Interpolation: Teaching “Brief Interview #46”

Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote this post as I struggled to find meaning in “Brief Interview #46” while at the same time I struggled to find meaning in my own suffering as I battled chronic and sometimes debilitating migraine headaches.  I have more or less come to terms with the migraines, but this story has still troubled me all this time.  I downloaded the audio version some time ago and listen to it maybe once a month.[1]  But even after reading it and listening to it probably two dozen times, I was still unable to wrap my brain all the way around it.  Every time I thought I’d answered one question, it seemed that two more popped up.

Then about three months ago, I had a crazy idea:  why not bring this story into my AP Literature classes for discussion.  The group of seniors I have this year is very mature, and I have been able to push them with really challenging readings.  They know of my obsession with Wallace, and we’ve read two of his “tamer” stories already, so I played with the idea of asking my principal’s permission to use the story.[2]  I finally got up the “testicular solidity”[3] to approach my principal about reading the story with my students.[4]

I was very pleasantly surprised by his response after reading the story – twice.  He loved it and thought it would provide an excellent opportunity to let my students wrestle with the very important and very difficult questions that this story raises.  Over the course of several weeks, we hammered out the logistics of sending home parental consent forms and providing students an opt-out if they or their parents weren’t comfortable with the story and getting final approval from the Head of Schools.  But in those meetings we also engaged in some great conversations about our depraved human nature, about our faith, and about finding meaning in even the most horrible of circumstances.

The time came to hand out copies of the story along with the consent forms.  The students were given about a week to read the story, which I recommended doing at least twice.

Then came time for our discussions.  We spent the better part of four days wrestling with the text and the many issues and questions it raises.  We often found ourselves in tangential conversations about loosely related topics; but my gosh, I can’t recall ever having a more engaging discussion with students.  Students grew emotional as they grappled with the difficult and uncomfortable subject matter.  We got to the bottom of some issues raised by the story, but also had to settle for leaving many questions unanswered.

Our discussions taking place in the context of a Christian school, we had to address the elephant in the room that Wallace never brings into the story: where is God in all of this?  In the midst of human suffering and unthinkable violence and degradation, where is God?  Unfortunately, this line of thinking and questioning only aroused more questioning and brought very few answers.

But in the midst of these hours of discussions with these wonderfully mature students, a moment of clarity came to me.  At some point during one of the class periods, one of my students offered a rather insightful comment.  The whole Interview – with its references to Victor Frankl and the Holocaust, and with its three versions of the same story about a brutal gang rape, and with its bold statements about identity and self-knowledge – can be summed up in the very last sentence:

“You don’t know sh*t.”

When talking about suffering and degradation and violence and self-knowledge and identity – especially in terms of others – we just simply don’t know what they go through.  We can’t know.  It is impossible to ever fully understand another’s pain and suffering.

And yet this understanding of our inability to understand became very freeing for me.  By knowing that I will probably never fully understand these things, I gained freedom from having to try to figure it all out.  Paradoxical and contradictory and difficult to explain, but freeing all the same.

I don’t know sh*t, and I’m ok with that.

[1] The nearly thirty-minute reading is almost the same length as my commute to work, so it is perfect for those days when I need distraction from the troubles of that day but still want something challenging to think about.

[2] Teaching at a parochial school, I need to be sensitive to parents and students when it comes to language and sex and violence.  Since this story had the worst of all three – a number of F-bombs and descriptions of a gang rape – I needed to be very careful in how I approached this if I wanted to use the story in class and keep my job afterward.

[3] A quote from a comment on the “Infinite Summer” blog written by someone very intimidated by the enormity of Infinite Jest.

[4] Being the department chair and the only teacher on campus who is College-Board approved to teach both AP English classes, and riding a 79% pass rate on last year’s AP exam, I figured I have about the closest thing to tenure that a private school can offer.  So I thought it a risk I could afford to take.


One thought on “Interpolation: Teaching “Brief Interview #46”

  1. Pingback: Interpolation: Some thoughts on Wallace in the classroom | Letters to DFW

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s