Saturday, July 21, 2012

Verisimilitude: Batman, Books, and Byronic Monsters

Sometime in late January 1977, I argued with an older colleague about a novella that I chose to teach.
The chap with two years more class time than me, was a corpulent omnivore with a Hemingway fixation; sported a beard a la Papa; smoked a pipe and never graded the papers he assigned.  Instead the pretentious gent 'stored' them in his classroom and distributed slips of paper with grades never lower than a B-.  Odd That. However, Father Jim Fanale,CSV, our department chair, ordered the three years of ungraded papers freed of their bondage the following month and began the paper trail to jettison an Illinois Certified (K-12) payroller. But, that was to be.

I had ordered Edward Everett Hale's 1863 classic Man Without a Country faux-Hemingway made sport of this dusty golden-oldie, " What's next the Molly Pitcher?"   Not long enough really ; 24 lines in 6 stanzas of four; I may, however, offer Barbara Fritchie by John Greenleaf Whittier. I loved the closed couplet.  I love when that old broad gives M'arse Robert his Reb Comeuppance.

'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,But spare your country's flag,' she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirredTo life at that woman's deed and word;
'Who touches a hair of yon gray headDies like a dog! March on! he said.
Nope, the kids will love Man Without a Country.

Hemingway had his kids read Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky.

Needless to say, following the Inauguration of Jimmy Carter and his immediate pardon of the Vietnam draft-dodgers, Man Without a Country was poignantly tonic to high schoolers. The novella is wonderful well-written example verisimilitude (Fictive Truthfulness).  Edward E. Hale, used the actual cry of an Ohio Democrat Copperhead who worked against the Union in the Civil War and paraphrases "D——n the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!" through the voice of the fictional Phillip Nolan, an American Army officer serving in "Legion of the West ( Texas)" who takes up with Aaron Burr in his attempt at Empire.

Phillip Nolan gets his wish in a punishment that fit his crimes - he is imprisoned about Naval ships for the balance of his life without ever hearing another human voice say anything to him of or about the United States of America.

President Jimmy Carter has just pardoned young men who deserted America for Canada in order to avoid being drafted or serving the military in Vietnam.

The kids loved the story of the young romantic Phillip Nolan whose dreams of Empire required treason to his country,  Hemingway Fats required his students purchase the Notes from Underground, at the end of the school year I picked a dozen or more unopened and untouched copies of that Jerk Manifesto, I n fact, I re-read this work the other night.

Dostoevsky's novella is a tough read.  The first half of the book is a complete Hegelian mishmash of society's wrongs and justification for complete isolation - sort of an ASSHOLE for Dummies. Underground Man, the narrator protagonist, is someone who lives on spite, grudges, pay-back, insults, and self-pity.

Yesterday, our country was slapped with another madman's carnage.  At 4 AM, when I woke up, I read about the massacre of the innocent that occurred hours before; my son Conor, was taking a flight  out of Midway to Denver with four of his friends.  We talked about the massacre at the movies.  Conor departed with Joe Logan.  They were meeting the other three at Midway as they had gone to see Dark Knight Rising just like poor souls in Aurora, Colorado.  This quintet of south side Irish Catholic Chicago twenty somethings were going to Denver and then on to the old silver mining town of Georgetown, once home to the famous Poker Annie.  They would actually live on a ranch as their base-camp in the shadow of God's great architecture - five gregarious Catholic League football has beens rooting through abandoned silver mines, white water rafting and quaffing the malted grain beverages three meals a day.

Hours before, a gifted kid slaughtered strangers and wounded the heart of our nation. What did this kid read; what ideas were put in his head?

I took a pass on teaching Notes from Underground to high school kids. It's a work of genius, but it is essentially a manifesto of evil.  Crime and Punishment, ditto.  I was blessed by great mentors and teachers who impressed me with my obligation as a teacher -don't teach what you like; teach what kids need.  Thank you, Nick Novich, Dave Raich, Father Fanala, Father Sheridan and Mr. Kerrigan.  Thank you, Loyola University.

Literature, ideas, creeds that isolate us, from one another and grade chasing science ventures -my God, Neuroscience  - that are not community building, self-absorbed and purposely destructive are as dangerous as the one hundred round drum-clip purchased by a Byronic monster who wrote in blood the other night -"The notes of this paradoxalist do not end here, however. He could not refrain from going on with them, but it seems to us that we may stop here."

Man Without a Country and Notes From Underground Texts:

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