Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre (part 2)

What do I mean by “apocalypse”? What are the apocalypses being envisioned by Dante, Dylan, Dr. Dre?

I stand in the back of the Recital Hall and watch and listen as my colleagues (veteran Senior English teachers at the Independent School where I’ve taught for the past seven years) “pitch” their courses.  The AP Courses get pitched first: “Gods and Monsters,” “Shakespeare in Tandem,” “Critical Approaches to Literature,” “Gothic Literature.” Several of my colleagues have visual aids: a wooden Buddha, a hand-held mirror, even a baby! (My colleague on maternity leave returned to campus for the day to pitch her class).  Even though we’ve been given a three-minute time limit to “sell” our courses, most of my colleagues miss the mark by about two to three minutes. Understandable—each of us has designed our course around our passion and expertise, those questions we most care about as readers and writers (eight of our department’s faculty are working, publishing writers).  I want to enroll in all their classes. After each pitch, the students whisper and throw meaningful looks at each other; “That’s the one I want to take,” they say to each other through their eyes and body language.

Now it my team’s turn to pitch, the on-level teachers: “Human Beings: Heroes or Beasts?”; “Rebels and Outcasts”; “Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre.” I have a little under three minutes to present my course before the bell rings, sending students to their D period classes. I have no notes, no visual aid, but I have my title, “Visions of Apocalypse: From Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre,” and I’ve spent the previous class period trying to gather my ideas in writing, so I feel prepared enough not to flub it. Here is what I’ve written in prep:

The world is always ending, but through poetry it is always being remade.

In this course, we explore how poets translate the harsh truths about the human condition into an energizing, even beautiful, force. Poetry is like a crucible—a transformative container, wherein the writer transforms life experiences through the forge of language, tempering grief, love, joy, loss, rage, hope, longing through devices such as image, meter, rhyme, etc.

Poetry endures. It’s the most powerful form of literature because of its flexibility: it slays whether a Bible verse, a Shakespeare play, a Greek epic, or a Rap song. In this course, students explore how poets give people language for experiences and ideas which seem unfathomable—for example Hell (Dante), racial and class paradoxes (Bob Dylan), street violence in Compton, California (Dr. Dre). Day to day, students read and analyze poetry (lyric, narrative, epic, dramatic, rap); they read essays and books and articles about poetry, and they write their own essays and articles about poetry. Additionally, they experience first-hand the world of the poet as creator, attending at least two poetry events (readings, slams, workshops) and writing poetry themselves.

My actual presentation to the students does not go as smoothly as my writing, but I stumble close enough to my original thinking, and, as I do, I notice the looks on students’ faces: they’re incredulous, confused, bemused, even happily shocked; some of them laugh at me and roll their eyes. Their skepticism is palpable, and it’s also reasonable: here I am—a seemingly middle-aged white lady proposing a class that sounds bizarre, and, to those in the know about Dr. Dre and rap lyrics in general, iconoclastic (or, in the parlance of high school students, “WTF?”). I bank on the fact that the students who know me already through my 9th and 10th grade courses are giving me the benefit of the doubt because they know that I’m “the kind of teacher who likes to have fun,” as one student wrote in one of my favorite evaluation comments ever.

Fast forward several months. The course selections are complete and the classes have been populated (mine “made”); I’m starting to be asked by colleagues and even a few parents, “What do you mean by “apocalypse”? One parent, who also teaches at the school, admits to me gently that the course was not his son’s first choice, and that when they went to pick up the summer reading, Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin Manuel-Miranda, the Barnes and Noble clerk was flummoxed: “You’re reading this for a class called what?!! How is Hamilton apocalyptic?!”

“I’m wondering the same thing,” my colleague confesses.

“I mean apocalypse in its original sense; I mean it in its etymological sense,” I explain to him, and I trust he will understand because he teaches Latin.

The word kalyptô in Ancient Greek means “hidden, veiled.” We find this root in a word like, “eucalyptus” (a fast-growing evergreen Australasian flowering tree that dominated my childhood in Southern California). The prefix eu means “well”; add it to the root kalyptô, and the word evolves, referencing the well-hidden seed pod that conceals the tree’s flower.

So, the word in question, broken into its Greek etymological parts—apo (un) and kaluptein (to cover)—I hope clarifies that I do not mean the word in the sense of “the complete final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation,” which is what people initially think I mean. No: what I mean is more along the lines of “unhiding,” and “uncovering” — of revealing that which has been concealed.

Calypso — In Ancient Greek, this goddess’s name literally means, “she who conceals” (Oxford Living Dictionary, online). In Homer’s Odyssey this “bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess held [Odysseus] back, / deep in her arching caverns” (Fagels 1.13-15). In other words, she hides Odysseus in her cave “across a salty waste so vast, / so endless [there is] no city of men in sight” (5. 112-113).

True, Odysseus has sex with Calypso, losing himself in love in her arms on a nightly basis; however, also true is the fact that “the nymph no longer please[s]” Odysseus. He has grown tired of her. Her ways have worn out on him (or worn him out). Homer describes Odysseus as an “unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing…” (5.172). He is being used; Calypso is using him. Calypso wants to keep Odysseus with her because he gives her immortal existence pleasure and meaning and power; in exchange, she offers Odysseus immortality (eternal youth). However, in order for Odysseus to enact his human destiny, he must not remain concealed by Calypso. According to Zeus, Odysseus must be apo-Calypsoed.

Thus, when he leaves Calpyso’s island, his apocalypse begins, and even though Calypso prophesies that “pains are fated to fill [his] cup,” even though Poseidon has in store for him “a swamping fill of trouble” (5.229 and 320), this journey is, nevertheless, the one he must undertake in order to arrive home.