All Over the Place

Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:

I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.

That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph:

More sophisticated students usually have in mind some version of what might be called the Wikipedia test. If a book has a point, and the point can be briefly summarized, why not just read the summary? If a teacher cannot give a coherent reason why such a shortcut simply won’t do, then why should the student assume anything important is left out?

Good questions, no doubt, to which I’d answer that the “point” of a book is the word-by-word experience of the particular effects it generates in the act of reading it, not some post hoc claim or statement to be extracted from having read it. This means, for teachers of literature, the focus of a literature class has to be the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature as an artform, with any analysis of things like narrative momentum and character development and thematic concerns taking place in an aesthetic context. But then, a few paragraphs later, Morson rails against taking an aesthetic approach to the study of literature:

Time and again, students tell me of three common ways in which most high school and college classes kill their interest in novels.

The most common approach might be called technical. The teacher dedicates himself to the book as a piece of craft. Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing? Above all, this approach directs students to look for symbols. … At a more granular level, this approach involves teaching a dense thicket of theory focused on “the text.” But literary works are not texts; that is, they are not just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques. Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle?

As someone who actively discourages his students from leaning on the rickety old crutch of symbolism when undertaking literary analysis, it’s mystifying to me to see that my preferred approach to the study of literature involves hunting out symbolism “[a]bove all.” Putting that aside, however, I have to say that I really don’t understand what a teacher of literature is actually teaching if he or she isn’t teaching students how to pay attention to the words on the page. I don’t believe that Dickens set out to create some sort of unsolvable puzzle, or that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving one. But an appreciation and understanding of that experience is quite distinct from the experience itself, involving as it does a reflective intellectualisation of an affective encounter with a text, and one cannot thoroughly appreciate or understand how the experience has come into being without paying close attention to the words from which it arises. At the end of the day, the words on the page are all we really have.

Morson’s general point is that “the real literary work” has less to do with authorial technique than with “the reader’s experience,” and this means that “the first thing a teacher needs to do is help students have the experience the author is trying to create. There is no point in analyzing the techniques for creating an experience the students have not had.” He ends his essay, bizarrely, by basically adopting Martha Nussbaum’s view of the importance of literature as a cultural force that expands one’s capacity for empathy, and his conclusion is just flat-out embarrassing:

[G]reat literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

Because literature is about diverse points of view, I teach by impersonation. I never tell students what I think about the issues the book raises, but what the author thinks. If I comment on some recent event or issue, students will be hearing what Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, not I, would say about it. One can also impersonate the novel’s characters. What would Ivan Karamazov say about our moral arguments? How could we profit from the wisdom Dorothea Brooke acquires? Can one translate their wisdom into a real dialogue about moral questions that concern us — or about moral questions that we were unaware are important but in light of what we have learned turn out to be so? Authors and characters offer a diversity of voices and points of view on the world from which we can benefit.

Such impersonation demands absorbing the author’s perspective so thoroughly that one can think from within it, and then “draw dotted lines” from her concerns to ours. Students hear the author’s voice and sense the rhythms of her thought, and then, when they go back to the book, read it from that perspective. Instead of just seeing words, they hear a voice.

I don’t think you have to be a teacher of literature, or even an experienced reader of literature, to see that this is crazy talk. I’d defy Morson to put Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aside for a term and try using those techniques to teach something like Gravity’s Rainbow or Lolita. Those are just two novels, among many, that are clearly artistically ambitious and yet make a problem of the very possibility of empathy. I doubt that Morson’s students would get anything of much value out of their attempts to use empathy alone to fully experience those sorts of novels, but experience tells me that students who receive guidance in approaching them aesthetically develop a real love for the extraordinary capabilities of the written word that is, after all, their lifeblood.

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