← Previous Post: | Next Post:


“The ideal essay question would, for the most responsive student, be a learning experience in itself, a kind of Joycean epiphany.”

During the reception after yesterday’s memorial event for David, UD‘s ‘thesdan playmate, a woman in her seventies or maybe eighties came up to UD and took her hand. “In your speech you talked about meeting David in a Latin class at Walter Johnson High School. I was a substitute teacher there in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, and I had David in one of my classes. It was awkward, because I already knew his mother, but I’d never met him. The last name told me it must be Rita’s son.”

“He must have been unpleasant to have as a student.”

“Yes. He was very smart, but condescending.”

“Yes.” UD recalled David’s imperious manner with their high school teachers.

“I once substituted for Virgina Baker’s Advanced Placement English class. Did you have her?”

“Did I ever! I remember that class very well… In my mind, Virginia Baker and Gertrude Stein are permanently merged, melded, enameled. They have become one and the same person.”

The woman laughed. “You’re right. Big intimidating demanding women …”

“I had a kind of a crush on her. I admired her rigorous no-nonsense thing. She’d seat herself at the front table, cross one leg over the other, lean back a bit, and not alter that position for the hour. She was a still point of burning intellect around which our mad young flames danced … I think she was the first really serious and learned, college-style teacher I’d ever had.”

“Both of my daughters had her. They used to speak with terror of having to write A Baker Paper.”

Baker was the polar opposite of today’s Frenetic Friend teacher, the Are You Being Served? mistress of ceremonies who scurries around classrooms asking comatose students staring at computer monitors if they need help with anything. Baker was a Buddha who sat immovable and inscrutable, a vast container of vast wisdom if we would only approach. Literature wasn’t valuable and fascinating because it made you feel things. Lots of things make you feel things. Literature’s primary value lay in its formal properties, about which even advanced students at a ‘thesdan school couldn’t be expected to know much.

I figured I wouldn’t find Virginia Baker on the internet, but I was wrong. Here’s a brief article she wrote in 1963 for The English Journal. It’s about the importance of making students aware of the variability of point of view in fiction – omniscient, limited omniscient, first person, etc. Although the piece is rather nuts and boltsy, I like her final sentence (I’ve made it this post’s title), in which she hopes that for some students she can create disciplines of writing which prompt Joycean epiphanies. I think she must have done this for me, though I don’t remember any particular epiphany. Maybe it’s more that she set going the gradual dazzlement Emily Dickinson describes as the way the truth works its way into us…


“Tell the truth,” said David’s mother to me as we talked, at the reception, about the speeches his friends had just given. “But tell it slant. That’s best. That’s what you and the other speakers did.”

She was quoting the Dickinson.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—


Or think of Burnt Norton:

human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

And in fact even Dickinson’s poem, which seems a series of confident assertions about the truth, is actually artfully oblique and uncertain in regard to what truth is and how to tell it and how dangerous it is, etc. Dickinson, writes Gary Lee Stonum, “manifests a positive dislike for achieved stability.”

The hermeneutic zigzag of truth and error, blindness and enlightenment, or affirmation and insinuation may itself be a little dazzling. Indeed, the razzle-dazzle may be the point, and the zigzag is certainly the method. Dickinson’s double writing differs itself, always actively and often flagrantly, from any singularity it has itself signified. This poem accordingly works by both repeating and displacing the exhortation made in the first line, without ever arriving at a point where the divergent possibilities are gathered up into some more comprehensive or coherent view.

The poem itself is our safe, slantways approach to the truth: “We have art,” wrote Nietzsche, “in order not to perish of the truth.”

Virginia Baker’s successor in the responsive heart of UD was Erich Heller, all of whose comp lit courses at Northwestern she took; his essay, The Importance of Nietzsche, cites this famous statement.

Heller also, in that essay, characterizes modern secular minds as “plagued by a metaphysical hunger which it [is] now [with the disappearance of God] impossible to feed.” As with so many of Kafka’s characters, or Beckett’s, we are that absurd thing, a metaphysical animal without metaphysics. “The main condition of absurdity,” writes Thomas Nagel in a 1971 essay, The Absurd, “is the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanent, limited enterprise like a human life.”


My friend David was, I think, a profound and wounded instance of this absurd condition. Plagued with a metaphysical hunger he could not feed, he spent his life in the hermeneutic zigzag. This was an honest and often rich place to be, no doubt; but there was no mistaking the sense of emptiness.

Margaret Soltan, October 23, 2011 2:39PM
Posted in: snapshots from home

Trackback URL for this post:

One Response to ““The ideal essay question would, for the most responsive student, be a learning experience in itself, a kind of Joycean epiphany.””

  1. University Diaries » It’s a wet, dreary morning, and people north of here… Says:

    […] she will take her laptop (I think; therefore, I blog.), as well as mucho broody thoughts about her late friend David and his late sister, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose writings on depression and Buddhism I find […]

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE