“Nightfall” and Plato

I finally managed to read Asimov’s "Nightfall" today–the story that is also about the power of revelations, of the sudden dawn of the unimaginable that exists, of the sudden awareness of the truth of our incommensurably insignificant construction of self and world. There’s that sentence there:

"It [the eclipse of the first and last sun] was like a gigantic eyelid shutting slantwise over the light of a world."

Offhand, one would think of Aldous Huxley’s description of "Benares" during an eclipse, and talk of the eye of culture and the critical eye on it. Or commensurability in the philosophy of science and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Not today, though. Maybe I was in a mystical mood, but reading Asimov brought back to me the power of words, and the something that happened to my class as I was teaching this afternoon. I speak of the metaphorical blink. The moment in which the world changes and something dawns or dies.I think it happened to me. It was Bacon who said that knowledge is power, and De Quincey who spoke of the literature of knowledge and the literature of power. We speak of soft power today. I think I just found out about the force of all three in the contact zone.

I taught Mary Louise Pratt and her much-anthologized essay on the arts of the contact zone in my Rhet 105 class today. Taught it and tried to ‘open up’ my classroom, in pedagogical technique and textual content, so that the kids could draw connections on their own during discussion. Surprisingly (for me?), three did, with examples we hadn’t yet mastered together in class–to Edward Said’s  After the Last Sky, to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; yet another kid critiqued the two before.They brought up things like power and coercion, the need and violence of boundaries (in context of the drinking age and why it’s a problem in America and not so much, to their mind, in Europe…of course!), the principle by which Tom Sawyer got his aunt’s fence painted, the American national anthem and singing it in Spanish, the idea of America and the need to protect what so many fought for through the long passage to the dream. The things that surround them. In turn, I told them about narratives and Pratt’s irony and the art of constructive parody. I told them about Angela Carter’s rewritten fairy tales and, unbelievably, the story of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."

Yes, I told them a fairy/folk tale in class. And amazingly, I found my kids, these strapping 18-19 year olds, leaning forward and following every one of my hushed singing words. Their expressions mirrored the terrain of the tale. And even as I spoke, as I broke out of the narrative, I realized that for a moment I had held the key to the magic of the hushed gathering about the fireside. The effect of the storyteller. The place of the bard in human communities.

This is what I shivered into my life. The truth of the "Statement of Purpose" I had laboriously drawn from my depths so long ago, before the sea-passage. The luminous intersection of folklore, children’s stories and postmodern (so-called adult/women’s) narratives. Without seeking, I found. Not the truth of the statement that I used to enter this land, mind you, but the truth of the palimpsest of theory and narrative and reading and listening that I have amassed in my decades in cognizance. Memory, narrative, knowledge. The old things. Revealed again, just as in Asimov’s "Nightfall."

Is this what it is like to experience Plato’s Cave in reverse? Nightfall. The wise ones. And Asimov’s mimetic mirror.

View from above

I had traveled a long way down and up, counting the wayside stones as I kept alive the vision of a fold of peace in my head. When I came to this valley, I thought I would be happy to contour myself to the land. To till it till I turned up the richness of the self. Thought I would grow old here. Then one day I looked up from the digging and found a flat land with no view, realized that this populous peace does not move me any more. This was labor I had made incumbent upon myself.
Perhaps the journey through the soil has changed me. I find I stand away from the gritty pioneer who finds a fertile Thimphu amid the crags of the Himalayas and settles into his capital. Perhaps with a sigh and some hard work, but settles in like the falling soil of the mountain slopes. But I miss the ether, the view from the top, the nightingale’s tears. I must rise. My time among these spaces is done; it is time to fold and hie upwards again. The way is misted still. I may never know it and yet must walk. For, I have found the nine billion names of god (you ken?), and the stars beckon these wandering feet.