Wednesday, March 17, 2021

A hall of mirrors

Narrative fiction has become an important site for exploring interiority and the complexities of self-reflection. The conscious separation of author from narrator always present in fiction opens possibilities that twentieth century writers have been keen to exploit. Think of the unbelievable narrator of 'The Good Soldier' or the pathological one that tells us all about 'Lolita'. Stefan Zweig is a master of this art of separation. In his short stories and novellas he taps into psychological revelations by creating a series of layers of narration. Sometimes in this hall of mirrors we wonder who is who. In 'Fantastic Night', for instance, the narrator opens a sealed packet that contains the story of a Baron who has just died. The Baron's tale is something of an epiphany, but the way in which it is told allows for a forensic exploration of the self. Initially, or so it seems, the Baron is as hesitant about his writing abilities as he is about himself - but, of course, this is all beautifully written by Zweig. Take this, for example, 'But once more I feel I must pause, for yet again, and with some alarm, I become aware of the double-edged ambiguity of a single word.' Who is it that is really experiencing this ambiguity we wonder? Is it our Narrator, the Baron, or the author himself? The reader is destabilised. And a couple of sentences later, this sense of separation is extended further 'I have just written "I" and said that I took a cab at noon on the 7th of June 1913. But the word itself is not really straightforward....'. Well, no, it certainly isn't - however you think about it! He goes on '...I am by no means still the "I" of that time, that 7th of June, although only four months have passed since that day, although I live in the apartment of that former "I" and write at his desk, with his pen, and with his own hand'. All this is elegantly crafted - but we can't help but think of Zweig himself, sitting at his desk in Vienna, or wherever he was in 1922, writing about pretending to be a man who has opened a package containing the story of someone who has experienced a dramatic shift in his sense of self. Our attention is drawn to what writing is and what writing can do, at that same time as asking us who we really are. In this sense I can see parallels with Foucault's extended commentary on Velazquez's 'Las Meninas'. Zweig's 'Fantastic Night' disrupts our certainties about the world as well as being an excellent storyteller.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Back to school

On Monday children in England returned to their classrooms for the first time since the 2021 lockdown was introduced. I knew that because I heard them clattering past my house on their way to school. There was an exuberant atmosphere, much swinging of bags, slamming of doors and rattling of railings. And there were voices, too. Some subdued, some loud and unruly - but it all reminded me of how these diverse energies are so often overlooked, reined in and brought to serve adult purposes. In this I find myself in sympathy with the work of some scholars and researchers who wish to dislodge reductive accounts of meaning making and even to challenge reductive ideas about what children, learning and school are and could be. Yes, on Monday there was an almost palpable sense of relief. Children were back in school, they were back together, and the event underlined my understanding of how children thrive in each others company as well as through the sensitive guidance of adults. Of course they may also have been some reluctance, let's not forget that there will have been children who were less enthralled by the prospect of school, children who were not excited, were worried, anxious, or just uncertain. But all told, the crucially important function of public education is that it provides spaces for children to be together - not only classrooms and other places designed for learning, but also outside, at the school gate, in playgrounds as well as in corridors and doorways. Such spaces tend to be less regulated, but they are the spaces in which the energy of childhood culture thrives, where children play and interact, often under the watchful eye of adults but not usually through their explicit direction. In this way schools - and primary schools in particular, have always offered so much more than the learning on offer. Unsurprisingly this is a large part of what children will have missed. Parents and children have been thrown back on their own resources these past months, often heroically supported by teachers who have worked under extremely difficult circumstances to provide learning opportunities remotely. All told, being back together feels like something worth celebrating. That said, I don't subscribe to the notion that children are now massively behind, or that they should necessarily be subjected to additional days and hours of study. Those arguments seem to come from the outdated view that children are like empty tanks to be topped up daily with fresh content, a view often held by those who mistake the arbitrary construction of age-related norms for objective truth. If anything, we need something more like the summer play schemes which used to be modestly funded by local government. The school premises were vacant, the curriculum was put to sleep and the normal rules of engagement could be re-negotiated. Volunteer teachers and parents worked informally together to organise games, creative activities and outings for children of all ages. Above all children could be children together in a loosely structured permissive context. What better as an economical and humane approach to healing the scars of lockdown?