[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Amazing Sense

John Snider
Northern Montana College

This was a Poet--It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings. --Emily Dickinson

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again.... --William Wordsworth

Set on the Milk River east of the Continental Divide on high northern plains broken with occasional badlands and only thirty miles from the small creek where Chief Joseph finally surrendered to General Miles and made his famous speech, the town of Havre, Montana, presents an improbable, even a defiant air--an urgency to assert its kinship with other more centrally located and commercially notable towns. On the outskirts the fast food restaurants and chain stores set up a prophylactic ring to guard against any infection the Great American Desert may harbor. Everywhere you hear the insistence that the town is civic and practical, and that the most esoteric consumer longings can be satisfied. When the local team plays, the cars stream in from the open prairie fleeing the vast emptiness as much as they seek after some tangible evidence of their normalcy. In the mountains south of town, the hunters and fishermen are never far from pick-up trucks that can go anywhere over any terrain. Perhaps a solitary hiker will nibble away at the edges of the terrible openness, only to hurry back to town for other, safer stimulation. When we move to a new place, a new part of the country, we are first enchanted by the land which seems to us to hold out so much promise. We pledge to ourselves that we will hike and explore and become familiar with the land; however, we inevitably lapse into a dreary circuit of work, home, and market, and begin to dream of exotic, far-off places. How easy it is for promise and possibility to die in us.

From time to time this solid practicality shimmers like a mirage and is gone. We see instead the open plain as our final resting place among the desert and brush. We look at the town and see the bones beneath the buffalo jump and beneath that the bones of dinosaurs. For a brief time our cloying practicality gives way to the genuine. Like the Cree and Ojibwe who still go to the mountains south of town to fast and seek visions, we manage to see through this false dream world into the real world beyond, and for a moment we become living flesh, and the water in our veins becomes blood. From time to time in this small town, which is no more urgent or willfully civic than any other town, we see the falseness of our lives. We see the lies we live clearly and directly. Such revelations are as brief as they are rare, offering us the only hope to fan to life what Wordsworth called our "half-extinguished thoughts"--those thoughts which link us to a natural world void of our colossal vanity, that is our building of cities and cheering of teams. For indeed the practical life we live in the United States, and practical commercial life everywhere, conspires to extinguish thought. It is in short a betrayal. A betrayal of all poignant and real feeling, a betrayal of honest speech, a betrayal of what dignity we have left.

So we live in Havre or New York City and live only the lives which are given to us--the lives from the television or the schools, the lives of patient shoppers or workers. Such lives are inevitable, often comfortable and perhaps even necessary since we could not confront life all at once in every place. We are like a fire that is kept low lest it use its fuel all at once in a fantastic explosion. We go from one day to the next, serene in the thought that at the end we will have paid our premiums and kept our teeth. From time to time our rounds of duty are interrupted, and we jump suddenly like a person who awakens violently right before slipping off to sleep. How marvelous to know when we would see so that we could go prepared with the sleep rubbed out of our eyes.

If there is anything we could call hope in this sad world, it is this: that from time to time no matter how predictable and petty our lives have become, we will be given a glimpse of something transcendent, something wholly free and beautiful, something uncontaminated by the practical and civic world. Try as we might we cannot conjure up these moments any more than we can summon the sunshine out of a thundercloud, but when we least expect them and are in rare need of them, they will burst upon us.

Each year in the high schools across the state of Montana, students gather to compete in a variety of speech and drama contests. Buses drive across the immense open state carrying students who will stand in front of a judge and the other contestants and perform. The event, of course, is judged; it never occurs to us to simply celebrate drama or rhetoric or comedy--we must weigh it like so much dross. I am called to judge, and I walk into the high school doing a dozen things I promised myself twenty years ago I would never do. I wear a tie. I inquire at the main office about my official duties, and I do not smoke a cigarette or put my feet up or insist that the students call me by my first name or stand on a soap box and denounce anything. Instead I go to the classroom where I will sit for several hours and judge Solo Serious. Solo Serious is the name of a category for single actors who are given 12 minutes to perform a scene from a play. One by one seven girls stand before me and ask, "Is the judge ready?" I nod and they begin. Numbers are written on the board to identify the students as I am not to know who they are (how odd it is that we think fairness means that we must not know someone's name.) I sit and mark 1st best, 2nd best, 5th best, and so on. I am to write suggestions on the judge's score sheet, and I try vainly to say something meaningful but instead reword two or three maxims about acting that I have settled on earlier in the day.

The room we meet in is filled with chairs and desks which are too small for all of us, while directly behind the actors there is a picture of the Founding Fathers in powdered wigs about to sign the Declaration of Independence or to write the Constitution. There is a globe in the corner with a map stand, and on the bulletin board every display seems to include a list of some kind or another--a list of safety tips, a list of the dangers of drugs, a list of cautions when doing a book report. Outside in the hallway, students are cavorting and making dates, horsing around and giggling. Occasionally, we look at them envious of their playful release and longing for the session to be over. This contest like all other events for young people is not joyful or fun. The students do not laugh at the comedy or weep at the tragedy. They are either bored or vaguely anxious, always with a grudging dutifulness and deference to the teachers, judges, and chaperones. The school itself is an irritating, dreary, even deadening place; its solidity never comforts us, and so we are not surprised when the walls collapse and crush third-graders. If anything we are amazed it didn't happen sooner. No truly sane person would build schools the way we do. No one has stood in awe of anything connected with a high school. There is no reverence or mystery there. That indeed may be the most damning thing we can say about them. Schools for us represent no ideal but obedience, no dream but normalcy, no future but the crassest promise of monetary success, no beauty but copies of homogenized and sanctioned beauty, no value but conformity. Evidence of this fact is that for us schools are never out of place; we come to expect them even in the most incongruous settings. No doubt schools in Alaska at the heads of glaciers or in Hawaii beneath the volcanoes are composed of the same hallways and absurdly small desks. There is no change of air, either, the same asbestos corrupts our lungs. We have invested schools with a frightening inanimate nature. It is as if we have deliberately fashioned something without spirit. Our schools are without personality because they stand solidly against personality. The schools generate despair or boredom but never longing or hope. They are always palpable, ubiquitous, literal, while the forbidden fruits in these Edens of stone are joy and imagination.

The seven girls and I settle into our desks. The group has apparently been through the routine before, and they tell me where to sit and point to their numbers which have been written on the board. One by one they stand and deliver their routines. Although I sit to the side of the room, they play to me as if the other students were not present. I react like a judge, look official, sit straight in my chair choked by my tie while the other girls listen absently but politely enough. Indeed, the lot of us barely manage a reaction at all. Perhaps the most telling fact of the afternoon was that eight of us sat for two hours and did not react at all. Maybe that was the test we were expected to pass? No doubt we would have been surprised if we were told that a genuine, honest, and spontaneous response was not only appropriate but mandatory. Even the school play which would have given us Our Town for the one millionth time would have had an audience with at least the possibility of a reaction.

The first girl gives us a mad scene. Dressed entirely in black she acts a series of shouted diatribes punctuated by a low whining wail that is neither convincing nor engaging. We should remember that the school experience itself demands a heavy dose of acting, and so we should not be surprised when students are eager to act. Always expected to be someone other than themselves, they have a variety of roles to choose from. Because school is so predictable, we are delighted to find the unpredictable there. And once in a while when we least expect it, when we despair of ever doing anything but what we are told, when the ubiquitous, heavy regularity and conformity of our fellows presses us down, then we may see a sign that shows us that spirit and imagination are alive and well somewhere. If we do not emerge from our chains underground to be blinded by the light, we at least see a clear light off in the distance.

The world does not offer us that many revelations, and so they matter all the more. That afternoon a tall, thin girl stood to take her turn. She was dressed in a costume of faded denim and performed a monologue from a play about a runaway teenager fleeing violent parents. She slouched and feigned a streetwise toughness with an exaggerated sneer on her face. To begin with she was wholly unconvincing, affecting what she imagined to be the harder realities of big city life. The bit was predictable enough as she stumbled over her lines and became momentarily flustered. She was earnest and conscientious and very much the dutiful student. Then as if we were in a dream, the scene changed. Suddenly the girl was no longer herself but the alcoholic and violent father. She no longer hesitated or stumbled over her lines. Indeed, there were no lines as the father was speaking directly to us in his own voice. The father spoke out from her body until we saw him whole and live before us. To say that the girl was acting would be to deny that a metamorphosis had taken place. The girl gave way to the father, and he appeared before us. Another's pain for us is almost always an abstraction, at most a text that we read or brood over, but that afternoon the pain became momentarily alive, and it was only the rigidity of the school that held us in check and prevented us all from crying out. When the bread and wine become living flesh and blood, it is the bread and wine which give way. They retreat so that the more real can be made known. There are so many things that we must withdraw so that this fifteen-year-old girl can make manifest the pain which she understood only because she had forgotten herself. That is, forgotten the self that the school, or the father, or the civic minded town had created for her.

We must, then, in a thousand ways cease to exist so that the prosaic can be replaced by the authentic, the real, and the passionate. The anxieties and petty commerce of our lives must be shed like a snakeskin rubbed and scraped off by the harder places of the world so that we can emerge into understanding. We are given everyday admonitions about the real world. What these cautions mean more often than not is that we must conform to some degrading scheme that someone else has devised. The real world that so-called practical people want us to hunger after is simply the world without spirit or imagination, the world of narrow rules, and even narrower duty, the world of small comforts and material rewards. But the world of the cash-register and the home team will resolve itself into dust--dust that will terrify us until we breathe life into it, until we speak over it efficacious words which will bring it to life, until we resurrect it with genuine spirit and love.

This fifteen-year-old girl whether she knew it or not, or whether she witnessed abuse or not, I cannot say, gave us real feeling despite everything the disciples of the real world did to prevent real feelings from slipping out. We are used to the sophistries of the movies and television, and I believe that we know better than we let on what is real and what is not. The pain and despair of a child being beaten can be disguised in a thousand ways and denied in a thousand ways, but it cannot be hidden forever. Whether this girl dredged up this frightening minute from her imagination alone or from some terrible past, I cannot say, but the experience gave us the hope that we live in a real world after all--one that will not die even when we turn on the television or slip off to the mall or walk into a school.

How can we tell that the moment was genuine? The surest sign is that we were suddenly made witnesses and therefore accomplices. At least for that moment we could not call on the thousand dodges at our disposal to dismiss the girl. We could not hem and haw or look for the anchorperson to appease the suffering by a happy final story. We could not, try as we might, change the channel or go into another shop. Her words were simply a revelation. For a moment we looked behind the false world we live in and saw the real world, and furthermore knew how inadequate we are to the world of real feelings. We hide from them and do not seek them out. Our only hope for redemption is to cling to what revelation this girl has given us. Through her we have a chance to look on the face of the world. What tortured paths in the all too stifled life of the imagination did that girl have to travel in order to come to the light of day? To truly touch the world is a risky and dangerous thing. To look upon the face of the world is as forbidden today as it was 2,000 years ago to speak the name Yahweh or look upon His countenance. If we look we may turn to stone, but more certainly we will turn to stone if we dare not look, if we cast ourselves aside like so many stones. From time to time we are given the finer stuff of the world. Epicurus claimed that the Gods were made of a finer stuff which was not visible to the human eye but only visible in dreams and trances. And so for a moment we were in a trance, not a trance that took us away from reality but one that took us deeper to truth itself, deeper to the truth of violence and the truth of our complicity and the truth of our inextricable kinship with a fifteen-year-old girl.

There is the possibility that the girl's acting was all a conjurer's trick or that we merely longed for some shameful stimulation. Although there is probably no way of knowing if she tricked us or if we tricked ourselves, I do not think we should despair, for hope compels us to trust another human being, hope alone which even allows us to acknowledge that another human being exists. To the extent that we long for certainty and proof always, we long for death. For it is only in the realm of death that reason and certainty rule. We can, I suppose, become like Narcissus and love only ourselves, but sooner or later such love will deceive us and we will drown in our own solipsism. No, we must take feelings where we find them, knowing that we will meet many temptations in the desert.

In the play that was acted out in that hard, sour school room, there was a scene where the father threw his daughter into the bath tub, ripped off her shirt, and proceeded to scour her back with shards of glass from a broken television. His attempt, no doubt, to excise her rebellion and then sculpt her into an image of the television world, a world from which he knew he would be forever exiled.

There are then for us dreams which scourge us and make us bleed--all too often dreams we dream because we fear our imagination, fear the bread of life is not living after all, and hence we pay homage to a world which is false and inanimate, a world of commercial duty and practical habit. But from time to time the half-extinguished life of the imagination flares up and our shameful civic and commercial intercourse gives way to living dreams that have the power to heal us and make us whole.

[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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