Can you do me this favor right now and imagine in your mind’s eye an altar. OK. Now put the following title “Progress” on that handsome altar. (No doubt you are chuckling right now, but work with me.) OK, we probably would agree that such a thing is not just connected with a strict religious connotation, right? Altars are used for sacrifice, and that is not always bad. Parents sacrifice time for their children. Couple’s sacrifice their earlier freedoms for—hopefully—the bliss of togetherness. Respectable citizens sacrifice their money for good charity. Forward thinking students sacrifice some frivolities for future degrees, etc., etc. We generally sacrifice something for a reason, and that’s good.
It’s always a long day at work, but today was especially long: a student meeting sandwiched in between two meetings with advancement at the college, and three lectures to prep, and the copier breaking down, and an article to publish. I customarily repair to a pub down the street a few days a week to wrap up my workday, right about when the walls of my small office start to close in on me. I try to go early and leave early, when I can. But today I didn’t make it here till almost seven o’clock. I still got a seat.
A recently divorced friend told me how he and his ex-wife have different stories about how they met. His version is that he approached her at a party. Her version is that she introduced herself in a class. They fought about what actually happened not because they wanted to be right, but because of what the versions meant. Their unique stories portrayed each other in different lights and reflected what they believed about themselves and the other. A different story gave them a different interpretation about their past and that interpretation had influence on their future.
I credit my students’ ever-active brains with shaping a recent class discussion such that I found myself having to ask, “Do you really think Hamlet’s irony is like a hipster’s?” We had been finding the subtle contrasts between the type of the Shakespearean fool and Hamlet’s foolery under the guise of madness. We had established in a previous class that Hamlet’s wit was highly ironic, like Lear’s fool’s, but that it was perhaps even more ironic in that Hamlet does not require his wit to be effective. He gibes Polonius, who famously suspects, “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” but he never confirms what that method might be. He mocks his old school-buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after he comes to distrust them, and when they confess their confusion, he simply shrugs it off: “A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear.”
It happened during the Q&A portion of Dr. Cairns’ poetry reading. When a man at the workshop posed his question, Dr. Scott Cairns prefaced the answer by asking him if he had read The Brothers Karamazov. No, he replied. Suddenly, the bright, amiable room we sat in shuddered and darkened like a rift valley in a quake and descended into an animated, if not fiery, lecture on the essential nature of that book.