by Crane Stompard
While at school, I came under the sway of a radical teacher who exposed me to the idea of subtext in a work of literature. During a discussion in one class, Dr. Harpo Kingston completely altered my perception of what was possible in literature.
He spoke about Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
“The narrator tells us that, ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles the go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.’ What does he mean by ‘miles to go before I sleep”?
I raised my hand, tentatively, but still managed to elbow the girl sitting in front of me in the back of the head. “That’s the third time today, idiot,” she said, her voice as flat as the voice of the computer speech system through which she communicated with other humans.
“Have you ever seen the movie Alien?” I asked.
Dr. Kingston never failed to hide the thrill he felt at the startling connections my mind made. He was such a gifted actor that he almost seemed frustrated with me.
“Yes,” he said. I knew that he had, since I’d already asked him this question once, earlier that day.
“Well, ‘miles to go before I sleep’ reminds me of when Ripley, that’s the Sigourney Weaver character, goes into suspended animation. Because she’s super far away from home, as in it will take her years to get home, but she gets to sleep the whole way there. I guess it’s a little bit different.”
Dr. Kingston suppressed his excitement at my comments by rubbing his face with both hands and breathing deeply through his nose.
“Not exactly what I was thinking,” he said. The class laughed at the notion of my comments not being exactly correct, since “exactly correct” was clearly what they were. Still, the laughter at Dr. Kingston’s little joke went on for long enough to make me a bit uncomfortable with the extent to which they seemed to idolize me.
“The narrator is referring to the sleep of death. Death is the subtext of the poem.”
This statement completely re-oriented me. I had a sudden realization. Poems, films, and books could be about secret things, hidden underneath the surface. Inspiration flashed.
“Alien is a film about communism,” I said.
Dr. Kingston was floored by this statement. It so impressed him that he stretched himself out on his desk, clenched his fists, and cried. I went on.
“The film is about a group of seven (or six, if you like) proletariats oppressed by the concerns of an unfeeling capitalist corporation. The alien creature, known popularly as the Xenomorph, represents the animal natures of capitalism. Capitalism respects the cruelty of the Xenomorph, and wishes to tap into its power at the cost of any number of human lives.”
I went on to explain how Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Predator, Battleship Potemkin, and Sleepless in Seattle all contained a secret communist message.
At some point, Dr. Kingston and the rest of the class fled the room in amazement. In my reverie, I hardly noticed them leaving. The only audience left was the girl I’d elbowed earlier, since she needed help getting her wheelchair around the chairs I’d stacked in front of the exit.
I never viewed literature the same way again. My eyes had been forced open, like they had been just a few days previous, after a terrible bout with conjunctivitis.
My proudest moment in college was the “passing grade” I received on a paper from Dr. Kingston, in which I described the communist subtext of Turner and Hooch. He returned the paper with the comment “Please excuse the curry stains on pages 2, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 35.” How could I not? He’d done so much for me.
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[…] my tutelage under Kingston (see the previous post about his wonderful influence on me here), and my whole-hearted acceptance of his controversial belief in subtext proved a difficult pill […]