Sunday, 29 March 2015

A black week

"Extra Yarn" by Marc Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

It's been a week of ear infections, visits to the doctor, sleepless nights, crying little ones, all happening under the cloud of the unfair dismissal of a dear friend and colleague. A week left hollowed-out and pale with dark rings under its eyes.  Fingers curling around mugs of coffee and tea, trying to stay awake, trying to think my way into the disturbing notion that "it is reckless of lecturers to challenge thoughts about religion." It's a phrase that still haunts me. Is it reckless in the same way that it would have been to challenge thoughts about racial inequality during apartheid? Or reckless to challenge sexist thinking around issues of culture? What about challenging religious beliefs that are hurtful towards others? Where is the line with what we're comfortable with and what we're not and who decides on it?

It's been a week where cereal has been poured into bowls, little ones bathed and dressed and even stories read with the monotonous, halting motions of an automaton. My mind has been elsewhere, clouded with disgust and anger and disillusionment.

Teaching and learning is about the open exchange of ideas. It's an arena that allows ideas to be kicked around a bit and it's an arena where ideas shouldn't be protected from becoming a little bruised. If there is no such space where our personal ideas and beliefs can be met with a fair round of knocks and dents, then how do we ever get the opportunity to know who we really are? How do we ever see beyond our own ways of thinking, our limited, immediate world?

In her very apt article, In college and hiding from scary ideas, Judith Schulewitz writes, "People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they'll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They'll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they've learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?"

The same sentiment that carves out universities as separate spaces from the everyday, is echoed by Prof Jonathan Jansen, whom I greatly admire, "In this state of being open and ready to listen to new ideas, students and professors come to university because they believe that in a democracy based on decency and respect, reason is our prime currency. A university is not a place where you throw tantrums in public, or storm out of lectures on topics you do not like, or hurl insults at ideas that clash with your own.

This means, therefore, that a university must be different from its community when what happens outside a campus is often marked by dangerous conflicts in which libraries are burnt down, tyres set alight in the streets, foreign nationals robbed and killed, racial and tribal bonds formed, and brutal acts of mob justice meted out.

To the extent that a university produces future leaders in a democracy, students must learn to be counter-cultural - forming habits of the mind and learning acts of duty that run in the opposite direction to what happens in the broader society.

A university does not bear allegiance to any external authority. It is not a church, even though many of the inhabitants of this place of higher learning might come from church communities. Nor does a university owe any allegiance to a political party or a government."

And just like that a wonderful teacher disappears. Years of stimulating discussions, open debate, of finding pathways into knowledge and experience, of first steps navigating the maze of tricky, uncomfortable topics present in our world, have all been sacrificed for the safe, the mundane, the watered-down, the non-offensive.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Crucible

I want to open myself!... I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him, I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!    (Abigail, end of Act 1)
Arthur Miller's The Crucible so powerfully captures the religious fervor and mindless persecution that drove the Salem witch-hunt of 1692. I remember studying this play, sitting with it in my lap and reading of the unfolding madness and religious hysteria. I remember thinking how can any rational person with a mind of their own get so consumed that they become blind to logic and reason and turn on each other? It engrossed me to the point that I spent quite a bit of time reading about the historical context.

In a note on historical accuracy, Arthur Miller writes, "I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history. The fate of each character is exactly that of his historical model, and there is no one in the drama who did not play a similar - and in some cases exactly the same - role in history." It is chilling to re-live, through this play, the "crying-out" by Abigail and the other girls which unleashes the hysteria that engulfs the town of Salem and ends in executions. "We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!" says John Proctor in Act 2 after the girls accuse his wife of witchcraft. Reason is replaced by superstition, empathy by revenge, openness of mind by fear.  

It's been a while since I read this play, but I picked it up again this week, wrapped in thoughts about how ideas frighten people, how their foreign shapes stick uncomfortably in the sides of people's minds like thorns. Part of that reaction is natural; we don't want to be uncomfortable, we don't want to be scared, we want to remain where it's safe. The problem begins when anything that pricks or prods us is resisted and viewed with suspicion. That troubles me. We enter that dangerous, monochromatic landscape of antipodean concepts: black/white, right/wrong, good/evil. In reality, ideas are more nuanced; more often than not they sit somewhere in between clearly defined places. Ideas are a journey and if we are afraid to take that journey we can't learn, we can't grow, we deny ourselves the opportunity of understanding a complex, colourful world.

If we don't take that journey, we risk much. We stagnate, our views narrow and wither, we find ourselves stuck. What is out there is encountered as a threat, as either right or wrong and finally condemned. So what separates us from Abigail's actions, from her hysterical "crying-out", from the madness that engulfed a community?

I'd like to think that it is reading and education. But these are useless unless we are open to them. This was highlighted by a recent article by Jonathan Jansen on tertiary education in South Africa. I read it with a renewed sense of hope that we have indeed come a long way from the darker, more hysterical events of our history. He writes,
"A university is a place in which you are supposed to feel uncomfortable as your views are tested and challenged by other views. If a university simply exists to confirm your culture, your language, your faith and your habits, then it will decidedly not prepare you for the kind of world you will enter on graduation. In other words, you will be a social and cultural misfit in a changing, complex and globalised world."
Warning or guideline, if we take heed of these words, then it seems that we are ready for the journey into new ideas.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The raw material out of which literature is crafted...

Recently, I've had my nose in The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker and so far I've found it to be a sensible, entertaining and practical writing guide, but then I'm a fan. It's a reminder (for me anyway) to trim back on adjectives and adverbs but not so much as to prevent anything interesting from growing. I think one of my favourite parts has to be Pinker's advice on using a thesaurus, "I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers:'Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool'."  That made me giggle.

I love the way style guides try to capture that elusive quality of language, that something, almost like a taste that the reader can savour and return to for more. It's such a difficult thing to put your finger on. In the seminal The Elements of Style, Strunk and White in 1959 remind us of the intangible yet very present nature of writing style, “here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?... There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course.”

This has also made me reflect on writing as a craft, as something that can be shaped and influenced to take on a particular form or tone. Where does that come from? Does it come from hours of rearranging words on a page until it matches some internal echo of what we've read before? Writers are readers first of all, absorbing the language of others, internalising ideas and words like avid, obsessive collectors and creating inventories to draw on in the future. Surely writing has to be built on that and cannot just materialise out of nothing?

And where do style guides fit into this? Books and advice on writing? They prod and poke at prose, nudging it into a particular form. But can good writing really be taught? I have no consistent answer to that question (it often depends on the day). Sometimes yes, it seems that writing is a process like any other that needs to be trained and mastered, that it becomes more refined with practice and with reading. But on other days, it feels like the opposite, that it's either there or not, black or white, like some sudden, romantic gift.

While thinking about all this, I came across Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose via an article on Brainpickings, which affirms that intimate link between reading and writing. Francine Prose's advice to readers is to slow down and pay attention to the craft of writing by examining "the long and magnificent sentences of Philip Roth and the breathtaking paragraphs of Isaac Babel...the brilliant characterisation in Geore Eliot's Middlemarch...and to look to John Le Carre for a lesson in how to advance plot through dialogue."

Francine Prose writes beautifully,
"With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices."
Whether it can be learned or not, I don't completely know, but good writing does just what Prose deems necessary: it encourages slowing down and savouring the language out of which it is built.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Rainy days

Rain finally breaks the heat, releasing it out of a ground that simmers and steams under those first heavy drops. I watch from the veranda as shrouds over the harbour bring the downpour closer, closing the view like a grey curtain. The whipped-wet greenery and the scent of earth mingled with summer hint at changing seasons. Is the heat finally over?


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