… of Robbie Burns Day

The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley…”

In observance of Robbie Burns Day and, thereby, of John Steinbeck‘s novella, Of Mice And Men, I highlight this thoughtful character study of Curley’s wife, by Leighton Meester for The Huffington Post, based upon her own stage portrayal of that character.

Perhaps above all I appreciate Meester’s nuanced intuition about the audiences who judge Curley’s wife which, beyond their relationships to the characters in the story, might suggest something about their own – our own – blind spots and hypocrisies. How often we live with daily nonchalance, oblivious to the interiority of those we encounter, and of those beyond. How much we rely on our affirmed belief of our selves.

If confronting ourselves is art’s great authenticity, then Meester’s perception is spot-on: in Curley’s wife, Steinbeck subverts our conceit – whether he intended to or not. Indeed, the best-laid schemes…

A Kind of Certainty: III. A Scripture of Truth

Click here to read Pt II. Curriculum, or What You Will

 


A Kind of Certainty

3. A Scripture of Truth

Motive is the key, I would suggest to students: to know motive is to know the truth. And I offered this suggestion knowing full-well the timeworn joke about the actor who asks, “What’s my motivation?” Whats the Motivation Just as we can never cover it all and must go with whatever we decide to include, we also cannot (nor should not) try to present it all, ask it all, or attempt it all in one go. Yes, the odd non sequitur can break the monotony – everyone needs a laugh, now and then. But as with all clever comedy, timing is everything, and curriculum is about more than good humour and bad logic. In that regard, given what has already been said about spotting pertinence, curriculum is about motives: to include, or not to include.

And we must try to comprehend this decision from more than one perspective; each in their own way, both teacher and student ponder what to include and what to disregard during any given lesson: “Teachers are problem-posing, not just in the obvious sense that they require students to doubt whether they know something… [but] implicitly [asking] them to question their understanding of what counts as knowledge” (Beckett, 2013, p. 54-55). People generally will not doubt themselves without good reason, or else with a lot of faith in whoever is asking. Challenged to reconstruct or reorganise an experience (Dewey, 1916), more than likely we will want to know why. Curriculum addresses ‘why’.

Why! take Hamlet, for instance… deigning to know a little something about role-playing, he offers some curricular particulars while lecturing the Players ahead of the Mousetrap performance, although really this is to say Shakespeare offered them. Writers famously cringe as rehearsing actors and directors dismember their carefully worked dialogue – or is that another hackneyed joke? In any case, Shakespeare opens Act 3 with some forty lines of advice from Hamlet to the Players, whose replies are little beyond short and polite (although ‘why’ has evidently been left for you and your theatre company to ascertain). These follow some forty lines in Act 2 during an exchange between Hamlet and Rosencrantz about theatre companies, all of which could simply be played as a dose of comic relief amidst the far “weightier matters” of the play (Guyton, 2013). Tried another way, Hamlet’s lines about acting embody the very perplexity of his prolonged tumult: he takes for granted that his listener will attempt to reconcile what he says with whatever uncertainty they might have. What better job description, a “teacher”? Otherwise, why even bother to open his mouth?

What need to teach when we trust that we are all alike, that all around is 100% certain? As it pertains to telling the Players about acting, Hamlet wants no assurance that his audience must bridge some gap of certainty over his trustworthiness, not so far as he is concerned.[1] Indeed, common to live productions that I have watched, he is as relaxed and certain in offering his advice as the Players are in hearing it, like preaching to the choir.[2] Their relationship, apparently going back some time, suggests mutual respect and a shared faith not merely to listen but to understand in listening. It suggests a kind of shared attunement, something mutual, like a kind of curriculum founded upon trust. For all we might want to trust those around us, for all we might want some certainty that we are respected by others – or, perhaps more so, that we are believed – what a torment life would be if our every utterance were considered a lie. Then the only certainty would be the assurance that no one ever believed you, and if that still counts for something, it is dreadfully cold comfort.[3]

We citizens of 21st century post-modernist [your label here] North America may not have descended nearly so low although Klein (2014) does presciently discuss politics, the national discourse, and an observed decline in public intellectualism (Byers, 2014; Coates, 2014; Herman, 2017; Mishra & Gregory, 2015). Where Klein encompasses individuals and the processes, systems, and institutions that they innervate while going about their daily lives, he describes Dewey’s “conjoint communicated experience” (Dewey, 1916, p. 101) and implicates “an extraordinarily complicated conversation” (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery & Taubman, 2006, p. 848), one that occurs everyday and includes everybody. But since we are forbidden to compel but only persuade the beliefs of free thinkers, we realise that all our perceived uncertainty can only be bridged by a kind of faith: we depend either upon others to see things as we do, or else we depend upon our rhetorical skill to persuade them toward our way. Or we live tense lives full of disagreement and antipathy. ’Swounds, but life would be a lot more stable and certain if we all just believed the same things!

Hamlet craves certainty, to the point where the dilemma of his doubt halts him so dead in his tracks that he is prompted to question existence itself. Where it comes to enacting vengeance – but, really, where it comes to everything we witness in the play – Hamlet – and, really, every character[4] – craves certainty and assurance while suffering from uncertainty and reluctance, which means, of course, that he craves and suffers from both ends. Indeed, a piece of him is certain. But comprising “one part wisdom and ever three parts coward” (4.4.42-43), he wages an unequal battle against himself. He wanders from room to room searching to free himself from his purgatorial tesseract, challenged not simply by one retrograde faith but by several, the consequence of conveying curriculum from Wittenberg back to Elsinore where, previously, he had received, to say the least, an impressionable upbringing. The upshot, given the conflicting decisions he faces, is that Hamlet would rather renounce any mutual faith of any sort and rely upon a certainty all his own: himself.

Yet he even doubts his ability to self-persuade, just as he holds no faith in anyone whose judgment he fears. As a result, he is rightly miserable and lives an exaggerated moment-to-moment existence, “…enraptured with, submerged in, the present, no longer a moment in but a suspension of time, absorbed by – fused with – the images in front of [his] face, oblivious to what might be beyond [him]” (Pinar, 2017, p. 12). Pinar describes a kairos moment of chronos time, as if Cecelia, while watching The Purple Rose of Cairo (Greenhut & Allen, 1985), could press “Pause.” He may not have been Woody Allen’s modernist contemporary, but Shakespeare still appeared to possess enough prescience to machinate a rather, shall we say, enlightened viewpoint; many consider The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark to be the Magnum Opus of English literature, not just Shakespeare. Evidently, he knew exactly how to craft such a rich and roundly individuated protagonist, one certain enough to persist for over 400 years. Certainty the Bard found within himself, and that he bestows (albeit perversely) upon Prince Hamlet, who “[knows] not seems” (1.2.76). Faith he found within himself, too, but that he saves for his audience, trusting them, freeing them, to spot it when the time is right, rendering what they will get unto those who will get it.

By the same token, may the rest get whatever they will get. As far as curriculum is concerned, one size has never fit all, nor should it ever be so.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith

 


Endnotes

[1] I always suspected a handful of my students were just humoring me – have I mentioned they were brilliant?

[2] Sometimes, these lines have even been cut, to help shorten the play from its typical four-hour length.

[3] Elsinore seems just such a place. But they are wise who “… give it welcome” (1.5.165) since at least, then, you can get on with functioning, knowing where you stand relative to all the other prevaricating liars and weasels who inhabit the place alongside you.

[4] Every character, that is, with the possible exceptions of the Gravedigger, who apparently is most cheerful and self-assured, and Fortinbras, who suffers perhaps not pains of doubt so much as loss, and then always with something up his sleeve. I might also include Horatio in this reflection, but I fear, then, the need for an endnote to the endnotes, to do him any justice.

A Kind of Certainty: II. Curriculum, or What You Will

Click here to read Pt I. An Uncertain Faith

 


A Kind of Certainty

2. Curriculum, or What You Will

Baumlin (2002) distinguishes three concepts of temporality. Chronos is linearity, our colloquial passage of time, “non-human; impersonal objective nature” (p. 155), from which we understandably define past, present, and future. In relation to this is kairos, a single point in time, “[describing] the quintessentially human experience of time as an aspect of individual consciousness, deliberation, and action… that single fleeting moment … when an individual’s fortune is ‘set in motion’, … [providing] the means” and yielding “Fortuna, the consequences” (p. 155). Interwoven with kairos, then, is Occasio, the cause to Fortuna’s effect, a sense of “‘right-timing’ and prudent[1] action,” an opportunity[2] to better the capricious lies of fortune and fate. Although this sense of opportunity was emancipating, it also engendered accountability for consequences.

The developing belief that we possessed not mere agency but free will weighed upon Renaissance thinking, a trait that Shakespeare often imparted to his characters, Hamlet (4.4.46-52) being but one example.[3] By the time 17th century Elizabethans first watched Hamlet on stage, the humanist challenge to “a grim… Christian sufferance and resignation to time” (Baumlin, 2002, p. 149) was well underway. Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare offers nothing firm in Hamlet as to where our belief should lie, either with fortune or with free will; indeed, leaving the debate ruptured and inconclusive seems more to his point. To this end, perhaps most notable is his placement of Hamlet alongside Horatio in the graveyard to ponder the dust and fortune of Alexander, Yorick, and – hard upon – Ophelia.

In handling Yorick’s skull, Hamlet revives the poor fellow’s “infinite jest [and] excellent fancy” (5.1.186), memories of such fond “pitch and moment” (3.1.86) as to “reactivate” (Pinar, 2017a, p. 4) his own childhood, even momentarily. Such specific remembrances educed by Hamlet (which is to say, by Shakespeare) expose the springe of kairos; ultimately, certainty is beyond our capacity, rough-hew it[4] how we will. Colloquially, this might seem obvious (i.e. “the best laid plans…” and so forth, and no one person apparently able to pick the right lottery numbers each week). Yet the extent to which we consider ourselves masters of our own fortune is, for Hamlet, presently in the graveyard, a kind of epiphany, “a spiritual (re-) awakening, a transformation” (Baumlin & Baumlin, 2002, p. 180).[5] He decides that yielding himself over to “divinity” (5.2.10) is wise as compared to the folly of trying to control what was never within his grasp to begin with.

He does not give up any freedom so much as give over to dependence, which of course is a leap of faith. Shakespeare poses a question of allegiance – to obey, or not to obey – further compounded by which allegiance – obedience to father, or to Father; to free will, or to fortune; to an unweeded garden, or to what dreams may come – all these are the question.[6] Shakespeare has Hamlet “reconstruct” (Pinar, 2017a, p. 7) his conceptions of allegiance and obedience during the exchange with the Gravedigger, which hardens Hamlet’s resolve yet also enables him to come to terms with his tormenting dilemma over fealty and honour. By the time his confrontation with Claudius is inevitable,[7] Hamlet’s decision to “let be” (5.2.224) “[marks his] final transcendence of deliberative action in worldly time” (Baumlin & Baumlin, 2002, p. 180). Thus is indicated the subtle dominance of the third temporal concept, aion, “the fulfillment of time” (Baumlin, 2002, p. 155), a circularity like the uroboros, the serpent swallowing its tail. As such, aion signifies what is boundless or infinite, neither more nor less than eternity.

Oddly enough, these three concepts, in concert, can seem both time and place,[8] describing a “spatial-temporal sequence … from point, to line, to circle”; from “natural to human to divine orders” (p. 155). I am not fixed to the idea of a “sequence,” but the general composite still shapes my response to Hamlet’s most famous question of all.[9]

 


Let go. Learn from the past, but don’t dwell on it.

left (past)

Let it work. Anticipate the future, but no need to control it.

later (future)

Let come what comes. Every possible decision will still yield consequences.

Let be. Pay attention now to what is now.

The readiness is all. (5.2.222-223)

lasting (present)

The rest is silence. (5.2.358)

(a clever double-meaning here: “the rest” = either past regrets and future anxieties or else the undiscovered country, death)


 

As I take them, these four “Let…” statements amount to sound wisdom, like trusted advice from teacher to student or parent to child. As a student and child, myself, writing this paper, I faced some question of certainty – the same question, strangely enough, that we ask about curriculum: what is worth including? By the same token, what is worth omitting, and from there, what will also be otherwise left out or unmentioned? Whatever we decide, one thing is certain: we can neither cover nor even conceive it all, which of course was my original problem. In fact, knowing as much as we know can even shed paradoxical light onto how much we remain in the dark. Eventually, as my Dad recommended over the phone, I simply needed the courage to make a decision and go with it, and even with his voice in my ear, I knew my own advice with my students had always been the same.

Hanging up, I reasoned further that any feedback I did receive – from peers during revision or from my professor’s formal evaluation – would illustrate how effectively I had collated and communicated my message. Beyond that, say revising the paper for publishing, I would have some ready direction. And there it was, I realised, staring me in the face, curriculum in a nutshell: conversations, decisions, actions, evaluations, reflections – all these, in relation to me as I wrote this essay, amounted to a lived curricular experience of my very own.[10] My curriculum, like this essay, does not simply pose the straightforward question about what is worth including. That question is insufficient. More particularly, my curriculum, like this essay,[11] prompts me to consider what is worth including in light of the audience, the topic, what is already known about the topic, and whatever aims exist in further pursuit of the topic.[12] Succinctly, my curriculum – all our curricula – is contextual, multitudinous, and a question of – questions of – what is particularly worth knowing about any topic of study under the sun: “Why this, why here, and why now?”[13] That is the question.

Well, maybe that is the question. The essence of this question, this curricular particular, lies in kairos, the concept of opportune timing or occasion that “signals the need to bring universal ideas and principles to bear in historical time and situations [i.e., deductively] and, thus, calls for decisions [requiring] wisdom and critical judgment” (Smith, 1986, p. 15). We can only note what matters to us once we have a reference point. And since nothing occurs in a vacuum, any detail can be potentially informative, so we must learn to pointedly ask not, “In what way(s) do I already know what I’m looking at?” but rather, “In what way(s) do I not know what I am looking at?” which tends to be deductive. Typically, curriculum begins inductively, with what someone already knows, and we all know plenty of things. But we generally bring to bear only what we deem relevant to the moment. By the same token, someone who knows what is relevant to the moment has a kind of prescient “mechanism” (Christodoulou, 2014, p. 54) for spotting what will likely be of use.[14] So curriculum is a means of determining, if not discovering, in the moment what works. It is, therefore, also a means of coming to know ourselves.

As we develop confidence and self-esteem, and dignity, we grow to feel that we have something to contribute, that we matter, all of which prepares us for helping others. Curriculum helps us to sort out our values and beliefs,[15] which provide a frame-of-reference in order to select and, later, to measure our day-to-day efforts. Of course, none of this happens immediately; we need time to grow more self- and other-aware, each kairos experience filing in alongside the rest, like a crowd of ticket holders. I can only wonder whether Shakespeare might have characterised curriculum as something akin to being held over for an indefinite engagement. In any event, we never stop learning – may our auditoriums ever sell out – as we continually induce as well as encounter influence. But how deliberately do we do so? Maybe that is the question.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here for Pt III. A Scripture of Truth

 


Endnotes

[1] As Baumlin (2002) notes, “For the student of prudentia, time reveals itself as golden Opportunity rather than as fickle, devastating Fortune” (p. 141). Certainly, Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audiences were feeling such debate permeate their own lived experiences, a dram of an idea that, once diffused, might only thereafter suffuse.

[2] According to Claflin (1921), “‘opportunity’ in Shakespeare means more than it does now [in the 20th century]; it is closer to the original force of Latin opportunus, and means ‘a specially favourable occasion’” (p. 347). Curiously enough, however, as I searched a concordance of Hamlet (Crystal & Crystal, 2002), I found no usage of “opportunity” whatsoever and only three of “chance,” most notably that of Hamlet to Horatio: “You that look pale and tremble at this chance…” (5.2.334) in reference to the dead and dying at the play’s closing. Of further interest is the concordance’s report that Shakespeare used “opportunity” throughout his entire catalogue of poems and plays only sixteen times as compared to “chance,” which he used 114 times.

[3] Kiefer (1983) examines Fortune at length as one colour in Shakespeare’s palette for his characters, noting of King Lear: “In no other of Shakespeare’s plays do characters invoke Fortune so insistently [or] so frequently at pivotal points of the action” (p. 296).

[4] Read either “certainty” or “our capacity,” here, in place of “it”; either works just as well. The line from the play I have paraphrased, of course, because the original antecedent is “our ends” (5.2.10) in place of “them” (5.2.11). However, where I have changed the diction of the thought, as a matter of perspective, the meaning remains intact. The implication that we – in essence – play God might not be nearly so alien for Shakespeare’s audience as to their feudal predecessors. By contrast, to postmodern audiences these days, the notion of a divinity standing apart from our own free will and shaping our ends might be the more alien concept.

I might finally point out that Shakespeare, as his creator, is Hamlet’s god, of a kind. But that analogy does not last long under scrutiny since Hamlet, being a fictional character, has no sentience, free agency, or tangibility, and actors who portray him are left with prescribed dialogue and beliefs.

[5] Because I am ultimately discussing what Shakespeare did, his characters being only conveyances as such, I was tempted to complete this sentence with a line from Macbeth, as follows: “The extent to which he considers himself master of his own fortune, presently in the graveyard, is laid plain for Hamlet, leaving him to conclude only that ‘…all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death’ (5.5.22-23).” The key difference, of course, is that Hamlet decides against being a fool whereas Macbeth seems all too keen to excel at it. Where Hamlet best demonstrates a respect for “divinity [shaping] our ends,” Macbeth better represents the rough-hewing bit, which makes him a far less redeeming character in the end. So, upon reflection, it seemed prudent to stick substantively to just the one play. Thank heaven for endnotes, I guess.

[6] Had he fallen clearly to one side, as a subject to his monarch, Shakespeare might very well have sealed whatever freedom he did enjoy; his own response, evidently, was to render unto Caesar, and render unto God, and continue writing plays. Four centuries on, what is there about us, that we might think we are any less susceptible than he was to coming to terms with our finite nature? We live in civil society, by the rule of law under a Constitution, within which are Rights and Freedoms that include the assurance to believe, or not to believe, whatever we decide suits us best. Furthermore, we have the advantage over Hamlet in that his example exhorts us, interminably – just ask my students, remember? Alas, though, poor Yorick.

[7] As Horatio notes, “It must be shortly known [to Claudius]” that Hamlet has tricked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths at the hands of England (5.2.71-72), a move by Hamlet in his contest that must certainly harden his uncle’s resolve to have Hamlet dealt with once and for all. Of course, Claudius had sent Hamlet to England to be killed, but in secret, on account of both Gertrude and the public’s love for the Prince (4.7.5-24). However, in dispatching his childhood comrades – and with such calculation (5.2.57-70) – Hamlet has now given Claudius justifiable means to overcome any such favourable opinion as might have benefitted Gertrude’s “son” (5.1.296).

[8] Time and place are what we commonly refer to as setting in English class, which is a curious way to consider eternity.

[9] Seldom mentioned amidst all the consternation is that Hamlet does not actually ask a question. If he had, he might have worded it as, “Is it to be, or not to be?” In that case, we would need to know what “it” means. Alive? Dead? Happy? Sad? Anything goes, I suppose, but then… what would you expect? He might have been asking, “Am I…” or “Are we to be, or not to be?” But where that is still somewhat existential and vague, now we might want to know whether his use of the verb, to be, is more open-ended or copular. I suspect Shakespeare knew enough about a general audience to trust that only the most fastidious grammarians would fuss over particulars such as antecedents and verb tenses in the dialogue. Otherwise, why decide to use the most protean verb in the English language?

[10] As far as lived curricular experiences go, there are many like it – as many as there are people to have them – but this one is mine.

[11] At this early stage, I confess: why struggle writing a paper when I could use the age-old trick of writing a paper about writing the paper? Why…? Because the age-old trick is just that – a trick – and spinning academic wheels stalls any hope of contributing to knowledge, so I would hardly be honouring my responsibility if I tried pulling that off. Still… the paper within a paper got me thinking about Hamlet, which oddly enough had been my original inspiration for this essay. As my students used to say… once you study Hamlet, he just never goes away. How true, how true…

[12] According to Hartmann (2014), it was just such questions that prompted Ezra Klein to leave The Washington Post and establish Vox.com in 2014.

[13] Students in my all courses learned to rue the question “Why?” so much so, one year, that it became a running joke simply to utter “why” as a pat-response, whether as a question, an interjection, a plea, a curse, an epithet – those last two maybe reserved for me, I don’t really know. In honour of their perseverance, and their angst, I named my blog The Rhetorical WHY.

[14] Surrounded by Winkies, confronted by certain capture, only Scarecrow eyes the chandelier above the Wicked Witch, so only he can yank Tin Man’s axe across in time to chop the rope that suspends it. Hardly the grandeur or the gravitas of Hamlet, I realise, but The Wizard of Oz has much to offer pertaining to curricular theory as well as teacher autonomy.

[15] In keeping with the three temporal concepts, perhaps a more suitable metaphor than threading our own needles would be to say we surf a long pipeline. But, this essay being more concerned with curriculum and theatre, any such Hang-Ten imagery is better suited to another time, like connecting curriculum to gnarly waves and bodacious beaches (“Surf’s Up,” 2015). Anyway, certainly no one would ever dream of linking Hamlet to surfing (“’Hamlet’s BlackBerry’,” 2010) in the first place, would they?

A Kind of Certainty: I. An Uncertain Faith

Well, you had to know this one was coming… a meditation upon Hamlet.

This meditation, though, also happens to be a treatise on curriculum. I wrote this essay last year for a course I took with Dr William Pinar, who is Curricular Royalty on top of being a super guy. And, like me, he taught secondary English, so I felt I had a sympathetic ear.

Dr Pinar’s course was driven by chapters he’s written for an upcoming book about George Grant, who was (among many things) a philosopher, theologian, educator, and Canadian nationalist. Dr Pinar’s book is about Grant’s critique of time, technology, and teaching.

The series of posts, “A Kind of Certainty,” comprises my final paper, in which I attempt to present Hamlet, the character, by way of the same treatment that Dr Pinar presents Grant. That said, I don’t address technology here (although I do address it here), focusing instead upon teaching and curriculum, and granting due respect to the concept of time.

I debated how I might present this essay, whether to revise it into something more suited to the style and structure of my other blog posts. But it just proved far too difficult to change or remove anything without drastic revision, essentially having to rewrite the entire paper, so here it is in academic trim… citations, endnotes, and all – Dr Pinar is a big fan of endnotes, by the by, so that’s the explanation there.

Here, too, is the bibliography.

 


A Kind of Certainty

1. An Uncertain Faith

I taught Hamlet in English 11. During what typically lasted five months, we considered, among other concepts, certainty and faith. One example of mine to illustrate these was to ask a student why she sat down so readily on her classroom chair. She would be puzzled and say something like, “Huh?” My reply was to note how much faith she evidently placed in that chair to support her without collapsing. Then she would laugh, and I would ask further whether she knew the manufacturer, or the designer, but of course she knew neither. Then I would ask how many other chairs that week had collapsed beneath her, and (apart from one, unfortunately!) the reply would be, “None.” My point, of course, grew clearer to everyone as this conversation progressed, so my next question was to the class: “How many people rode in a vehicle sometime this past week?” Once most confirmed it, I would ask the same basic question as that of the chair: how were you certain that vehicle was safe? I was more tactful where it came to car accidents, usually using my own spectacular examples (… I have two). Ultimately, my claim was that we might have as much as 99% certainty, yet for whatever doubt exists, we rely on faith or else we would never sit in chairs, or drive in cars, or whatever else. As my tone grew more grave, so did their nods and expressions, as if we ought to be dropping Hamlet to study car mechanics, or industrial first aid.

My students were typically alarmed when they realised their faith was only as certain as its object, be it a sturdy or rickety chair. Where extremes present themselves rather obviously, even so, in any case of such offhanded faith, we make ourselves collateral. As if we live on credit, certain that all will remain as it has done, we borrow on faith against our future well-being until it comes time, as it says in the fable, to pay the piper. Meanwhile, what seems certain to us we literally take-for-granted, begging the question with impunity, I suppose, since every day the sun continues to rise.[1] Everyday, we overlook the caution, familiar to investors, that past performance does not necessarily indicate future potential, or as they say in the casino, the House never loses.

Maybe we never stop to consider just how loosely we play with certainty and faith in our day-to-day because doing so might mean never again stepping outside the door – no sense everyone being as hamstrung as the Prince of Denmark. Having studied the play as much as I have, I find every one of its concepts up for debate – arrghh – and where certainty and faith can actually seem either opposed or synonymous, that determination depends on yet another concept from the play, perspective. In any case, where it comes to certainty and faith – at least from my perspective – Hamlet is particularly instructive.

No matter your perspective, I would warn students, no matter where you stand or land, the play will then present you with a challenge of certainty, something I called the “Yeah, but…,” which was naturally a source of unending frustration. Conversely, and ironically, it was also a source of certainty since, like Hamlet in duplicitous Elsinore,[2] at least we can be certain that everybody else thinks, shall we say, uniquely, if not differently. Hamlet’s return home to the web of Catholic Elsinore from the symbolic bastion of Lutheran reform, Wittenberg, on account of his father’s death, finds him divided not unlike the Elizabethans comprising Shakespeare’s audience, caught between two branches of Christian belief.[3] The Bard besets his tragic hero with a matrix of inner turmoil – both secular and spiritual, of fealty and faith – a tesseract of beliefs such that Hamlet cannot reconcile any one to another, even as he quakes yet pines for some grand repose. For each possible value he might set down in his tables, his same self-assurance prompts Hamlet to pose questions more profound, rendering him unable to decide about, well, anything. Doubting that anyone can even interpret what it means to exist and, thereby, doubting that concern over living, or dying, or even debating the question is worthwhile, Hamlet, like the actors he so admires, effectively stands for nothing. As such, I admitted to my students, he was hardly an exemplary role model.

So, I suggested, to avoid the debilitating trap that befalls the brooding Prince, that of “thinking too precisely on the event” (Shakespeare, 1997, 4.4.41),[4] we must simply and ultimately decide what we believe after having drawn such conclusions from the best available evidence. Easily said, yet is this not exactly what Hamlet is trying to do? Little wonder students find him so frustrating. Then again, I pointed out, all our sighing and huffing is its own judgment call, a very palpable hit borne of the frustration of those who are upset with him. With Hamlet’s inability to decide for most of the play comprising most of the play, and with him chastising his own cowardice and rebuking God-given reason as a consequence (2.2.571-580, 4.4.36-39, 43), a spendthrift sigh of our own is hardly unreasonable. On the other hand, observed one student, well on her way to modern material success, he sells tickets. Unquestionably, yes, Shakespeare made a meal of Hamlet making a meal of things. And, even though he doomed his protagonist from the start, the playwright does release Hamlet from his torturous hamster wheel – mercifully? – just before he meets his grand moment of truth.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare includes what I call “Let…” statements. Of particular significance are the following four statements, presented here in sequential order:

  1. Of Claudius’s machinations, Hamlet tells Gertrude to “let it work” (3.4.205)
  2. Exacting vengeance for his father’s murder, Laertes will “let come what comes” (4.5.136)
  3. Having finally made peace with the certainty of death as well as the uncertainty of what lies beyond, Hamlet tells himself (alongside Horatio) to “let be” (5.2.224)
  4. Later, as Horatio confronts doubts of his own, Hamlet tells him to “let go” (5.2.343)

Alternatively arranged, these statements help comprise, for me, a response to the famous question, “To be, or not to be.”[5] This alternative arrangement derives from a sentence analysis exercise that my students and I would complete while preparing for the play. The sentence is from an essay by Drez (2001) about American pilots during WWII: “There were no souvenirs, but the grisly task of scrubbing decomposing remains from their boots later left a lasting memory” (p. 144). Briefly, the words later, left, and lasting illustrate the creation and the span of the airmen’s memories over time – the future, past, and present, respectively – made all the more ironic since the souvenirs they found were hardly the ones they sought. Using these three words alongside my own interpretation of each “Let…” statement, I have arranged them chronologically out-of-sequence with the play, using instead an interpretive application of temporality as three discrete periods[6] to challenge the common concept of linear time as historical calendar pages or a ticking clock.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt II: Curriculum, or What You Will

 


Endnotes

[1] Shame on us for carrying on so fallaciously! At pedestrian-controlled stoplights, we eventually step off the curb believing that drivers have halted their oncoming vehicles rather than carrying on through and running us down. To call the stoplight “pedestrian-controlled” is somewhat of an embellishment on the part of the city engineers, I think, a deferral to who really is favoured, for whatever reason, in the equation. But for the pedestrian to step off the curb is an act of faith, surely, since they abrogate control to the driver who has the car’s capability to accelerate and manoeuvre at his disposal. For that brief moment, only the driver’s motives keep the pedestrian safe. And careful though we are, accidents still happen in such everyday circumstances. Worst of all, as more recent times demonstrate, cars and trucks can be used precisely as weapons of terror against innocent people; the danger I speak of, the giving-and-taking of control, however uncommon, has now been realised. That changes attitudes profoundly.

Security measures, safety audits, protective equipment, government regulations – on and on goes the list of processes and people in which we place our faith, believing with some degree of certainty – or, as often as not, taking for granted on faith – that proper standards are being met that ensure our safety.

[2] Just my interpretation, mind you, “duplicitous Elsinore.” Certainly, you will have your own analysis.

[3] Since the time of those events described in the New Testament, their interpretation has divided Christian belief into myriad denominations, such as those found in both Shakespeare’s play and Elizabethan England: Catholicism and two respective branches of reform, the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther and the English Reformation decreed by King Henry VIII. I simply use “Christian belief” in a broad sense, wanting to avoid the suggestion that any particular denomination tops some hierarchy, since that sort of debate, here, is beside the point.

[4] For the duration of the essay, I shall refer to quotes from this cited edition of the play.

[5] Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, I’m hardly the first to devise this response to the famous question. Evidently, where my approach differs from other examples (Baumlin & Baumlin, 2002; Critchley & Webster, 2011) is connecting the four specified “Let…“ statements and Hamlet’s closing lines (5.2. 222-223, 358) with concepts of temporality.

[6] A full explanation of the four “Let…” statements and temporality demands its own essay, and I am already deep enough into Hamlet as it is, so for my weary negligence I ask some gracious leeway instead of a challenging “Yeah, but…”. Suffice to say, though, as we might feel this way or that about past or future, we still must inherently live each present moment, such as we are.

Play’s the Thing…

I used to say to my students, “Find the overlap between our English coursework and, say, Trigonometry, or the link from persuasive writing to PhysEd. Where does Hamlet end and organic chemistry begin? Find that one out… there’s genius in that.” The courses my Department offered were called “English” and, helmed by some teachers, they were more traditional, as one might expect. The most common feedback I received from students, though, was how unlike English our coursework seemed to them. I took those remarks as a measure of success: my aim was to prepare young people, soon enough entering the world as older people, to be responsible… to families, communities, careers, and so forth. For me, that’s the purpose of school and its teachers.

What prompted me to reflect was reading Science, Order, and Creativity, by David Bohm and F. David Peat – specifically, such remarks as “the appropriate relationship between thought and experience… [in which] creative new perceptions take place when needed” (p. 49). That distinction between thought and experience reminded me of another distinction, this between dialogue and conversation. And again I was prompted to recall my English courses – what we had, I’d say, were definitely conversations, scratching new surfaces and digging into things with fluid spontaneity, as compared to the “my turn / your turn” protocol of dialogue, which might dig one trench but deeper and deeper. Where dialogue strikes me as instrumental, a means to an end, conversation is an end in itself, without start or finish but continual – that is, until the bell rings. We notoriously lived beyond the rigour of scheduling in some of my courses.

Those conversations were hard to let go. And what exactly were we after? “The creative person does not strictly know what he or she is looking for,” say Bohm and Peat. “The whole activity [is] play itself,” and no better description of teaching (at least, my teaching) have I ever read. Who knew I was so creative? Not me although I did have fun. So who knew teaching was just so much play? “The play’s the thing / wherein I’ll catch the conscience of–” well, anybody, really. I should clarify that I respected my colleagues and our Departmental philosophy as well as my professional obligation to Ministry curricula. At the same time, I relied on my own interests and concerns to guide our coursework, by day and by year. The result was a mixture of reading, discussion, writing, and presenting about topics as disparate as literature, film, fine art, civics, politics, economics, philosophy, etymology, all manner of topics – yes, even science and math – all bundled together in a process of classical rhetoric. Eventually, I developed a suitably disparate canon of texts, too, that flowed meaningfully from English 9 through 12. And I relied on students’ differences to alter and adjust the flavour however they might. I loved teaching for how creative it allowed me to be, and for how much creativity it provoked in my students. “Let come what comes,” Laertes tells Claudius – brazen, even foolhardy. Genius, perhaps?

Bohm and Peat seem to suggest that genius is not creativity per se so much as the effect of having challenged some assumptions, and maybe that’s mere semantic distinction. Either way, I like the notion. Later, reading Allen Repko, I found myself nodding likewise at what he calls “boundary crossing” (p. 22). There it was, this discovery of common threads in disparate disciplines, this crossing of amorphous boundaries, what my students have heard me call “genius” although I might now redefine that trait as “ingenuity.” Accompanying “boundary crossing” is a reaching across disciplines, with intent, what Repko calls “bridge building.” This, I think, I would call visionary. Discovery and vision, both what I would forever consider, as a teacher, to be meaningful developments of the learning process.

Repko also points out the origin of the word, “discipline,” deriving from the Romans and their need to “relate education to specific economic, political, and ecclesiastical ends” (p. 32). How delightfully Roman! I thought, reading that. Such instrumentalism, “the logic of utility.”[1] Finis at its finest: How long, O Lord! Will their legacy never end? But I trust in teaching and my unfailing students.

I enjoyed sixteen years teaching Secondary English to brilliant students. In that time, we developed a philosophy, addressed the BIG Questions, and fed our curiosity. But my planning process was seldom more than make-it-up-as-we-go. “We could never get away with this in Math,” I used to say to them, “although if you do find a way, I’d love to hear about it.”

 


[1] Phelan, A. (2009). A new thing in an old world? Instrumentalism, teacher education, and responsibility. In Riches, Caroline & Benson, Fiona J. (Eds.) Engaging in Conversation about Ideas in Teacher Education, (105-114). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

 

The Latest Visual WHY

Click here to read the latest Visual Why.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault - Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791)
“…could we ever know what art makes oneself better, if we were ignorant of what we are ourselves?”

“…a picture’s usually worth even more than the thousand words we commonly ascribe.”

The word “text” derives from Latin, texere, meaning to weave or fit together. For me, text connotes far more than just the printed word – photography, movies, music, sculpture, architecture, the list goes on and on. The Visual WHY offers a specific look at paintings, texts with no less substance and arguably far more aesthetic. But underpinning the textuality of art altogether is its human endeavour. And beyond weaving something together for the sake of weaving, weavers – artists, people – have a further end, communication. Artists across all media are still people with influences and motives for expressing themselves. Conjointly, texts of all kinds are plenty human: provocative and reflective. Whether rich and symbolic for a global audience, or doodled sketches for your own amusement, art is text, and text has purpose. As we try to understand it more thoroughly, we can’t help but raise the level of discourse. Who knows, someday maybe art will save the world…

For those who’ve been wondering about the painting featured both here and on this site’s front page, this latest update will explain that, too.

Click here to read the latest Visual Why.

Catch-22: A Masterpiece by Joseph Heller

WARNING! This post is an analysis and celebration of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, and it DOES contain PLOT SPOILERS. If you wish to read the novel for the first time, do not read this post.

“Give the first twelve chapters a chance” has long been my advice to anyone who asks about Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s modernist masterpiece that critiques the absurdity of the military during wartime. If you haven’t read the book, I will hardly spoil things by explaining how eagerly we witless first-timers set out to read such a lauded modern classic, only to be confronted by what might be the most frustrating paragon of show-versus-tell in existence. (However, I will be discussing spoiler details from here on, so be warned.) From the seemingly disparate chapter titles to the disjointed narrative, which repeatedly folds back upon itself, from a maddeningly mirthful plot device, which tempts you to toss the book aside and deny its existence, to an irresolute closing – if you make it that far – the book continually challenges readers to deduce what’s happening and piece together what’s happened. Toss in what seems like an endless cadre of characters, ranging from odder to oddest to perhaps not so odd, the book is a challenge, no question.

For seven years, I assigned this book as summer reading for returning seniors. Oh, how the students complained about those twelve chapters – excessive! pointless! irritating! – only to feel more aggrieved at hearing, “Exactly,” my necessary reply. Once the venting subsided – usually at least half the first lesson – we’d begin discussing why Heller’s book could only be written this way as compared to some more conventional, accessible way.

For one thing, we need to meet the protagonist, Yossarian, and understand his circumstances so that, at appropriate upcoming times, which of course will have already occurred, we won’t criticise but will instead favour him. To this end, the entire story is told out-of-sequence, opening apparently in media res during Yossarian’s hospital stay. We have character introductions and letter censoring, foreshadowing how words and language will be manipulated while characters will be isolated, alienated, and demeaned. Subsequently, we learn the logic of Catch-22 from Doc Daneeka. And that Snowden dies. If we’ve navigated the twelve opening chapters and lived to tell about it, we learn that Yossarian, originally a young, excited airman, once needed two passes over a target in order to bomb it successfully, which gets his crewmember, Kraft, killed. Yossarian is further distressed upon returning when he receives a medal for the mission. Meanwhile, Milo opens his syndicate. The tension of tedium, the injustice of fortune. The folly of command, the depravity of humankind. Capping the story is the gruesome account of Snowden’s death, the key incident that incites Yossarian’s fear and lands him in hospital, where we first meet him – naturally, Heller waits until the end to tell us the beginning.

Heller writes with an absurd, illogical narrative style that characterises Yossarian’s internal eternal predicament, wending its way through isolation, alienation, discord, misery, paranoia, fear, senselessness, deception, vice, cruelty, even rape and murder. Catch-22 being what it is, its victims have zero-chance to overcome because the antagonists are permitted to do whatever the protagonists are unable to prevent. All along the way, Heller has Yossarian wanting out of the military (fly no missions = live), and he continually ups the ante between Yossarian and all the disturbing confrontations and contradictions that antagonise him, from his enemies and his commanders to his acquaintances and his comrades. But ultimately, and most potently, he has Yossarian suffering from his own self-interest. As the narrative flits and tumbles about, in its own progressive way, Yossarian’s self-interest evolves or, better to say, devolves. What does evolve, inversely to self-interest, is his compassion as he gradually grows more concerned for the men in his squadron, and which by Chapter 40, “Catch-22,” has extended to all innocent people beset by oppression, prejudice, and exploitation. So when Colonel Cathcart’s promised deal to send him home safely, definitely, comes ironically (fittingly!) at the expense of the squadron, Yossarian ultimately recovers enough self-reliance to overcome his personal anguish but not enough to remand himself to the cycle of absurdity. Given Heller’s dispersed timeline, describing Yossarian’s character development as a narrative arc or an evolution is less accurate than the piecing together of a jigsaw or the unveiling of a secret.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Yossarian’s instinct for self-preservation is the source of his personal torment. His despondency and disgust over the preponderance of all human self-interest finally turn Yossarian’s decision to go AWOL, at criminal risk but personal safety. That such a climax works is because readers – like Yossarian – are no longer fighting back but giving in, yet even then Heller offers no respite – the story ends ambiguously, leaving readers to satisfy their own vexation. Even so, I suspect that Heller appreciated John Chancellor’s life-imitating-art intiative as one inspired by more than a spirit of fandom. So where some characters have been subjects of compassion, others agents of absurdity, readers’ resultant responses have also undergone a perfectly natural evolution, mirroring Yossarian’s character development and culminating with his terrifying walk through Rome. The horrors of “The Eternal City,” in this light, are not only an essential but an inevitable piece in Heller’s plan.

Yossarian’s shall-we-say militant decision to desert is borne of Snowden’s ugly death during the Avignon mission, only a week after the death of Kraft and the award of Yossarian’s medal. Seeing Snowden’s innards spilling rudely from his body nauseates Yossarian and haunts him throughout the entire (or, from Yossarian’s perspective, for the rest of) the story. Yossarian, inset by Heller on behalf of soldiers as a protagonist, has no way of making things better. His futile effort at comfort, “There, there” (p. 166), is comically insincere for its honest helplessness, an understated shriek from all soldiers continually sent to face death – not death without context but without resonance. However, for Yossarian and his comrades, the context of sacrifice is all too irrationally clear: thanks very much. Catch-22. Soldiers face the dilemma of following orders that entirely devalue their very existence.

Participation as a soldier offends Yossarian to the core, yet it also helps him to reconcile his fear over death: “… man is matter,” finite, mortal and – without spirit – simply “garbage.” In fact, this sentence sums human worth as a blunt statement: “The spirit gone, man is garbage” (p. 440). Six words of sad, harsh consequence, war, no longer wearing a comic mask. The absolute phrase, a terse syntactical effect, annuls man’s significance – spirited briefly, gone abruptly, an empty corporeal body left over, garbage. Garbage is a harsh image – rotting flesh, buzzing flies, scum, residue, stench. Pessimism, cynicism, worthlessness. On such terms, one wonders whether anyone might willingly die to save themselves, as it were, another troubling revelation engineered by a masterpiece of unprosaic illogic. Yet even on this point, Heller’s genius is flawless. Haunting though it is, Snowden’s death gradually reveals to Yossarian the very path to life and safety that he has pursued ever since the opening chapter in the hospital – which is to say, ever since Snowden’s death drove him there in the first place.

This is why Heller refers to Snowden’s death, specifically his entrails, as a “secret” because to reveal it any earlier would be to end the novel. And he calls it Snowden’s “grim secret” to illustrate Yossarian’s suppressed mental anguish. Heller has Yossarian recall Snowden a number of times, each admitting more detail, each growing more vivid, each driving him a little closer to his final resolution. Heller’s portrayal of Yossarian’s traumatised memories in this way suggests the nightmarish flashbacks that people, particularly soldiers, endure following the horrors of war. His final flashback in Chapter 41, “Snowden”, is prompted when Yossarian wards off the mysterious stranger in – where else? – the hospital. It’s most revelatory for Yossarian – and readers, by extension – because, here at the end of his patchy, appalling flashbacks, he is finally secure enough to divine for himself – or is it to admit to us? – the grim secret found in Snowden’s entrails. In the same way, the climax is most revelatory for readers who – at the mercy of Heller’s dispersed narrative structure – have been made to wait until the closing, when the time is finally ripe.

To get there, we are dragged unwittingly by Heller down a path of frustrating sympathy, illogical absurdity, and agonising anticipation. By the time Yossarian is introduced (in the opening chapter!) censoring letters and conniving a way to escape the war, he is that much nearer to desertion than we can yet know. Certainly, Snowden will convince us to desert as surely as he convinces Yossarian, but that will happen later, after Heller has aggravated our tolerance and mottled our innocence. Heller must drag us down Yossarian’s agonising path, or else he places us at risk of passing premature judgment upon not merely his protagonist but his entire message. Finally, when the moment arrives that we gather full appreciation of Snowden’s death, we have all we need to share in the vindication of Yossarian’s desertion.

So here is our way to grasp the grim secret behind the novel’s dissembling structure as restlessly and imperturbably as Yossarian does: the root of conflict, Snowden’s death, can only occur at the end of Heller’s narrative path, not Yossarian’s. The story simply works no other way.