“. . . interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. . . “

What we don't understand

What we don’t understand

Inception (1) haunts me. I didn’t follow it well when I saw it, and I don’t know for sure how the images in my memory fit together to make the story. The film won the AFI award as Movie of the Year, and it was nominated for oodles of Academy Awards including best picture, so I know it’s a great movie. No. I know it’s a great movie because I know it is.

I have a remarkably limited language for discussing movies. Because I haven’t seen many since about 1980. My former students will testify that the movies I “get” (sort of) are old black and white things that no one should bother to watch. Movies like Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948), The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962), An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Robert Enrico, 1962), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962), Summer and Smoke (Peter Glenville, 1961), and Howards End (James Ivory, 1992). Oh, I forgot, Ivory films are not black and white. It appears the movies I think I understand tend to be from my high school days.

These are some of the movies I’ve used in class. The movies on the list have (at least) two things mostly in common. They are based on other literary works and/or they have some element of mystery that propels the stories. Or both.

I was thinking about Inception this morning (and hence, all those others) because it suddenly occurred to me that I should use it in class this semester. I won’t, but I should. It would not fit our semester’s topic (“Writing about the Grotesque”). But it would give me a lead-in to what I really want my students to think and write about, using the “grotesque” as a spring-board. I want them to think about mystery. Not as in Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, but as in “What’s the meaning of life,” or, “why do people act the way they do?”

In about 1990 I was living alone for the first time in my life. Yes, I was 45. I was working professionally at a real job (Professor of Music at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston) for the first time in my life, too. I was living in a condo I purchased, unfortunately, at the top of the Massachusetts real estate bubble of the ‘80s (and because of which I eventually lost not only my shirt but my hope of a comfortable retirement). I was able to read again as I had not been able to since college. And I had begun writing short stories (short stories that could barely be called stories).

The grotesque on a back?

The grotesque on a back?

A good friend gave me a copy of the complete short stories of Flannery O’Connor. My inner life changed. I discovered a new way of thinking about the mysteriousness of my life. I found the grotesqueries of all of the people I had ever known (myself included) presented in both harsh and loving reality. And—don’t assume I’m talking about religion—I discovered a way of thinking about the grace that allows us to continue to the end of our days in spite of our grotesqueries (or, O’Connor might say, because of them).

Most of the students in my classes will miss the point. They’re not at university to think about anything important except how to get rich. Their assignment for today after reading O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back,” is to contemplate (can they “contemplate,” or will I do well to get them merely to “think about”?) if and/or how the story is rooted in her explanation of writing that

. . . if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do (2).

If you’ve seen Inception, you may be able to see why I think it might be a way in to help the students think about O’Connor’s understanding that “the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.” I don’t know. In the dream world of Inception all adequate motivations and psychology and determinations have been exhausted. At a depth. Mystery.

AOaOCB blogI suppose the students are lucky I’m not going to drop that idea on them half-baked (or the film, either—I would be surprised if any of them have seen it).

The problem is, of course, that I should not be trying to get university students to help me think about the mystery. I’m “interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do” these days. I have always hoped (even pretended) I was. These days it’s an obsession.

And teachers are supposed to be able to get students to understand, not to not understand.
__________
(1) Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine. Warner Bros., 2010. Film.
(2) O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.”  Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

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