Connecting: The Grand Narrative

Simon Ensor has been laying down some mean tracks on his blog, touches of sense… especially this one, “Zootopia” where he asks the shimmering question, “Whatever happened to grand narrative?”

I started out by responding  via the Diigo Group Annotations for #CCourses that we have set up (totally open to join here), but as happens so often for me the annotations got longer and longer until they grew into a quasi/semi/pseudo/crypto post.  Hence the spillover here. Besides, how was I going to get my snake pix in here otherwise.  Yes, this blog now involves snakes so that makes this officially akin to the snakes on a plane–without the cussin’.

After beginning his grand narrative, Simon begins to draw the truth from the parable of the zoo.  He writes, “I would like to imagine that in the future our children will look at the enclosures in which past generations were kept as absurd anachronism.”  I recall the first time I used blogs in the secondary high school in 2002 it felt like I was not only opening up the cages, but also knocking holes in the walls so that no one could ever use them as cages again.  At least for the students who I was working with, I think this was true. Once they tasted that freedom there was no going back.

Then he gets to the big question: whatever happened to grand narrative?

Well…maybe it’s all grand narrative all the way down.  For example,  I had a grand day outside.  Frost was expected so we had to dig our peanuts and check out the sweet potatoes to see if they were ready to dig (tradition here is to dig them after a frost).

CC BY Terry Elliott

I think we are going to get about a five to one return on the peanuts (yield per pound planted) and God knows on the sweet taters.  That is a grand narrative isn’t it?  One of the grandest narratives.  Agriculture.  (And it is one that is not without its…dark side.)

I was introduced to a grander narrative only a short while after we had battened down the garden to save the tomatoes and peppers and flowers from frost.  My wife discovered a corn snake trapped in bird netting.

Copyright Elaine Digges, Permission to use

Corn snakes are the glory of the constrictors round these parts.  Bright orange with diamonds patterns and black and white bellies.  Astonishing.  If you catch sight of of one in the wild you cannot believe that such a creature could hide from anything.  Too bright.  Too shiny.  Yet…I have seen them slither away and disappear like the Cheshire Cat.  We cut the netting away from her.  Took her away from where the chickens might do her harm (chickens are notorious snake enemies) and released her.

Copyright Elaine Digges, Permission to use

She immediately serpentined about in a threatening “s” to let us know that she was not to be anthropomorphized. Three feet of grand narrative, millions of years old, with a legacy that lives on in one of the parts of our triune brain.  I was unconsciously sweating the whole time I was cutting her away from the netting with scissors. I could not help it.

DSC_0123-001cornsnake (1)
Copyright Elaine Digges, Permission to use

That narrative is a potent legacy, not to be thrown off by a rational self that told me over and over that there was no danger.  That is a grand narrative that leads me to a question– is anyone an island entire unto herself?  Should we not consider the unveiling of connection to be the great new story that Thomas Berry speaks of in his book , The Dream of the Earth ? Is the corn snake another revealed link just like reading and annotating Simon’s post and all of it part of a larger scheme?

Simon notes how appalled he felt as he observes how his young friends “appeared to have their lives mapped out” much like the animals of Zootopia. I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with those maps into the future.  The danger is in thinking that any cartographer could draw one for us.  We are not alone in the struggle to map out our own territory, but perhaps Simon is suggesting that we need to be more like Daniel Boone when it comes to blazing our own trail.  Any other map just might be the wrong one pulled from someone else’s cosmic junk drawer, the Procrustean one that will make us fit, a  soul’s death by a thousand cuts

Or as Simon put it fast forwarding decades into the future,  his ‘mapped out’ friends had become too dependent on their own comfort, their own faith in the map. I was reminded of  a paradoxical phrase “risks may be our safeties in disguise” that I thought might have come from a John Berryman sonnet.  Uncertain of the origin,  the phrase sent me on a Google search. Instead, I was taken to a post I had written in Blogger in 2001.  In it I am looking for a map that was calling out to be blazed:

My eyes are shot. I have been sketching approaches to on-line classes all day when I realized that what I want is a website that will supplement what I am doing in the classroom. I want projects, resources, and information that my students can use outside of class to make their learning richer. I want interaction. But I also want something a home-bound student or a home-schooled student could pick up and go with. All the web development sites and resources tell me that is the wrong way to go about building a web site. But a big, sprawling site feels right to me. I am thinking about an old bookstore I used to haunt in downtown Louisville, Zimmermans. His books were sometimes stacked neatly, sometimes in boxes, sometimes in great tall stacks with their spines turned so that you had to unstack them. That’s how I feel about this prefab notion of building a learning environment. I would prefer to grow a learning tree. Some parts die, some parts grow. Sometimes a storm blows the whole freaking mama to the ground.

That brings me to change. Part of me is appalled by the philosophy of constant change. Why the hell should I, for example, concern myself with an article about e-books. It’s a crappy technology that is nearly stillborn. Yet… I know some version of electronic portability will be born and grow. And so it means climbing the learning curve every day with no guarantee that the hard-won knowledge won’t be lost like some Sysyphean stone that crushes the life out of you. That is real teaching… the opportunity to constantly regale your friends with the depth and breadth of your foolishness. Teachers must be early adopters, they must struggle with new ways of learning no matter how feeble because they might just grow from a palsied childhood to greatness. It takes real courage to say to yourself that nothing you do will ever be good enough. But I hate change… I think John Berryman once said in a sonnet that risks may be our safeties in disguise. I put my hope in that paradox. I put my heart in the safety of change.

So… Simon, is this the grand narrative? Do we un-write the old story and spin a new one from partly old thread and partly new?  I think maybe E.M.Forster’s admonition in Howard’s End might hint at the new fabric we need,

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect…


23 thoughts on “Connecting: The Grand Narrative

  1. My reading of Howard’s End was different. With a colleague Elena Zaitseva, we used the idea of Only Connect (and Graves’ Cool Webs) to help unpick what was happening in a project on international student collaboration online.
    Here was what we said in this paper

    In Howard’s End, Forster explores a more sophisticated conception of connection than a purely instrumental one. He is interested in the connection between the world of the intellect and the world of commerce. Forster also explored connection within a person between the cerebral and the practical. The ‘only connect’ quote characterises the attitude of the intellectual Margaret Hegel towards her project of helping Henry Wilcox, the successful businessman, to become a more loving and expressive husband. This is a change that will take place by ‘quiet indication’ rather than by talking, but sadly this is a project that does not work out as intended. By marrying Henry, Margaret has attempted to bridge the worlds of the private and the public. Earlier in the story, Margaret said to her sister Helen: ‘The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think are supreme, are not supreme there’ (Forster, 1910, p. 28).

    1. Cool, but how about that snake. Beautiful isn’t it? Here is a fine poem about snakes (and more)by Miss Dickinson:

      A narrow fellow in the grass
      Occasionally rides;
      You may have met him, — did you not,
      His notice sudden is.
      The grass divides as with a comb,
      A spotted shaft is seen;
      And then it closes at your feet
      And opens further on.
      He likes a boggy acre,
      A floor too cool for corn.
      Yet when a child, and barefoot,
      I more than once, at morn,
      Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
      Unbraiding in the sun, —
      When, stooping to secure it,
      It wrinkled, and was gone.
      Several of nature’s people
      I know, and they know me;
      I feel for them a transport
      Of cordiality;
      But never met this fellow,
      Attended or alone,
      Without a tighter breathing,
      And zero at the bone.

    2. love this – : ‘The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think are supreme, are not supreme there’

    3. Actually Frances I read your response as an attempt to silence my post with a nitpicky academic response to the large attempt to speak to narrative.

      1. That’s interesting. The last part of the comment was a quote from the paper . I was trying to save you the bother of reading the whole paper. I just thought you might be interested in a different interpretation of the ‘Only Connect’ quote. So you thought I was silencing you – meanwhile…

        1. Perhaps we have jousted past each other. Your comment focused on what to me was the least bit of the post. In fact the quote was a throwaway that I added. And I have always used the Forster quote out of context for my own purposes and not in context for your purposes. I am allowed to do, yes? I have been working with colleagues who play this oneupmanship on a regular basis as a way of putting others in their proper place. These put downs are an in joke among us instructor types. As an adjunct I am extremely sensitive to being silenced by the experts in just this way. While I have never gotten lots of comments from others this is the very first time I have felt so strongly. I even asked a few folks whether they knew you and whether I should feel so dismissed. They suggested that I let it go. And I did. Until your tweet shattered the peace by suggesting my hypocrisy in this post. I felt you questioned my integrity in both this space and in the otherwise friendly ClavierPicnic space. I felt provoked so I responded. Here is the tweet: “Interested in what you said today about being ignored.How wld you reread yr response to my comment here?…” The implication being that I silenced you on the post and that my comments on our Hangout were hypocrisy. You don’t know me well enough personally to make that kind of personal charge.

          1. I wasn’t making any sort of personal charge against you. I am conscious that is your personal and public blog space so will email you rather than defend myself here.

    4. You ask for my response. I assume that you thought I was trying to silence your academic response to my blog post? I think my point was that you got the wrong end of the stick. The post wasn’t even mostly about Howard’s End. The post was about snakes and the larger narrative they represent. I felt that your academized comment was an attempt to censor what was a heartfelt attempt to come to terms with issues of connection in my life. You trivialized that by turning it into being all about the sense of a single quote. Your comment was a silencing and a censoring and a dismissal. Its effect was to reduce the most of what I was trying to say into the least of what I did say.

      1. That’s quite a big (over)reaction Terry. I suspect we both got the wrong end of each other’s sticks. I was trying to promote a richer view of connection than the usual Internet interpretation of the quote.
        It’s really helpful that you shared your reading of my intervention.
        You felt you were ignored – I felt I was ignored – a good example of some of what we discussed in the hangout.

  2. I love snakes, and spiders, and creatures as such that simultaneously ignite wonder and the innate amygdalan fear that overrides all sensible cognition.

    Love the snake. Pretty snake.

    There are grand narratives everywhere; I like to think of them on a multitude of scales, from the ant rushing to carry the crumb someplace VERY IMPORTANT to the individual Heroe’s Journey to the bloody civil wars raging throughout the world. All. Grand.

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