Tag Archives: Poe

“Mental illness affects the mind.”

I will embark for the next few posts on the sentences that never had to be written.

There is something to be said for establishing common ground in an argument: beginning the process of presenting evidence and interpreting it as supportive of an opinion by first making a statement the reader can readily agree with. But this student’s statement takes that idea down to ground zero.

Mental illness affects the mind.

The funny thing about sentences like that is that they somehow feel important, resonant. But then the reader pauses, sensing something disconcerting. Did the writer mean to be that simplistic, or am I missing something?

Has the teacher unwittingly set a false example? Certainly many of us try to open discussions by asking questions with fairly obvious answers, planning to go from those easy responses to more sophisticated points. For example: What did Melville call his great whaling novel (that you, dear students, have been assigned to begin reading for today)? [How long will I have to wait for the answer? How many students will think to themselves, “Well, I know it’s Moby-Dick, but the answer can’t be that simple…”? Will I have to smile benevolently and encourage them: “Not a trick question, class”?] But of course this answer isn’t the point: the next question, assuming the first eventually gets answered, will lead off from it: for example, “How much of the book do we have to read before we find out who or what Moby-Dick is?” And then, “Why might Melville have wanted to keep the reader guessing?” Or “Did you have any ideas about who Moby-Dick might be?” Or “Did your prior knowledge about the book make this a non-question for you?” Or “If you had been living when Melville’s novel came out, you would already have heard of the real albino whale Mocha Dick, who had sunk a number of ships, most recently the Essex out of Nantucket; would you have associated that whale with this book because of its title, and would that have made you want to read this book perhaps?” If the class had gotten farther into the novel, the second question might instead have been “Could you suggest another title?” or  “Why not title the book ‘Ahab,’ since the reader’s (and narrator’s) attention is on the obsession, the psychology, of the captain?” Or “Do you think the white whale is the most interesting aspect of the book?” Etc. We all do this: lead the student from the obvious, to the intriguing, to the interesting hypothetical, to perhaps an insight or two or a productive association of multiple pieces of information. But the seemingly obvious and certainly basic first question in a class discussion is not meant to encourage students to commit obvious statements to paper in a written analysis.

Still, students do imitate and emulate; that’s one way of learning. Alas for us, we never know WHAT the students will choose to imitate, and whether they’ll understand what they’re doing.

Now, if the student had begun with “Although the manifestations of mental illness may be physical, behavioral, or verbal, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is an illness of the mind,” I would have happily expected an essay that prioritized types of studies of mental illness, or made recommendations concerning services for the mentally ill, or looked at various treatments of mental illnesses that targeted either symptoms or sources. Or “mental illness affects the mind, but earlier cultures assumed it was a matter of demons, not disease.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, but usually it affects many more aspects of the individual as well.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why we fear it so deeply.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, the very seat of identity.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why the madman in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ thinks he is not mad.”

My student did none of the above, although he was writing about Poe’s story. After the bald beginning, he continued to enlighten along the lines of that’s-why-the-madman’s-thinking-is-so-twisted and we-can-see-from-what-he-says-that-his-mind-is-affected. In other words, yes, the simple statement could have been a door into an interesting and perhaps complex line of discussion.

Or not.

Be that as it may, he has given us a fact. Shouldn’t that be enough?

“Poe had his readers’ sweaty hearts racing with his famous words, ‘Nevermore.'”

I’m not sure whether my student is trying to convey genuine enthusiasm or imitating that hearty voice that used to be the voice-over for the opening of The Lone Ranger. Either way, she is doing her best to ramp up the passion of the sentence. Those racing hearts, those famous words, the sonorousness of the final word as the emotion drops to despair….

Actually Edgar Allen Poe sometimes does have my heart racing. All the exclamation marks and dashes as the narrator insists on his sanity to the accelerating heartbeat under the sentences in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The blind groping in the perilous darkness as the scythe-blade  swings closer and the walls push inexorably toward the fetid abyss in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” My startled realization that the “you” in “The Cask of Amontillado” is not a narrative convention, but an actual inclusion of me as a character, the aging murderer’s confessor, in the story.

Certainly the speaker’s heart has its racing moments, too, in Poe’s poetic triumph of rhythm, sound, and sensibility, “The Raven.” I’m not sure the reader’s heart follows suit, though: the refrain “Nevermore” is a long hollow fall rather than a shrilly climbing scream.

Nevertheless, a racing heart is what my student wants to point out. I hope her heart did race. And that must have been quite a race, too, to leave the heart all sweaty. Or perhaps the heart is always sweaty: the sentence is unclear as to that.

Did I miss something back there in Anatomy class?

The image is really almost too much. The reader of this sentence must, I think, take a moment to quell the rising laughter that accompanies the vision of a sweaty heart.

And the quelling is only momentary. Why in the sweet world did she put that “s” on “word”? Yes, the worD is famous. Poe’s own essay “The Philosophy of Composition” traces the intellectual process by which he crafted this poem, and puts special emphasis on his reasons for choosing the worD “Nevermore.” I’m glad my student responded to it. But she herself typed the worD correctly: “Nevermore.” Had she mistaken the line and transcribed it as ending “Never more,” she would have been talking about more than one word. She makes no such error, though.

Perhaps her sweaty heart dripped onto her typing fingers and caused them to slip onto the “s” unbeknownst to her.

Language is conceptual and often pictorial. Many of my students are blind to the pictures. A heart completing its first 10K race, flushed with pride and heat, dripping with sweat, its little undershirt soaked…didn’t she see the picture she evoked in her sentence?

Probably not. A student who actually capitalizes on the pictorial quality of language is a rare bird indeed nowadays, rarer than a talking raven sitting on a bust of Pallas.

For instance, on quite a fundamental level: If you read a lot of writing by younger people, you will wonder where the phrase “based on” has disappeared to. My students say, and write, “based around” and “based off of.” I bring in a little statue and a block of wood, identify the wood as a “base” for the statue, and then put the statue next to the block. They know that’s wrong. Presumably they know that a runner who is “off of” the base in a game of baseball is vulnerable to being tagged out, and they have not seen many base-runners run rings around the bases rather than actually step on them either. Yet even after my little object lesson (yes, I tried it this year, in frustration), my students continued to “base” interpretations, conclusions, and plans “off of” or “around” observations and data. This supposedly visually-oriented generation has no mind’s eye.

And I’m afraid they’re not going to develop one.

“Villain!” cried I, “thoughtless student, can you not be wise and prudent,

Standing things upon their bases as they stood in days of yore?”

Quoth the student, “Nevermore.”

(In a word.)

Ah, well. After all, she seems to have liked the poem. It seems to have stirred enthusiasm in her. So I have to say this: Bless her sweaty heart.