Malaussène Scheme

Haven’t you ever wished to have a Benjamin Malaussène in your family or circle of friends? That is, somebody always willing to take all the blame, even if it is you who has been caught with your hands in the cookie jar? Well, in case you have never heard about him, Benjamin Malaussène, is the protagonist of Daniel Pennac’s  popular saga of crime thrillers, and he works as ……scapegoat. Actually, he is in Quality Control of  “the Store”, but de facto he is the person called upon to take the rap when customers come in with complaints. It works more or less like this: Malaussène manages to assume all the blame, confessing his guilt in such an affecting way that customers take pity on him, so, “the Store” doesn’t have pay for any refund, and everybody is happy.

Being the scapegoat is Benjami’s fate outside “the Store” too. Even if the situations he finds himself are caused by a series of interests and precise logics which have nothing to do with him, he ends up hopelessly guilty. This scheme, which I would like to call Malaussène scheme, is fun on books, but when you realize that what you call fiction is nothing but the reality, you start to look at it with a different eye. In short, the scheme in constituted by the following 3 main steps : 1) spotting a problem, 2) finding the scapegoat, that is, demonstrating that somebody/something else caused the problem, 3) using the scapegoat as means to go back to the status quo ante or simply to upset the status quo, as scapegoats can be used both ways. The field of application I want to use to demonstrate how this pattern works is the one dearest to me: school.  

Step 1: PROBLEM. Every year in Italy there is a learning assessment that we call INVALSI.  It is aimed at measuring the level of competence in Italian, Mathematics and English of different groups of students: in essence, it photographs the state of health of our school system.  Well, it seems the  Italian school system is far more than sick, it has a foot in the grave, actually. Just to give you an idea 44% of high school students do not reach satisfactory levels in Italian , 51% in Mathematics, 51% in English-reading and 63% in English-listening in 2020/21. The figures for Italian and Mathematics are shocking, as for English, well, everybody knows there are no good English teacher in Italy, so, no surprise.

Step 2: THE SCAPEGOAT.  If data were  taken seriously, after such an outcome new strategies would have been studied, and quickly, but, of course, effective strategies have a cost,  particularly, if we think that there have been no investments on the school for decades here. Furthermore, I wonder whom the strategist might be, as I detect no such mind capable of drawing the guidelines of the new school or somebody who is not  in the pay of political forces. As it was crystal clear that there was no intent for a change and , of course, no money on the table, a scapegoat was necessary to justify such a downfall.  It  was not so arduous to find one, but  quite the opposite, it was handed on a silver  platter.  Since these were the first tests after the outbreak of the pandemic, the designated scapegoat couldn’t but become what had characterized education in the years of Covid 19: on-line learning.

Step 3: THE  SCAPEGOAT  EFFECT. Hence, on-line learning has become the source of any ill regarding school and more. Is a student depressed? It’s because of on-line learning. Anorexia or bulimia? On-line learning. Demotivation and frustration? The same answer. Even when talking to parents, on-line learning has become the perfect justification to any behaviour and achievement below the expectation, thus demanding indulgence on my side. The consequence? On-line learning has been banned. We are about to go back to school with more than 200.000 Covid cases per day, in small classrooms with about 30 kids, with no ventilation system working and with the most absurd plan to follow in presence of  Covid cases in class. In short, 6 months of on-line learning in two years have caused a drastic drop in the levels of competence of Italian students and mined their psychological stability. Is it to be believed?

THE VARIABLE. Scapegoats cannot always work, as sometimes significant events, let’s call them variables, happen.  These variables contradict mainstream narration so manifestly that they can neither be overlooked nor hidden.  The fact in questions was the selection of magistrates held from July 12 to December 2 2021: out of 5,827 candidates only 88 passed, and most of them were “rejected” because of the written test. The writing skills of the aspiring magistrates were regarded poor, as there were not only technical but also grammatical deficiencies . We are talking about candidates who have a university degree and a master at least and, this is no small detail for what I want to demonstrate, they must have been in their early thirties, so they could not be the product of on-line learning, but rather the clear effect of years of policies made of cuts only and reforms at zero cost. For years all the methods concerning education have constantly converged to one main goal: inclusion. What’s wrong with inclusion, some of you may ask? Absolutely nothing, it  is a very daring objective, but the only way we have to include all, and avoid what today is considered a mortifying selection, is by lowering learning standards. There is no other way, no other miracles can be done, unless governments decide to invest on education.  Hence, in order to avoid depopulation, universities couldn’t but lower their learning standards too. And this is the result.

You may now object that all this talking didn’t but demonstrate that scapegoats are ineffective. Quite the contrary. In case of variables, strategies have only to be integrated a little: you overwhelm means of information with contrasting data, thus creating chaos and wait till the event is forgotten. And this is how we keep proceeding to nowhere.

On Flashbacks and Flashforwards

I don’t know about you, but as tv series addicted,  I have grown annoyed with the massive unnecessary use of flashbacks and flashforwards in storytelling. “ How to get away with Murder” drove me absolutely crazy because of the exaggerate use of this technique, thus making the narration somewhat predictable and BO-RING. Let alone “How I met your mother”.  After yet another flashforward in season six I had to wait till season eight to finally know who married who. Two entire seasons! Even a couple of days ago, while watching “Harlem”, the black, LGBT version of “Sex and the City”, the most unnecessary flash back –  an entire episode which meant to give light to some absolutely superfluous truths – was placed in the midst of the story. I understand that they want us to be glued  to the screen, but if these interruptions to a chronological narration are not skilfully planned, the outcome is just boredom rather than revived interest.

Flashbacks, in fact, help  find  the sense of a particular situation of the present, revealing  details  or  secrets from the past. While flashforwards provide anticipations. Their function  is  to enhance curiosity, as you are allowed to see a small fragment of the future, but as it is only a small part of a whole and being devoid of its context, it  is meaningless, but intriguing enough to make us want for more. Yet, their use should be dosed, pondered, otherwise flashbacks and flashforwards cannot but be downgraded to useless special effects.

The point is  that if you mean to write a story breaking here and there the chronological order of narration, there must be a good  reason to do it and you should figure the impact on the watcher.  On this purpose, I would humbly suggest to these screenwriters  the reading of a masterpiece of literature where there is an excellent use of flashbacks and flashforwards: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte  .

When the novel begins 95% of the story has already taken place. The first narrator, Mr Lockwood,  is “hired” only on the purpose of arousing our curiosity, but  as he is a total stranger to the events, how can he perform his duty? Just telling what he sees. In the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights, in fact,  Lockwood only describes people and tells us his impressions about his neighbours: the atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, his meeting with his rude, hot landlord named Heathcliff, the bunch of sullen, mysterious people who live there, whom  he can’t detect  how they are connected one to another, the night visit of a ghost and more. It is the detailed report of  his experience there, that triggers a great quantity of questions in the reader, but this narrator won’t be allowed to give the answers. This is the reason why Emily Bronte calls him Mr Lockwood, as to remark  that “unlocking” mysteries is not  his function here, but quite the contrary.

As Lockwood cannot tell us more than his impressions, a second narrator is needed. Somebody  who knows everything and can unravel the thread of the story, and Emily Bronte’s choice falls on Nelly Dean, a witness of the events. Being the governess of Thrushcross Grange , where Lockwood resides, Nelly is able to satisfy all his curiosities, therefore, she tells him the entire story starting from the beginning. From this moment a long flashback  begins, which stretches from the arrival of Heathcliff when he was a little boy to the present events.

I have to say  that the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are so rich and extremely powerful  in narrative tension that after the initial fireworks the chronological  narration proceeds in a sort of slow “diminuendo” rather than “crescendo” in emotion, despite the many twists in the story.  It is very likely that the necessity to enliven the end of  the novel  could be the reason why Emily Bronte employs the flashback stratagem in her the last three chapters too. Lockwood, in fact, comes back after six month absence and he is told the latest, shocking  news by Nelly, which includes: Heathcliff’s death, his reunion with his beloved Catherine after death – as their ghosts have been seen wandering in the moors – but also happier outcomes. Hence, Emily Bronte not only manages to engage once again her –exhausted – reader, but also balances the structure of the novel providing it with and effective “finale”.  

Read the classics, dear screenwriters, read the classics!

Party Time!

I’ve always thought that video making could be a very effective tool in teaching, in particular in teaching a language. It can help any student to break the ice, to get used to the impact you have, when you shift to a language which is not your own. Being able to say, even a few words, before a camera, cannot but build one’s confidence and teach anybody to fsce their natural shyness. My greatest obstacle had always been, actually, to find a group of student daring enough to do it. Maybe I was a step ahead of my times, as, when I started prosoping this kind of effort, the reaction I received was always the same: ” You must be jocking“? I was not, but looking at those incredulous eyes, I didn’t feel like exposing those adolescents and the insecurities of their age on a video, so I did nothing. For a while.

But time goes by. The new generations are now used to watching and being watched, posting their photos, videos or stories on social media, but I realized that times had actually changed, when the answer to my usual proposition turned eventually into a: “Why not?” Since then, it has been easier and easier to involve students, who have learnt to use their favourite means of communication even for school activities, giving way to their bondless creativity and skill. At this time of the school year, when our lazy summer days and beaches are in sight, ( or at least we hope so, as we have had a “springless” spring so far), I usually organize a big school party to celebrate the achievements of the students and on this occasion we also enjoy watching their videos and award the best productions. Since they have become so many in time, we have found more convenient to build trailers with some parts of the movies made by each class, thus avoiding any risk of boredom and having the maximum of fun.

After so many years I am still amazed at the genuine creativity of students, that is why I wanted to share with you this year’s trailers, so that you may give a look at them, if you wish. Let’s start with the youngest. They are about 15 years old and I guess they shot about 30 videos about literature, grammar teaching and even some commercials:

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/2A_2019.mov

The next are about one year older and they made free interpretations of Shakesperian tragedies and ballads, this year’s Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene was particularly effective and the best actor awarded played the role of Juliet wearing a flashy pink wig :

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/3A_2019.mov

This other group of students, who are about 17, 18 years old, filmed many versions of Darcy’s proposal from Pride and Prejudice and the beginning of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Some of them are second only to the Iron Maiden’s interpretation in matter of creativity:

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/4A_2019.mov

And this was the movie that ended the ceremony which included them all:

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/2019_you_teach_finale.mov

I know, it is the proud teacher who is writing this and very likely looks at them with the eyes of love, but how could I feel otherwise?

A Beast in Disguise

gt1

“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2) or…. is he only just an animal endowed with a little reason which he can’t even use properly? Swift wouldn’t have had the smallest doubt in choosing the second option.In the second book of Gulliver’s Travels, there is an episode that well explains his point of view.

gt5Swift’s hero is in front of the King of Brobdingnad (the giants) with the design of acquainting him about all the wonders of English civilization. The king seems to pay great attention to Gulliver’s boast upon the political, cultural, scientifical achievements of his country, but in the end he comments his speech using the following mordant words:“I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth“.  It’s clear that Jonathan Swift didn’t share the optimism of an age that believed that modern man could reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through scientific method. Quite the contrary. To that “greatness” of the Enlightenment creed, he opposed his idea of the moral “smallness” of man.

gt3Throughout the novel Swift seems to be busy in analysing, dissecting, mortifying man with the only aim of demonstrating his viciousness, ineptitude and ignorance, making him thus meritorious of contempt rather than admiration. His characters are more body than mind and despite their use of reason, they cannot conceal their bestial traits. To convince us of that, he removes that veil of respectability and dignity that seems to characterize modern cultures and, without hiding a certain satisfaction, focuses his attention on those actions (defecating, urinating) or those parts of the body which, for good reasons of propriety, are usually considered taboo. Without that veil man is only a beast, a beast in disguise: a Yahoo.

gt4In Gulliver’s last adventure on the land of the wise horses, he meets the Yahoos, but he stubbornly doesn’t seem to recognize any human traits in them (but we do), even if he meticulously analyzes every single part of their body with scientific zeal, anus included. Gulliver/ Swift shows all his revulsion, lingering on long descriptions which have the aim of exaggerating and distorting, thus making the reader feel the same repugnance. At first he feels “discomposed” at the sight of the Yahoos’ “singular” and “deformed” features, but detail after detail there is a crescendo of unrestrained aversion that makes them become “beast“, “ugly monsters“, “cursed brood“. The act of defecating on Gulliver’s head is the ultimate proof of the degradation of the Yahoos/men, who don’t seem to feel the shame of their actions. But when after a while Gulliver bumps into the wise horses, they see only a Yahoo with clothes on: a beast in disguise.

That’s why I don’t want to be Jane Eyre

Jane-Eyre-gall7

A couple of days ago I saw a headline on Il Corriere della Sera , which caught my attention: Perchè tutte (o quasi) vorremmo essere Jane Eyre di Charlotte Bronte” ( That’s why all of us (or almost all) would like to be Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte). It was a kind of  interesting, because, actually Jane Eyre has never been one of my favourite heroines, and certainly not one I naturally identify with,  maybe Angela Frenda, the journalist who wrote the article, had new fresh hints to offer.
jane_eyre_7611_crop

Jane Eyre belongs to category of the Bildungsroman, if fact we see her moral, psychological, and intellectual development from her early youth to a more mature age. Jane is an orphan left in the care of a cruel aunt, who gets rid of her very soon and sends her to a horrible school for girls, Lowood, to become a governess. After many years of troubles and hard work, she finishes her education and is employed at Thornfield, a name which can’t certainly be considered good omen.

images2VG97WDJThe owner of the house is Edward Rochester, a sort of Byronic hero, a mysterious, seductive, arrogant, passionate, handsome man who eventually falls in love with our plain Jane and proposes her marriage. He just forgot to mention that he was already married. It happens. His wife Bertha had gone mad shortly after the marriage, and lived in secret part of the house in the custody of a lady. Every now and then, she managed to escape the surveillance and she walked in night – veeeery Gothic indeed – spying the inhabitants of the house or trying to set  Mr Rochester’ s room  on fire, which she did. Shocked and humbled, Jane runs away penniless and is helped by a family, the Rivers, who eventually she discovers to be her cousins, and inherits a small fortune from an uncle. One night she has the impression of hearing Mr Rochester’s voice calling for her. She returns to Thornfield and finds the house burned down – it was Bertha’s doing – and Rochester blind and lame. He still loves her and now she accepts to marry him.

pictures-of-cinderella-8312Certainly our heroine doesn’t  belong to the typical prototype of Cinderella, that is I am beautiful and virtuous, therefore I deserve a prince and an easy life.  But, according to Angela Frenda : “Jane is a girl who has used no shortcuts, many of us see in her a metaphor of how life should be lived (by women, above all)”. Jane, in fact, is the kind of woman who obstinately and strenuously fights alone to reach her goal in a hostile, sometimes cruel world. Yet she accepts no compromises, she doesn’t want to use the charms and tricks, typical of the female world, but just hard work, sensibility, love and above all dignity. When Jane finds our about Mr Rochester’s wife, for example, she refuses to become his lover and leaves Thornfield without accepting any help from him.

imagesHVLYHC6UOk, I’m convinced: she is a saint, an example for us all, a metaphor, whatever, but there is one point I am firm: what is the reward for such immaculate perfection in the end? Mr Rochester? Love at last? Bah! We should remember that when Jane Eyre makes her homecoming at Thornfield, she is an independent, strong woman ( Charlotte Bronte had endowed her with a small fortune) while Mr Rochester is a weak man emotionally and physically shattered . She will have to nurse him for the rest of her life! If this is the reward, I’m sorry, but I’d rather be Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even Bridget Jones would be ok.

Cards,tarots and horoscopes

fortune teller

I am not so much into horoscopes and such, but I have to admit that occasionally I succumb the impulse of reading one, even if my reason rebels to the foolishness of that impulse, suggesting that the whole world cannot be divided in twelve proto-types of people who share more or less the same character, destiny etc.. I know  that somebody would say: ” Ah,ah, what about the ascending sign?” Ok, let’s talk about it….or better, let’s not, because the question is : why do we try to sneak a glimpse at the future even if we profess ourselves agnostic in the field of divination? The answer is simple: we are weak, nobody excluded, and sometimes we need a word of hope, any word from anybody even a fortune-teller. In the Waste Land, Madame Sosostris, “a famous clairvoyant” , is defined by T.S.Eliot as “the wisest woman in Europe” .That adjective “wise“, referred to a fortune-teller, emphasizes the degree of  desperation of the post war generation who found an empty consolation only in the false certainties provided by an alleged seer “with a wicked pack of cards“, superseding in this function religion itself. It isn’t even clear whether this Madame Sosostris is actually a woman, since Eliot seems to have taken this name from a character of Aldous Huxley’s novel Chrome Yellow : “Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana,” who was actually a man dressed up as a woman, who played a fortune-telling gypsy at a fair. In this way Sosostris would have shown the same connotations of sexual ambiguity which foreshadow Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, famous for clairvoyance and for being transformed into a woman for seven years. Madame Sosostris could also be a reference to Madame Blavatsky, a Russian-born scholar of esoteric who was so much in vogue at this time, that some people probably thought her “the wisest woman in Europe.” However,I wonder who we might consider wise or the wisest nowadays, because even if I try hard, I can’t find a Madame Sosostris anywhere.