Cash on Hand

When I finished my dissertation on Henry James and got a Masters, I was eligible by virtue of having gotten a Masters to teach at Community Colleges, although they were called Junior Colleges at that time, even though I had never had a single class in the fine art of teaching.  Apparently, if you teach pre-college you need to take classes on how to teach, but if you are teaching college you don’t because as they say, in college, you teach the subject, not students.  500$

That tells you a lot about the general theory of college teaching.  You talk about the subject, and it doesn’t really make any difference whether any students are there or not in the room with you.  In fact in many college lectures most of the students aren’t there because the teacher is not teaching students but the subject. So it all sort of works out in the end.

I applied for work at community colleges and I got interviews at 3, some close by, but one up in Monterey took some driving.  And I didn’t get a job.  But the fall before, just in case the junior college thing didn’t come through, I had applied to graduate schools for a PhD.  Also, having flunked out of UCLA, I wanted to prove to myself that I could get a PhD if I wanted. I was accepted at three graduate schools, one a pretty good school back in New York, one a sort of experimental college in the UC system, and the one I ended up at and where I have been as student and then teacher since 1976—30 fucking years. Who knew?

The chair of the department at the experimental university wrote a letter—hand written no less—saying I was there absolute number one candidate, and would I please come.  I mean the guy actually wanted me to come and was trying to convince me.  BUT (huge BUT) they would have not money to give me or TA job for the first year.  Gee Whiz!  Thanks a lot.

 I would have liked to have gone there.  But I had about 500 dollars, a few pairs of jeans, some work shirts and a Volkswagen…After that first year, they would find some money.  BUT… I just didn’t see how I could do it—go to a new place, find a job that paid something, take graduate classes, and keep my sanity.  I needed more structure than that so I went to the place I still am because they offered me a full TA ship because, as I later learned, they decided to bring in grad students that particular year that had previously taught so they wouldn’t have to spend money training them.  I fit the bill to a T.

Money has played a significant role in my career choices.  I supposed I could have borrowed some money some where for that first year at the place that had no money.  But what did I know from borrowing.  I had a great dread of debt and managed to get all my higher education, 10+ years of it, owing $1000.  What do they call that now, a Pyrrhic victory?

De Sade

The ancient Greeks are probably just as bad as the people in the Bible.  They were all a bunch of pathological whacko-jobs.  Those guys in the old and New Testament who thought they were talking with God; well, they weren’t making it up.  Most of the ancient world was psychotic; that’s what you had to be to endure the endless shit going down.  But while I had plenty of intro to the Bible forced bastilledown my throat, I didn’t really get to read the Greeks in much detail till college.

Or let’s say, I had read quite a bit of them before college, but wasn’t ready till college to look at them with clearer emotions.  I was bowled over especially by the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Of course, in the Iliad, just like in the Bible, you find endless stretches of dullness where they make lists of things, like what armies were here or there or who was in them exactly, like the begat stuff in the Bible.  These lists suggest the value of list making at any time in human history as a mechanism for getting your feet on the ground and dealing with blasts of overwhelming anxiety.

But when Homer wasn’t making lists, he was talking about fighting.  And that’s what got me most.  Like with those Greeks, there was no breast beating or me-oh-my I have got to kill somebody or why-am-I-doing-this sort of thing.  No questions about meaning or guilt or any of that shit.  Just here I am and I am going to knock your fucking head off, and they would go at it till they were knocking each over the heads with rocks or whatever else came in handy.  No knights in shining army, just blood and dust till the day was done and they collected their dead.

And it didn’t seem to be about courage either.  Really no choice was involved.  So that wasn’t a question.  Odysseus at one point is getting the crap beaten out of him and he just starts talking to his opponent, pleading pathetically for his life, like hey, man, I am not ready to die and I have duties and obligations etc.  And he talks the guy out of killing him, and that didn’t mean Odysseus wasn’t sufficiently manly.  It meant he was and on top of that he was smart.

So maybe I was a proto-nerd because I was so knocked over with this stuff that I wrote an extra, un-required paper about what I was feeling and gave it to the professor.  She gave it back to me with no marks on it and said something like she had found it interesting.  OK, so maybe it had been filled with specious generalizations and based on extremely limited knowledge or whatever the heck had been wrong with it.  Or maybe I had come off sounding like a proto-fascists or something because as women since have reminded me the macho hood of those ancient Greeks was based on a society where women were treated like chattel, a sort of polite way of saying they were slaves.

Not till years later when I was reading the Romantics did I realize that back then in 1967 I had gone through a sort of literary rite of passage as it were.  All of the Romantics, well, most of them, had been bowled over by their first readings of the Greeks, which they usually did actually in Greek, while I read stuff in translation having, like Shakespeare, little Latin and no Greek.  I don’t know how to say it but the Greeks seem to breathe a clean and pure and cold air, while the air of we moderns is polluted and we in turn are sickly.  Almost as if all the pathology that had once been out there and accepted in the social structures and mythology of those days had moved right into our sickly heads.

It always gives me pause to remember that when, on the road to natural rights, the French knocked down the Bastille, one of the guys that game strolling out, was the Marquis De Sade.


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 blackholefalse 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.

Speaking Chaucer

So, as English major, I have to take class on Goeffrey Chaucer and write a paper on Troilus and Criseyde.  This is a pretty long poem with the same name as a play by Shakespeare, though middle englishChaucer wrote before Shakespeare in Middle English.  I read the poem in translation and I hated it because the so-called hero, Troilus, was like in love with Criseyde.  I forget the particulars but every time the guy made it into an intimate situation with Criseyde where they might have consummated their relation in a physical way the fucker, Troilus I mean, would actually faint or pass out or something to that effect.

 So I started writing this paper on how screwed up Troilus was and how he couldn’t be a proper hero and so on if he fucking fainted when he had the opportunity to get some snatch (excuse me).  I even read some Freud on sexual hysteria to back up my claim and tied all that back into the religious theme of the poem because it did have a religious theme.  And I am typing away on this thing at around 4 in the morning of the day it is due and realize I have just written a pile of crap.

It was a sort of light bulb experience because a number of other things came together.  I realized that in attacking Troilus as an impotent and ineffectual jerk I was not talking about the poem “as a whole.”  I was making the mistake of actually identifying with a character, Troilus, and I wasn’t supposed to do that at all.  I couldn’t do that if I was to understand and write about the poem “as a whole.”  And I saw then rather dimly but more clearly later that my dislike of Troilus was an obvious projection of my own sexual problem.  Like I was the one who felt like passing out in situations with potential for fucking.  So actually writing on Troilus in that way I had been engaged in psychological self-flagellation.

 s I said, this was a major break through.  I would have to stop identifying with the characters if I were to write about the work “as a whole,” as, as it were, a whole universe in microcosm, complete down to its own laws of gravity.  The problem here was that really, unless you were an English major and had to write papers on stuff, if you cut off your identification with the characters you really didn’t have a whole lot of reason to read the book, except that it was a book on the must read list of books for English majors.

So I got a D+ on the paper but an A for the class because the professor gave A’s to everybody that had a beard because he was on LSD all the time.  And I didn’t learn how to pronounce Chaucer properly, his being in middle English and all, and that came back to bite me in the ass like 20 years later when I am taking my first orals for my PhD, and I am just flying along knocking them dead with my knowledge of the novel, until this jerk hands me some Chaucer and asks me to read it.  I mean hell it might as well have been in a foreign language because Middle English is nearly a foreign language.  And the fuckers have the gall to pass me through the orals, but with “reservations” one of them being that I should learn how to speak Chaucer properly.

Now why should I learn to speak Chaucer properly, you might well ask.  Absolutely no reason at all.  Just that if you were an English major you were supposed to know how to speak Chaucer in case somebody came up to you at a party and asked you to talk Chaucer, since you were an English major.  Like in the same way, I guess, that if you are a doctor and somebody has a heart attack at a party you, as a doctor, are expected to act like you know what you are doing. Well, in the 28 years since I fucked up that orals and sat through a whole class on how to speak Chaucer, nobody has ever asked me to speak Chaucer because nobody gives a shit about Chaucer or Middle English, except English Majors.

The whole thing is a like a sociological tautology.