Philosophy with Attitude

Jan A. Nielsen
English 501-05
4 February 1992


People Watching. Okay, I'll admit, it's a strange hobby, especially for someone my age -- we who are so often sterotyped either as having reckless abandon, or being abandoned recluses -- neither of which would typically pay much attention to the world at large. But People Watching is more than just a hobby; it's an addiction, and once you get started, it's hard to stop.

It's not as simple as some might think; it's more than just sitting and watching the world go by. What it requires is imagination, and a little patience, and a taste for the semi-unusual. You see, for an ordinary person, society is Out There, while he is Right Here; it is as separate from him as is his house from the bus he takes each morning. Anything society does is separate as well, unless it affects him in some way -- then he may take notice. But a businessman on his way to work -- perhaps running to get a taxi, perhaps nervously checking his watch as he walks ("I'm late -- I'm lateS"), perhaps waiting impatiently for his car to start -- is a common sight to all of us; one may give him a brief thought, a twist of pity, a flash of empathy -- but nothing more. He is a fixture in the modern world, a sight so often seen that we cease to grant meaning to it, and to him.

But to a People Watcher, he is a realm of possibilities all by himself. We ask ourselves what this man is like; does he have a family? Do they respect him? What does he do when he isn't working? What has he done to change other lives? Does he believe in God, and eternity? Where is he going, with his life and on that bus? What will he do when he gets there? What kind of music does he listen to? What was he like when he was young? What will he be like when he gets old? Has he ever been in love, really in love?

Of course, in all likelihood none of our questions will ever be answered; he is long gone by now, going to work... in a law firm, where he is a defense attorney, preparing for a case he knows he cannot win. And yet his daughter still respects him; his wife, a kindergarten teacher, thinks he works too hard, but wouldn't change him for the world. He is safely agnostic but does not admit that to everyone; he lives as he thinks is right, following his own golden rule. He is not without faults, of course; a couple of years ago he had a brief affair, and constantly fears that word will get out. He does not wish his wife to know; it would hurt her too much. He leaves her with a kiss every morning, brings her flowers on bad days, cooks dinner four nights out of seven. And in his scarce spare time he is trying to write a novel, using his cases at the firm as his material. It will be a best-seller after it is published, but he will not give up the practice. He does love his work...

But the true magic in People Watching lies less in the pictures we can draw of our human examples than in the reality that they experience. They have all of that potential within themselves; they could become -- could be -- a part of any of their dreams. All the possibilities already exist -- they only need to be found -- by the people, not by the Watchers; we are merely here to dream; to experience our own potential...

Soapy Memories. There have been thousands of essays written on the topic of the human memory, and the strange things that spark it -- but when a writer is satisfied with the status quo, she is finished, is she not? So now I will add my own, recent as it is... The other day I went to get, of all things, soap; my old bar was swiftly heading for Soap Heaven, whatever that may be. I noticed on the wrapper that it was made in Canada; that is nothing unusual for the ordinary person -- many things are made in Canada; why not soap as well? But I was born in Canada, and lived there for seven years as a child; there is still a little thrill when I find something else that came from there; this was no exception. Then I unwrapped it -- and I was five years old again, washing my hands under duress -- "But Mommy, look -- they're clean now!" -- but Mommy knew better. This soap smelled exactly like that which we used to buy in Canada; it smelled like my mother's hands as she sat on the side of my bed and smoothed my hair back, singing me to sleep. "Goodnight, sleep tight; don't let the bedbugs bite." And you know, they never did. Thank you, Mommy!

The Trouble with English. Sorry, but this must be said; it's been on my already-loaded mind since English 529H last semester. The trouble with English, the major and some of the classes, is the amount of shovelling required. I hadn't expected much of 529, only that I learn more of literary criticism, perhaps more of how to write and structure non-fiction -- but what I got was a lesson in B.S., if you'll pardon my language. Everything we wrote was to be an interpretation of the stories, poems, and plays that we read, but more than that, we were expected to take these works apart -- literary vivisection, if you ask me -- and then attempt to put the pieces back with our own opinions to hold them together. That, to me, was the worst of it; I've always thought that writers are capable of saying what they want to say in their own words; if they're good enough to get it published -- and presumably, good enough to be studied as literature -- then they are good enough to get their points across themselves, without having a bunch of college students try to reassemble them to their own tastes.

But after a semester in that class, I am worthy of the legendary Golden Shovel, as much as anyone else there -- and I am far from being proud of it. Indeed, it is something of a stain on my writing soul; I still believe that it is very wrong to interpret literature -- or anything else, for that matter -- on the basis of one's own beliefs rather than those of its creator. To say "I think" rather than "the author has shown" is not only detrimental to the author but to the critic as well; it is impossible to learn if one is not willing to listen, even if it means putting one's own opinions to the side for a while, and reading into it not what one wishes to be there, but what is there. Afterwards one may incorporate the author into oneself if it seems to be possible, if what s/he says is valid in one's mind. But this is very, very different from the case of re- interpreting the writings in question; there, any bias is false and fatal. And this is not to say that any interpretation is wrong, merely that which presumes on what the author has said, that which subverts the author's true meaning with opinion and theory. Free the author to speak for herself, and you free every meaning she gives.

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