Monday, December 4, 2006

Dactylic Hexameter

I recently discovered a site I like called BookNinja. The three founding editors are all writers and there's a lot to like about the site, both in terms of content, which is wide-ranging, and design, which is very clean and sharp.

One of the editors, George Murray, is also a cartoonist, and he has a number of pretty funny cartoons posted. In one of them, two guys are in a bar. One has had way too much to drink, and is telling his drinking companion about a conversation he had with someone else in which they were apparently arguing about prosody. The speaker has cast himself in the role of the triumphant hero in the verbal conflict, and has just arrive at close to the climax of the story as he says, holding the bottle with one hand and jabbing with his index finger with the other, "So, I say to the guy, "Listen pal, you don't know JACK about dactylic hexameter...!"

The cartoon cracked me up when I first saw it, and then I began thinking about it. I know it's dangerous to even attempt to explain what makes something funny, because by the time you get done whatever humor was there will in all likelihood have been crushed under the weight of the analysis. But I found myself thinking about the cartoon in various ways, trying to grok it.

One thing that's funny here is that the speaker seems to be attaching so much importance to a subject that most of us would find laughable. But there's a second stinger here, because this is a cartoon that wouldn't be as funny to someone who didn't know, and perhaps care, about dactylic hexameter, as it is to writers and other academic types who know all too well how exercised our compadres can become about seemingly arcane matters. So the cartoon is a caricature, a satirical portrait of a certain kind of person who might just be found looking at us in the mirror.

Another thing that's funny is the expression on the face of the person who is being subjected to the onslaught. HIS very small glass of wine is still mostly full. He is looking away, sideways and backwards, subtly rolling his eyes, as if to express to an implied or perhaps merely wished-for neighbor something like "Oh boy, here we go..."

Another thing that is not exactly funny but interesting is how much work the artist has gotten done with so few lines. Murray won't be winning any awards for draughtsmanship, but he's got a very neat, efficient method of shorthand sketching that works really well and contributes to the offhand, idiosyncratic tonality of the cartoon.

As a teacher of critical thinking, (former Punahou Academy principal)Win Healy often asked his students to consider the elements of point of view. If I were to attempt to follow Win's lead and design a CT exercise based on this cartoon, I might ask the students to identify all the points of view expressed or implied in the cartoon, and to identify at least two assumptions embedded in each point of view. So what would happen if we tried that?

Well, for starters, there's the explicit point of view of the speaker. He's assuming a) that he knows more about prosody than the person he's talking about does, b) that his listener will agree with him and be impressed.

There's the explicit point of view of the listener, which is conveyed mostly by the facial expression. We can infer that he assumes a) that the speaker is overdramatizing the situation and b) that it would be fruitless to reason with him.

There's the implied point of view of the person being spoken about. That person probably assumes a) that he knows as much, and probably more, about dactylic hexameter than the speaker, and b) that the speaker is in error.

There's the point of view of the artist, who is assuming a) that this situation is entertaining and that b) depicting it is a satisfactory use of his time, and that c) posting it on his web site will allow it to reach a wider audience and provide them with some comic relief as well.

There's the point of view of the reader, which is to say, in this case, me. I'm assuming that a) it's worth my time to be doing this exercise, and (more dubiously, I suppose) that b) there is someone else in the universe who might be interested in reading any of this.

And still also yet already there is at least one more implied point of view, which is yours. You are looking at a blog being written about a cartoon being drawn about a guy giving a drunken speech about a conversation about the significance of dactylic hexameter in a poem which is presumably about, well, something else entirely. I frankly don't know what your assumptions are, except that if you have read this far you are probably assuming there is going to be some kind of payoff to this whole line of reasoning, an assumption which may or may not turn out to be mistaken. We shall have to see.

This preliminary dicussion opens the door to a lot of other interesting questions ranging from the mundane (Who is George Murray anyway?) to the psychological (Why do people drink and get belligerent in the first place?) to the cultural (What kind of world is the world in which this cartoon is funny?) to the philosophical (Is there any reason for us to to take ANY artistic principle seriously enough to fight over it? If so, which one(s)?).

So where are we? I guess the point of an exercise like this is to provide some sort of scaffolding for the thinking process that will allow us to focus sustained attention on the object in question—in this case, the cartoon—in order to put yourself in a situation where you might actually arrive at a new idea, something you didn't know or had not yet thought about.

In that sense, this post is a kind of analogue to or elaboration of the point I was trying to develop yesterday in looking at the Wyeth painting. One of my grounding assumptions—one of the throughlines in my own life experience—is that writing itself helps to generate and deepen thinking. That's news to most of my students, who tend to think about writing, to the extent that they think about writing at all, as the more or less mechnical process of spelling out what you have decided to say once you have figured out what that is.

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