Are there any questions?

By , William Aiken is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Lowell in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Looking at my 11:30 class in English Composition and Literature one would think there was a great chance there to awake the dead. The faces are sallow, the eyes have no light in them. There is a kind of misery flowing around at head level. Waiting to surface in every mind is a whole series of protests: ''Why do we have to do this? What good is a poem or a story? What can this stuff possibly do for me?'' As long as these questions remain unanswered, no light will come into those eyes.

They are good questions, after all. So good that teachers tend to shy away from answering them. They are basically metaphysical questions, asking (without quite asking) about one's purpose in life, about values conferred by the imagination, about first principles. I have found that the way to answer these questions is not from a height, but right down in the classroom trenches, where the questions have a violent life of their own, bringing the whole world under suspicion. It's not enough to shrug one's shoulders at such ignorance, or to say ''people have loved poems and stories from the dawn of civilization,'' or to step out on a tempting plank of sarcasm, from which teaching plunges to its death. The issue must be confronted in another way.

It is true that reading a poem or story may not help students get a good job. Literature does not instill that kind of knowledge. And in a very real sense there are more immediate, more practical, more pleasurable, and even more ultimate concerns than reading a poem or story. On the other hand, we live in a human world, where the immediate, the practical, the pleasurable, and even the ultimate are not always apt.

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After about two weeks of glum faces, low marks, and folded hands one senses that the question these students would really like answered is not ''How will this help to establish me in the world?'' but ''How do people make good lives for themselves?'' They may not be ready for a systematic answer to the question, but they would like at least a few clues, and one notices that every time class discussion descends to this rather poignant level an attentive hush spreads across the room.

The thing is that stories and poems are full of just such clues. What students seem not to realize is that most of their lives will be spent interacting with other people, not just during times of recreation, but at work and at home as well. And running through the heart of every poem and story is a stream of human interaction. The plots of most stories deal not with fires and thefts and daring escapades but with changes in human relationships: from suspicion to trust, from enmity to friendship, from calculation to candor. Readers can chart the course and judge the result of these changes by paying attention to the characters. Likewise, a poem tests the reader's capacity to identify imaginatively with the speaker behind the poem. In order to catch the quality of poems one must feel like a little girl sent all alone to draw water, or like a boy gazing raptly at a horse, or like an old man whose emotions still throb like noontide. If we can do this, poetry can extend our understanding.

Later in life students will be faced with the most pressing human problems, both in business and in their families. If they cannot sense what is happening to fictional people, young and old, or if they cannot see anything from a point of view other than their own, they will suffer in real life for that ignorance. Poems and stories wear away such ignorance. They raise us a little beyond ourselves, so that we can see others more clearly. They help prevent us from failing at the human.

Many of the students I have seen in college have been fooled many times. What they had thought were good intentions often turned out to be self-serving. They are wary now of any easy juggling with ideas about beauty and truth, right and wrong. They have been burned. It is necessary with them to go back continuously to first principles. ''How do people make good lives for themselves?''

Although details may vary, we finally come to understand that the main movement in tragedy or in any unhappy story is away from people and toward isolation, and the movement in a happy story is toward identity of aim and community of feeling. As an ancient writer has it: ''It is certain no man lives to himself, and certainly none of us die to ourselves.'' Making us aware of this truth is the continuous emphasis of lasting literature.

When Barbara Greenberg writes: ''It is not easy to disavow old dresses with their fallen hems/and all their hopes intact'' we thrill with the disappointment of youthful expectations. When Margaret Atwood says: ''Each time I hit a key on my typewriter/speaking of peaceful trees/another village explodes'' we are intimately aware that our own activity or inactivity somehow has worldwide repercussions. When Shakespeare asks: ''What substance are you? Whereof are you made/That millions of strange shadows on you tend?'' we get a sense of the profound uniqueness of every human being.

In Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain's young hero imagines he faces a severe moral and religious dilemma when his mind and everything he has learned from society tells him that he ought to return the runaway slave Jim to his rightful owner and his heart tells him not to, because Jim is his friend. Huck tries to pray to do the right thing (which he thinks is to send Jim back into slavery) but the words won't come because his heart ''warn't right.'' Confused as to what is right and what is wrong, Huck deliberates as follows:

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter - and then see if I can pray. Why it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway slave Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.

Huck Finn

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off but laid the paper down and set there thinking - thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.

And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I come back out of the fog . . .; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling , because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

''All right, then, I'll go to hell'' - and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

The importance of the individual over mankind, considered in the abstract, has been a continuing emphasis in literature.

In Chekov's story ''Grief'' a poor cab-driver tries vainly to share the recent loss of his only son with some merry gentlemen who are his fares one wintry night. Returning to the horse-barn after a night's work Iona makes one last effort to unburden himself:

Iona is seated by a large dirty stove. Around the stove, on the floor, on the benches people are snoring; the air is thick and suffocatingly hot. Iona looks at the sleepers, scratches himself, and regrets having returned so early.

A young cab-driver in one of the corners half gets up, grunts sleepily, and stretches towards a bucket of water.

''Do you want a drink?'' Iona asks him.

''Don't I want a drink!''

''That's so? Your good health! But listen, mate - you know, my son is dead. . . . Did you hear? This week, in hospital. . . . It's a long story.''

Iona looks to see what effect his words have, but sees none - the young man has hidden his face, and is fast asleep again. The old man sighs, and scratches his head. Just as much as the young one wanted to drink, the old man wanted to talk. It will soon be a week since his son died, and he has not been able to speak about it properly to anyone.

''I'll go and look at my horse,'' thinks Iona; ''there's always time to sleep. No fear of that!''

He puts on his coat, and goes to the stables to his horse; he thinks of the corn, the hay, the weather. When he is alone, he dare not think of his son; he could speak about him to anyone, but to think of him, and picture him to himself , is unbearably painful.

''Are you tucking in?'' Iona asks his horse, looking at his bright eyes; ''go on, tuck in, though we've not earned our corn, we can eat hay. Yes! I am too old to drive - my son could have, not I. He was a first-rate cab-driver. If only he had lived.''

Iona is silent for a moment, then continues:

''That's how it is, my old horse. There's no more Kuzma Ionitch. He has left us to live, and went off pop. Now let's say, you had a foal, you were that foal's mother, and suddenly, let's say, that foal went and left you to live after him. It would be sad, wouldn't it?''

The little horse munches, listens, and breathes over his master's hand. . . .

Iona's feelings are too much for him, and he tells the little horse the whole story.

It would appear from Albert Camus' ''The Guest'' that one is responsible not only for one's overt acts but also for one's failures to act.

In ''The Guest'' the schoolmaster Daru is asked to pass along for punishment by the French authorities a convicted Arab prisoner. Daru, an Arab himself, feels sympathy for the man but refuses to help him make a decision, as he offers the Arab the choice of two roads: one leading to freedom, the other to imprisonment:

Daru surveyed the two directions. Not a man could be seen. He turned toward the Arab, who was looking at him blankly. Daru offered the package to him. ''Take it,'' he said. ''There are dates, bread, and sugar. You can hold out for two days. Here are a thousand francs too.''

The Arab took the package and the money but kept his full hands at chest level as if he didn't know what to do with what was being given him.

''Now look'' the schoolmaster said as he pointed in the direction of the east , ''there's the way to Tinguit. You have a two-hour walk. At Tinguit are the administration and the police. They are expecting you.''

The Arab looked toward the east, still holding the package and the money against his chest. Daru took his elbow and turned him rather roughly toward the south. At the foot of the elevation on which they stood could be seen a faint path. ''That's the trail across the plateau. In a day's walk from here you'll find pasturelands and the first nomads. They'll take you in and shelter you according to their law.''

The Arab had now turned toward Daru, and a sort of panic was visible in his expression. ''Listen,'' he said.

Daru shook his head. ''No, be quiet Now I'm leaving you.'' He turned his back on him, took two long steps in the direction of the school, looked hesitantly at the motionless Arab, and started off again. For a few minutes he heard nothing but his own step resounding on the cold ground. A moment later, however, he turned around. The rock fields to the south stood out sharply against the blue sky, but on the plain to the east a steamy heat was rising. And in that slight haze, Daru, with heavy heart, made out the Arab walking slowly on the road to prison.

A little later, standing before the window of the classroom, the schoolmaster was watching the clear light bathing the whole surface of the plateau. Behind him on the blackboard, among the winding French rivers, sprawled the clumsily chalked up words he had just read: ''You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.'' Daru looked at the sky, the plateau, and, beyond, the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.

The 16th-century English poet John Donne, in a meditation written when he was seriously ill, strikes a chord which has rung clearly down the centuries both in life and in literature - the essential solidarity of mankind. Meditation XVII

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. . . . The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Hundreds of years later, early in the twentieth century Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in his last speech to the court, reminds us of Donne as, in the closing moments of his speech, he refuses to plead for his own life but rather speaks of his friend, Nicolo Sacco. Last Speech To The Court

I have talk a great deal of myself but I even forgot to name Sacco. Sacco too is a worker from his boyhood, a skilled worker lover of work, with a good job and pay, a good and lovely wife, two beautiful children and a neat little home at the verge of a wood, near a brook. Sacco is a heart, a faith, a character, a man; a man lover of nature and of mankind. A man who gave all, who sacrifice all to the cause of Liberty and to his love for mankind; money, rest, mundane ambitions, his own wife, his children, himself and his own life. Sacco has never dreamt to steal, never to assassinate. He and I have never brought a morsel of bread to our mouths, from our childhood to today - which has not been gained by the sweat of our brows. Never.

Oh, yes, I may be more witful, as some have put it, I am a better babbler than he is, but many, many times in hearing his heartful voice ringing a faith sublime, in considering his supreme sacrifice, remembering his heroism I felt small small at the presence of his greatness and found myself compelled to fight back from my throat to not weep before him - this man called thief and assassin and doomed. But Sacco's name will live in the hearts of the people and in their gratitude when your bones will be dispersed by time. . . .

If it had not been for these thing, I might have live out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice for man's understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words - our lives - our pains - nothing! The taking of our lives - lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler - all! That last moment belongs to us - that agony is our triumph.

Each refusal to respond to what a poem or story has to offer is a personal move towards isolation. Each sharing of the feelings and human choices in a poem or story is another small victory for the race. If we cannot enter into the imaginative lives of others, we run a strong chance of being left alone, even in our own. As William Carlos Williams says: ''It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.''

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers.

"Grief," from The Stories of Anton Chekov, edited by Robert N. Linscott. (CR) 1932, renewed 1960, by Modern Library, Inc. By permission of Random House.

''The Guest,'' from Exile in the Kingdom, by Albert Camus, translated by Justin O'Brien. (CR) 1957, 1958 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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