Tuesday, December 18, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 45 - Debating & Writing IV
I go into these stories again and again, which is necessary if you are suspicious of pat endings. I have written about that summer in Paris with my parents, my mother’s mother and their favorite, my twin brother Peter, just before our last year at a boarding school in New Hampshire where it had seemed so certain to me that I had come into my own. I go back into old places and write about growing up as the bad twin – unable to read until near the end of second grade whereas the good twin was reading when he was four, and when we started at that boarding school, Georgian buildings in the lake country of New Hampshire, it was just like those English novels I had started to read about the horror of boarding schools, the sadistic athletes, the conspiring masters. I have written about how my life at Holderness had for the first year and a half been like in one of those novels. They ridiculed me and the boys beat me. I knew those English school novels because I had time on my hands in compulsory evening study hall, which was only for the dullest boys. There I was reading – pretending to study but going in secret into Browning and Keats and Shakespeare. I was reading but I was failing all my courses, except English, and they seemed to hate me - not just the boys but also the Latin master who was as sadistic as the boys, the algebra teacher who was really the football coach, the basketball coach who taught history and had us read a text book I could already see was too simple and wrong in its patriotism. And then suddenly my world changed.
This was when I was taken under the wing of the English teacher who was also the debating coach.This was when I began winning all my debates, and simultaneously I started to do well in all my subjects – except Latin which I refused to tolerate. I did so well that I soon had the highest grades in the school, higher than my brother’s. And before the 4th form was over – 4th form being the equivalent in Anglophile boarding school language to the American sophomore year, before that year was out I was on the varsity debate team and I stayed there for three years and led it into bigger places than the little school has every known as I won and won again in each of three years the New England debating championship, and practically no one dared make fun of me anymore.
As I keep writing about it now I tell of how I also found a girlfriend who made me the envy of even the dull athletes. And I write of how in that summer abroad, back with the family again,it seemed I had gone nowhere, my good-boy twin was at the center still and again. My grandmother said my debate triumphs were all very well but maybe it would have been different if Peter had put the same effort into it and then he, not Fred, would be the best debater in New England. And how strange, they said, that Fred has the pretty girlfriend.
I keep going back in my writing into that time in Paris. My world did get bigger then, but being with the family so much closed down. I would wander on my own. It was a stimulating walk through the Place de la Concorde from our hotel on Rue St. Honoré to the Jeu de Pam, which was where the Impressionists were. The Impressionists, whom I had never heard of before that summer abroad. I had never thought much about art beyond Saturday Evening Post covers and the Varga girls in Esquire. It was my mother who first took me to see the Impressionists – which she knew from long ago when she spent her junior year from Smith abroad. But otherwise these painters were outside any context I knew. There was nothing like this on the walls at school or at home. Neither my mother nor any of my elders had before this ever even talked about art.
Sometimes I would go off to a theater I discovered on the Rue de Capuchins where, though only 16 and looking younger, I could see actual naked girls proudly dancing. My main destination, however, did not change. I would go again and again to the Jeu de Paum.
Writing about it years later I am right there looking at Renoir’s girl on a swing who seems to be a girl for me whom I have encountered on a path. I am right there again, and I still see every wall of the museum and still have in my head the precise location of each painting – the exact location still the same for me, though they moved them all to the Gar St. Lazare in the eighties. I am still standing before Monet’s rows of hay stacks and rows of poplars in shifting light and his various aspects of Chartres and the Houses of Parliament – and I am in the South Seas with Gaugin as far from New Hampshire as you can get, but no farther than where van Gogh takes me to places right herein France. And then Manet, that wonderful girl on on her back on the bed, I still know just where she is. And I know that in the far end of the next room, if I look up and to the left, there will be those picnicking artists again with their stately nude model. My eyes are open.
Writing about that summer, I then come to my last year, 6th form yeard, at school when I again won the big debating championships, and had the top grades, but did it by bluff now, my reputation such that if the judges saw I has unprepared they would not trust what they saw and would vote for my side anyway. And the masters who graded my slick papers for classes, other than English, could not get the conception I had stopped doing the reading .
I write about this time in Paris and my last year in school to understand what had happened because of that summer when it was as if I was back trapped in the place where I had begun. In that last year I even walked way from my girlfriend, it was that bleak and confusing
But as I keep going into the story the emphasis shifts, for I keep bringing the paintings back. As I write, it is not just being thrown into a suffocating place with the parents and grandmother and the good boy brother, thrown back into my old sad place in the world. As I write I spend more time each time with the paintings. As I write, it is as if what really happened had to do with the limits of debating – the ability to look at everything only from the standpoint of logic, to only honor the purely linear, being willing and able to argue with equal cogency and vigor any side of any subject with almost no reference to anything I hold dear. As I write, going back into the story for the hundredth time, it is the taste of art – more than the limits of family – that in Paris brings this phase of my life to an end.