jueves, 19 de mayo de 2011

A Portrait of the Teacher as a Writer

Una presentación en el SUNY Oneonta Faculty Convivium -Noviembre 11 de 2010.
A presentation at the SUNY Oneonta Faculty Convivium -November 11, 2010.


Gustavo Arango
Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature


“The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the actions like a vital sea.”
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

When I received the invitation from the Faculty Convivium Committee, the first impulse I had was to talk about my academic work. But I would drown you in boredom if I were to analyze line by line a poem by Saint John of the Cross, or if I were to reveal the minutiae I can find in García Márquez’s novels, in Cortázar’s surrealistic stories, or in the works by Juan Carlos Onetti, the dark Cervantes of our time. But then it occurred to me that one of the greatest privileges I have here at SUNY Oneonta is the recognition and support of my creative work. My journalism, my short stories and my novels have been received enthusiastically here, and have been respectfully considered for contract renewals, for promotion and for continuing appointment. In addition to that, two of the books I will mention today received Creative Activity Grants, from SUNY Oneonta’s Grants Office.
When I first came to the United States, about twelve years agos, I heard many discouraging comments about the lack of support and the distrust creative writers find in academia. I can give an opposite testimony. But I also understand how rare it is to find places where creative work does not conflict with teaching and scholarly work.
2010 has been, for me, a year of harvest. Last April I presented in Colombia, El más absurdo de todos los personajes (The most absurd of all characters), a book based on my doctoral dissertation. Two weeks later, in New York, I presented Impromptus en la isla (Impromptus on the Island), a creative work with a mixture of genres. After those two weeks I was ready to wait for December and look back enthusiastically on a well balanced year; but then something unexpected happened: a manuscript that I had kept secluded for a long time in the dusty regions of my desk went flying to México, and won a prestigious award. It is now being published and will be presented, with a good deal of fanfare, at the most important book fair in the Hispanic world, the Guadalajara International Book Fair.
These three books are closely related. All of them are celebrations of writing, the most sublime and complex activity we humans perform. We press, we feel, we push, grab, shape, squeeze, caress; but writing is the most complex of all: by writing we give material existence to our thoughts.
 “It should hardly be necessary to recall that the art of writing requires physical operations in which the hand must respond automatically to commands given by the brain after the brain has accomplished a particularly complex set of analyses. Speaking and writing seem to us such natural acts that at first it seems inconceivable that they are the most complex inventions ever achieved by the human brain. And, in the last analysis, the most fundamental (in the full sense of the term), since they gave man mental tools that made all the rest possible.”
                              Henri-Jean Martin, The History and Power of Writing
I was an early lover of writing. By fourteen, I had sent my first short story to a contest, and since I didn’t win anything I became a misunderstood artist. When I was eighteen, my father published my first book of short stories. Two years later, after my father was killed in Colombia, writing kept me alive and restored to life the meaning it had lost. It wasn’t really a surprise that my doctoral dissertation was about short stories and novels in which the main character is a writer.  During my research I found hundreds of stories like that. As Charles Taylor noted:
 “There is a new reflexive turn, and poetry and literature tend to focus on the poet, the writer, or on what it is to transfigure through writing. It is amazing how much art in the twentieth century has itself for its subject, or is in one level at least thinly disguised allegory about the artist and his work.”
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self
In order to narrow the topic for my dissertation, I decided to use one of the most common feelings I have had in life, the sense of absurdity. In The Myth of Sisyphus, French writer Albert Camus explores the nature of that feeling we all have experienced at some point in life, particularly when approaching life and death with open eyes.
 “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
In his memorable book, Camus profiles what he calls the “absurd hero,” a courageous person that is able to face life even after finding that it lacks meaning and purpose. He finds this absurd character in the comedian, the conqueror, the womanizer (and I would add the “manizer”); but, for Camus, writers are the most absurd of all the characters. So I decided to study short stories and novels in which writers are portrayed as absurd characters.
Another French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, helped me to understand that the sense of absurd is not necessarily a negative one. In fact, we need to feel the absurd in order to create new meanings or to renew the old ones. Another conclusion I reached was the fact that writing is just another form of reading. Writing is an active form indeed, but is reading nonetheless. As Todorov puts it:
 “What the writer does is to read language.”
Or in the words of our new Hispanic Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa:
Reading and writing are like heads and tails of the same coin.”
We are reading all the time. I want to share another interesting quote I found on the art of reading and how it is a central part of our lives:
The astronomer reading a map of stars that no longer exist; the Japanese architect reading the land on which a house is to be built so as to guard it from evil forces; the zoologist reading the spoor of animals in the forest; the card player reading her partner’s gestures, before playing the winning card; the dancer reading the choreographer’s notations, and the public reading the dancer’s movements on the stage; the weaver reading the intricate design of a carpet being woven; the organ player reading various simultaneous strands of music orchestrated on the page; the parent reading the baby’s face for signs of joy or fright or wonder; the Chinese fortune-teller reading the ancient marks on the shell of a tortoise; the lover blindly reading the loved one’s body at night, under the sheets; the psychiatrist helping patients read their own bewildering dreams; the Hawaiian fisherman reading the ocean currents by plunging a hand into the water; the farmer reading the weather in the sky –all these share with book-readers the craft of deciphering and translating signs.
Alberto Mangue, A History of Reading

In The Most Absurd of all Characters my final conclusion was that the representation of a writer is a representation of the reader in the act of narrating and giving shape to her or his own life. In short, it is a reminder of the ethical implications of freedom and choice.

My second book of this year, Impromptus en la isla (Impromptus in the Island), is a mixture of genres in which Manhattan Island is the center. Here we find the city in its vastness, crowds falling into oblivion, many languages (among them the growing presence of the Spanish language), reflections on topics such as the human face and the paradoxical solitude that is a common feature of the big cities. This book is also a celebration of writing. Here we can find a fictional character taking actual pictures and writing nonfictional accounts of the Island’s daily life.
Seven years ago, when writing my dissertation, I realized that what I was doing was expressing the poetics that moves my creative work. Most of my characters are writers; they are the most absurd of all the characters, but by writing novels based on my personal experience I found, almost by accident, that among writers some of them are much more absurd than all the rest. If Albert Camus were alive I would tell him that writers who are also teachers are the most absurd among the most absurd of all characters.
Let’s face it. It is absurd to be a teacher. We run the marathon in the wrong direction. We sing, we dance, we are tyrants and clowns, we are musketeers with chalk as sword, we are know-it-alls. A teaching career is usually longer than the longest running play on Broadway… or Germany. Perhaps you remember the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. In that novel the main character remained in his youth, while the rest of the world, including his picture, grew old. Teachers are the opposite of that: we grow old, welcome wrinkles and gray hair, while the rest of the world around us, including our images in pictures, remains young. We are absurd indeed. We are criminals facing the firing squad almost every day. We are bodies without fantasies, without weaknesses, without emotions or desires. We are a practical joke.
Please don’t get me wrong. I love to teach, my life would lack a big part of its meaning if I never enter again into classrooms to express my passion for language and literature. But I wouldn’t lie to myself about the absurd nature of my trade. We are part of the tradition of Garrick, the English comedian: we teachers must teach even if we are dying inside.
That’s what I tried to portray in El origen del mundo (The origin of the world), the novel that two weeks from now will give me my fifteen minutes of fame. The first draft of El origen del mundo was written in the summer of 2005, while I was teaching a creative writing seminar in Spanish at Rutgers University. In my account I was candid and open. At night during that summer, I wrote about the painful divorce I was going through, and about my loneliness in a foreign country, thousands of miles away from any place I could call home. I wrote about how writing cannot be taught, but only inspired and learned from inside. I wrote about the experience of being a male teaching a summer class to a group of nine female students, about their beauty, about the stories and feelings emerging with each writing practice. I wrote about the erotic tension involved in courses like that one.
For a long time I have believed in the so called theory of the iceberg. According to that theory, most of what writers write must remain under the water so a minimum part can emerge above the surface. In other words, just a minimum part can and should be published. So, when writing the account of those weeks, I didn’t think about publication, and I didn’t censor any part of myself. For some time I was hesitant about publishing the novel that began to take shape out of that first draft. A novel, as many writers have stated, is a long work of accretion in which many elements find their place. In the end I cannot say that Magnífico Delgado, the main character of my novel, is an accurate portrait of myself but, on the other hand, I cannot deny that he is part of my soul and my flesh.
Some of the issues this novel deals with are sensible issues, truths everyone knows but no one talks about: the connection of teaching with love and desire, the drama of old age and decay, the fragility and vulnerability of people always required to show sufficiency and strength. For some time I couldn’t decide whether I should print a limited edition of the book or leave it unpublished; but then I read the right books, the encouraging ones.
First I came across the The Transparent Self, by Sidney M. Jourard. This book reassured some convictions I had about literature. In a chapter on writing Jourard says:
“There is distinction between an authentic writer and a propagandist. A propagandist seeks to transmit falsified accounts of reality of people, so that they will form beliefs and attitudes that are useful to the propagandist or to the man who pays this craftsman. An authentic writer seeks instead to reveal his personal experience of some aspect of the world in ways that will be understood and reacted to by mature, whole people. Many of us dread to be known by others as intimately as we know ourselves because we would be divorced, fired, imprisoned, or shot.”
And I felt good, reassured, not so lonely when I read that. Stories for whole people, for real people, are exactly what I have tried to write for more than thirty years.
I have another quote from that book:
“Authentic writers protect something precious in a people, namely, their capacity to continue experiencing life in personal ways, as persons rather than as functionaries of the state, a business, or a corporation. A writer provides his reader with a role model of both the courage to experience without dimming or repressing this or that facet of self and the courage to share this experiencing with others.”
The second encouraging book has an almost stolen title: Lessons of the masters, by George Steiner, a fresh intellectual, one of the few living ones that are actually alive. Perhaps you remember the novel by Henry James, The Lesson of the Master, one of the best accounts ever written on the hate-love relationship between Master and Pupil. Steiner reflects on many aspects of that relationship, from antiquity to our days.
“A ‘Master class,’ a tutorial, a seminar, but even a lecture can generate an atmosphere saturated with tensions of the heart.”
In my opinion, one of the great contributions of Steiner’s book consists of restoring the language of love to the experiences of teaching and learning:
“Eroticism, covert or declared, fantasized or enacted, is inwoven in teaching, in the phenomenology of mastery and discipleship. This elemental fact has been trivialized by a fixation in sexual harassment. But it remains central.”
There is even a more deep contribution in Steiner’s book: the restoration of sexuality to the domain of the soul.
“Every “break in” into the other, via persuasion or menace (fear is a great teacher), borders on, releases the erotic. Trust, offer and acceptance have roots that are also sexual. Teaching and learning are informed by an otherwise inexpressible sexuality of the human soul.”
I am convinced that every person’s dignity and integrity must be protected. I support completely all the policies intended to prevent and punish any form of abuse or harassment. But we need to restore the concept of love to our reflections on teaching. If we don’t love our subjects, if we don’t love our students, our teaching is doomed. Real love dignifies, real love is respectful, and perhaps we have demonized the erotic aspects of teaching by reducing eroticism to dynamics of power.
After reading Steiner’s book I felt liberated from any hesitation. Neither me, nor my novel were monsters, but transparent and candid entities. Magnífico Delgado, the main character of El origen del mundo, is a teacher and writer that has been hurt by life. He is passionate about beauty and mystic poetry. He is trying to write a novel free of himself, but in the end he always sees his own image in the dark mirror of ink. He always succeeds in keeping imprisoned his fantasies, his fears, and the fascination he experiences when he observes women writing. Magnífico’s story will be presented and sold almost as an erotic novel, but the eroticism it portrays is the eroticism of the soul, the very same eroticism of Saint John of The Cross or Theresa de Ávila, that expression of humanity that is so rare in our time, when the human body has been devoid of its sacredness.
When I think about El origen del mundo from the perspective of my scholarly work, many questions arise: What are the implications of a book in which the main character is a writer that also is a teacher? What can a writer teach? What can a teacher write about? What are the implications of a novel about the most absurd among the most absurd of all characters?
Every reflection about the origin is a religious reflection. I want to think that my book is a search, in teaching and writing, of the Living Flame of Love, that eager and inexhaustible desire of the soul.
But I will leave the discussion on those questions open until you read the English translation of my novel or when you watch the movie directed by Clint Eastwood.
(Did I mention that daydreaming is also part of a teacher’s life?)
We humans are fragile and fleeting. Not one of us will remain after a few years. But books are here to stay, even if no one opens them for years, even if they become oblivion’s pray. Books like the ones I discussed today will declare down in time that some lost community of scholars was sincere enough to celebrate and welcome the artistic creations of some among them.

Oneonta, New York, November 11, 2010.

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