March 18, 2003
Scott Pound: The Making of Americans

18.03.03, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey
 
There's a lot of talk here, as there is everywhere, about what Americans are made of. How much manifest stupidity and malice can there be in a nation's will to violence? I keep telling my students to be as exacting in their denunciations of the actions of the Bush administration as they are in their affections for American films and music.

As a Canadian teaching American culture and literature in Turkey, I feel strangely caught in the middle. My students see me as quasi-American and as an ersatz spokesperson for American values. What could be more ridiculous than that? And yet, here I am, teaching American culture to students who, most of them anyway, love and hate America in almost equal measure. That I can understand.
 
All of the missile launchers have left the Mediterranean and have passed through the Suez canal bound for the Red Sea where they can send their weapons without having to violate Turkish airspace. No doubt the dozens of cargo ships loaded with jeeps and tanks and artillery will turn tail soon, if they haven't already.
 
Euan, who was born three months before we came here, is learning to walk. We are mobbed by incredibly affectionate well-wishers whenever we step out in public. His blue eyes.
 
My former student Levent wrote to me recently to say that he wouldn't be able to drop by for a long time. He was passed over by the military. Instead he will join a Turkish company and work as a guide and translator for American soldiers in Diyabikir, near the Iraq border. As all Turks do, he asked me to kiss the baby for him and give his best wishes to my wife.
 
All this recent protracted talk about the Americans hit a high pitch around the time that the Turkish parlaiment voted down the government's resolution to allow the US to use Turkish air bases in the eastern part of the country. It also coincided with the section of my American Poetry class on counter-cultural modernism (a designation I use to characterize works that turn from literature and attempt to interpellate techniques and strategies from other media and other art practices (cubism, oral performance, documentary, etc.). I thought the subject and the times called for something different so I read from The Making of Americans for 45 minutes. I have been reading The Making of Americans to Euan since before he was born. I was also thinking, when I came up with this crazy idea, of Stein's descriptions of American soldiers in France during the wars she lived through.
 
I began to read, moving the text closer and closer to my face in order to bear down on the syntax and maintain the rhythm. I wanted my students to HEAR Stein. I thought that if they just sat there and listened they would break through their resistence to it. I have been moved to the brink of tears by reading The Making of Americans. If my students could get the rhythm they might slide into a groove and go with that. That that mightnot happen hadn't occurred to me.
 
At first I felt stupid and manipulative for doing this, but I hadn't prepared anything else so I had to go on. Eventually, I worked myself into a mythic kind of dry-mouthed trance, swaying back and forth, sucking the words off the page and setting them down in the ether in front of me. They seemed to hang there a moment before vanishing. I had tunneled into the text and there was no need to look up. Something like the "perpetual present," which I had always thought of as bollocks, "came athwart me", as Wordsworth says. There was no there there.
 
When I stopped, the stupid feeling returned to me. Some of my students were clearly also in a trance, others sat with their arms crossed, others, I realized, had spent the time text-messaging their friends. The students who felt like talking said it sucked, that they hated all that repetition, it irritated them.
 
I felt like my experiment was a failure. I walked home mildly scolding myself for winging it yet again. The next day I received this response from one of my students:

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The Making of Americans: In class, repetition of words was criticized. Respecting these ideas, I declare that I am against such a view. Mind and deliverance, in other words mantra is a word which is repeated over and over. Instead of fooling or mocking, it brings full concentration against disruption, so in a way it eases identification. I think The Making of Americans comes with many mantras. My views are based on hearing. Within a short time of period, while listening to it I am evoked by the sound and the repeated words help me to initiate. I am sure if there were no paper sounds and laughs, I could easily meditate. While reading it, I received deliverance, because the flow of the language activated Asmita. If you ask me what I got from the novel(?), I cannot give you a summary, but if you ask me what I got from it, I can say that my mind was set free from material inclinations.

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"Onward!" as Creeley says.

Posted by Brian Stefans at March 18, 2003 10:48 AM
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