You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2011.
Third class with The Kid. Drilled him on the Present Perfect thus:
elberry: Have you ever drunk too much beer?
Kid: Yes, I have drunk too much beer. Has your boss ever complained about you?
elberry: Yes, she has complained about me.
and then, moving on to a different use:
elberry: Last year i killed twenty of my students. This year, i have killed 7. How many people did you kill last year, and how many have you killed this year?
He looked suitably preposterated and then “I haven’t killed anyone this year.”
It turns out that he knows nothing at all about aircraft, despite wanting to be an Air Traffic Controller, so we went over some basic principles of flight and next week i’ll expostulate violently about cool shit like dynamic instability and yaw (yaw isn’t really that cool but it’s my favourite word at the moment). i was slightly surprised to find that, i suppose as a result of playing flight sims 20 years ago on my Amiga, i seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of aviation and death from above, though not to a Gordon McCabe level of mathematical twiddliness, since my brain doesn’t do numbers.
After the aviation we talked about Thucydides (he corrected my pronunciation), Vergil, Heraclitus. i was extremely pleased, and quite surprised, to be able to talk about philosophy and literature with one of my students – i think the last one was last summer in Kassel. The Kid seemed to enjoy it, and also i felt he was surprised to enjoy it. i thought i recognised the look on his face – it’s how i felt when i first realised “Literature” could be enjoyable and spiritually vital, rather than merely tedious & irrelevant. In my case i felt this aged about 17, when we “did” TS Eliot at school. That was a faint stirring; i returned to Eliot a couple of years later, and found him much more powerful then, perhaps because i always seem most open when i learn for myself, without any living guide.
After the lesson i felt strangely energised, as if i had murdered the student with my bare hands. i even chuckled a little, and moaned ‘Gute Nacht’ from Winterreise, cheerfully. It made me realise just how routine & unvital are most of my lessons; and how insubstantial & unsatisfying it is, to teach English to the Bosche. In Munich at least, Jerry usually has pretty competent English so it’s hard to really teach anything; their mistakes are by then largely ingrained, the students uninterested in any radical improvement, and so all i do is chat, introduce new vocab, correct grammar (this rarely makes any difference). With low-level groups i do feel i impart something, am doing something real, but low-level groups are also much much more draining – i could never teach these groups for more than a few hours a week.
i long to do a real job. i don’t mean working in McDonald’s or cleaning toilets. But something more substantial than just talking with people and correcting their grammar to no avail. Alas i have no real expertise or knowledge, there seems nothing i could do. But sometimes longing can coerce a future shape in the present; it can invite events.
i’ve decided to make some quick dough with a bit of adroit investment securities bond shit – i’m going to put myself on ebay then bet against myself, and see if i become as rich as those chaps over on the Wall Street.
1. It’s Tuesday so i feel gloomy, though not as gloomy as yesterday, standing on the s-bahn platform brooding on my horrible & ever-mounting debts. S-bahn platforms are a bad place for English teachers to calculate their profit and loss. Murtaugh, who lent me 500 € to survive the summer, gave me the following advice:
And if you owe people money, fuck them. It’s their problem.
(I realise I am in this group)
Tempting but i feel that to simply change my name to Juan, grow a gigolo moustache, and relocate to Argentina, leaving my creditors behind, would be a denial of my very tenuous place as a human being in a human world. My father went bankrupt once, and nearly again a second time, because he was unable to control himself, unable not to go and spend five hundred pounds on CDs in one shopping spree (he didn’t listen to any of them, and even bought several copies of the same CDs on the same trip, without realising); unable not to have eleven radios in his bedroom; or, at one point, six cars.
i see bankruptcy as a denial of one’s place in human society; to go bankrupt – or to change one’s name to Juan – is to deny you have any responsibility to others; it is a sociopathic gesture, saying you can take money from people but have no obligation to give it back. Banks aren’t people; but they are composed of people, and money is used by people, so to empty it of significance, for one’s own convenience, is, for me, childish and dangerous.
i can’t, however, speak beyond my experience, of my own crippling debts, and my father’s foolery. My own debts were incurred not by extravagant expense but by being more or less unemployable. My first six months in Kiel, lured there by inlingua, then fired without warning; then the horrible adventure of Munich, losing my security bond to the crazed kangerhaus landlady, then having almost no work in July and August, and being ripped off by the DKV (my medical insurance company) – all this has brought me here. However, ultimately my character is to blame – as Schopenhauer might have said, my crime is not to have acted or not acted, but to have been; totally lacking in practical skills, i naturally have no place in human society; and for this, my debts are a quantitative sign.
2. Yesterday i taught a kid (18) who wants to be an air traffic controller. He’s not very talkative but i discovered he’d studied Latin for 8 years, and Ancient Greek for 3 – he went to a gymnasium (like a grammar school only more so) and this is apparently fairly normal. We had a good chat about Suetonius, Vergil, Catullus, Sophocles, Plato, etc. i find it a little surreal how perfectly ordinary-seeming German youngsters can read Tacitus and Parmenides without difficulty, provided they went to a good school. The kid did it for 4 hours a week for 8 years and is consequently able to read, as he said, everything in Latin, and everything in Athenian Greek. He isn’t particularly literary but nonetheless has read the whole of Plato, in the original (i haven’t even read all of Plato in English).
It is rare that i can talk to my students about literature or anything i find really interesting. Although a lot of my students read, they only read what they call “krimis” (crime thrillers), not my genre fiction of choice – and they tend to forget everything they read or watch, so any inquiries as to a book or film’s plot, setting, or characters, will be met by a look of blank, Lethean helplessness.
Teaching is vastly preferable to minimum wage data entry but i’m already dissatisfied by it, fantasizing my Steve McQueen-like escape, except that this time my bike will smash through my persecutors & boring students, and i will roar to freedom, leaving bloodied bone fragments & torn viscera in my heroic wake. i find it hard to envisage a viable career, outside of minimum wage data entry in England, or teaching in Germany. There is no money in literature or philosophy, and in any case if there were, it would doubtless be what Cormac McCarthy called Creative Writing Programmes: “a hustle”. i would rather teach grammar and bollocks business English to Germans than discuss literature with the kind of glossy halfwits i recall from university.
Ideally, i would roam Europe in a jolly car, committing brutal homicides with a hammer.
On Monday i’ll post Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It off to my Finnish friend Minna, a few days too late for her birthday. i was flicking through it just now and came across this excellent description of Karl Wittgenstein with the fictional Rolf, fictional husband to Gretl Wittgenstein (in real life she married a lunatic called Jerome). The scene is Christmas with the Wittgensteins, i guess it would be about 1910ish:
Charming, self-contained Rolf, a man immune to Karl Wittgenstein in ways that seemed miraculous to his mum son [Ludwig]. Many times Wittgenstein had thought that Rolf was exactly the sort of son his father would have wanted. Yet even so, the old bull could not easily cede his territory to this affable intruder. And so there was always the prodding and probing, the old man implying that while what Rolf said was perfectly true and even rather shrewd – at least so far as it went – it was still a little, well…off the mark. Not through any intrinsic fault of his, Karl Wittgenstein would affably suggest. After all, Rolf could hardly be held accountable for the fact that he still lacked seasoning and some requisite – but, for him, probably unobtainable – information. Still less could Rolf compensate for lacking that comprehensive and indeed synoptic view that came with more years than he, unfortunately, would ever have, because of course Karl Wittgenstein would always have more years and, moreover, would carry to his grave the wisdom that worked in the days when the world truly worked as it should – that is, before irresponsible bunglers like Rolf got their hooks into things.
Karl Wittgenstein’s sons might brook this treatment, but Rolf would not. For all his good-natured forbearance, he would press back when Karl Wittgenstein pressed too hard, questioning Rolf’s business judgment or suggesting that he might exert more control over his excitable wife and their equally excitable son. Oh, Rolf would groan fatuously, if only I had consulted you! Again and again, I ask myself – I ask my staff – now what, what would Karl Wittgenstein do?
This is chillingly good. It immediately reminded me of Malty’s come-the-old-soldier comment on my Dabbler piece here – he told me my understanding of hatred “despite the theoretical stuff” was totally wrong; i said it was true in my experience, and he sneered back:
Depends on what you call experience.
Classic Karl Wittgenstein, if i may say so. It is a mark of a good novel that the characters illuminate one’s own life, so the successful Austrian businessman, the great music-lover and patron of the arts, who regarded himself as the ultimate authority on everything, chimes with Malty, naturally.
Duffy’s is a curious book, in that he makes a great deal up, and writing before Ray Monk’s huge biography he must have had less information to hand; and yet it is full of such moments. Duffy’s Karl Wittgenstein is especially good. i believe KW had what i would call a Laius Complex, that is, he wanted to kill or at least totally suppress and dominate his children, especially his sons. He didn’t feel threatened by his daughters; however, his sons were a direct challenge by their very existence, and if he could, we would have gobbled them up like Cronus. It is appropriate that, at least according to family legend, the first word of Karl Wittgenstein’s eldest son was “Oedipus”.
i think this helps explain something of his sons’ volatility, lunacy, and need to dominate. KW’s intense, Cronus-like distrust must have acted like a deforming atmospheric pressure, from which one could not emerge whole; those who did emerge were unable to go casually about in the ordinary world. Accustomed to the gravity of Krypton, on Earth Superman is able to bend steel and fly; the Wittgensteins came out of childhood with an uncontrollable, savage energy, an intense need to dominate, to be free of domination.
Two attitudes, two completely divergent positions, are possible for man, and he finds the face of everything different accordingly as he chooses the one or the other. He can if he will put himself in the presence of God and the mystery of being. Then he has a clean conscience and a clean heart, revelation and intuition are vouchsafed to him, the true primordial creative spirit appears, he reaches to the very source of all.
On the other hand, man can if he will put himself only in the presence of other men and with society. Then his conscience and his heart cannot be pure, revealed truth is changed, religion is reduced to a social fact, the light of intuition goes out and the glow of creation is cooled, and falsehood comes into its own, it is recognised as socially useful and even indispensable; man, whether conservative or revolutionary, is valued only in relation to the daily social routine and he can no longer attain to the ultimate source; even the voice of God can be heard only as an echo from the reality of society.
(Nicolas Berdyaev, The End of our Time, tr. Donald Attwater)
i had a bastard group this week, all day on Tuesday and mercifully just the afternoon on Thursday and Friday. They had a crash course, 7 hours a day Monday to Friday but had apparently no desire to learn anything, or to talk. i found them fairly difficult. Today we just watched a film in English – i suggested The Hangover, which two had already seen in German, and liked; i’d briefly considered Withnail & I, Rushmore, or Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, each being about 90 minutes long. i ruled out Rushmore because i left the DVD with Juniper in Kassel; we’d watched it together and she liked it, though i fear much of the dialogue went by too quickly for a German with even pretty good English; and the plot is, i realise, not exactly linear. Withnail & I and Sundance i decided would be too subtle for this group, so we went with the well-made but crude Hangover. They enjoyed it and i was glad to wash my hands of them. Just three hours in the same room, with one student giving a presentation about car seats, and then watching the film – that was enough to exhaust me.
There were three students, one guy (late 30s), a young bitch (mid-20s) and a bitch-MILF (early 40s). The guy was cool, a gentle friendly chap but alas almost incapable of learning English. The bitches were somewhere between cold and hostile. The bitch-MILF managed to hide it quite well but i was undeceived and was careful not to turn my back on her; the younger skank was openly contemptuous and would have murdered me had a gun lain to hand (she was a coward and would only have used a gun, or poison). They responded to every question with blank stares, long silences, then the usual idiot one-sentence or one-word answers, thus:
elberry: what do you do in your free time?
skank [long pause, with a hostile, baffled expression]: I make sport.
elberry: what sports?
skank [another amazed, hostile sneer, for about 5 seconds of silence]: I make jogging.
elberry: You go jogging. How often do you go jogging?
skank [exchanges amazed, hostile looks with the bitch-MILF, looks at me with open contempt for a few seconds, shrugs]: It is different.
elberry: Okay. What did you do this weekend?
skank [looks on the verge of vomiting with disgust at having to speak to me]: Nothing.
elberry: Where do you go on holiday?
skank: It is different.
elberry: Where did you go last time?
skank: I go to Tenerife.
elberry: You went to Tenerife. What did you do in Tenerife?
And so on. They were unable to do roleplays, lacking even the tiniest atom of creativity or imagination. Roleplays that would last 15 minutes with any other group petered out after 30 seconds. i tried to teach them grammar but they responded with hostile stares and a Gandhi-like intensity of passive resistance, thus:
elberry: What would you do if it snowed tomorrow?
skank: It will not snow.
elberry: Yes, that’s why it’s the 2nd conditional. We use it for things that are unlikely to happen. Okay…would you come to work if it snowed tomorrow?
elberry: Can you make me a longer sentence?
skank [exchanges contemptuous glances with other skank]: I will go to work.
elberry: If it snowed, I would go to work.
skank stares at elberry with open loathing.
elberry, trying to maintain a vaguely professional manner and conceal his murderous hatred: Would you come to work if it snowed tomorrow?
skank shrugs and looks away.
And so on. Unspeakably tiring. Being in the same room with these worthless shits, for 7 hours on Tuesday, was hell. The only decent human being, the man (the worst ones are always women) seemed to have almost no ability to learn languages, but he was also the only one who made any notes. Bizarrely, he told me he never uses English at work and never will. The younger skank uses it every day but could barely speak it.
i sometimes fall to wondering why companies pay thousands of euros for these pointless exercises. i believe it is often for tax purposes, or because it’s nearly the end of year and they have to use up their budget, hence students who never use English, and never will, spend a week failing to learn English. i would prefer it if they just paid me to stay at home and watch DVDs on my own. i could watch porn and drink whiskey and read Edward Thomas and Rilke, activities which are unjustly condemned as unprofessional.
Yesterday one of my classes was monitored by the director of studies, this in a different school, a big chain. She said it was a good lesson but criticised me for not being firm enough in my error correction, and because i didn’t stop my students using German. It was a beginner group, so hard, but also much more satisfying than higher level – unlike the bastard group above, they really wanted to learn, and their English clearly improves with each lesson. i’m not concerned about failings in my technique, because i feel it’s good enough to do, and once you have adequate technique the rest is all about atmosphere, “rapport” (hideous word). With the nice group, i established a workable atmosphere, and then everything became easy, and they learn.
i shared the bastard group with another teacher, Cassandra, and was interested (and relieved) to hear they greatly preferred her and asked to have her instead of me. This has never happened to me before, though it’s often happened the other way round, i.e. that students say they want me because i’m more flexible and tweedy than some merely mortal teacher.
i asked the bastard students what they did with Cassandra – it mainly seemed to be working through photocopies of quizzes, with small talk phrases. i found this strange as i couldn’t imagine them consenting to do quizzes or practice small talk phrases with me, since they Gandhi-resisted me in everything else. i wondered if they just enjoyed being able to keep their heads down and read from worksheets, without actually talking. My own “method” maximises student talking time, and i see no point teaching anything if you don’t get the students to practice it in class, in structured practice, then more spontaneously (e.g. in roleplays or conversation).
i wished i could have seen what Cassandra did, but i think it wasn’t that she had better ideas, or better technique – i believe that the skank immediately took against me, so i felt their immediate dislike and suspicion, and everything that happened reinforced this. i did my best to keep my awareness sealed up during the class, and to act as if i was keen to teach them; however, the two bitches were constantly reinforcing & furthering their suspicion of myself, no matter what i did or said. The failing was, i believe, a failure not of technique but of charm – indeed, i would say my technique was perfect, but got nowhere because of the skanks’ sullen resistance; and there is a limit to charm.
i have my own way of teaching and could never found a school – there is no special technique, beyond my hybrid mutation of the techniques taught at the big chain. The elberry method works perhaps 95% of the time. i try to make the classes as close to real conversation, real language use, as possible, because in real life the students won’t use English to read grammar sheets, do quizzes, etc., but to talk – hence, i find roleplays useful, though mine are either very realistic (if the students all work in the same department and have shared expertise) or wildly exaggerated & bizarre. It doesn’t matter if the students argue about their right to slam doors at work (the last roleplay i did, in which half the class were workers who liked to repeatedly slam doors to vent their frustration) – as long as they feel the living language, it will work in other contexts; whereas worksheets, as in school, are more para-pedagogical.
Since i usually teach at companies, in the average group perhaps half want to learn and the other half were enrolled by their managers, or are only there because it’s free. i find this is workable – the energetic half are the engine, the dullards the freight. The bastard group were difficult because there wasn’t an engine – not a single student willing and able to learn. i rely on the students to come out halfway to meet me, indeed my favourite groups are where i do little more than indicate the direction, and the students do the rest.
After the bastard group i slumped home on the s-bahn, reading Rilke and plotting pizza & whiskey (and lo, my plans were realised). i wish i could simply refuse to teach dullards, but even if this were feasible it was a usefully hellish experience: it confirms that i wouldn’t survive a week as a schoolteacher; it makes me appreciate my normal groups; and the prolonged effort, of trying to connect to dullards, is psychologically interesting. It can be useful, for a novelist of sorts, to look into a mind and see the contents. For example, the young skank had left school aged 16, done an apprenticeship, joined the company, worked in the invoice department for 5 years, then shifted to some equally tedious department, but said it was interesting. In her spare time she went jogging. There was absolutely nothing else. i probed, i tested, i asked cunning & exceedingly subtle questions to come to the hidden core of her humanity, but there was nothing. She spent all day looking at numbers on a computer; she went jogging; that was all. When she gets older she will probably go to spas and what the Bosche call “wellness” centres; she will get a differently boring job.
And yet, she was still human; there is no point below which someone ceases to be human, and becomes a source of extra kidneys for the Korean market. The breadth of human being is astonishing, at times – that, for example, Juniper is human and so is the young skank – but this is why teaching is difficult; if i could merely say “this skank is not human” and shoot her with a cattle gun, Chigurh-style, why then everthing would be easier. But that’s why i get paid so much – because i can’t.
When societies begin to hanker after equality any kind of renaissance and harvest of creation is at an end. For the principle of equality is one of envy, envy of the being of another and bitterness at the inability to affirm one’s own. The passion for equality is a passion for nothingness. Modern societies are in the grip of a passion for displacing the centre of gravity of existence by moving it from what is, by a creative affirmation, the being of each one to an envious denial of the being of another. That is a mark of a senile society.
Nicolas Berdyaev, The End of our Time, tr. D Attwater
The principle of equality becomes strident when people no longer believe in the soul, or the individual (for which one often but not always needs soul as guarantor), or any extra-material point of authority. In a world where there is some concept of god, or any centre of authority beyond the world, it is not necessary to belittle others to feel one has a right to exist. God is truly no respecter of persons and as in Dante’s commedia, the kings and popes are only privileged in having greater torments, because their sins were the more harmful.
The principle of equality thrives, and assumes pathological proportions & reach, in a godless, or rather wholly material world. Where there is no sense of a life beyond the senses, authority necessarily resides within this world, that is, in the opinions of human beings. Although the subject is himself a human being, his opinion is formed by the values of his culture. So, if people value money and worldly good & prosperity, as they usually do, a wealthy man will seem to have more right to exist than an impoverished burger flipper or English teacher. Or in a society where big feet are of overwhelming, primary importance, people with big feet will be regarded as superior to their dainty fellows; not merely superior for some limited utilitarian purpose, but just superior – ontologically superior.
In a society without an unworldly locus of authority (whether wholly imagined or not), any worldly inequality is regarded as a terrible injustice – because the worldly criteria are the only standards of judgement. Along with the principle of equality goes the longing for fame, for affirmation in the opinions of others, since this is all there is.
The greatest times for human achievement, in the realm of spirit rather than science, were times of profound elitism; they were also times of spiritual apprehension. In such times, it makes no final difference if one is stupendously wealthy, or if one has a title, or is on everyone’s lips: there is another arbiter, who sees more clearly, and is not to be deceived. A cat may indeed look at a king; and it is a sad time when there are no cats nor kings, but only rats, swarming.
We are entering into the realm of the unknown and the unlived, and we are entering it joylessly and without much hope. We can no longer believe in the theories of progress which deceived the minds of the nineteenth century and made the near future seem always to be better, more beautiful, and more desirable that what had gone before. We are more inclined to think that better things and finer and more lovable are to be found rather in eternity, and that these were to be found also in the past in so far as the past touched upon eternity and took its rise therefrom.
The End of our Time, Nicolas Berdyaev, tr. Donald Attwater (the book a gift from Garth)
But is this just? Let us consider the case with an impartial eye.
Typical English persons. i found this by Googling for “chav scum” but i must have seen hundreds of such vermin in my temping years, in Leeds and Manchester. i occasionally chanced upon colleagues at the weekend – during the week they dressed in Asda power suits but at the weekend, thus:
A typical town in Europe (Kassel, where i lived last yeaer):
Modern life & democracy in general:
All very unsatisfying. And the past? Let us consider a typical American from the past, TS Eliot:
Kindly note the waistcoat. i need not mention the cufflinks, the waistcoat is quite enough for now.
And old cities – from my last trip to Durham; this a view i had every day, living as i did just below the great Cathedral:
and a representative scene from the old world:
The court finds in favour of the past.
The rhythm of history is changing: it is becoming catastrophic.
Nicolas Berdyaev, The End of Our Time, Tr. Donald Attwater