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Let’s Get Back To…

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Anyway, that little public fit being over, let’s get back to business, even if I haven’t had a chance to have my tea yet.  That’s always an interesting situation, really.

Let’s talk, for a minute, about what I mean when I say that one novel is “better” than another, because that may clear up some of what’s been going on here.   As with a number of other things in this discussion, I seem to be hitting hot buttons, and when you hit hot buttons the person assumes that you  MUST be saying what the last person he had the conversation with was saying.

But I’m probably not, so here goes.

There are two reasons to study works of art.

One is to discover what they are–to look at them, analyze them, try to conceptualize and configure them, and thereby come to an understanding of what kind of thing they are and how they work.

The other is to encounter a set of ideas that has been important to this culture getting where it is and that looks to be important in the future.

Neither of these endeavors is as different from “science” as you think, especially if you’re talking about the part of science that is taught to non-scientists as important for them to know.

I’m not worried about teaching what the novel is and how it works to novelists.  They’ll get it on their own without my help.

But for the rest of the world, consider the following:  over the past seven thousand years of known human civilization, men and women have produced a plethora of written work of all kinds.   A lot of that written work is available for us to read.  Some of it is not, but references to it exist in other written work.   Some of it has just disappeared.

This situation is analagous to the forms of things that  are and have lived on this earth–the extant works to what is living now, the references works to what is fossilized, the missing works to those life forms that lived and then left no trace.

There’s nothing we can do, and not much useful we can say, about works for which there is no trace left at all, but the other two categories provide us with a large amount of information not only about the world in which they were written but also about the forms in which they were written.

We can take these works, read them, discover their various characteristics, and then classify and divide them according to what those characteristics reveal.  For instance, we can take the universe of existing poems and divide them into  epic poetry, lyric poetry, love poetry (usually a subset of lyric), narrative ooetry, devotional poetry, picaresque poetry, and so on.

From there, we can look at each of our broad categories and discover what it is that makes each of these categories coherent–and if we can’t do that, then our categories are wrong. 

Assuming we can, however, we can do three things:  first, we can figure out what an epic poem is, so that we can recognize an unfamiliar one when it comes along;  second, we can establish an evolutionary map that shows how the form has changed over time; and third, we can judge how well each example fits the criteria that defines the category/subset as a whole.

That last thing is what I mean by deciding that one poem, or one novel, is “better” than another in the technical sense.  

I am not talking here about “taste,” or about whether something is “evocative,”  or “transgressive,” or any of the other sillinesses that substitute for real literary scholarship these days.   I’m not even talking about ideas.   I’m talking about looking at literary forms over time to discover what they are and how they have worked and do work. 

Will there be some judgment calls in all this?  Yes, of course–but I hate to break it to you, there are judgment calls in biological taxonomy, too.  There are always edge cases that refuse to comfortably fit into one category or another.  Biologists hae learned to live with it–and creationists have learned to use the fault line to declare that “there are no transitional forms, biology says so!”–so I assume we can learn to live with it, too.

Anyway, non-artists need to study art on this level for the same reason non-scientiests need to take a course or two in biology or chemistry.   A few posts back, John commented that we were never going to make non-scientists think like scientists, and that’s probably true.  But we can show them how scientists think and what the results of that are.

In the same way, I’m never going to teach non-artists to think like artists, but I can show them how art works and what the results of that are.  That’s why I don’t require them to “like” Paradise Lost.  Whether anybody “likes” Paradise Lost is irrelevant on this level.  As an example of and a development in epic poetry, it displays both the characteristics of the form and their limits in a way that, say, Stephen  Vincent Binet’s John Brown’s  Body does not.

(A note here–if you don’t know John Brown’s Body, you should check it out sometime.  Benet set out to write an epic poem about the American Civil War, and this was the result.)

At any rate, this approach to literature, and to literary “hierarchy” is neither particularly subjective nor particularly vague.  It’s important to learn, however, because in the end, art has at least as much impact on our lives as science does, and it may have more.   Art is one of the major fields of human endeavor.  It has shaped our world as much as science or war.  You can’t get here from there without it.  But there’s a lot of it, and just as no non-science major college freshman can look into every member of every phyla and family in existence, or track every chemical element, he can’t  track every epic poem or romantic novel. 

That’s why we take the “best”–that is, the specimens that most completely and strongly exhibit the characteristics of the form–and teach those.

Looking at my students, I would guess that there isn’t one high school in a hundred that teaches literature this way.  In fact, I would say there isn’t one high school in a hundred that teaches literature at all.  It’s not just that many of the high schools have given up presenting anything like a coherent selection of works to their students.   Even the high schools that insist on students reading Oedipus and Romeo and Juliet have fallen victim to what I think of as “me-ism.”

My students arrive in their college classrooms having never said anything, or thought anything, about a work of literature except that they did nor didn’t “like” it, or that they did or didn’t find it “interesting.”   When I tell them they are not allowed to say either thing in any paper they write for me, they’re dumbfounded.  How else can you talk about literature?  What else is there to say?

At that point, I hand out an example of actual literary criticism–Lionel Trilling on Henry James,  Leslie Fiedler on Mark Twain, Northrop Frye on Shakespeare.   It’s way over their heads, but it does a very important thing.  It knocks the props out from under the “English is a gut course and just bullshit anyway” attitude that is the biggest block to getting them to read anything.  

After that, I return to sanity, of course, and try to get them to look at what literature I an make them read through sets of questions meant to direct their attention away from themselves and onto the works.

It works with about one out of fifty of them, mostly because the other forty-nine cannot in fact read in any way  I would define that term.  Real education is as organic as writing a novel is.  You need all the parts of it working together seamlessly to make the whole, and although alerting students to the fact that literature comes in forms and the forms need to be understood is a step in the right direction, it’s not a very long step when they return to the work and still find it incomprehensible,  because they don’t get any of the references and they don’t know any of the history. 

It’s hard to teach even popular novels like Gone With The  Wind to students who don’t know when the Civil War happened.  A novel like Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods leaves them stupefied.  What do you do with students who can’t see a reference to the Cruicifixion and know it has something to do with Christ, who can’t see a reference to Socrates and know it has something to do with philosophy, who don’t know what philosophy is, who think 1984 is just a year that occurred some time before they were born?

What do you do with students who don’t know that, in the world before the one they were born into, a woman who slept with somebody before sh was married to him and got caught at it could lose her family, her home, her livelihood, her children?

What do you do with students who have never heard the term “illegitimate child?”

I need to go act like a sensible person and get back to the day.   More tomorrow, on the other reason we study literature, and the other necessary approach to it.

Written by janeh

October 30th, 2008 at 5:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Let’s Get Back To…'

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  1. RE – student who don’t know even recent history or basic cultural references – I don’t know what you do. In my long-ago and happily nearly forgotten period teaching science, I eventually simply told them the basic information on the history of science and gave up on expecting them to have even the vaguest notion of what the Industrial Revolution was and whether or not it happened before or after the Greeks wrote about natural history.

    I know that partly the fault was that of the school curriculum, which up to that point in their career had focused on social studies – and at that, with a very local focus. But so did the program when I was a student in the K-12 system – we didn’t do World History until Grade 10! I think one major difference is that I am and always was both insatiably curious about the world, present, past and possible future, and read insatiably.

    I don’t remember my school English in detail – we had separate courses back then, Language and Literature, and I’ve always been grateful that I got through when they were teaching basic grammar. I wasn’t grateful at the time.

    In literature, I think we may have been asked if we liked the works – at least in what is now the first part of intermediate school, grades 7-8, but we had to explain why. Later, we had to pick out themes and imagery, which I liked although some of my classmates seemed convinced that the teacher was inventing the themes at least – you could sometimes spot the imagery by looking for ‘like’! We didn’t read as much as I would have liked – we read Shakespeare, of course, but Dickens only in excerpts. Hemingway (whom I hated; I simply didn’t get all that stuff about why it was important for that fisherman to keep chasing that particular fish).

    Years later, I noticed that they’d added ‘The Stone Angel’ to the list. In spite of my general aversion to anything that can be labeled as ‘modern’ and ‘literary’, I thought that was a marvelous portrayal of the effects of choice and personality on a person’s life. I couldn’t help wondering what the adolescents, particularly the boys, made of it, though. Talk about something alien to their experience!


    30 Oct 08 at 6:47 am

  2. “A few posts back, John commented that we were never going to make non-scientists think like scientists, and that’s probably true.”

    Let me refine that a bit. Back when I was in High School, I tried to help a bright girl with plane geometry. She had no trouble following proofs set down in the book. But she could never do “Show that” problems – she just couldn’t see that the problem could be solved by combining theorem T1 with T3.

    I had the same problem in university math. I was good at using calculus to solve problems, I was not good at using math theorems to prove new math theorems.

    Jane says she does not care if a student likes “Paradise Lost”, she wants to use it to teach epic poetry.

    My reaction to “Paradise Lost” was to throw it on the floor and jump up and down on it. But the university said “If you want a BS in Physics, you have to pass a course in English Literature” and the English Department said “You have to read Paradise Lost if you want to pass the course.” So I learned to hate Milton but learned nothing about epic poetry.

    I suspect that trying to teach epic poetry is like trying to teach how to prove math theorems.


    30 Oct 08 at 3:57 pm

  3. OK, but in most fields the type specimen rates as “most typical” which avoids a lot of bother over “best” or “better.” (The alert reader may now use analogies involving hybrid vigor or mutation, not to mention evolution.) Is a penguin a REALLY BAD bird? Is a wolf better than a sea lion, because it’s a more typical mammal?

    It’s been a rough day and I refuse to rant about the current level of historical knowledge. In a way, it’s a recent problem: in many respects, Jefferson is far closer to Cicero than either one is to me–hence the regretable books and movies in which everyone wears period costume but thinks and acts like Clinton era yuppies.

    As for missing the allusions, I realized a few years ago that to appreciate a particular Pratchett fully, you had to recognize both a riff on “Space Invaders” and another one on the ALMANACH DE GOTHA–surely a dwindling band. And I may not have caught everything either–probably didn’t. Catching allusions isn’t an all or nothing game, but it is why a well-written book can fade, and why I only push Poyntz Tyler’s GARDEN OF CUCUMBERS on people born no later than 1952.


    30 Oct 08 at 5:09 pm

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