Sunday, December 21, 2008
Combobulated: Being a Play in Which We Laugh at Arrogant Undergraduates
(In a small classrroom, a young professor is discussing an R.P. Blackmur essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets with a group of twelve or so students.)
TEACHER: Blackmur claims “the hues attract, draw, steal men’s eyes, but penetrate, discombobolate, amaze the souls or psyches of women.” What does he mean by that?
TEACHER: Break his sentence down. What does “discombobulate” mean?
STUDENT #1: Bored?
TEACHER: So Shakespeare’s language penetrates the souls of women by boring them? (two engineering majors giggle) How do you amaze someone by boring them?
STUDENT #2: (confidently) It’s a technical term from Switzerland. Watchmakers call the tiny gears inside a watch “bobulates” (beaming) and what a watchmaker does is he brings the bobulates together, and “com” is the Latin for “together.” So the proper technical term for this watch here (points to his wrist), or any working watch, is to say it’s “combobulated.” But over the life of a watch, it gets knocked around, and the gears get unaligned, and when that happens the watch becomes “discombobulated.”
TEACHER: Not “disbobulated”?
STUDENT #2: That’s what I said, but he told me--
TEACHER: He who?
STUDENT #2: My rabbi.
TEACHER: I see.
STUDENT #2: He said the Swiss wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t keep the Latin in there, because “bobulate” sounds silly enough without the Latin prefix.
TEACHER: Isn’t “dis” a Latin prefix?
STUDENT #2: I didn’t know that then.
TEACHER: So what do you think Blackmur meant?
STUDENT #2: ...?
I still don’t know what Blackmur meant--nor why my rabbi conspired with The Future to punk me--but as the MLA approaches, I’m increasingly convinced that the first time I ever spoke up in class foreshadowed some ominous end to my academic career.* So while I’m not exactly sure what end this start augurs, I take comfort in the fact that Dickens didn’t know what he’d foreshadowed for Pip when he wrote the first installment of Great Expectations.** (Or he wouldn’t have written two endings.)
*The other lesson? Never trust the Jews.
**Not that scholars have written much about this. The only exception I can think of is about Buffy--but that might be because I only dipped my toe in Dickensian waters. (Work on Wharton’s serialized novels focuses on how she altered the plot or how she mimicked James, so even though I should’ve encountered something about it researching my Wharton chapter, I didn’t.)
This is funny but your lack of familiarity with Dickens is even funnier! Still, even if you had spent roughly half your life working on him people still might think you know nothing (see the curent ‘debate’ on ‘The Chimes’ between Rohan and yours truly) ...
Anyway, to get you started (Ho, Ho, Ho!) the old guy didn’t write two endings to GE because he ‘didn’t know what he’d foreshadowed for Pip’ he changed his original because his ‘friends’ and publisher told him that he’d sell more copies with the pseudo-happy ending and being a savvy guy, he did it - maybe he foresaw (as opposed to shadowed) his own ‘credit crunch’?
Have a look at Peter Ackroyd on this, he’s the best in my ‘umble (yeh, that’s another story).
I took one class on Dickens, loved it, but in it I was specifically warned off the Ackroyd. (I did my “major author” requirement on him, and had to read the Forster for that. As you might expect, it didn’t give me much insight into literary technique.)
I do, however, know the friend in the revision question was the infamous Edward Bulwer-Lytton, so I’m tempted to think, well, I’m not sure what. Yes, Dickens was driven by the almighty ... pound (so much for my alliteration), but he was, shall we say, obstinate at times with regard to how his work would be received by the public. (The whole internal conflict between appealing to the audience he had vs. creating the audience he desired, &c.)
All that said, I’m an Americanist, so my lack of familiarity with Dickens isn’t merely to be acknowledged, it’s to be celebrated. (We have our own literature, don’t you know? Just don’t mind all those stories about piers and Little Nell...)
Just goes to show we should never listen to professors, huh? Trust me (I’m a Dr.?) Ackroyd is brilliant - Forster may have known Dickens in fact but Ackroyd makes you feel that YOU know him better in ‘faction.’
Don’t dismiss CD entirely unless you have read a lot of it ‘I humbly beseech’ - sure, there’s padding but skip those bits (I do) and look instead at the superb subliminal and forget Little Nell (!) she’s a product of sexual repression, in the main.
I like (and teach) American Literature, too, though, especially, poetry.
p.s. Hope you weren’t warned off Jon Bate on Shakespeare, too? Not only is he great he’s a former (exalted) colleague!
Was the student really that arrogant?
Just seconding Peter Ackroyd . . . on just about any topic. His Shakespeare bio has just the right balance of historicizing detail and wild supposition. His novels—especially the sublimely creepy *Hawksmoor*—are wonderful entertainments for smart people. In that, Ackroyd is one of our few writers close to Dickens. And the London work is a masterpiece. (I have to get my hands on his follow-up book on the Thames, even if it threatens to retread the London material.)
Your Rabbi was on the right road: bubulatus, the perfect passive of to screech like an owl. Discombobulate: to have negated the accumulated owl-like screeching. That makes perfect sense in context, I feel.
Sue G-J: I wonder why you put debate in inverted commas, in your first comment there?
As it happens, there are three alternate endings to Great Expectations.
Used inverted commas as the word was employed slightly euphemistically!
Glad you agree on Ackroyed - have you read him on Thomas More and the wondeful ‘Last Testament of Oscar Wilde? Both great gifts if you hint hard enough!
Euphemistically, OK. Let’s see if I understand. Here’s Wiktionary’s definition: “An informal and spirited but generally civil discussion of opposing views.”
To revisit the Chimes thread: Rohan set it up; various people responded (I think) thoughtfully and interestingly, although--myself apart--the consensus was that The Chimes wasn’t as effective a text as Christmas Carol.
You posted, saying you “feared the worst” when you saw that Rohan had orchestrated a discussion of the Chimes, because her Adam Bede event was a failure ("so badly received"); that she wasn’t genuine in setting up this discussion ("even Rohan doesn’t seem exactly committed to this") and that nobody in the discussion understood Dickens. You asserted that Dickens despised America, and quoted a chunk of Forster. Rohan replied to thank you for the Forster quotation, to disagree with you (respectfully, I’d say) over the question of whether people on the thread understood Dickens, and to respond to your comments (’"yah, boo, sucks”, to the lot of you!’) by wishing you a Merry Christmas. It seems to me that, negotiating a very evident difference of views, Rohan has been eminently and in the circumstances really very creditably civil.
In what sense, then, a euphemism?
Apologies to Scott for hijacking his thread.
You’re right, Adam, I take your point, it’s just my silly sense of humour! But I didn’t think the event was a failure, nor the Adam Bede, just kind of ‘negative’. Anyway, as you say we’re highjacking Scott’s thread so scroll over my name and contact me personally if you want to discuss this further but I am sorry if I have offended anyone - really!
Was the student really that arrogant?
Yes, I was.
That makes perfect sense in context, I feel.
That it does, Adam. That it does.
S G-J: Thanks for the apology. Speaking personally, I often find myself misjudging my tone in these sorts of discussions: it can be hard to get right, particularly when one is trying to be funny.
Thanks, Adam, glad you understand - Sue