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Flashbacks and Flash Forwards: Some Questions about Temporalities, Timelines, and Character

As I’m starting to develop my spatial map of The Age of InnocenceI’ve been thinking not only about ambiguous spatial and temporal data but about a few narrative conventions and how they might be visualized. First, flashbacks: at the end of the novel, 25 years after the main action, Newland Archer briefly surveys the past two decades, reflecting on the birth of his children, the death of his wife, and his enduring passion for Ellen Olenska. I’m wondering how the flashback, this signal technique of film and literary narrative, can be visualized, if the word “timeline” implies a linear medium. Secondly, flash forwards: Newland spends much of his time imagining the future, whether gloomily pondering his years of impending marriage or eagerly anticipating the arrival of Ellen Olenska from the train (here’s a clip from the Scorsese adapation [1993]). Finally, much of Newland’s musings are spatial in nature–when visiting May at the Spanish Mission in St. Augustine he thinks of Grenada and the Alhambra, at his in-laws’ house, he imagines Ellen’s home on W 23rd Street, and realizing that Ellen is present in Newport without his knowledge, he flashes suddenly to

a story he had read, of some peasant children in Tuscany lighting a bunch of straw in a wayside cavern, and revealing old silent images in their painted tomb …

This beautiful, proto-filmic image, tells us much about Archer’s imagination. To go deeply inside a character’s interior life, as Wharton’s rich narrative allows us to do, will necessarily challenge linearity. As Archer roams between past and present, between home and world, between reality and imagination, I’m curious about how the map I’m starting to create will be able represent his own internal geography.

 

 

Plateaus v Quagmires: Quick Notes on Surface Learning, Deep Learning, and the Power of a Good Night’s Sleep

Last night I was about ready to throw laptop, Mac, and all against the wall…and today I was able to continue mapping, slowly but surely! Yesterday’s frustration made me think about plateaus in learning. Just as we all know the joy of accomplishment, we all know what it’s like to reach a plateau–to look around and experience the feeling that we’ve come just as far as we’ve can, and don’t feel able to go further. But that’s different from being stuck: instead, I decided to spend my plateau time enjoying the view and thinking about what I’ve learned so far.

This also recalls Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. Bain distinguishes between the strategic learning many of our students, and all of us have engaged in at some point–learning for the test, learning proficiently, yet not going deeper. (So your Italian disappears after your trip; you can’t stick a handstand anymore after yoga teacher training; and OMG, what happened to your math–sound familiar?). In contrast, deep learning is lasting, interrogative, and exploratory–it takes longer. The benefit is depth, the trade-off is time. I’ve learned so much so quickly in the past two months and have been exposed to so many new things (I use the passive deliberately here) that I want to guard against the superficiality that can accompany strategic learning.

I never thought I’d be quoting Alexander Pope on this blog, but here’s a little one from “Essay on Criticism”:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing,

Drink deeply, or taste not the Pierian spring.”