… 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: V. Fleeting Uncertainty

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith

 


A Kind of Certainty

5. Fleeting Uncertainty

Like a vast sea of experience is all that we know and learn and encounter every single day. We are but tiny ships bobbing and rolling upon its waves, its currents steering us here and there. How on earth do we discern and decide what we value, what we believe, in order to collaborate with others in meaningful curricular relationships? (I almost wish I could just be waylaid by pirates, or something.) For me, one way to decide is to consider our shared motives, and find incentives to collaborate from there. Notwithstanding the degree to which people are educated, or by whom, everybody has motives.

But we do not all necessarily have a particular destination or a future port-of-call. So the aim for curriculum appears to be that of shaping motives to coincide with the current state of affairs such that, in a broad sense, people can (a) function – a measure of the self-ful[1] – and then (b) contribute – a measure of the selfless. Upon this vast sea, we are not so much bound for any one destination as we are bound to assist each other, each underway to wherever best suits our particular circumstances at that time – yours for you, and mine for me – and let the tangents direct us as they will.

Education, I have come to learn, is learning to have more than a destination or purpose of my own. It is to convoy with others and have faith that they do the same for others and for me, and putting in to decidedly worthwhile ports-of-call on the way. On the way, we chart our courses, but as similar as the ocean might look any given moment, wave after rolling wave, no two moments are ever exactly alike. To that degree, everyone must chart on their own. How intentionally we aid each other, how much or how little we trust, how sincerely we navigate, it is our shared curricula that will determine how effectively we undertake any particular decision we are ever likely to face, alongside whomever we find ourselves. The more we convoy in earnest, the safer we will be. With that kind of support, what is it that would sink us?

One final cautionary note: if and when some finally do make landfall somewhere, with certainty to their decision, we must acknowledge that their perspective will shift dramatically from those others who remain, however more or less certain to remain, at sea. Not everyone wants to remain at sea, and such variances our curricula are obliged to accommodate, if not fully comprehend or appreciate. There on that solid shore might be a tighter homogeneous culture that yields a more one-sided – or dogmatic? prejudiced? – communal certainty all its own. On that shore we might find a trade-off that sets the communal trustworthiness of the bobbing convoy against the stable individual footing of landfall. Yet somehow we all must sustain what we share, no matter the differences that may arise between sailor and landlubber – and why?

Because what remains the same amongst us – indeed, that which makes us who and what we are – is what we have in common. Common to all of us is being alive, being a person, being a human being, someone deserving of a basic respect for human dignity. Each of us, all of us, every one of us. We are all people. In this regard, really all that differs between us is where we are, and when. For people to think in any way differently than this about other people is narrow, delusional, perhaps cruel, and flat-out wrong. That may hardly feel a satisfactory closing, maybe even anti-climactic, but who ever said learning was meant to be entertainment?[2] Learning’s the thing wherein we catch the conscience of each other.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt I. An Uncertain Faith

 


Endnotes

[1] Forgive the invention, “self-ful.” I hesitated to use “selfish,” which tends to connote self-seeking and self-aggrandizing behaviour (in that colloquial sense of “No, you can’t have any of my ice cream”), and taking inspiration from the Bard, I just made up a word of my own. Likewise, I do not use “selfless” in some altruistic way so much as simply to counter “self-ful”; as a pair, I intend them to signify simply the notion of there being, for each of us, an intrinsic “me” and plenty of extrinsic “not me’s.” Further, with my students, I would liken self-fulness to each one’s academic efforts and scholarship, and selflessness to voluntary service and community stewardship of whatever kind. The longer-term idea was teaching students to balance these as required by kairos, by circumstance – an appropriate time for each, and the wisdom to know the difference.

[2] Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a curricular role for those gnarly amphibious surfers, after all.

Hawai'i Summer 2008
Teacher at work: catch a wave to catch the conscience?

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 and was 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?

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.

 

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.

Why Read All This Stuff Into Literature?

Teaching Secondary English for sixteen years, I frequently faced questions from students like the ones listed below…

  • Why do we analyse stuff so much in English class?
  • Why read all this into a poem? How can we ever really know what the poet actually meant? Does it matter anyway? Why even study poetry in the first place?
  • Is [some deep analysis] what Shakespeare really intended? Didn’t he just write his plays to entertain people?
  • By over-analysing literature, aren’t we unfairly putting words in someone’s mouth?

Fair questions, all. Indeed, why do we read stuff into literature? English teachers can drive students up the wall with questions like, “What does this poem mean to you?” or “What’s the significance of the theme?”

“AHHHRRRRG!!!!!” replies the student.

Here are some initial thoughts I’ve had on the subject (far from exhaustive!) to address this frustration. For simplicity, I refer to Shakespeare as one primary example, plus a few other writers, but I don’t mean by that to leave out or ignore other artists or creative types of expression as compared to literature alone. Therein the students must transpose for themselves.

  • Is our analysis what Shakespeare really intended? Didn’t he just write his plays to entertain people and make a living?

Shakespeare had his own intentions, of course. We will never really know what was on his mind. What’s more, Shakespeare is dead now, gone, kaput. For 400 years, the man himself has not been a factor in the literature – sad but inevitable!

But what he’s left behind, his poems and his plays, is what we have to work with. In his words live ideas and people and memories that he knew and loved and remembered. Shakespeare said as much himself in Sonnet 55:

“Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rime;

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone, …”

And sure, maybe it’s not one-to-one correspondence to actual living (now dead) people although there is oodles of studied conjecture about many of his characters and plot lines. But, despite the fascinating academic and journalistic exploration regarding possible real-life connections, consider that (a) nobody will ever truly know, since Shakespeare never explained one way or the other, and he’s dead now, and (b) Shakespeare had to have drawn upon his real-life relationships, cultural observations, and historical knowledge to develop any characters and situations because what else could any human being ever do? It’s not like he lived in isolation from all human contact on another planet or suffered from daily bouts of amnesia (although truly, again, who knows…?) But if you’re a human being who writes, especially for a living, I’ll bet you know other people and work from your human experience. Surely, your own life is your best source. Write what you know, isn’t that the advice?

You might also read the poems listed below, which express similar sentiments – the magic and music of poetic words and imagery; the lasting immutability of words and ideas that resist the entropic passing of time; the futility of our human attempts to create enduring institutions and monuments of brick and stone. Read on, and do not despair…

Scorn Not The Sonnet” by William Wordsworth

Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shakespeare” by Matthew Arnold

  • Why read all this detail into a poem or piece of literature? How can we ever really know what the poet / author actually meant? Does it matter anyway? Why even study poetry in the first place?

Not to ignore the human being who created something artistic, but what really matters as far as this question’s concerned is the literature itself – the poem, the song, the novel; the images, the ideas, the sensations that live within the words; the themes and nuances and rhythms that play in our ears or in front of our gaze or within our thoughts.

Shakespeare’s lingual creations are so wonderful if only for their magical, playful, balanced rhythms – it is beautiful poetry. We enjoy music for the same reason. We enjoy a painting on our wall for its palette, or its brushstrokes, or its portrayal. Sometimes we don’t even understand it yet like it all the same. A sculpture, a garden, a finely prepared meal, all these we enjoy and understand as art, for myriad reasons ranging from our senses and our emotions to our beliefs and our memories.

But not only are these art forms musical, or aesthetic, or appealing (or whatever), they’re also deeply human – art is a human response to the world around us, in which we live and share with other people and other living things and other non-living things. That world and all its contents and relationships are there for us to perceive. And if they are not enough, we’re able to look up at the sky, day or night, or down into the ocean, or into a microscope, or a microprocessor, or how about inward to our own imagination? On and on and on they go, our curiosity and creativity, hand in marvellous hand. The perceived world is the artist’s muse, and it’s likewise the artist’s resource. It’s fuel for the imagination.

In his short book, The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye opens by suggesting that we possess three levels of perception, of “language”:

  1. State of Consciousness or Awareness: we distinguish things in the world around us from ourselves; a kind of “self-expression” prompting thinking and conversation
  2. Pragmatic Attitude: we project upon this outside world a “human” way of understanding such things; a kind of “social participation” prompting deliberate knowledge and practical action
  3. Imaginative Attitude: we combine the first two perceptions and imagine a world we would prefer to see as compared to the real one we occupy; a kind of creative exercise, producing art forms, literature among them

Back to the artist: in his literature, Shakespeare created such depth and complexity, so closely mirroring the real world, and our relationships and the human condition, that we simply can’t help but see ourselves in them. Yes, he was that good, and his works resonate so much that we still find ourselves studying, admiring, and marvelling over them four hundred years later. So, for example, the genius of Shakespeare’s plays, for me, is how realistically he captures the essence of people and motives and relationships, all by way of dialogue – we watch his plays, we study his literature, we know ourselves better. More than that, we admire it, we revel in it! In the same way that we listen to our most favourite music to enjoy its melodies, we read and watch and listen to Shakespeare because he stirs us at the core.

Let’s consider one more example, the author, J. R. R. Tolkien. He tenaciously disliked allegory, and he continually denied as invalid, as definitely not his deliberate intention, all comparisons made between The Lord Of The Rings and the two World Wars [1]. Even so, evident in Tolkien’s storytelling, upon closer reading, are his concerns for the environment, polluted and abused by industrial development, his disquiet for the human race, stricken as it is with the potential for hubris and evil, and his belief that hope still exists for us, exemplified best by his beloved characters, the hobbits. Do we attribute such biased concerns as these to something from his life, say his Catholicism? Does it even matter since they’re genuine concerns whether you’re Catholic or not? His books express what they express, that much is evident. What need to pursue Tolkien’s motives or intentions when we’re able to glean something meaningful for ourselves? So far as there’s room for allegorical interpretation, it’s merely an intellectual luxury. Alright, then, Sauron is not a deliberate parallel either to Hitler or to Satan; there is nothing we are meant to spy of either Jesus Christ or an infantryman in Samwise Gamgee. The list goes ever on, but none was Tolkien’s intention for us to correlate in any direct way, according to the man himself. So I will take him at his word.

Yet how could Tolkien have written any of his stories without them somehow reflecting his background and beliefs? The case has been made, apart from any allegory, that his life necessarily had an impact on his storytelling. He remembered the Somme in dreadful detail while parts of The Lord Of The Rings he wrote during the London blitz. The very substance of his creative writing is as clear a reflection of Tolkien, the man, as any allegory we may seek to attribute to him. The Hobbit was borne of bedtime stories for his children, adventures he felt they would enjoy, undertaken by characters he thought they would like. We might even conclude that no other books were possible from Tolkien apart from the ones he produced. Tolkien himself described the entire phenomenon of Middle Earth as arising from his professional passion, philology, and his desire to express and share his passions in a tangible way. Sounds like art to me.

For a superb exposition on why to bother specifically with poetry, check out this article. For a more brief but still informative meditation, check out this one.

  • By over-analysing literature, aren’t we unfairly putting words in someone’s mouth?

Not really, no, and what’s more, be careful – asking this question is like giving away the freedom to decide for yourself. Now, I know when my students asked, they just didn’t want to do any thinking or work, and teens will be teens. But anyone seriously considering this question owes it to the rest of us, if not themselves, to reconsider.

As I mentioned above about Tolkien, he had intentions and motives behind his storytelling – who doesn’t? – irrespective of us knowing what they were. After it was published, though, Tolkien was famously bemused and upset by those in the audience who turned The Lord Of The Rings into an LSD experience, and by those who made it a screenplay. But whose problem is that? Copyright laws protect content and intellectual property, but heaven knows we’re unable to stop people from thinking. Attempts might try to control what is available to think about, or how what’s available is presented, or worse, how people think, period. We ignore such detail at our peril because whether we’re for or against a particular interpretation, how and why something is offered is at least as important as what. This is a whole ’nuther topic.

But, as to Tolkien’s problem, the only substantive response in the aftermath of publishing his story was not to have published it at all. That balance between private creativity and public expression is inescapable, unless you’re a hermit, I guess. As creative as you want to be, go crazy, but don’t forget that creativity for an audience means some lost degree of autonomy because everybody has an opinion. I don’t know if it’s a zero-sum equation, but there is a sliding scale from artist to audience, as far as we’re considering any kind of interpretive control. What else is criticism but artistic interpretation, Frye’s third language? The critic is an artist, sometimes a very good one, and there’s something to be said for the decline of public discourse (as compared to debate over the decline of public intellectualism, which is a different topic). But opinions are as numerous as the people who possess them, and sometimes just as popular.

For artists like Shakespeare and Tolkien, who have since died, this question of putting words in their mouths is moot anyway. And, as I mentioned above, once the creative process ends, once the artist decides it’s time to stop creating and start exhibiting, they rather exit the equation of their own accord. Even an explicit interpretive explanation from the artist during an interview or in a press release or on the back of a napkin is itself subject to interpretation. Bias is inescapable (and makes life worth living, so long as it’s checked by responsible morality). An artist is a catalyst, in this respect, nothing more. There are bound to be audience members who defend an artist’s interpretation of X-Y-Z, just as there are bound to be members who dispute it. But aside from any intended message, artist inevitably accedes interpretation to audience. There is no other way.

What of the creation, itself, the artefact or text, that contains the message – or should we say, by which the message is conveyed? As the medium, it enables us to experience a relationship with the artist by proxy – this avenue has lead to some fascinating cultural restoration that far exceeds in scope and import anything I offer here. It has also yielded some curious responses on behalf of artists by other artists. Still, for some others, an object of art somehow literally has its own “words in its mouth,” as people imbue an artefact with life all its own. To me, that’s the same as putting words in the artist’s mouth because, again, the kinds of artefacts I’ve had in mind here are not living, breathing things but more conventional creations such as books, paintings, songs, and sculptures.

I suppose someone out there will know a living, breathing artefact or text in this more conventional sense of art – fair enough although we now fall into discussion over a definition of “art,” which I’d argue has as its basis intentionality, which necessarily implicates the artist, not the artefact. Any conversation that might occur between an audience and an artefact or text would still depend on the frame of mind and experience of the audience after depending on the creative will of the artist. And with no two relationships ever being the same, every person unique, an art experience by its very nature is an intimate, personal phenomenon. Even when someone experiences the same art piece over and over, the interpretation will vary: a movie is different depending on your mood each time you watch it, say, or your age. In that sense, you’re putting words in your own mouth from the last time you watched it!

The same idea put a different way: I once heard from a Jimi Hendrix fan that he liked listening to songs over and over because he heard new things each time, stuff that he missed those other times. Then, after taking up guitar ten years later, he listened to the same songs with yet another new appreciation since his understanding of guitar playing had grown more sophisticated. It’s an easy example to grasp, and it respects both sides of the medium – in this instance, guitar players and guitar listeners.

So yes, then, we can respect this question being asked on behalf of an artist, that of putting words in their mouth, but it risks the cost of silencing your own words, which these days, especially, is anathema. When an audience gets involved, a published or exhibited creation of any kind takes on a new, unpredictable existence – many, in fact, each one personally derived by those who partake. As I briefly acknowledged above, this discussion can encompass not just objects or texts or songs but, more broadly, ideas, beliefs, and cultural practice. But leave the details of any such area for others to discuss who have the appropriate nuance and expertise.

Finally, an anonymous quotation – if anybody knows the source, please say so! – on the topic of literary interpretation and criticism in general…

“One way students learn to interpret fiction, poetry, and drama is through an understanding of the conventional elements of literature. Another way to deepen our appreciation and enhance our understanding of literature is to learn how readers have interpreted it over the years since it was written. Therefore, reading and discussing the ideas of scholars who have studied particular authors, periods, or genres provide us with knowledge that enriches all our reading experiences. Likewise, reading literature with an awareness of specific critical views of the major schools of literary theory – such as mythological, historical, psychological, reader-response, feminist, or deconstructive perspectives – further expands our reading experiences. Through knowledge of the historical impact of literature and the major literary theories, students of literature learn to appreciate a work of literature for its social, moral, or spiritual worth – in other words, its cultural value.”

It’s nothing so ground-breaking or, as I mentioned, music to the ears of students who just don’t want to study. Yet this response underscores a most fundamental precept of academics, across every discipline, just as it pleads for culture – the sincere stewardship of our stores of knowledge, inherited, refined, and passed on over time to future generations, is an artistic task of creativity, that is to say a shared process, and we all therefore bear a measure of responsibility. If that’s not a compelling “motive for metaphor,” then I don’t know what else to say!

I hope this helps to address some of the more common issues and questions that people raise regarding the analysis of literature, specifically, and of art in general.

[1] Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien. George Allen and Unwin, London, 1981.