I still get sort of ticked off to think that in my entire history as a student I never got back a single paper with the “Brilliant!” written across the corner of the first page. You’d sort of think that a person who went on to get a PhD would have gotten one “Brilliant!” or maybe he got the PhD under false pretenses or something.
My friend, who really was at Woodstock and who later became a schizophrenic, routinely got “Brilliants.” He was in that English class for English majors in my freshman year and every paper he wrote got a “Brilliant” across the top and the same for his in-class philosophy exam. And that was like throwing pearls before swine—or something like that—because he didn’t give a shit and was already dropping out by the end of the first year.
But really I was, I guess, incapable of being brilliant not because I lacked brains exactly but because I really didn’t know what brilliant was all about. Being brilliant was writing back what the professor had said in such a way that he or she recognized his or her brilliance in what you had written. This is no small thing since some professors are really brilliant, so it’s not really something you can fake. It’s like you are playing back the song they played for you in such a way that the song is recognizable as their song but in such a way also that you open up new like meanings in it. I think the French might call these little moments of new meaning apercu.
But of course I am being a bit snotty here. Because being brilliant is not merely a matter of pleasing a Professor. Beyond being brilliant in the professor-teacher relationship is what we might call advanced “brilliance.” That’s where you write something for a professional journal, and you have read so much of the shit that the editors of the journal have written that you make them all think they are brilliant. This takes fucking work and in the course of that you can get so fuddled up that you can’t be brilliant.
Instead what I got written across the corner of the first page of my papers was “Original” on two or three occasions. I wouldn’t have known this was praise but for the “A” grade attached. Because after the “original” I didn’t find lavish praise for what I had written. It was like “original!” was the only thing that could be said about it. Because being original is sort of the opposite of being brilliant; here the errant and untutored student decides to write about some idea that was not discussed in class or maybe not even written about anywhere.
Being original took its own kind of work, you had to write and rewrite, and provide examples and such to make a sort of framework for making sure the Professors didn’t think you were nuts or something. It’s like while you were writing you had to take their heads and move it to another place so they could see what you were trying to see. So one time I wrote a sort of theoretical preface to a paper on Passage to India, saying, in brief, that if a work of literature was indeed a whole and unified in its parts, I should be able to take a tiny part and working off that show the unity of the work. What was the smallest unit I could work with? Why a single word.
So I picked the word “distinction” and went through the book and tried to find every instance of that word’s use. Then I analyzed the immediate context of the word’s use, and, tracing it from the beginning of the book to the end, showed how the meaning deepened and changed as it went along…Something like that.
I really didn’t have the faintest fucking idea what I was doing. But I enjoyed writing it because it seemed to hold together and I was temperamentally unable to say back to the teacher what the teacher had said.