Friday, March 18, 2011

Me and John Proctor

In 1973, when I completed my HSC, I had a brief respite from mediocrity during my English classes, and, happily in the final exam. I’ve had several shining moments since, in terms of writing, but quite often I struggle because I just can’t take it seriously enough; can apply neither the intellect, nor the endurance – one of the many reasons I consider myself to be a fraud.

It’s probably why I have a couple of recurring dreams. In one, somehow I’ve slept through an alarm, or forgotten to turn up on the first day of school. I flap around under the shower, usually fully clothed, trying vainly to rinse suds out of my hair. I stumble late into a room packed with year 12 students and unsuccessfully attempt to wing the lesson. (Actually, this isn’t far from the reality on occasions, but I usually manage to divest myself of my clothes while showering.) In the other dream, I’m sitting in a silent exam hall doing my year 12 English exam. And I’m caught out. I can’t do it. Consequently, my life is a sham. I simply fluked it back in ‘73, and I shouldn’t even have been admitted to my lesser Melbourne State College B. Ed. course; shouldn’t even have got in by the back door, which is what my father pronounced when I didn’t get into Melbourne University – for which I hadn’t even applied, by the way. My acceptance into La Trobe didn’t impress him at all. It was common knowledge that you could get in there if you could play three chords on a guitar.

Which is all a rather rambling lead up to me trying unsuccessfully to write an imaginative response to a prompt for that part of VCE Units 3 and 4 English called Creating and Presenting. Our Context, with a capital C, is Encountering Conflict. (I’ve been doing a bit of that lately. I like to think I’m John Proctor from The Crucible, but I’m not sure I’d die to save my name.)

This is the prompt. Think it’s from the 2008 exam. “In times of conflict ordinary people can act in extraordinary ways.” And this is what happened, and why, once again, I’m the fraud who’s been up the front of the classroom for thirty-one and a quarter years.

John Proctor languishes in gaol, awaiting execution. I’m trying to capture the tone of Proctor’s thoughts back in 1692. Here goes:

Their lying, their pretence, has conjured a demon. Though it be invisible, though it be wrought from the girls’ demented minds, it has risen up and has taken men’s senses. They quake in fear as that whore cries witch. Though I believe not in these incubi and succubi I see that something has taken hold in Salem. It be not born of goodness. It be born of fear, lies and vengeance. (Thought that wasn’t too bad, then ensued my own descent into the pit.)

In Salem we were a hardworking community, not given to idleness. Not three months gone we were united. Aye, one had not time nor strength for aught else. How did such mayhem arise from such mischief?

Indeed. How? Fucked if I know what Proctor was thinking when he sacrificed himself. Extraordinary indeed. He had nothing left but his name, and, as he said, ‘leave me my name...I cannot have another’. What drove him to such lengths? Would anyone fall on the sword like this? Evidently not. Ordinary people meld into the group. Reminds me of those Arctic or Antarctic penguins flocking together against the cold, occasionally taking their turn on the outside but nonetheless clinging to the warm mass. To leave the group is sure death. But that’s penguins and we aren’t really concerned with the behaviour of the ‘animal kingdom’.

I don’t find humans surprising at all. I find them very predictable. A percentage will show altruism, will give of themselves and bequeath extraordinary gifts to humankind. I recall an episode on Australian Story. A young Australian girl adopted a number of homeless Cambodian children, raised funds and ran her own orphanage and school. It’s as if there are certain people who are wired in some way to commit these extraordinary acts when they see a need. Were such people ever ordinary?

John Proctor, from the outset, struck me as different. By being his own true self, he inadvertently made others, the Parrises and Putnams, feel their inadequacy. Or perhaps, like my students, I’m just confusing the ‘novel’, as they say, with the ‘movie’. Perhaps I just like the look of Daniel Day Lewis with his twinkling eye/teeth combo, striding across the fields, no grim reaper, in his baggy britches.

I rest my case.

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