a reassuring lie

Are there inappropriate reading materials for the school syllabus?

Well, it all depends on how we define ‘appropriate’, but I certainly think that in terms of development, introducing certain ideas to growing minds at the right time is important. Having said that, one of my key memories from school is reading Peter Shaffer’s Equus, a play that dealt with the themes of ritual sacrifice, sex with horses and pathological violence. The teacher who selected the text was new – he was a flamboyant actor. I knew he was flamboyant, and an actor, from the way he would sweep his long scarf back over his shoulder like a shot of salt to ward off bad luck. His name was Richard Grayson, a name he shared with Batman.

I happened to win the Junior Drama Competition one year with a play I’d written about the first world war. It was the only Play in the line-up that wasn’t a cross-dressing farce (this was in the days before the school went co-ed). In fact, it didn’t have a single joke in it and at the end all the characters died. The next year all the plays were serious and mine was a comedy. That play tanked. Anyway, I was standing on the stage with my trophy in my hand in front of contemporaries and parents. I can’t remember if I was asked to give a speech other than to thank everyone, but Mr Grayson, who had organised the competition certainly did. I stood next to him, he towered over me. “…and last of all I’d like to thank the stage crew who have worked like blacks to put this event on.” Even in the early nineties this remark elicited a collective intake of breath from the audience. I tell you, I didn’t know where to look.

Anyway, in his first term Mr Grayson had us reading Equus. We were 12, possibly 13. I’m not sure it was ever read again in school, perhaps, new to the school he just got us to read his favourite play. The subject matter and the swearing and the adult characters dealing with adult subjects left a profound effect on me. Nothing was spoon-fed by the teacher to our pre-adolescent minds. I felt like a university student debating a transgressive subject.

So, with this introduction to adult texts, I was a little disappointed to have to live on a diet of Jane Austen, Wilfred Owen and Wordsworth for the next few years. None of this stuff inspired in me a love of Lit. and poetry. It was only when, in my early twenties I discovered Henry Miller, Ginsberg, John Fante’s Ask the Dust, Thom Gunn, Gregory Corso, Jeanette Winterson, Lawrence Durrell and Emily Dickinson that writing caught me in an unguarded moment, turned me around several times and changed my whole outlook on life. Much of it was American, the prose and poetry tended to be more direct.

I’ve noticed the phrase cognitive dissonance being used more and more. According to Wikipedia it’s been around since 1957 – coined by a Leon Festinger. I heard it mentioned the other day to describe the rather ‘liberal’ idea that society and politics are improving – something brought into sharp relief with the rise of Donald Trump and the fractiousness of politics in Europe. Cognitive dissonance is the idea that people seek out psychological consistency between their beliefs and the reality of life, and that if these two factors are at odds there is an adjustment made in the reading of reality to accommodate it. It’s a phrase that has been batted about political discourse for a while, mostly, it seems, as a fairly posh sounding way to tell people they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Nevertheless, I wonder if I can hijack the term to address my own coming of age as a reader. I needed the sledgehammer anti-society rhetoric of Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg. I needed Miller, an American living as a homeless bum in the Paris of the 1930s, I needed Howl and its angel-headed hipsters precisely because they were so unsubtle even my developing mind could grasp the commentary – society is a sham. But, here is where my cognitive dissonance comes in – the entire works of Jane Austen are almost designed to prove that very point – society is a sham. “I must learn to be content with being happier than I deserve,” says Elizabeth Bennett. Emma Woodhouse is Henry Miller if Miller had been born slightly better off and female in a country house in England a hundred years earlier. William “the child is father of the man” Wordsworth is, similarly, shamanistic in his believe of the abiding power of nature. But all these things passed me by at 15, at 16.

But it was not only my cognitive dissonance. It was the cognitive dissonance of anyone who read Austen and in later life hid their true selves behind manners. It was anyone who read Wilfred Owen and then joined the army. It was anyone who read Wordsworth and then went to work for Shell.

Perhaps we only learn lessons when we’re ready to learn them. I’d hope we learn lessons when we need to learn them, but I’m not so sure. There is one thing though, of which I am increasingly aware, we were taught lessons at school we hadn’t the wit to grasp.

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