Thursday, December 16, 2004

Final as koan

When I flipped over that final exam, I remembered why I had decided to take a second class with Carl Felsenfeld. It certainly wasn't because of his dynamic lecturing style. Nope. It's the final exams he comes up with.

Ya turn it over, and there's one page of short questions, maybe 20 in all. So ya think, '20 short answers, a paragraph per, 3 hours.....I can do that.' Then you see the terse instructions: 'These can be answered in a few words. I will deduct points for being verbose.' So after 4 months of lectures, it all boils down to a few snappy answers.

Really, those first few moments are not unlike Zen training, from what I understand. There's an ambitious young devotee, who spends arduous hours memorizing ancient texts and learning to levitate and all. Finally, on the Big Day, he sits in front of the Zen master, expecting to strut his stuff, and the master starts pouring tea. He keeps pouring tea until it overflows the cup. He turns to the student and says, "You are like this cup. How can you learn Zen until you empty your cup? You may leave now."

Student: "What the fuck?"

So it is with a Felsenfeld final which, like a koan, is both disorienting and liberating.

Anyways, as you go through, it becomes less like a koan and more like an Emily Dickinson poem: short and weird, deflecting your attention towards strange corners of the room you wouldn't have otherwise noticed. Rather than focusing on the Important Issues, he asks about queer details; his questions break up the sources of law and focus attention on the shimmering surfaces of texts rather than the legal import of the reasoning. For example, he'll quote texts and ask their source; the kicker, though, is that he'll create these bizarrely poetic passages through liberal use of '...'. It's really quite odd.

And that's why I took another Carl-Class. It wasn't for the grade: I think I was too verbose last time, and have a hard time constraining that impulse even when necessary. It was for that fucking weird final.