Saturday, March 31, 2012

teach naked

Nelson [Humboldt] spent the summer after graduation back [home], painting houses and fantasizing hopefully about the next few years of his life. Gallaher had painted an idyllic picture of his own grad school days, living in a Quonset hut in East Lansing, Michigan, writing his master's thesis on a card table at one end of the room while his wife and kids watched Your Show of Shows at the other. As a going-away present, he had given Nelson a handsome slip-covered edition of Aristotle. This would give him a head start on his literary theory seminar, Gallagher said, and Nelson spent the summer reading it cover to cover, his hands smelling of turpentine.

But on his first day as a graduate student, at the very first meeting of Introduction to Literary Theory, his instructor--a gaunt and entirely hairless man in severe wire rims, a jacket of herringbone tweed, and a white roll-neck sweater--lifted a paperback edition of Aristotle with two fingers and set it on fire with a silvery Zippo. He dropped it in a wastebasket without a word and watched it burn, and when Nelson got up and opened a window to let out the smoke, he spun with a sharp, jerking motion and barked at Nelson to sit down.

"Don't touch that, you!" the professor said, in a vaguely Gallic accent; and then, to everyone, "I want you all to smell that. I want it to penetrate to the back of your nostrils. By the end of the term I want that smell to come to you even in your sleep, to be as familiar to you as the stink of your own pale, oozing bodies."

This struck Nelson as a little extreme on a September morning in Indiana.

"For some of you," the professor went on, "I will be an intellectual terroriste, striking brutally"--and here he lunged at a young woman in the front row, who cringed and clutched her notebook to her bosom--"ruthlessly and without warning at the foundation of every you hold dear. But for those of you with the rigor and the intellectual humility to submit to my will, I will be your guerilla chieftain, teaching you, disciplining you, driving you with a terrible love to do things you did not think possible. Some of you will not survive." He fixed Nelson with a fearsome glare, his merciless eyes huge behind his lenses. "But some of you I will lead out of the hills and down into the burning metropole."

He lifted the wastebasket. Aristotle was still smoldering.

"This is just the first step," he said. "We will have to destroy literary theory in order to save it."

Thus Nelson discovered that no one was doing close reading anymore. The professor called himself Jean-Claude Evangeline. Even his colleagues were uncertain of his provenance, although they hadn't examined his vita any further than the College de France, which was good enough for them. His one published volume, Les Mortifications, a book as dense and impenetrable as the man himself, was dedicated equally mysteriously to "Ma belle guerriere!" His English was flawlessly idiomatic, but was he French? Flemish? Quebecois? Those of his colleagues who envied his cultural cachet and his hypnotic hold over graduate students mimicked his accent behind his back and compared him to Pepe LePew.

...Nelson himself felt as though he had passed through the looking glass. An innocent and self-evident remark in Evangeline's class about Conrad's jumbled chronologies raised snorts of derision from his classmates. A severe young woman from the Indian subcontinent addressed Nelson without looking at him, telling him painfully, in a posh imperial accent, that Conrad's racisim was the starting point for any discussion of his work.

"Read Edward Said," she added, in a curt postcolonial sotto voce.

Evangeline himself cut Nelson not un millimetre of slack. In his first paper, Nelson manfully tackled Nietzsche, the earliest theorist Professor Evangeline was willing to sanction, and the professor handed the paper back with a failing grade and only one comment; on the first page he'd circled the word "literature" in blood-red felt tip and written in the margin: "When I see this word, I reach for my revolver."

Thus, Nelson's first lesson in graduate school was to keep his mouth shut.
--from The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes

this is from an interesting comic horror novel I've started reading about an academic whose reattached finger begins to assert his will on everyone around him, a sort of postmodernest revision of faustus or of what faustus would have liked to accomplish. hynes also wrote the collection publish and perish back in the 90s, and I really enjoyed those stories. as with many young literary men--or in this case, middleaged literary men--this story may have autobiographical detail, particularly the above, but I reproduce it not because it reflects my own grad experience--far from it--but because I heard similar stories from many classmates and remember the bloodshot and baggy-lidded eyes of other students, so that I often wondered at my own abilities to avoid such enforced workaholism. for me, grad school and then teaching was mostly fun, and the few times it became insufferable were distinctly because of my own tendencies for procrastinating (which of course I am loathe to give up).

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