Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The "Lycidas" lecture went well, at least in the eyes of the observing professor, Debra Fried. But it's kind of a strange medium: like giving a paper at a conference except no one buys you drinks afterward. Did the students learn anything? Will they do well on the exam? Much more important, did I contribute in any way toward their appreciation or affection for Milton's contorted and gorgeous poem? That's the aspect of teaching that haunts and eludes me: we are trying to teach people how to read, but we don't really teach them how to feel—and how could we? I know that in that room of sixty-five students a handful were sparked, were strangely moved, found themselves repeating phrases or lines: "Sunk though he be beneath the watry floor"; "that two-handed engine at the door"; "Look homeward Angel, and melt with ruth." But aren't these the ones with temperaments already properly inclined? What can I do but gesture repeatingly: Look! Look! Only they can read.

Exhausted, still thinking about Capote, I picked up Emily's copy of In Cold Blood yesterday afternoon and fell into it without a sound. Up late reading, finished it this morning lingering over breakfast. The prose is stunning, yet as happened when I first read the book ten-odd years ago I found myself mostly unable to stop and savor it, compelled to hurry on by the terrible and pointless story of the fatal intersection between two morally hollow drifters and an unimpeachably virtuous and likeable Kansas farm family. The movie hints at the gap between the black hole Capote discovered and the scintillating life—not the prose of course, since it's a film, but Capote's own—that he set glimmering around its edges, creating the impression, the phantom, of meaning. The book is art, great art, immortal art, in direct response to the nihilism discoverable in human acts. There are hints of redemption, but Capote is flinging darts at a dartboard: psychiatrist's evaluations of Hickock and Smith finding them to be, respectively, psychologically disorganized and schizophrenic; the haunting last words of Smith, strangely omitted from the film ("'I think,' he said, 'it's a helluva thing to take a life in this manner. I don't believe in capital punishment, morally or legally. Maybe I had something to contribute, something—'"); a beautiful scene at the book's close in which the chief investigating detective, Alvin Dewey, visting the cemetery to tend his own father's grave, runs into Sue Kidwell, Nancy Clutter's best friend, "just such a young woman as Nancy might have been. Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat." All we have at the end (literally the end, that's the last sentence) are Capote's beautiful words. Are they enough?

That seems to be the question on my mind.

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