Think Piece #1 (of this year, anyway)

26Jan09

So I make my kids write these things called Think Pieces (which I adapted from an assignment that Cindy O’Donnell-Allen, er, assigned us in our Teaching Reading course) at the end of every literature unit in the spring.  I love them–both writing them and reading them–because they’re generally a nice opportunity to puzzle through things you’ve been thinking about the whole unit without a lot of constraints on what you can/can’t talk about or how formal your tone and approach must be.  I like writing them not only to give the kids a sense of what they’re for/about at the beginning of the semester, but also because it a) gives me an occasion to write, and b) helps me think (hence the name).  Anyway, I thought I might start posting them here as I never post anything here anymore and I generally kind of like them when I’m finished with them.  Note that my primary audience for these are my students, so they’re written with them in mind.  The impetus for writing this one is a bunch of bellyaching about why we’re not reading more cheerful books.

Down with Downers?

There are a couple of troubling notions that have arisen from our discussions this semester.  One, which I don’t believe I’ll have time to go into here, is that we are torturing this book with analysis.  The other is that Invisible Man (and perhaps Modernism and existentialism, by extension) isn’t worth our time because it’s such a major downer.  What can we learn from such a terrible story?  Life isn’t always as hard as it’s portrayed in the book; sunshine and rainbows are a part of life as well, so why don’t we read something that reflects all of that?

This question (and the other one I mentioned, come to think of it) troubles me not because I disagree with it.  People need hope, and I mean all people–without it, we can have no reason to even move, no meaning to hitch a ride on.  Without meaning, we can’t function, and without hope there is no meaning.  I get it.  And I agree.  But I also think that false hope–that meaning-making that hinges on wanting to believe that some things are more pleasant than they are–is foolish, and dangerous, and ultimately just supremely unsatisfying.  Real hope is what this book is about, I think.

The narrator takes a long, long time to realize that the justice he so wants to see in the world doesn’t exist for him.  For much of the book–and most of his life, at least as long as we’ve known him–he is hanging on to false hope, and, accordingly, his actions keep resulting in betrayals, disappointments, frustration (for us as well as him).  He loses that hope rather abruptly when he sees it die in Clifton’s death.  And, in truth, the book could have ended there, but it would have missed the really remarkable part–the really human part: the part where he sees that he has nothing and says, “Alright.  What do I do now?”

In the end of the book, the narrator defies all expectations.  We expect him to blame others entirely, but he does not.  We expect him to lash out in retribution, and he does not–he’s been there, and knows it’s not for him.  We expect him to stay in his hole, but he refuses.  And while the path that he chooses to follow when he emerges above ground may not be the one that you or I would choose–even for him–it will be action, not merely reaction, and it will finally be motivated by a view of the world that expects nothing, asks for nothing, and realizes the importance of creation rather than simple inheritance.  Dude decides he’s got no choice but to go out and make his own meaning (or his own absurdity, if that’s what it comes to) and that he is responsible for the effects of that.

Perhaps I’m less cheerful than most (though I don’t think that’s true), but that doesn’t sound hopeless to me.  It sounds hard–it’s not easy taking on the responsibility to make real decisions–but it also sounds sort of life-affirming.  Here is life, for whatever it’s worth: let me actually live it now.  Understanding that the world doesn’t always make sense and that you must go on–you can’t but go on–well, that’s grim to be sure, and it’s a lot of work, but it’s not hopeless.  And, while it often seems easier to let others dictate and prescribe our actions, it might ultimately be easier on our consciences to be able to look back on our lives and know that, whenever we could, we made real decisions–decisions that might not always make us proud, and that might not always have worked out well for us, but that were ours nonetheless, and were based on our most honest appraisals of the world and our most honest revelations about ourselves.

In the end, our invisible man knows he has to leave his cave; he has to go create a life for himself.  More than that, though, he knows that, in an absurd sort of way, we’re all thrown into this swirling mass of chance and circumstance together, and we’re all essentially fighting the same battle against the meaningless that surrounds us.  And there is, at least for me, not only comfort but hope in that.  Maybe acknowledging that we’re all up against the same thing makes us a little kinder to each other, more willing to see one another.  And maybe it doesn’t, but that’s hardly the point.  The point, I guess, is finding a way to live a meaningful life.  What meaning can there be in false rainbows and phony sunshine?  I want the real thing, even if that means having to look harder for it.

To end it with an honest question, then, I’m going to have to switch gears a little: Does this sort of existential perspective deemphasize the systematic, real injustices that some of us have to deal with more often than others?  What I mean is this: Is ‘we’re all up against the same thing’ really true?  Some folks seem to be ‘up against’ quite a lot more than others, actually…so is this entire point of view afforded me by privilege or what?  Because I was feeling really good about this piece until just..then.

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One Response to “Think Piece #1 (of this year, anyway)”

  1. 1 L

    You’re seriously awesome. Thanks for writing this.


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