Paul Nash’s We Are Making A New World
The first time I saw this picture was in university. I was 20, 5′ 7″ and around 95 pounds. I’d never been thin and have a large frame, but for 2 years, days would go by and I’d just forget to eat. Hallucinating was distracting.
A psychiatrist urged me to stay out of school for the year and recover. But there’s 2 kinds of people in the world, when it comes to school and crises.
1) People who find school a burden, and need to be relieved from it
2) People who find school stabilizing, and need it to be relieved from chaos
Stay or go?
Since becoming a teacher, I’ve met students in both camps. Some teenagers who lose a parent to an illness, for instance, need time off to be with other family.
Or they need to forget about social and academic pressure altogether.
Or they just don’t want to talk more than they need to. For the most part, it looks pretty unusual to other teenagers to suddenly stop talking. And they know it.
Others are desperate for the structure and familiarity of school. I’ll never forget twin 15 year old girls who’d lost their mother a couple of years ago, in my homeroom class. Their background was totally unstable. Their mother had been an on-again off-again presence in their lives. Her drug addiction had left her distant. The girls had spent time living with their grandmother, staying at friends’ houses for extended periods, in temporary foster homes. Their father wasn’t in the picture.
When their mother died, the school expected them to be away for a while, staying with their grandmother who they loved.
But you couldn’t keep them away from school. You couldn’t give them an extension on a single assignment. They wouldn’t accept it. Neither girl found school easy, and one had to struggle badly to pass. But they kept asking for more feedback, politely and urgently, going steadily forward.
During that time one of the male students, who had known the twins all their lives, took on a kind of paternal role with them.
He kidded them gently and smiled at them with mischief in his eye, as if to say that all the right jokes were still possible.
He walked them to their grandmother’s house. He kept me up to date with brief, thoughtful, thoroughly undramatic descriptions of their state.
When their grief was extreme, I deeply admired the twins ability to go on. We liked each other and had always gotten along well. But our exchanges were simple and warm, not intimate or searching. Their friend’s care amazed me.
Besides what he obviously gave the girls, it helped me to understand where they were and some of the things our school needed to do for them: provide a world that made sense, treat them kindly, fairly and logically, and put worthwhile goals within reach.
Tearing might’ve worked, but I doubt it
I didn’t lose a parent and there is no comparison to that loss. But I can make a connection between their need for structure and goal-setting during a time of crisis, and mine.
As long as I could remember, I was terrified of losing my head. As a young kid I feared being sent to a mental hospital in a white jacket as my family looked on.
Now 19, 20, I sat in a hospital psychiatrist’s office. He wore the white coat though.
You are a danger to yourself.
You have become irrational.
You don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality.
At minimum, you will flunk out of school.
I’m trying to understand you, but I can’t understand a word you’re saying. You’re speaking way too fast.
Your arms are flailing. Do you know this?
You’ve become very paranoid.
It felt like my imagination had made a jailbreak, smashing through the flimsy walls of my brain and littering havoc wherever I looked. Now there was a bottle of lithium to go with it.
That psychiatrist had to be kidding.
I loved studying, and longed to learn. Plus the whole university reeked of contemplative, knowing quiet. And decency.
They’d have to rip it from my hands. Or tear me out of the university with expulsion letters and tuition refunds.
The doctor was right about the possibility of flunking out though. Unlike the twins I later taught, I was a totally unpredictable student.
Once I marched confidently into a literature class to give a presentation about a short story. The night before, I had counted all the syllables in the story – there were over 12,000 – and divided the sum by 2. The halfway point of the story should have been exactly where the halfway point was in the syllable count (maybe 6250 syllables in?). But it wasn’t.
There was a syllabic imbalance, I announced to the class, beaming with pride (I’d invented the term). Collecting some strange looks on the way out the door, there was later received a failing mark to go with them.
It sure wasn’t the only time opening my mouth during a presentation backfired.
Other times things worked out differently. I took a Shakespeare course from a scholar who was a specialist in linguistic patterns. Our first paper was on Hamlet. For 15 pages, I tried to analyse the use of vowels in a soliloquy. For days I did little else but count up all the different vowel sounds, tracking them in long spidery charts in ballpoint pen.
That paper came back with an A+. The professor gave me what he called a spontaneous book prize. Two days later, in another course, I failed a simple test half-hour comprehension test.
Living in the new world
One course I got lucky with was Art and War. Our professor was a typically brainy Ph.D. with unusually energetic empathy. She wanted us to see as many artists’ reaction to war as possible. We read fiction and poems, listened to music, studied paintings and pored over comic books.
She encouraged disciplined freedom of the imagination, if that makes any sense. She never said so but that’s how I’d name it, looking back. Freedom without wildness. Without savagery. That sounded great. My mind had made some savage turns.
One of the paintings we looked at when studying the First World War was the one at the top of this post. Paul Nash’s We Are Making A New World. Our professor asked us to examine it and give our reactions.
It really didn’t do much for me. Until a fellow student spoke up.
“Everything has been destroyed. And now we don’t know if the sun is rising or setting.”
We stared at the painting. It was true. There was no way to tell if the light was blazing afresh or releasing its last beams.
Was the world reborn or had it vanished? Were they building a new world after the war had ended? Would a new forest grow? Or was it a new world built out of war? One that would always be gutted by gunshot sinkholes?
After that afternoon I taped a photocopy of Paul Nash’s painting to my whitewashed apartment bedroom wall.
Later, as I moved from apartment to apartment and the copy yellowed, I made another copy. Stuck it to my fridge with a magnet. Then, when I got a fridge that wouldn’t accept magnets, I pinned it to a scratchboard behind my desk in the high school where I teach.
I guess because it tells me that we are always making a new world, one way or another. It is happening. So you’d better decide what kind of world it’s going to be and swing hard towards that.
Look at the painting one way and it’s horribly dark.
Look at it another and it’s a burst of hope.
There’s so many moments like this. The darkness is real. The destruction is real. And somehow the hope is real too. They live together. You can’t count either out.
So I’ve got to take them both in. And start building.