I spend a relatively sizable amount of my career
rereading things I’ve already been familiar with for years,
simply for retention and revised perspective.
My students often ask me
“Don’t you get sick of reading Puritan stuff?”
and I reply
“Get sick? I’ve been sick all along!”
I annotate like a terminal patient recording a last will and testament
while the morphine kicks in,
bulletproof in its comprehensiveness,
exacting critical vengeance on each page
by slashing purple-inked knife wounds
in the hallowed components of canons which
make me feel grossly inadequate.
You know, those that can’t fucking do, fucking teach.
Take that, Melville, you beautiful bastard I love you my god I’m not worthy.
my curriculum for American Lit. culminates in Vonnegut’s
“Mother Night”, after opening the year with “Slaughterhouse-Five”.
We’ve read of wars, criticism of the warlike, the ravages, satires and spoils of conflict
played on the stage-
moral triumphs and virtuous depravities
counteracted with revolutionary thought and locomotive progress
run rampant on a civilization yet juvenile in the scope of humanity,
and I love starting that trip with SH-5-
a tale of chronological uncertainty fueled by
the trauma of warfare.
And I love ending with “Mother Night”,
a lesser-recognized Vonnegut joint which,
in my myopic and contemptuously unqualified view,
kicks the rest of the man’s library assward and out the window
If you haven’t read it, do so immediately.
he opens his fable with its moral-
why fuck around?
Let me quote:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” (Vonnegut, V, 1961)
Here’s the premise, without spoiling the delivery:
An American playwright and expatriate in Pre-WWII Germany is asked by the U.S. to transmit codes to our spies over a radio propaganda program which is like Rush Limbaugh for Nazis.
It’s a short leap to make, really.
So, even though his spying wins the way, it is classified top secret and will never be disclosed,
all the while leaving our narrator with the simultaneous secret victory for the forces of good, and public recognition as the disgraced American who glamorized and spread the glorious indoctrinations of Nazi ideologies, thus swaying legions of accessories to murder to their patriotic allegiance to the Axis Powers.
Who is the real man, and which side did he champion most?
“Be careful about what we pretend to be”.
I love this part of the school year,
when the students read this gem
and their brains audibly pop.
I’ve had several round of this, and,
as a certifiable flibbertigibbet,
have lost, found, and revisited several copies of the book,
each fresh with comparable-
but not statistically coinciding-
Literature is a living and evolving being
supplemented by context on the audience’s behalf,
and effective literature has no stable context.
Unless it is “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyer.
That shit is bullshit.
adjust the timetable to suit your particular context, Natch-
This year, I dug up a copy of “Mother Night” from three years ago.
I’ve got the plot down,
but the nuances require consistent revisitation.
I’m diving into the narrative once more,
while my students take a test on The Crucible–
we go from the “pretense” of witchhunts to the peculiarities of moral and military alliances.
I explore the annotations I established three years ago,
and the ideas remain sound.
I’ve asked myself similar questions to my alternate readings,
and my record of criticism defers to the appropriate points.
climbing the margins like toxic ivy
I come to an annotation beside a passage on the veiled
truth in the fictitious nature of theatre.
Vonnegut describes writers as “professional liars”,
claiming the written word is a fictional falsehood,
yet, as he warns,
we become that which we pretend to be.
So, in a sense,
fictions are- to once again quote the author
“the most beguiling forms of truth”.
I dig it.
So we may lie on the stage,
but it masks our truth,
a confession told in confidence to an audience accepting our character-
a justification for the entire novel.
And, in the margins,
I’ve written one annotated response embodying how I’ve grasped this notion.
Simply put, I’ve written:
I have no clue what the fuck that means.
these referential challenges emerge and stagger me,
so I make sure to confront them before class time.
Students and forum are baffling enough-
I don’t need to compound it with my own cryptic note-taking.
I just went through The Crucible with my
classes and found pages marked with annotations such as
“627” or “294” or “Indianapolis at the turn of the Century” and so on.
What these notes imply must have been essential in their context,
and now they are lost to time-
“unstuck”, as Vonnegut would have said.
No offense to Ralph Maccio,
he was superb in “My Cousin Vinny”, or “the Outsiders” or “Karate Kid” 1 and 3.
But I am saddened to realize now,
after time and obfuscation,
that at one point in my tenure as a Literature Teacher
Ralph Maccio attained the status of noteworthy,
as a representation of how the lies performed on stage are windows to the author’s truth,
the champers of the heart wittingly professed to an anonymous cadre of theatre-goers
whose sympathies are attained vicariously as they borrow the sensations from the page,
locking the script into their own spirits with the compassionate ear
of the confessional,
isolated in a spotlight and illuminated in genius.
Context brings meaning to the audience.
To me, apparently, Vonnegut’s fictional veil which facilitates the truth,
will ever be obscured and intrinsically tied to Ralph Maccio.
A kindred spirit.