On Pretension, n. ‘A Lark’
by Ryan McCarthy
I’d been cut open—a tiny incision above the crack of my ass—and a substance, not unlike toothpaste, had been removed or shoved back into several discs in my spine, so as to reduce a pain, lingering and growing—escalating until I was forced to call home and cry. Cry and moan about pain, and how that pain had increased, and how I couldn’t possibly pay for relief. It was the sad display of a child helpless; a man dissolved into a puddle. I accepted help. And when you accept help you accept the expectations of another’s outlook on life.
I decided that it was time to honor something resembling responsibility for a life so far lived in petty indulgences. I entered a program to become a teacher. Not the ideal kind where one spends a few hours a week talking about himself, but rather the kind where your life is absorbed by ruthless, unformed teenagers—and thankless adults. One of the prevailing exercises in Schools of Education (at least this school) is to develop and refine a personal philosophy of education. Commonly it’s spoken of as an intrinsic part of applying for jobs and presenting supplemental materials—something concrete to say when asked what you believe.
It’s a disgusting activity, though. Most of the out-of-class discussions revolve around jobs. Are there any jobs? How will I get a job? It’s a practical degree, in a way. That offends some people. They prefer to believe in a certain high-mindedness when speaking about themselves. That’s why I landed in this profession; the only one I could think of for someone so grossly opinionated and idiosyncratic. I’ve been told I’ll make a great teacher, mostly because it’s obvious that I care about the content and that I curse in class (perhaps a sign of passion?)—and that I write a good essay. A good essay goes a long way. Professors like me. Students like me. Parents don’t like me. I will explain, as simply as I can, what I consider to be of worth in education.
i. The way we value ourselves is bound up in our language, our expression. The ability to broaden and strengthen the expression of the individual is the link to interpersonal self-esteem.
This is an abridged idea from the end of Men Without Art. The majority of the text makes a case that art is, basically, worthless—but nearly ends on this note that our human value is reciprocal with art. So, expression—or the cultivation of it—is worthless because we are worthless. Or transient, inasmuch as any problem needs overcoming. And I know (or have witnessed) plenty of people without expression that are incredibly confident. So expression may be a link to self-esteem, amongst body image and speech patterns, family history, the acquisition of objects and collections of all kinds, exploits of our offspring (if aligned with personal ideals), gambles won, devotion from animals, acknowledgment on the Internet, job titles, family titles, car titles, title pages, title roles, title deeds.
The way I value myself is bound up in books and music I choose and a personal superimposition of Writer (or writerly). But, most importantly, the things I choose not. If there has been any success in my education, it is that of selection. And with any bit of choosing, there is always an infinite no to accompany the singular yes because “the poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople—it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings; mostpeople are snobs.”
ii. We have an intrinsic duty to contribute to the level of our civilization. Our culture, the human culture, contains all elements, and Enlightenment for a society relies on the collective consciousness, not just the privileged or ‘gifted’ development.
Where is the Hippocratic Oath for the teacher? The common man? Do no harm. Where are the universal aphorisms for the Humanities? How about no decent man tortures another human being? Or, perhaps, something more direct: “I promise not to fashion you into a consumer or an unthinking automaton. I promise that I will do my best to connect your interests to positive human wishes. I promise that you can manage yourself better than anyone else. I promise that you can question everything.” They will ask, “what about kids struggling with grammar, punctuation, and spelling?” Let them read, then write, then read and write some more. “Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths.”
iii. All people have value and dignity, and no human being has such a firm understanding of a text that they cannot learn something valid and new by reading the work with students, not in spite of them.
Why do we teach from a Canon with which we disagree, or to which we are woefully indifferent? Isn’t school the last place where we can be idealists? I wanted to learn. I liked learning. And yet, I sat in class after class, eyes glazed over, feeling the lacuna in my head like a singularity—the immeasurable me concealed—a question without an answer. “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” But what is it?
It wasn’t until after college that I found books that had that welcome-to-the-club handshake. I’d like to say by accident—in as much that being a person that haunts an obscure book reseller in the northern-most neighborhood of Chicago, constantly searching for a secret, can be called accidental—because I was leaving the store, a copy of something forgotten under my arm, when I saw a title, a year, a sketch. Tarr 1918, an angular head, disembodied, penciled on the cover. “I like the angle of your head, sir. I also believe I like that year, or the years immediately surrounding that year. I will buy you.”
iv. Censorship—be that of language, or opportunity—is absolutely wrong. To prevent anyone capable from the opportunity to learn and grow is spiritually criminal. To stifle expression because of misguided moralism, or conservative decorum is equally criminal.
This is addressed to the war-makers, both in thought and development: Look no further than your book shelves. Look at the spines, there: hints of use. I would have them all; none to be destroyed. And while my ideals have me on-the-run, I must implore you to give equal measure, time, and thought to the various rule books that share a space with those documenting the machinations of slaughter. Take these books and tape them together, place them on your coffee table, or next to an unscathed collection of literature, and revel in your one great, moralistic Enchiridion. It will be there to remind you—when sententiousness has converted your expression to belief—that a butcher, is a butcher, is a butcher.
v. There are no insurmountable social problems, only ignorant approaches. Ignorance is the roadblock to progress.
For a few years, my parents “retired” outside of Charleston, South Carolina, in a small town called Summerville. We made several trips down there to choose the appropriate piece of golf-course property. I’d accompany my father to a trailer-as-makeshift-office and meet with Holland Tucker “the third,” a robust Southerner with family roots back to the original subjugators. In a final meeting, after choosing a plot off the green on the third hole (a long par-5, dogleg right; little chance of long, approach shots peppering our home), Holland and my dad chatted while I read something forgotten. Their voices fluttered in the white noise spectrum and carried no more value than the air-conditioning unit when Holland’s voice, suddenly, solidified, “…y’all did win the war.” “What was that?” I perked up. “The Civil War. We just ran out of bullets,” with that big, sickening, fake smile that all Southerners have when confronted with Sherman’s afterbirth. I don’t know what surprised me more, the mere mention of the war, that war, or the simplistic justification for losing.
My father became friendly with Holland, and the two of them would go to high school and college basketball games together. When I would visit at Christmas, I would go with them to The Roundball Classic; an invitational tournament with some of the best basketball high schools in the nation. After one merciless evening—when a team of massive, talented black men from LA embarrassed the host team’s squad of white kids of middling height and skill—Holland reflected as we approached his vehicle, “Man, I’m tellin’ you: those were the jumpinest niggers I ever seen.” My mouth remained open even after we were seated inside. He caught a glimpse of my gaping maw in the rearview mirror. “Oh, Ryan, I’m sorry. I know you’re from Chicago, but that’s just the way we talk down here—we don’t mean nothin’ by it.”
I always felt dislocated in South Carolina. At night, as the house slept, I’d drink glass after glass of bourbon and sneak cigarettes. I’d tip-toe across the kitchen tile, slide the key into the door, exit to the back porch, climb over the brick deck wall, and pace up and down the darkened street. There are stars in the sky there. And it was there that I would talk on the phone with an old flame about dreams and the universe. There are other forms of life in the vault of heaven. Consider the accident of our existence as a single point of contact between a ball and a gradient that declines into the infinite. Surely that contact, that spark, has occurred before—occurs endlessly.
-  Wyndham Lewis, 1934 ↩
-  e.e. cummings, “Introduction to New Poems” ↩
-  Henry Miller, Sexus ↩
-  cummings, ibid. ↩