Hamlet in a classroom - Page 3
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 11: Getting Smart
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Lee Kofman
SO TRIAL AND ERROR. JUST AS I TURN 30, I'M BACK AT A STUDENT DESK, but this time in what Pirsig called the "Church of Reason". But I call it the "Church of Mind", because who wants to be reasonable when entering the University of Melbourne's old building – all curves, spires and iridescent leadlight windows?
I walk the faded carpets underneath arched wooden ceilings and listen to Marion Campbell teaching the "slowness of writing" in her film-noir smoky voice: "We should encourage our students to hone their critical skills and read as widely as possible across disciplines and cultures before and while they write ...", and feel like praying.
I overhear the brunette girl with eyes agile like possums, arguing in favour of French feminism against a clean-shaved peasant-looking man.
"I'm more interested in the German feminists," he responds, "because they were the ones to grow under Freud's legacy."
Ideas are buzzing in the dense air – just stretch out a hand and catch some. Where else will I meet people who read Foucault on their Queensland holidays?
Finally I'm at home.
As we learn about Lacan, Kristeva and other thinkers, I feel my brain being deep-tissue massaged. I don't think of Bachelard's The Poetics of Space at home, as my words pour and pour, flooding my torture chamber, my night ... but something new lingers in the back of my mind, filtering my life
experience and imagination through the wider contexts I have just learned.
I retreat from my computer feeling more satisfied.
So why study creative writing? Why not philosophy or linguistics?
Because I get to meet Brian Castro. He is our priest for a day, handing out
psalms by Carson and Faulkner. His sermon is concise: "Reading is more important than writing. Remember, all good writing is rewriting." He is one of those mentors whom the American novelist Rick Moody described as a person who teaches their students how to live, act and think like writers.
Yet sometimes the Church of Mind may reveal a nature based too much on reason – and then beware not to overdose, as Sallie Muirden, an author and one of our lecturers, warns: "Writing creatively in conjunction with highly theorised subjects can be detrimental to the creative, intuitive process which derives from the unconscious, not the analytical side of the brain. Schools of creative arts, rather than departments that specialise in literary and cultural theory, are the best places to teach writing, where students are surrounded by artists rather than theoreticians. Learning writing alongside dance, music and other non-analytical enterprises they remain open to the unconscious, to their dreams, their original imaginative voices and they write out of poetically inspired id, rather than the controlled domain of the superego."
In the school of creative arts, in echoing rooms framed by ancient trees and statues, I flirt with vampire-pale cinema students and stocky modern dancers. The teachers encourage us to experiment, make up our own language: "He was a spunk, so I Marlene Dietriched him all night, longlegged and cigaretted."
I feel like a character from a literary salon of the twenties. Soon Hemingway will bang open the door and pour himself a scotch. Gertrude Stein will advise him to invest money in modern painting.
I have always dreamed of being transported back to the 1920s, wondering how much of their genius those artists owed to their brief era of decadence and the superiority of minds in the cafes and literary salons.
Those literary salons gained their impetus in the mid-18th century and coincided with the rise in the status of the novel. As the complexity of writing rose, and novels started dealing with philosophical issues, their authors' status rose, but so did the pressure on them. The writers then sought inspiration among their equals in salons facilitated by female readers eager to bathe in their genius. There they drank cognac, ate exquisite meals, mixed with other artists and reinvented the art of conversation. At one such gathering, George Sand fell in love with Chopin.
This tradition, which rescued writers from the isolation of their occupation, challenged them intellectually, added glamour to their status and promoted their careers, still flourished in the 1920s. Less glamorous, such gatherings continued into the 1940s with Margaret Duras cooking sumptuous stews for her comrades. At night they argued about communism, danced and made love. Even as late as the 1970s, the salon spirit still survived in Tel Aviv bars where Yona Wallach and her fellow poets got drunk together, and in Greenwich Village in grubby apartments where beatniks took LSD and documented their delusions. The refined creativity of the early salons was gradually evaporating and now, in the new millennium, is no more.
I find a clairvoyant quality in history and believe in the cliché of it repeating itself. Even in this age of electronic beauty, quick stimulation and instant satisfaction of fingers swift on the various buttons of remote controls, mobile phones and food processors, when television and video games dominate our salons rather than conversations, we still yearn for the intellectual oases of those salons, where thoughts were cultivated like pets.
What if our contemporary obsession with writing, our desire to extend it beyond art to become also panacea and sellable commodity, is only a natural manifestation of this yearning for a space to reflect, converse, exchange ideas? The ubiquity of writing and writers, the courses and therapeutic sessions, is perhaps our attempt to find a spiritual, intellectual refuge. The democratisation of writing often reduces its quality but also nourishes us in new ways by filling the gap left from the shallowness of speed.
And what of those real writers, driven almost against themselves by the urgency of their messages? Now that they have lost their natural environments of artistic salons and communes, some gather together in the disguise of higher education. They flock to the academic creative-writing courses not for the writing exercises or elaborate theories, but for the mentorship, artistic comradeship, literary feedback to polish the diamond of their talents, even for arguments on politics – all functions the literary salons used to fulfil.