It seems to me like we cannot help but look for meaning in our lives. That is something that is hard-wired into our DNA, and I am sure there are scientist who can explain it better than I can (a look at this is found in Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent Homo Sapiens, although I think there are probably more in depth explanations somewhere). Unfortunately, it is also pointless. The meaning we make is superficial at best, and any attempt at discovering larger truth’s will end in disappointment, particularly if you share this larger truth with anyone other than yourself.
Recently, my job contracted me to do a series of classes on Classic American Novels. They dropped this idea onto my lap rather hastily, and so as I was scrambling to get this done as quickly as possible I had a terrible idea. Why not make the first of these classes on Ernest Hemingway? It could save me more than a bit of time, as I had taken a class dedicated to Hemingway back when I was in college, and I could thus crib a whole lot of my work from my memory of that class. I assigned first The Sun Also Rises, a book that for reasons largely out of my control I had read three times prior to this assigning (once for a class on travel writing, once for the Hemingway class, and a third time with a reading group), and then A Farewell to Arms, perhaps the most significant work of Hemingway’s which I didn’t read for that class.
And of course, that stupid part of my brain that reaches out for precious SYMBOLISM reacted as expected. I was going full circle! The student becomes the teacher! Catchphrases! Platitudes!
Really, I had no idea what to expect, but I was partially hoping that something good would come out of all of this. Nothing, of course did. The student’s who had historically done their work only begrudgingly once again begrudgingly did their work. They didn’t care for what they were doing, and were doing it as much out of necessity as all the rest of my fellow student’s must have been back when I was an undergrad. In the Sun Also Rises, I found a story that seemed to be little more than the set up for a punch line the author himself seems to shy to ever articulate. In a Farewell to Arms, you get a display of muted machismo through various scenarios of war, and a bit at the end that doesn’t seem all that relevant. If any deeper meaning was coming out of that class, it was just an awareness of how stupid a kid I was back when I was an undergrad, desperately looking for ‘GREATER MEANING’ in absolutely all the wrong places: the classics, literature, theology, the humanities. I would half a decade later discover philosophical nihilism, and the quest for meaning would atrophy with it.
I am not a clever man, and I really wish that last bit had happened much sooner. I constantly lived my life looking backwards with a terrified look, thinking to myself ‘Holy shit, I was an absolute idiot up to about a few minutes ago. Thank god I am over that.’ Now that I am in my late thirties I am confident that in a decades time I will look back to this period and be horrified at how stupid I was. Ho-hum. We all have to live with our past stupidity, and do our best to correct it. And with that, I am reminded of a tangent that I would like to share.
During that Hemingway class one of the assigned texts was a lesser known novel, The Garden of Eden. It was largely forgetable, and the class teacher, Professor Elizabeth Geohegan, was rather critical of the text itself. If I recall correctly, she did not find the story’s overarching parallel to be all that compelling, where as I did. The story was meant to be about a couple living in a relative paradise and then there is a moment of temptation that brings about their fall – in other words your typical boring American lit crap. Her reasoning was that because the Adam parallel in this story was a writer working towards a novel, he could not be said to be living in a paradise. Biblical Adam had no such struggle, and thus the narrative parallel failed out of the gate. I disagreed. “He’s not really working,” I insisted. “He’s writing a novel” she said, “that is work and it is hard work.”
I did, and still do, suffer from a chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease, a condition where words flow forth from the mouth without any involvement of the brain. I am constantly working towards remedying this, and this has caused a lot of people to look at me and say ‘Gee, you don’t talk very much, do you?’ That’s when I know I am doing something correctly.
Foot-in-mouth struck me down hard that day. Had it not, here is what I would have said. “Perhaps, but the difficulty really isn’t the issue at hand. Climbing mount Everest is also difficult, but it’s nobody’s job. What makes what [the main character in The Garden of Eden] is doing not really work is the complete lack of consequences of his failure. Sure, he is working on his novel, but he is electing to free of consequences. He could just as easily elect to go fishing and it wouldn’t change his life one little bit. If there were just one thing that were obliging him to go back to the novel-production salt mine, I would agree with you that this isn’t a very good depiction of paradise. But that isn’t the case, and thus for me the parallel works.”
All of that went through my head. However, what I said was: “Yea, cause writing is a real job.”
Content aside, I probably said that with a pretty condescending tone. And I said that to a person who had pretty high aspirations towards being a writer. She took my insult like a god damned champion, because she didn’t get (justifiably) mad. She smiled knowingly, and told me that she writes a lot and that she thinks writing is both difficult and a real job. And then she changed topics and never brought it up again. Really, A+ pedagogy, considering I had at that point had a string of teachers who had humiliated me for less.
I suspect, however, that she was kind of hurt by my comment, despite her maturity in reacting to it. The only piece of evidence I have towards this is that some of my peers, who were friends of hers, came up to mock me for it afterwards. They weren’t in that class, and so I assumed she mentioned it to them, and you wouldn’t mention what some anonymous idiot in your class said unless it was bothering you.
It bothers me as well. Not that I said something stupid. I have come to pretty good terms with the vast, undying ocean that is my own stupidity. What bothers me is that I may have let that stupidity hurt someone, and that is not right.
People often ask me why I don’t have confidence. Stories like this come to mind. I have hundreds of them.
I think I apologized to Elizabeth Geohegan at some point, but when I did I don’t really recall it feeling very satisfying. I hope by then she had me figured out. I should perhaps buy some of her books. But I won’t buy them on Amazon. Fuck those guys.