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Month: June, 2013

Quotation from Susan Sontag’s The Pornographic Imagination

In daily life, to be sure, we may acknowledge a moral obligation to inhibit such states of consciousness in ourselves. The obligation seems pragmatically sound, not only to maintain social order in the widest sense but to allow the individual to establish and maintain a humane contact with other persons (though that contact can be renounced, for shorter or longer periods). It’s well known that when people venture into the far reaches of consciousness, they do so at the peril of their sanity, that is, of their humanity. But the “human scale” or humanistic standard proper to ordinary life seems misplaced when applied to art. It oversimplifies. If within the last century art conceived as an autonomous activity has come to be invested with an unprecedented stature — the nearest thing to a sacramental human activity acknowledged by secular society — it is because one of the tasks art has assumed is making forays into and taking up positions on the frontiers of consciousness (often very dangerous to the artist as a person) and reporting back what’s there. Being a free-lance explorer of spiritual dangers, the artist gains a certain license to behave differently from other people; matching the singularity of his vocation, he may be decked out with a suitably eccentric life style, or he may not. His job is inventing trophies of his experiences — objects and gestures that fascinate and enthrall, not merely (as prescribed by older notions of the artist) edify or entertain. His principal means of fascinating is to advance one step further in the dialectic of outrage. He seeks to make his work repulsive, obscure, inaccessible; in short, to give what is, or seems to be, not wanted. But however fierce may be the outrages the artist penetrates upon his audience, his credentials and spiritual authority ultimately depend on the audience’s sense (whether something known or inferred) of the outrages he commits upon himself. The exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness.

Quotation from Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

-Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931

Upon My Father’s Retirement from Teaching

My Father is a teacher. And I have always been told that he is a good one. Like most young girls who idolise their fathers, I never doubted it (until I am quite grown up). But it is true that as early as I can remember, our house was occasionally thronged with big girls whom I was told were my Father’s (devoted) students. They sent him gifts that were hilarious – once he received an ash tray that if you pressed somewhere a voice would say ‘No Smoking’ (my Mother was enraged because Father apparently took the bad habit to school); there was also this Lu Xun ceramic figurine (it is a fact universally acknowledged that my Father resembles Lu Xun – the figurine even has a cigarette in his hand) with a makeshift twisted wire for his glasses. Even if I were the most cynical child in the world I would not be able to say that these spontaneous visits and ridiculous gifts were bribes.

His work at Good Hope School was equally enigmatic. He would dress up in a navy overall to help in the backstage during the school’s annual concerts, while we waited anxiously among the glamourous audience for him to emerge on the stage at the very end to receive a thank you gift, looking more like a mechanic than a teacher of English. According to my Mother, he even broke his head while playing ping pong with his students. As I grew older, I began to meet students from Good Hope School, and from them I learned many more wonderful things about my Father, including the claim that he drank coffee in class (what debauchery!).

Despite all that, I could not but be mesmerised, and among his library of impenetrable books smelling of old attic, his typewriter, heaps of test paper and answer sheets I began to dream my teacher dream, marking my picture books with a red ball pen enveloped in the odour of correction fluid. Though very soon I realised, despite testimonies of our likeness, that I possess no such gift as my Father’s. My experience with teachers (other than my Father) brought only dismay and disillusion of teaching. I believed that both teachers and students are better off left alone on their own devices instead of tormenting each other, and I still do. But I might be wrong. How can I not be, faced with so many praises of my Father as a teacher?

Perhaps this is a riddle I will never solve. From the day I had a Father he has always been a teacher, and I have never imagined a day when he will cease to be one. As inconceivable as it might be, his retirement from teaching is approaching, and I sincerely hope, that suddenly devoid of an audience, my Father will at least be consoled by the truth universally acknowledged, that a teacher in possession of a good reputation must always be remembered fondly.