Yesterday, in lit class, once again I came off as "that political guy." We were discussing Nobody Nothing Never by Juan Jose Saer, and, well, there's a pretty glaring omission from that novel which is set in rural Argentina during Argentina's Dirty War-- that omission being the torture and disappearance of up to 30,000 people.
Now, to his credit, Saer wrote a book that has much more to do with metaphysical notions of time and space than war, and he has every right to write or not write about any topic he chooses. I have no problem with that. And, certainly, this is very much a book that mostly deals with metaphysical notions of time and space--except it also tangentially mentions (here and there, maybe a total of four pages out of a 220 page novel) that there are indeed torture and disappearances of "revolutionaries" (and alleged, i.e. innocent, "revolutionaries") going on. It's just that nobody's talking about it and the newspapers aren't covering it. (Instead, the newspapers and townsfolk are busy discussing and obsessing over a spate of 11 horse murders, even as they admit, after a period of weeks, that they have arrested, imprisoned, and tortured a falsely accused man.)
So, in my reading, because Saer did choose to include those few details which undeniably set his metaphysical treatise in a particular time and particular place where a particularly brutal and oppressive campaign was under way, then it really calls attention to that "omission." It's not an omission at all.
I could go on here, like how at least eight pages are devoted to a character's reading/paraphrasing of de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom, a device which allows Saer to explore similarities between depictions of torture and pornography, to address why he has chosen to omit graphic renditions of torture. Like Coetzee in Waiting For the Barbarians, he recognizes the potential for a "perverse" sort of erotic pleasure arising from writing or reading detailed scenes of a person exerting the utmost power over the body of another person, thereby placing the author in a somewhat complicit position. Meh, I'm not explaining myself very well. Let me pull a few quotes from that Coetzee article I just linked to (fans of The Battle of Algiers will find mention of it if they read the whole, short Coetzee article):
The torture room thus becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer's fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.[...]
For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one's own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms.
But I digress. This post is not about my reading of Nobody Nothing Never (a reading which is corroborated by a bit of knowledge about the "sequel" to it, in which the two main characters from NNN are disappeared.) No, this post is about...<drumroll>...me.
I don't know why, but I continue being amazed by my classmates who (all?) believe that art and literature exist in some rarefied vacuum, floating somewhere above the piss and shit and blood and cum and vomit of the world we live in. In their quest for bollocks about "the universal human experience," they don't even think to view Saer's novel within a historical context., let alone examine their own race/class/gender/sexually priviliged or marginalized place in the world. This in a class of seven people, of which I am the only straight male and the other six students are women (one in her 70s and two identify as lesbians). Not exactly the most privileged members of society with an abundance of books describing their experience as "universal." (The teacher, for the record, is an awesome, politically astute gay man who is totally sensitive to race/class/gender/history/etc.)
They remind me of the students in Arun P. Mukherjee's article "Ideology in the Classroom," wherein she discusses her students' readings of "The Perfume Sea" by Margaret Laurence.
"Their papers," writes Mukherjee, "gave me an understanding of how their education had allowed them to neutralize the subversive meanings implicit in a piece of good literature."
I'm not going to get into the specifics of Mukherjee's and her students' readings of "The Perfume Sea," but she does note her students' tendency to:
efface the differences between British bureaucrats and British traders, between colonizing whites and colonized blacks, between rich blacks and poor blacks. [This tendency] enabled them to believe that all human beings faced dilemmas similar to the ones faced by the two main characters in the story...Their analysis, I realized, was in the time-honored tradition of that variety of criticism which presents literary works as 'universal.'So, back to Saer, this novel which is ostensibly "about" some horse murders and primarily "about" metaphysics and tangentially "about" the Dirty War becomes devoid of any political significance in this "universalist" reading. We see moments of time frozen, as when a ball kicked into the air floats, suspended, for pages while it is examined and reexamined from multiple angles. We see water gushing out of a spigot and then the drops freezie in midair as their shadows and bits of light refracted through them are examined in close detail. But we don't ever, not for the slightest moment (as readers), consider how the falsely accused man being tortured experiences time.
Wow, that was a really long set-up for what was supposed to be a joke.
So, after class I went out for dinner with Kian (who is not in that class), and complained to him about exactly what I've just complained to you about. As we stood there waiting for our table, I turned to him and asked, "Do you think I'm pretentious and sanctimonious?"
Before he even had a chance to answer, I looked at him and added, "The fact that I used the second word pretty much proves the first, doesn't it?"
"Don't answer that," I laughed.
This has turned into a very long post and I haven't even gotten around to writing about my first experience practice-teaching. I'll just say this, for now--I went in there intending to play some Jimmy Cliff [lyrics] and Peter Tosh [lyrics] (because they were on the syllabus, along with a critical essay on the oral tradition) and the professor I TA for wound up insisting that I play Dead Prez [lyrics].
That's right. I went in to meet her before class to go over my plans one last time and told her I planned on maybe making the lesson a little more relevant (or familiar, at least) to the students by making mention of a contemporary rap group who address some of the themes from the readings (and who even allude, explicitly, to Peter Tosh in that song). Well, just mentioning Dead Prez wasn't enough for her, especially when she found out I had my computer in my bag and the song on my computer.
"What kind of computer do you have?" she asked, thinking of the A/V setup in the classroom. "Do you have a Mac? No? We could still hook up your pc. Why don't you email it to yourself so we can download it onto the classroom computer?" Etc. I'm not exaggerating one bit--she insisted I take my computer out right then and there, in her office before we even headed over to the other building where the classroom was, and email it to myself immediately.
And that's how I played Dead Prez in the classroom the very first time I taught. (Overall, I think I did a pretty bad job teaching, but I guess that's common. My friends Jenn and Kerry have taken/are taking a "Teaching Creative Writing" class in which they practice-teach and they both had the same experience I did--trying to fit too much material into too little time.)
Wow, this has gone on for a long time and I really need to get to work on my own fiction, which is due in about 15 hours, but I have to close by saying that ALL art is political art and IF YOU ARE NOT EXPLICITLY OR IMPLICITLY CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO, then you are (at least implicitly) supporting the status quo.