On the first day of classes Dr. McCoy wrote a quote on the board from Percival Everett stating, “It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood.” Being that it was my first day of class I jotted down the words without really giving much thought to their meaning. The class then broke into groups to discuss one of the syllabus course epigraphs which was a tweet containing a picture entitled “Suspicious pants.” My initial reaction to the tweet along with, I’m sure many of my group members, was puzzlement. Why am I contemplating a pair of pants on the first day of my first semester college?
I remember thinking that the exercise was rather peculiar, silly even, until Dr. McCoy mentioned that she believed all of Everett’s work can be wrapped up in this one tweet. Having never read anything by Everett before, I was confused and a little frustrated. Obviously if these pants are a representation of all of Everett’s work, I felt I must be missing something. I expected, as in many of my high school classes, that the “answer” to the meaning behind the pants would be resolved by the end of the class. Thinking back to this day and revisiting those same “Suspicious pants” has made me realize just how much my mindset has grown.
One of the questions our group pondered on that first day was whether the pants themselves were suspicious, or whether they were suspicious of us. Are the pants acting strangely and worthy of our suspicion or are we acting strangely, and the pants are suspicious of what we are doing? According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, one definition of suspicious is “a state of mental uneasiness or uncertainty.” In a sense, this was exactly how I had entered this English class. My head was in a state of uncertainty, and the frustration that I felt on that first day was warring with my curiosity. Even though, at the time, I did not see a point to talking about these pants, my mind would not let me dismiss them because I wanted to make the connection and felt a need to understand.
What I later came to realize, was that my reaction to this tweet on the first day of classes was a form of scorn. Scorn as defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary is “an expression of contempt or derision.” Within the first weeks of her class Dr. McCoy warned us to be careful with scorn and reserve it for times when it is justified. Scorn has the power to completely close off one’s mind and makes it very difficult to think critically. As I became more conscientious and began to manage my own scorn, I was surprised at how quickly my perspective toward the class changed from suspicion to curiosity.
When I look at the pants now, I interpret them as sending the message that things may not always be as they seem. In the context of the works that we have read by Percival Everett this idea makes sense. For example, in Frenzy, Everett makes an addition of the character Vlepo into the ancient Greek story of The Bacchae. Throughout the story Dionysos transforms Vlepo into different objects and places him in situations to act as a witness. At one point, Vlepo becomes self-aware and asks his God what purpose there is for him being placed at these events. Vlepo is confused as to why he is witnessing events that Dionysos has already been present for. Dionysos responds “I’m not listening to what you describe to me so much as I am attending to what it is you feel about these reports. It is your feeling I need Vlepo.” This idea is expressed again on page 142 when Dionysos asks “Have you noticed, Vlepo, how much you are capable of feeling?” He continues, “You feel so much through these people and then you pass it on to me, and then you feel for having done that, and then you feel more for having considered the way you felt for having shared it with me.”
Being that Dionysos is a God, a reader might assume that he is all powerful and all knowing. However, the truth is that Dionysos is dependent on Vlepo and relies on him to understand human emotion. At the beginning of the semester when I first examined those pants it was like I was Dionysos without Vlepo. I was trying to understand while being unaware. I did not understand that there were many tools around me. Just as Dionysos needed Vlepo to provide reports so he could relate to human emotion, I needed to learn how to make use of the resources at my disposal to better interpret those pants, as well as the other texts we would read throughout the semester.
Those “tools” are simply a basic understanding of intertextuality which makes sense being that “Intertextuality” is the title of this course. Defined by The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, intertextuality is “the condition of interconnectedness among texts, or the concept that any text is an amalgam of others, either because it exhibits signs of influence or because it’s language inevitably contains common points of reference with other texts …” Before taking this course, I was not aware of the many connections that span across texts. Focusing on intertextuality helped me learn the usefulness of incorporating other sources such as The Bedford, Critical Analysis, content from courses outside of this discipline, and the ideas of my fellow classmates into my interpretations. Ultimately, when I was able to check my scorn and started using my resources, I was able to develop a deeper understanding of the material I was reading.
Another example I found in Everett’s work that relates back to the “Suspicious pants” tweet is in I am Not Sidney Poitier. The character of Not Sidney is never what people expect, which causes him a lot of problems and confusion. When asked his name he responds by stating his name “Not Sidney” but his unusual name typically prompts the follow-up question “Well then, what is it?” Not Sidney’s name caused people to get frustrated rather quickly when their “simple question” received a seemingly nonsensical answer.
Most of the characters that interact with Not Sidney are unable to manage their scorn and therefore are prevented from being able to get to know Not Sidney for who he really is. The first impressions and judgements that the other characters make about Not Sidney are often inaccurate and lead to misunderstandings. Similarly, as my group member Anthony pointed out, when the pants are observed without an open mind, they are just pants. It made sense now, why I had experienced such frustration on the first day of the semester. Like the characters, I was confused, not using the resources around me, and refusing to accept the information presented in front of me. The person in front of them was refusing to provide his name, and the pants were just a pair of pants.
Thinking back to the quote Dr. McCoy wrote on the first day I notice that the tweet ends in a period “Suspicious pants.” I find this ironic because even on my last day of class I still do not have a complete understanding of this “sentence” or these pants. However, I approach the challenge of uncovering their true meaning without suspicion or scorn. This semester I have learned how to better use my resources to connect ideas together and form interpretations that I can support with evidence. Maybe the pants still seem nonsensical, but if we are talking about Percival Everett, maybe that is the point. Even the character of Everett in I am Not Sidney Poitier teaches a class entitled “The Philosophy of Nonsense” which ends up providing Not Sidney with some very sensible advice. Now that I have given some thought to Everett’s quote, I’ve decided I agree, it is truly incredible a sentence is ever understood. But what I have learned through this semester is that it is even more incredible that there are so many ways to find that understanding.