Burn the Books?

Many high schools still assign Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to their English students. This seems paradoxical since many of those same schools—or, really, the communities around them—do censor or ban a few books from libraries or classrooms. To be fair, Bradbury said it himself: the novel is not about censorship. It’s about television—mass media and the cheapest kind of entertainment, game shows, reality shows, celebrity shows—mushing up people’s brains so that the books don’t do anything anymore. Popular culture will take our minds, Bradbury said, not the government.

So perhaps schools aren’t teaching ironically after all: maybe they’re the last guard against cheap entertainment and advertising. Though Fahrenheit 451 is far from Bradbury’s best work (that distinction goes to The Martian Chronicles or Something Wicked This Way Comes, if you’re curious), it’s one of his most resonant, verified by the inertia of mass culture in the decades following its publication.

I read the text my freshman year of high school: the next year I read Milton, the Romantics—especially Blake and Keats—and Macbeth with gusto. These would be my fortifications against cultural assaults. High art could brace me against low.

Still, I wasn’t seduced by even the high art. I wrote poems occasionally and enjoyed class readings, but I still intended to be an engineer. English was something to excel at but not seek employment within.

This changed senior year. I took AP English, and despite reading Crime and Punishment over the summer, I was still looking forward to Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, and The Stranger. But I didn’t expect to be completely blindsided by T. S. Eliot. I’d never read the man, not in the Brit Lit sequence or anywhere else. I knew Frost, Wilde, and Donne, but this modernist was something new. One day, Mr. Dage passed out a poem on four pages (no doubt while mumbling something incoherent) with instructions to write everything we could think of on its pages as we read.

I’d never done a close reading like this before: it was the first really critical look I’d ever taken of a poem—and what a poem to begin with, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Mr. Eliot’s tale of Mr. Eliot—sorry, Mr. Prufrock—resonated. The angsty, overthinking young man in a world he couldn’t comprehend would return later when I read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, but her it was rawer, purified, and it permanently altered my understanding of and experience of poetry. If this was a poem, then what was all that romanticist drivel I’d been reading?

Modernism hit me hard, and has only recently let me take a breath.

It was years later, in graduate school, when I read Eliot’s friend, Ezra Pound, write on a related subject. In his 1920 poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound describes a man like not unlike Prufrock, or any other literary modernist:

For three years, out of key with his time,

He strove to resuscitate the dead art

Of poetry; to maintain “the sublime”

In the old sense. Wrong from the start—

No hardly, but, seeing he had been born

In a half savage country, out of date;

Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn; (ll. 1-7)

I didn’t realize that poetry was a “dead art” until wrapping up a Ph.D. in English, so I’m something of a slow learner. I should have read the tea leaves. We touched on Plato in my junior year high school humanities course, and the old man certainly tried to warn me in advance. In his Republic, Plato details the ideal city for humanity, and one point he makes is to throw out the poets, to ban imaginative literature.

It’s easy to equivocate on this notion: elsewhere in Plato’s dialogues, he makes no such claim that literature is a corrupting force due to its fictional (false) nature, and thus its immorality and uselessness. But why does he make such a claim when he’s outlining the perfect city? How does literature threaten him? It’s the only thing that immortalized him—not Socrates, but Plato’s own writings.

There are plenty of great arguments for the humanities, and very few good ones against them. Art and literature opens our eyes to the experiences of others: reading can make us empathize and understand what is otherwise permanently beyond our purview. We understand the world through story and plot, through narrative and dialogue. Without analogies and metaphors, poetry and stories, we couldn’t grasp anything.

But something that humanities boosters don’t always note is that though literature is a necessary part of our education as humans, it is not sufficient. It is a building block of but not the entirety of our personhood. The world is bigger than the page.

Yet as I found out what worried Plato, and perhaps Pound as well: language is bewitching—and that’s a bad thing. The beauty of poetry changed the course of my life—it took me away from engineering and into researching and teaching literature, plucking me from the real world and depositing me within the university’s walls.

Now do I perpetuate the cycle? Do I teach literature and writing within the context of my university classes? Maybe after high school students should be pushed beyond the fictional, into the concrete universes of technology and engineering.

Perhaps literature is really what corrupts the youth: it can be a siren call for a world that has faded away. Is it enough really to enjoy something and study it?

I feel like the titular character in Ancient Mariner of Coleridge’s epic poem. I must repeat my story and save others from a similar fate.

Or perhaps I’m Ishmael in Moby Dick, or Job’s servant heralding dark news:

And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The Tragical History of the Nard-Dog

I could argue that The Office is not an ensemble comedy but actually a tragedy about the fall of Mr. Andrew Bernard, Cornell alumnus and life’s quintessential also-ran.

At first he’s a blowhard, subduing the usually unflappable Jim Halpert when Jim first transfers to the Stamford, Connecticut office of Dunder Mifflin to sling paper. Andy sums up our regular protagonist, Jim, with one look at his sandwich, dubbing Jim “Big Tuna.” In contrast to Jim’s repartee with Dwight Schrute back in Scranton, Pennsylvania’s office, Jim seems deferential toward Andy. Andy is loud and obnoxious and relatively humorless—like Dwight—but Jim either hasn’t been around him long enough while the Stamford branch exists to repeat the constant pranks he played on Dwight—or else he’s afraid to. One prank results in an Andy meltdown that makes Jim cower just a bit—something Dwight’s rage could never do.

The next time Andy takes the spotlight he’s making holes in the walls of Dunder Mifflin, Scranton. Anger Management appears to change the man, and in fact it deflates Andy, more or less, for the rest of the series. While in control of his anger, it appears that all that remains to fill the void of Andy’s rage is his repressed sadness. His parents deemed him enough of a failure to give his original name, Walter, Jr., to his younger brother and offered him the name Andy as a consolation prize. His glory days at Cornell that he holds so dear are merely the result of his family connections. His ping-ponging relationships with the women of the office all end poorly, either with him as the pathetic cuckold or as the oblivious, self-centered man-child he turns out to be. We cannot hate the man, and we pity him more often than not: while everyone else in the office appears to be slowly getting what they want, Andy keeps slipping down one rung after another.

Even as manager, he is usurped almost immediately. Someone is able to simply walk in and take his chair, and he cannot claim it back. This is likely because he knows he’s a sham as a manager, just as he’s been at everything else. His parents are bemused by him, at best. His lovers are confused. His friends are few. His dreams are pared down little by little to such basic pieces—sailing the boat, throwing a party, holding a work position through merit, for once in his life—that when they all eventually fall apart he becomes a tragic figure.

There are moments where he finds himself surrounded by friends, or in a good relationship, or recognized for his small accomplishments, but these do not rectify Andy’s tragedy, but only heighten it. He was not an evil man, he was simply misplaced. While the office rises, he has to fall further and further. As the episodes show us more and more of the man, peeling back layers on the gruff guy from Connecticut, they seem to remove layers of competence, agency, and satisfaction with them.

A documentary crew can uncover an awful lot of material given time enough. Andy Bernard was the biggest casualty of Dunder Mifflin’s documentary.

Red Days

What I remember most about first grade was the distinction of each color. From time to time my classmates and I would put together sprawling collages of Red and Blue onto everlasting sheets of butcher paper. Bricks, roses, lips, apples, fire trucks could be sharply divided from sky, water, sapphires, blue jays, jeans. We managed to herd it all together and sort it out just fine, and that was a great relief to me.

Colors classified everything that year. They marked our reading groups, in particular. Here, Green was dominant, and meant you could read. Yellow Group could read somewhat more fuzzily. Red Group needed help. Green Reading Group was the kind of exclusive club only a first-grader could appreciate. But I certainly did. I remember passing around a book on fruits to my colleagues and thinking how great it was to be Green, to be able to enjoy the story, reading like professionals. Nothing against the other groups, but we Greens wore our color with pride. And we felt lucky to have Yellow group to keep the barbarians beyond the gates. There was little danger of a stray Red making it all the way up here.

Yellow-shaped buses framed school days. This was the opposite of Green club: here the rabble arranged itself around you every day. I minded my own business, ignored the noise, smells, and sights as much as possible. Those brown plastic seats stuck to you if you sweat at all, so you had to keep it together. I didn’t mind all that much if someone sat by me, but I hated sitting by someone else. Having to choose my seatmate—my society—felt like too strong an endorsement of the strangers who shared my neighborhood. It was better to have these pairings sent down from above; I didn’t want the responsibility. The Yellow-Brown Bus Society marked childhood’s nadir.

Still, school itself remained unadulterated. Colors stayed put and students followed rules. There was order that allowed me to take things in. Ideas and concepts made perfect sense when divided sharply from one another, pressed against a contrasting background. Today we play in the gym; at this time we sing; at that time we recite. Nothing mixed together, no tube of tempura diminished itself within another’s shadow. Brown laminate tables had orange rims, to keep the brown from sliding off. School hallways flowed with blue carpets, dammed by red trim. I remember color more than anything else that year. No shades, only solid hues.

Color even bled into math: later that year, when I hit division for the first time, I ran into problems like dividing twelve into four, or fifteen into three. Like the division of colors on poster paper, these challenges were easily solved. I was satisfied.

But after encountering only this sanitized strain of arithmetic I began to believe only in such solid, clean mathematical breakdowns. One day another kid, perhaps Ross, asked me if I could divide nine into four parts, or something equally grotesque. I like to think I gave a knowing chuckle, smiled, and put my arm around poor Ross. Certainly, I handed down judgment in one tidy motion: no, friend, of course you can’t divide nine into four, that would be nonsense. Nine into three, sure, easy, but nine into four was an abomination. Did he want to pick up all those bits of broken numerals? He agreed, it didn’t make sense.

I was generally content that the math makers wouldn’t let me down. But that day Ross planted a seed of doubt that I could never uproot, and it dogged me until First Grade ended. What about all the things that spanned categories? Was this block blue enough to remain with those bluer? Does a Red-and-Yellow car belong with one or the other, or with Orange? What would happen if some reckless soul did manage to split a number with division’s ax? Summer was approaching, and these questions would have to wait until Second Grade. I would know what to do with them then.

The next two decades of my education ruthlessly split colors, numbers, and me. Shades are tiring, though: I want to see categories sharply defined against one another, again. Splitting—whether dividend or atom—eliminates more than the difference of its parts. I’m weary of gradients, slopes, and shades. I miss the Red days.

His Majesty’s Last Name

It’s tough to be king these days; you even have to pay your child support. If you’re Albert II of Monaco. Technically he’s a prince, but since he’s a monarch, we’ll just say king. At any rate, I know almost nothing about this man except that he’s pretty loaded (He owns a good piece of Monaco) and he has trouble keeping his heirs legitimate. (That’s a kingly burn.)

I find this interesting not because of this last piece (all kings have a pretty tough time keeping their pants on) but because of the result of it. Albert II is short for Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre Grimaldi: like most royals, he has a slew of names, likely all with historical significance. The last name (but not his last name, per se), Grimaldi, was the house that ruled Monaco (and Genoa) in the twelfth century.

How does all this connect? Glad you asked. Albert has a pair of legitimate offspring, and he also has a few other children. One of the latter daughters was given “Grimaldi” as a surname. This surname may have had something to do with subsequent child support requests, but it’s also an interesting liminal marker between the royal and the usual. Thus, while giving a child a last name—often this makes some sense as per the usual naming conventions of our time, it’s odd if you consider the child to be royal offspring.

Obviously her illegitimacy is a barrier to ruling in Monaco, but even without that, the fact of having a last name at all is its own barrier, oddly enough. The closest thing to a last name Albert or any royal has is the House or Line he belongs to. In that sense, Albert of the House Grimaldi (or something like that) could be a “last name” of a sort, but really his last name is (Prince of) Monaco. Royals don’t have last names, because they don’t need them. They are already identified automatically so there’s no need to distinguish their first names from anyone else’s. That is, unless they are pushed outside of their monarchical state and become something else: a civilian, citizen, or even a subject—of themselves, or at least of their own Houses, presumably.

This kind of problem shows up in other royal places: for instance, when Princes William and Harry of England joined their nation’s military. Military forms, like all bureaucracy, are made to standardize. Forms don’t take no for an answer. Thus, when two royal princes attempt to enlist, they still have to fill out the “surname” portion of the papers. Both of them adopted the “last name” Wales for the purpose of military service. Again, this mostly makes sense—they are the sons of Charles, Prince of Wales, so their last name might as well be Wales. Still, they might have also gone by “Windsor,” as this is their Royal House. Having “Wales” stitched across the front of their fatigues has an interesting effect: it identities the men with their nation and land. Surreally, Wales defends Wales; Royal England fights for Royal England, so to speak.

Of course, the monarchy is complicated today. Albert II’s parentage was a royal mix: his parentage combines Hollywood royalty (his mother was Grace Kelly) and traditional royalty (Prince Rainier III sired him). William and Harry’s mother Diana was noble and later became Hollywood royalty. Now Royals have to write in their last names, too, just like the rest of us, whether on military applications or for child support forms. “Sir, you’re going to have to fill all the boxes, for me.” “Certainly, but I don’t have a last name.” “You do now.” Kings have to take a number at the DMV.

Monarchs are simply a link to the past. They remind us of a time when there were few enough people around that last names were optional. When a king and his country were inseparable. Now our kings are citizens, not gods on earth. They have to follow a law that is great than themselves. Still, they have their ancestry, their direct connection to the old world, and that’s not a small thing. Royal institutions are living ruins: they are castles slowly disintegrating, long after they’ve gone out of use and become just another tourist site. But let’s not give them last names, and let’s not pass their names out, either. Let them have one last royal distinction. I don’t want to see Mr. George Wales in line at the soup kitchen. At least let him be Poor Prince George.