Walter Kirn on The Colbert Report (Canadian Link): http://watch.thecomedynetwork.ca/the-colbert-report/full-episodes/#clip174780
Walter Kirn on The Colbert Report (USA Link): http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/228190/may-19-2009/walter-kirn
Notes and Excerpts:
“Marine’s [Marine, Minnesota] elementary school was on a hill. It was the largest man-made structure in town, one of the newest, and by far the ugliest. Shape: rectangular. Material: beige brick. Constructed with tax money, it looked like tax money, a fiscal line item come to joyless life. Even the playground equipment seemed bureaucratic: a stainless-steel slide and a set of iron monkey bars on which one could picture army recruits glumly sweating their way through basic training. From the moment I entered the building’s long tiled hallway, its colorless walls inadequately brightened with red-and-yellow construction-paper maple leaves, I wanted out. But out, I know, meant through. ” p.25
“Certain questions which grown-ups deem unanswerable begin as answers which children find unquestionable. For example: what is Death? To me at eight years old, death was the signal for a person’s loved ones to cry and look stricken for a while and then begin dividing up his stuff. What is Beauty? The thing that made me like things when nobody was pushing me to like them. ” p.30
On losing a debate…
“I’d harmed myself the night before the match by staying up till dawn trying to walk off and bathe away the phosphorescent curlicues of dread lossed in my brain by a drugged cupcake I’d eaten with a teammate in her motel room. I hadn’t fully recovered when I found myself battling a girl with close-set eyes and the excessively brushed straight hair of a virginal prodigy. Here was a force I’d never faced before: the supercharged purity of postponed puberty augmented by early viola training.” p.62
In an early computer class, no one seemed able to use the computer yet it was promised to revolutionize the future:
“That’s when we stopped touching the device and chose to regard it as an icon or a totem. Our classes turned into speculative chats about the wonders the object might perform if instead of addressing it in COBOL or FORTRAN, we could interact with it in English. To heighten the atmosphere of possibility, we kept the thing plugged in. This warmed its obscurely coiled and bundled insides, releasing unappetizing chemical vapors. ” p.66
Upon watching a younger talented computer whiz work the computer…
“The exhibition unveiled no technical mysteries, but it did help me understand the term “conservative” as I’d once heard it used by a friend’s father while he was watching the TV news. A conservative was a person who stopped adjusting once adjustment brought him no vital benefits. The commandment to us from kindergarten on had been to grow, to expand ourselves, to stretch, but there was another option too, I saw. Once could let others cope with the novelty and concentrate on the familiar.” p.68
On a graduation night romp with two exchange students:
Skirts came up, pants slipped off, and legs made V’s that turned into X’s and shifted on complex axes that allowed for wonders of sidelong friction that brought forth fetching squeaks and grunty purrs and primordially bridged all language gaps. Some new bond was being stirred in that car, some fresh form of international understanding that the Rotary Club, or whichever organizations sponsored the exchange program, might not have planned on but shouldn’t have been displeased by, so intimately did it shrink our globe. p. 73
Kirn feeling he was a fraud while mourning the passing of John Lennon:
“”All the lonely people,” he began [singing].
The choice was a magical piece of luck for me. Afterwards, spent, having sung with my whole rib cage and fully emoted on every memorized word, I felt the urge to cry for real — from gratitude. Thanks to my gloomy second-grade music teacher, I’d managed to respond convincingly, in the company of a well-credentialed witness, to a historic cultural tragedy that would be revisited for decades. My genuine tears flowed along with my false tears, as they did the distinction between them blurred. I wasn’t ashamed of this. My fraudulence, I was coming to understand, was in a way the truest thing about me. It represented ambition, longing, need. It sprung from the deepest chambers of my soul.” p.77
Drug use was rampant, even for the lighting guy during the performance of one of Kirn’s plays:
“The lighting guy, who’d eaten a hash brownie which he’d sworn would wear off before the show, toggled at random between clashing colors, turning the stage into a cruise-ship disco…” p.91
Discussing a conversation Kirn had about ‘the divided brain’. Kirn may be a victim of this divided brain, leading to the impostor syndrome which he suffers from greatly:
“The best conversation of my life ensued — one I could never have had in Minnesota and one that helped me forget my recent troubles by occupying me with cosmic issues of just the sort a place like Princeton should raise but so far hadn’t, at least when I’d been listening. Julian taught psychology, he said, despite having no diploma in the subject, only a book he’d written as an amateur. It had ground out of his reading of ancient literature and concerned, he said, “the history of consciousness.” I asked him to explain but keep it simple. He told me that he’d try. The modern human brain, he said, was actually two brains functioning as one brain, but there had been a time, long, long, ago, when man’s double brain had operated differently. It’s parts, its halves, had been separate then, divided. In fact, they’d been virtual strangers to each other. When a thought arose in one of them, the other one, acting as a receiver, processed the thought as a voice, an actual voice. This voice seemed to come from another being, really. But who was this being? Who were these secret speakers? Man had answered these questions in many ways. He’d conceived of gods and spirits, angels and demons, trolls and fairies. Muses.
“Back when, before the Breakdown,” said Julian, “before the gods and voices fell silent, writers truly believed in inspiration. They experienced inspiration. It was real to them. Tell me: did you ever feel, during the composition of your script, that someone else, not you, was in control?”
“Honestly, I feel that way a lot. Down deep, in a quiet way, I feel it constantly. And sometimes it shakes me up a little. Should it?”
Julian shook his head, but not as vigorously as I would have liked.
“What was the ‘Breakdown’?” I asked him. I had to know. I had to know everything he did, suddenly. Julian was a genius, I’d decided, even if everything he’d said was crazy. And it probably was. Because I understood it.” pps 93-94
Kirn is brought before the Honor Committee accused of cheating on his Spanish mid-term:
“Guilty or innocent? Yes or no,” Rob said.
I ate a pretzel and let Rob’s anger hang there. I thought he should have to feel it in the air. I thought it might force him to face his ugliness. Then I said, “I heard this from a senior. In France, there’s a critic, I forget his name, who teaches that antonyms, words that mean the opposite, don’t really mean the opposite at all. They aren’t the only alternatives, that is. There are other words between them. And all around them.”
“Fascinating except this isn’t France.”
“You tell me to choose, but the words I’m meant to choose from — ‘innocent and ‘guilty’ — aren’t my only choices. I chose another one. ‘Uncovictable’. p.109
Kirn discusses the ‘critical assumptions’ he’d made in reading. Unfortunately, Kirn had done very little reading at all.
“With virtually no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumptions, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas as though they were conclusions I’d reached myself. I’d honed these skills on the speech team back in high school, and l didn’t regard them as sins against the Honor Code. Indeed, they embodied an honor code: my own “Be honored” it stated. “Or be damned.” To me, imitation and education were different words for the same thing, anyway. What was learning but a form of borrowing? And what was intelligence but borrowing slyly?” pg119
On the unreadability of some of the supposed ‘Greats’:
“This suffocating sensation often came over me ‘whenever I opened Deconstruction and Criticism, a. collection of essays by leading theory people that l spotted everywhere that year and knew to be one of the richest sources around for words that could turn a modest midterm essay into an A-plus tour de force. Here is a sentence (or what I took to be one because it ended with a period) from the contribution by the Frenchman Jacques Derrida, the volume’s most prestigious name. “He speaks his mother tongue as the language of the other and deprives himself of all reappropriation, all specularization in it.” On the same page I encountered windpipe-blocking ”heteronomous’ and ”invagination.” When I turned the page I came across- tucked in a footnote –”unreadability.”
That word I understood of course.” p.120
Kirn discusses the literary catchphrases for ‘hard’: ‘ semiotically unstable’ (referring to TS Elliot’s The Waste Land), hermeneutical, gestural, recursive, incommensurable. pps 120-122
Kirn discusses his use of literary catchphrases to mask his ignorance of literature.
“The need to finesse my ignorance through such trickery — honorable trickery to my mind, but not to other minds, perhaps — left me feeling hollow and vaguely haunted. Seeking security in numbers, I sought out the company of other frauds. We recognized one another instantly. … We spoke of “playfullness” and “textuality” and concluded before we’d read even a hundredth of it that Western canon was “illegitimate,” a veiled expression of powerful group interests that it was our duty to subvert. In our rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors, … we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.” p.121
Kirn discusses how he used his confusion to his advantage:
“I was a confused young opportunist trying to turn his confusion to his advantage by sucking up to scholars of confusion. The literary works they prized — the ones best suited to their project of refining and hallowing confusion — were, quite naturally, knotty and oblique. The poems of Wallace Stevens, for example. My classmates and I found them maddeningly elusive, like collections of backward answers to hidden riddles, but luckily we could say “recursive” by then. We could say “incommensurable”. p.122
On feeling a fraud for learning to regurgitate professors opinions rather than truly appreciating the classics:
I grew to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they too, were fakes. In classrooms discussions and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedentary study habits, and sense that confusion was something to be avoided rather than celebrated, appeared unsuited to the new attitude of antic post-modernisn – that I had mastered almost without effort. To thinkers of this school, great literature was an incoherent con, and I — a born con man who knew little about great literature had every reason to agree with them In the land of nonreadability the nonreader was king it seemed. Long live the king. p.122
On page 122, Kirn holds a play of planters on a stage. He watches in amazement as the audience waits for something to happen, which never does. The play is titled: Planters and Waiters. Double-entendre on “waiters”.
On drug use at Ivy League schools:
“There is no drug scene like an Ivy League drug scene. Kids can’t just get high; they have to seek epiphanies. They have to ground their mischief in manifestos. The most popular one around the veggie house held that drugs, especially psychedelic drugs — especially plant based psychedelic drugs — helped to break down the rigid inner partitions that restricted one’s full humanity.” p.124
Kirn expresses a unique view on the relationship between literature and war:
“Literature had torn Tessa and me apart, or prevented us from merging in the first place. That was its role in the world, I’d started to fear: to conjure up disagreements that didn’t matter and inspire people to act on them as though they mattered more than anything. Without literature, humans would all be one. Warfare was simply literature in arms. The pen was the reason man invented the sword.” p.145
This may not be as outlandish a suggestion as it may first seem. If literature is based on pretence instead of substance, as it was in the case of Kirn’s education, then pretence needs to be defended by violence of all forms, military and otherwise. Further if the great written works upon which the great religions of the world are based turn out to be not the writ word of God, they are then by exclusion, works of literature. The swords that have been raised in the name of these literary works are well documented.
More evidence of the theme of detachment. Kirn seems detached from his inspiration.
“Tessa’s poems focused on harrowing emotions grief, self-loathing, panic while mine were concerned with grander matters Such as the creeping loss of ”personhood” in an era of technological change. How I’d hit on this theme I wasn’t sure, but the more time I spent on it the more convinced l grew that I’d borrowed it. I invented an alter ego, ”Bittman,” and in my poems I stretched him on the rack of mechanization and macroeconomics In class, Tessa praised my poems as “Kafkaesque” but I could tell she didn’t like them.” p.140
More on the impostor/fraud theme:
“Out of shame for this hypothetical failure and hoping to break through to intimacy, I confessed that my poems were all a sham and that Bittman was a hybrid version of Elliot’s Prufrock and Berryman’s Henry, two famously beleaguered characters from the North anthologies.” p.144
Kirn had ongoing conversations with “V.” – an exchange student who “represented the best of the best of [his] entire country”.
“I felt in his company, as in no one else’s, that my bullshitting was a defensible activity, a circular approach to enlightenment. And I felt flattered when he listened to me. Here was a young man who represented the best of the best of an entire country — of an entire people, as I saw it — and I was holding his attention.” p.168
The pains Kirn went to in order to write collegiate essays after he’d lost his fulfillment in so doing.
“For a few weeks I was still able to write, but it was a punishing, grind, self-conscious labor. l began most of my sentences with ”the.” Then I went looking for a noun. “The book” was often the result. Next, I seemed to remember, should come a verb. “Is” is a verb. It because my favorite verb. I liked it for its open-endedness — the way it allowed for a wide range of next moves. ”The book is always . . .” “The book is thought to . . .” “The book is green and . . .” Impermissible. Yes, a book might be a certain color, but starting an essay with the fact wasn’t what college was all about. What was it all about? It was about making statements that weren’t obvious for people who made such statements professionally. “The book is a gestural construct possessed of telos.”
There I could rest. I’d done it. An hour’s work.” p.178
Kirn develops a regime for deprogramming him self from his college ‘undereducation’ and pulling himself out of a resulting depression.
“My alarm clock woke me every morning at five, and for the next three hours I’d lie in bed, with my reference books propped open on my stomach, and repeat aloud, in alphabetical order, every word on every single page, along with its definitions and major synonyms. The ritual was humbling but soothing, and for she first time in my academic career I found myself making measurable strides, however minuscule. “Militate.” “Militia.” “Milk.” I spent as much energy on the easy words as I did on the hard ones — my way of showing contrition for squandering my high-percentile promise. And in truth, they were all hard words for me by then.” p.183
Reflections on having been awarded a post at Oxford.
“I’d soon be off to Oxford as a result. “result” was not exactly the right word, though, because it suggested that logic governs destiny. But now I knew otherwise. Imagination does. And though part of me had always suspected as much and certain teachers had coached me in the notion (“Image that you can be anything you want”), what I hadn’t understood at all was that our imaginations don’t act alone. One’s own imagination is powerless until it starts dancing with another’s.
Imagine having been imagined. Imagine.” p.205
Kirn’s summation of the book:
“… I discovered the truth — of words like “truth” mean anything. Ad even if they don’t perhaps.
Pause in your knowing to be known. Quit pushing — let yourself be pulled. Stop searching, frantic child, and be found.
Some call this Grace.
I called it Marguerite.” (Margerite Keasbey established the Keasbey Prize which Kirn received (enabling him to go on to Oxford) after being denied a Rhode’s Scholarship). p 205
Towards the end of the book, it is revealed that Kirn’s Uncle Admiral — a childhood mentor — was Robert W. Knox RADM USC & GS (Ret.). Here is a brief biography:
Kirn’s second, broader conclusion: Reflecting on a friend Karl who was self-taught and well read and wanted to meet up with after Kirn graduated Princeton.
“We had a great deal in common, Karl said.
But we didn’t, in fact, or much less than he assumed, and I didn’t know how to tell him this. To begin with, I couldn’t quote the transcendentalists as accurately and effortlessly as he could. I couldn’t quote anyone, reliably. I’d honed other skills: for flattering those in power without appearing to, for rating artistic reputations according to academic fashions, for matching my intonations and vocabulary to the backgrounds of my listeners, for placing certain words in smirking quotation marks and rolling my eyes when someone spoke too earnestly about some “classic” or masterpiece,” for veering left when the conventional wisdom went right and then doubling back if it looked like it was changing.
Flexibility, irony, self-consciousness, contrarianism. They’d gotten me through Princeton, they hadn’t quite kept me out of Oxford, and these, I was about to tell my friend, were the ways to get ahead now–not by memorizing old Ralph Waldo. I’d found out a lot since I’d aced the SATs, about the system, about myself and about the new class that the system had created, which I was now part of, for better or for worse. The class that runs things.” p.210