Thursday, February 26, 2009

`What an Absurd Task'

My readers are generous with their reading. An Australian sent me portions of a 1996 Boyer Lecture by Pierre Ryckmans, better known as the Belgian-born sinologist Simon Leys, author of the still revolutionary Chinese Shadows (1976). Coincidentally, I thought of Leys earlier in the week while speaking to the office manager of an elementary school where I worked. She was 50-ish and brusque in manner and wore a silk blouse printed with the plump visage of Mao Zedong.

Ryckmans’ thesis is that “great readings occupy a place no less significant than actual happenings.” Reading is no departure from life but a vital part of being alive, as real as school, family and work. Seasoned readers know this. Their mental and emotional lives are vast and amply populated, not stunted as conventional wisdom about “bookworms” has it. Ryckmans writes:

“...a long and adventurous journey through strange lands which you undertook in a certain year may in retrospect appear no less memorable than your first exploration of A la recherche du temps perdu, or again you might realise that your encounter with Anna Karenina or with Julien Sorrell [sic] proved more momentous than meeting most of your past acquaintances.”

This leads Ryckmans to conclude that a “true lover of literature only reads the books he loves.” He distinguishes such readers (who are “very rare indeed”) from literary scholars because a “scholar must read all the books that are relevant to his research however mediocre, dreary and boring.” This is dubious as a blanket statement though certainly true of cloistered English professors. Ryckmans quotes the Polish novelist-essayist Kazimierz Brandys, author of The Warsaw Diary: 1978-1981:

“I am now teaching Polish literature at Columbia University. I have some twenty students. My objective is to make them understand that they are in front of a man who is in total despair; a man who since he was a child always hated all analysis of literary works but who now needs to analyse literary works in order to earn a living. What an absurd task it is to teach people how to understand the work of literature. I have never read any book with the purpose of understanding it. To read and simultaneously to explain is as inconceivable for me as it would be to complete the act of love with a medical examination. I was not devouring books, books were swallowing me. They spoke to me about life and death, they spoke to me about myself, whereas I myself never have anything to say about them. I knew a student from Yale; one day as he saw Faulkner in front of a bookshop on a corner in Fifth Avenue, he had the impulse to go down on his knees and to kiss his hand. To my mind, such a gesture is exemplary. It is the only suitable attitude towards literature.”

I read this not as an ironclad stricture but an excellent antidote to reductive analysis. On Wednesday I overheard a high-school teacher repeatedly tell a student that Lady Macbeth’s hand washing was “a symbol of her guilt.” There was no mention of the play’s language, which Samuel Johnson said “ought to bestow immortality on the author, though all his other productions had been lost.” She treated Macbeth like a locked door to be opened with a key and WD40. Another teacher spoke to me of her frustration teaching Lord of the Flies: “I tell them it’s all about a Hobbesian universe, but do they listen?” Would you? At least one of us, I concluded, had gone quite mad. To reiterate Brandys:

“What an absurd task it is to teach people how to understand the work of literature.”


Anonymous said...

Yes so true. I am a literary scholar and sometimes it probably can be and i quote similar to ''completing the act of love with a medical examination.'' Haha.

Its not the fact that when you defragment it, you see the great piece of literature for what it really is. This problem with analyis is that it suggests there is a definitive answer in a great piece of literature. And that is what is so offputting, for me anyhow.
It was Oscar Wilde who said ''great literature cannot be pinned down.'' And he's right.

When your asked to comment and analyse literature, your pinning it down. In essence, you are taking it from the high skies in which it blossoms and is so glorious, and forcing it into the everyday and bland struggle of our lives, into reality.

Anonymous said...

Literary critics are readers, and often they are excellent readers at that. They are readers who connect the strands of history or imagery or style and - by connecting them - allow the work a meaning that resonates at a level beyond a simple, emotional response.

"Oh I liked Othello, I didn't like Hamlet... Iago's a cool character, but Horatio's just boring" - a perfectly valid response from someone who resists 'understanding' literature?

It's easy to paint the extremes of both sides.

But in the absence of Shakespeare's (or Faulkner's) hand to kiss, I, for one, will satisfy myself with what remains - the literature (in all its beautiful and studiable glory.)


Now let's're bitchin' 'cause you ain't gotta do 'real' work, huh?

Rosin said...

I like the Brandys quotation with which you end the post, but I wonder: would you agree that it is not absurd to teach people that literature is worth trying to understand?

As a teacher of high school English, I occasionally apologize to my students when I feel I might have (as Billy Collins wrote) tied a text to a chair and beat it with a hose. I find myself explicating less than my own teachers did, and instead trying Socratic methods that (I hope) patiently unearth the gems that great works hold. But I feel unease about even coming close to eviscerating a text. I justify reading so deeply as an act of demonstrating that there is value in ruminating about literature, that there's a richness in there that can be mined, although I fear the destructiveness implicit in the "mine" metaphor.

I prefer to believe that lit yields its power through a shading of negative space, in a way, not the prescriptive outlining of the Macbeth-unlocker you cite. That model, by its very nature, defies the act of packaging and transferring. And tends to be incompatible with essay-writing, for sure.

In a world where many students seem to feel a compulsion to use SparkNotes for fear of "not getting it," I try to walk the precarious edge of a cliff -- trying to get the students (whom I love teaching, and whom I want to be able to love and appreciate literature as much as I do) to find a reason to want to see that a book can be more than plot; it can have an ineffability that can be marveled at, which can be approximated like something out of quantum theory (although I'd better be careful about ranging too widely from my area of expertise, which is not quantum theory) but never fully pinned down.

My class discussed Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" and Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" and Judith Ortiz Cofer's "The Witch's Husband" and Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" last week, and I danced around the topic of irony with twenty-six wonderful kids...and ended those classes wondering if I was complicit in pinning those authors' butterflies to a wall. (Hmm: a Nabokov connection?)

At least I didn't give them a multiple-choice test....

Your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Yeah Rosin, I think your teaching methods is good. I remember i used to have just the worst teachers for english lit , but then there were the rare few who wanted us to explore the book in whichever way we wanted, and to see it, as you say, as ''an ineffability that can be marveled at.'' They were the ones that made analysing texts so enjoyable.

I used to love the essay writing as it was then you could really put your views across, and sometimes a lot of my classmates have the same ideas that are fed into them by the teacher or sparksnotes, and so their's lost their originality. I think teachers like yourself try to give students a platform from which to build their views on texts. But frequently, students just use the information and regurgitate it in an essay, so for them literature loses its edge.
I guess the trick is how to stimulate them enough to go searching into the text by themselves, but then not too much that they lose enthusiasm. Its a fine balance. They need skills to be able to see past the words on a page, and maybe these skills are just not possible without some degree of analysis being taught by teachers. This could result in pupils becoming disilusioned with lit but surely they need those skills just to see how far words on a page can go.