We used a typescript copy of my small, forthcoming edited volume, Fabricating Origins (due out this summer), in my upper-level seminar this semester, a course devoted to examining origins narratives — seeing those various sorts of “In the beginning” tales we so commonly tell as not being about the past their tellers claim to narrate but all about the present and future hopes of the tale’s narrator. The course started out with Barry Levinson’s endearing film “Avalon” (but one that opens the way to discussing hidden fractures in the life of any social group) and then a couple weeks later we watched Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (in which the notion of nostalgia is problematized so nicely) — both setting the tone for the course. Students kept notebooks in the class (something I learned from Jonathan Z. Smith and which I’ve incorporated into most of my upper-level seminars), and they handed them into me last week; it was interesting to see, from some of their notes, how effective the films were in framing the problem of the course. And then, eventually, we worked our way to the ten revised posts from this site, collected together in the above-named volume, complete with commentaries on each by a group of young scholars I’ve mostly met online through social media. And, like the movies, the volume seems to have worked well with students, to press home the point of the course.
And that point was…?
Don’t look in the distance, or the past, at whatever someone is gesturing toward; rather, keep your eyes on the one trying to direct, perhaps even to force, your gaze.
So although the course isn’t quite over, I admit that I’m pleased with the result — students end the course by selecting an e.g. of their own, some origins narrative that they think can serve as a site where they can demonstrate how to use the tools we been discussing in the course: the ability to look past the story to the interests of the storyteller. So this week and next we’ll be hearing everyone try out their analysis on the rest of the class — 10 min each — and doing so prior to writing it up and submitting it at the end of the semester (which, now, is just around the corner). Last I heard their examples were diverse and fascinating; when we first talked about this final assignment, a couple months ago, some students had yet to make the switch, for they were still hearing origins tales as conveying a straightforward developmental narrative from some pristine moment in the past that was causally or sequentially related to us here in the present. But it seems everyone has made the shift by now — at least for purposes of our course, of course — and so I’ve got to say I’m a little eager to see the examples they select and what they do with them.
One point I’ve come back to a few times this semester, and which seems to work, is that old notion of a family tree. Sure, I’m descended from my father and his father (that’s him, with my grandmother, Pauline, in the old photo above, on their wedding day in 1920, I think), and that’s what makes me not just Russell McCutcheon but Russell McCutcheon III (for I’m named after my dad and he is named after his). But if I go back just two generations to get to that man seated in that photo then there’s another grandfather, who more than likely also sat with his new bride for a wedding photo, maybe even with a curiously large number of flowers in his lapel, and I’m as much one as I am the other. But because my late mother was, at an early age, a foster child, I know next to nothing about her biological father, a man with the surname Viaux, who lived in Montreal and who, we were all told as children, was an accomplished brick layer but who drank too much and the family ended up being scattered in orphanages.
So…, to say “I’m Russell McCutcheon III” (as I sometimes did as a child, if memory serves, long before developing the habit of inserting my middle initial “T” into my signature, which is still there in my authorial name today — an insertion that distinguished me from my father) not only immediately plots me as gaining identity through patrilineal descent but also speaks the glaring silence that is my knowledge of my mother’s family and background; for fifty percent of my genetic history is pretty much a mystery.
I made this point early on in the course by putting one of those family trees on the room’s multimedia screen, going back far enough on it that there were 16 places for names across the top row of ancestors, eight of whom were all equally my great-great grandfathers. As I worked through the example what became profoundly apparent was, even sticking with just my male ancestors, how many different paths I could trace, starting somewhere in the past, to get to me, and each path represented a different choice, made by me in the present, opting to start here as opposed to there, making me now a this if I made that turn or a that if I went some other direction. Most of those paths steered clear of that my father’s father, who drowned before my dad was even born, but if I wanted the imprimatur of “the third” behind my name — and, again, the important point is that this is my want we’re talking about — then there was only one place I could get that.
To bring home the point we watched a few commercials from the genealogy site, ancestry.com, one of which was the following.
I’ve referenced all of this in class a few times after that — are we discovering or fabricating our story? — and it seems that this quick little example, among other things, may have clicked with some of the students, with many recalling it in their notes, and thus prompting them to begin to resist the temptation to focus on the exotic ancestors romantically climbing out of windows and, instead, to keep their eye on the mundane speaker in the present, the one leaning back in a chair saying, “Well…, when I was a kid…” and thus the ones doing work in the present, on the back of a past that strikes them as useful for their particular purposes.