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Archive for April 12th, 2006

didn’t that help the armenians?

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Teaching Mrs. Dalloway today, had a harrowing experience. I don’t really like to blog about what happens in my classroom, but I’m a little more troubled about this than usual. And so I will.

So today I’m working through the oscillation between the Dalloway/Ramsay side of the story and the Septimus plot line. The way the novel develops into a profound performance of the conjunctions and disjunctions of people in modern society – all working toward the amazingly strange climax of the novel, where Septimus kills himself and Clarissa D. vicariously “experiences” his death. The way that I read the text, it is in large part about what fills novels and what has to be left out (usually) for novels to function properly and cleanly. It is, in a sense, a hysterical text, one that, like Septimus himself, can’t stop thinking and talking about what it shouldn’t, what is socially unacceptable to fix on.

As Septimus’s wife, Lucrezia, thinks at one point,

But such things happen to every one. Every one has friends who were killed in the War. Every one gives up something when they marry. She had given up her home. She had come to live here, in this awful city. But Septimus let himself think about horrible things, as she could too, if she tried.

Woolf’s novel likewise lets itself think about horrible things. So far so good.

But then we come to my favorite passage of all.

He was already halfway to the House of Commons, to his Armenians, his Albanians, having settled her on the sofa, looking at his roses. And people would say, “Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.” She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again)–no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)–the only flowers she could bear to see cut.

This seems to me a good thing to talk about, a surprising reversal for the students to metabolize. It is an enormously complex passage, with another turn of the ethical wheel every time you think you’ve come to a rest. And the fact of the matter is that it is Clarissa who’s thinking this, right, thinking about not thinking about the Armenians (the Armenian genocide, of course, is what we’re talking about here…) I thought I could take for granted that the students would distance themselves from Clarissa at this moment – just as she is distancing herself from herself here – and at least agree that, no, the roses don’t help the Armenians, not one bit. The interesting discussion is supposed to start from this given – what do we make of a novel that features a scene like this one? What do we make of our position as novel reader, students of aesthetic objects, in the wake of this? How is everyday life – ours and hers – formed in resistance to horrors happening off stage, across the Channel or across the world? We can turn no poetry after Auschwitz into no roses after Armenia and work from there.

But the problem is, my students, en masse, started defending Clarissa’s logic here, her alibi. Her roses do, in a way, help the Armenians, as they increase the total sum of beauty in the world. One voice, two, three – a bunch in accord on this. OK, so I get a bit mean, and say, your favorite song on your iPod, that helps a victim of ethnic cleansing in the Sudan? Yes, sort of, comes the response. Living well here in the US helps a tsunami victim, a kid who’s lost both of her parents? Sure, in a way, it does, because somebody needs to live well. I’m not shitting you – this is how the conversation went. I began to catch a bit of Woolf’s hysteria myself. When we nuke Iran, like, being happy here in the US, that balances it out? They hadn’t heard about Iran… but thought yes, in a small way, the scale is balanced.

Some jokster – I really hope he was joking, it wasn’t entirely clear – contributed the fact that the death of 1,000,000 Armenians is really only a drop in the bucket of the total world population. I hope he was joking. When I asked him if he would say that about the Holocaust, everyone got very quiet all of a sudden. They know they’re not supposed to trivialize that. But then someone else said that the dead are truly dead – they’re not around to care about Clarissa’s roses. I nearly lost it, had recourse to humor, stupidly. Couldn’t handle what i was hearing.

I don’t want to be mean. They’re very smart kids, my students. Eventually, one of them spoke up against the roses. But I am a bit worried about this conversation, their intransigence on this point. I wasn’t trying to convince, initially; I didn’t think they’d need to be. But if they won’t back down, even in the face of their instructor’s obvious disbelief and dismay, in their belief that a good job here somehow balances out a bit of carnage over there, having a good sex life makes up for disease and destruction somewhere else, feeling in general happy and good and enjoying the little things, say, in itself works against the flash of light, the mushroom cloud, the searing of skin, the blindness and shrapnel piercing human flesh at the speed of sound, the tumor footprint spreading wider as the population ages, I’m afraid, well, we’re past the point of no return. These are kids.

(BTW – ideological reprogramming, were that my style, and it’s definitely not, wouldn’t work here. They’re hyper-canny about preaching. The word “bias” has infected nearly half of their papers, a word I had never seen in an English paper until the last year or so…)

I’m not sure what to think about all of this…. Except that, well, when I read this tonight, it seemed even more true and plausible than it might have yesterday… (a big clip from the piece under the fold – but why don’t you just go and read it at its home…. It’s a fantastic piece…)

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April 12, 2006 at 12:13 am

Posted in america, everyday, teevee, woolf