A few days ago, I completed reading In Search of Lost Time. The same day, I got an email that had a list of everyone in my high school class (of 1973). Looking over the list, I saw just 5 names of people I recalled, out of about 650 students. BTW, at least 44 of my classmates are now dead, 30 men and 14 women.
Reading Proust got me thinking about how little I recall of my early life. I’m writing this rather aimless post in the hope of getting feedback—do other people my age recall high school?
Here’s what I recall:
1. I see two Asian names on the list, but I don’t recall them. I’d guess 98% or 99% of my class was white. Today, that high school (Madison West) is 52% white.
2. I recall almost none of my teachers. I don’t recall what went on in class. I do recall there were classes of roughly one hour, and then we would move to a different room (unlike elementary school). I recall English, math, social studies, chemistry, etc. But what happened in class? Was it a lecture, like college? I don’t recall. I recall being endlessly bored, watching the clock slowly edge up to 3:20, when we were released. Most of all, I looked forward to summer vacation.
3. By graduating a semester early, I was able to spend only 2 1/2 years in high school . (9th grade was still junior high school) But not because I was a brilliant student (my GPA was about 3.2). Rather I just wanted to finish up as soon as possible, so I took the final two courses via correspondence courses. (Via the US mail, there was no internet). Then after finishing my in-person classes in January 1973, I worked five days a week in a canning factory to earn money for college. I must have hated school, but I don’t recall why. I wasn’t bullied.
4. I feel like high school must be really different today, due to innovations like computer games. I recall lots of time spent doing nothing–no phone to play with. During my final semester they switched to “open campus”, as the 1970s were among the most decadent period in US history. I’d take off Tuesday and Thursday afternoon when I had no classes and bicycle out into the country for 40 or 50 miles.
5. The 99% white figure probably makes you think it was a very conservative “pre-woke” time and place. But it didn’t seem that way at all. Students would go down to the nearby campus to engage in the frequent protests against the war in Vietnam.
6. On the other hand, politics was not polarized between the two parties. There were no blue and red tribes. The primary national news media were bland evening news shows that were all sort of center left—nothing like Fox or CNN. Sophisticated Madisonians might read the New Yorker, but (AFAIK) almost no one read the NYT. Without the internet I relied on our local paper, along with magazines like Time. (Yet somehow this primitive society put a man on the moon when I was in junior high.)
7. I don’t recall people being obsessed with getting into good colleges. I was accepted at the University of Chicago, but my family decided it was too expensive so I went to the University of Wisconsin, right in my hometown. (I did eventually go to the UC for grad school.) And how did I get accepted to the UC with a 3.2 high school GPA and precisely zero extracurricular activities of any kind? I have no idea.
8. Because the upper Midwest was still pretty rich in the early 1970s, and because the civil rights movement was still in people’s minds, there wasn’t really a coastal vs. interior split in America, it was more north/south. Wisconsin seemed somehow closer to Massachusetts or Washington state than to Alabama or Arkansas. We made fun of southern rednecks. Each time I return to Wisconsin it seems a bit more “southern”, further and further removed from coastal cities. More country music and more confederate flags than before. More Republican.
PS. Proust must have been greatly influenced by Schopenhauer. Consider (from the final volume):
And even a more profound pleasure, like the pleasure which I might have hoped to feel when I was in love with Albertine, was in fact only experienced inversely, through the anguish which I felt when she was not there . . .
PPS. And Knausgaard was clearly influenced by Proust. Both produced long, semi-biographical novels. Both long novels became less novelistic and more like an essay toward the end. Proust has a long discussion of WWI in the final volume, and Knausgaard has a long discussion of the Nazi era. Both also break the “fourth wall” toward the end, commenting on the reception of the earlier volumes. Both end up writing novels about writing novels. About struggling to write novels.
Here Proust defends himself from critics that accuse him of creating amoral characters:
The vulgar reader is wrong to think the author wicked, for in any given, ridiculous aspect [of someone’s personality], the artist sees a beautiful generality; and he no more faults his subject for being ridiculous than a surgeon looks down on a patient for being afflicted with persistent circulation problems.