When I watched the ’80s movie Blue Velvet a few weeks ago, one scene transformed the movie for me from a sadomasochistic cream dream into thesis-worthy material. Up until that scene, I had no real questions. I’d seen Kyle MacLachlan (yes, Charlotte’s scummy first husband from Sex and the City) set up as Jeffrey, the slightly preppy male protagonist playing at being a detective while diving into his dangerous sexual side. I’d seen dark-haired Isabella Rosselini set up as Dorothy, the mysteriously vulnerable sex goddess. I saw Blue Velvet exploring the queer sexual questions, the pain/pleasure questions, the ride into the dark side. But it wasn’t until the scene in which Jeffrey and Dorothy meet that I saw Blue Velvet set me up.
In this scene, Dorothy flings open her closet door to discover Jeffrey voyeuristically watching her undress, and how does she respond? She slowly drops to her knees in front of him and takes him by the hips, pants down, knife in her hand, her head just below his waist. “What do you want?” she asks, articulating the Big Life Question, the only question that at this point in the movie requires no articulation. At this moment the male psyche is not so terribly complex. He wants what she’s poised to deliver. He wants to rescue the vulnerable damsel and have her turn into a sadomasochist. He wants to fulfill his hero complex while making it hurt. He wants to do Dorothy, the hot foreign nightclub singer and marry the other female lead, the seventeen-year-old American golden girl. Sure, he knows what he wants from Dorothy at this particular moment, and isn’t it ironic that he not only gets this overdetermined fantasy but doesn’t even have to ask? The whole scene was set up; I was set up, anticipating sexual release, the oldest answer. What, then, was the purpose of asking the question?
This business of asking—knowing what to ask for, knowing how to ask, getting what you want—has haunted me in the Duke classroom, both within the texts that I’ve read and the classroom atmosphere itself. I read the first scene of The Godfather in the first class period of my first English class at Duke, and my professor claimed that the Sicilian men went to the Godfather for help with their women. I hadn’t seen that; I hadn’t gotten it from the words. He drew it from the text. No other class at Duke had made me try. I learned in that class that I wanted more from the classroom. When the Sicilian men went to the Godfather, they asked on their knees. They asked on his daughter’s wedding day, when by tradition no Sicilian would refuse a request. They knew how to ask for what they wanted. I still had to learn.
The second time around I knew the potential for classroom intellectualism. So, when reading The Scarlet Letter, I ranted in an elitist monologue at a 16-person English seminar trying to whip my classmates into letting me have it. Give me the thought-provoking conversation I crave! Think a little! Or at least yell back at me for being condescending. But I got nothing—no response, no respite from rampant intellectual apathy.
Blue Velvet delivers the answer free of charge; The Godfather gives you exactly what you knew you asked for, but maybe The Scarlet Letter, which so frustrated me as a junior, speaks to me as a rising senior. The Scarlet Letter works in blatant symbolism, in narrated sentences telling the reader exactly what everything means. Hawthorne hands you the answer, begging you to find the question. Read at a university which prides itself on providing resources for determined undergraduates who have found a path even if they haven’t produced intellectual curiosity, The Scarlet Letter exposes the creatively invalid and sympathizes with those who seek the questions, not the answers.
I guess you can escape from Dorothy’s clutches if you never have the fantasy of truly higher learning. Maybe you don’t even realize it’s possible because you’ve never been challenged beyond memorization and a lengthy reading list. Maybe you don’t realize it’s necessary because you’ve never sat through a seminar dominated by plot summary, and even that had to be dragged from the mouths of well-rounded, I-expect-nothing-more-from-college-than-a-greater-amount-of-what-I’ve-already-seen gliders. Maybe an undergraduate student at Duke can slip through the coursework cracks between the absolutely inspiring and the unbelievably mundane. Within those mundane classes, though, how can the majority of the Duke community not rise from apathy and demand more? Perhaps the University’s lack of faculty teaching incentives contribute to the intellectually dead classroom, as one of my professors suggests. But just what kind of “incentive” does it take to convince an internationally acknowledged theorist/researcher/cultural critic that an enforced hour with undergraduates should be dynamic? And what kind of student is satisfied with less?
Come tell me that I’m wrong, that Duke demands its professors to prove their renown in the classroom, that undergraduates accept nothing less. Tell me that Duke teaches you how to ask instead of rewarding those who come up with easy answers. Come argue with me. Take a class with me. You can’t escape the fantasy of Blue Velvet, because you have it, too. You just haven’t realized it yet. I’m holding the knife, ready to give what you don’t have to tell me you want. Let that be your incentive. I dare you.
Anne Lieberman is a Trinity senior.
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