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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Love in the Time of Cholera' - a dissection of Christopher Bantick's opinion piece



A response to this opinion piece which appeared in The Age on December 6.


I've copied Bantick's text in full, and highlighted the passages I choose to rebut (and my rebuttals are in italics)


Sex with a child is not the stuff of the school curriculum

SHORTLY, students undertaking VCE literature will be receiving their books for next year. Some schools will be offering Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As a literature teacher, I have no issue with the quality of Marquez's writing. Indeed former US president Bill Clinton, no less, described Marquez as, ''The most important writer of fiction in any language.''

I do, however, have deep concerns over this book being on a VCE course. The reason? It explores an incestuous sexual relationship between a septuagenarian man and a 14-year-old girl.
No. It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ explores a middle-aged man’s obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter – the entire book is about that obsession. In Márquez’s book, however, the 14-year-old girl in question (her name, by the way, is América Vicuña) is not the sole focus of the story. Nobody reading ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ would say it revolves around the relationship between Florentino Ariza and América Vicuña. They would, correctly, say the focus is on Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, and their love which is a terrible plague, raging over time. But, you know, the very fact that América is not a focus in the novel is worth scrutiny in itself – that Ariza’s sexual relationship with her is so wrong, yet warrants so little page time and occupies very few of his thoughts (or guilt) is making a statement in itself – that here is a selfish man who thinks himself the hero of another grand love story. 
Furthermore, if you have an issue with a book that depicts (note: depicts is not the same as condones) the relationship between an old man and his 14-year-old ward, then you should also really take umbrage with the fact that Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ also appears on the Literature Text List, as a film. In 1977 Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl. And, honestly, of all the material listed on the upcoming VCE reading list, I have the biggest problem with Polanski being included because what he did wasn’t fiction.  

The girl is, so Marquez tells us: ''Still a child in every sense of the word, with braces on her teeth, and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees.'' If this wasn't enough, the girl's schooling declines and she commits suicide. She is merely a conquest.
It beggars belief that the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority has allowed this book to be included on next year's VCE literature course. Moreover, the selection panel that chooses the books, has shown gross insensitivity to the potential readers of the book; all the more so at a time when the Catholic Church, rightly, is facing public scrutiny over paedophilic behaviour by priests.
Ok, sensitivity to students for whom the sexual abuse of a child will be a difficult thing to read. Aside from already mentioned Polanski, you do realize that another book on the VCE reading list is Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken  Shore’ – in which a City Homicide detective is forced into “a chilling world of child pornography and sexual abuse.”

Or how about Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ in which a 15-year-old girl called Lola Quincey is sexually assaulted by an older man, whom she later goes on to marry?

And on the subject of sensitivity to students - and given that this is the Victorian Certificate of Education reading list - how about VCAA’s insensitivity for including ‘Kinglake-350’ on the syllabus? What about those students who were affected by the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires? 

It seems to me you’re picking and choosing your sensitivities, Mr Bantick. Now, I’m not saying those above texts I've mentioned should be removed from the reading list (on the contrary, they’re all fabulous reads) – but I’m highlighting the fact that you have an unfathomable beef with Gabriel García Márquez. Of all the authors on that list, you picked his novel among all those which could, by your standards, be equally questionable. Why?
Teachers are supposed to be leaders in the community
You know what? – they’re also nurturing the minds of future leaders of the community. They should have a little faith in their students to make up their own minds and develop their own moral compass. Which leads me on to the next point. . .  
They are supposed to endorse, if not moral values, then certainly not condone illegality and values that imply that sex with a child is acceptable.
Sex with a child is not acceptable. Gabriel García Márquez never says it is. ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ has an omniscient narrator – so Márquez never condones any such thing just because he depicts it. Florentino Ariza has sex with 14-year-old América – and later when she kills herself he is happy to believe his own lies that it was the pressure of school that pushed her to the brink. No student reading this will think it’s Márquez condoning sex with a minor. They will take it for what it actually is – Márquez revealing that Ariza’s love is in fact a dark, ugly thing, and he is a selfish character, not the tragically romantic hero he thinks himself to be.
It just doesn't wash that this book is included on its artistic, let alone doubtful literary merits.

Yet in your opening paragraph you say: “I have no issue with the quality of Marquez's writing.”So, which is it? Really Mr. Bantick, if I was marking this opinion piece I'd deduct points for contradictory statements.

This is not a matter of censorship. It is a matter of what befits appropriate, edifying instruction in classrooms. By any measure, Love in the Time of Cholera promotes carnality, excuses illegal under-age sexual contact, describing it as Marquez says, as a ''restorative perversion''.

Again, contradictions Mr. Bantick. In the same breath you say the book “promotes carnality” and “excuses illegal under-age sexual contact” then you quote Márquez directly in his saying “restorative perversion”. The full quote is “After so many years of calculated loves, the mild pleasure of innocence had the charm of a restorative perversion.” You do know what a perversion is, don’t you Mr. Bantick? It’s something wicked or corrupt. The word ‘restorative’ before it (suggesting América Vicuña is a sort of balm or tonic for Florentino) makes that statement a contradictory one – as murky as the book itself when it comes to explorations of love and obsession, innocence and guilt, selfishness and selflessness. Which just goes to show what a fulfilling text ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is – in just two words, “restorative perversion” – you’ve highlighted what a duality there is in Florentino Ariza. Wow. Just those two words can be picked apart by students to reveal so much.   

Surely teachers have a responsibility to say such a relationship is not acceptable.
Of course. And if you’d give them half a chance and leave the book on the reading list, you’ll find that students will say the same thing. Give them the opportunity to pick apart the text and question Florentino Ariza’s character and they’ll unearth a wealth of evidence suggesting he is an obsessive, impassioned sex addict who professes undying love for Fermina Daza while trampling on the hearts of other women and girls. Give your students half a chance, Mr Bantick, and they’ll show you that they can spot an anti-hero at 50 paces.
Sexual penetration of a child is not OK anywhere and because it is in literature at VCE level, this does not legitimise it. Any teacher abrogating their duty of care and who is misguided enough to teach the book will face this question from a student: ''What is your view on sex with a child?'' If they say it is unacceptable, then a student can surely ask, ''Why is the book on the course?'' There is no defence.
On the subject of public scrutiny that you bought up before, with regards to the Royal Commission – on the one hand you’re saying it’s good that the investigations into abuse in the Church are being bought into the public sphere. Yet you want to hide away a text that includes sexual abuse of a minor because you think it will bring up uncomfortable questions in the classroom? That seems again, contradictory. No student or teacher will be reading Ariza’s skewed relationship with América as a romantic or healthy one (especially not when it ends in suicide). So, is it better to pretend that such abuses don’t exist? Is it better to take this text off the reading list for fear of uncomfortable questions which will make students think about the links between Ariza’s abuse of América and the very real abuse being discussed because of the Royal Commission?
The public vilification photographer Bill Henson faced in 2008 over his images - subtly erotic for some, pornographic for others, artful for a few and things of beauty for fewer still - is a case in point. Henson was not explicit in his portrayal of under-age sex. It was in the mind of the viewer, if it was there at all. Yet, it seems there is clearly a double-standard at work here. While Henson's work is in public galleries and by its nature is to be viewed by many collectively, Marquez's book is in the hands of a VCE student, often read alone and in private.
Yes. And then dissected in the classroom. With other people. And their teacher. You’re not handing VCE students a hand-grenade in Márquez’s book – you’re handing them literature. Arguably, great literature . . .  although. Wait a second. Giving them this book might mean they’ll READ it. And then THINK for THEMSELVES. You’re right. This can’t be allowed to happen. Wait. What other books are VCE students reading in those dens of equity they call their ‘bedrooms’ and ‘studies’?! Quick! Somebody! Start a bonfire and gather all reading material which could incorrectly impact young minds!  
It is clear that Marquez's book is explicitly sexual (''He won her affection; he led her by the hand, and with the gentle astuteness of a kind grandfather, towards his secret slaughterhouse.'').
This is another case of you pointing out a juicy nugget of Márquez’s writing, with “secret slaughterhouse.” This will be another piece of evidence that students will use to illustrate that there is, arguably, no romantic love in this book, but rather dangerous obsession and destruction.
What this and other passages from the text do is in effect say that this skilful septuagenarian grooms his target and once he wins her trust, begins a sexual relationship that results in a child's death. Hey, but that's life ain't it? Meanwhile he moves on to another, older woman.
If Love in the Time of Cholera was a cautionary tale, the book might have some merit. It isn't. What it does is provide a voyeuristic engagement where a palpably prurient interest in child sex is primary.

You think that a 14-year-old girl killing herself because of the sexual relationship she had with a 70-something man isn’t a cautionary tale? Really? Sigh. Do I have to go over again at what point América Vicuña enters into the story? And that nobody would say ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is the story of Florentino Ariza and América Vicuña, but rather is the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza? Yes, there is sex with a minor included – but it’s not a primary focus of the book.

In simple terms, the novel is likely to be a bit of a perve for pimply faced adolescent boys to show their mates what the dirty old man gets up to with a year-9 student.
“Be careful, we have no rubbers.”  that’s a quote from a sex scene between Florentino Ariza and América Vicuña. Oh. So sexy. The page is practically combustible.
In the age of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ do you really think “pimply faced adolescent boys” are going to get their rocks off reading this book? Or any book on their VCE reading list? Really? 
You have as low an opinion of adolescent boys as you seem to have of Gabriel García Márquez.

And for girls, it sends a perhaps more damaging message still. This is that it is OK to lose your virginity at 14 to an older and experienced man who will make you feel a woman. Oh, your grades will suffer along the way and you'll probably kill yourself when he dumps you.
I was trying to think up a halfway decent response to this but I can come up with nothing other than FUCK YOU, sir.I take serious offence at this entire bollocks statement. From your condescending voice “Oh, your grades will suffer along the way and you'll probably kill yourself when he dumps you” to the implication that we’re as stupid as you are, Mr Bantick, to think that just because a text represents a morally-bankrupt character that we’ll fall for his pseudo-romance and think his actions within the story are advocacy. You make young female readers sound like complete dimwits who read blindly, like lambs to the slaughter So, yeah, FUCK YOU, Bantick. Although, not literally, because you look like one of those septuagenarian men you warned us about – you know, the ones who will lead us down a path of bad grades culminating in death.
Those who set this book either have not read it - yes, this does happen - or are operating in a different universe as to what is acceptable literature.

VCAA has shown an appalling lack of judgment in allowing this book to be on the VCE literature course for 2013 and can be accused of either incompetence, or disregard for the sensibilities of Victorian students who may be asked to read Marquez.
Oh, puh-lease. Spare me your puritanical concern for the hearts and minds of Victorian students. You do a greater disservice by treating them like moronic sheep than Márquez could ever do with this novel. You, Mr Bantick, have no faith in your students. You think they’re too stupid to read ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ critically and see Florentino Ariza for the villain in lover’s camouflage that he really is. Versus Márquez, who warned readers; “you have to be careful not to fall into my trap” as he leads them down a winding, knotted story path, trusting them enough to find their own way out.
Meanwhile, parents who may read the book may have a very different idea about what is acceptable and what isn't.
This book is offensive because it says repeatedly that screwing - yes, it's an ugly word - a child is for art's sake, well excusable. Is it? You decide.
Christopher Bantick is a senior literature teacher.


Thank God he wasn’t my literature teacher when I was in year 12. I don’t know which is worse – if he genuinely thinks that students are idiots, or if he has so little belief in his own teaching ability.  


And, really Mr Bantick, if you want to get up on a high horse and properly grumble over VCAA’s 2013 VCE reading list, why not pick on something worth worrying over? For instance, did you know that (not including film texts) 18 male authors appear on the English text list, versus only nine female? And on the VCE Literature text list, there are 42 male authors on offer, but only 24 female? Now that’s a real detriment to female students. 


UPDATE:


Love in the Time of Cholera has been spared and after a thorough review, it has been decided that Márquez and his Florentino Ariza will remain on the VCE reading list. 

I particularly like this line from the Herald Sun article: [VCAA] "noted the overwhelming support for the text from Literature teachers and other public commentators."

Christopher Bantick = 0

Literature = +1

9 comments:

  1. BRILLIANT RESPONSE, DANIELLE! JUST BRILLIANT.

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  2. Mr. Bantick is obviously not willing to take the time and effort to really analyze this novel, and as you say gives zero credit (and is quite insulting) to his students. Bravo, bravo, bravo Danielle!

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    1. Indeed. And, like I said, I think it's a small mercy that I didn't have him (or teachers like him!) at my school.

      Thank you, much appreciated!

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  3. Wow. Just, wow. I hope Mr. Bantick gets a chance to read this. I can't believe what a hypocrite he is... Thank you for posting your rebuttal.

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  4. This is simply brilliant! I'm doing this topic for my year 12 oral presentation but I can't do this justice! Must admit I did have a bit of a laugh, hope you don't mind me quoting a small part of this in my presentation, it has to be shared. Thankyou!

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    1. I hope your presentation went well :)

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  5. Amazing response.

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