Educated Overmastery

Periodical: Lapham’s Quarterly, Fall 2008
Exhibition: Light Seeking Light, Western Bridge
Literature: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The fall edition of Lapham’s Quarterly examines various understandings of learning.  William Deresiewicz’s opening essay in “The Hypothesis” section (originally published in The Disadvantages of an Elite Education) briefly dissects the American Ivy League educational system.  Deresiewucz describes the instance of being unable to make small talk with (none other than) his plumber at age 35 as the catalyst for his realization that the education he experienced at Yale and Columbia was lacking:

“It’s not surprising that it took me so long to discover the extent of my miseducation, because the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy.  As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there, and for what being there can do for them.” (Lapham’s Quarterly Fall 2008, 23)

Having only attended state universities, I cannot support or deny this statement, but it brought to mind the title of Western Bridge’s current exhibition Light Seeking Light.  Referencing the famous anti-academic words from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, somewhere between Deresiewucz’s essay and the exhibition is the element of overmastery.  The easiest piece in the exhibition to overmaster is Mary Temple’s Raise.  Upon first glance, the brain assumes the art is made of paper cutouts, strung along the windows in an unseen location.  Few would fail to notice the perceptual inconsistencies of an immobile shadow upon closer inspection, but in an age when the general public has been found to spend an average of 3 seconds or less with works of art in a museum, overmastery is natural: we like something or do not like it.  We momentarily engage or do not engage at all.  Like the student who has lost the desire be challenged, the viewer who overmasters an image will not realize what is being missed.

Thomas Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 demonstrates the problems of overmastery of the image as she seeks the meaning behind the W.A.S.T.E. symbol throughout the novel:

“Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back.” (Pynchon 76)

The W.A.S.T.E. symbol is not understood through Maas’s relentless research (or possibly at all).  In The Crying of Lot 49, the traditional end result is not necessarily significant; seeking it vehemently may lead to obscure understandings.  While the same is not always true in art, it is worth considering the looking process before beginning to step away from a work and before the moment is dismissed.

W.A.S.T.E. symbol, image from