Unity & Coherence
“I wonder if he would even remember me, an odd blip of a student, a quietly disobedient boy from another time and place?”
W hen I talk to my students about the importance of unity and coherence—consistency within and between paragraphs, a logical relationship between the parts of a piece of writing and the whole—I begin by saying, “This is the only thing I learned in high school.” I’m exaggerating, obviously, but what is not an exaggeration is that Don Looney, the man who taught me this and other things, was the only excellent teacher I had in my seven years in the award-winning Wilton school system. There may have been a few good teachers, most meant well, but Looney was the only one who gave me anything worth holding on to.
It’s been almost 25 years since I failed a semester of Looney’s class—I didn’t write the term paper—giving him the perfect first line for my college recommendation: “Although Jason failed . . . .” By then both of us were on our way out of Dodge. I was off to college a year early, degree-less, prom-less, in dire need of something, anything, different. Looney’s story—he didn’t play well with others—I’m less sure about. Fired? Counseled out? Couldn’t run far or fast enough?
I thought of Looney the other day when I read about the new edition of Huckleberry Finn, with each of the 219 uses of the word nigger “corrected” to slave. (At that point, why not go all in with “proud African American”?) A friend expressed his outrage on Facebook at people who think “[their] job is to fix novels that cause [them] uncomfortable feelings.” I commented: “All families are happy families,” which led to a series of similar white washings. “It was the best of times.” “Mother recovered today.” “April is the loveliest month.”
We must not allow our eyes to be averted from the truth; semantics have killed before and will kill again. Does anybody disagree with the National Socialist German Workers’ Party’s inadvertent contention that work will make you free? Might having a less confusedly propagandist phrase associated with the Nazi’s genocidal murder of six million Jews have given more pause?
The Kool-Aid is so sweet and so cold.
After a bit of a lull in our engagement with the current state of the world, SchoolLess and I got back to reading the New York Times this morning. We talked about American exceptionalism, blood libel , and the value of civility, not to mention the merits of Debussy, the roots of the gold standard, Peter Sellers, and the hesitatingly resurgent Knicks.
SchoolLess wanted to know why there aren’t more protests in this country. My short answer—Scitcha was on his way, the clarinet was calling, I hadn’t written a post in over a week—was that we live in a police state and don’t even know it. And we isolate ourselves: in likeminded communities, in our homes, and in our minds. If things are going well, people say, “Well, the war sucks, but I have a nice car and good bottle of Cabernet.” If things aren’t going well, people say, “My life sucks, I don’t have time to worry about anybody else.”
We all know: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” (MLK). Yet we persist in our passivity. The only potential contributions I make to the greater good are through my writing (limited, at this point, to this rantish blog, the value of which is dubious at best) and my children (or students), who may or may not change the world for the better.
Looney talked to us about politics and religion, the ultimate no-no. He was not a fan of, and did not hide his disdain for, the powers that be: Reagan and the Republicans, the school administration, God Almighty. He pushed us to challenge the prevailing wisdom, including his own. He assigned us projects on topics that were not part of any official English department syllabus: “The Price of Defense” (this back in Evil Empire days), The Culture of Narcissism, “The Nature of Man.” Not only had I never heard of Jung or Skinner, Mead or Maslow, Descartes or Nietzsche, I’m not sure I really knew that such disciplines as psychology, anthropology, and philosophy even existed.
I’d spent some time in the school psychologist’s office not answering questions about my family and feelings but that didn’t have anything to do with ideas. Long live Existentialism!
I felt the same way about my visits to the school shrink as SmallerMan did about preschool picture day—sound and fury signifying nothing. Despite goofy sounds and faces, dancing bears, and thinly veiled threats, SmallerMan refused to smile for the camera. Finally, I said, “Just take the picture, it’s fine, that’s who he is.” The ordeal done, on our way for panelle sandwiches, he turned to me, smiling, and said, “That man was funny.”
The books I read in my classes with Looney—Gatsby and Macbeth, Oedipus and Death of a Salesman, Lord of the Flies and The Grapes of Wrath–opened up a glorious world of sex and violence, jealousy and fallibility, dreamworlds and dystopias. Catch-22 gave me a name for the behavior I observed in the institutions, peers, and family in my midst: absurdity. What a relief to know that they were the crazy ones.
What a relief to find out that this was not all there was.
Read, SchoolLess, read! (You, too, SmallerMan.)
And so he does. SchoolLess and I spent a couple of lovely mornings this week reading Hemingway stories together: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “Homage to Switzerland,” “Hills Like White Elephants.” We talked about seeming simplicity and repetition, the relationship between light and mood, the Lost Generation and suicidal tendencies, the plight of women and the taste of licorice.
Yesterday I came home after running some errands to discover SchoolLess lounging in a chair by the radiator, reading The Old Man and the Sea, drinking mint tea, listening to Maynard Ferguson . “This is heaven,” he said: a heaven, I might add, only possible because school is no longer the all-encompassing force in his life that it once was.
Looney had us write about our worldviews on the first day of class and then again on the last. I don’t think he particularly cared about our thoughts, what he wanted was for us to care about our own thoughts. Having read these books, having discussed these ideas, having lived these days, what do you think now?
Thirty years after Christopher Lasch wrote about diminishing expectations, an increasing sense of entitlement, and the breakdown of the social fabric, narcissistic personality disorder is set to be removed from the newly revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, not because it doesn’t exist anymore but because it exists everywhere. I is the new we. Wait, reverse that?
I am not surprised that my students do not comfortably embrace the concepts of unity and coherence—never mind clarity and grace—because they’ve been taught that rhetorical consistency is only in the eye of the beholder. The French theorists just may have been on to something.
And this lack goes beyond rhetoric: what about unity of self and coherence with others?
I spent a few minutes this morning looking for Looney—Google, Facebook—with no success. I wonder if he would even remember me, an odd blip of a student, a quietly disobedient boy from another time and place?
If you know his whereabouts, let me know. I’d love to buy him a beer and shoot the shit, man to man, about books and teaching and how we view the world now.
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