Several weeks ago, I taught William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in my Survey in American Literature course. Of all the texts I’ve taught since the summer before last (when I started teaching literature courses), this one may have been the most difficult. For those unfamiliar with the book, it is told almost exclusively in a stream of consciousness manner, spanning across more perspectives than you can count on a single hand, each one intensely personal and subjective. The plot, insofar as it has one, follows the Bundren family as they make their journey to the birthplace of their deceased mother so that they might bury her there. In other words, As I Lay Dying is a “dark” book that isn’t so much a story as a radical de-centering of experience — multiple minds, multiple experiences, and multiple reactions.
But the book itself is not what I want to talk about today; rather, it serves as the context. What I
want to talk about is skulls. At some point at the end of our discussions of Faulkner’s novel, my students managed to get us onto the subject of “darkness” (tonal). Specifically, they were comparing Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” both of which have been described as dark comedies. My students didn’t quite agree with this, noting that much of the thematic content of As I Lay Dying is difficult to make fun of even when a comic genius is involved (I’m paraphrasing their arguments, of course). “Miss Lonelyhearts,” however, seemed rather amusing in retrospect. They thought that while much of the story hadn’t seemed funny when they were reading it, West’s narrative had, in fact, grown on them. I suspect part of this has to do with exposure to Faulkner, which is such a contrast to West that it’s hard to fully argue that “Miss Lonelyhearts” isn’t at least half funny.
It was at this point that my one and only Russian student matter-of-factly stated, “When I was a kid, we used to play with the skulls of dead Germans.” I can’t recall the exact context in which these words were spoken, unfortunately. What interests me about this announcement isn’t whether it makes sense in my recollection of events, but rather how it was stated: as if there is nothing strange about playing with dead German skulls. In subsequent conversations with this student, she provided considerable detail of the catacombs in which she and her friends would play (somewhere in the Eastern edge of what was Soviet Bloc territory — I cannot recall where at the moment). Apparently these bones and skulls were left there after the war; nobody bothered to pick them up and bury them (or do whatever you do with the bones of dead Germans). And so, my Russian student grew up playing with the skulls of dead Germans.
Think about that for a minute. Imagine what it must have been like growing up in a world in which playing with dead German skulls is just plain normal. A hard world to imagine, no?
Excuse me while I file this in one of the weirdest teaching experiences I’ve ever had, right alongside the time one of my students said that whenever they thought of me, they imagined me as the woman being chased by the werewolf in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” (Among other weird moments, of course.)