Friday 5 July 2013

On Influential Teachers

I'm not sure why this happened this morning, but probably it was due to listening to something on cbc radio. The topic is my favourite teachers in my life. There are three, two of whom suffered me during school and the  third being in university.

The first is Peter Cowie, who taught Literarture. He lived it, not just taught it. When he introduced a new poem, he delivered it. The poem that I remember most was called "David", by Earl Birney, and it concerned two mountain climbers; David fell off a cliff and his friend scaled down to where David lay, back broken, and David said "Over", and his friend understood what he meant, and pushed him over. David did not want to live as a wheelchair-person, and asked his friend to end it. Peter Cowie read that poem to us and I wept. I still remember his green corduroy sports jacket with its leather patches, and him standing there in the front of our classroom, not so much reading that poem but living it.

A couple of years later I took another course from him, and he did the same thing with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I have memorized that poem, and several others by T.S. Eliot. Peter Cowie gave life to these poems. He would stand at the front of the room and speak the words like an actor, not merely reading the words but breathing life into them. He turned them from poems into songs from the soul.

The second most influential teacher was Mr. Christie. I never did learn his first name. He taught math, with genius. At one point when he was telling us about the congruency proof, I raised my hand in objection and said, Wait a minute, a point is a location in space, and therefore cannot be moved; you can't move triangle ABC and lay it atop DEF. He chuckled, and we got on exceptionally well from then on, and he taught me some pretty advanced stuff for a grade-ten student. For example, he showed me the Galois proof that it is impossible to trisect an angle using only a compass and a straight edge. Actually, to tell the whole story, he challenged me first to solve it, and I slaved every night for several hours, for a month, and then went to Mr. Christie's office, pouting, and said, "Mr. Christie, I can't do it/" And he said, "It's ok, Arthur, nobody else can either."

Those are my recollections of my two favourite teachers. There was a third, Philip Wright, from whom I took two courses in Philosophy, and a specialist in Greek philosophy. From him I learned about Heraclitus, Parmenides, Socrates and Plato, the Atomists, the Cynics and so much more. I will never forget his classes. At one point, in Philosophy 301 or whatever its number was, we were challenged to present a paper to our fellows. Mine was on math+art, and my central argument was "The Nude Descending a Staircase", by Marcel duChamp, which when initially exhibited at the 1914 exhibition in New York, was described by one NYT journalist as "an explosion in a shingle factory". Fine. You're entitled to your opionion. I saw an equivilance to Minkowski's math theories of the time, about the universe being an involuted four-dimensional hypersphere -- or to simplify this for the casual reader, imagine that your life is a single strand of spagetti in a bowl of similaar strands -- beginning and end are alfready disctated, and your only job is to travel this strand.

That's what I got from Marcel duChamp and the great mathematician Minkowski.
Subsequent to his teaching, I encountered a book by W.F. Stone, "The Trial of Socrates", that changed my life, and I wish that Phil were still alive so I could present some of Stone's arguments to him. Sadly, I missed that chance, but on the other hand, Phil got me addicted to philosophy and linguistics, and even at age 65 I still read this stuff. I'm a big fan of Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker, to name just two.

I can't let it go at that. I a huge fan of Neal Stephenson. He steered Speculative Fiction into entirely new realms. Snowcrash was awesome, but then a couple of years later came CryptoniiconThe Primer and then the gigantic trilogy called The Baroque Cycle. This is writing on the scale of Thomas Pynchon, as evinced by V. and Gravity's Rainbow. These books are Art, not just some forgettable fling on the subway. These books are Art. It's difficult if not impossible to select a favourite, but if push comes to shove, I think that I would go with Cryptonicon or The System of the World -- not that I dislike Neal's other books, it's just that one captured my soul, perhaps because of the Turing connection. The point is, Neal Stephenson has written some of the finest literarure that I have ever read. The man is a rock-solid genius

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