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Thursday, November 18, 2004


the perks of being a wallflower

a spot of controversy in wisconsin recently regarding a book being taught in a modern lit course has been a revealing little exercise.

the novel, a trite bit of teen angst, will stay on the curriculum despite the protests of parents over its content -- blowjobs and the like. i could care less about the details, although i certainly think that the parents of a community have a right to limit their particular curriculum on moral grounds.

what baffles me is what a book like this is doing in a literature course. it's completely beyond me.

teaching kids about literature is teaching them about history and philosophy and religion and art -- in short, their culture. that is the *purpose* of a literature course and a literary education -- or rather, it was, when literature was part of education and education was more than making one factory-functional while babysitting. literature is a window on civilization. a literary education means so much more than reading some books.

force me to read tennyson a la carte, and it's just words (and a mid-rate poem at that).

but explain victorian romanticism, place it in the narrative of western civilization, show how tennyson was sentimentalizing warfare despite a mechanizing age, how he contributed to the national arrogance of british military imperialism and came to be loved and elevated for it, and how he came to be widely defrocked in the aftermath of world war one when the dangers of misconceived victorian sentimental heroism became so thoroughly exposed as a fraud. THAT's literature, and it stands a chance of being interesting.

what place has this thing in a literary education? it isn't worthy of the word.

such an education is, in no small way, the glue that binds societies. by inserting this thing and its ilk instead, we are rejecting that social continuity, that common bond. it's no different than if a tribal poet quit retelling the historic epics of his tribe and started instead to recount a few recent angst-filled trips to the bathroom. what would become of the tribal bond?

a civilization's history and culture -- in this case, as expressed in its literature -- is far more important than most modern ironic hyperindividualists want to concede. to reject it is, in some measure, to embrace anarchy and collapse. it is part of a cultural suicide attempt.

and, indeed, that is what has been underway in the west for the better part of a century now.

furthermore, that such a book can be confused with literature is an appalling confirmation of the loss of art in the postmodern world. our decaying society doesn't produce great art -- much as the greeks quit producing it in the hellenistic age. almost exactly as with us, the direction and evolving focus of classical high art first suffered a period of decadent eclecticism and then died, leaving the commercial crafts, propaganda and mimicry that characterized the roman empire.

one can see the greek philosophy similarly move from the mysticism of pythagoras and the utopian idealism of plato -- to the pragmatic relativism of protagoras and aristotle -- and then move to the frustration and ironic endurance of the epicurians and stoics (an ethical school for our age if ever one existed).

i rather think we have come upon that age of aimless frustration -- what is our notion of virtue, after all? i think it has become for almost all of us escapist 'tranquility'. that is not always so! the weariness of a decadent age is a response to a loss of direction and an increase in confusion. our civilizational narrative ended in the wars of the early 20th c, and we are lost -- and it has many consequences.

although i do think quality is vastly deteriorated with absurdity, what is just as important as what is being produced is the inability of anyone to see it amid the morass of shit that hides it. criticism is where the failure is most acute, as critics are not principally critical. modern criticism has far more to do with embracing banal shock value and moral dissolution than establishing a style. and that is, i think, partly a feature of hyperindividualism -- a society where no one can be wrong, as it were.

just once i would like to see something emerge from our society that is relevant, engaging, strange, beautiful, intellectual and critically reviled -- as every great new movement in art must be. i would love to see such a thing. really. i want nothing more than to be able to embrace a potentially great new movement, and it would be a powerful sign that perhaps our culture is not quite dead yet.

finally, all of this is sad evidence of the mortally-wounded public school. it, like the novel, is a dying institution that is -- even in its best examples, like wealthy suburban arrowhead -- driving the public into ignorance under the pretenses of education. there's been such a deterioration of what constitutes a standard of education that i can't bear to think of it. it's really the beginning of the end of true literacy, which reached its peak closer to 1900 than 2000.

instead of infusing the young with what it means to be a part of western civilization through the canon of letters, we get this:

English teacher Frank Balistreri, who said he first included the book in his modern literature class at a student's recommendation, said some of the book's disputed sections have been taken out of context.

The difference between the use of sex in "Perks" and the use of sex in pornography is that, unlike in "Perks," pornography doesn't portray the negative ramifications of sexual activity, Balistreri said.

"If there's consequences, as in 'Perks,' then it's not pornography," he said. "It's discussion of a social issue."
how bizarre! i have no doubt kids need to discuss their social issues -- but as to what that may have to do with a formal education i am at a complete loss to articulate. such sophistic concern with students' self-consciousness has apparently paralyzed us from teaching them anything, and turned schools into an individual emotional exploration. we are all psychoanalysts now, i guess.

wow. that's really all i can say. i am appalled at this so called "decline and fall of Western Civilization". being s student MYSELF, reading this book opended my eyes to so many things. i am grateful to be happy, simply because i was made with the emotion to be. To look forward to better days, to know that there is someone like Charlie out there, like me. A Shy student full of wonder but scared about how to show it. Through Charlie, i've come to realize how to live life, do things, and Not be another wallflower. Like Charlie, as he grew, so did I. He taught me many things, some of which i needed to be reminded of. When it came to an end, i felt like i knew Charlie for years, i didnt want to let him go. High school students really do go through the exact same things that Charlie explains, whether parents want to realize it or not. Charlie talks in a way We can understand, in a way we can relate. I would recomend this book to EVERYONE, as it will always remain my favorite.

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which is fine, anon -- i really have no problem with people connecting and relating to stories.

but that's not the study of literature. that the study of the animal self.

in an age in which the emotional self overwhelms all things and destroys all things, it may seem to some as though the need to "connect" in a highly emotional way is the only purpose of literature.

my point is to say that that is not so -- that a course in western literature, when done properly, is about the history, the philosophy and the modes of thought of our civilization.

as recreational reading, i'm sure it's a worthy expression of teen angst. i was a high school student once to, and remember the books of my youth as well.

however, as literature, it is non-existent.

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Wasn't is specified that this was a course on MODERN literature. You apparently think that the only relevant literature must be at least 100 years old? Have you ever had any lit classes beyond Western lit 101? Do you know anything about modern education?
And please don't forget that your canon only includes dead white men.

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i think it could, anon, have been more honestly labeled "postmodern pulp", becasue that's what it is. truly, if one were to examine postmodern literature, wouldn't one need to visit proust, joyce, pinchon, camus and nabokov, and not this manner of disposable entertainment -- a book which will be utterly and appropriately forgotten in ten years? it was published by MTV, for christs sake! is that no indication?

it seems to me that its primary function in the classroom was as a sort of bibliography for works of actual literature. it is to literature what 'forrest gump' is to 20th c history. it begs the question, then, as to why those works aren't being taught directly for the benefit of students.

to be very clear, the fact that such a thing can be confused for literature is testament to the complete ambiguation of what literature is -- and is part and percel to the drowning of the arts in a sea of mediocrity, a story oft repeated in civilizations in terminal decline.

it was said that in imperial rome there were such an obnoxious surfeit of poets and playwrights that they and their agents blocked the streetcorners of the city reciting their populist and forgettable works to crowds of serial appreciators. the same is true here, i'm sad to say.

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have you read the book? It tells the tale of a boy in an ACTUAL modern family. It depicts how he lives with the issues that are brought to him. It is a beautifully written book. The author simply didn't use any euphemisms, he said things outright. And about sex in the book, yes there is, but if you read the book, it fits in thematically. This post is the definition of assumption makes an ass out of you and me.

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