Love in the Time of Moral Opprobrium

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I read a very interesting article in the newspaper today. You can read it here:

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/sex-with-a-child-is-not-the-stuff-of-the-school-curriculum-20121205-2avl6.html

I’ve had considerable fun hopping into this nonsense most of this afternoon on Facebook, but I wanted to explore some of my thinking around this issue here. I read Love in the Time of Cholera earlier this year for the first time; Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of those writers I’ve always felt I should read but haven’t, not really–except for Cholera and his incredible novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Love in the Time Cholera is a splendid, beautiful novel. If you haven’t read it, please do–and not just because it might get up Mr Bantick’s nose, especially if you’re 17 years old. I’ll summarise it very briefly here, bearing in mind that I cannot possibly do it justice.

It concerns the story, centrally, of Florentino Ariza, who develops an infatuation for a teenaged girl named Fermina Daza when he is in his 20s. He–well, he stalks her, frankly, watching her walk to school every day and writing her long and passionate letters, to which she almost never replies. She enters into a timid relationship of sorts with him, although it is never consummated–and then she marries one of the town’s most eligible bachelors, Dr Juvenal Urbino, and Ariza begins what becomes a waiting game for her, which lasts until Urbino dies when he and Daza are well into their seventies. While waiting, Ariza participates in a series of amorous affairs, although it is always Fermina Daza, splendidly, for whom he waits. In the end, he waits for over fifty years to be with her again–it really is the most evocative and powerful tale of the resilience of love, and the human spirit, and of desire. The last line of the novel, which I won’t spoil for you here, is simply breathtaking in its tragic simplicity.

So I was profoundly angry when I read the article I refer to above, for several reasons–but mostly because Chris Bantick has profoundly, almost dishonestly, misrepresented the book. He’s simply not telling the truth about it at all. I don’t know why–probably because to do so would clearly not benefit the argument he very thinly tries to make.  His dishonesty–bugger it, I’ll call it that–is all the more alarming  because he is described as a ‘Senior teacher of Literature’, which indeed he is, at one of Melbourne’s private schools. I cannot begin to imagine how he disseminates his understanding of a text in his classes, if he is given to such wildly innacurate analyses such as that he extends to Love in the Time of Cholera. His issue with the book is that one of the relationships Ariza has during the period of his waiting is with a schoolgirl, who later commits suicide. Yes, this relationship is sexual. Yes, by typical Judeo-Christian norms, such a relationship is taboo, to the extent that in most countries it would be illegal. But if you had no knowledge of the book, and you read this article, you might be forgiven for thinking that the book is about little else–and this is profoundly not true.

The relationship between Ariza and the schoolgirl–her name is America, by the way–takes place over about twenty or so pages, in the last fifth of the book. It is hardly the central focus or theme of the book. It is a long, long way from being the first thing you would discuss when introducing students to the book and what they should look for when reading it. (Look for Marquez’s masterful use of expository narrative; his shifts of time; his beautiful descriptions; his economical creation of real and enduring emotional lives for his characters–any or all these are both more interesting and relevant for study.) So among Bantick’s other sins, he takes this relatively minor thread in the book and attempts, foolishly, to make a quilt out of it.

Bantick also makes what I consider to be a pretty serious sin in this is sort of opinion writing: he mentions censorship–in the sense that what he is saying (that this novel shouldn’t be on the VCE reading list next year because it is primarily about child sex) isn’t about censorship. I beg to differ. Purely on the basis of his moral objections, he is attempting to deny students access to what is a text well worthy of scrutiny, for many reasons, some of which I just listed. Attempting to convince people that they shouldn’t read something because it’s considered ‘unsuitable’ (whatever that means) is precisely a form of censorship.

He suggests, patronisingly, that perhaps those who make these decisions on the VCE Board haven’t read the book. Given his complete misunderstanding of it, one can only reach the same conclusion about Bantick.  He also very conveniently ignores the very, very long list of classic novels that have featured for decades on secondary school reading lists. I taught Of Mice and Men at the school where I worked last year–this book was banned briefly when it was first published in the US. In high school as a student, I read 1984 and later the short stories of Guy de Maupassant–in one of which, a woman breastfeeds a stranger on a train. Does Bantick have an issue with Juliet’s age in Shakespeare’s classic tale of the star-cross’d lovers? (She’s about 13 when she marries Romeo, who is not much older.) And as one of my Facebook acquaintances mentioned in our robust skewering of the article today, we’d best not get started on the bible–all that violence, wanton behaviour, drunkenness etc etc. Who on earth are we–who is anybody–to argue that teenagers should not have access to this marvellous literature?

It is highly likely that students who read Love in the Time of Cholera–and my word, I hope they all do–will learn something of love, of its value and fragility, and how sometimes it is well worth being patient for. Would these not be lessons well learned, at their age?

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