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  • College of Hard Knocks

    By Oronte October 23, 2010 5:00 pm UTC

    Remember the scene in Disney’s Pinocchio where the wooden boy jumps into the sea to look for his father, who’s been swallowed by a giant whale named Monstro? It strikes me how well the animators understood and portrayed the way bodies move underwater. Maybe Milt Kahl’s reputed obsession with getting the art right led him to observe deep-sea divers; at the least I’m convinced he was once a great swimmer.

    Knowledge of the physical world is one of the things I value in writing, however it manifests, because it almost always leads to psychological and emotional truths. The image in the poem “In Your Honor” by Arthur Sze of “a sea bass / tied to a black-lacquered dish by green-spun seaweed,” its eye “clear and luminous,” the way it “smells / of dream, but this is no dream,” and how it “bleeds and flaps, bleeds and flaps as / the host slices slice after slice of glistening sashimi,” is immediate, memorable, and visceral—cutting, no less—in a way that the literary equivalent of conceptual art, or sound for sound’s sake, rarely is for me. Our best and most enduring writers find their own solutions, even in the most interior writing, to the mind-body problem.

    Of course if we end up digitizing the world one day, knowing natural things and processes may become moot. Meanwhile a piece in the Times worries, “[W]hat will so many alternative realities do to the one in which we live?" One thing they seem to do is affect student writing, which often betrays a lack of familiarity with the physical world. Characters move through pixellated-prose landscapes with odd movements—not the motion of dreams, which has its own natural law, but in jerky and inconsequential ways—as if mimicking bad video game graphics or fanboy ways of love.

    In a paper in the proceedings of the 2007 Ohio Valley Philosophy of Education Society, Bryan R. Warnick sums up the emphasis Ralph Waldo Emerson places on an education in the natural world:

    First, Emerson argues that nature offers the possibility of solitude and, with this solitude, comes silence. The silence allows for the emergence of “voices” that are otherwise marginalized in the dominant technological society. Second, in nature there are unique possibilities for the development of moral thought through distinctive nontechnological metaphors. Third, nature forces us both to see difference and to develop our sense of “worship,” that is, it promotes a feeling that there is an Other, a “not-me,” who is worthy of respect. Fourth, a proper educative relationship with nature allows us to escape the ethical dissonance that can come from being complicit in the destructive forces of modern economies, and, at the same time, to develop our talents as human beings. These four modes of natural education are not separate, however, but converge on the idea of “justice.” The education of nature is about coming to understand our place in and our connections to the world. To understand this is to understand what justice requires.

    This specialized meaning of justice might be an alternative or addendum to what William Gass calls John Gardner’s “cranky” ideas about "moral" fiction, which Gardner defined partly as inevitable surprises of consequence.

    Seamus Heaney’s latest poetry collection, Human Chain, contains these lines:

    And now…Jonah entering
    The whale’s mouth, as the Old English says,
    Like a mote through a minster door.

    How beautiful and perfect this image of swallowment by the abyss, the vulgar dust of man drifting into the immensity of the divine, a sublime descent to a place where one’s Father awaits (as with both Pinocchio and Aeneas): all metaphor, and all tied to the things of the world and their relations. Are the metaphors of humility, distance, scale, love, becoming less accessible to us all the time? I have motes in my old couch, waiting to be beaten out, and motes in my eye, ditto, but who ever mentions them? What with the economy, prefab technologies, and standardized building codes, most doors we travel through are the same door, from motel lobby to morgue.

    I was discussing all this with my old friend Frenchy, who exemplifies to me the Emerson quote, “Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.” He selflessly devised a solution for creative writing students: He’s willing to found a college up on his mountain, devoted to this idea by Thoreau:

    Speaking about education: I mean that [students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practiced but the art of life; —to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar. Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month—the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this- or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?

    At Snowshoe College of West Virginia, Frenchy will teach aspiring writers discipline, sacrifice, and content, mostly by having them fell dead trees on his property, cut them into 18-inch lengths, and split them into cordwood with a maul. He can manage five or six handpicked students at a time, three men and four women he specifies for some reason.

    “I need at least seven ricks of wood to make it through the winter,” he says. “Eight would be better in case it’s a cold spring. Tell ‘em to dress warm and bring their own food. I’ve got one extra bed; the rest sleep on the floor.”

    Upon graduation, he asserts, students will have gained the knowledge of the names of tools and the processes of their maintenance and use, an understanding of mass and weight, the consequences of the ache of muscle and sharp pinch of blisters; they’ll know what it means to inhabit a body pushed past endurance; they’ll have memories of the taste of food seasoned by hunger, ad the look and sounds of the mountain and river and trees. They'll have the smell of wood smoke to write about.

    “If nothing else, they’ll understand despotism,” he says.

    I know it’s unusual for someone who graduated from a college to go on to teach there, but I was Frenchy’s employee once and have worked with him over the years, so who’s better qualified? Now that I’ll be tenured, though, I’ll institute a new prerequisite for my courses: Students will need to have raised chickens and sold the eggs to pay for my lattes up at the ski resort, where I’ll be waiting to critique drafts of their writing, should they have the time or energy left over to write them. This too is an allegory.

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Comments on College of Hard Knocks

  • Posted by CandaceID on October 25, 2010 at 12:45pm UTC
  • I perfectly relate to the writer's (and Emerson's!) view of solitude as essential to hearing the spiritual voice.

    For those extroverts who often feel more alive with a ton of artificial noise, I'd like to point out that social gatherings in nature (without technological distractions) are also richer, allowing people to see much deeper into each others' souls, past the cultural clothing, and make connections that are exquisitely sharp with clarity.