Now that I am an English teacher at the school, I know many of the boys in the team. Sometimes I feel embarrassed that in the thirty years that separate me from them, I have travelled less than a kilometre across the valley. It doesn’t feel much like progress. I could protest that I’ve been away and come back, but that would be protesting too much and only prove the point: a life lived in Tawa can feel a touch circumscribed.
And it was in Tawa that I met Hamlet. Indeed, he has been with me ever since our encounter in one of the classroom blocks I can see from Bethany’s window. It was there that a young Canadian, teaching to fund his OE and abounding in energy and repeatedly crashing backwards through the fourth wall, introduced me to the Prince of Denmark. And I remember Hamlet’s words: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself the king of infinite space.” Did I understand them back then? I don’t know. But I loved the sound of the language, the communion with all those who’d encountered it before me, and the fact that it could come alive again in room D14.
There is a type of high school English essay that I have read many times and which goes roughly like this: The world once lived in darkness (World War II / the American South / 20th-century New Zealand); the characters in this text live in this same darkness (Ralph and Jack / Bob Ewell / Dollarman); thank goodness that today we live in the light (Jacinda). Each time I read it, I want to argue back and fire off an essay of my own in late-night scrawl across the script. And I would but for fear of seeming churlish: a 46-year-old literature tragic going head to head with a Year 12 who’s stoked simply to have finished the book. It’s an essay born of a breezy confidence in the superiority of modern times. Yes, Petruchio tames Katherina, but it wouldn’t happen now. Sure, Tom Robinson is shot for fleeing a prison guard, but that was the South. Okay, so a Māori community finds its land under threat, but it was the 20th century. The certainty with which we assume our progress is remarkable, shored up I guess by complacency over scientific and technological advancements. But George Floyd, anyone? Ihumātao?
Very often, texts are deemed to say what we expect them to say, and this is particularly true of old texts. Because we know that Elizabethan England was sexist, we know already that Shakespeare’s plays will be sexist. Yet a closer look reveals Juliet battling it out with her Dad, Beatrice shading Benedick, Portia masterminding an entire play. When we encounter old texts and when we’re prepared to really read them—to pay close attention—we’re often surprised at how very familiar are the characters and their predicaments. Anyone who has read the parable of the Good Samaritan as an adult, having first encountered it as a child, knows this. What seemed to be a fairly basic fable on the importance of kindness becomes an incendiary polemic—“a knavish piece of work”—that scours out your heart, reveals yourself to yourself, transforms you from smug third-person connoisseur to a first-person bit part in a story, the hero of which is your enemy.
Reading the past reminds us that our travails are not uniquely our own. They’re not even unique to our age. Our anxieties and insights are ones we share with those who’ve gone before us. “Timor mortis conturbat me,” I read on the Middle English Literature course I was compelled to take as an undergraduate: “The fear of death overwhelms me.” Well, yeah, I’ve thought that. Turns out I’m not the first. “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so”: I’ve thought that too. Never phrased it quite that well, but I’ve thought it, definitely. And far from being disappointed that my experiences are shared with generations past, there’s a comfort and a humility that stem from continuity.
Right now, New Zealand secondary schools are bracing for the second iteration of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement or NCEA. I’ve been a member of the working group that has been revising materials for English teachers. One of our early jobs was to draft up the “big ideas” of English. Literature, we pronounced, involves both readers and writers in a “conversation that spans present, past, and future.” Sometimes, that conversation takes the form of blaming the past for not being sensitive to the preoccupations of the present. This is okay to a point; clearly, the blind spots of the past need light shone upon them. At the same time, there’s something laughable about shows like Downton Abbey, which thread the 1920s with a modern sensibility. Let the past be the past.
Someone who does this is Christos Tsiolkas. Raised in Melbourne within the Greek Orthodox church, Tsiolkas abandoned the faith as a teenager when he found himself unable to reconcile it with his homosexuality. Perhaps surprisingly for a gay man, Tsiolkas makes Saul/Paul the central character in his most recent novel, Damascus. Even more surprising, Tsiolkas looks beyond the passages in Paul’s writings that might typically preoccupy a gay writer, emphasising instead his teaching on equality in Christ. Citing the famous passage from Galatians about Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, Tsiolkas said in a recent podcast: “What I wanted to convey to a modern reader was how radical those words were 2000 years ago – I mean, they’re bloody radical now. Whatever your religious, or non-religious, background, that is so radical.”
This is some of the value of reading the past: you become both smaller and bigger. And you have thoughts, thoughts which take you beyond the reach of the current century or millennium, thoughts which lift you beyond the walls of room D14, beyond the lines on the rugby field, beyond the confines even of suburban Tawa, and you count yourself, for a moment, a queen or king of infinite space, or, more humbly, just an ordinary citizen who is no longer slave to the present. If only Hamlet had stumbled on Paul.