January 18, 2004
Pictures from an Institution, VI; by anon.
For ease of reference, I record Pictures from an Institution's growing table of contents:
Pictures from an Institution continues tonight, with episode VI, "Enlightenment."
Friday, December 28: Caleb Smith-Smythe's bottom has gone numb. He has been sitting in a gray metal folding chair in the Gallier room of the Sheraton New Orleans since 8:20 that morning, when he arrived ten minutes early for the Disney studies panel entitled "Stalking the Mouse." It is now nearly 4:30 in the afternoon and the present panel on "The Voice in Cinema: Theorizing Speech, Silence, and Sound on Screen" is nearing its close. In the course of the day, he has sat through panels on Asian-American writers and pop culture, cognitive theories of emotion, and David Mamet. He is not particularly hungry, but he is horrified. The day has been a rude awakening for Caleb Smith-Smythe. Rooted to his chair in the Gallier Room, he has thought unthinkable thoughts and experienced unbelievable realizations. He has, in the course of eight grinding hours of relentlessly self-important talks, discovered his inner cynic.
Cynicism is a new sensation for Caleb Smith-Smythe. It has never been a part of his emotional idiom, which has all his life tended toward an idealism so earnest, so incorruptible, and so perfectly naive that his own mother used to worry that her son would grow up to be completely incapable of navigating life. She was frightened by the bright glare of his inexorably sunny outlook, which met the constant bullying of his schoolmates and the endless grueling want of their tarpaper lives with wide eager eyes, well-meant platitudes, and an abiding conviction that all would come right if he just kept studying. The eyes, magnified by thick lenses, were heartbreakingly blue; the platitudes, easy to ignore when uttered by adults, were spooky and unsettling when they came from her innocent child; and the belief that getting good grades was somehow the key to his own and his family's future wellbeing seemed, to Caleb's jaded parent, to be the most deadly myth a child of hers could embrace.
As far as Caleb Smith-Smythe's mother was concerned, her family's chronic poverty came from the blind obedience of its men, whose respect for authority seemed only to grow the more other, more powerful men used them. She had watched fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins defend their right to be kept down, unwilling either to challenge the the coal magnates who exploited them or to prepare their sons for better lives. She would have liked to see her son break a rule or two. But Caleb Smith-Smythe was hellbent on acceptance, though of a substantially different kind, and while his relatives quietly reported for work each day at the mine that was slowly killing them, he quietly reported to school each day, where he became a master at pleasing his teachers and memorizing information. There was no doubt her son was gifted, his mother knew. He would win scholarships, and go to college, and find a job where he could wear starched white shirts and keep his hands clean. But she knew as only a mother could know that her son's fate would not finally differ much from that of the other men in his family for the simple reason that, like them, Caleb Smith-Smythe was a consummate follower, a sweet, essentially simple man whose mission in life was to belong.
But Caleb Smith-Smythe's mother never anticipated the catalytic effect Mickey Mouse would have on her son under conditions of extreme professional duress. The combination of sitting on a hard, mean chair for hours on end; of listening to a parade of pale, presumptuous people reading out their considered opinions on Walt Disney, Asian-American science fiction, Mamet's pedagogical satire, emotive reading, and gay porn; of trying to concentrate on no breakfast and little sleep; while knowing, as one knows the shattering light of the sun, indirectly and askance, that he has just lost his job--these things acted on Caleb Smith-Smythe's tender psyche as no amount of maternal prodding ever had.
Caleb Smith-Smythe had never sat still long enough to contemplate the nature of the culture he was so intent on joining. He had always been in the thick of things, doing his best to contribute and to please; he had spent his entire life in school, straining dutifully after a golden apple that was just out of his reach. Now, for the first time in his life he finds himself watching his world from a distance, allowing it to pass before him. What he sees appalls him.
He sees performance, display, and pretense; he sees pomp and circumstance; he sees people of middling intelligence passing themselves off as intellectuals; he sees jargon covering for incoherence and cliched claptrap casting itself as radical politics; he sees cheap theater pretending to be true. All this he sees in the vacuum of what is painfully nowhere to be found: meaningful dialogue, passionate engagement with ideas, a desire to listen and learn, a common belief in the life of the mind.
As the panels go forward in front of him, each unlike the last and yet all somehow the same, two distinct images gradually arise in his mind. In one he sees the MLA as a continuous cartoon, a neverending reel of silliness unfurling before for an audience determined to take it seriously. In the other he sees himself as the anonymous besuited subject of a Magritte painting, his face permanently obscured by a green ungraspable apple floating mysteriously in front of him. Somewhere in the middle of the Mamet panel his mind melds these images and he begins to feel like a painting watching a movie, like an inanimate portrait of a generic man propped up in front of a flat and predictable two-dimensional show.
As the day advances, Caleb Smith-Smythe tries to remember why he came to the MLA. He has no paper to give, no job to interview for; indeed, he has no job. He thinks of his mother, whiling away the holidays alone in the mountains of West Virginia. He thinks of his cat, sleeping off the week in his dark little apartment, no doubt shedding excessively with the stress of extended solitude. Neither ever reproaches him for abandoning them; each suffers visibly when he does; both always welcome him home. He realizes he is at the MLA not because he wants to be there, or because he must be there, but because it has not occurred to him not to be there.
He thinks about the effort, all the eager, tireless exertion he has given to his profession over the last fifteen years. He thinks about how he left his family for it, had no life but it. He thinks about sincerity and disbelief, about students who can't meet his eye and faculty whose faces freeze into bland cold masks when they see him in the halls. He thinks about his conversation with Chairman Stan, about his tenure vote, about how he will never know who voted him down, or why. He thinks about how he hasn't told anyone about the vote, and about how everyone knows about it anyway. He thinks that there is no one to tell.
He thinks about the new tie he is wearing. It chokes. And with horror he feels his face begin to fall. He fights to keep his chin from trembling and frowns to keep his eyes from filling. He concentrates very hard on the back of the head of the man in front of him. It's a big head, with scanty white hair fringing it and pink skin on top. It has large ears starting out from its sides, like handles, and a liver spot on the crown shaped like an apple.
to be continued