Monday, October 24, 2005

CHAPTER 5 (Part 1)


Paul de Man is P.'s mentor and one of the leading figures of the literary movement known as Deconstruction (you can read some easy background notes on de Man and Deconstruction in the "world of the novel" links on the right of this blog). This chapter will be a test of loyalty to you fans, so we'll find out if this book can keep your interest even without the naughty bits.

On thinking more about this "writing down the past" process, I've decided, if it's going to be a real journal, it should have real dates. So I'll begin with today— that is tonight. It's Wednesday. In the past, Wednesday nights were hopeful, if not yet happy— mid-week, only two more days until the working week is over and I'm free from the chains of M & A for two whole days. Now I'm shackled with different chains, ones that know no hours (the pay's lousy, too). I used to live for weekends. In good weather, P. and I would drive out into the Connecticut countryside, maybe hike one of the many forest trails, all quite a lesson for a city girl whose only exposure to the wild outdoors was walking through the broken bottles and dog shit in Marconi Plaza along Broad Street. We'd browse for antiques or nifty luncheonettes with local flavors in the small towns like Branford, Guilford, Sachem and yes, Podunk. In crummy weather, we'd browse the thousands of remainders, used pulp fiction and overlooked classics at the Whitlock Book Barn. In good weather, drive along the Sound's coastline, satisfied simply being soul mates. That sounds corny, yet it's so right! With him, I feel I've found a man who really understands me, who cares deeply and totally about me. Sigh.

Now weekends are just more time I have to fill up. Neither of us seems inclined to be together in the car. I feel like I'm on a mental island with my own thoughts, P. and I don't seem to spend much time together since the Spring. He's more buried in his studies than ever. Before, graduate school energized him; now he's hiding from me. Maybe hiding from himself.

Making this real, yes, that's the goal. Maybe then I can understand— and survive— this, this— this what? "Affair"? OK, I finally wrote down the evil word, and for the very first time! I've never used it before, even in thinking about this past Spring. Certainly I never spoke it— it's so sordid, so ugly, it doesn't fit with how I see myself. Lying naked on the page, it's at least a little less intimidating than I thought it would be working up the nerve to write it in the first place! Sigh. After all, it's just another word, right? A "sign" as Professor de Man would call it. Paul de Man is P.'s graduate advisor and mentor, one of the "great men" who make Yale all it is. I spent the Spring auditing his undergraduate class in literary theory hoping to understand something of what P.'s studying. He told me we'd be closer if I did.

I guess I liked it. De Man is such a funny-looking older guy, he walks with a shuffle and holds his head forward in a strange way when he talks, almost like his backbone was slightly out-of-kilter. He smiles a lot, though, and makes tons of self-deprecating jokes about himself and everyone else, which keeps us all pretty loose, despite his fame. The first class, he looks around the auditorium, then tells us—

"This is Literature Y— or as some of you have asked me, and I might ask myself as well, why literature?"

At the start of a class on irony, he told us one philosopher believed we could never really understand the concept, so de Man offered to cancel the lecture and send us all home. I appreciate his sense of humor, that's actually pretty rare among the professors and teaching assistants I've known, they see themselves as way too important to laugh. We needed some humor, the course stretched my thinking a lot, taught me words are just vessels carrying meanings we attach to them, meanings that have no real connection to anything other than other words. So a nasty word like— "affair"— has a different meaning depending on the context, right? We can't know its significance other than by the way it's used. A "catered affair" is quite different, after all, from an "adulterous affair." Since I haven't figured out what this whole thing in the Spring was about, a word like "affair" is no more important or weighted— for good or bad— than "bicycle" or "rocket ship" or "chocolate."

That's not cor-rect (couldn't resist that): given my metabolism, "chocolate" is far more likely to be weighted— on my thighs! Chocolate's like happiness: too much of it has consequences.

(to be continued)