Left of Zero

Published in The Saint Ann’s Review, Fall 2012.

Heard a good idea lately? Ever, for that matter? I made the mistake of asking myself that question recently and ended up thinking of a Modern British Drama class in college taught by Peter Saccio, a skilled orator and Brooklyn native whose accent had emigrated to England after years reading Shakespeare. He pulled the strands of his lectures together in the last minute in dramatic fashion, and nineteen years later I can still recall one class in particular, sitting in the front row of a seminar room with about twenty other students, as sunlight streamed in from the college green.

I’d just returned from a term abroad studying in Berlin, catching performances at the Berliner Ensemble, and street demonstrations both for and against unification, since the Wall had come down two months beforehand and no one was quite sure how to proceed. I’d lived with a Mennonite minister and his family in a leafy neighborhood in the American sector, and if I didn’t always grasp the ideas behind the political debates in the Frankfurter Allgemeine that my host mother helped me read during breakfast, I did carry back a number of indelible images from that trip: the father, Horst, with his red beard and glasses, unwinding from a day in city government by catching Italian porn on TV with his sons, though the younger one, Jens-Martin, often got bored and lobbied for M*A*S*H instead. Or slipping through a crack in the Wall in a secluded part of the city with my host family one Sunday afternoon only to come upon a group of East German guards who greeted us like brothers and then tried to sell me their dog. I’d tried to sidestep my discomfort with the language by writing essays about the set design of the plays we saw or the pageantry of civic demonstrations, and was sure if I’d bought that guard dog as soon as his muzzle was off I’d say something like “bite me” instead of “heel boy” and life would be over. I eventually persuaded the guards I didn’t need a German shepherd to protect me in rural New Hampshire, and found myself back at Dartmouth the next term exhausted by trying to live in a foreign language for three months. It felt disorienting and isolating, like watching the world through Plexiglas, and having decided a German major wasn’t for me, I quickly had to find something else.

It was fortuitous, really, that I found myself in Professor Saccio’s English class that day. His lectern was too close and the room too small for the kind of oratory he was used to — the master would have to pull his punches — but the result was stunning nonetheless, and after he finished I heard students gasp behind me and break into applause. His observations were so gripping I sought him out afterward, became an English major, and asked him to be my adviser, and I’m embarrassed to admit now looking back, though I’ve spent half my life studying and writing plays, that I have no idea what the heck he was talking about that day. Harold Pinter? Carol Churchill? Substance, topic, punch line . . . gone. I can’t repeat a single idea from his lectures, and I’m starting to wonder if I remember what learning feels like more than what I’ve learned.

Think my memory’s defective? Maybe. But if you pulled me into an alley tomorrow, grabbed my collar and said, “Listen, Buddy!” — shoving me against a Dumpster with each syllable — “Lis-ten! You better sing Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and hum the lame guitar solo, or I’ll cut you to pieces,” I’d have a fair chance of escaping intact. What the song protests, and what I was doing raising a fist and singing angrily along in seventh grade, I have no idea. Somehow the song got me up on the couch, slamming my head up and down, wishing — for the duration of the video, at least — that I had frizzy hair like Dee Snider. I remember lots of things: the brown pleather of the couch, the way it stuck to the back of my legs, the afternoons my sister and I drank Coke and then sat upside down on it, our heads brushing the carpet, till the soda rushed back in our mouths and we tasted it again and thought, for some odd reason, that this was the coolest thing ever. But ideas? They recede as quickly as they come. Conveyed by a professor or rock star in makeup I might change my academic career or shake my head, convinced I’m not gonna take it, till the song ends and I find myself standing on a sofa wondering what “it” really is.

As a twelve year-old I had no idea what an idea was. If you’d tackled me on Mrs. Simpson’s lawn on the way to the bus stop, took my lunch money and then, in a cruel twist, demanded that I define the term before you let me go, I might have guessed it was a concept that helps make sense of experience. If that’s true, it’s probably why I never encountered an idea in the bedlam called my house, with two latch-key kids, a single working mom, and mounds of tater tots. And it’s probably why my town, in its wisdom, locked up its children for hours a day in a building called a junior high to learn the collected ideas of the previous generation.

But what were these ideas? Can you remember any? After thinking about this for years I can recall at least one idea I learned in a classroom that illuminated the world in a way a school’s ad campaign, if they had ad campaigns, would have you believe. It was the first day of junior high, when my math teacher first period, Mrs. Patrick, passed out an assessment test. One problem resulted in a negative number, and after chewing halfway through a pencil I scratched out an answer that stood for The Smallest Thing I Could Think Of. It looked something like this:


I still remember the perfume and clang of her bracelet as she reached over my shoulder with a red pencil and corrected me. She then drew a number line on the board and spent the rest of class introducing us to what was to the left of zero. I was flabbergasted — who knew there was stuff out there that didn’t exist in a known way? — and the feeling only got worse when I noticed my classmate Libby across the room, head propped on her hand, bored as always. Her dad was a math professor at Yale. Not only did she know about negative numbers, she could already slap them around in ways I couldn’t imagine. It dawned on me that we’d known each other for years and she’d never said a word about this to me. I imagined, though I never ate at her house, that she and her parents probably alluded to them regularly at the dinner table while I was biking to the local Card-N-Candy to buy baseball cards or picking through a Swanson’s TV dinner.

What else didn’t I know? Was my head on backwards?

My first day of junior high got worse, rushing from math to my locker on the second floor and off again in less than four minutes, avoiding the eighth grade wombats in long underwear tops and plaid shirts who punched me in the arm to see if I’d wince, realizing if I did they’d find me again (then realizing they’d find me again anyway). Later my gym teacher Mr. Saurasi announced that every boy had to shower after class or he’d throw us in with our clothes on. A window in his office looked out onto the showers so he could stand there with a clipboard and class list if he wanted and make sure we were in full compliance. I’d like to think he never watched, though, because if he did he might’ve asked the older boys to go easy on the towel whipping. When I think about the day I learned about negative numbers I’m tempted to conclude, now that I’m a teacher, if I want to sear an idea into a student’s head I should traumatize the hell out of him. But the very chaos that made the concept memorable also made it seem useless at the time. In case you haven’t figured it out, let me provide some historical context: Orchard Hill Junior High wasn’t a fairyland governed by Ideas. I suppose I could’ve engaged Danny Grasso in enlightened conversation after he psyched himself up with his third set of military pushups — “Hey, Danny. Negative numbers. Kinda neat, right?” — and we could talk about how we can actually have something we can’t have. But Danny wasn’t interested in -7, or pi, or the finer points of Greco-Roman wrestling, which we were doing in gym that day. He was hell-bent on applying the pile driver like he’d seen on the WWF, and left an imprint of his sweatpants on my cornea.

One thing I did learn in a classroom is that education shouldn’t be limited to the classroom, and in junior high I started borrowing books to teach myself some of the ideas of the previous generation. Reading for me had always been a fraught activity. I tried to miss as much of life as possible by keeping my nose in a book while walking to the bus stop, in the hall between class, or during English, especially when we discussed O’Henry’s short stories.* I discovered Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces in our library one day and loved the feel-good idea that we could follow our bliss by repeating the journey of heroes from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker — even if it wasn’t bliss, exactly, that I was pursuing, but just getting to school with some of my respect and lunch money intact. Instead of surviving the Dragon’s Lair, I survived the School Dance, wondering how often I could check my hair in the fogged window of the entryway before the eighth grade hobgoblins snickered at my insecurity, or, in a Test of Endurance, how long I could lean against the gym wall for a song like “Come On Eileen” that I thought I could dance to without killing myself. Let’s be honest, none of this was as important as blowing up the Death Star, but in reading Campbell I started to glimpse something epic in the struggles of junior high. In discovering a new way to make sense of experience, the intensity of my exhilaration — like my embarrassment at learning negative numbers — caused Campbell’s book to stay in my memory. Before I nodded off to sleep at night, when I thought of his idea my misadventures that afternoon started to recede, as if having an idea could actually distance us from our experience. Thinking of myself as part of a heroic struggle didn’t minimize the trials of living in a broken neighborhood or give me a concrete way to protect myself, but it did grant me a veneer of dignity for a few moments — if only in my mind.

Six years later, still enthralled by Campbell’s ideas, I enrolled in Myth, Ritual & Religious Symbolism as a freshman in college, only to hear Professor Penner announce to anyone who hoped Campbell’s books would be assigned that the man was the worst kind of hack, finding similarities everywhere because that’s all he looked for. Penner was tall, maybe 6 foot 8, though his formidable presence was mitigated at times by a sly sense of humor. (He introduced himself as a “Rationalist who smoked.”) He had so much knowledge he’d written for the Encyclopedia Britannica — I’m not sure which article, maybe all of them — so when he pointed his finger and said “hack” he tended to make a believer out of you. I must have grown tired of heroes at that point, because my devastation at the reading list evaporated once we waded into Saussure’s Course In General Linguistics — the second time I felt captivated by an idea I learned in class.

Saussure’s ideas enthralled me in a way I didn’t think possible, and I remember trying to communicate this to Felix, who I’d met during high school when he chaperoned a study trip abroad to a small Bavarian town.* I’d first seen Felix at a backyard welcome party drinking scotch and playing cards with a cigar in his mouth, which seemed appropriately (or inappropriately) funny depending on what you know about Jesuits. After living in a closed community for years, he seemed most comfortable relating to people intellectually, so our friendship revolved around debates. I wasn’t much of a match but like to think it elevated my game a notch the way playing a better tennis player can do sometimes. Already wise, with advanced degrees in math and philosophy, Felix started a PhD in New Testament studies at Yale the year I started college and drove up one weekend to explore the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. As soon as he picked me up I blathered excitedly about what I understood Saussure to mean: that language was divided into units called signs that are made up of a “signifier” and what they “signify.” These units, in turn, refer back to other signs, so language resembles a closed system with no direct referent to the outside world. Felix rejected this utterly, and after debating whether objects-in-the-world like the plow next to us or the snow blanketing the trees could be defined by other words, or even, as I understood Saussure, defined by what those other words were not, the debate grew vehement enough that we pulled off the road in a place so beautiful Vermonters describe it as God’s country and started punching the dashboard with our fists, crying uga uga like Cro-Magnons to demonstrate whether there was in fact a relationship between our grunts and the fake leather in front of us. Felix insisted there must have been a connection somewhere — even if grunted by forebears in a cave — and I returned to campus with the odd sensation that enjoying an idea alone isn’t much fun, and that part of understanding is persuading someone else to understand the same way you do, which can be hard if you don’t write for the encyclopedia. In retrospect, I’m not surprised Felix didn’t share my enthusiasm. We didn’t share some basic assumptions about the world: I was a nihilist in training, he a New Testament scholar convinced, among other things, that there’s a direct connection between the Word and those of us stranded here — if only momentarily — on the other side of heaven.

One of the great things about college, though, is being exposed to groups with different beliefs and then realizing you can ignore them completely, and I soon fell in with a gang of literary theorists. Being disdainful of groups we never actually met, but I could spot them across a crowded room: the black clothing, that intellectual stance, the equivalent of a sneer when someone expressed an idea that said, in no uncertain terms, you’ve got to be kidding. I’d moved on from Saussure to deconstruction at that point and the idea that acts of communication are inevitably frustrated. I loved deconstruction. I don’t remember a particular moment in class that set my mind on fire, but kind of join myself here in medias res, trudging across campus already convinced I’d found the Best Idea Ever, especially when I couldn’t sleep and was hiking down to the boat house around 2 in the morning, drunk on the idea that no one understood me — no one had understood me, ever, in the history of the world. I now had the option of consoling myself with the thought that it wasn’t my fault. It’s not just thinking in German that’s like looking at the world through Plexiglas. It’s thinking in any language at all. This may have strayed from what the deconstructionists were writing, but the intricacies of their thought, which I could follow on the page, evaporated soon after I looked up. Ideas, it seems, become aphorisms over time.

I don’t know if deconstruction helped make sense of my experience, but it did help alienate me from my girlfriend. I realized this over a slice of Hawaiian pizza one evening when I tried unsuccessfully to communicate the idea that I couldn’t communicate an idea. Rachel was stubborn, a generalist in history who, in a quaint way, I thought, believed Things Actually Happen. To her, communication was something you mastered over years of Sunday dinners at your Polish grandmother’s house. If you wanted a second helping, or your cousin stole your seat, or Aunt Agnes blew smoke in your face, you got what you wanted by doing something anti-theoretical called Speaking The Hell Up. She thought deconstructionists read texts superficially only to verify their nagging suspicion that anything (buildings, meaning, your sister) will come apart if you pull hard enough, and suggested if I wanted to communicate clearly I might want to say something. I didn’t appreciate her critique at the time — after all, the great thing about having an idea is you no longer have to think about it — but looking back there are troubling inconsistencies. On one hand I wanted to wear black and insist that self and meaning were an illusion, but that illusory self still wanted to be able to order a pizza and Coke on Friday nights.* If you stuffed me in a gym locker tomorrow and interrogated me I still couldn’t tell you if deconstruction illuminated something useful about the world, or language, or reading. It certainly illuminated me.

As I wonder where my ideas come from or why they’re so hard to remember, I’m left with moments in no particular order: my ninth grade English teacher Mrs. Perrelli at the board, outlining the symbolism in Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire,” suggesting the radical concept that things can mean more than what they mean — just not in an interesting way. Or my social studies teacher Mrs. Jakabauski channeling her inner Mussolini, shaking her fist and insisting that fascism did not make the trains run on time in Italy. “Suggesting fascism can be more efficient than democracy is a dangerous idea!” she roared. Though she would be proud of her influence on me — since that day I’ve never once voted for a fascist — the idea she critiqued never seemed as dangerous as traversing the halls to her class. Most of the ideas that influenced me are fuzzier than that, and I’m left with the cadence of Professor Saccio’s voice in college — the timbre of his passion but not the insights it carried. As for the grab bag of ideas I remember, all I can do is guess that most were passed down by family members like tchotchkes from a hall cabinet, or by friends repeating what they heard, or absorbed somehow from the ether and adopted without examination.

*     *     *     *

This debate isn’t just an academic exercise for me . . . because it is an academic exercise for me. For the past seven years I’ve taught expository writing at New York University, a place like other institutions of higher learning that prides itself on developing, transmitting, and worshiping the very idea of ideas. I teach students the critical reading skills they need to assess the insights of previous generations and also — on a good day — how to develop their own. As I wait for the elevator in Bobst Library after class I try not to think of my misadventures in the world of ideas, but I do anyway, and if I’m not careful it might precipitate something of a crisis. I stare across the atrium at floors of glass-walled stacks and rows of students in their study carrels and — feeling a bit like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window — I wonder what the heck they’re doing. It feels blasphemous to question whether an idea is as memorable as Twisted Sister, or whether it’s even the most memorable part of the books they’re reading — a damning judgment if you consider the raison d’être of most academic writing is to communicate one.

I’ve made a slow retreat over the years, abandoning the assertion voiced by my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Bruce, that the main idea in an essay must be unique. After consulting a colleague I informed my students instead that their idea should be compelling enough that a reader “would consider acting upon it,” but since I can’t ever remember doing this I scrapped that too. I now tell them to come up with an idea a reader will “seriously consider” without telling them, frankly, that this isn’t going to happen. At most I consider their ideas long enough to scribble a comment in the margin and toss them on my desk. Along with the insights of my professors, junior high and high school teachers, I’ve forgotten the ideas of 1,500 student essays by now, and in case you think the writing of college freshmen is forgettable, or that I’ve simply read too many, I’ll confess I keep forgetting the ideas of the essays I teach. The process keeps speeding up: as a teacher I’m exposed to ideas all the time, and they’re easier to forget than ever, maybe because they no longer elicit a strong emotional reaction like the embarrassment and exhilaration I experienced in junior high. Now, the night before class, though I’ve annotated and underlined the essays of Mark Doty or whoever I’ve assigned to the point of breaking the paper, I pour over them just like my students. The few times I’ve assigned my own published work I’ve done the same thing, oddly enough, in order to retrace my thinking and discuss it intelligently the next day.

Maybe that’s because meaning develops from the way the text presses against us as we read. It’s a sum of its rhetorical strategies, of the way a writer manipulates us — even if that writer is our former self — so we must re-immerse ourselves in the push and pull of the text. We perform a writer’s words by reading them, creating a music more subtle and varied than anything Dee Snider composed, though less memorable in its intricacies. Unlike the universal rules about fascism and numbers I found in school, with such catchy refrains, I tell my students now to think of ideas as more modest things, provisional insights based on the evidence in front of them. They’re provisional in the sense that the evidence keeps changing but also because we forget, as if “coming to an understanding” means we’ve arrived at a way station we’re going to leave sometime soon. To be useful an idea must be memorable, but to be memorable it soon becomes too simple to be useful.

I don’t tell my students this last part, about how I forget ideas, or how crestfallen I am because they seem less powerful than I thought they were growing up, less a categorical statement than an insight derived from analyzing a few data points that contains — we hope — a few larger implications. Since most of my students haven’t yet discovered what ideas actually can accomplish, my main goal is to turn them on to thinking. Still, my doubts persist. Scientists continually exchange papers and refine their ideas about the world, but in the humanities . . . does anything like that happen? Though an essay, as a public letter, is written primarily for the writer but circulated for the benefit of others, I’m not sure I feel wiser having read thousands of them. Singly or in groups, their insights don’t accumulate over time. I still haven’t encountered an idea powerful enough to understand junior high.

If abstract language is too complex to stay fixed in our minds, images like Twisted Sister, unfortunately, are not. But then again, wondering why I can’t remember why I stood on a couch yelling to a music video, or why I became an English major, or what struggling to communicate in a foreign language feels like, at least, points me back to the larger misunderstandings I have with ideas. Designed to help make sense of our experience, an idea, oddly enough, can distance us from them instead, and forgetting them over and over has a cumulative effect, till looking back starts to feel like gazing at ourselves through Plexiglas. Documenting this on paper, for me, becomes a way of publicly remembering, and these images give me a way of talking about how we can actually have something we can’t have — an idea, what always seems to be lurking there, to the left of zero.

* I have the vague recollection of reading Dune at the bus stop one morning while being mugged for my lunch money, which suggests either that (1) Frank Herbert had written a really engrossing book, or (2) losing my money had become a daily, almost boring transaction.

* I didn’t come across any ideas studying im Gymnasium, though I was introduced to a revolutionary breakfast concept called Nutella am Toast, which I initially declined because it looked suspiciously like chocolate frosting and I didn’t think mother would approve.

* I thought I’d discovered a Paradox of Existence but was probably misapplying what I’d read, much like a humanities major dimly recalls the Heisenberg uncertainty principle years after learning it. Left with a vague notion that things are uncertain, he misapplies observations about the quantum realm to the realm of his living room, insisting that he can’t find his car keys by looking for them.