"I know my time is short," G. tells me, "and I want to pack as much thinking as possible into what’s left."
It's the last night of class in the last course these students can take with me. A mix of nostalgia, excitement and exhaustion is in the air. We are saying goodbye with presentations and food, quick hugs and promises to keep in touch. Against all odds (some acknowledge with stunned expressions), this class has not been a mere deposit in the bank vault of education. We have changed each other.
G. is not dying, just graduating. But tonight feels like the death of ideas. All our fellow thinkers and talkers and dreamers are walking out the door. There’s no structure left to reel them back tomorrow, next week, next year. Our community has dispersed (something we’ve talked about this semester — the virtual nature of community) and the finale, as always, has a melancholy feel.
For the past several weeks, we have collaborated to create what Hemingway might call a "clean, well-lighted place" to question our own practices. Now, the lights are going out throughout the building and, in many ways, throughout the world. Slashed budgets, job cuts, strange politics, war, discrimination, willful misunderstanding, despair. And here we sit, asking, "How is identity formed? What is the nature of community? Who is the oft-cited 'they'?"
After 16 weeks of intellectual abandon, G. and I both know that the space to come and talk about these things is narrowing to a pinpoint of light.
And so he stays to talk after everyone has left, a habit we’ve fallen into these past few months, unusual tonight only because it’s the time most of us — students as well as teachers — are coiled tight and ready to bolt at the precise moment when break begins. It's the latest in a series of late-night concept pitches and strategy sessions about how he can articulate his thoughts without stifling them.
Much later, as I’m driving home, I will think of all the things, trite and otherwise, I should have said. This is not the end; it's a transition. You can never really lose a mind. The universe would not be so cruel to limit thought to a mere 16 weeks. You are leaving the institutionalization of critical thought. Now, you will have to create your own clean, well-lighted place in the face of what can seem like a very dark world. From here on, you have to make it happen.
But for now, we talk as if G.'s interpretation is truly our plight, the only reasonable conclusion given our experience. We discuss biology and culture and personal choice, wrong-headed policies, the future of education, his envisioned place in the corporate world. We make cross-generational references to popular films. We finish each other’s sentences.
"The really exciting thing about J.’s work is—"
"--everything we’ve been talking about is only 5 percent of the potentiality--"
"--even if the theory is ultimately proven false—"
"—it opens up so much—"
Which, we agree, is both terrifying and exhilarating.
G. thinks at warp speed, a far greater velocity than the everyday world requires or supports. A simple assignment turns into a 50-page thesis. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth or pen has several disclaimers, qualifiers, and alternate interpretations lurking behind it. If he tries to follow our mandates to "focus" and “frame,” his work becomes a strangely truncated outline with key connections missing. When everything seems important, editing is an arbitrary act. What to cut? How to choose? In a world full of meaning, which vital thing will you omit?
He's been medicated, counseled, mentored, and rewarded for this. But he remains the passionate explorer. Once an idea grabs him, he can’t seem to edit out intersecting issues. He experiences everything at once. Nothing is backdrop; it’s all center stage. He wants to explain totality. Anything less is a cheat.
"You’ve got to go to grad school," I tell him. We laugh.
We are suddenly aware of a peculiar silence. The building has taken on that hushed waiting that all public spaces get after hours. We can hear little pings and creaks in the walls and air ducts all around us, no longer masked by the rush of humanity through the rooms and halls. It’s long after 10:00 p.m. The security guard rattles the main doors, checks the side entrance. We are about to be "secured," and we decide that we don’t want to be the ones to discover whether exiting after lockdown sets off the alarms.
Backpacks and briefcases gathered, keys jangling as I shut down the computer and enter the security code, we walk, still talking, through the halls and out into the deserted parking lot. My cheap, reliable car sits not far away, in a little pool of streetlight, and we head toward it. As I unlock my door, I glance around the empty lot.
"Where’d you park?" I say, expecting to see his car lurking in the shadows nearby.
He flings one hand toward the deep-dark at the far end of the lot. "Back over there," he says. "I just didn’t want you walking out here alone."
I pause, keys in hand. It’s a courtly gesture, an everyday kindness. But tonight, it feels a lot like hope. I stand here, five thoughts warring at once in my head, each jamming the others so that not a one gets spoken. Because it strikes me just then that we create these clean, well-lighted places for each other. Hope flows both ways. It flows both ways. We conjure these temporary, malleable, and, most importantly, collaborative spaces for, and with, each other. We build them, not as escapes from a world gone unaccountably off track, but as paths through it. And from here on, we’ll have to make that happen. The scaffold is falling away.
"You have my e-mail," I say finally. "Use it." G. gives me a quick smile and saunters off, leaving me in a pool of light.
Submitted by Jon Wiener on October 19, 2012 - 3:00am
Gore Vidal, who died in July, was one of our greatest novelists and essayists – and yet he never went to college. In a 2007 interview I asked him why not.
"I graduated from [Phillips] Exeter,” he explained, “and I was aimed at going to Harvard. Instead I enlisted in [the Navy] in 1943. When I got out, in '46, I thought, 'I’ve spent all my life in institutions that I loathe, including my service in the [Navy] of the United States.' I thought, 'Shall I go for another four years?'
"My first book was already being published" — it was the novel Williwaw, and it got good reviews. "I said ‘I'm going to be told how to write by somebody at Harvard.’ I said, 'This is too great a risk.' "
The audience of 2,000 at a book festival at the University of California at Los Angeles laughed and applauded.
"But I did go there to lecture," he added. "This was about '47 or '48. There was a big audience, and many of them were my classmates from Exeter, who were overage juniors and seniors in what looked to be their mid-forties. I came out cheerily, as is my wont, and I've never felt such hatred radiating. They’d all predicted my total failure, because I was not to go to Harvard and meet a publisher or an agent -- which is, I think, why they went."
But what about getting a college education? "I graduated from Exeter, and you really don’t need any more education after that," he replied, "unless you’re going to be a brain surgeon. I had read Plato and I had read Milton. I had read Shakespeare. I had had fair American history. And a lot of Latin. That’s all you need."
At another book event, this one on the University of Southern California campus, he arrived wearing a Harvard athletic letter jacket. He opened the event by explaining "I didn’t go to Harvard, but I have gone on, as you can see, to be a professor of Harvard. I was in a terrible movie in which I played a Harvard professor.”
The "terrible movie" was the 1994 film "With Honors." In it, a student finishing his senior thesis — Brendan Fraser -- finds it being held hostage by a homeless man — Joe Pesci — who ends up teaching him "a thing or two about real life." Vidal played the student’s faculty adviser, a conservative professor of government.
Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from?"
Vidal as the professor: "At Harvard we don't end our sentences with prepositions."
Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from, asshole?"
The New York Times reviewer Caryn James called it "a half-baked movie" with a plot that "shouts cliché." However, James, added, "Gore Vidal is absolutely on target as Monty's priggish mentor.”
Two years earlier Vidal had gone to Harvard to give the prestigious Massey Lectures, for which he wrote a memoir about his early love of film. Vidal later recalled that, "When I gave the Massey Lectures at Harvard, I had mostly graduate students in the audience, Very bright. A great many Chinese from mainland China, who know a great bit more about American civilization than the locals know. So it was quite a treat talking to them.
"But I noticed something interesting whenever I took on a class at Harvard, undergraduate, postgraduate, whatever: no one ever mentioned a book, or a poem, or anything to do with literature.
"I finally broke the ice with my Chinese friends. I said, 'Has anybody here seen 'The Doors?’ " (The Oliver Stone film starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.)
"Well the whole room fell apart. Everybody had seen 'The Doors.' I got away with an hour without having to do anything while they told me about 'The Doors.' "
If the student audience wasn’t engaged with the lectures, the critics loved the book of the lectures, which Harvard University Press published in 2004. The Atlantic called it "witty and sweepingly disrespectful." Michael Kammen, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described it as "vibrant" and compared it to Eudora Welty’s "wonderful" memoir One Writer’s Beginnings. And in the daily New York Times, reviewer Herbert Mitgang called the book "a small gem."
"On almost every page there is an observation worth admiring," he wrote, "whether it is about Hollywood and television, politics and history, or the paranoia and hypocrisy of the commercialized American dream."
In the 1960s Vidal had donated his papers to the University of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, at a time when he was working primarily in theater, television, and film But in 2002 he transferred those papers and the rest of his archives to Harvard’s Houghton Library. That collection consists of 394 boxes, cartons, and film reels, and includes "drafts of GV's novels, theatrical plays, television scripts, screenplays, essays, poetry, short stories, and speeches," as well as legal records including files on the lawsuits William F. Buckley v. Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal v. Truman Capote.
So although Vidal did not start out at Harvard, his work, and the record of his life, ended up there.
In the early 1980s, I became friends with a student from the People’s Republic of China who was in the United States to do graduate work in English. He was roughly a decade older than me by the calendar, but a lifetime older in experience. He started school during the Cultural Revolution, when the curriculum had been “Mao in the morning, math in the afternoon.” Possibly it was the other way around, but that was the combination. As an adolescent, he was, like everyone of his generation, “sent down” to the countryside to “learn from the peasantry.” What he mainly learned, it sounded like, was not to idealize the peasants too much. “Some of them were really mean,” he said, without elaborating.
For there was only just so much he was willing to discuss. There was nothing gloomy about him, but he seemed to be making up for lost time. When we met, he was about halfway through reading every word Thoreau had ever put on paper -- an enterprise he pursued with admirable discipline, although (beginning at some point in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) diminishing enthusiasm. One day he seemed very excited by something, and it wasn’t Transcendentalism. He had been reading about some novels that were stirring up discussion back home. One of them was about some chapter in Chinese military history, which the author had narrated with more realism than certain critics thought healthy.
Others were defending the new spirit in the arts -- taking courage, presumably, from a recent official resolution on the country’s history that seemed to justify criticism and re-evaluation. My friend was on their side, as much as anyone could be while toiling in a grad student carrel for 80 hours a week. The sparks flying over theory in our seminar interested me a lot more than they did him. Even so, I knew that the stakes were a lot higher in the debates he was following. Everything about American literary culture was decidedly small beans by comparison.
Last week, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan, a novelist who began publishing in the early 1980s. It’s possible -- if not likely -- that he was one of the authors my friend was so excited by, almost 30 years ago. The early- to mid-1980s are now sometimes called a golden age or renaissance of Chinese literature. Mo Yan and my friend were born within two or three years of each other, at most, and the novelist describes throwing himself into writing fiction with what sounds like the absolute concentration that his peer was bringing to 19th-century American literature.
In China, Mo Yan's publisher has announced plans to bring out his collected works in 16 volumes. We’ll have a seventh volume of his fiction in English when the University of Oklahoma Press brings out his novel Sandalwood Death in January. Mo Yan is the first Chinese citizen to receive the award; the response within China is an understandable mixture of pride and irritation.
An article from the official news agency Xinhua quotes Chinese academics who identify a number of authors who ought to have won it in decades past. They exhibit a healthy disregard for the Swedish Academy as arbiter of an author’s world-class significance. (The Swedish committee’s choices for the literature award have at times been as dubious as its omissions are criminal.) Xinhua cites the argument of Zhang Hongsheng (dean of the literature department of the Communication University of China) that Mo Yan’s blend of “hallucinatory realism with folk tales … is more appealing to the taste of Western readers than the styles adopted by many of his peers.”
That may be, although Mo Yan has also enjoyed another great advantage over his colleagues that we’ll consider shortly. And whatever the reasons for his appeal abroad – beginning with the international acclaim for Red Sorghum (1987), a film based on his early novel of the same title – the award has only enhanced Mo Yan's reputation at home. After the announcement last week, his most recent novel jumped from 560th to 14th place on China’s Amazon site, and his work is selling out in stores there.
The only book by Mo Yan that I’ve read so far is Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of short fiction, while it’s his novels that are supposed to reveal the author in all his epic sweep. Even so, Mo Yan’s stories do corroborate Professor Zhang’s point about the Nobel laureate’s sensibility. While Mo Yan denies being influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the grounds for comparison are obvious. But it is -- to rework one of Deng Xiaoping’s expressions -- “ ’magical realism’ with Chinese characteristics”: the folkloric elements and supernatural events unfold in a landscape marked by real and recognizable political upheavals.
Mo Yan’s vision has a touch of the grotesque. There are vivid sensual descriptions (smells and textures defined so clearly that they seem real from half a globe away) and surreal twists, sometimes involving elements of visceral horror. A character in one story learns that his mother’s cataracts might improve if treated with the extract of an animal’s gall bladder – though he’s also told that one taken from a human body is much more effective, according to tradition. He is able to perform his filial duty thanks to the state execution of enemies of the people. But the result is something from an O. Henry ending.
But foreign influences or resonances only count for so much. Mo Yan’s tale seems to echo the work of Lu Xun -- perhaps the most canonical of 20th-century Chinese writers -- whose story “A Madman’s Diary” has a similar mixture of dark humor and grim irony. Or so it seemed to me, taking what amounted to a shot in the dark, given that my knowledge of modern Chinese literature is mainly limited to Lu Xun’s prose and Mao Zedong’s poetry. That guess seems confirmed by Shelley W. Chan’s A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan (2010), which its publisher, Cambria Press, calls “the most comprehensive exposition of Mo Yan’s fiction in any language.” It is certainly the only book-length study in English, bringing together enough biographical and historical background to anchor its treatment of Mo Yan’s formal experiments and thematic preoccupations.
She notes that Mo Yan has often been called an experimental or avant-garde writer (even a postmodernist: in one novel, a character named “Mo Yan” hears from a half-crazy Ph.D. candidate in liquor studies who seeks help in publishing his short stories about certain horrific matters) but that he is not usually understood as a satirist. But in keeping with the outlook of satire at its most savage, Mo Yan creates a world in which all the absurd, cruel, or vicious parts of everyday life that we try to downplay are magnified and intensified until they become inescapable.The effect can elicit laughter or disgust, or both. It is a natural means to expressing social criticism, and Mo Yan's use of it calls to mind Jonathan Swift as well as Lu Xun.
Mo Yan combines this satirical outlook with one of “nostalgia for the past,” Chan writes, “complicated by his strong and sometimes scornful criticism of tradition.” Nostalgia is also complicated by the record of carnage left by foreign invasion, civil war, famine, and ideological campaigns. He is left “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present.”
The Nobel laureate must embody everything that worried the conservative Chinese critics whose articles my friend described in the early 1980s. No doubt there are still readers in China who turn away from his work with a sense that it represents the spiritual contamination created by foreign influences. But being “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present” is the default mode for modern consciousness once sufficiently overwhelmed by available information about how things are. If Mo Yan is emerging as a figure in world literature, that may be part of it.
But as mentioned earlier, Mo Yan enjoys one benefit that has certainly helped him find a transational audience: the dedication of Howard Goldblatt, professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame from 2002-211, who has translated a great deal of contemporary Chinese fiction, including a number of Mo Yan’s novels.
A dozen years ago, World Literature Today (an indispensable journal published by the University of Oklahoma Press) published a special issue on Mo Yan that included the transcript of a talk he had given while visiting the United States. “Friends of mine who know both Chinese and English have told me that [Goldblatt’s] translations are on a par with my originals,” he said. “But I prefer to think they've made my novels better.” There may be more to that statement than exaggerated appreciation: an article in Translation Review points out that Goldblatt has, in consultation with the author, sometimes tightened up his novels with judicious editing, which Mo Yan himself has then incorporated into later editions of his work in China. When Goldblatt's translation of Sandalwood Death appears early next year, I hope we can run an interview in this column.
Until then, there is an off-chance that someone out there may know the whereabouts of my friend of three decades back. At last report, he had become deeply involved in support for the student movement in China, which meant that he lost his stipend after the Tiananmen Square massacre while also being unable to return to China. There seems to be no trace of him in the U.S. after 1989. It seems best for me not to give his name, but it would be great to get back in touch. Someone said that he translated "Civil Disobedience," and I'm hoping that's true.