This Great Society - Arts

 

 

Illustration: Jim Boraas

 

Susannah Gorey: He do the Police in Different Voices
Illustration: Jim Boraas

 
 

 

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
‘God is dead.’

These were the words I presented to you, my students, as an introduction to our study of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The silence and furrowed brows ensued. I refused to think for you as you puzzled over these words, which some of you found shocking. I found this subtly delightful. Reclining in my leather armchair, I slowly made eye contact with each one of you. Oh, these famous and misunderstood words! What is my purpose? I want to contextualise your own engagement with your literary heritage here in England, something I still find exciting. But perhaps there’s more. Is it just to make you think? To prepare you for further neurotic ramblings that we would be embracing and wrestling with for several weeks? Or perhaps it was to indulge my own curiosity about you and the way you see our world.

It was you, Thompson, who spoke first.

‘Good. I’m glad he’s dead.’ Interesting. I want to hear more.

‘I think it’s a good thing. It means we don’t have to be told what to do anymore.’

Is that really what you mean? Think. Try to articulate.

Another voice. ‘It means the separation of church and state.’ Also interesting, but I need more.

‘It means we’ve lost what’s important to us. It means our values have changed.’

You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head, Edwards. Well done.

I’m no atheist. In fact, I’m very much a theist. I have no desire to change your views or convince you to agree with my thinking. How utterly post-modern of me. What I want you to do is think, children, think. Next year you will go to university. Or serve a gap year by strapping a proverbial, oversized pack on your back and ‘wandering.’ Or stare at a computer screen surrounded by meaningless, inspirational words and phrases such as ‘fresh thinking,’ ‘perseverance’ and ‘innovation.’ Regardless, you will be in the world.

*

You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so unique...
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME

Monday. Full teaching day. Tommy Williams is kicking off again. Disrespectful profanity streams from his mouth and fills the empty hallway. Sharp interruptions jab into my patience and I find myself frustrated. The students are supposed to be learning. He is told to go to the isolation room. He refuses. It’s me who has to reason with him.

‘Tommy, what’s going on? You have an exam in three weeks’ time. The results will stay with you for the rest of your life.’

‘Miss, I just don’t care. I hate Miss Samson. She’s the anti-Christ.’ Melodramatic, to say the least.

An exclusion is put forward. Denied by the powers that be. He apparently apologised. What are we teaching him?

Tuesday. Year 11 girl goes missing. Police involved.

Wednesday. Jonathan Slow excluded for fighting. Apparently he kicked off when an older student made eye contact with him.

Thursday. Year 10 girl raped at a party. Tiny rumours that started as trickles are eroding away decency to make way for rushing rivers of accusations. Slut. She’s pregnant. Babykiller.

Friday. Disillusioned.

*

When lovely woman stoops to folly
And paces about her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand
And puts a record on the gramophone.

What is my job as a teacher, children? What is my purpose? To make sure you pass an exam? Is that it? Surely it’s not to instil basic moral values; that should be the job of your parents. Oh wait, we have no moral values anymore. God is dead.

Eliot recognised the loss of moral values as universal truth. The subject becomes god himself. Alone. This ‘lovely woman’ contrasts the regret and remorse of the Eighteenth Century woman, and becomes an iconic image of modern relationships—a spinning black vortex devoid of true emotion.

*

The sounds of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water

English office, Tuesday lunchtime. Our informal chatter moves toward a discussion about the validity of prostitution. Would we be happy for our daughters if they decided to become strippers or prostitutes? Generally, it is agreed that it would be empowering for girls to participate in the sex industry. Less than ten minutes later, a phone call is made to a parent about a student who is not abiding by uniform standards—her skirt is way too short.

‘I mean, what will the Year 9 boys think of her?’

A sense of bewilderment comes over me as I attempt to comprehend a concept that is contradictory in-itself: reprimanding a young girl for wearing her skirt too short, but rewarding her ambition to sell her body for money. I voice my views.

The response? ‘Susannah, you’re so harsh.’

*

                           A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool

I’ve been told I think too much, children. I’ve been told I’m a geek. Perhaps that is why some of you just can’t engage with me.

‘The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.’

This was written in 400 BC, and our fear and misunderstanding of youth has long been embedded in our culture. Perhaps the problem is not today’s youth; it’s today’s adults. Or perhaps this has always been the case. It’s our clinging to individualism, our clutch to our personal rights that ‘teach’ our youth that they can also behave with such arrogance. Our fear to discipline, our fear to set boundaries. Perhaps we do this in the name of ‘freedom’ or ‘expression.’

*

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down…

These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
                 Shantih shantih shantih

Today we read ‘What the Thunder Said.’ The dichotomy of life and death presented to us by Eliot has finally been dissolved into disenchanted dust. As you know, children, he wrote this at a time when society was alienated, fearful and uncomfortable. Has this improved? Or have we become so accustomed to living within a world where deconstructing stable frameworks has become a life skill?

The range of interpretations of those final words ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ encourages me, but not for long. Your writing reveals that this offers hope of regeneration through its literal translation of ‘peace.’ You believe that this Waste Land where Eliot exists, which is sterile and devoid of meaning, romance or love, is subverted in these final words. Eliot himself said our English equivalent would be ‘the Peace which passeth understanding.’ It is with a heavy heart I must correct you on this one. It’s not about regeneration. It’s about that final submission that we must accept the Waste Land. It is with peace that we accept the disintegration of structured frameworks.

Do I believe in the death of moral values? Perhaps, slightly. But it is not you to blame, children. It is us. We must leave the Fisher King on his shore, injured and impotent. He is surrounded by desolation that he has ‘shored against [his] ruins.’ He is complacent to what is wasting away around him, and reluctant to take responsibility for what he ultimately has the power to change.

 

 
   
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