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Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Magic Work
When I was in junior high school, I took Latin. Not understanding the work that is required to learn a language well enough to become proficient in it, however, I muddled along getting decent grades without really mastering anything. Most of my circle of friends were taking Spanish. And they seemed to be having a better time than I was. So I decided to switch to Spanish. That meant having to take Spanish I with kids two years beneath me and also taking my religion class as an independent study over the summer. But it was worth the maneuvering. Remembering my struggles as I'd gotten into more advanced Latin, I made sure not make the same mistakes twice in learning Spanish.

By the end of the year, I was doing well enough that my teacher gave me permission to try to complete Spanish II over the summer. My mother found a tutor at the University of Maryland, an undergraduate named Mark who charged absurdly little -- even in the mid-1980s, $5 per hour was a tremendous bargain -- and was willing to meet me halfway between his home and ours, at the perpetually depressed Free State Mall in Bowie. He changed my life.

I'd been so miserable at my school, not to mention largely ignored by my teachers, that the love of learning I'd had as a child had been beaten into a state of self-loathing. By sitting with me for an hour in one of the booths at Happy Italian Delight Pizza, conversing about his life and mine, Mark showed me that it was possible to be smart and interested in the world without being pretentious. And he showed me that school is not the place to learn, so much as the place to test what you've learned on your own.

He'd studied in Argentina and found a girlfriend down there with whom he was having the predictable long-distance relationship troubles now that he was back in Maryland. While he never broached details that might be inappropriate for our tutoring arrangement, he shared enough of his experiences with her for me to understand that, despite the misery of high school, I might one day have similar ones myself. Not knowing how marginalized I was at school, he treated me as I'd always dreamed of being treated: a bright person without the burden of history weighing him down.

Mark also introduced me to the idea that literature is more fun to read for fun than it is to read as work. In addition to conversing about our daily lives, we also discussed his cultural interests. His favorite author was Jorge Luis Borges, someone I'd never heard of before. Unlike many of the smart undergrads I've encountered in my teaching, I wasn't one of those kids who reads the classics early in life as a way of compensating for my sense of being different from the herd. I did the summer reading our school demanded with relative enthusiasm, but, once classes started, was so unhappy that I barely cracked a book. The idea that literature might mean something to me apart from being a subject I'd get a lazy "A" in hadn't crossed my mind.

Hearing Mark talk about his love for Borges, though, and feeling that love come through in his indignation that the great man still hadn't received a Nobel Prize, I decided that I'd give literature a shot. So I procured the only Spanish-language copy of a Borges title I could find -- remember, this was years before Al Gore invented the internet -- and sat down to read. The book I'd purchased, La cifra, is one of Borges's late works, a very minor one in the scope of his oeuvre. I didn't know that at the time, however, and was immediately taken, as I turned the pages, by the number of historical and literary references in Borges's pieces. That intrigued me. It had never occurred to me that poetry could be about culture instead of feelings.

Finally, I decided I would try to make it all the way through one poem. The one I picked, somewhat randomly, is not, it turns out, among the most interesting in the collection. But I worked hard enough at learning it that it remains impressed in my mind. I can picture myself reading the words out loud, over and over, as I sat on the curb outside the pizzeria, waiting to be picked up after an unusual nighttime meeting with Mark:
El sueño
La noche nos impone su tarea
mágica. Destejer el universo,
las ramificaciones infinitas
de efectos y de causas, que se pierden
en ese vértigo sin fondo, el tiempo.
La noche quiere que esta noche olvides
tu nombre, tus mayores y tu sangre,
cada palabra humana y cada lágrima,
lo que pude enseñarte la vigilia,
el ilusorio punto de los geómetras,
la línea, el plano, el cubo, el pirámide,
el cilindro, la esfera, el mar, las olas,
tu mejilla en la almohada, la frescura
de la sábana nueva. . .
los imperios, los Césares y Shakespeare
y lo que es más difícil, lo que amas.
Curiosamente, una pastilla puede
borrar el cosmos y erigir el caos.
I also remember being disturbed by the last two lines, which seem to take the vast range of the list that precedes them and render it meaningless. I suppose that was the point, since Borges was a master of the end-of-sonnet like turn, whether in prose or poetry. I also hadn't yet come into contact with cosmos-erasing substances. A few years later, when I was less innocent and more happy, I would drift off with this poem in my head, as if it represented a permit from the authorities to stop thinking and start floating away. Perhaps that's why, when I had the sort of minor surgery in 2003 that should probably come with scare quotes, but which, because I only needed a local anaesthetic, left me conscious for the procedure, I decided to read Borges to take my mind off of the operation. Tonight I'll be teaching Borges in my senior seminar. Right now I'm going to go prepare for class. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to the labor.

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duccio From: duccio Date: October 9th, 2007 08:14 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

“The Gospel According to Mark” ~ Jorge Luis Borges

The New Yorker has an mp3 of the short story read by Paul Theroux HERE. (20 min)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: October 9th, 2007 08:30 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: “The Gospel According to Mark” ~ Jorge Luis Borges

Wow! Thanks so much. It's great that it has that title.
susandennis From: susandennis Date: October 9th, 2007 09:16 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
What a wonderful entry. Thank you for sharing it.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: October 10th, 2007 07:34 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
You're welcome! And thanks for sharing your everyday life with such aplomb. I love hearing about new pets, not to mention baseball.

How's your knee?
susandennis From: susandennis Date: October 10th, 2007 07:37 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
As soon as I can get a return authorization number, I'm sending it back to the factory.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: October 11th, 2007 01:59 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
From: babyiwasshot Date: October 9th, 2007 11:52 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I wasn't one of those kids who reads the classics early in life as a way of compensating for my sense of being different from the herd.

Should I take umbrage to this? haha j/k. Although I must say that, at times, it feels as if the autodidacts get very little love ("recognition" is probably more a propos) in classes. I think we take the fun out of teaching--the fun being getting students to discover new things. I'm one of those students who spoils the teaching experience by showing off and attempting to take on the role of instructor in the form of comments.

Kids like me always come across as pedantic and uninspired, yet I've never understood why this is so. Shouldn't the fact that we've independently sought out knowledge for its own sake, without requiring a grade-based incentive, reveal us to be more inspired than most--particularly in a society as superficial and oblivious to intellectualism as our own?

Things would be easier for both the teachers and the students if those who are ahead of the class were permitted to advance without having to prove themselves. Being pretentious myself, I can attest to the fact that nothing cultivates arrogance and a tendency to use knowledge as punitively and aggressively more than struggling against the formal impediments of the system (grades, prerequisites, etc.).

If anything, I think that those who prosper within the confines of the system are the true pedants. Assignments are like cookbooks; follow the recipe and you'll get a good grade, which is what it seems like 99.9% of my peers do without even truly learning or CARING about the content of the courses.

In my opinion, the kids with the average to below-average GPAs are to be respected and regarded more than those with the impeccable ones, because the mediocrity of their records reflect the fact that they ignored the mandates of the system in order to go their own way, and THAT is what being critical is all about; that is what constitutes free-thinking.

I guess I should probably throw some examples in for good measure. Einstein would be the best one. Far from being stupid, his record alone would've appeared to indicate a less than average intellect; in truth, all it revealed is the fact that he abhorred the system's attempts to contain him and rebelled against it.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: October 10th, 2007 07:39 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm a lot like you, then. I always read a ton of non-fiction on my own, just not literature. As an undergrad I was blessed to discover two majors where I could get good grades while pursuing my own interests on the side. Frequently, I'd read another book by the assigned author first, then cram the assigned test for the final. Perverse, but I learned more that way.

I also got in trouble with both peers and teacher for talking too much and, yes, challenging the status quo. Hell, I still have that problem sometimes. I'm just older and slower to react!
From: babyiwasshot Date: October 10th, 2007 10:01 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I always read a ton of non-fiction on my own, just not literature. Yeah! Precisely! I wasn't thinking about genre when you wrote about reading the classics; when it comes to classical literary works/fiction, I'm as clueless as the others.

Actually, it's probably here where the line of demarcation between those with new-critical and those with theoretical and dialectical tendencies can be drawn. To care SOLELY about the work (rather than it's greater social, historical and philosophical implications) seems like nothing but mere fetishism to me; it turns literary scholars into the equivalent of any other kind of fanatic (star trek fans, comic geeks, etc.).

Then again, I started out as a fanatic of music and film, but moving into theory helped me realize that these objects reveal important things about our culture and society, which is where their intrinsic value really resides. To DENY that this is the case (i.e. to assert that the text only has a value and a significance in and of itself) is to accept Kant and the establishment's assertion that art and cultural artifacts have no real value (meaning USE value, of course). New critics, to me, come across as lapdogs of the establishment: they take the peanuts that the system tosses them and beg and belittle themselves in hope that they're given a little more. The difference between theorist and new critic, then, is analogous to the distinction Malcolm X made between the field slave and the house slave.

Oddly enough, this bifurcation is typically analogous to the political distinction between the right and the left: new criticism is right wing (T.S. Eliot is a perfect model); theory is left wing, which is probably why my opposition to new critics feels eerily like a political struggle.

Frequently, I'd read another book by the assigned author first, then cram the assigned test for the final. Perverse, but I learned more that way.


This describes my modus operandi perfectly. In fact, I currently stand on the precipice of a self-imposed internet black-out† in order to cram for the 373A mid-term.

†I got rid of my TV a few months ago, which I thought would solve the problem of distraction, only to discover later that TV and the internet are nearly equivalent in that respect, and the advent of youtube has precipitated its depreciation. Too many choices, too much freedom (through consumption), too much information: surfeit keeps the people enslaved, swimming in shallow water. IT spreads their knowledge thin (everybody knows facts about myriad subjects without knowing a single subject deeply) because going deep threatens the system. What a strange, Orwellian paradox: freedom is slavery. It's hard to believe that 1984 really WAS a description of the future--all it got wrong was the date. The only other novel as prescient is White Noise, whose prophecies Hurricane Katrina carried out perfectly.
xxxpunkxgrrlxxx From: xxxpunkxgrrlxxx Date: October 10th, 2007 03:54 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
i think your sort of personal-historical journal entries are my favorite. :)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: October 10th, 2007 07:40 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks! That means a lot. I get self-conscious about them. But they're part of a larger project, which, when I figure it out, I'll reveal to the world in blaze of narcissism!
jstgerma From: jstgerma Date: October 10th, 2007 05:15 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
That's really a great post. It's a testament to your teaching how many of the epiphanies you mention -- I'm thinking particularly of this: "he treated me as I'd always dreamed of being treated: a bright person without the burden of history weighing him down," though there are others -- remind me of similar thoughts I had in your classes, years later.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: October 10th, 2007 07:42 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

I wasn't thinking of myself as a teacher. But it makes me happy beyond measure that you felt that way. I guess that is what I want to happen in my classroom. I just need to remind myself more often that I'm the one in charge of making it happen, however committed to collaborative work I may be.
jstgerma From: jstgerma Date: October 11th, 2007 08:52 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I know. I don't really think of you as a teacher anymore, either. (How's that for a left-handed compliment? Of course, by that I mean only that now I see you as a thinker/writer/critic/friend/pick-setter, etc., rather than just as a teacher.)

I struggled a lot, when I was teaching, with how to go about making those kinds of realizations happen. Some teaching methods just seem to resonate with certain people, and your unique (in my experience) classroom approach of treating nearly any proferred observation or thought as a valid basis for inquiry and discussion resonated with me.

Only later, when I tried a similar approach with freshmen, did I realize that it doesn't work in every class.
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