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· Literacy, Halloween Style ·

Boo! I thought to sustain a ghostly theme today since, ironically enough, I have recently used the word haunted here. For I've a spirited passage to share with a bit of added comment.

Stemming from my cleaning a desk Saturday to make room for a new computer, it's ordered less by space than by time — and for serious consideration of college-level literacy. Here is my tale.

In papers horizontally filed and archeologically found, I chanced to spot an old letter I'd sent a few years ago to my local newspaper. The paper had done a piece on a forty-year-old who had started reading through the dedicated help of our college staff. You can imagine what personal courage it took to tell his story. My thank-you letter appeared as

Literacy begs all pause

"Literacy," according to R. P. Blackmur, "is the form ignorance takes in a society subjected to universal education."

Although disagreeable, even arguable, Blackmur's definition has, like your front-page story last week, an arresting appeal. Literacy begs all pause. We readers are in your debt for the reminder of what it is we do and are. My thanks.

Lest we forget our ignorance, however, we might pause at literacy's definition. Blackmur helps. Ignorance is, universally and ironically, he suggests, an "ignoring" of real education, the education of selves in the sense of their "leading out."

I submit that functional illiterates led out of school to our current boundary line of failure only reveal our definition of success. Our failure now to produce folks who fill out forms or read signs is just that, our failure. We only miss what we call a target.

Clearly, we miss much. My hope is that in years to come when we air education's dirty laundry, we'll find souls merely confessing that poetry or the ways of persuasion passed them by. Though still taking courage, the confession would, for us all, not be embarrassing to read.

It so happens I've some youngsters at my door begging Halloween treats. Understandably, I'd like to tell them how Martin Luther, four-hundred-eighty-eight years ago tonight, changed the world by showing that the real trick — always requiring "missing what we call a target" — demands more "leading out."

As I recall, Luther posted reasons why on his church door and created a Reformation by his effort — one with true Literacy, Halloween Style as its start.

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· An Ironic Turning Place ·

I drove up to Redmond last week to attend a Microsoft event. A book discussion, it came near to the day, ironically enough, that Wayne Booth, author of The Rhetoric of Fiction and A Rhetoric of Irony, passed away — the Chicago critic whose work lays solid claim to grasping ironically "unreliable narrators."

Our Wednesday discussion dealt with one such, David Wilson, the curator of The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. The book we discussed, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology (1995), examines the MJT and puts me in mind of the odd serendipity of my topical connection there: the strange, perhaps ironic fact that Wilson's museum occupies an old L. A. barber shop I haunted as a kid in the 1940s.

But it is the larger topic — almost as Booth discusses it — of irony itself that matters here; for in Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler extends Booth's fine take on irony by noting a Rilke quote drawn from the Letters to a Young Poet — one happily fit in his text to the thought that "The first layers are just a filter"*:

Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it [Rilke writes], especially not in uncreative moments. In creative moments try to make use of it as one more means of grasping life. Cleanly used, it too is clean, and one need not be ashamed of it; and if you feel you are getting too familiar with it, if you fear this growing intimacy with it, then turn to great and serious objects, before which it becomes small and helpless. See the depth of things: thither irony never descends — and when you come thus close to the edge of greatness, test out at the same time whether this ironic attitude springs from a necessity of your nature. For under the influence of serious things it will fall from you (if it is something fortuitous), or else it will (if it really innately belongs to you) strengthen into a stern instrument and take its place in the series of tools with which you will have to shape your art. As quoted in Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, New York: Pantheon, 1995, 113-114.

Though I can't begin to mark the richness of Wilson's place — much less that of Weschler's fine book — I can at least mark a modest effort, made some twenty years ago now, to examine another American artist, Henry James, in his short story "The Real Thing." It too dwells in the ironic slip between reality and appearance, and I thought to include it.

I've some added notes, but it's offered here as drafted — not under the influence of Wayne Booth but that of Paul de Man — as an early, academic effort toward deconstructive anti-deconstructive theory. Should that sound like a bunch of "unreliable narration," I'll let you, of course, be the judge.

As Figaro (a.k.a. Jay Heinrich) just reminded me from my latest post, Figurative Rhetoric: A Ringing Endorsement, the name of my short essay is It Figures. Enjoy.

*In context, Wilson has told Weschler (on p. 62) "I don't understand the difference [between aesthetically and ethically just men]" :

"You know, certain aspects of this museum you can peel away very easily, but the reality behind, once you peel away those relatively easy layers, is more amazing still than anything those initial layers purport to be. The first layers are just a filter . . . "

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· Figurative Rhetoric: A Ringing Endorsement ·

Though I've nothing to say for myself today, do trust me. For I've a ringing endorsement. Perhaps as old as the 3R's — if you count Repetition, Redundancy, and Reverberation, too — it's for rhetoric, Rhetoric, RHETORIC (or, in this instance, commoratio: "dwelling on the point"), and that with style.

What I've in mind here is a fine new weblog, called Figures of Speech, It Figures, by Jay Heinrichs. Here's Jay's entry for October 4:

· See Harriet Judge. Judge, Harriet, Judge ·

 · Harriet Says Her 3R's · Quote: "I've known Harriet for more than a decade. I know her heart. I know her character." President Bush, introducing Supreme Court nominee Harriet Ellan Miers.

Figure of Speech: anaphora (ann AH for ah), the first-word repeater.

The president loves the anaphora, which repeats the first word of successive clauses or sentences. It's the most plain-spoken of figures. It sounds right. It sounds true. It gives Bush fewer words to remember.

Snappy Answer: "But does Harriet know the Constitution?"

If you want other sharp figures of speech every day, do tune in, for Jay has the sense to teach us all rhetoric, Rhetoric, RHETORIC with, well . . .

recency, Relevancy, and RELIABILITY, too.

But I doubt Jay's a republican, Republican, REPUBLICAN.

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