Artistic Worlds

23 Feb
Paul Cezanne's Leda and the Swan, now in the B...

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To give you a bizarre anecdote of what Lebanon surprise me with today – well, lots, as usual. A university class on two of my favourite poems (Yeats’ Leda and the Swan and Donne’s The Sun Rising) began proceedings nicely. Having studied both before I had an unfair advantage over my classmates and decided to keep schtum; I was really interested to see what their initial responses would be. Not only are the subjects of these poems complex, but also their structure and linguistic styles. Leda is saturated in mythological imagery; Donne’s English comes out of the convoluted grandeur of the seventeenth-century. Even for literature students, Donne and Yeats are hardly simple. And these students did not have English as their first language. I can’t imagine reading modernist or Renaissance French poetry and finding it a piece of cake.

How did everybody react? Well, one possible cultural difference between the English and the Lebanese is the latter’s tendency to take part in everything, regardless of whether it bores or excites them. Actually it isn’t so much a tendency as an insistence. It seems to be to do with pride; it’s a matter of honour to at least look like you are involved in what you’re doing and especially to look as though you know what you are talking about. (Image is very, very important.) And so various students tossed in their interpretations, in general with an assured, almost bored air, as though the answer was unambiguously, obviously evident. And half the point of poetry is that that isn’t the case. Those who didn’t voice opinions chatted to their neighbours instead. The class has only about twenty people so the buzz of background chatterings was clearly audible, but bizarrely no one seemed put off by it, even really aware of it.

The strongest impression I got was of the students as convinced either that they were right (sure that ‘this means this’ without worrying about providing evidence) or that there was one unmistakeable right answer (and they wanted the professor to tell them what it was). Overall, an utterly different experience from any university class I’ve been in. It’s surely in part due to the fact that ‘art’ is still widely seen as a soft option when it comes to study. Many of the kids – both girls and boys – are simply taking the class to fill a gap in their credits. A far cry from England’s university system, which is all about getting you to discover your specialism. In today’s class, giving a perspective was a multitude of things but one thing it was not was a result of engaging with the poems. A way to stave off boredom, a way of interacting with the teacher (who is, after all, responsible for grade assignment) and also a symptom of the assumption that there was one simple correct answer. Perhaps because poetry is largely seen as wishy-washy (and especially if you’re a business student who doesn’t want to be reading seventeenth-century English sonnets) the focus of most of the students was on finding out the “message” of each poem so they could learn it for the exam.

This sounds like a string of generalisations, but really it is one of observations. Naturally not every student thinks in this way; those in my class, did. One striking thing, though, about the Lebanese – this is a generalisation, and one I wholeheartedly stick to – is that they are far from self-conscious.

Here’s another example from today of this self-possession. I had (rather indulgently) booked a pedicure at 5 and wasn’t seen until … 6.30. Even by Lebanese standards (and Lebanese lateness is one cultural cliché that is absolutely true) this was shonky. Luckily I was reviewing a book so I had lots to do. But as a writer it was very amusing to see how little the staff were ruffled by my waiting. Eventually the cleaner offered me Nescafe; at around 6 the receptionist came to whisper sorries – I think the enormous notebook on my lap, pen in hand and thoughtful look on my face was making them wary – and offer me a voucher. The best part of it all was that she looked down at my feet, nakedly awaiting their pampering, and immediately freaked out. Thanks to terrible circulation my feet are always blue; all the staff members (previously so busy I had had to wait 90 minutes) came to stare at my poor blue swollen toes and conjecture what my ailments might be. Nice and loudly. And nice and embarrassing for me. Still, if they weren’t bothered about excitedly decrying the sorry state of my feet with shrieks and points, I was ready to mimic their self-assurance and to at least strain for a sense of poise. Ah! The Lebanese teach me something every day.

Meanwhile hundreds have died in Libya and I hadn’t heard a word about it. The taboo for talking of things political seems to extend beyond borders.

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