In the Crumbling Temple of the Dead White Males
Artifact: Shakespeare’s Sonnets
I escaped high school and the American South the summer after I graduated. I arrived in Los Angeles on a Greyhound bus, educated in comic books, Tolkein and Frank Herbert, album-oriented rock music, the Ten Best Reasons to Escape the South, and the effects of a few popular recreational drugs. I also had the high school diploma I’d earned by not quitting school. I’d never seen a big city before. I’d never even been out of the South.
It took me a year to settle into Los Angeles enough to enter college. Midway through my first year I left class one day and didn’t go back. I don’t remember why, though I’m sure life got in the way somehow. So much for higher education.
My education in the literary classics actually began, true to pattern, outside of school. Beth, a girl in my apartment complex, was infatuated with an English grad student who to me seemed pretty infatuated with himself, judging by the reading list he gave her. Next to his entry on the list of Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” he had written some cryptic note to the effect that if Beth understood this story, she would understand him. She thought he was so important that she asked me to read the recommended books with her. Maybe I would help her unlock the mystery of this sage’s being.
I didn’t have anything better to do. Looking back, though, it’s hard to imagine Hemingway as a grad student.
Anyway, first on the list was Kerouac’s On the Road. This was fateful for me–fateful. I read it in complete, unguided isolation. Beth was too star-struck to read anything on this list critically, and all I knew, equally uncritically, was that I was reading a classic, I was reading Literature—and classic literature meant wisdom to me, and wisdom meant truth. So my first taste of truth and wisdom came from the seductive pen of this drug-addled hedonist’s glorification of the great speed-freak Neal Cassidy, as the two of them hitch-hiked across America seeking alternately mystical or sexual kicks. I bought it. Soon I was dressing like a French Beatnik unstuck in time, and writing narcissistic free verse poetry bad enough to make the angels weep.
I shared Kerouac with John, an L.A. surfer dude I worked with who had never read anything. But he enjoyed my influence (and I his), and off we went. We devoured the Beats that year and, as soon as I wrote his final junior college essay for him and he was out of school for the summer, we strapped on backpacks and hitch-hiked across America. And back. (It was the first of many such summer trips that decade, usually alone.)
Hitch-hiking didn’t work so well in the Yuppie ‘80s as it did in the post-War Beat ‘50s. The first day out of Los Angeles, we covered about 100 miles to the Mojave Desert, where we spent the next two days stranded on the side of the highway under the desert sun, sunburnt and sandy-eyed, watching hundreds of cars pass us with no interest at all. We were Beat alright. We split up at that point and crossed the rest of the country solo to meet on the other side. I was amazed at how many male drivers of blue and white collar backgrounds—husbands and fathers as a rule: a Mormon preacher in Utah, a real estate executive in Omaha, hard-hatted tobacco-spitting construction worker in Kentucy, truck-drivers from Nowhere and Everywhere—took me as a safe opportunity to slip out of the closet and suggest a little sex of one sort or another. Kerouac never wrote about that. Luckily, in the end they were all gentlemen who took no for an answer. (I was especially glad this was true of the rodeo cowboy in Colorado who wrestled bulls and broncos for a living. At 6’5” or so of steel-framed beef, he could have lifted me over his head and snapped me in two if he’d wanted to. Instead, he began sobbing, apologized for any offense, and told me that he would be rope-tied and castrated by the other cowboys if they ever found out. I wonder how many cowboys would actually have embraced him instead.)
At any rate, two or three years went by delving deeper into classic Beat wisdom. John and I starting smoking cigarettes as a stamp of culture. We were bona fide existentialists. We started reading different stuff—introductions to Buddhism, Hermann Hesse, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and such. Each book was wise and right and we had no doubt about it. We were young enough (only 20) to know that we knew everything.
At about that time, I sat one night in a Ship’s coffee shop (the closest thing to an intellectual French cafe L.A. had to offer at the time), chain-smoking with a bottomless fifty-cent cup of coffee, and improving myself through literature by reading, I believe, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. In walked a striking young African-American man (who turned out to be a fashion model, the son of a famous singer from the Jazz Age, and brother of another famous R&B female vocalist), who noticed me reading and struck up a conversation.
“No, no, no,” he said, “you’ve got it all wrong. Why are you reading all this 20th Century crap when you could be reading Homer and Shakespeare, the Bible and Spenser and Milton?”
“Tell me more,” I said. And he did. And did. And did. For several months he did. (He finally dismissed me to find a pupil who wasn’t straight, essentially.) He gave me a copy of Homer’s epics and we discussed them (rather, he talked and I listened). He gave me Plato, which was such a revelation and a joy that I took immediate action to create the maximum free time to study his works. I moved out of my apartment and into my beat old VW bus—it had a comfy bed in back and good closets and sound system—and I reduced my schedule at the restaurant I worked at to provide just enough money for gas, food, coffee shops, two types of smokes, and the complete works of Plato (plus savings for the next summer’s hitchhiking). My Beatnik influence was powerful enough to sanction this unconventional move. I parked on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu every night and read, and woke in the morning to emerge from my van onto the literal sands of my prime beachfront property. (It really wasn’t bad–I had a cooler and a beach chair. What more did I need?) I got through the complete works and left hazy marginalia on every page. I had a couple of mystical experiences becoming one with Plato’s forms.
My elitist mentor/suitor also gave me Beethoven symphonies, Mahler, Wagner (“Why are you listening to that modern, plebeian rock crap?” my mentor said. “Really, Clay.” He literally clucked as he shook his head). I sponged them up, and passed them on to John (who lived with his parents but often spent the night parked next to me in his own van). We discovered that Beethoven and Mahler – good god, Mahler! – were gods. We listened to them on the beach with double headphones in one Walkman. The finales would crank us up so much we’d normally run into the surf and clash like sumo wrestlers. We couldn’t imagine how our culture had cheated us of these treasures all our lives, and given us Ozzie Osborne instead. We pretty much abandoned rock and pop at that point, and I’ve never been able to get into it again since–though Jazz has long since eclipsed classical for me.
The awareness dawned on John and me that, if literature roughly began with Homer around the 7th Century BCE, we should be able to start there and just read right through until we reached our time period (thank god for the ‘Dark Ages’). So we tried it. It wasn’t easy, of course. It was impossible. We finally surrendered and admitted that we needed a framework and an experienced guide to give us context and titles so we’d get ‘the’ ‘whole picture.’ This gave us a reason to go to college. John changed his mind and decided to travel around the world that year, but I had no savings so I couldn’t join him. I went back to college alone.
I loved it. I finally had that love of literature—not just comics and science fiction anymore. It made me want to study literature and want to write about it. (It is worth repeating that it was not the university but rather reading as a shared social act that made me value the classics.) I loved meeting students who also wanted to study literature, who were there voluntarily like me. We did little else but read, talk, write, and dream literature. We were all still goofy young boneheads, sure, mistaking traditional authority for truth and beauty, but by god it often was at least profound, and as often stunningly beautiful.
I took a Survey of Western Philosophy course under a woman of mystical bent who led us from the Pre-Socratics to Kant over a full year. She was hip, smart, enthusiastic, and beautiful. When she assigned papers on these philosophers, we all leapt to the task because we saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate our understanding of the internal argument of the philosopher. We were proud to be able to demonstrate this because I think we were all surprised that middle-class students like us could ‘get’ this stuff. Never mind that one week I fully agreed with Thales that motion and change didn’t exist—I remember riding my bike home from school one day convinced that everything was an illusion and all was a changeless monistic One, so my getting hit by a truck was not really my getting hit by a truck—and the next week agreed with Heraclitus that we can’t step into the same river twice and all was flux. Never mind that Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s materialism were both true. Let Augustine prove God’s existence and Nietzsche announce His death.
The redemptive fact in this comedy of confusion is that we boneheads were unconsciously preparing for the moment when all these contradictions would impress themselves on us consciously, and we would recognize the historicity of all human knowledge and values. I am so thankful that this professor didn’t do what later, and to me misguided, professors did: introduce these texts as tools of oppression to be mistrusted and opposed. Instead, she let us suckle these creeds outworn and search for truth through them, trusting all the while, I suspect, that their collective incoherence would speak for itself eventually, and we would reach that conclusion ourselves through experience.
John came back from the world the next summer and we took a ride in my van so I could fill him in on the history of Western philosophy. That fall he enrolled in college as a philosophy major. Again we were off.
Eventually we both transferred to the University of Oregon. I loved too many subjects to consider abandoning any of them, so I declared Interdisciplinary Arts and Letters as my major. The first year in the program required survey courses in at least four disciplines, all chronologically taught. This meant that all five of my classes in term one were devoted to Greece and Rome from different angles (eg, literature, philosophy, history, art, religion); the next term treated the Middle Ages in the same interdisciplinary way; and the final term surveyed the Renaissance to the Modern Age. I had found that framework for ‘the’ big picture I was looking for. (At the end of Term 1, I wanted to be first a Classicist, then a monk after Term 2, and finally a Marxist revolutionary by the end of that year.)
I didn’t realize it then, but the curriculum at the time was embattled by feminists, Marxists, traditionalists, and post-Structuralists. I’m glad it was a hidden battle, because the inclusion of Other perspectives in our canon—primarily Marxist and women thinkers and artists—was not surrounded by controversy. Instead, we students experienced that inclusion as natural.
By the time I took my upper division classes, however, the tone changed radically (literally). Ideologues of every sort in the most extreme cases unapologetically bashed the works we had earlier studied with the categorical baseball bat for “Dead White Males.” This type of generalization was unspeakably thoughtless to me: were Oscar Wilde’s homo-eroticism, Defoe’s feminism, Blake’s liberalism, Nietzsche’s ecstatic critique of Christian history and metaphysics all to be tossed because of their sires’ gender? Were the wisdoms of only late-20th century far left thinkers to be studied, when their knowledge too is historically constructed and determined? (Wasn’t I still smoking because of the classic modern wisdom of the Beats and Camus and Sartre?) Was indignation to be the only respectable motive for research and exploration? Was all of that pleasure of the mind I’d so come to love from my earlier studies suddenly invalid and unwelcome? Couldn’t I do good simply by being a conduit for Keats to all students who want to love him? Was aesthetic rapture banned by the new regime? I know these are gross generalizations. But that was my impression of American intellectualism in the mid-‘90s. I didn’t have the stomach for it. I graduated as quickly as I could and left academia.
Looking back on this now, it seems to me that the problem I had with the new –ists was not with their –isms, but with their pedagogy. Simply put, they were uncivil. They showed no concern for, and made no attempt to learn about, my background. Instead they attacked what I loved and consequently as much as told me I did not belong. They were radical Gradgrinds in post-modern hard times. They often employed the same traditionalist pedagogy they theoretically opposed by deciding for me what they must teach and I must learn, when constructivist explorations could well have succeeded in bringing me to see and experience something probably close to their perspective. They often seemed to accept that all truth was constructed – except their own.
In short, they forgot about the learner in their zeal to be teachers. This is why their teaching failed to win me. And this makes me reflect, while looking at the Holistic Circle of Learning, that a teacher can be dazzlingly interdisciplinary, can teach for all the multiple intelligences squared, and can be impressively perspectivistic and multi-modal and multi-cultural until the cows come home—they will still probably fail. Unless…they start with knowing their learners, with respecting and esteeming them, and whatever cultural scripts those learners bring into the class.