All I knew was how to suck
THOMAS CROFTS teaches medieval literature and classical languages at East Tennessee State University. His poems have appeared in The Texas Observer, Upstart Crow, Born Magazine and the Anthology of Southern Poetry: Tennessee. He lives with Molly, Rex, Augie and Shadow.
In his three-part column Sex and Death and Beowulf: Reflections on Teaching, Thomas discusses his role as an associate professor, how he engages with his students and his ongoing efforts to communicate the importance of classical subjects in the 21st Century.
‘All I knew was how to suck.’
–St. Augustine, Confessions, I.6
Augustine’s statement, which is inevitably, but only slightly, profaned by this translation, is a salutary and invigorating starting place. Augustine here characterizes a very early stage in his development, and the beginning of his education, and if he seems vaguely to lament this infantile beginning, this is Augustine’s way of discovering to himself the total continuity of his life. Beginning here, Confessions re-gathers all those strands of action and experience, all those errors and accidents—such as we, too, habitually keep separate in the memory, or even suppress—and says: ‘I admit it: it was me the whole time.’
In just this way, I think, half lamenting, half celebrating, literature itself re-gathers the true history of human experience: nothing escapes the poets—least of all things that are sucky—and nothing is subtracted. Approaching literature this way, I also try to encourage students to see their own education, not as a separate strand of experience, but as life itself, their only life. So that, yes, Beowulf is now part of their life.
If a student asks ‘Why do we have to read Beowulf?’ I have a number of answers ready:
- You don’t. Get out of here.
- State of Tennessee decrees it.
- Because we are fucking Anglophone.
But the one I like best is this, uttered in a Morpheus monotone:
- To remind you of it.
Whoa, Dr. Crofts.
Dr. Crofts, what the hell.
Fortunately most literary texts are concerned with two very basic things: sex and death. These things humanity is more or less addicted to examining (open Augustine’s Confessions anywhere) and which can never be forgotten. Therefore nothing having to do with sex or death need be excluded from the discussion—but much may be added, and we all have something at stake in what is added. Sex and death and Beowulf.
But, Dr. Crofts, what about love.
Love is merely the magical result of sex and death.
For however strange a literary text may be, beneath its alien-seeming exterior is a recognizable human expression, in very many ways continuous with ourselves, especially since, as in the case of Beowulf, continuous with our own language. To engage with Beowulf is not a mere academic exercise, but a remembering, a reawakening of a strand of history.
Dr. Crofts, there’s no sex in Beowulf.
There’s not? Well if you’re right, then that’s crazy.
Well, maybe that’s why there’s so much death.
On the other hand sex can take many forms.
Education is not for the purpose of becoming an expert (though you may become one if you wish), but rather for developing of the skill of attention and examining, of being a scholar. Let me quickly add that by ‘scholar’ I do not mean an academic or professor. A scholar is just a person who habitually knows more than his job description requires him to; many an academic and professor fails of that condition.
Socrates thought that learning something was really a remembering. A teacher cannot really teach new things to a student, but only remind the student of them. In the Phaedo, it is Cebes who remembers this doctrine.
“But, Cebes,” said Simmias, “what were the proofs of this? Remind me; for I do not recollect very well just now.”
“Briefly,” said Cebes, “a very good proof is this: When people are questioned, if you put the questions well, they answer correctly of themselves about everything; and yet if they had not within them some knowledge and right reason, they could not do this. And that this is so is shown most clearly if you take them [73b] to mathematical diagrams or anything of that sort.”
This innate knowledge, which is made up of powers of abstract reasoning and differentiation, is held by Socrates as proof that the soul is immortal, but somewhat forgetful. The teacher reminds us of these powers. Whether or not one believes in the soul, the principle is good: a literature student merely needs reminding that the poet’s skill is also her skill, that language is continuous with life. Remembering is really remembering that, beginning with our ability to suck—including in the sense ‘draw in nutrients’—we do have the ability to see everything in its newness, which is its true light.
Unfortunately, even by the age of eighteen, we can totally lose the knack of observation, we have not paid attention—being often encouraged not to pay attention—to the depth of our own narratives. Human narratives—both written and lived—are made up not of pre-existing episodes, after all, but of specific choices, errors, and sense-impressions of all kinds, and if we do not credit these we cannot examine—in fact we falsify—the whole picture. Literature is a study and a practice which imparts this very skill of examining.
In “Scandal in Bohemia”, Sherlock Holmes is bitching out Watson because, for all the hundreds of times he (Watson) has climbed the steps up to Holmes’s rooms in Baker Street, he has not been able, when suddenly asked, to come up with how many steps there are. “You see,” says Holmes, “but you do not observe.” It was finally the trick of observing that allowed Augustine to remember himself, “to see my wickedness and loathe it.” Even the less austere among us may find such self-examination terrifying. Augustine continues: “I had known it all along, but I had always pretended that it was something different. I had turned a blind eye and forgotten it.”
Of course, for Literature (or Stair-numbering, or Reckoning-One’s-Loathsomeness) the reader may substitute anything; and since I work in an institution which considers Sports & Leisure—not to mention Marketing—an academic discipline, I do mean anything.
Dr. Crofts, I am Marketing.
But we shouldn’t fetishize. In any true occasion of teaching-and-learning, the matter rises out of its shell, vulnerable to every disturbance. And the event of this is always unique, impossible to predict, and, in any case, will still be unfolding. So, I tell my students, the lesson—our guess at the meaning of all the sex and death—doesn’t come at the end: if you look for it there, you will have missed it.
But if you do miss it, and have to go all the way back to sucking, you’ll still be in the salutary and invigorating company of saints, detectives, and poets. And Beowulf (that subtle sex-romp). Because you cannot, children, in this life, unremember Beowulf. Try it: you will find it impossible.
Thomas Crofts 2015
Published: April 30th, 2015