So I’m teaching Monkey to my World Lit students. We’re on the section where Tripitaka and Monkey come to Cock-Crow Kingdom, at the behest of the drowned king, to look into his murder and rescue his usurped throne – it’s that story again. You know it. Shakespeare did it with Hamlet, Aeschylus did it with Agamemnon, it’s as old as the hills.
But in Monkey it’s a different tale, as it Monkey it always is. The king who has usurped the throne is a good king.
“You can’t be right,” the king’s son tells Tripitaka. “These past three years have been the best ever. The people have prospered. The heavens have shed abundant rain. Our borders are strong. The fields bloom, our women are happy, our craftsmen work hard, our judges yield fair decisions. The kingdom is paradise. If that is not my father on the throne, who is he?”
What does this mean? I asked my students. What question is being asked here, about kingship, about what a king is?
They gape at me. No, I swear to you, they do.
All right, I say. Let’s ask that more simply. What is a good king?
They keep staring at me.
I pace up and down the front of the room. More simply, I say. Is this man, the magician who has stolen the kingdom, a good king?
They gape at me, outraged.
The son says he is, I point out.
He’s been lied to, one of the students tells me. He thinks it’s his father. He has no idea –
Well, but is this his father? Does it matter what you think something is? Is there a difference between what you think it is and what it really is?
(Now I have truly confused them.)
What I’m asking, I say, getting maybe a tiny bit annoyed, is whether it matters whether he thieved the throne or not, if he’s doing a good job with the throne.
Of course it matters! declares the student who told me the king was a liar. It’s not his throne!
So even though the old king was doing a lousy job, I say, and all the people were dying, and being invaded, and killed in wars, and this new king is doing a brilliant job, and everyone is happy and the country prospering and no one is dying, he should be kicked off the throne?
They stare at me.
What is a king? I demand, annoyed. These are supposed to be Americans, after all. Are you a king just because you’re sitting on a throne?
Yes, says a girl on a front row.
I stare at her. I stare around the room. They’re all looking at me earnestly. Yes? I say. You all agree with that?
They nod. They agree with it.
You’re a king because you inherit a kingdom? You’re a king because it’s your kingdom?
And everyone should do what you say, I say. Because you’re the king. Forever. No matter what you do.
So long as you’re the king, says the girl in the front row.
I look at her, and at the rest of the class, and I swear to you, all of them are nodding.
I back off. Okay, I say. Let’s get this simpler, I tell them. Think of a knife.
The whole room relaxes. Oh good, they’re thinking. We know what knives are.
Define a knife for me, I say.
A piece of metal, says a boy in the front row.
I nod. Any piece of metal?
A sharp piece of metal, he says, patiently.
Any sharp piece of metal?
We go on like this a bit until I have a knife defined as a sharpened metal blade with some sort of handle, used to cut with. I write that on the board and draw an outline of a knife below it. Then I step back and study this. They study it with me, mildly interested.
What if, I said, the knife doesn’t cut? Is it still a knife?
Yes, insists the girl who said a king was a king no matter what.
I give them my best bland idiot look. Really? It’s a knife if it doesn’t cut? Suppose this knife – I tap the chalk drawing – is made of plastic. Is it still a knife?
The girl is nodding emphatically. Most of the rest of the room isn’t. They’re looking thoughtful.
Or, I say, strolling toward the other side of the blackboard, is cutting part of the definition of knife? (Those of you who have read Aristotle will know that I am stealing his material here.)
The class is frowning deeply. Obviously cutting is part of the definition of knife. They have just said so. But they can feel, deep in their bones, that I am leading them down a path.
Is a knife that does not cut a knife? I ask. Or is it a knife-shaped object?
It’s a knife-shaped object, the boy who came up with the original sharp-metal bit says.
(I throw in my usual joke here, about how mr. delagar used to call this useless dog I had a dog-shaped object. It always loosens the tension. The class laughs and cheers up.)
What, I say, would you think of me, I say, if I did not teach?
They look intrigued. They have, after all, had teachers who did not teach them.
Suppose, I say, instead of coming in here and teaching you, I sat at this table and did crossword puzzles all class long, and told you just to read your text? Would you say I was a teacher? I mean, I point out, the university system would still be calling me teacher – at least until I got fired. Would I be your teacher? Or would I be a teacher-shaped object?
The boy grinned. A teacher-shaped object.
Should you endure me? I asked. Or should you, oh, rebel? Go and complain to the dean?
I move on without waiting for an answer. What is a good king? I ask. Is it not a king who kings? Who takes care of his people? Who runs his kingdom well? Under whom the kingdom prospers?
They see where the curve ball was coming from now and are restless in their chairs. The girl in the front row is especially unhappy.
If a king is a bad king, I say, is he a king? Or a king-shaped object? Does it matter whether it’s his kingdom or not? What does that even mean, his kingdom? How do we judge that, what’s really real, what ought to be true? Isn’t what’s true what actually is working?
These, I say, are the questions Monkey – Monkey the text, I add, not Monkey the Monkey (this is a joke, to get them to relax a little) – raises.
Keep reading, I tell them. Go think about them. These questions matter.
Don’t they, I say, and I say it to the girl in the front row.
Who does not look happy.