Day 150: literary pursuits?

I have been obsessively refreshing the “my classes” webpage for the last two days hoping to see something other than 0/10 under the “enrollment” tab for my seminar this quarter. At this point I am actually sitting in the large, empty classroom, at the assigned class time, on my own, and I’m still refreshing the webpage on my laptop. I believe that this is called “denial.”

I feel more perplexed than insulted because of all the classes I’ve ever come up with, this may be the one that would have most appealed to me when I was an undergraduate. It’s called “Literary Pursuits.” Here’s part of the course description: “We will consider pursuit as a theme and plot structure in literary works, and we will also think about literary criticism as itself a form of pursuit: is literary interpretation a form of detection in pursuit of a smoking gun or missing piece of the puzzle? Or is interpretation much more open-ended than these metaphors would imply and therefore, inevitably, unfinished? What kinds of questions can literary critics answer and what sorts of questions are worth asking?”

Each week takes up a particular concept—examples include puzzle, mystery, and maze. The plan was to read literary works that imagine the literary object in these terms: so we would have read Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet” for puzzle; and Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” for maze. In the second half of the course, we were going to read two novels—Pale Fire and Possession—that both imagine the literary scholar’s work as a form of pursuit—whether hermeneutic or archival.

Last night I emailed our undergraduate advisor asking if I should show up for class today. She wrote back that I should because “at this stage of the game, some students may be skittish about formally enrolling … but that doesn’t mean they won’t possibly show up today to check it out and make sure it’s ‘real’ before signing up …”

At this point, I’m not sure it’s real.

After about fifteen minutes a guy stopped outside the classroom and stood for some time looking at the number next to the door as if trying to figure out if he was in the right place. I said in my most friendly and real-sounding voice, “Are you looking for literary pursuits by any chance?” He ignored me. I noticed he had earbuds in and so I said again, more loudly, “excuse me, are you looking for literary pursuits?” He continued to ignore me and then walked away.

Then another guy walked into the classroom. “Literary Pursuits?” I said, hopefully. He threw his banana peel into the garbage can, and walked back out again.

Am I actually here?

Another guy comes over, looks at the door doubtfully and then walks away again. I hear him ask someone in the hallway, “Do you know where A26 is?”

“Here!” I yell, a little too loudly. “This is A26! Literary pursuits?” I enquire. He walks into the classroom slowly and scans the room with an anxious expression. I don’t blame him: for some reason the classroom I’ve been assigned for this course is not a normal seminar room, but a large classroom with a podium at the front. It’s hard not to be struck by its … emptiness. He doesn’t look thrilled at the prospect of having a one-on-one class.

“So you’re here for literary pursuits?” I say again.

He kind of squints at me, and I wonder if he’s making an on the spot decision to deny all knowledge of the course.

I start thinking about what my counter-move will be. He’s just skittish, I think to myself. Reel him in slowly. Don’t make any sudden moves.

“Is this … Japanese?” he finally asks.

Well-played, I think to myself. I take a few seconds and think about saying “yes.”

Finally I decide against it. “No,” I admit, sighing.

“It says here my Japanese class is here,” he says.

“Really!” I say, brightening. That would explain it! I think. It’s just a room mix-up! He looks at his notebook. “Let me double-check. Ohhhh, no, it’s A62, not A26!”

At this point an hour has elapsed. It’s kind of peaceful sitting here on my own. Maybe I really don’t need the students, I think to myself. I could just come here every week and sit in this classroom by myself for three hours. It could be a kind of performance art … a willful embrace of the solipsistic sort of literary pursuit that a character like Charles Kinbote embodies. Students wouldn’t be able to participate themselves, but they would be welcome to eat bananas and watch.

I decide to go home.

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Day 144: in which I am bananas and also nonplussed

 

DUCK-RABBIT [in highly exasperated tone]: ___, you are driving me completely BANANAS.

YOUNGER [breaking out in helpless giggles]: BANAAARNAS!!! BANAAARNAS???!!! [pronouncing the word in mocking imitation of her mother]

[pause]

YOUNGER [continuing in lofty tone]: Or, as Americans say…

DUCK-RABBIT [interrupting in anticipation of what is coming]: Yes, as Americans say ….

YOUNGER: “You are driving me completely INSANE.”

DUCK-RABBIT [nonplussed [1]]: What?

YOUNGER: “You are driving me completely INSANE.” That’s what an American would say.

DUCK-RABBIT: Oh. [a little crestfallen] I thought you were going to say “you are driving me completely BANÆNAS” [pronouncing the word in mocking imitation of an American accent]

YOUNGER: No.

DUCK-RABBIT: Right, I realize that now.

 

Notes

[1] I happened to look up nonplussed in the OED online just now, as you do, and discovered something peculiar. You could say that I was nonplussed by what I discovered. According to the OED, “nonplussed” has two distinct and opposed meanings. The first, the one I’m familiar with, is “1. Brought to a nonplus or standstill; at a nonplus; perplexed, confounded.” But then check out definition 2: “2. orig. and chiefly U.S. Not disconcerted; unperturbed, unfazed.” Then there is a note: “This usage is often regarded as erroneous: see discussion in etymology.”

Oh you crazy Americans! The OED’s “discussion in etymology” suggests that the American usage resulted “probably as a result of association with other words in non-prefix.” But wouldn’t this only make sense if “plussed,” somehow, had the connotation of being agitated in some way?

Disappointingly, plussed doesn’t actually seem to be a word in its own right, although I think it should be (Try saying “I’m so fucking plussed right now” and tell me it doesn’t feel right). But even as I tried out plussed and found it pleasing, I wondered if it feels right as an adjective describing annoyance because it sonically evokes other words we use to describe vexation. Plussed at once assonantly recalls fussed and consonantly evokes pissed. Or maybe it’s simply that the most frequently used examples of non-prefixes are applied to conditions in which the negated quality is bad: as in non-toxic, or non-threatening.

I remain nonplussed (and, for now, nonbananas).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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