(since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

I remember the fateful year I crossed the threshold into becoming the dread being known as the “English Major.”— scare quotes are needed because it is a scary thing for a resolute populist like me. My parents never went to college. Their education came from experience and the public library. Until recently, so did mine. Going back to college after twenty years was a gesture of defeat, or so I thought at the time. That’s okay— I felt pretty defeated by life in general.

There’s a time I recall sitting in my gateway course into the English department that summons deep feelings; it was a time filled with terror and love. I was coerced into taking a William Blake seminar at the same time as the intro class. I’d played with trying to read him for years with limited success and it was scary to step into a senior level class as a rookie. But I loved Blake, and chances were the course would not be repeated before I graduated. Dr. Yoder taught both classes, and he was only slightly older than me and of similarly checkered past. When he stepped out of the class for a week to trade with another instructor, I was forced to deal with a man who wore a suit instead of jeans. Dr. Ramsey always wore a suit even though it was a hundred degrees outside. He taught from the pulpit of high church literature. Ramsey began shoving The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church down our throats. He was relentless in exploring Browning’s obscure imagery and coaxing unsupported opinions which he proceeded to shred, not by offering his opinion, but by asking questions which caused students to conflict themselves with every word they added.

Robert Browning exemplified everything I hated about literature. There was little trace of an authorial presence, and because I based most of my judgments on an intuitive grasp of personalities, I was lost. There was an ostentatious manner in the words spoken by Browning’s despicable protagonists. If this was literature I didn’t want to get it. Dr. Ramsey reeked of intelligence and refinement, of dispassionate enquiry into the “text” — once again, the scare quotes are important to the concept. I was afraid to take a class with Dr. Ramsey until my senior year. I stared blankly at the class curtain hesitant to peek behind it.

Times change.

I found out how powerful a supported opinion could be. When I had my final class in critical theory from Dr. Ramsey, I’d been studying the Romantics for three years intensely. They are the proving ground for a great deal of post-structuralist theory, so consequently I walked through the door prepared. It was a seminar where each student took on several theorists and lead the class through them. I took Shelley and Walter Benjamin as I recall. I remember it was a tough choice, because Shelley would be a no-brainer for me, as would Benjamin given his influence on art criticism, but I really wanted to do Foucault. Paranoid about Dr. Ramsey, I decided to play to my strengths. The student who took Foucault on hated him, and railed about his “crappy prose” and lack of clear ideas. I blew up in class, because it was easy to see where Dr. Ramsey’s sympathies lay: he was a staunch fan of the new critical school, and viewed most post-structuralist theory except Bakhtin with disdain. The student was a favorite of Ramsey’s, and obviously chose not to argue with the teacher. By this time, I was not nearly as well-behaved. Dr. Ramsey asked to see me in his office afterward.

The staunch man in the suit apologized to me! He confessed that he thought I was more well read than he was in post-structuralist theory, and complimented me on my Benjamin presentation. I was flabbergasted, to say the least. He was actually quite worried that he had alienated me, and that the class wasn’t living up to my expectations. While my refusal to accept some of his favorites like Mathew Arnold still caused some friction, as did my populist attitude, I could see that I had gained his respect. He knew the truth about me. I came to his class to learn. And significantly, I learned the truth about him— he sincerely cared about what he was teaching. We still talk, and I’ve never thought of him as distant since that time. Like everyone, Dr. Ramsey has his strengths and weaknesses. Who knew? Teachers —even teachers who wear suits— are human beings.

At the same time, I succumbed to a course in Victorian literature. I had often thought of them as “the enemy” because in most ways they tried hard to repudiate romantic influence. Browning was easier to take by then. My teacher was conventional, but casual. He allowed me to do my paper on Carlyle, who I liked better than most of the other Victorians. Dr. Parins had one foot in the romantics, as a scholar, and explained that the radical departure of the Victorian poets had to do with the towering presence of the romantics. What a tough act to follow! Perhaps the easiest way for many of them was to assault the sin of pride.

I was reading My Last Duchess today. I was struck by the lines of the prideful Duke displaying her hidden portrait, who condescends to display her beauty to a mere mortal:

Will ‘t please you to sit and look at her? I said
“Frá Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there (5-12)

It seems to me that many authors lurk behind curtains of obscurity or difficulty, and for the causal observer are little more than smug wry smiles. But when you dig more deeply into them, you find the depth and passion lurking there.

Some people wear a curtain of pride— behind it they are just as insecure and aware of their limitations as anyone. It’s always reassuring to find a human inside. I suppose that’s why I read obsessively about that curtain of privacy, and the way that it closes our borders. But when the sins are exposed, as they are so clearly in Browning’s dramatic monologues, the problems become easier to address. We all control our own curtains, after all.

From my experience an informed opinion is best. You can only form a valued opinion if you have looked behind the curtain, and listened closely to the rhetoric of those who purport to show you something for your pleasure. Often, as in the case of the Duke, the pleasure is all theirs. But just as often, as in the case of Dr. Ramsey, the pleasure was mine in having known him. I understand his suited pride much better now.

1 thought on “Curtains”

  1. And I think the best weblogs are those where an informed writer draws back the curtain on his or her own portrait ~ and we get to see the human being.

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