The (in)exactitude of knowledge
The lecturer (1)
He sticks his head into the hall and asks ‘Is this Biology 101?’ before ambling into the lecturing space. The students (off screen) titter. Who is this crazy guy, they think? The man casually places his folder file on the desk, then launches into a story about a ‘male, 45, married, career as a criminal lawyer’ whose behaviour was bizarrely effected by a brain tumour.
After the anecdote, the Professor throws a series of questions to the audience: ‘Who believes in nurture?’, ‘Who believes in nature?’, ‘Who believes in God?’ The questions are flung, fast and furious, and we do not get to see who is raising their hands. We hear laughter again. This man is crazy, yes, but he is also good fun.
‘They’ are showing us this YouTube clip as an example of a certain lectureship style. ‘We’ are staff at a university, jumping through the hoops to gain a teaching certificate.
We debate the man’s style. Does he talk too fast? Is he too challenging? Does it look like the beginning of a Hollywood movie; Robin Williams at the front of the class shouting ‘Carpe diem’? What will the students learn from this encounter? Will they remember anything he said or just the fact he is slightly off-beat, not the usual sedentary lecturer? Will the man become the lesson?
I consider the possibility of walking into a tutorial and acting this way. The image does not come. I am not an older man, I do not have the … what is the word …? Well, if I cannot even find the word, how can I stand with such authority, with such knowing, and entertain the masses; a lecture hall full of undergraduates who can sniff out the slightest whiff of fakery.
Schopenhauer’s moments (1)
He strides into the Berlin lecture hall, leather briefcase in his hand. His suit is pristine, the white of his cravat and shirt immaculate, his shoes polished. He focuses on the lectern, a solid wooden pulpit on which to place his notes (although he does not really need them). His hands steady, his tongue moist, his skin dry. Knowledge is embedded in him. No distractions. No family. No wife with petty domestic problems. He breaths his epistemologies. He lives them.
He looks up, ready to begin.
The hall is empty.
The tutor (1)
My hands are shaking, my lips dry. In the student union I cradle a bottle of just purchased Mount Franklin water, trying to let the fridge coolness chill out my sweating palms. I haven’t bought a plastic bottle of water for years (like a good hipster, I use tap in BPA-free-enviro-bottles), but my daughter’s Prep teacher has asked us to bring some in, for them to be used to make butterfly feeders.
I’m feeding my own butterflies. I’m half an hour away from the first tutorial of semester and the familiar nausea sits at the bottom of my stomach. I look at my class plan again: the carefully dictated minutes, every segment of time accounted for, the movement from one exercise to the next. An orchestrated flow of activity.
A flashback to last year’s class. I had asked the students to bring in one of their favourite short stories. A young male student brought in a short, short story by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Exactitude of Science’, though he did not have the author’s name on the piece. As I began to write up the other well-known authors’ names on the whiteboard – Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro – I suddenly knew I had no idea how to spell Borges first names. My heart began to pound and I could feel the blush of red rising across the top of my cheek-bones, the horribly obvious, clichéd signs I have always had when nervous or under stress.
The young male smirked as I stumbled with the spelling (horror of horrors, did I really write “Gorge”?) He had lost respect for me ever since I’d declared writing about ‘flashing eyes’ was bad writing. He’d countered that Dostoevsky had done it ‘all the time’ and my inability to conjure up the author of Labyrinths added to my spiralling inability to prove I had anything worthwhile to say to him, or to teach to him.
I sit wondering: had he done it deliberately? A test to see if I knew what he believed I should know? A little trap to show up my ignorance of what he believed were the litmus test papers of literary comprehension? Or is this my paranoia gone haywire?
The imagined student (1)
You sit in the plastic chair with your back slightly turned to her. You should move, shuffle around, but you can’t be bothered. She is talking about point-of-view and you think it’s kinda ironic to be showing her your shoulder while she pontificates about first, second and third person. That girl who seems to have a crush on you is sitting opposite and she gives you a small smile, like we’re in this together. She doesn’t wear shoes and you find the thought of her filthy black feet being anywhere near you quite disgusting. Still, the story she wrote about going to see an Indian guru wasn’t as bad as some of the other stuff your class has brought in. You can’t understand why She isn’t more brutal. You don’t understand how these so-called writers can be reading Jodi Picoult. You listen in for a moment.
The second person is probably the hardest point of view to employ, because it often has the effect of alienating the reader. To be constantly told “you” are doing something can be irritating. Although it does have the advantage of drawing attention to the difference between the character’s interpretation and its reception.
You don’t remember any of the Russians – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin – using second person and they were certainly never self-indulgent enough to use first person. All this ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I’ everywhere. Your novel will definitely be in third person … when you get around to starting it.
The tutor (2)
A permanent staff member tells me she gets diarrhoea before every first class, even after eight years of teaching. A fellow sessional tells me he stuffed up his own “ice-breaker” (the now standard device used in first classes where each student has to introduce themselves to the rest of the cohort). I recall my own first ever class where I got the room wrong, sprinted across campus, arrived ten minutes late, panting, and couldn’t get the technology to work.
A fictionalised Janet Frame in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table stands at the front of the classroom, with a piece of chalk in her hand. She turns it over in her fingers, examining its contours. She is unable to commence and the school children begin to fidget. The awkward sounds of bafflement. Why isn’t she starting? When will she turn and become our teacher? And in the next scene she is running onto grass, having fled the classroom sobbing, her bright red hair bobbing up and down in her escape.
Every semester, I have visions of doing such a thing.
A copywriter tells me to ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ and I think of the ability to re-write, to re-draft, to re-imagine. The safe, comfortable space behind a computer, tapping out your knowledge, googling the gaps. In the classroom, there is no rewind button and to admit to an internet search is as good as declaring yourself stupid.
Schopenhauer’s moments (2)
He looks again. He knows he is on time. He knows his audience should already be gathered. Yes, there are other attractions in Berlin. Some will be lured away by the famous ‘know-nothing’ but, surely, not all?
Ah, here is a discerning philosophy student now, slinking in like a thieving cat. And another. And, yes, another. They have a slightly fugitive look to them, as if worried they are being watched, recorded or reported. A small part of him wishes this were true, that his work would have made enough of an impact to draw the attention of the authorities. He cannot fool himself, though. None of the three, no four, no five young men sitting scattered around this gaping hall, under a roof disappearing above them like the dome of St Paul’s, will have read any of his words, let alone anyone higher up, anyone of importance.
He clears his throat.
The imagined student (2)
You can’t think of a thing to say. The boy you thought was cute – in an intellectual/pretentious way – has just read out a very short story and you have no idea what it was about. Your head is pounding slightly, you’ve got that low-level headache you always get when you know you’re supposed to be doing something and you can’t quite figure out what it is. Everyone else in your group has said something. At least, you think so. Maybe the short, pudgy girl with glasses hasn’t spoken either? Or maybe she did and you missed it, so focused on your own inadequacies?
You stare down at the words on the page again and wish you could re-read it quietly to yourself. As the boy was reading it out, you could hear the other groups reading their stories – lines of metaphor and simile all cross-tangled with one another – and this one lost all sense. You know it’s not a piece that will ever make perfect sense anyway. Not to you. It is only one paragraph and requires background knowledge you don’t have. He might have explained it already, but you’ve missed that as well. You continue to sit in your silence, gazing at the black marks on white paper. They were once such comfort. A world to retreat into when nothing else could offer solace. Now, you feel them becoming yet another space of confusion. The boy drones on about this Argentinian writer and you feel awash in his contempt, another face in a sea of confusion. He stands safe on land, so self-assured. You have the wild desire to reach out and grab him, as if merely touching him will infuse you with his knowing. You sit still, willing the time to pass more quickly.
The tutor/mother (1)
I finished my PhD in 2009. The next year, I had my first child and, two years later, another. Five years away from the academy had seeped me in epistemologies of a different kind. From postcolonial theory and narratology, I had moved into the American confusion of royalty and re-mapped my own mortgage-driven territory: I could sing you the theme tune of Disney’s Sophia the First (try telling my daughter it makes no sense for a princess to be named “the first”) and could locate every park within ten kilometres of my home. I could read Hairy McClairy from Donaldson’s Dairy with my eyes closed (and I often did) and was a member of the local, not the university, library, for the first time in my life. I knew the familial relationships of a group of animated pigs whose antics were so mundane it was comforting. So much I had not known, so much I didn’t need or want to know.
In the initial baby stage, I remember still being able to read, to find time to keep connected with the literature I believed scaffolded my life. But your children’s presence seeps into you both brashly, with the screaming cries and the temper tantrums, and quietly, from conversations at breakfast to stories at bedtime, until you find your head no longer full of questions about narrative structure or the right voice for your latest piece of fiction, but how to answer the urgent plea of ‘what should I do to make friends at school, mum?’ or ‘where are my fluffy bunny ears?’ or ‘why do caterpillars eat leaves’? I became an expert in knowledges I couldn’t have imagined: in pop psychology (‘ask them if they want to play with you, with a smile’); practical life-skills (‘look under the couch’) and the natural sciences (‘because they have the right kind of stomach for it’).
Coming back to the academy after this break – as a teacher now, not a student – was stepping back into a once-familiar world with different, aged eyes. Maybe Freud would have called it an encounter with the uncanny; it was as if I had returned to my birthplace but where everything seemed strange and slightly threatening. How could I ever have the same urgency about writing I once did? The passion and belief that literature was the be-all and end-all of existence? How could the words ‘phenomenological hermeneutics’ or ‘dialogical paradigms’ ever seem important again?
This is not to fetishize parenthood, to claim my world-view has inextricably changed since procreating or to place the birthing of children above intellectual pursuits. I simply know I will never be the same person who was able to completely and utterly dedicate myself to the writing process, that I will never have the same exclusive focus on my art. And to look at the persona I might have been able to project before the foregrounding of my domestic situation, to compare this different creature who must now stand in front of sixteen undergraduates, purporting to be a professional writer with wisdom and knowledge to impart.
The imagined student (3)
You cannot bring yourself to smile. She is grinning too much. It makes her face look weird, scrunched up and a bit out of kilter. You think about how you might put that line in your journal and your fingers twitch to get it out of your bag. But that’d make too much noise and the last thing you want is to draw attention to yourself. You sat at one of the back tables because she might be one of those ones who gets everyone to introduce themselves one-by-one and you certainly don’t want to be the first to have to do it. In your other classes, this wasn’t such a big deal. All you had to do was talk about what school you came from and what major you were doing. Here, it might get personal. You don’t want to chat about the scribblings of your mind, even though you’re also desperate to share them, to get some sense that what you’ve been doing is not a complete waste of time.
She’s giving her biography and makes a joke about her books – ‘not exactly best-sellers’ – and there are polite chuckles around you. You still can’t bring yourself to smile although you like the fact she’s being self-depreciating. Her grin has settled down to a simple curve of the mouth. She has a bottle of Mount Franklin water in her hand and she keeps screwing the cap on and off. Every few sentences she takes a sip, though her mouth still looks dry. You wonder if she knows that Coke owns Mount Franklin and if she’s aware of the mountains of landfill these corporations create. You suddenly wonder if she knows anything, if everything she is saying is not complete rubbish. For the whole of the two hours of class, you do not smile.
The eye-patient (1)
In the last three years, I have visited an optometrist three times and an ophthalmologist twice. In the course of a simple eye check-up, they had found a bump on the macular of my left eye and it has been the subject of scrutiny ever since. No visible changes in my eyesight, yet the tiny future threat of macular degeneration.
At both trips to the ophthalmologist, they placed drops in my eye to fix the pupil – all the better to see you with – so I was unable to focus my eye for two hours or so.
In the first instance, I went to a café with a friend and she had to read me the menu. In the second, I went home and listened to music. During the time it took for my vision to return to being able to discern fine detail, I hungered for clear, crisp words. I wanted the clarity of written language, the voices tethered to the page ten, twenty, a hundred years ago, to speak to me again. To no longer be alone inside my head.
In those moments, I realised how words on a page still hold me to life, how my love for them hasn’t disappeared since having children, only that the form of my love had evolved from one state to another (yes, it’s too cheesy to bring in a reference to caterpillars and butterflies here but you can detect it, humming underneath).
Schopenhauer’s moments (3)
He clears his throat and feels the five young men become still. Not as if they were fidgeting before, only they have assumed their listening positions, empty vessels ready to be poured into. What does it matter if the quantity is not large? Haven’t revolutions been started by just a handful? He straightens his immaculate notes (not that he needs them) and begins.
When at times I felt unhappy, this was by virtue of a misunderstanding, of a flaw in my person.
But this, he thinks, is not how his lecture begins. And yet, here he is, speaking the words.
I then took myself to be other than I was and then lamented that other person’s misery and distress, e.g. for a Privatdozent who does not become a professor and has no one to hear his lectures; or for the one of whom the philistines speak ill and the gossips spread stories; or for the defendant in an assault case; or for the lover who will not be heard by the girl with whom he is infatuated; or for the patient who is kept at home by illness; or to be other similar people who are affected by like miseries. I have not been any of these. All of this is strange cloth from which at most the coat had been made that I wore for a while and that I then discarded in exchange for another.
But then who am I? 
He looks up and sees the five men are not young, as he thought. They are actually old and wear familiar faces: Locke, Kante, Fichte, Schelling and, of course, Hegel. None of them are smiling. He is tempted to ask Hegel what he is doing here – doesn’t he have his own lecture to be giving? – but the tenacity of his youth seems to have evaporated in this stifling atmosphere, under the heavy weight of so many competing philosophers/ies.
But then who am I?
He repeats the question and the faces remain blank. For a moment, he considers the possibility that he is no one and that his work has fallen into obscurity, his ideas have been lost or, worse, derided and dismissed. For a moment, he is not calm, he is no longer confident of his contribution, of his solutions. If there is a hell, this is his.
The child (1)
At twelve years old I decided I wanted to be a Guide Dog trainer. I walked around the house with my eyes closed, feeling the textures of the walls, the edge of the couch, bumping my toes into the ridges of the stairs. I tried desperately not to cheat, not to let a small slither of light creep into my pretend-blind eyes. Inevitably, I would encounter something I didn’t recognise by touch or smell or taste – something cold or slimy – and I would have to break the illusion.
My mother didn’t put the kybosh on my aspirations, even if she might have secretly wondered if it was a long-term sustainable career. She failed to point out to me my less-than-enthusiastic relationship to animals or my famous tendency toward impatience. She let me stumble, realising gradually I didn’t have the temperament for a job requiring repetition and tolerance of less-than-cogent (furry) beings.
I needed difference. The precariousness of imagination and perception. The who-knows-what-will-happen-next of artistic interface. The breath-taking ridiculousness of creating something from nothing, every day, and pretending you know what you are doing and how it is done.
The eye-patient (2)
Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea:
The imagined tutorial (1)
I walk in with the mantle of expertise on my shoulders.
You are trying not to smile at the t-shirt she’s wearing. It reads ‘Young, Wild & Free’ inside a circle topped with Indian arrowheads. It should read ‘Old, Tame & Tethered’ and shouldn’t be using Native American symbols.
You are hanging out for her to say it’s time for a break, rolled and ready. You hate it when she forgets. Like she’s never had an addiction. Like she’s some kind of learning freak.
I walk in, trying to guess how many of them will have done the readings, how many of them will have embraced this week’s writing extracts, how many of them will actually speak?
You can’t believe she’s got your name wrong, again. This time, you don’t even bother to correct her. What does it matter? When she realises her mistake, she’ll blush and you can stay something witty and scathing like identity is fluid and show her, yet again, how much cleverer you are than her.
I walk in, thinking about how the lines on the Excel sheet I use for the roll have started to look wavy again and whether I should book yet another expensive ophthalmology appointment where they will tell me to ‘keep an eye on it’ without any sense of irony.
You hope she’s going to talk about the readings this week because you’ve just finished them on the tram-ride and they’re amazingly fresh in your mind. You hope she’s going to ask a question you can answer so you can make up for last week’s stultifying silence, so you can share these ideas swimming in your head. You hope you can finally let yourself smile.
Schopenhauer’s moments (4)
But then who am I?
I am that man, and what could disturb him in the few years in which he has still to draw breath?
He blinks and pulls at the knot in his cravat. The old men have dissolved, faded into nothingness, and, in their place, the young men sit once again, eager and interested in what he has to say.
He presses his lips together and speaks.
The tutor (3)
When Arthur Schopenhauer strode into that Berlin lecture hall in 1820 was he as sure as I have imagined him? Did he not have any misgivings about scheduling his lecture at the same time as Hegel? Was he so confirmed in his knowledge, that there were no nerves, no flutterings and no worries (mate)? Did the shadow of doubt lingering in his secret diary ever come to the surface? Was the confidence of these great thinkers ever so shaky? Will there come a time when I will be assured and without doubt? When I will strut into the tutorial room with the swagger of that Professor of Biology?
Or will I continue to ask: who am I and what do I know?
I am half-way through the semester now and know, with certainty, I will never stand on the table and cry ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ in a booming Walt Whitman voice. But nor will I sprint out of the classroom and fall in despair, weeping, onto my hands into the wet grass. I will play the middle ground.
I know I will endeavour to impart tiny droplets of wisdom, sucked from the well of my experience, as tutor, as mother, as eye-patient, as child and as writer. I know I will make no reference to Dostoevsky or any of the Russians. I know I will guide, but not train. I know I will say ‘I don’t know’ when I don’t know. I know I will watch my student’s faces and try to perceive them less negatively, focusing on the moments when they are generous and respectful and willing to listen.
I walk in.
 David E Cartwright, Schopenhauer: A Biography, 2010, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. return to text
Dr Rachel Hennessy’s second novel The Heaven I Swallowed was completed as part of her PhD at the University of Adelaide. It was Runner up in The Australian/Vogel Award and longlisted for the Nita B Kibble Award. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.
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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence