By Nina Avallone-Serra
“It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood. Mere sounds strung together by some agent attempting to mean something, but the meaning need not and does not confine itself to that intention.”–Percival Everett, Erasure
My very first attempt at an essay addressing Percival Everett’s words fell embarrassingly flat. I had hoped to use this epigraph as a way to voice my confusion with the Bacchae, our first formal text in the course and in doing so only confused myself further, grinding to a halt at a quarter of the anticipated word count. I felt highly aware of the many directions I could take this quote, my inability to elaborate on these directions ironically capturing the spirit of the quote itself. In spite of my many thoughts and feelings about this particular epigraph, I felt daunted by the sudden free rein I had to make whatever I could out of Everett’s words. I touched on some of my trepidation about this departure from rigid interpretation in my original essay, discussing the beginning of my journey with “think[ing] critically about my criticism” and my concern with whether I should hold on to the insular and standardized analytical approach of my high school education or broaden my horizons to include the wider approach of intertextuality, which the Bedford Glossary defines as “… the condition of interconnectedness among texts or the concept that any text is an amalgam of others…”.
Though I failed to expand upon Everett’s thoughts in a way that would not only do them justice but help to emphasize their resonance with my own thoughts as I had hoped, my encounters with this epigraph did not end with our first self-reflective essay. It was referenced repeatedly throughout the course, whether to express confusion with a text or laughingly uttered in response to a misunderstanding in class. I found the phrase popping up in my head both in and out of class, stringing multiple pieces of my life together through an endless, complex web of alternative meanings and misunderstandings.
Despite my perilous first attempt at an essay with our fourth and final course epigraph, I find that this particular quote has held true and shown to be a very reliable throughline for this course. The act of not only accepting but embracing misunderstandings, wildly varying interpretations, and scattered thought processes as part of the admittedly hard work of learning and thinking has proven to be one of the most rewarding takeaways from Everett’s work. This premise is one of the foundational elements of the intertextual conversations initiated in the course. This method of thinking, this freedom from singular interpretations has opened pathways to link subjects as varied as education, Sidney Poitier films, Greek mythology, religion, and anatomy to each other and to ourselves.
Our reading of the Bacchae and the following discussions remain a shining example of the truth of this epigraph. An ancient Greek play with complex references, unique vocabulary, and no visual aids set the stage (ha ha) for a perfect demonstration of the concept: “It’s incredible a sentence is ever understood.” In each group discussion, interpretations of the events of the Bacchae varied wildly as if each of us had read a different play. In one particular discussion, (with Beth’s help) we reread the scene in which Pentheus is dismembered by his mother, having totally missed this huge detail with our first reading. We even had to write out a list of Dionysos’ many, many names and craft a family tree for the characters (which was conveniently provided for us later in Everett’s Frenzy) in order to simply understand the plot of the play. In my own reading, it took me until quite a ways into the play to be able to distinguish between names of places and names of characters and then figure out their corresponding significance in Greek mythological canon. Several rereadings helped me learn that Lydia and Phrygia are in fact old territories in the Asian portion of Turkey, that the Dirce and Ismenus are rivers, that Maenads are the female followers of the great Disonysos, and so on.
Both independently with our own reading and in our groups, we managed to think up a very different set of circumstances than the ones drafted by Euripides through mere misunderstanding. Without even meaning it, we created alternate dimensions to the Bacchae – ones where Pentheus’s corpse remained in one piece, ones where Dionysos was aided by multiple other entities of equal power (in which Bromeus, the Thunderer, Zagreus, etc. are all different characters). Without meaning to, we crafted in our heads alternate versions of the Bacchae, much like Percival Everett’s creation of Frenzy.
But despite the connection between our version of the Bacchae and Everett’s version of the Bacchae, my chosen epigraph still found relevance in our work with Frenzy. In fact, Frenzy felt even more befuddling than the ancient Bacchae because of its quick shifts from character to character, its increasingly complex references to Greek mythology beyond the immediate world of the Bacchae, and its intense philosophical and ontological conversations. As we read through Frenzy, we had a lot to unpack – first of all, deciphering which character we were following as we were thrust into the minds of new and unfamiliar characters like Sibyl, the object of Vlepo’s affections, and Ariadne, Dionysos’s betrothed. Not only was it necessary to get a feel for each of their individual identities and how they contributed to Frenzy’s broader existential conversation about free will and what it means to be human, it was also necessary to reconcile Everett’s vision of the Bacchae with our own. The rearranging of events and the shifted personalities of the original characters clashed with our impressions of the original work and forced us to rearrange the play to fit Everett’s vision. To me, the malleability of the Bacchae served to reinforce Everett’s assertion that any arrangement of words can have any variety of meanings, either on purpose or by accident.
Clearly, Everett’s quote creates a solid throughline for the course so far, but nowhere is it as relevant as it is with our reading of I am Not Sidney Poitier. I am Not Sidney Poitier encapsulates the spirit of the quote, introducing Not Sidney, a confusing, somewhat paradoxical character (who could possibly be Sidney Poitier – or Not) and weaving a bizarre narrative from an intertextual patchwork of plots from movies starring the actual, honest-to-God Sidney Poitier. Everett performs the same kind of magic as I and my classmates did with our accidental creation of alternate versions of the Bacchae: he opens up parallel dimensions to existing narratives like those of Lilies of the Field and The Defiant Ones to create a broader story. The existence of the whimsical world in which Not Sidney lives is based entirely on a choice to take the original stories of separate works and to deliberately interpret them in such a way as to place them in conversation with each other and with Everett’s own original ideas.
And beyond the literary world of I am Not Sidney Poitier, the real world of our classroom continued to exemplify the spirit of the epigraph. We found ourselves once again baffled by yet another of our texts, tasked with untangling the threads of I am Not Sidney Poitier: learning about the movies referenced in the novel, breaking down the “Not” which made our title character so attractive to bullies, interpreting allusions to things like popular culture and religion, etc. With such a wild plot Frankensteined together from multiple other story plots and with the use of nonsense characters like Ted Turner and Percival Everett as a tool for communicating whatever it was Everett was trying to communicate, we were very much encouraged (if not forced) to “make our own meaning” of the novel. This was especially the case in our NUNSENSE collaboration, in which we had to break down the names of the nuns in I am Not Sidney Poitier in relation to their counterparts in the Lilies of the Field movie. We had to take in information, decide what we thought might be meaningful or not, and provide the names with a significance which Percival Everett may or may not have intended. The vast expanse of possibilities for literary interpretation across genres, contexts, and mediums is, in my mind, at the heart of Everett’s quote. The flexibility to allow for misinterpretations, connections, and creations is the central characteristic of the intertextuality which is so integral to Everett’s work and the formation of new meanings in accordance with this literary approach is what truly ties the course together. The use of this epigraph as our throughline creates that crucial link not just between texts and films, but extends it to our own lives. We can find intersection between our own processes of learning and thinking and the ways in which our characters learn and think, and we can grow more having established that connection. Having the power to create meaning apart from what was supposedly intended, whether deliberately or purely by accident, and the confidence to embrace those meanings broadens the mind to a point where the nonsense of I am Not Sidney Poitier or the existentialism of Frenzy might actually begin to make sense.