Thursday, February 26, 2009

Going to the zone. The Twilight Zone.

I really enjoy the hour long episodes of The Twilight Zone. Certainly they are slow: they lack the punch of the better half hour episodes. But the longer format allows for deeper exploration of theme.

"He's Alive" features Dennis Hopper playing a would-be fascist with convincing emotional vulnerability. It ends with a haunting and eloquent image: a moving shadow of Adolf Hitler, as Rod Serling talks about the spirit of Hitler being kept alive wherever there is prejudice, hatred and bigotry. He is alive, Serling tells us, because we keep him alive.

"Valley of the Shadow" is really interesting. A reporter stumbles upon a ubiquitous creepy small town to find they have the power to manipulate matter, a power that could end disease and hunger. They must keep it a secret, however, until the world is ready to live in peace. Great scientific discoveries, the mayor tells the reporter, have been used for violence and destruction--this scientific knowledge too could destroy the world. The reporter and the mayor are able to have intriguing conversations about ends and means. If the townspeople would justify killing the reporter as an evil means to a good end, are they any better than the warmongering world outside Peaceful Valley? The town withholds the scientific knowledge that could be used for evil, but withholding the science also means letting people in the world suffer and die--are the townspeople, too, weighing means and ends? The episode features explicit and implicit exploration of peace and of freedom.

Many of the half-hour episodes feature rather ham-fisted theme; the longer format allows for deeper reflection, and even for something The Twilight Zone isn't known for: subtlety.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Torrential Downpour

Art in our lives
Spoonbridge with Cherry
will temporarily be without its cherry (MPR).

I feel a vested interest in this work of art, not just because it is a Twin Cities icon. It is in front of Spoonbridge with Cherry that I proposed to my wife. It is with art I marked a momentous and memorable occasions.

In comp class today we're discussing David Guterson's "Enclosed. Encyclopedic. Endured. One Week in the Mall of America." Guterson mentions a mass wedding and a Christian worship service at the MOA. There's something tacky and trivializing about that, I (and several students) thought. Malls are crass and commercial places, not a place for a significant, life-changing ritual, and the materialistic consumption makes it an awkward place for religious worship.

But art feels sacred. In some ways art exists to bring meaning to our lives, and thus it is with art we may seek to mark meaningful occasions.

Lit Syllabus Overhaul
It started with Sharon Olds poetry: reading one student's negative reaction to Olds' poetry made me think "You know, why do I teach Olds' poetry? I don't have any special affection for this. Is it just because I've always taught it and I keep leaving it in the syllabus?" I considered dropping Olds from future semesters--but then discussion went well. Her poetry does provide us chances to discuss serious matters of poetry (for example, "The Victims" allows us to consider a duel meaning of the word "take/took," which allows us to illustrate how consciously we must read words in a poem). So I will keep Olds in the future.

And then I considered a scene in A Gathering of Old Men that reminds me of a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The men talk back to Mapes, and when he thinks he can stare them down in fear, they look back at him directly; and the men laugh at Big Nurse, and when she darts her eyes around to meet theirs, they still giggle. And I thought that on a gloss, these novels are similar: a group of men have lived in fear for a long time, but come together as a community to stand up to old authority figures. Do I need to teach both novels? But then of course that's a brief gloss--these novels are vastly different in narrative form and style, as well as specific subject matter. They are unique works that can both be taught.

I questioned changes to the syllabus over these specific works, even though my conclusion was these works don't need to be removed. Yet the questioning process has led me to consider a major reworking of my general lit class reading list.

For example, I've never taught a single work by my two favorite novelists, John Fowles and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky's masterpieces are too long to justify teaching in this course (exposure to variety is an objective), and I'm not sure if I'd want to teach any of his shorter works--but Notes from the Underground is definitely a possibility. I'll take another look at Fowles' The Ebony Tower to see if there are shorter works worth including--or I might just start teaching The French Lieutenant's Woman. Really, The French Lieutenant's Woman offers so many directions for discussion, it might just be perfect for the course.

See why I blog? I talk myself into teaching my favorite books.

It's stupid, but it's my life.
At We Have Mixed Feelings About Sven Sundgaard, I discussed some ways for parents to maintain a sense of culture during the time when raising small children dominates time and limits options.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Ending in "A Gathering of Old Men"

Aesthetically, I think Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men would better end with the penultimate chapter:

"But we had all gathered around Charlie. Mathu had knelt down 'side him and raised his head out of the dust. They had really got him. Right in the belly. He laid there like a big old bear looking up at us. He was trying to say something, but it never came out. He kept on looking at us, but after a while you could tell he wasn't seeing us no more. I leaned over and touched him, hoping that some of that stuff he had found back there in the swamps might rub off on me. After I touched him, the rest of the men did the same. Then the women, even Candy. Then Glo told her grandchildren they must touch him, too."

But while the final chapter seems to be but a tying up of loose ends, it actually works thematically. It is here we see reconciliation, a movement toward healing. The novel includes many anecdotes showing how the legal system was a major part of the racial oppression and injustice of the past; in the final chapter, we see the law treating the black men fairly (in this case justice means amnesty). Gil sits with his family in court, Salt and Pepper play together and win, Mathu is able to leave without Candy, and we end with a conciliatory image, with Candy holding Lou Dimes' hand (a similar image ends Paradise Lost, also a moment of hope at the end of a dark period).

At the end Lou Dimes, a peripheral character that primarily operates as a narrator, becomes important. Earlier in the novel, when Mapes uses violence, Dimes says "I didn't like what was going on either, but I knew that had I interfered, Mapes would have knocked hell out of me and thrown me in the back of his car." Lou Dimes disapproves, but he passively allows violence and racial injustice to occur (this and other forms of passivity are addressed throughout the novel). But in the end, Lou Dimes is not allowed to be passive:

"You're in charge. Raise your right hand. You do swear--"
"Like hell," Lou said.
"You're still in charge," Mapes said. "Now, don't bother me anymore tonight."
"What am I supposed to do?" Lou asked him.
"You figure that out," Mapes said. "Just leave me alone."

The old way is past. People like Lou Dimes, formerly neutral non-participants, must work toward a new way of doing things.

But Reader-response is necessary here. It is likely as a reader I find Lou Dimes significant because his social role is close to my own (the teacher in the bar is certainly closer). In my social role, I have rarely had active individual part on any side of racial injustice or the fight for progress toward equality. I've read, taught, talked, listened, discussed, thought, and as an individual strived to treat all people with equal dignity. But I have mostly been a non-participant, a passive citicizen, and I recognize my social role in coming to the novel. Other readers of different ages, races, and gender will find greater meaning in other characters. Certainly geographic location matters too: I suspect a southerner reads the book differently than a northerner (and more specifically, a Louisianian will read the text differently than a Minnesotan). We bring ourselves to the text, including our values (when reading Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, isn't a vegetarian going to respond differently than a meat-eater?), and we needn't deny that (and it is why in literary study I prefer plurality to objectivity). The text offers me a moral meaning that it won't offer to everybody--and rather than deny that, I prefer to recognize my subjective history and concerns that may direct my focus while reading.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Thomas More in "The Tudors"

Halfway through its second season, The Tudors loses one of its more interesting characters, Thomas More.  More is complexly written and subtly played by Jeremy Northam--I'll miss him.

Thomas More is shown to be a man of scrupulous conscience, a thoughtful man of principle and conviction.  In season two, that is mostly sympathetic--he is willing to die rather than betray his own conscience with an oath he doesn't believe.  But we might also recall the first season to see the other side of scrupulous devotion to conviction.  Certainly More is willing to sacrifice himself to his principles.  But when given the power, he was also willing to sacrifice others to his principles.  He says in the second season his own conscience will not allow him to say the oath, though he does not comment on the conscience of others.  Yet as Chancellor, he executed Protestants--not because he was forced to, but by his own choice of policy.  Is there a difference between the principled Protestants that died under More's condemnation, and the principled Catholic More that dies under the royal condemnation?  I'm not sure there is, but at no point does More explicitly suggest he's considered this connection.

And what is More's role to martyrdom?  When he resigns from office, he tells the king he will never speak out publicly against him, will always be loyal to him, and just wishes to retire from public life.  He tells his family he doesn't willingly seek martyrdom.  Indeed, he doesn't chase after a death--it is only when the king chases him down to insist on the oath that More willingly submits to death.  And yet...I can't help but feeling that even if More did not willingly pursue martyrdom, he willingly invited it.  He took no effort to avoid his death.  I don't blame him for skipping the coronation.  But might he have gone into chosen exile, fleeing England?  Did he really have to go visit Catherine?  If he didn't publicly condemn the king and bring death too him, he quietly waited in expectation.

Without More, the show will still be interesting.  I particularly enjoy Peter O'Toole's portrayal of Pope Paul III--his very speech is oily, slithery, always seeming to slide and slip.  There are stacks upon stacks of ruthless characters, but still some ambiguous and complex ones, too.  But I'll miss Thomas More.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Henry IV, Part One

What joys does this play offer an actor?  The personal and political relationships are complex, subtle--there are infinite ways to play most of these characters.  The shades of meaning, the ambiguity of purpose--so many of the characters offer the chance for original interpretation (particularly if the actor shows some bravery--most of the characters could be played dully, too).  The language is evocative: most of the characters are capable of creative imagery, clever turns of speech.  Falstaff did not meet my expectations in print, but alive on stage, he must be something altogether new.

My favorite passage:

Glendower:  I cannot blame him. At my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes
Of burning cressets, and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shaked like a coward.

Hotspur:  Why, so it would have done at the same season if your mother's cat had but kittened, though yourself had never been born.

Glendower: I say the earth did shake when I was born.

A close second:

Falstaff: 'Tis not due yet: I would be loath to pay him before his day.  What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me?  Well, 'tis no matter; honor pricks me on.  Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on?  How then?  Can honor set to a leg?  Or an arm?  No.  Or take away the grief of a wound? No.  Honor hath no skill in surgery then?  No.  What is honor?  A word.  What is in that word honor?  What is honor?  Air--a trim reckoning!  Who hath it?  He that died a Wednesday.  Doth he feel it?  No.  Doth he hear it?  No. 'Tis insensible then?  Yea, to the dead.  But will it not live with the living?  No.  Why?  Detraction will not suffer it.  Therefore I'll none of it.  Honor is a mere scutcheon--and so ends my catechism.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

John Donne's "Divine Meditation 9"

In this poem, the poet challenges religious doctrine, challenges human culpability for sin, and then simply accuses God of being unmerciful, before unsatisfactorily dropping the questions in humility and repenting of sins.

It begins:

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damned; alas, why should I be?

The doctrine on original sin holds that after the fall, all of creation was corrupted--the sin of humankind brought death into creation for all. Yet only humans in earthly creation are subject to eternal punishment. The poet questions this: there are harmful, bad, "evil" elements in nature that are not subject to the threat of damnation. The poet's challenge may go further: instead of humankind's sin bringing death to nature, perhaps nature (in the form of the tree) is responsible for bringing death to humans.

But inherent in this challenge is an evasion of responsibility. The poet thrusts the blame for the fall on the tree and its fruit. In the Genesis story, Adam also tries to evade responsibility, answering God, "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat." Adam shifts blame to Eve, and to God. Eve's response is much simpler: "The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat." It's still an evasion (blaming the serpent), but takes more responsibility than Adam (Milton handles this beautifully in Paradise Lost, giving Adam a lengthy speech, and giving Eve her simple sentence).

The next challenge springs from the first:

Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?

The poet answers the previous question: the reason humans must bear responsibility for their "sins" (while rocks, plants, and animals bear no responsibility) is because of reason and intent. Animals can't reason, thus can't sin--their actions lack intent.

The poet asks why reason and intent should make human actions damnable as opposed to the actions of rocks, plants, and animals, but I think today the challenge goes further. I can't help but think of two 19th century titans.

Darwin rips apart the distinct separation between humans and animals--we are a part of nature, subject to and emergent from the same evolutionary forces of the rest of nature. Even our reason is but an evolutionary development. Like every other living thing in nature, we struggle for survival. So if we are not created fundamentally different from other parts of nature, why are we held accountable in a way other parts of nature are not?

And in Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky rips to shreds the idea that humans behave according to reason, suggesting it is irrational desires that have motivated human behavior all through history. If humans are irrational, then what is the "reason" that would hold humans accountable for sin? We behave according to all sorts of unreasonableness, sometimes against our own interests. Why, then, sin?

Finally, the poet questions God's mercy:

And mercy being easy, and glorious
To God, in his stern wrath, why threatens he?

If God is loving and merciful, then why does he threaten humans with damnation? Couldn't he just show mercy? Can't he--and wouldn't he want to--forgive humans without requirement? It is a common--and powerful--question about the nature of the Christian God.

In the Petrarchan structure of this poem, the octet sets out the problem. The poet asks three questions about God that come down to this: why is there hell at all? The problem is posed: how will the sestet resolve the problem?

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee
O God?

What? The poet sets out serious challenges to Christian doctrine on damnation, calls into question the threat faced by humans, even directly challenges God's mercy...and then backs off in humility?

This means, of course, that the questions he raised in the octet are unresolved. Even if he is now abandoning the questions, recognizing the superiority of God over himself, he's still leaving the questions. The reader is left with them, deliberately unanswered--because there are no satisfactory answers.

The rest of the poem breaks off into conventionality:

Oh! of thine only worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin's black memory;
That thou remember them, some claim as debt,
I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

I find this mostly forgettable, except perhaps the last line. The word "mercy" will call to mind the use of "mercy" in lines 7-8. The poet asks God for the mercy that God supposedly has but doesn't seem to show. Does the last plea for mercy subtly continue the challenge? Perhaps.

What one is left with in this poem are the three questions in the octet. I can't think the humble rejection of the questions in line 9 is entirely sincere; the questions have serious theological consequences, and are difficult to leave behind in a conventional show of humility and repentance. The poem asks major theological questions about sin and damnation. But perhaps the ideas are even more fundamental: the poem asks questions about humankind's place in the cosmos and about the nature of God.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Stupid Summer Project: The Apartment

Kramer: Jerry, you don't have five thousand dollars you can lend her?

Kramer: Well, then what did you loan her the five thousand dollars for?

Comment: George Costanza is cursed. Hated by God, the universe will always conspire to ruin him. Not a tragic ruin--that would at least allow him his dignity. No, for him it is a comic ruin, a cursed clown, plaything of the cosmos (as flies to wanton boys, so is George to the gods). OF COURSE when he wears a wedding ring to a party as "a sociological experiment" several desirable women find him attractive but must turn from him, because it is too bad he's married. Of course. Once again, I take Costanza's comic disaster personally--his indignity is my indignity, his comic suffering is mine. George Costanza is spun together out of Charlie Brown and Biff Loman. He is the apotheosis of the gifted liar (his wife is an entomologist?), yet doomed to ineffectual failure. He is you. He is me.

Nonviolence: humans and animals

Gary Francione, a vegan arguing against violence:

"throughout history, we have engaged and continue to engage in violent actions that we have sought to justify as an undesirable means to a desirable end. Anyone who has ever used violence claims to regret having to resort to it, but argues that some desirable goal supposedly justified its use."
"Violence treats others as means to ends rather than as ends in themselves. When we engage in violence against others—whether they are human or nonhuman—we ignore their inherent value. We treat them only as things that have no value except that which we decide to give them."
"Animal exploitation is pervasive in our society. This is the case because we think that the ends (the supposed benefits we derive from animal use) justifies the means (imposing suffering and death on billions of nonhumans every year), and because we treat animals exclusively as commodities and ignore their inherent value."

I hear echoes of John Howard Yoder.  Though the arguments come from a different place (Francione as an animal rights advocate, Yoder as a Christian theologian), Yoder also rejects logic which justifies horrible means to achieve imagined ends.  Yoder, too, insists upon the individual's inherent dignity, and criticizes war advocates that view human beings as means to be used (or destroyed).  And I think Francione rightly extends the logic of pacifism to treatment of animals (and applies the logic of veganism to other human behavior):

"in my view, the animal rights position is the ultimate rejection of violence. It is the ultimate affirmation of peace. I see the animal rights movement as the logical progression of the peace movement..."

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Reading Jhumpa Lahiri's " The Namesake"

Jhumpa Lahiri narrates The Namesake in present tense, a form I don't care for in longer fiction (I find it unnatural to tell a long story as if it is currently happening, even as I realize that people often slip into this tense when telling stories of past events). Occasionally the narration will switch to past tense, letting the reader in on some past events of a particular character, events which helped lead to this present tense moment. In the final page of the book, Lahiri switches to future tense (though the final two sentences are present tense). I don't care for the present tense, but Lahiri is in control of it, writing it well and making the tense-switches smoothly. The tense is thematically important. To put a narrative in past tense is to already give it meaning, to provide its context and significance--to write in the present tense it to describe a "now" that is not already fixed in time, that is not already defined. The future tense suits the ending: Gogol has an open, unfixed future, sitting with an opened book, yet that book is a central symbol of his coming to terms with his past.

The third person narration shifts perspective--usually it enters the perspective of Gogol/Nikhil, occasionally sharing the perspective of Ashima (there is a deep connection between the lives of Gogol and Ashima--one could argue that Ashima is as much the protagonist of the novel as Gogol), at least once entering the perspective of Ashoke. In one chapter the perspective shifts to Moushumi, Gogol's/Nikhil's wife. This is the only chapter in which the third person narration refers to Gogol/Nikhil as "Nikhil"; in all other chapters, the third person narrator calls him "Gogol" (including narration of Gogol's/Nikhil's perspective, and including sections when every other character calls him Nikhil). As issues surrounding his name are central to the novel, the narrative choice to consistently call him Gogol (except for one chapter about Gogol's wife, whose relationship to him is tied up in a confused relationship to her own past, and for which reason she perhaps doesn't truly know him) is obviously significant. Even if he wishes to move beyond the name "Gogol," the third person narrative suggests he is still essentially, inherently, Gogol. However, in the final two paragraphs (which switch to future tense until the last two sentences, and which describe the inevitable moment of Gogol finally reading "The Overcoat"), the third person narrator describes him only in pronoun form. Perhaps here even the narrator is willing to leave his future identity open.

The narrative includes some conventional forms to structure events. There is foreshadowing (the death of Ashima's father forshadowing the death of Gogol's and Sonia's father, Gogol's affair with a married woman foreshadowing Moushumi's affair), and there is the motif of trains for transition (several life-altering events occur on or in relation to trains). But I actually find the text subtle. Some of the conflicts of The Namesake are common to literature about children of immigrants (tensions of identity, new and old traditions, etc.), but these themes are handled in a quiet, inobvious way. Many of these conflicts are implicit to Gogol's romantic relationships, underlying them rather than being pronounced by them.

Lahiri describes the food characters prepare and eat in specific detail. No matter what I do, I cannot read descriptions of preparing or eating food without thinking as a vegetarian. It may simply be an extension of life into reading--as a (mostly vegan) vegetarian, I must be consciously aware of all the food I ever eat. That heightened awareness of food is hard to set aside when I turn to a book. Perhaps worse, I find myself taking note of whether and how much fruit and vegetables the characters are eating. This is stupid and absurd, yet again, it is an extension of my own life habits into my reading.

Reminds me of
Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Lan Samantha Chang's Hunger, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, David Mura's Where the Body Meets Memory

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


a contrapuntal essay

One reason I enjoy teaching literature is because students' insights provide me new ways of thinking about particular works of literature. I've taught Death of a Salesman every semester I've taught a literature course; while I can't say I have a total handle of the play, I would say I feel intimately familiar with the Loman family. Today's discussion focused on the characters, and we discussed Biff, and students brought up whether he is running away from his family, is this justified, etc.

One student suggested that what Biff was doing was quite understandable. He's procrastinating. Under the intense pressures and expectations of his family, he simply escapes, putting off being anything in life. This provided me a new way of thinking about Biff. Perhaps he is not, as George Costanza says, the biggest loser in the history of American literature. Perhaps Biff is simply in moratorium.

Moratorium is a concept developed by Erik Erikson, referring to a period in adolescence or young adulthood when the individual puts off important decisions, escapes from a life of consequences, and enters a period of waiting. When the individual is still searching for his or her identity, moratorium offers a break from serious decisions in life and a chance to find that identity. In Young Man Luther, Erikson suggests that Luther's decision to enter a monastary was his moratorium: he was not ready to become what his father wanted him to become, so he did the only thing he could do to escape being forced into that role.

Willy Loman lived in an idealized world, and he inflated Biff's sense of self and his place in the world. When Biff saw that the ideals were a facade, he escaped. He became a drifter, going westward, roaming about doing nothing in particular, avoiding permanence and serious responsibility. Yet perhaps this state of drifting is simply Biff's extended--but temporary--moratorium, one from which he will eventually return. He may not be a drifter forever, for by the end of the play, he has found himself. At Willy's funeral, Biff is able to honestly say to a still deluded Happy, "I know who I am, kid." Does that mean he's finally recognized that he's a loser, a drifter, a nobody that amounts to nothing? Or does it mean that now that he has achieved self-understanding, self-recognition, he is ready to honestly engage with the world, to leave his moratorium? While I've always thought the former, I suddenly think it is possible it is the latter. Having abandoned Willy's idealized dream, he can now emerge to an authentic life.

In my composition class, we are currently reading several variants of the Cinderella story, as well as various essays about Cinderella. In "'Cinderella' and the Loss of Father-Love," Jacqueline Schectman seems to evoke moratorium to explain "Ashputtle":

"Three times Cinderella ventures out to dance, and three times runs away, to hide once more among the ashes by the hearth. This retreat until the time is right, until the world feels safe enough for love, is part of the connection to the earth Cinderella demonstrates throughout this tale. There is safety in her dirty rags, and she'll hide in them until her doubts and fears release her into life."

And this, too, makes sense to me. One can easily interpret Cinderella's life in ashes as a moratorium, a hiding from the world, a time to find herself before entering a world of consequences.

Now I find myself using psychological theory to understand literature. And yet just a few days ago, I found myself using New Criticism to understand literature in the classroom. Am I so fickle? Well, no--I haven't shifted from New Criticism to Psychoanalytic Criticism. I've used either theory when I found it useful. And frankly, that's how I've always used Literary Theory. I don't typically devote myself to one theoretical approach to literature, but I'm willing to take a la carte from any school of theory where it may suit my purposes. Choosing a particular approach, I think, would be limiting, would close me off from all possibilities in a work of literature. And yet to ignore these theories altogether would also close me off. If I approach a work openly, with awareness of theoretical approaches but limited to none, I can willingly explore the work with multiple perspectives in the same moment. I still want to focus primarily (if not exclusively) on the text itself, and I would want my personal reaction to be a direct engagement with the text. But to understand that text, I don't close myself off to many ways of thinking.

My experiences discussing literature with students illustrates for me the purpose of literary study and literary criticism. Embracing subjectivity and diversity does not require embracing relativism--I don't think all ways of reading are equal. But I don't think the purpose of literature courses is to train all students to read in a uniform, proper way, and I don't think the purpose of literary criticism is to reach a single, correct reading of a work (it's funny how that "proper" reading method is always the way the particular advocate of that method happens to read, and thus the "correct" reading also happens to be the speaker's reading). What I find is that a plurality of voices, a diversity of individuals approaching the text on its own merits, but reading it in their own ways and for their own purposes, provides a wide variety of insights to the text. I don't know that there is a single reading of Biff Loman, but I know that my different students' readings of Biff Loman help me to understand Biff Loman. I don't need to find the reading, and I don't even necessarily need to cling to a reading; what I want is to be aware of multiple readings. And often these readings can coexist within my mind at the same time, not demanding that I reject one for the other.

Reading at the Unconscious

In "'Cinderella': a Story of Sibling Rivalry and Oedipal Conflicts," Bruno Bettelheim writes:

"When a story corresponds to how the child feels deep down--as no realistic narrative is likely to do--it attains an emotional quality of 'truth' for the child."

Does this statement apply only to children hearing fairy tales, or is it possible that this statement could apply to adults at some level?

(just a note: for a variety of reasons, I've decided to start blogging here under my real name.  But somehow I still want to keep some distance between my blogging and my teaching, so when I write about the classroom, I'll still probably blog as PV).

Monday, February 02, 2009

New Criticism in the Classroom

Today in class I told students to forget authorship, to ignore the name at the top of the page.  And that's when I realized that in the classroom, I'm something of a New Critic.

I generally provide little to no biographical information about the author, focusing on the text itself.  I like a Reader-response approach, but what I want students responding to is the text alone (and their experience with it).   I don't want students to worry too much about the author's identity or biography (with some exceptions).  In some cases, if students ask questions about the author, I can provide them nothing because I know nothing (other than that they write in English, and perhaps a general idea of when they wrote).  I do provide some cultural and historical material, but only when it is directly relevant to the text itself.

The specific context today was Robert Frost's "Home Burial."  While teaching this poem, I often talk about ways of dealing with death: the different ways individuals handle grief, the rituals we construct surrounding death, etc.  A student raised the issue of gender roles in the poem, and I'm open to that exploration (though in this poem, I didn't want gender roles to define the different ways the husband and wife grieve).  But for some reason when it was pointed out that the poet was a man and could be slanting perspectives of the characters (which is true), I found this a tremendous distraction from the text itself.  The wife in the poem has lengthy stretches of straight dialogue where she is able to express what she thinks and feels.  If we get hung up on discussing how a male author constructed those words for her, then we aren't taking the words of the text on their own merits, and I don't think we're reading the poem well.

I don't think I can formally call what we do in my literature classes New Criticism: I'm far too willing to bring up extra-textural material if I think it offers insights into the text (or if I think the text offers insight into extra-textural material).  But in my decision to forgo authorial biography almost entirely, and my insistence that students respond to what they see in the text itself, I'm certainly incorporating the ideas of New Criticism into the classroom.