Wednesday, October 28, 2009

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

When I was in the eleventh grade I voiced a theory, whose hypothesis I had subjected to the usual rigorous four-second cogitation period, that all poetry was about death. The idea greatly upset my English teacher; naturally I immediately adopted the half-baked argument as if it were revealed scripture.

The following year I wrote a paper on the role of sleep (and its obvious analog, death) in Updike's "The Centaur." My thesis had, as far as I could tell, no support of any kind in the existing critical literature.

To fulfill the requirements of the assigment, I invented sources that said the things I wanted them to say. I even invented a quote by George Bernard Shaw, an excellent, witty and believable one.

My teacher caught me without much trouble. Here, readers who did not grow up as babyfaced white boys in the south in the 1980's probably are wincing in anticipation of some great cataclysm of shame and disgrace.

Those who did grow up as I did are smiling a knowing, self-satisfied smile. There was, of course, no comeuppance. My teacher never directly confronted my about my deception, instead setting up a farce of a "supplemental final exam" in which she provided me with the research materials to write an essay on no notice. I have no idea what asinine, patronizing tripe I chose as my thesis. I knew it would satisfy my teacher.

I did not speak to the assembled graduates and well-wishers the day I received a diploma I did not deserve, despite the fact that a spontaneous groundswell of support had surfaced among the senior class for my inclusion in the list of presenters. The administration, in their only policy move made during my tenure for which I have an iota of respect, nixed the idea of allowing a known swindler and con artist to address a crowd of four hundred of central Virginia's best and brightest.

Incidentally, I stand by the lies I told. Updike WAS writing about a man drifting in and out of consciousness. The fact that this central fact was ignored by critics for decades doesn't change its salience.

High school WAS stupid, an endless parade of nonsense that no sane person would ever countenance. It was a time of slumber, in which the various manifestations of the self interact with one another in absurd, obviously counterproductive ways. Some things are sorted out Nothing is learned.

Now, years later, we drift off to sleep. With all our poetry and music, dripping with false significance, what do we know even of this small death, to which each one of us has traveled and returned countless times?

The question had not been taken up by English speakers to any great degree in 1994, and to my knowledge the field remains in a state of advanced disrepair. The most universal psychological phenomenon on earth is, for practical purposes, still largely a closed book.

It bears thinking about.