes in paragraph three: Faulkner’s use of polysyndeton, the unexpected repetition of “and” to define the range of “compassion and sacrifice” that must fill the writer’s “workshop”; and his use of “antithesis” to contrast writing of “love” with writing of “lust,” writing of “the heart” with writing of “the glands.” When I asked for examples of antithesis in the final paragraph, Edita referred to Faulkner’s definition of “man” as “immortal” not because of his “inexhaustible voice” but because of his “soul”; and Besa pointed to the last sentence, contrasting writers who provide the “record of man” with writers who provide the “props” and “pillars” that sustain readers.

Poets Remembering Parents, Part II

April 21, 2012

Li-Young Lee (Source: timesunion.com)

Turning our attention to Li-Young Lee’s poem “The Gift,” I began with the obvious but important fact that Lee’s poem establishes as we come to it from the work of Plath and Dove, namely, that men share with women this intense need to remember their fathers clearly, to ‘get back’ at them or to them, to understand them and love them, perhaps to forgive them, perhaps to get past them.  “Do you recall from the introduction what distinctions Lee’s father achieved?” I wondered.  Several voices responded with “physician to Chairman Mao” and “political prisoner in Sukarno’s Indonesian jail.”  “Right,” I said, “and our editors also credit Lee with using the same techniques that Dove used in resurrecting her remorseful but menacing father, relying on multi-sensory appeals to recreate his father and to remember him faithfully and accurately.”

Noting that the word “gift” never appears in the poem, except in the title, I asked, “What is it?”  Arlind responded with “his ‘stories,’” Dafina with “his ‘tenderness’ and ‘discipline.’”  Praising both answers, I asked how Lee uses sensory imagery to reveal that tenderness and firmness.  We then explored Lee’s use of synecdoche and metaphor, the “voice” that sounds like “a well of dark water,” the “hands” that embrace Lee’s young face but also raise “flames of discipline” over his head (ll. 1-13).  We then noticed the long-term effect of these remembered images, as Lee sees himself, years later, lifting a splinter from his wife’s hand with the same healing gentleness that his father had ‘planted’ in his hand decades before.  “And how does Lee express his gratitude for these gifts?” I asked.  Edita responded by citing “what a child does….I kissed my father” (ll. 33, 35).

“When you juxtapose Lee’s poem to Plath’s “Daddy,” or even to Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, what do you realize about the American family and about the need of grown children to look back and understand their parents?” I asked.  This prompt led to some interesting comments on the need of children to reconstruct family narratives of justice and love as well as stories of injustice and abuse.  “What do adult children receive, other than some joy and lots of pain, from remembering such stories?” I wondered.  “Is it just about assigning blame, condemning mom or dad for what we have become?  Or about kissing the parent who loved you well?”   Wisely, Merita responded, “It’s more about the adult child making a choice, saying ‘you had the wrong dream,’ or ‘I’m through,’ or ‘I choose to pass on your love to my family.’”

Applauding this perceptive insight, I asked the class where Louise Glück’s poem “Appearances” stands on spectrum of remembering family narratives and choosing what the next chapter will be.  After Laureta read the poem aloud, I reminded the class of the introductory comments on Glück’s “complex family relations,” her psychoanalysis to deal with the resulting pain (3000), and then asked where they saw pain and coping mechanisms in the poem.  We quickly caught the reference to being “analyzed” but also the humor, the reference to portraits of her and her sister hung “over the mantel,/ where we couldn’t fight” (ll. 2-3).  When I asked what she remembers about her mother, we reviewed key descriptors of the “strong,” ‘controlling’ woman who valued “order,” who grieved always over another daughter who died, who “ministered to” her living sister and, in so doing, “damaged the other” (ll. 28-36).  “So what does the adult child now realize about the consequences of her mother’s unequal love?” I asked.  Besa rose to the challenge: “She understands that because she always wanted to be “child enough” for her mother, she became “too obedient,” too ready to be shaped—“If you want me to be a nun, I’ll be a nun”—to earn her mother’s approval (ll. 26, 43-44).

Yusef Komunyakaa (Source: Indiana Review)

“Yes,” I responded, “and such realizations can liberate the adult, as we saw in Biff at the end of Salesman.  Isn’t it interesting that when adult children take a different route than the parents took, they usually do not try to ‘kill’ the parent, as did Plath; on the contrary, they try to preserve the parent, as did Biff.”  I then asked if they could recall where Yusef Komunyakaa got his name and how that naming might relate to the instinct to preserve the parent.  No one remembered, so we scanned the introduction for this sentence: Komunyakaa “adopted the lost surname of a Trinidadian grandfather who came to the United States as a child” (3075).

Noting, too, the statement that Komunyakaa devoted his poetry to restoring black faces—from rural Louisiana, from Bourbon Street, and from Vietnam—that have been ‘erased’ from cultural memory (3075), we sought to discover how he remembers his father in “My Father’s Love Letters.”  After Fidan read the poem aloud, we spoke of this illiterate alcoholic mill worker, who asked his son to write his love letters to his wife, “promising to never beat her/Again” (ll. 6-7).  “But what else does Komunyakaa refuse to erase?” I asked.  Arben answered, listing the tools of his trade, the “carpenter’s apron,” the “gleam of a five-pound wedge” that “pulled a sunset/Through the doorway of his toolshed” (ll. 12, 22, 24-25).  “Right,” I said, “and he also remembers that his father could look at a blueprint and instantly know ‘how many bricks/Formed each wall’” (ll. 30-31).   Asked for his conclusion, Arben added that the drunken brute also seems to be a true craftsman, an artist “almost redeemed by what he tried to say” in his letters (ll. 35-36).

Thanking all for their patient, insightful readings, I asked for volunteers to read from their journals about their parents.  Bajram responded with a full-page tribute to his mother, the “goddess” who never failed him as he grew from childhood to adolescence and manhood.  Though he had not attempted poetry, we all praised the poetic quality of his prose, poetic in the sense that it relied on imagery from her kitchen table, site for buttering home-made bread and learning letters, and from his bedside to stress her nurturing tenderness, and from the war—school doors closed, soldiers ruling the streets—to stress her dignity and courage in a time when ethnic cleansings made it difficult to sustain either quality. Thoroughly impressed by Bajram’s tribute, I thanked him for celebrating the ‘gifts’ his mother provided, much as Li-Young Lee had done in his poem about his father.

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 2

March 31, 2012

Justice, Injustice, and Places of Meaning

A Lesson Before Dying

As the students entered for the next session, I directed their attention to the board, where I had written “New Criticism,” “New Historicism,” and “Deconstruction,” as well as the names of important theorists associated with these critical approaches to literature.  In applying these critical theories to Gaines’ novel, I explained, we would abandon neither feminist nor Marxist approaches, as the novel provides plenty of examples of extremely strong women and of economic inequities that reflect the Marxist critique of capitalism.   But these additional critical tools, I assured the class, would enrich their understanding of Gaines’ Lesson by complementing feminist and Marxist perspectives and by providing a fuller sketch of critical thought in the twentieth century.  These varied perspectives, I said, would also help us to see the connections between our theme on “Marriage, Family, and the American Dream” and our theme on “Justice and Injustice.”

Aristotelian Communication Triangle

Pointing to the Aristotelian communication triangle I had written on the board, I encouraged students to think of New Criticism as focused on the literary work itself, the center of that triangle.  Often associated with its Southern practitioners, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, New Criticism, I explained, dominated American critical thought at mid-century for over three decades.  Rejecting critical approaches unduly focused on the writer’s intentions (one corner of Aristotle’s triangle), the reader’s responses (another corner), or literary history (another corner), the New Critics, I further explained, insisted on an “objective” reading of a work, a “close reading” that savors the ironies and ambiguities of a given poem or fiction but finds and defends the “organic” unity of its imagery and structure.  We would practice this New Critical approach, I said, as they shared their thoughts on the study questions I provided.

Continuing my sketch of critical currents, I explained that by the 1980, influenced by French theorist Michel Foucault and his concern with the “discourse of an era,” scholars such as Louis Althusser declared themselves New Historicists, critics who employed New Critical close-reading strategies but extended their analysis beyond the work itself to the cultural practices that shape a given work and define its “situatedness.”  To reinforce this dual focus of New Historicism, I pointed again to the triangle, to the work in the center and to the “situation” at the ‘real-world’ corner.  We would practice New Historicism, I said, when we discuss the character Grant, who, like the author, grew up in a Louisiana share-cropping culture in the 1930s; who, like the author, attended elementary school in a one-room plantation church; who earned a university degree in California, just as the author did; who returned to Louisiana, just as the author did, because of the irresistible pull of this very real place he is “unable to leave” (102), and because of his outrage over the racial injustices that defined it in the 1940s, the historical setting of the novel, two decades before the emergence of Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

Concurrent with the New Historicists, I continued, the Deconstruction critics emerged, following the thought of Russian dialogic theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and French theorist Jacques Derrida.  Also deploying New Critical close-reading strategies, these critics reached decidedly un-New Critical conclusions about literature, arguing that no work possesses unity, either as a free-standing work or as a reflection of its cultural situation.  Instead, I explained, Deconstruction critics argue that every “text” contains a line of interpretation that undercuts another reading, so that no fixed meaning can ever be discovered.  While New Critics talk about ambiguities worked out via art into a unified meaning, I clarified, Deconstruction critics argue that the flux of a text, like the flux of life, can never be fixed, never settled beyond dispute.  We would see this flux, I said, in trying to assess Grant’s teaching, his resistance to authority figures, and his relationship with Vivian.

A Lesson Before Dying

Having completed this description of critical trends and their relationship to Gaines’ novel, I divided the students into three groups, assigned each group five of the study questions I had asked them to consider as they read, and then asked them to collaborate on answers, grounded in evidence from the novel, that they would share with the whole class.  I explained that they had 20 minutes to do their work, after which each group would have 15 minutes to report their findings to the other two groups.  Though the students had already experienced peer-response groups, they had never worked together on an interpretive problem.  Nevertheless, the pressure of the time limit seemed to distract them from anxieties over this charge to construct meaning communally; as they got to work, I roved, listening to their tentative answers, watching them scramble for evidence.

After 20 minutes, I interrupted them, telling them that they need not worry if they had not finished their task, that we would go ahead and see what each group had discovered.  I then called for a report from group one, reminding them that we wanted evidence, including page numbers, not just general answers, to the questions below:

1. How does the defense attorney’s case affect your feelings for Jefferson (pages 7-8)?

2. How do you explain Grant’s anger—as a black man and as a teacher—when Miss Emma’s face (12) and Tante Lou’s words (13-14) urge him to talk to Henri about visiting Jefferson?

3. How do Grant’s feelings for Vivian and for the town (29) explain his reluctance to intervene in Jefferson’s case?

4. Describe Grant’s teaching and disciplining methods.  Do they seem effective?  Explain.  How do Grant’s situation and the students’ lives influence and explain Grant’s harshness (29)?

5. What similarity do you see between the attorney’s defense of Jefferson (chapter 1) and the way Mr. Pichot and Sheriff Guidry treat Grant (chapter 6)?

New Historicists at Work

Group 1: New Historicists at Work

Group one began by responding to #1 and #5 together, saying that they felt great sympathy for Jefferson and Grant.  When I asked for their evidence, they referred to page eight, where Jefferson must endure the remarks of his attorney, who ‘defends’ him in front of the all-white jury by calling him a “hog,” not a man, a beast capable in his panic of looting the liquor store cash drawer, but incapable of thought and therefore incapable of planning the murder of the store owner.  They reported sympathy, too, for Grant, a black man with a university education, who must endure the arrogance of Sheriff Guidry and Henri Pichot, powerful white men who keep him waiting for hours when he comes to ask permission to visit Jefferson in jail.  “But what difference do you see between Jefferson and Grant in the way they deal with the insults?” I asked.  Laureta, a member of group one, quickly observed that Jefferson keeps his head down and remains silent, but Grant reports that he has waited “two-and-a-half hours” and offers no smile, knowing that the white men expect a smile and a “not long” in response to their question, “Been waiting long?” (47)  “Did you notice Grant’s verbs?” I asked her.  Laureta then pointed to his saying “doesn’t” instead of the ungrammatical “don’t,” revealing his defiance of these white men, who expect Grant to show his subservience by using dialect (48).

Some of this sympathy and admiration for Grant melted away, however, when the group responded to questions 2-4.  They reported understanding Grant’s anger when his Tante Lou demands that he visit Jefferson in jail, that he teach Jefferson to feel like a man, not a hog, before he dies in the electric chair, but they argued that Grant shows too little respect for Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, when he tells her that he can’t make Jefferson a man, that he can only “keep others from ending up like this” (14).  They also reported understanding why Grant would want to move with Vivian to someplace where he could feel alive, less stifled (29), but they had no respect at all for his use of foul language and his whining tone, especially when he says, “I’m supposed to make him a man.  Who am I?  God?” (31).   They said, too, that they understood why Grant would be frustrated with his one-room school and inattentive students, but they roundly condemned Grant’s cruelty to his students, releasing his own stress by shouting in their faces and hitting them with a ruler for lapses in concentration, for writing crooked sentences on the board and for playing with bugs (35-41).

Congratulating this group on their excellent work, I called on group two.  Apologizing for coaxing the first group into answering their question on Grant’s use of language to assert manhood, I asked for their comments on questions 7-10:

6. How does Grant use language to assert his manhood in chapter 6?

7. At the top of page 62, Grant compares the “old men” laborers to the student woodchoppers.  What do his thoughts reveal about his goals as a teacher?  Why had his former teacher urged Grant to “run”?

8. Why does Grant believe his aunt is “stripping” him of “everything you sent me to school for”?

9. Give two reasons why Grant tells Jefferson that he will “lie” to Emma about Jefferson’s refusal to eat.

10. Why do Grant’s memories of Joe Louis and the old men’s talk of Jackie Robinson—both black sports heroes—make Grant think of Jefferson?  What irony do you see in the achievement of these heroes?

Deconstruction Critics at Work

Group 2: Deconstruction Critics at Work

This group commented first on #8-9, for their answers here, they said, return Grant to a more favorable light.  To this point, they argued, Grant’s visits to Jefferson have confirmed his reasons for resisting this seemingly impossible job of persuading Jefferson of his manhood.  When I asked, “How so?” they pointed to Jefferson’s sarcasm about his execution date, his eating from Emma’s food bag on all fours, like a “hog”; then Arlind read Grant’s passionate speech aloud:

Everything you sent me to school for, you’re stripping me of it….The humiliation I had to go through, going into that man’s kitchen.  The hours I had to wait while they ate and drank and socialized before they would even see me.  Now going up to that jail.  To watch them put their dirty hands on that food.  To search my body each time as if I’m some kind of criminal.  Maybe today they’ll want to look into mouth, or my nostrils, or make me strip.  Anything to humiliate me.  All the things you wanted me to escape by going to school.  Years ago, Professor Antione told me that if I stayed here, they were going to break me down to the nigger I was born to be.  But he didn’t tell me that my aunt would help them do it. (79)

Gezim mentioned, too, that Grant really impressed him at the end of the next visit to the jail, when Grant tells the still-hostile Jefferson that he intends to lie to Emma about Jefferson’s refusal to eat her pralines because telling the truth, he tells Jefferson, “would kill her”; he also tells Jefferson that he plans to return so that the “white man” can’t “win” (84).

Everyone agreed that such language makes Grant seem much less whiny than he seemed at first, more combative, even daring.  When I asked what they learned about Grant from his thoughts on the woodchoppers in #7 and the old men in #10, Dafina stressed Grant’s compassion for his students, many of whom would end up as woodchoppers (61), and his compassion for Jefferson in that “depressing cell uptown” while the old men at the bar can only talk about their boxing hero Joe Louis and their baseball hero Jackie Robinson (90).  Praising these insightful answers, I asked them to consider how Grant’s compassion here would attract the interests of a New Historicist or Marxist critic, who would see Grant’s thoughts as a commentary on the rural South in the 1940s, when most black children really had no access to the American Dream, a time when even black heroes like Robinson and Louis could stir hope but do nothing to change the everyday reality of the plantation.  “And what might a Deconstruction critic want to point out about the Grant we have seen so far?” I asked.  Blerta responded by describing the two narratives on Grant, the cruel, selfish whiner and the bold, compassionate man.

Finally, with little time remaining, we turned to the third group for their report on these questions:

11. How do you explain the tension and anger between Grant and his Aunt, and between Grant and Reverend Ambrose?

12. What does Grant mean when he says he is “unable to accept what used to be my life, unable to leave it”?

13. This novel on racism and injustice is also a love story.  How does Grant’s tenderness for Vivian affect your view of him?  What effect might their love have on Grant’s ability to “teach” Jefferson to be a man?

14. At the end of chapter 18, Grant wants to give up on Jefferson, but Vivian insists that “something is changing” (141).  What evidence do you see in chapters 16-18 that suggests that Grant and Jefferson are both changing?

15. In chapter 19, why does Gaines provide so much detail about the Christmas party, the play, and Ambrose’s prayer?  What irony do you see in Grant’s prominence at this event as the director of the children’s play?

New Critics at Work

Group 3: New Critics at Work

When I asked if they saw any irony in Grant’s prominence in the town as Jefferson’s teacher (#11) and as the director of the annual Christmas play (#15), Ragip said that Grant’s apparent atheism makes him an outsider in a church-going community led by Reverend Ambrose, who humiliates Grant by praying publicly, before and after the play, for doubters like Grant who think they don’t need God.   When I asked if this tension between belief and doubt explains the quote in #12 about Grant being “unable to accept what used to by me life,” Ragip agreed.  “What about  #13?  Do you see the same Grant you saw earlier in his relationship with Vivian?” I asked.  This question led to some blushing and looking down at desks, but Albana spoke up, saying she admired the tenderness she sees in Grant’s love-making with Vivian (108-109).   “And Vivian believes in God,” Albana added, smiling; “Maybe she will change Grant’s mind on that topic.”  “Do you see any irony in her dual roles as believer and as Grant’s lover?”  I asked.  “Remember that Vivian’s divorce has not been concluded yet, so this romantic scene also raises issues about adultery.  Do any of you have concerns about her morality?” I prodded.  Wisely, Albana said that “life gets complicated.”

“Do you think that Vivian has a point that “something is changing” in Grant, particularly in his relationship with Jefferson?” I prompted.  Gezim responded with Grant’s comment that he “wasn’t so angry anymore” (125), reflecting Vivian’s influence; he also applauded Grant’s defense of Vivian after Jefferson crudely insults her: “That lady you spoke of, boy, cares about you” (130).  “Does this flash of anger in defense of the woman who keeps Grant “coming here” have any impact on Jefferson?” I asked.  Several voices spoke up, citing the “tears in those big reddened eyes” (130), a major crack in Jefferson’s wall of resistance.

With our time ending, I reminded the class that we would finish discussing Lesson next time and that they should write journal responses to two more of the remaining 13 study questions, all focusing on this transformation of Jefferson and Grant that we had already begun to see.