House PainterThe modern romantic ironically knows very little about Romance. We live in an age where “all you need is love” has become “I get whatever I want.” This is romance in the modern, cheapened sense, where life is a series of events that cater to my whims and fancies. And in order for the American to be released from this self-destructing road of hedonism, he must do away with thinking romantically and begin thinking Romantically. That is, he must do away with this silly notion that the princess in the tower is saved so they can ride off into the sunset, happily ever after. He must do away with any such thought; he must realize that he is saving the princess from an evil that must also be destroyed. He must realize that a marriage with her requires a killing of a giant and that any happiness will inevitably be colored with a variety of weekly—or daily—crises. But in our modern fairly tale, the evil that exists is up to the individual person, so that while the prince may see the giant as evil, the princess (a feminist) is already mad at the prince for trying to save her. This romance merely results in the pursuit of making the other person happy.

I frequent academic circles, and it so happened one day that we were discussing a recent phenomenon that takes place in the college classroom. In a modern classroom, the professor does not walk into rooms of chattering students; he walks into something more solemn than a mass; he walks into a room of adolescents who all have bowed in holy reverence to their phones. Some have their heads jammed so far into them only their neck can be seen. This should elicit some concern, for the obvious fact is that students are becoming less socially aware and more like zombies. A zombie could walk into the room, and the only person ready to fight it would be the professor. We talk these days about gun violence. But if we took the gun away a man could walk into any room of modern millennials and still have his way, for the children would be unaware until it was all over. But as most academic circles tend to be, someone took a stance I didn’t ever think I’d hear. “They may not be talking,” she said about those students, “but at least they’re reading!” Now I am highly skeptical they are doing any such thing, but for the sake of this essay, I will assume these mindless millennials are reading something and not merely playing Angry Birds. Let’s even go so far as to say that all twenty-five students are reading news stories and not status updates. We could even go so far as to say that every student is reading the textbook for class—or Dostoevsky or Dickens, for that matter. Let’s make all these students little literary bookworms.

The statement still reveals a terrible philosophical trend toward reading that has crept into the classroom in the last few decades. It is, probably, a result of the nonsensical “art for art’s sake” movement that eventually gave us very bad art. For it is the notion that “reading for the sake of reading” is good enough for most, and it will likely result in creating very bad readers. But in what other area of expertise do we ever trumpet this ideology? Do painters stroll across town with their buckets and ladders, exclaiming, “painting for painting’s sake”? Do they splash paint on every hearth and home they see, regardless of color or coat? Do sailors sail for the sake of sailing, without a care to where they port? Do barbers, with great zeal for their trade, accost each hairy head that passes their shop, shaving and snipping till there is nothing left, all in the name of “cutting hair for the sake of cutting hair”?

I myself am a mower of sorts—you might call me a mid-mower. Nearly every day this past summer I have mowed and trimmed the local town parks. Now, I do not get atop my mower and proclaim, “At least I’m mowing!” No, I have a very clear outcome I wish to arrive at. I primarily want to make sure I don’t kill myself or any children. I secondarily want the parks to be completely mowed as efficiently as possible. My highest goal is to have the parks look beautiful when I am finished. The point here is that if those goals are not met, I am dis-satisfied. If I’m flung off into on-coming traffic or mow over a child, I do not comfort myself with the words “at least I’m mowing!” I do not comfort myself with “at least I’m trimming!” after destroying the child’s sandcastle or the flower-garden. The modern notion, though, would have the mower mowing anything at any level of efficiency and decency. The mower would be equally pleased mowing a field of lilies or a field of ladies, or trimming an area of wildflowers or women. The fact is, without any standards on which to evaluate the work, the work becomes meaningless and the females grow angry.

There is a deeper thing going on here, however, a deeper philosophical trend that has paralleled the above. That is the notion that can equals should. “If we can do it,” goes the theory, “then we should do it.” We see this often enough. We can drive hours on end at dangerous speeds in a metal box, so we look down on those who do not practice this buffoonery. We can marry two men, so it’s morally right. We can face-chat with whomever, wherever and whenever, so if you leave Faceland,* you are an outcast. We don’t really think anything of it. The student can read whatever he’s reading, so he should not only read it but rest content at reading only that. He’s still reading Dr. Seuss in the tenth grade, but he can, so he’s morally obliged. This again begs the question. If the painters painting for the own sake began chanting, “yes we can!” upon arriving at every house, it does not keep them from being tarred and feathered for proving the statement. If I’m screaming, “yes I can!” after mowing over the child’s sandcastle, it will not stop his tears from flowing, though the sand in his eyes might soak up some. In short, the mere ability to do something does not mean things will improve if the thing you are doing is shoddy work. The boy who reads John Green all his life muttering, “yes I can” will never read Shakespeare. And even if the work is good work, if it is done at an inappropriate time, it is not acceptable. The carpenter hammering at two in the morning is thrown off his ladder; the boy opening and reciting his Shakespeare during his father’s funeral is smacked by the mother. But all this really does is shed light on the deeper truth behind the whole matter.

The children can’t read real literature, so they’ve settled for less. The real philosophy is “no we can’t, so we’ll settle for less.” No we can’t be socially aware of our surroundings, so we’ll get on Faceland and pretend to be social. We can’t live in communities, so we dash of to various cities at the speed of light. We can’t read Spenser, so we’ll read Stephanie Meyer. I’m not a good mower, so I’ll practice being a bad mower until I arrive. I can’t write a paragraph, so I’ll tweet ten times until one is created.

The heart should not rejoice but break at the sight of so many faces looking at phones, for both their social and reading skills are taking a hit. We who wish to raise literary prodigies are raising a generation of mere zombies too dead to attack. And it comes back to the fact that the students are living the modern romance—everything they want is at their fingertips. They do not have to fight for anything. If the above individual had thought about what she was saying, she would realize that no one in that classroom is reading. She would realize that reading, in the sense we are using it, must be more than a means of arriving at meaning. I have no problem for the common man to be merely reading for this purpose; many a common man may go through life barely literate and be completely happy and well-off. But if we truly wish to raise well-rounded intellectuals, reading Faceland status updates should not be enough. The reader who reads only for that end is not even alive enough to lose himself in the story; he is not even alive enough to lose himself at all. For reading is a means to losing oneself, to becoming smaller so you can see more and be more. It is not mere escapism, for the children are doing that in Faceland. It is escaping with the intent of returning to your land with a new perspective. But the reader reading for the sake of reading is the mower mowing for that same end; he has lost the ability to be small in a grand world; he has lost the joy of the battle in which he is engaged. For the mower is doing much more than merely mowing; with blades, he is fighting a furious field of overgrown blades. And when he grabs his weed whacker, he finishes off the stragglers. When I trim some large oak, I often imagine I’m trimming the toes of some giant turned to wood.

Broom Snow
Written & Transcribed at the Ole Midshipman,
Manhattan, KS
July 9, 2015

Painting: “House Painter”
By Raymond Scobie,
Oil on canvas, 1995

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*Facebook, the Land of a billion false faces

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