Tuesday, August 20, 2013

two is all numbers greater than one

In one of those moments that have helped me understand who I am as a person and teacher, and helps me explain what I mean by irony, I met the uncle of one of my students at the student’s college graduation party. Ben and I had struck up a solid friendship when he was enrolled in my course on American Indian Literature and we continued to work together on various projects after the course ended. Ben often spoke to me about what his uncle was teaching him about being Anishinaabe and how he wanted to bring those teachings into his academic work as well as into his personal life. He had spoken of his uncle so warmly that I eagerly anticipated meeting him at the party. His uncle and I ended up standing together next to a table full of food. Ben introduced us and then headed off to mingle with his other guests.

His uncle was not a rabbit, but
might have been if you
wenebojo my meaning.
art by jim denomie
After an awkward few moments of silence, his uncle asked, “So you taught my nephew t’ be Ind’n?” He had that rez accent that elided unnecessary vowels and didn’t look at me when he spoke, just kept his eyes fixed on the table on the other side of the yard where his sister and nieces and nephews sat. He didn’t gaze off into the far horizon like Indians in the movies did; he looked instead at his family.

“Good lord, no!” I wanted to say, but he spoke with such a lack of emphasis that I felt I should as well. “No,” I said flatly and slightly defensively. “I teach American Indian literature.”

He looked at me, unconcerned with literature. “Did you teach him to see two things at once?” He held up two fingers as he said this, showing me the back of his hand and then flipped his hand around. Still the two fingers, but now the front of his hand. He’d multiplied the two by itself in this action I later realized.

That was an unexpected question. I stammered something vague and noncommital until it occurred to me that that is exactly what we did in the lit course. We looked at what happened in the story and we looked at what the story meant. We recognized that words might both describe the sky and also symbolize the internal states of characters, and we sought ways to see how that story in the book might help us think about situations in our personal lives as well as how they might help us think about situations we saw in the world around us. Realizing that seeing two things at once is exactly what we did, I said, “Yeah, I guess so.”

If I were some kind of New Age faker (fakir?), I’d lie and tell you that he shook my hand at that moment and said, “Then, my fellow human being, you taught my nephew well to be an authentic Native American and I give big thanks unto the Great Spirit that Nephew had the great good fortune to be your student.” He’d have taken out the sacred pipe then (he was sure to be a pipe carrier as all Indians in all New Age faker stories seem to be). “We shall smoke the sacramental tobacco, Friend, and extend the good blessings of that wisdom to all and send our thanks up to our Father the Sky.” Then he’d give me an Indian name, Newsmans Smirk of course, and after writing a bestselling self-help book, I would open a retreat for the worried well who’d flock to attend week-long seminars where I would draw veils over their eyes (as New Age fakers do) while relieving their bank accounts of thousands of dollars in spiritual development fees.

Newsmans Smirk (not his real name)
offers healing to people who have money
and reveal varying degrees of cleavage
What really happened after I agreed that I had taught Ben to see two things at once, I don’t recall. I’m sure I ate something and then later headed back home, but Ben’s uncle’s words stuck with me, as did that particular multiplying gesture he did with his hand. He could have gone on ad infinitum multiplying two by two just by flipping his hand back and forth. Thinking about that gesture I came to realize by my own private reckoning, of course, that two needed to be understood as all numbers greater than one. Two was multiplicity, two was multitude. Maybe Ben’s uncle intended me to arrive at this point but he sure didn’t offer me any direct instruction.

Irony is the same as two being all numbers greater than one. Irony is the ability to see through one thing to gain a sense of what else it is—of all the other things it might be. Irony does not allow the world to be opaque, impenetrable, singularly meaningful; it resists such fundamentalism. It treats everything as a window opening on to something else.

1 comment:

  1. I like think that after the lesson of the two fingers uncle said: "Try the hotdish" and walked away.