Not a Citizen of the World

On Friday night, I was working with a university student who was stumbling through Oedipus Rex and King Lear.  This student is highly intelligent and fluent in English; she’s the science-y type, which is why she called me in.  In order to get the marks she wants, her professor told her she would have to come up with some New and Interesting Viewpoints.

I love the students’ faces when they tell me these things.  If you gave them the Herculean Tasks, they would take it better.

So, here’s another rant for the English professor: she can’t have New and Interesting Viewpoints because she only understands what you teach her.  The student is from the Middle East, and you didn’t tell her that Edmund the Bastard would have no human rights in Renaissance England, just because his parents weren’t married.  If you’re gonna teach something, teach ALL of it (and this, should you insist on teaching 500 year old literature from another country, is going to take up more than one semester).

The student and I spent more than 45 minutes discussing culture.  She was missing a lot from both plays.  She’s very happy that this is the last English class she’ll ever have to take.

Right now, I’m listening to Iron and Wine (my latest fixation).  My kids tolerate the music, but they don’t get the lyrics.  I’m not surprised: there are a lot of references to Christianity, and parenting, and relationships.  Old-people stuff.  Teenagers aren’t likely to get a lot of that.  I get it.  Maybe that’s why I like it so much; I don’t have to think very hard to get to different levels of the song.  I actually understand what he’s talking about.

When I was 21 (and knew everything), I liked to describe myself as a Citizen of the World.  Can’t even remember where I picked up the phrase.  I suppose it was a nod towards my acceptance of the entire world.  No one culture seemed boring, or better than mine.  I got a lot of good things from that time period: my interest in Indian food, culture and clothing; my obsession with the Easter Rising; a fair knowledge of Canadian Literature in the ’60s and ’70s.  It was nice.  I still think there isn’t a culture around that doesn’t have a lot of Really Cool Aspects.

But my culture – modern Canadian/European heritage/Judeo-Christian-centric – is the most interesting to me.  I don’t remember when it stopped being one-dimensional, and became a kaleidoscopic, multi-leveled, timeless existence.  Perhaps that’s why I find English Literature so attractive: there’s always more than one story.  I can understand the big deal when Ophelia hands Laertes some rue, and feel Gloucester’s shame for Edmund.  I know to look to the Chorus for information, and to fear the name of Jupiter.

I keep thinking of this as I toss around the idea of leaving the Anglican Church.  I’m absolutely livid that we fall to our knees and grovel every time England says “boo”, and that we have forgotten the term “Protestant”.  Logically, I would go to the United Church (unless I want to revamp my religious views entirely), but that would necessitate a serious change in culture.  I grew up in the Anglican Church, and know so much about it that I don’t have to think anymore; I just react.  Learning – as I did this morning – that we have just hired an experienced female priest for our parish, I jumped for joy because I know the implications.  Being older, this woman must have taken on the entirety of the male ministry in order to get a job, and she must be wickedly stubborn to have stood up to them.  While she may not be God Incarnate, I know this priest at least has the personality to do what needs to be done in our parish.

I don’t know that there is such a thing as “a citizen of the world”.  Is there anyone who knows each and every culture sufficiently to understand the deeper meanings of every little thing?  Is there someone who can read Achebe and Shakespeare and Tagore and Sophocles, and truly understand them all?  When I think of such a person, I get all excited and want to sit at their feet and listen to them talk; it would be great if such a person really did exist, if the human brain and psyche were able to process it all.

The concept of Enlightenment seemed to completely intangible when I was university; it’s not so elusive, now, though I’m nowhere near Enlightenment.  Maybe an Enlightened Person is a Citizen of the World; when we get to the point where literature is interesting but unnecessary, then we will understand it all.

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