Big Brother IS Watching: 1984 and Summer Reading 2013


In the two weeks before the opening of school I have the students who will be entering my class read George Orwell’s 1984. It is the perfect prequel to the first two books we read in class, Brave New World and A Handmaid’s Tale. (We start out with a big dose of dystopia.)

Well, one of my more ambitious students has already done all his summer reading and e-mailed me about 1984. Orwell was pretty clever, he wrote, but he doesn’t think that that kind of thing could really ever happen.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Signet Classic's cover of 1984

Signet Classic’s cover of 1984

Boy, did he pick the wrong summer to make that statement.

The other day, I saw the trailer for a film, Closed Circuit (see bottom of post). It is a terrorist-mole-investigative reporting-shady government department type of thing. And it looked very good. But, as I was telling a friend, one of the major players in the film is the network of 1.85 million close circuit cameras mounted throughout Britain. ( That is roughly one camera for every 32 people. Of course, that ratio is a lot smaller in urban areas than in rural.

George Orwell saw it coming.

And then of course, the major news story of the summer was the Snowden leaks. (As Yossarian said in Catch-22, “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?”) For many, the actions of Snowden, his search for asylum, the international posturing and subsequent tensions have been the most riveting part of the story. What seems to have trouble staying in the foreground, however, is the fact that the U.S.government has been spying on its citizens, collecting data from their e-mails, their texts, their cell-phones, and their search engines. The citizens have been assured that the NSA is not going to use this data, but is simply archiving it. “For what?” is a sensible question.

George Orwell would have certainly asked it.

And the technology just gets better and better. Even the most naive teenager knows that his computer searches and activity are catalogued and sold to marketers. So it is not surprising that if the day after you search on-line for an umbrella for your father, you see umbrella advertisements popping up on your screen. (And depending who you are, where you are, and how often you searched, the price for the same umbrella will fluctuate.)

Well now this same marketing scheme has been adapted by the brick and mortar stores through face-recognition technology. Higher-end stores are testing facial-recognition technology which will alert store clerks immediately when someone (usually a celebrity) walks into the store and what his or her buying preferences are. At the moment the focus is on celebrities because their photos are already available in their databanks.

But it won’t be long. Walk into your favorite department store, spend some time in the men’s shoe department, and you might find an advert for men’s shoes pop up the next time you click on your device. They already know what you think you want.

Google has the technology for you to snap a photo of someone on the street, upload it, and learn everything you want about them. They have refrained from releasing it so far, mainly due to the legal tangle that Facebook is finding itself in.  Facebook’s ‘”tagging” photos capabilities is a subtle way to create an enormous facial-recognition database. And that database is available not only to you and your friends.

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once famously claimed, privacy is no longer a “social norm.”

George Orwell would find it all familiar.

If things go right, the first few days in school should have a lot of interesting discussions.

I hope so.

Here’s the trailer to Close Circuit. It looks like it could be good.

Movie Review: Hannah Arendt dir. by Margarethe von Trotta

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

The philosopher, political theorist and writer, Hannah Arendt has received a thoughtful and deserving biopic from director Margarethe von Trotta, in her eponymous film, Hannah Arendt. The film’s intelligence reflects the life of the mind that Arendt lived–and an honest and hard intelligence at that.  Concentrating on the period when Arendt covered the Adolph Eichmann trials for New Yorker magazine–and the fury that it unleashed– it shows Arendt resolute in her thinking, uncolored by prejudice or sympathies.

Her coverage of the Eichmann trial ended with these words, this pronouncement:

Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

♦       ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

Arendt’s biography is well know.  Born into a secular Jewish family, she studied under Martin Heidegger with whom she reportedly had a long affair.  Her dissertation was on Love and Saint Augustine, but after its completion she was forbidden to teach in German universities because of being Jewish. She left Germany for France, but while there she was sent to the Grus detention camp, from which she escaped after only a few weeks. In 1941, Arendt, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her mother escaped to the United States.

From there she embarked on an academic career that saw her teaching at many of the U.S.’s most prestigious universities (she was the first female lecturer at Princeton University) and publishing some of the most influential works on political theory of the time.

♦       ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

Hannah-ArendtBut the film, concerns a small time period in her life–but one for which many people still hold a grudge.  The film begins darkly with the Mosada snatching Eichmann off a dark road in Argentina. Back in New York City, Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) and the American novelist, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) are sipping wine and gossipping about the infidelities of McCarthy’s suitors.  Even genius can be mundane–perhaps a subtle reference to Arendt’s conclusions from the trial.  When news of Eichmann’s arrest–and trial in Israel–is announced, Arendt writes to William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) at the New Yorker, asking if she might cover the trial for the magazine. Shawn is excited; his assistant, Francis Wells (Megan Gay,) less so.

Of course, the trial–and Arendt’s commission to follow it–is fascinating and controversial and we listen in on Arendt and her husband and their circle of friends as they debate and argue and opine. Aside from Mary McCarthy and the head of the German department at the New School where Arendt is teaching, the guests at Arendt’s apartment are all friends from Europe, German-Jews who have escaped the Shoah/Holocaust. Listening to their different conversations is fascinating and electrifying.  This is a movie about “thinking.”

Conversing in Arendt's apartment.

Conversing in Arendt’s apartment.

In Israel, Arendt meets with old friends, friends who remember her argumentative spirit, and stays with the Zionist, Kurt Blumenfeld. From the outset, one sees that Arendt is not thinking along the same lines as the masses following the trial.

“Under conditions of tyranny it is much easier to act than to think.”

Hannah Arendt

At the trial, there is a telling moment, when Arendt watches Eichmann in his glass cage sniffling, rubbing his nose and dealing with a cold. It is then, a least in the film, that she comes to understand that this monster is not a MONSTER. She sees him as simply a mediocre human being who did not think. It is from here that she coins the idea of the “banality of evil.”

Upon returning home–with files and files of the trial’s transcripts–her article for the New Yorker is slow in coming. Her husband has a stroke, and the enormity of what she has to say needs to be perfect.

When it is finally published, the angry reaction is more than great. The critic Irving Howe called it a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. (Just last week, the word “shitstorm” was added to the German dictionary, the Duden, partly due to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s use of the word to describe the public outcry she faced over the Eurozone’s finacial crisis. It is an apt term for what occurred upon publication of Arendt’s coverage.)

It is this extraordinary anger towards Arendt–and her staunch defense–that makes up the final moments of the film. In the closing moments, Arendt speaks to a packed auditorium of students (and a few administrators). She has just been asked to resign, which she refuses to do.  These are her closing words:

“This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.”

This is, more than anything else, a film about thinking.

♦       ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

The extraordinary anger shown in the film is still felt by many today and, in fact, seems to have colored some of the reviews that I have read and heard. Some of these reviewers seem to be reviewing the life and work of Arendt and not the film of Margarethe von Trotta, for von Trotta’s film is a unique, masterpiece. It is more than a biography of a controversial thinker…it is a portrait of thought itself.  Arendt attempts to define “evil”–certainly an apt exercise at the time. She defines it–to her friends, to her classes, to her colleagues, and to herself–and finds that it is not “radical” as she once had posited. It is merely ordinary.  Goodness, she sees, is what has grandeur.

The film, Hannah Arendt, is well worth seeking out. It is thoughtful, provoking, controversial, and, at times, even funny.  You can’t ask for much more for the price of a movie ticket.  As always, here’s a trailer:

Endings, beginnings, and start-overs

Before I began teaching at the school where I currently teach, I worked in an advertising agency. During the interview process at the school, the headmaster asked me what I thought would be the greatest difference. My answer was “Endings.”

dandraper       mrchips

In the advertising world, it was not unusual for some print ad for which I had written copy  nine, twelve, eighteen months earlier needing to be re-tweaked  later. We are changing our direction, the headline is too “downtown,”  we want to downplay the price, emphasize the sponsor, etc., etc.  Things never were truly complete. They were signed-off on, yes. But they were never done with.

Teaching, however, is one of those professions where there are periodic endings, arbitrary endpoints where the slate is wiped clean, one can review what went right, rue what went wrong, and learn from both.

It is the end of May now, but I know that I and many of my colleagues are already plotting out projects and readings, weighing shifts in focus and shifts in technique, and (always on my part) constructing schemes to stay better organized in the upcoming school year.

And besides a chance to start anew, the end of a quarter, a semester, a school year offers a chance to bury the past and move forward. To begin again.

I used to have the Beckettian quote, Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better, posted on the wall of my office. At the time, it was a personal mantra for me, for my own work. I was not thinking of teaching. This year it has become a buzzword/phrase throughout education.failbetter1

All over in print and on the web there are articles about the value of failing, about the necessity of failing, of the embrace of failing. And we as teachers know that as well as anyone–for ourselves, if not necessarily for our students.  For what is the end of each term but a chance to review our failings and resolve to “fail better” next time.

Now with the end of the school year, there is also the spate of “commencement speeches” that must be heard. Those talks given to graduating seniors in colleges and high-schools around the country that are especially inspiring, especially poignant, especially relevant.

David Foster’s Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon University has become legendary. For a long while it was shot all over the internet, and then capitalism took over and someone decided to release it as a book.  It has been abridged and made into a wonderful short film, This is Water. Like all great commencement speeches, this is wise, humorous, and relevant without falling into clichés. It emphasizes compassion and empathy, warns graduates of the sometimes benumbing world of adulthood, and charges them to make their world better by understanding it more tolerantly.

Lately, Neil Gaiman’s 2012 speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia has been parsed and tweeted, analyzed and blogged about. It has been highly criticized and highly praised. It is about creativity and about personal freedom. And, of course, at this time of year, it is all over the place and referenced almost every time you log on.

And even Jane Lynch, the wonderful actress who has appeared in so many of the Christopher Guest films and now stars in the television show Glee, even Jane Lynch keeps appearing in my in-box and my twitter feeds and blogs that I follow because of the inspiring speech she gave in 2012 to the women of Smith College.  It too is forthright and wise and commanding.

But it is the nature of graduation speeches to address an audience as they START OUT into something new.  One of the joys/perks of teaching is that one gets to START OVER.  My best and frequent companion these days is a 7-year old boy with whom I play a lot of games.  Often when something goes wrong for him in a game we are playing, he is the first to yell, “Start Over” (though just as often he simply  changes the rules!)  Who knew that the gaming-strategy of a 7-year-old is the same spark that keeps good teachers fresh, engaged and effective?

Waiting for Godot: Crying in Beckett

A while back, I had posted about a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame that I ‘d seen at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia. In it, I quoted my favorite lines from the play:

HAMM: (letting go his toque) What’s he doing?

(Clov raises lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, look into it. Pause.)
CLOV: He’s crying. (He closes lid, straightens up.)
HAMM: Then he’s living.

The character Hamm has made the immediate inference that if his father is crying, then he is alive. And we, by extension, apply it to the human condition. I remembered this line–and the act of crying– this week when teaching Waiting for Godot. (Actually, the crying seemed more appropriate than ever for someone trying to teach Godot to 18-year old boys during their last week of school when the temperatures are in the mid-70s and the sun is bright! Hah!)

Early in the play, Estragon and Vladimir point out the tree where they are supposed to wait for Godot. (It is the only piece of scenery. The scene description reads simply: A country road. A tree. )

godot tree

Mark Bedard (Vladimir) and Mark Anderson Phillips (Estragon) in Samuel Beckett s ‘Waiting for Godot,’ at Marin Theatre Company. photo 2013 by Kevin Berne

Estragon: [desparingly] Ah! [pause] You’re sure it was here?

Vladimir: What?

Estragon: That we were to wait.

Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others?

Estragon: What is it?

Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.

Estragon: Where are the leaves?

Vladimir: It must be dead.

Estragon: No more weeping.

This is the exact inverse of the lines from Endgame. In Endgame, the syllogism is that if you are crying then you are alive. In Waiting for Godot, the syllogism is that if you are dead, then there is no more crying. More or less the same thing.

Later on, as Vladimir and Estragon rebuke Pozzo for his treatment of his slave/servant, Lucky, there is more conversation about crying:

[Lucky weeps]

Estragon: He’s crying!

Pozzo: Old dogs have more dignity! [He proffers his handkerchief to Estragon.] Comfort him, since you pity him. [Estragon hesitates.] Come on. [Estragon takes the handkerchief.] Wipe away his tears, he’ll feel less forsaken.

[Estragon hesitates]

Vladimir: Here give it to me, I’ll do it.
[Estragon refuses to give the handkerchief. Childish gestures.]

Estragon and Vladimir with Lucky

Estragon and Vladimir with Lucky from

Pozzo: Make haste before he stops. [Estragon approaches Lucky and makes to wipe his eyes. Lucky kicks him violently in the shin. Estragon drops the handkerchief, recoils, staggers about the stage, howling with pain.] Hanky!
[Lucky puts down bag and basket, picks up handkerchief and gives it to Pozzo, goes back to his place, picks up bag and basket.]

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

What are we to make of that? What is the significance of Lucky’s crying? Of Estragon and Vladimir’s desire to comfort him? Of Lucky’s lashing out at his comforter? And of his immediate subservience to his persecutor.

There is, of course, much more going on here, but the small emphasis on tears should be noted. Earlier Beckett had equated crying with living. Are we simply to be reminded that Lucky is a living, human being, and leave it at that? (We knew that anyway.)

Or perhaps we are to examine the difficult symbiosis between the comforter and the comforted? The helper and the helped? The cry of pain and those who hear and those who refuse to hear?

What is our responsibility to those who are “crying”? To those who are inconsolable? Good questions, all. And ones that we should take the time to think about every so often.

“I is someone else”: Rimbaud–l’enfant terrible

rimbaud drawing

illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

A colleague came up to me with a problem–a problem with some unruly boys who had been displaying a growing disrespect towards her, coupled with a sophomoric sexism that went beyond their adolescent asininity and a smattering of racism. She then went on to say that to make matters worse, they were also very good writers. I wondered to myself if what she said was not necessarily atypical–that their innate creativity is being strangled by the dysfunctions of the modern educational system and that that is one cause of their intractability.

To make the point, I told her, I wouldn’t want to have taught Rimbaud.

Ah, Rimbaud, the boy-child terror who created haunting, mesmerizing verses until he was 21 and then quit to become a businessman, to dabble in gun-running in Africa, and to even try to join the U.S. Navy. But whatever he did from that point on, he had quit writing and refused to talk about it thereafter. Yet in those five or six years in late adolescence, he cut a swath of creativity and destruction, of love and violence, of intelligence and stupidity–and blazed into the pantheon of world poetry.

In actuality, however, Rimbaud was in fact a fine, model student. While he was in school, he usually walked away with the academic prizes given out at the end of a school year. He wrote poetry in in his native French, as well as in Latin and Greek, mature verse, some of which is still anthologized. Indeed, he was a stellar student. But then he quit school.

When he was still sixteen–and with the encouragement and support of the older Paul Verlaine whom he had enamored with some verses –Rimbaud first ran away to Paris. There he began a meteoric life of debauchery, anarchism, promiscuity, violence, substance abuse–and the most intense poetic creativity.

And like a meteor, Rimbaud burned out quickly. His intense and volatile love affair with Verlaine ended with Verlaine shooting him twice in the arm. Verlaine was arrested and served two years in prison.

Wounded Rimbaud by Jef Rosman, 1873

Wounded Rimbaud by Jef Rosman, 1873

When Verlaine was released from prison, Rimbaud handed him a sheaf of loose papers which would become Illuminations, his last major work. Rimbaud was but 21 years old. He was already an old poet. Verlaine had published his FIRST book at 21. Rimbaud was finished by then. (A series of prose reflections, Illuminations is akin–in its intent–to the epiphanies that Joyce gathered –at the beginning of his career, however. )

Here are some 4 stanzas from Rimbaud’s 100 line poem The Drunken Boat (Le Bateau Ivre). He was sixteen when he wrote it!

But now I, a boat lost under the hair of coves,
Hurled by the hurricane into the birdless ether,
I, whose wreck, dead-drunk and sodden with water,
neither Monitor nor Hanse ships would have fished up;

Free, smoking, risen from violet fogs,
I who bored through the wall of the reddening sky
Which bears a sweetmeat good poets find delicious,
Lichens of sunlight [mixed] with azure snot,

Who ran, speckled with lunula of electricity,
A crazy plank, with black sea-horses for escort,
When Julys were crushing with cudgel blows
Skies of ultramarine into burning funnels;

I who trembled, to feel at fifty leagues’ distance
The groans of Behemoth’s rutting, and of the dense Maelstroms
Eternal spinner of blue immobilities
I long for Europe with it’s aged old parapets!
Arthur Rimbaud, the Collected Works, translated by Oliver Bernard)

So the question remains “Would I want to have taught Rimbaud?” I am not sure. I am not sure of myself. Rimbaud–the excellent student, remember–was fortunate to have an exceptional school teacher and mentor, George Izambard, who fostered and encouraged the boy’s talent, gave him free access to his personal library and pushed him towards greatness. That is a big responsibility, to see and encourage greatness.

But in a large way, that is the true nature of teaching–whether it is a future Rimbaud or not. For how are we to know?


Now some are born to fly high
Some are born to follow
Some are born to touch the sky
And some walk in the hollow
But as I watched your body fall
I knew that really you had won
For your grave was not the earth
But the reflection of the sun

“Icarus” by Anne Lister

Icarus                        ©2013 by                     J.P. Bohannon

illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

The mythological character Icarus has been a buzzword at my job recently. Many of us on the staff have been reading a book called The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. To be honest, it is not my kind of read–more of a marketing, business oriented approach to things with a fair mixture of Dr. Phil and Oprah thrown in–but it has me thinking about Icarus.

I have always had a soft-spot for him. (See my post “Breughel, Auden and the Death of my Mother” from 2012/8/19.) There is something more than heroic in his quest, in his attempt at flying to the sun–(and I don’t want to hear any of the archetypal “primal disobedience” stuff at the moment. Sure, wasn’t it his old man, that grand artificer Daedelus, that had gotten them both locked up in the first place, locked up in that “inescapable” prison, because of his own disobedience and rebellion.)

And the more I think of it, Icarus’s “disobedience” IS NOT the story. The story is THE FLIGHT, where the tips of his wings glow white and gold with sunlight, where he becomes–for a moment–transcendent. It is all about the attempt, about the individual’s need to push further, to soar higher. For in a large way, to stop pushing forward is the real death by drowning.

No one had flown before Icarus and his father, but what we seem to remember is his drowning. That’s the wrong focus entirely.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In a previous life, I wrote ad-copy for an agency. And I listened to a lot of music on a good old disc-player. If it was critical, creative stuff I needed to be writing, I used classical music or Irish trad or instrumental guitar. If it was mindless stuff, I listened to songs.


Martin Simpson

It was during this time that I became enamored with the guitar work and songs of a man named Martin Simpson. His playing was exquisite, intricate and beautiful and when he did sing a song, his voice was strong yet vulnerable. Until this weekend, I hadn’t listened to him in a long while although I must own four or five of his albums. But Icarus was in my head, and he had done a cover of Anne Lister’s song “Icarus” that I loved a lot and which never failed to choke me up. Told from the point of view of someone too timid to take a risk, too hesitant to make that leap, the song nevertheless details the pride and admiration he/she has for Icarus and what he has done. I always knew that the lump in my throat was not so much for Icarus but for his companion who “never wanted to fly high.”

Here are the full lyrics:

I never wanted to fly high
I was too fond of walking
So when you said you`d touch the sky
I thought it was your way of talking
And then you said you`d build some wings
You`d found out how it could be done
But I was doubtful of everything
I never thought you`d reach the sun

You were so clever with your hands
I`d watch you for hours
With the glue and rubber bands
The feathers and the lace and flowers
And the finished wings glowed so bright
Like some bird of glory
I began to envy you your flight
Like some old hero`s story

You tried to get me to go with you
You tried all ways to dare me
But I looked at the sky so blue
I thought the height would scare me
But I carried your wings for you
Up the path and to the cliff face
Kissed you goodbye and watched your eyes
Already bright with sunlight

It was so grand at the start
To watch you soaring higher
There was a pain deep in my heart
Your wings seemed tipped with fire
Like some seagull or a lark
Soaring forever
Or some ember or a spark
Drifting from Earth to Heaven

Then I believed all that you`d said
I believed all that you`d told me
You`d do a thing no man had ever done
You`d touch the stars to please me
And then I saw your wide wings fail
Saw your feathers falter
And watched you drop like a ball of gold
Into the wide green water

Now some are born to fly high
Some are born to follow
Some are born to touch the sky
And some walk in the hollow
But as I watched your body fall
I knew that really you had won
For your grave was not the earth
But the reflection of the sun

I never wanted to fly high…

And here is Martin Simpson playing and singing. Give it a listen:

First day of school…wait ’til you see the books!

School started this week.  And I’ve got a whale of a course load–five separate courses with five separate reading lists.  But the nice part about it, I got to choose the books.  So here is what we’re reading:

AP Literature and Composition

Brave New World. Aldous Huxley
The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood
Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Stranger Albert Camus
Oedipus Rex Sophocles
Antigone Sophocles
A Doll’s House Henrik Ibsen
Hedda Gabler Henrik Ibsen
Hamlet William Shakespeare
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Tom Stoppard
Slaughterhouse-5 Kurt Vonnegut
Catch-22 Joseph Heller
Invisible Man Ralph Ellison
The Piano Lesson August Wilson
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf Edward Albee

Literature and Film

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Joseph Heller
Winter’s Bone Daniel Woodrell
Revolutionary Road Richard Yates
The Commitments  Roddy Doyle
The Human Stain  Phillip Roth

The Contemporary Short Story

Best American Short Stories of 2011 Geraldine Books (editor)
The New Yorker magazine

Creative Writing

The 3AM Epiphany Brian Kiteley
The Practice of Creative Writing Heather Sellers
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life Annie Lamott

Modern Irish Literature

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man  James Joyce
Dubliners James Joyce
Butcher Boy Patrick McCabe
Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett
The Complete Plays of John Millington Synge
The Lonesome West Martin MacDonagh

Now, I have to admit this is a pretty hefty reading list.  Many of the titles I have read multiple times, and some as recently as last year and each of the three years before that.  But as for others, it has been a good while and I’m going to have dig in and get them read.

And of course this is all supplemented with various handouts of Yeats and Heaney and MacNiece, of Hemingway and O’Connor (Flannery and Frank), of modern poets and ancient classical texts.

My boys are getting quite a load.  Some appreciate it. Many don’t.

But that’s okay.  At least they’ve been exposed to the things I love–and sometimes I think that could be contagious.