Thursday, June 25, 2009

Love at first deconstruction

Leaving home for the first time, it's not unusual to experience a range of emotions, from fear and excitement to confusion and jubilance. We're confronted with new people, new places, and new paradigms. It's also not unusual to fall in love. But like so many experiences and feelings that arise during college, that love can't last.

I fell in love for the first time at college with Non-Euclidean Geometry. It was an honors seminar, meaning the students in that class - all ten or eleven of us - had achieved a certain GPA and SAT score. We talked about math and its postulates and the ramifications of omitting that troublesome 5th postulate (it's been ten years, but I think that's the one about angles in a straight line adding up to 180 degrees... or something to that effect). The class was wonderful: it was challenging and required us to think not only mathematically but also creatively. I took it during my first semester at Denison, and I can't imagine a better way to begin the college experience. It was love!

Alas, this love rendered my thinking unclear. I developed a misguided notion that I should be a math major and that I should ignore my AP credits and take Calculus the next semester. While I loved taking calculus in high school, the college class was a more typical experience: twenty-five students at desks, taking notes while the professor went through the text book. I didn't study, and I didn't care: I received a B minus in that class and sold my text book for 10% of what I had paid for it.

At the same time I was taking this calculus class, however, I was also taking creative writing. I wrote stories and poetry and fake journal entries. It was a blast and set the stage for my next experience with true love during my sophomore year: postmodernism.

Learning to break things apart, to seek multiple angles and truths, comes naturally now. I'm always looking for the other side of a story and finding the bias. But when I first learned the definition of "Postmodern," and when I first deconstructed a Shakespeare text, it felt novel and important. Suddenly, I wasn't reading for meaning; I wasn't trying to find patterns or undertand themes or the author's motives - I was looking for holes in the text and places where I could tear it apart. Texts and stories were contructs - illusions - and my job as the reader was to dispel their myths. I was enamored by that responsibility and in love with removing meaning from the written word.

Not until years later, first working in a library, surrounded by books and people reading them and gaining meaning from them, and then teaching the reading and interpretation of books and literature, have I regained that love for myth and story. My favorite quote, and I've used it here and in class on more than a couple occasions, is from E.M. Forster: "How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?" I see this search for meaning. Truth. Patterns of my own as well as the society around me.

There is power in our stories and our narratives, and I don't think it matters if those narratives are inherent or imposed. Facts are facts, truth is truth, and as Gertrude Stein said, "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." Yes, each "rose" comes with its own associations -- feelings, emotions, images -- but in the end, it's still just a rose.

I'm in love with words, and I know this isn't just a passing infatuation.

1 comment:

Ecocandle said...

I love words too, and I just read Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mocking Bird" for the first time. She was a great wordsmith. I also love math, but it is more the result of being the son of a mathematician than anything else. My favorite historic math figure is Euler. Great post!!!