Posts Tagged ‘The Scarlet Letter’

Loyalty

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

PastedGraphic-6

Molly photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

My brother, a software systems analyst and project manager, sent me the following quote from the book Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies by Stephen Barley and Gideon Kunda that my brother says sums up his world as an IT (Internet Technology) contractor for the past 25 years. “The old social contract was, give loyalty, get security. But that old contract has been repealed, and free agents quickly realized that in the traditional world they were silently accepting an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. From infighting and office politics to bosses pitting employees against one another to colleagues who don’t pull their weight, most workplaces are in dysfunction. Most people do want to work; they don’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions.”

The quote confused me because I wasn’t sure whether Barley and Kunda were saying that loyalty in the era of Internet Technology is obsolete and the cause of dysfunction, or if they were saying that the repeal of loyalty ushered in the era of dysfunction. When I read the quote to Marcia, she immediately replied, “Well, loyalty is a vertical phenomenon that ideally connects top to bottom within a system and gives everyone in the system a sense of the whole process they’re involved in. But if everyone is fighting for themselves, then the awareness of the purpose of the process is lost and everyone’s energy goes to self-preservation instead of doing necessary work and creating a healthy and functional working situation.”

Marcia’s response struck me as a good explanation for the ongoing dysfunction of our government, top to bottom. The abandonment of loyalty to anything or anyone other than the greedy self describes the motivation and behavior of John Boehner and his sociopathic colleagues, as well as Obama’s loyalty to the banksters and earth-gobbling corporate executives who would rather ruin everything in the world than help anyone other than themselves, which means they lack the ability to sympathize with others, which means they are incapable of love or rational thought, which means they are severely emotionally disturbed and should be locked away in high security mental institutions where they can pose no further danger to themselves or others.

We would rather be ruined than changed;


We would rather die in our dread


Than climb the cross of the moment


And let our illusions die. W.H. Auden

We recently watched Mike Leigh’s movie Life Is Sweet, a fascinating and painful and strangely delightful look at a working class English family. Perhaps because I was writing this article about loyalty when we saw the film, I saw Life Is Sweet as a study of loyalty, of parents being loyal to their children, of husband and wife being loyal to each other, of siblings being loyal to each other, and of friends being loyal to friends, and how loyalty can be a wonderful force for healthy growth and healing, but also a key ingredient in a recipe for debilitating dysfunction.

 “Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realize that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.” Andre Gide

The more I think about loyalty, the more the word loyalty seems rather useless on its own—lacking specificity and having too many different meanings depending on context. Therefore I am going to be disloyal to the initial inspiration for this article and change the subject entirely, though in changing the subject I may inadvertently illuminate the original topic through this juxtaposition of elements in tension.

Huh? Let me explain. My senior year of high school, 1967, I was in an Advanced Placement English class, which was supposed to prepare us for taking the AP English essay test. If we got a score of 3 or better (out of 5) on that test, our chances of getting into a good college would be much improved and we would be given ten units of college credit and allowed to skip the basic English courses most incoming college freshman were required to take. I was a contrarian and disdainful of obedient regurgitation, which made me an enemy of most of my teachers. When we took the practice AP exam and my score was the lowest in our class, my English teacher gleefully trumpeted my failure as proof of the error of my contrary ways.

Only one person in my class, Candy, scored a 5 on the practice exam. Candy was the perennial teacher’s pet and the queen, nay, the empress of slavering regurgitation. Throughout my four years of incarceration at Woodside High, Candy’s essays were routinely read aloud to us by a series of intoxicated teachers as examples of what proper student essays should be. I still remember our Eleventh Grade English teacher reading Candy’s slavering essay on the recurrence of synonyms for the color red in The Scarlet Letter, and Candy’s conclusion that “The Scarlet Letter is, unquestionably, the most perfect novel yet written in the English language.” This was a regurgitation of that very teacher stating, “The Scarlet Letter is, without a doubt, the most perfect novel ever written,” a proclamation that elicited from me a loud guffaw and “You’ve got to be kidding,” which resulted in my having to come in after school every day for a week (and miss basketball practice) and sit at a desk without speaking for an hour, while Candy and her fellow sycophants fluttered around the teacher and kissed her hems, so to speak.

Nevertheless, when Candy’s top-scoring practice AP essay was read aloud to us and ballyhooed as the Rosetta Stone for how to score high on the AP English exam, I and several of my fellow inmates noted that in Candy’s barfacious essay she thrice used the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension, and every time our teacher uttered those words she would gaze at Candy as if recalling a recent simultaneous orgasm.

After class that day, inspired by contempt and curiosity, three of my classmates and I cornered Candy and asked her, “What’s up with this juxtaposition of elements in tension?”

And though she was loathe to admit she had not invented the expression, Candy confessed she had been tutored by “an expert on the AP exam” who impressed upon her that the judicious use of this juxtaposition of elements in tension and a few other expressions we wheedled out of Candy would virtually guarantee a score of 3 or better—those expressions catnip to academics.

When the great day of the AP English exam came, we were sequestered in a windowless room and watched over by a trio of humorless teachers charged with making sure we didn’t cheat; not that one could cheat while writing a speculative essay on misogyny and superstition in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, or whatever it was they asked us to write about. With Candy’s tricks of the trade in mind, I generously peppered my essay with the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension and the author’s predilection for subtle symbolic forays and such diverse yet mutually accommodating points of view, and lo the judges gave me a 3, much to the chagrin of my English teacher. Candy, of course, scored a 5, went to Stanford for two years, transferred to UC Berkeley, and beyond that I know not where her juxtapositions and predilections and subtle forays took her.

“Ours is the age of substitutes; instead of language, we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; and, instead of genuine idea, bright ideas.” Eric Bentley

I see now that the opening quote from Barley and Kunda contains an apt description of my (and probably your) educational experience. I came to realize that in the traditional world (of academia) we were being forced to accept an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work; I simply didn’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions. And so I became a free agent, otherwise known as a freelance human being, and stumbled along for many years under the weight of my neuroses and through myriad juxtapositions of elements in tension until I came to a most wonderful turning point in middle-age when I bequeathed my loyalty to the notion elucidated by Mr. Laskin in my novel Under the Table Books. To wit: Don’t ever listen to anyone who says you aren’t a perfectly wonderful soul.

Transformation

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

(This memoir first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2010: photo by Marcia Sloane)

I have read a great deal about dreams and dreaming, and whether you believe dreams are communications from the astral plane or meaningless imagery resulting from cerebral out gassing, they can certainly remind us of people and places and things we have successfully avoided thinking about for the longest time.

I recently dreamt of being in high school again, and of a transformative moment in my less than excellent adventure there. My dream was a fair enactment of the event from my junior year, though the dream ended differently than the so-called real event.

I was a disinterested student suffering from the sudden onset of chronic pain in my lower back that ended my official athletic career in a heartbreaking twinkling. Verbally precocious, I was enrolled in Advanced English wherein my teachers persistently failed to see the genius behind my sloppy prose. In class discussions I invariably scored points with my classmates for wit and irony and double entendre while merely annoying my sadly average instructors on whom subtly and originality were invariably lost. Or so it seemed to my arrogant teenager’s mind.

My English teacher for my third year of incarceration was a very sad woman who never relaxed. Not in our presence. Ever. I will call her Mrs. R. She trembled when she spoke, as if she feared lightning would strike her for pontificating about things she clearly knew nothing about. She was not inherently stupid, but her anxiety rendered her so. Had she not so obviously disliked me, I might have been more compassionate toward her, but she anointed me her adversary from day one, and so we frequently did battle.

The contest, of course, was unfair. Mrs. R controlled the podium, so to speak, while I had all but a few of my fellow sufferers predisposed to my point of view. And I suppose if Mrs. R had merely been a dogmatic nervous Nellie, I wouldn’t have kept up the fight as long as I did; but she had a pet named V who was the grandest thorn in my high school side. Thus when I fought Mrs. R, I also fought V.

Why was V a thorn? Because she was my least favorite sort of sycophant: a perfect parrot, and she loved Mrs. R with a passion verging on the erotic, their heads being often together as they poured over books and poems and V’s insufferable essays that Mrs. R always deemed the best of the bunch so we always had to listen to V read her putrid prose aloud. And to make matters lethal for the miserable likes of me, V was gorgeous and sultry and possessed of a honeyed voice; and she would only date really good-looking college boys.

That is the context. Here is the event recalled by the dream.

Mrs. R stands before us, her outfit annoyingly salmon. She is, as always, trembling, a false smile pasted on her lips. “I was very disappointed in your essays on the first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter. Only a few of you correctly identified the primary recurring symbolism.” She smiles adoringly at V who is posed alluringly in the front row.

“Is it possible,” I say, speaking from my desk at the back of the room and neglecting to raise my hand, “that Nate just wrote the story without any symbolism in mind?”

A ripple of chuckles rolls around the deathly fluorescent chamber. Mrs. R grimaces. “I will remind you again to raise your hand when you wish to speak. I’ll take questions after V reads her essay.”

V rises to read, her slinky garb igniting our libidinous imaginations. She is totally at ease in her body, in stark contrast to Mrs. R, this being the raison d’etre of V’s life: to demonstrate her vast superiority over all us dunderheads. “Color,” she intones, sounding very much like Dusty Springfield singing The Look of Love, “is Hawthorne’s secret weapon; red, rust, and crimson his antidotes to Puritan gray.”

I gaze in open-mouthed contempt at V, for she has essentially quoted Mrs. R verbatim, only rendered the words in gooey singsong. I am tempted to say, “I may puke,” but something stays me, for the best is yet to come.

V takes us on a fourteen-page romp through those first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter, pointing out every word that either is or can be construed to be a variant on red until I and my fellow sufferers are driven to the brink of insanity, with Mrs. R and V exchanging simpering smiles with each crimson revelation.

Now comes the denouement. Deeply moved by V’s regurgitation, Mrs. R says, “Yes, yes, yes. The Scarlet Letter is unquestionably the greatest novel ever written.”

There it is: the ultimate challenge to the likes of me. A proclamation of such incomparable wrongness and badness and inanity, that I gaze around at my friends in disbelief that none have yet cried foul. Thus it is left to me.

“You can’t be serious,” I declaim. “The greatest novel ever written? Puh-leez. Moby Dick? A Tale of Two Cities? Zorba the Greek? All Quiet On the Western Front? To name a few.”

“I will see you after class and again after school, Mr. Walton.”

Here is where dream diverges from history.

In the dream I am simply no longer in the classroom or in high school, but in a bedroom with a woman who might be V, though she is older and rounder and not even slightly concerned about the symbolism in the first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter.

“I just want to relax you, honey,” she says, slipping her arms around me.

And hearing the word relax, I do relax; and that’s the end of the dream.

What happened in so-called reality was that I had to sit in Mrs. R’s classroom for an hour after school for the next three days and watch her and V and a few other pets enacting what I came to realize was a love ritual—sharing favorite poems, working on college application essays, having a sweet, feminine, confidence-boosting time that ultimately convinced me there was no point in fighting them. We were from entirely different universes and would travel through entirely different wormholes to get wherever we got.

And there is also this. I would have forgiven them entirely for everything if only V had given me the time of day.

Todd’s web site is UndertheTableBooks.com.