Here’s my high-tech syllabi-planning methodology, this one for my new two-semester Brit Lit course for juniors:
Yes, I have a lot of work to do—-this class launches in five weeks!
In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, blood doesn’t seep off every page—it splatters all over you. Brains explode. Viscera ooze from sliced bellies. Penises are hacked off and shoved into mouths; severed heads are impaled on sticks and paraded about; dogs are tied to their masters and burned alive; babies are dangled by their ankles and bashed against rocks; humans are dismembered, raped, hanged, flayed. Donkeys plunge soundlessly down bottomless canyons. And everywhere, everywhere are bloodied scalps, potent symbols of dehumanizing dominance.
Here’s a delightful example of BM‘s unrelenting violence:
“They found the scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung gray and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they’d been roasted until their heads had charred and their brains bubbled in their skulls and steam sang from their noseholes. Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down on their chests.”
What to make of this novel? Even after my second reading, I’m not certain. McCarthy’s prose shimmers with intensity. His imagery sears into the mind. His story, as always elemental yet mythic and archetypal, entertains utterly. And his remarkable antagonist, the judge, that “great hairless thing,” arguably the scariest literary character ever created, is alone worth the book’s price. But McCarthy is not an explainer. Weird shit happens; ambiguities abound; the puzzle remains unsolved.
OK, I sort of get it. The judge is war. Or death. Or Satan. Or God. Or man’s propensity for violence. And the murderous, marauding gang our anti-hero the kid joins is the judge’s instrument of destruction. Only those who offer themselves “entire to the blood of war” prevail; all others “are destined for a night that is eternal.” That said, McCarthy punishes the gang. One by one, each member meets a violent end. Surviving longest is the kid, whose body count stacks as high as everyone else’s but who silently “sits in judgment on [his] own deeds.” However—spoiler alert—the boy is at last punished, horribly, while, of course, the judge, “towering over” mankind, twirling and dancing, “will never die.” So, violence triumphs?
Entangled within all the violence, the judge’s cryptic parables and sermons, the archetypes, the biblical imagery, and the vivid descriptions of the land lie subtler, deeper themes, and those I’m still pondering–themes about time, fate, power, morality, order, and the marks we leave on the world. McCarthy is a slippery writer whose texts refuse neat packaging. The ambiguities must be surfed.
There’s a terrifying scene toward the book’s end where the judge—pale as the moon, enormous, brilliant, destructive, omnipotent—appears on the desert horizon, relentlessly pursuing the kid, who hides in a muddy well. Wearing nothing but meat slabs and a “wig of dried river mud,” the judge advances toward the well, attended, Lear-like, by “the imbecile,” a drooling, turd-eating retarded character—the two fantastic figures “[l]ike things whose very portent renders them ambiguous. Like things so charged with meaning that their forms are dimmed” (282).
Of course, they are like Blood Meridian itself: scary as hell, surreal, preposterous, sadistic, engrossing, “charged with meaning,” but, in the end, like the judge’s smile, gloriously enigmatic.
“Maybe our work is the best of us.”
“I hope not.”
My dreamboat, Clive Owen, as an English teacher–I cannot miss this one:
Call me a nerd, but Words and Pictures is the only movie I’m excited to see this summer. Anyone have any recommendations? Belle? Night Moves?
Another academic year has come and gone–poof!–and here I sit in my home office, far from the madding crowd and free from the crush of classroom responsibilities, fingers on my Apple wireless keyboard (asdfjkl;), ready to write, yet also ready to turn off the computer and get the hell outta the house and into the world!
To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. (RW Emerson)
I promise, Master Emerson, I will turn off my computer and I will close my books and go into nature, but not before I make a list of my summer reading, a treasured late-spring ritual. For better or worse, here’s my list, subject to change at whim:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.
Share feedback on above books? Share your own summer reading list?
What I didn’t mention about graduation in my previous post:
Two students–not mine–failed second-semester English, so, lacking the credits required to earn their high school diplomas, they did not graduate. Well, they didn’t officially graduate–they will after they each complete a summer course in English literature. That said, these two young men were allowed to enjoy all the perks and honors of graduation: the pinning, the parade, the diploma-receiving, the adoring applause from the well-heeled audience of 1000+, the cap tossing, and, of course, the lavish feting–a PTA-funded dinner-dance cruise, I believe, on a 105′ yacht.
Embarrassing as all that sounds, just wait–the story gets even better. During the ceremony, a small airplane circled overhead, dragging a banner congratulating one of the very students who was fake-graduating. The sign read something like, “Congrats, xxxxx, you did it!”
Do I laugh or do I cry?
It’s graduation season again–so I have youth-on-the-brain…. Again I bear witness to another batch of fresh-faced, enthusiastic young people launching their black and cardinal mortarboards into the clear California sky, eager to take on the world, a world essentially built for their glory.
These kids seem so vibrant, so annoyingly alive. I almost believe their valedictorian when, enumerating their accomplishments, she proclaims, “There’s never been a class as special as the class of 2014.” Working so deeply among them, seduced by their youthful exuberance and unquestioned privilege, I almost believe, as they do, that they’re special and destined for greatness; that they’ll visit Mars, cure cancer, break world records, start start-ups, discover the Theory of Everything, and, most important, make a crapload of money.
Of course, I’m old enough to know it’s all smoke and mirrors (except for the money bit–money breeds money). Certainly, three or four of the 160 graduates will achieve some sort of greatness (or have greatness “thrust upon them”). But most of them will become like most of us–regular people doing regular things, living quiet, unheralded lives and ultimately resting in unvisited tombs.
The effervescence of youth and passion, and the fresh gloss of the intellect and imagination, endow them with a false brilliancy…. Like certain chintzes, calicoes, and ginghams, they show finely in their first newness, but cannot stand the sun and rain, and assume a very sober aspect after washing day.
(Nathaniel Hawthorne, House of Seven Gables)
And it’s not the fault of my students that they believe the hype. First, young people enjoy elevated levels of dopamine, which can give them a seductively “powerful sense of being alive” (Siegel Brainstorm 67)–I remember that feeling; it was awesome! Second, most simply don’t know much about life, for they haven’t lived very long as adults and the years they have lived have been rather sheltered. Third, for the most part children of immense privilege, these kids see the world as their own personal, limitless smorgasbord, so of course they’re confident–the feast is about to begin! And fourth, well, they’re victims of a conspiracy, for they’ve been fed a load of “truthless ideals,” by, guess who?, US! We tell them they’re special from the day they’re born, preparing them, as Somerset Maugham wrote in his masterpiece Of Human Bondage, for “an unreal life.” Later, of course, “[t]hey must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is a nail driven into the body on the cross of life.”
Lest you think I’m Bitter Middle-Aged Woman, lest you think I’m resentful because when I was young I thought I’d be a published writer but now I’m just a high school English teacher (“Those who can’t do, teach!”), lest you find me plainly pathetic, please know that I believe youth’s overconfident narcissism a natural element of life’s trajectory. At least in my own experience, youthful hubris was followed by real-world responsibilities, repeated doses of reality (like a machine gun, bam bam bam bam), hard work, successes, failures, observation and reflection, recalibration of ambitions (aka compromise), more hard work and reflection and recalibration, eventual self-forgiveness, appreciation for life’s bounties, and, yes!, after years, earned confidence born ironically from awe-filled humility, a deeper and more profound happiness than anything I felt when young. My man Hawthorne understood this trajectory, writing
Our first youth is of no value; for we are never conscious of it until after it is gone. But sometimes–always, I suspect, unless one is exceedingly unfortunate–there comes a sense of second youth, gushing out of the heart’s joy…. This bemoaning of one’s self over the first careless, shallow gaiety of youth departed, and this profound happiness at youth regained–so much deeper and richer than the one we lost–are essential to the soul’s development.
Closing in on fifty, I’m in the early stages of my “second youth,” and, while I don’t necessarily like the physical aspects of growing old (the aches! the wrinkles! the slow processing speed!), I love most everything else about it. So, we allow these fresh graduates their pomp and circumstance, for we see our younger selves in them, and, anyway, they’ve worked hard and deserve a moment in the spotlight. But as they’re blithely throwing their caps into the air, we smile to ourselves, because little do they know, if they are lucky enough to escape extreme misfortune and live with open hearts, many years from now they’ll enjoy a second happiness, so much better than the first.
“It howled execration upon the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor.”
The wailed execration, of course, comes from the lungs of a newborn baby, snatched from its sleeping mother by its own father, Culla Holme—who’s also, ahem, the infant’s uncle—and left to die in a cottonwood glade as a furious storm rages. Before Culla flees, a “crack of lightening” reveals to the murderous young dad a haunting vision of “the shapeless white plasm struggling upon the rich and incunabular moss,” a “boneless cognate of his heart’s dread.”
Such ends cheerful chapter one of Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, set, like his other early works, in the “mean country” of Appalachia. It’s so much fun to read McCarthy, but only if you enjoy gothic lit—archetypes, Biblical motifs/allusions, incest, murder, characters cast into the “outer dark” and on the move (seeking, hiding, fleeing—central McCarthy conceits). The novel also offers these delights: a mysterious, unnamed evil man and his two creepy cohorts; hanged men in trees, swaying in the hot wind; a drooling mute; a lonely and crooked tinker; a horse attack; a pig stampede; and, as usual, a “grotesque hero bobbing harried and unwilling” among all this chaos, in this story the sister, Rinthy Holme, who searches ceaselessly and tragically for her lost child, “paps” painfully swollen and leaking milk.
Oh, and Outer Dark also offers a deadly resolution not quite worthy of Blood Meridian’s horrifying finale, but brutal and essential none-the-less. You see, Holme did a very bad thing—well, at least two very bad things—and he must pay for his transgressions. Guilt casts a relentless dark shadow over him; everywhere he travels, he’s accused of some random crime and must run for his life. Thusly tormented by the curse of his sins, he tries to both escape from and confront his horrible deeds, deeds embodied by the mysterious, wandering bearded bad man, whose fires in the darkness draw in Holme like an unsuspecting moth.