The View from Here, No. 7

The seventh in a regular series of columns by Chay Lemoine: ‘Jail’, in which Chay describes the tribulations of teaching Halldor Laxness to American prisoners.

Every Tuesday night for the past six years I have taught maths and reading at the county jail. My students have committed very public sins and they are housed together sharing among themselves the injustices they have inflicted upon society and often share the injustices society has inflicted upon them. For most of those in my class the cell is their future. False hope burns eternal but for most of these men and woman hope is an exercise in futility. How did they arrive at this destination? Their flawed thinking is apparent. Sometimes it’s darkly humorous. One of my students was convicted of have some responsibility for the death of her child. When we were discussing an aspect of science I made the comment “of course no one would want to live forever”. She replied that she would like to be immortal because she “would be able to see her grandchildren and great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.” I paused for a few seconds and looked away to keep from replying “well you’ve got to stop killing your children if you want to see your grandchildren”.

I’m often brave with materials used in the class. I’ve found that Emily Dickenson can be disturbing to those locked up. It is not just her death poems but all of her poetry. There is silence when I read her words and, for those for whom magical thinking is all that remains, she leaves the audience with a feeling of profound helplessness. Her exile and imprisonment was self-imposed so perhaps there is a common understanding of what is felt once the doors are locked. Halldor Laxness, on the other hand, looks deep into the human heart for answers.

I have introduced Laxness to my jail students as a man that was blacklisted by the United States government for his political views. Almost everyone feels as if they have been or still are victimised by someone or something. This is especially true of those who have run afoul of the law. This commonality results in the students’ openness to what this man has to say. I have tried different short stories or pieces of his books in order to engage the class. The story “The Bread of Life” is one that generates the most discussion. It’s the story of a poor servant whose job is to deliver a loaf of bread to the church. She becomes disorientated and is lost for three days in the moors. When she is discovered by a search party, wet and without shoes or stockings, the bread is still fully intact and in its container. When questioned by a boy years later she states “One does not eat what one has been entrusted with, child!…” When questioned again she says “Can anyone be faithful to anyone if not to oneself?”

The questions are easy. What would you do? Have you eaten what you have been entrusted with? These individuals have left their wives, children, family, and significant others lost and disappointed. Most realise that once you eat the bread it results in having a total disregard for everyone and everything else that you have been entrusted with. I sometimes get the usual arguments about whether saving your life over eating the bread is reasonable but most understand the story. One student asked sarcastically, “How often does this happen?” I replied: “It happens every day in everyone’s life but most of the time we don’t see the results of our selfishness so we eat another loaf of bread and another until we are very full but still very lost”.

There are times when there is no snappy reply and I cannot leave self-satisfied that I was able to tie everything up in a nice little package so I can drive home, shower and eat a late dinner. There are those times when I leave without an appetite and sometimes sit in the parking lot for several minutes before turning the key and starting the car. One of my students was a very young man, thin, lanky; he still hadn’t started to shave. He always had leg shackles and sat leaning forward and always listened carefully to every word. I asked him “what would you do”? “Would you eat the bread?” He looked at me and then looked down at his hands and then he replied: “Tell me what I should do, because I always choose wrong.”

Chay Lemoine is an American scholar who, among other things, is a renowned Halldor Laxness expert. Chay writes a column called ‘The View from Here’ on IceNews where he talks about Laxness, life, Iceland, and whatever else is on his mind.

Comments are closed.