Sunday, November 20, 2011

If you can't dazzle them with brilliance...

In my final semester of college, a professor teaching one of my honors literature seminars asked myself and one of the top students in the class to stand up and hold a discussion in front of the class on King Lear. We ranged from comparisons with Shakespeare’s other works, to psycho-analyzing the parent-child relationship in literature and analysis of madness, to connections between Lear and the contemporary royalty that Shakespeare was writing for. We sounded quite intelligent. Only, neither of us had read it. The prof was proving a point about literature as cultural capital and the degree to which literature scholars BS their way through conversations about Ulysses just because they’re ashamed to admit they haven’t read it.

Chilling by a lake atop Ulriken
As I stood in front of my American literature class, running a review session for them before their exam, I remembered that moment. The night before, I’d pored over the syllabus and filled in all the gaps in my education. Since I’ve read most of the classics that show up on a survey course of American literature, it wasn’t too difficult to fit in Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and re-read Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California.” There was only one book I hadn’t read and didn’t plan to; Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I couldn’t find it online or in my anthology, and as I’d been sidetracked into Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night (the dangers of reading in an anthology are quite real), I figured I could call it a day.

Standing in front of the terrified students looking to grasp anything that would help them in their exam, I congratulated myself on the thoroughness with which I righted their conception of double consciousness and explicated Plath’s metaphors. Then, inevitably, came the question: what do the italics in Hemingway have to do with modernism? As I cobbled together an answer from my knowledge of Hemingway's style and modernist tricks, explaining how the flashbacks in the book show a fluid time stream that is very modernist, and the italics are part of Hemingway’s method for distinguishing mental thought from the present-day action (lucky guess? no, educated response ;-), I thought back to the moment my prof revealed to the honors class that neither Chris nor I had ever read King Lear. They were startled, and impressed, and looked at us like literary wiz kids for the rest of the semester. But fun as it was, I don’t think I’ll repeat the exposure of my talent this time; nobody guessed that I hadn’t read The Snows of Kilimanjaro on Friday, and I’d like to keep them in blissful ignorance of the fact.

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. 

Sunday morning I gave myself a break from the mountain of work I’ve had lately, and traded it for a walk up Ulriken, Bergen’s tallest mountain. Ulriken is good for me; I always feel so woefully out of shape after hiking up the steep rocky trail that goes straight up, that I spend the rest of the week waking for a jog before sunrise. You know, around nine o’clock or so. Watching the sun drift slowly over the side of the mountain and suddenly dazzle Bergen into brilliance below me, I had a sudden piercing sense of possession over the city and its mountains sloping greyly into the distance.

View from the peak of Ulriken


  1. Isn't that what we do in the Work-in-Progress seminars pretty much all the time? None or very few of us have read the books under analysis in the presented thesis, but we all make educated guesses on what may or may not be fruitful approaches and topics to delve deeper into? Some of the first-year MA students expressed early on after the WiP-seminars that they were impressed how we all sounded so well-read and knowledgeable. And then you have the professors, who may have even read the book in question once a long time ago, but remember very little, and hide this fact by throwing out another reference nobody are likely to have read, like namedropping another critic or a work by an other author distantly related to the current topic.

  2. You sound like it doesn't even bother you that your field lends itself so easily to bullshit. I respect that. Don't neglect to read the book again, though, lest I be mad as hell.

    The only justification for allowing bullshit-happy colleagues into your life is the determination to do otherwise. You legitimize what you do by doing it well.

    BAM long distance judgment DELIVERED