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Clio's Temple

Memories and promises of an old man

The Pygmalion myth is an enduring one. Given new life by Shaw in 1914's Pygmalion, it received its apotheosis in My Fair Lady. These latter-day takes on a very old tale speak to some deep truth in the relationship between artist and creation, between teacher and student. Is it love or folly to cherish an excessive admiration for one's creation?

As some of you may know, I taught as an adjunct instructor at Piedmont Technical College for several years. One danger that became real to me is what I would call "the Pygmalion effect." That is, every semester, I had one or two students who stood head and shoulders above the rest of the class. It required close attention not to succumb to the illusion that I was uniquely responsible for how well these students did, not to confuse my role as instructor with their formation as students. I may have had some positive influence on them; I doubt it was a decisive factor in their intellectual growth.

As a not-yet-old man (I'm 67), I've tried to be as analytical as possible in my observation of human behavior. This is mostly because I am sometimes subject to strong emotional reactions to particular situations and trying to stand away from my own reactions and responses seems psychologically healthier than nurturing lingering anger, self-pity, or self-justification. One unfortunate result is that my writing sometimes seems too left-brained to be effective in portraying people in all their flawed glory. This is a flaw which, I suspect, will take me a long time to eradicate.

One of my characters is a retired college professor called Gunther Niebel. The backstory is that he is the only surviving member of his immediate family. He's outlived two wives and all his children. His response is to pour himself into trying to shape the minds of his students. This leads him into an intellectual infatuation to a young woman who, as it happens, is dying. Her death leaves him clinging to memories, yet haunted by an unfulfilled promise he made to her on her deathbed. "Offerings" in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters shows the outcome of these memories and promises.

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