A BRIEF TREATISE
By Matthew Goulish
I have for some time believed that difficult texts are best read in the morning. I do not mean that this matter is one of personal preference, but rather that objective qualities, maybe even obscure laws of circadian rhythm, dictate how levels of meaning reveal themselves in the hours of the sun's ascent. I seem to remember notions from Judaism making such claims, and maybe my own Catholic upbringing, early morning masses with scripture reading and Latin recitation, formulated mental habits linking morning and writing. My most formative undergraduate class, a religion/philosophy course on Alfred North Whitehead, met at 8 AM. Walking out of that classroom at a time when many students were only then rising from sleep in the dormitories, left me with an intoxicating feeling of complex thought woven together in the dawn, and the distinct sensation that whatever remained of the day of value would unwind from that first happy hour.
Some years later, when The School of the Art Institute of Chicago invited me to teach my first seminar on a topic of my choice, at a time of my choice, I chose the earliest possible hour, 9 AM. I proposed the topic of failure, which fascinated me at the time and continues to fascinate me, largely because of the dictum: if you cannot think of the answer to a question, imagine its opposite; or, restated in the art school vernacular, if you do not have a clear idea of success, define failure. The course would not examine failed art projects as much as the necessary role of micro-failures and adjustments of intention within the confines of any creative practice. Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass broke by accident in shipping, yet he recognized that those spidery fractures perfectly resonated with his lifelong concern for the line in its most extremely delicate form, and proclaimed the piece finished. Without the "failure" of the breakage, his piece would have lacked its most distinctive aspect. Then in 1999 Tim Hawkinson replicated a broken window, in fact a sculpture of two sheets of plexiglass with metallic tape threaded between them, meticulously tracing the mathematics and specificity of radial cracking. It seemed the case studies multiplied endlessly in a course on failure - but early into the semester a problem arose. I had forgotten the following episode, reminded of it by the recent writing of a student in that class, Alberto Aguilar, now a professional artist and art teacher at Harold Washington College in Chicago, who allowed me to read his article on formative educational experiences, containing the following paragraph.
In 1996 I had a seminar entitled Aesthetics of Failure. Because the class started early in the morning and some students were tired from staying up late the night before, a number of them were tardy or missing class altogether. One day the instructor addressed this issue by telling us it was crucial we attend class. He said that he'd rather us wake up, come to class and sleep there. The only condition was that we share our dreams before leaving class. From that day forward the problem ceased and strangely enough no one ever slept.
My memory does not precisely match Alberto's. I do remember the desire to give every student credit for the class, since they were all doing good work in it, and I felt they had enough adversity in their lives without me playing the sort of disciplinarian contrary to my nature. But if they missed three classes the faculty handbook forced me to fail them. The handbook however said nothing about sleeping in class. So if they were to attend class and sleep, they would technically not be absent, presence defined as physical rather than mental, the latter being difficult to quantify. Therefore any reprimand for sleeping in class was left to the instructor's discretion, while attendance penalties were not.
Furthermore, I had in mind that teaching obligated me to facilitate a safe environment, or one in which students felt that they could say anything at all without risk of humiliation or reprisal, that no idea was forbidden, no question stupid, any disagreement or challenge would remain civil, and all ideas could be engaged respectfully. I remained fully aware of one of the potential side effects of succeeding at creating such an environment, understood because of my adolescent obsession with the Marx Brothers.
I remember reading some description of how Harpo Marx would fall asleep whenever he felt things were going well. When assembling to read a screenplay for a new film, for example, the other brothers could assess its quality by monitoring their barometer of the writing's quality: Harpo's attention. If he sat wide awake at the end of the reading, the script clearly worried him, and they would immediately cancel the project. For this strategy to pay dividends, however, the brothers felt it needed to be kept secret from the writers. Thus the writer S. J. Perelman had to sweat through a couple of hours of abject horror at the first reading of his script for Monkey Business, since Harpo had set a personal record and fallen asleep by page five. The other brothers thus knew in advance that this would be one of their greatest hits, which in fact it turned out to be.
More than once I have recalled this anecdote while teaching, partly because if students fall asleep, I tell myself, I must have succeeded in creating a safe classroom environment, because who could fall asleep under threat? But also because, teaching at an art school, I often feel myself in the role of Groucho, standing back and setting the stage with delicate solicitude so that all present will properly appreciate the otherworldly ease with which a Harpo-like student is about to do something. I sometimes experience a certain reverence for an intricate narrative explaining unfinished homework. One time a student told me that he in fact had his paper but could not give it to me, because fidelity to its subject matter (technology and the body), had compelled him, before committing his thoughts to words, to tattoo some representation of them onto his body. He then rolled up his right sleeve and displayed the deep blue image of a floppy disc on the skin of his forearm. There, he proclaimed, is my paper. At such a moment I felt the urge to frame his exemplary performance by turning to the other students who had missed the deadline and announcing: that's how it's done - watch and learn.
In any event, there must be some accuracy to Alberto's version of the story. I suppose he could not have understood the extent to which my brief treatise on sleeping in class was motivated by the terror that a young teacher feels in facing one of his first classes, and the temptation, born of desperation, to say or do nearly anything to get the students to pay attention, and to establish a constructive situation when things are not going well - low attendance and late arrival being the problem of the moment. Why the speech "worked" if in fact it did, as he said it did, I cannot say. Maybe the students were simply traumatized at the possibility of sharing a dream with the class. I must have added that directive of oneiric narration to salvage some semblance of use value from the prospect of a classroom full of sleeping students. But it was and is true that you can't learn to your capacity when sleep deprived, as sleeplessness inhibits the proper functions of memory.
If one must choose between listening to a lecture and catching up on sleep, choose sleep. I remember that Alberto signed up for another seminar the following year, and this time brought his friend Jorge Lucero along. After graduating Jorge also became a teacher, in the Chicago Public Schools, and is now pursuing post-graduate studies in education. For many years he sponsored public school workshops in which Goat Island participated as visiting artists and co-teachers with him. We accomplished some truly remarkable student projects though those years, sometimes at a local arts space called Link's Hall, situated so near the elevated train that when one rolled by, the sound drowned out whatever was going on in the room. Recently, Goat Island presented its last public performance, held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I wrote Jorge about the event. He responded with an email describing a dream coincident with that last performance.
I hope the end has come well. On Saturday I took a nap at about midday and I had a dream about Goat Island. We were all in the Links Hall space doing a workshop. That great train interrupted, sunlight was coming through the windows, and my daughter, who is now only 2, was one of the workshoppers - except she looked like Liz Born, one of my past students. It was a nice dream. I should add, and I'm not quite sure why, but that night I dreamt about Barack Obama. He was in our house helping with the dishes while I made small chat with him about who I knew in Chicago. He mentioned some people ... Adam something ... who I didn't know. It was a nice dream.
Something of Jorge's dream captures a force of the moment, both personal and public, of endings giving way to beginnings, births, and even biblical creations, embedded in the humble tentative fabric of our lives, our classrooms and kitchens. The extraordinary can only arise out of the ordinary, after all, and maybe that is some of the work of the dream, to reveal to us the convergence of the two. I will not speculate further than that, but only pause to recall William Butler Yeats' famous epigraph, In dreams begin responsibilities. These four words haunt with their Bergsonian notion of duration, their idea that today's sleep becomes tomorrow's wakefulness, and that one may consider these two opposites, these differences, as one event elongated across the slow metamorphosis of a life. Now I wonder this: what if the dreams in question are not cherished aspirations, but the actual images and sensations that flash through the mind asleep? If I were to attempt to elevate this discourse, or abstract it, to some level other than the anecdotal, I might propose something to do with the answer that keeps the question alive, a resistance of closure, and a classroom kept in its place within the broader dominion of the day.
The reasoning implicit in the scheduling of my 8 AM Whitehead class asserted the conditionality of the difficult, as if to say no thought can exempt itself from the demands of the body. The processes of sleep, thankfully, distance the lessons of the classroom while simultaneously bringing them closer. Yet I hesitate at the prospect of conclusion, at the affirmation of experience into practice or law. That was never my intent in granting permission to sleep in class. I did not institute "nap time," after all. I only rather sought to make a certain investment in the future by way of consideration of the present, or, as a Zen master once said: When I am hungry, I eat. When I am tired, I sleep.