Friday, April 24, 2009

Mark Edmundson - Against Readings

OK, let's be clear, he's not against reading. What he is against is reading through a philosophical future, or at least those that are predetermined. Most lit departments and professors favor one filter or another, from Marxist to deconstruction to psychoanalytic. Each one brings its own bias to the text.

In reality, every reader brings his or her own bias to a text anyway, so why add another level of that, most of which are political biases in one way or another (especially if you listen to the far right critics of humanities departments).

Anyway, I liked this article.

Against Readings

If I could make one wish for the members of my profession, college and university professors of literature, I would wish that for one year, two, three, or five, we would give up readings. By a reading, I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary — Marx's, Freud's, Foucault's, Derrida's, or whoever's — to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art. I wish that we'd declare a moratorium on readings. I wish that we'd give readings a rest.

This wish will strike most academic literary critics and perhaps others as well as — let me put it politely — counterintuitive. Readings, many think, are what we do. Readings are what literary criticism is all about. They are the bread and butter of the profession. Through readings we write our books; through readings we teach our students. And if there were no more readings, what would we have left to do? Wouldn't we have to close our classroom doors, shut down our office computers, and go home? The end of readings, presumably, would mean the end of our profession.

So let me try to explain what I have in mind. For it seems to me that if we kicked our addiction to readings, our profession would actually be stronger and more influential, our teaching would improve, and there would be more good books of literary criticism to be written and accordingly more to be read.

In my view — a view informed by, among others, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Matthew Arnold — the best way to think of a literary education is as a great second chance. We all get socialized once. We spend the first years of our lives learning the usages of our families, our neighborhoods, our religions, our schools, and our nations. We come to an understanding of what's expected: We come to see what the world takes to be good and bad, right and wrong. We figure out ways to square the ethics of our church with the ethics of our neighborhood — they aren't always the same, but one reason that religions survive and thrive is that they can enter into productive commerce with the values present in other spheres of life. Kids go to primary school so that they can learn their ABC's and math facts, certainly. But they also go to be socialized: They go to acquire a set of more or less public values. Then it's up to them (and their parents) to square those values with the home truths they've acquired in their families. Socialization isn't a simple process, but when it works well, it can produce individuals who thrive in themselves and either do no harm to others or make a genuine contribution to society at large.

But primary socialization doesn't work for everyone. There are always people — how many it's tough to know, but surely a minority — who don't see their own natures fully reflected in the values that they're supposed to inherit or assume. They feel out of joint with their times. The gay kid grows up in a family that thinks homosexuality is a sin. The young guy with a potent individualistic streak can't bear the drippy collectivism foisted on him by his ex-hippie parents and his purportedly progressive school. The girl who is supposed to be a chip off the old legal block and sit some day on the Court only wants to draw and paint; the guy destined (in his mom's heart) for Princeton is born to be a carpenter and has no real worldly ambitions, no matter how often he's upbraided.

To be young is often to know, or to sense, what others have in mind for you and not to like it. But what is harder for a person who has gone unhappily through the first rites of passage into the tribe is to know how to replace the values she's had imposed on her with something better. She's learned a lot of socially sanctioned languages, and still none of them are hers. But are there any that truly might be? Is there something she might be or do in the world that's truly in keeping with the insistent, but often speechless, self that presses forward internally?

This, I think, is where literature can come in — as can all of the other arts and in some measure the sciences, too. By venturing into what Arnold memorably called "the best that has been known and thought," a young person has the chance to discover new vital possibilities. Such a person sees that there are other ways of looking at the world and other ways of being in the world than the ones that she's inherited from her family and culture. She sees, with Emily Dickinson, that a complex, often frayed, often humorous dialogue with God must be at the center of her life; she sees, with Charles Dickens, that humane decency is the highest of human values and understands that her happiness will come from shrewdly serving others; she likes the sound of Blake and — I don't know — forms a better rock band than the ones we've been hearing for the last decade and more; he seconds Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke and becomes a conservative, in his way twice wiser than NPR-addicted, Prius-proselytizing Mom and Dad.

In short, the student reads and feels that sensation that Emerson describes so well at the beginning of "Self-Reliance": "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." The truth of what we're best fit to do is latent in all of us, Emerson suggests, and I think this to be right. But it's also true that we, and society, too, have plenty of tricks for keeping that most important kind of knowledge out of reach. Society seems to have a vested interest in telling us what we should do and be. But often its interpretation of us — fed through teachers and guidance officers and priests and ministers and even through our loving parents — is simply wrong. When we feel, as Longinus said we will in the presence of the sublime, that we have created what in fact we've only heard, then it's time to hearken with particular attention and see how this startling utterance might be beckoning us to think, or speak, or even to live differently.

Everyone who teaches literature has probably had at least one such golden moment. I mean the moment where, reading casually or reading intently, being lazy or being responsive, one is shocked into recognition. "Yes," one says, "that's the way it really is." Then often, a rather antinomian utterance comes: "They say it's not so, but I know it is. I always have."

One of my own such moments occurred reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It didn't really figure: That shouldn't have been the book (as it was at least for a little while) for a white, Irish-Catholic kid growing up outside of Boston. What Malcolm had to say about race resonated with me: There was a low-grade race war on in my school at the time, and he changed my thoughts about it pretty directly. In sum, I began to see how scary it must be to be black in America, and to be in real danger much of the time from white officials and white cops and white kids (kids not altogether unlike me and my pals).

But what really struck me in that book, oddly enough, was Malcolm's hunger for learning. By now, nearly everyone knows the story of how Malcolm, in prison, found himself unfit for the arguments that proliferated in the prison yard (or at least one quadrant of it) and took in all subjects under the moon and sun: race, sex, politics, history. He had opinions, but he couldn't back them up. He had almost no facts in his mental files. The answer was simple: He needed to start reading. So he loaded his cell with meaty works from the prison library. But of course, smart as the then Malcolm Little was, he hadn't had much formal education, and the books were loaded with words he didn't understand, placed like landmines in every paragraph. He looked them up in the dictionary, but there were simply too many of them. In the process of running around in the dictionary, he'd forget what the paragraph at hand was supposed to be about.

But this didn't induce him to give up. Instead, Malcolm sat down with a dictionary and a notebook and began copying down the dictionary — starting maybe with aardvark and moving on down the line. It took a while and it wasn't the most scintillating of pastimes, but when it was over, Malcolm Little could read.

And he read ferociously. The whole world of thought came into being for him: history, philosophy, literature, and science. He vowed then that he would be a reader for the rest of his life, a learner; and in time he would vow to use his book-won knowledge, along with a considerable quotient of street-smarts, to help himself through life and to do what he could for his people. In the beginning, doing what he could for black people meant bedeviling the white man; in time, it meant doing his part to serve all of humanity.

I was thrilled to read this. It turned out that I — despite being about as impatient with formal schooling as Malcolm was — had some intellectual aspirations, too. I was curious about things, after my fashion. Malcolm was black, I was white. Still, my 17-year-old self saw him as someone I could, in certain regards, try to emulate. I could read to satisfy my thirst for knowledge; I could use what I learned to make my life a little better, and maybe help some other people along the way. It was an unlikely conversion experience, maybe. But ultimately that's what it was.

I suspect that virtually everyone who teaches literature has had such an experience and maybe more than one. They've read Emerson or Orwell or Derrida or Woolf, and been moved to change the way they do what they do — or they've chosen another way of life altogether. And even if they don't change, they've had the chance to have their fundamental values challenged. Sometimes a true literary education appears to leave a student where he was at the beginning. But that state is only apparent. Confronted by the best that's been thought and said, he's gotten to reconsider his values and views. What was once flat dogma turns into lively commitment and conviction.

I think that the experience of change is at the heart of literary education. How does it come about? For me, it had a long foreground, to be sure, but most immediately I was guided by a teacher. He told me that I — I in particular — might get something worth keeping out of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And I suspect that's how many of us teachers found the books that have made us who we are. Teachers who've been inspired by great works have been moved to pass the gift on. "What we have loved, others will love," says Wordsworth, addressing his friend Coleridge in The Prelude, "and we will teach them how."

I think that the highest objective for someone trying to provide a literary education to students is to make such moments of transformation possible. Teachers set the scene for secular conversion. These conversions may be large scale — like the one that Whitman seems to have undergone when he read Emerson's "The Poet," and realized that though Emerson could not himself become the American poet prophesied in the essay, he, Walt Whitman, actually could. But the changes that literary art brings can be relatively minor, too. Reading a book may make a person more receptive to beauty than he otherwise would have been; might make him more sensitive to injustice; more prone to be self-reliant. Granted, books can have negative effects, too. One has read Don Quixote; one has read Madame Bovary. But a prerequisite for sharing literary art with young people should be the belief that, over all, its influence can be salutary; it can aid in growth. No one would teach history, after all, if he believed that all, or most, forms of historical knowledge were destructive deceptions; one would not teach music if one felt, as Plato did, that most of it disrupts the harmony of the soul.

I said that transformation was the highest goal of literary education. The best purpose of all art is to inspire, said Emerson, and that seems right to me. But that does not mean that literary study can't have other beneficial effects. It can help people learn to read more sensitively; help them learn to express themselves; it can teach them more about the world at large. But the proper business of teaching is change — for the teacher (who is herself a work in progress) and (pre-eminently) for the student.

Nor do I think that everyone who picks up a book must seek the sublime moment of unexpected but inevitable connection. People read for diversion; for relaxation; to inform themselves; to stave off anxiety in airplanes, when the flight attendant is out of wine and beer. A book can make a good door stop; and if you find yourself especially angry at the cat, have a good throwing arm, and a good angle — well, there's no end of uses for a book. But if you're going to take a book into a room, where the objective is to educate people — education being from the Latin educere, meaning "lead out of" and then presumably toward something — then you should consider using the book to help lead those who want to go out from their own lives into another, if only a few steps.

If this is what you want to do, then readings will only get in your way. When you launch, say, a Marxist reading of William Blake, you effectively use Marx as a tool of analysis and judgment. To the degree that Blake anticipates Marx, Blake is prescient and to be praised. Thus the Marxist reading approves of Blake for his hatred of injustice; his polemic against imperialism; his suspicion of the gentry; his critique of bourgeois art as practiced by the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds. But Blake, being Blake, also diverges from Marx. He is, presumably, too committed to something akin to liberal individualism; he doesn't understand the revolutionary potential latent in the proletariat; he is, perhaps, an idealist, who believes that liberation of consciousness matters more, or at least must precede, material liberation; he has no clear theory of class conflict. Thus Blake, admirable as he may be, needs to be read with skepticism; he requires a corrective, and the name of that corrective is Karl Marx. Just so, the corrective could be called Jacques Derrida (who would illuminate Blake the logocentrist); Foucault (who would demonstrate Blake's immersion in and implicit endorsement of an imprisoning society); Kristeva (who would be attuned to Blake's imperfections on the score of gender politics), and so on down the line. The current sophisticated critic would be unlikely to pick one master to illuminate the work at hand — he would mix and match as the occasion required. But to enact a reading means to submit one text to the terms of another; to allow one text to interrogate another — then often to try, sentence, and summarily execute it.

The problem with the Marxist reading of Blake is that it robs us of some splendid opportunities. We never take the time to arrive at a Blakean reading of Blake, and we never get to ask whether Blake's vision might be true — by which I mean, following William James, whether it's good in the way of belief. The moment when the student in the classroom, or the reader perusing the work can pause and say: "Yes, that's how it is; Blake's got it exactly right," disappears. There's no chance for the instant that Emerson and Longinus evoke, when one feels that he's written what he's only read, uttered what he's only heard.

Nor, it's worth pointing out, does Marx get much real opportunity here either. He's assumed to be a superior figure: There are in fact any number of Marxist readings of Blake out there; I know of no Blakean readings of Marx. But the student who has heard the teacher unfold a Marxist reading of a work probably doesn't get to study Marx per se. He never gets to have a potential moment of revelation reading The Manifesto or The Grundrisse. Marx too disappears from the scene, becoming part of a technological apparatus for processing other works. No one asks: "Is what Marx is saying true?" "Is Foucault onto something?" "Is what Derrida believes actually the case?" They're simply applied like paint to the side of a barn; the paint can go on roughly or it can go on adroitly, with subtle variations of mood and texture. But paint is what it is.

It should be clear here that my objection isn't to theoretical texts per se. If a fellow professor thinks that Marx or Foucault or Kristeva provides a contribution to the best that has been thought and said, then by all means read and study the text. (I've worked on these figures with students and not without profit.) But the teacher who studies, say, Foucault probably needs to ask what kind of life Foucault commends. Is it one outside of all institutions? Is it one that rebels against all authority? Can that life be in any way compatible with life as a professor or a student? These are questions that are rarely asked about what are conceived of as the more radical thinkers of the era. It is not difficult to guess why this is so.

I've said that the teacher's job is to offer a Blakean reading of Blake, or an Eliotic reading of Eliot, and that's a remark that can't help but raise questions. The standard for the kind of interpretation I have in mind is actually rather straightforward. When a teacher admires an author enough to teach his work, then it stands to reason that the teacher's initial objective ought to be framing a reading that the author would approve. The teacher, to begin with, represents the author: He analyzes the text sympathetically, he treats the words with care and caution and with due respect. He works hard with the students to develop a vision of what the world is and how to live that rises from the author's work and that, ultimately, the author, were he present in the room, would endorse. Northrop Frye does something very much like this in his book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry; George Orwell achieves something similar in his famous essay on Dickens. In both cases, the critic's objective is to read the author with humane sensitivity, then synthesize a view of life that's based on that reading. Schopenhauer tells us that all major artists ask and in their fashion answer a single commanding question: "What is life?" The critic works to show how the author frames that query and how he answers it. Critics are necessary for this work because the answers that most artists give to major questions are indirect. Artists move forward through intuition and inference: They feel their way to their sense of things. The critic, at his best, makes explicit what is implicit in the work.

This kind of criticism is itself something of an art, not a science. You cannot tell that you have compounded a valid reading of Dickens any more than that you have compounded a valid novel or a valid play. When others find your Dickensian endorsement of Dickens to be of use to them, humanly, intellectually, spiritually, then your endorsement is a success. The desire to turn the art of reading into a science is part of what draws the profession to the application of sterile concepts.

Perhaps an analogy will be helpful. Let us say that a friend of ours has been seriously ill, or gone through a bad divorce, or has fallen wildly, unexpectedly in love. The friend tells us all about it, from beginning to end, with all the sensitivity she can muster. The story is long and complex, and laced with nuance. We listen patiently and take it in. Later on we're faced with explaining this situation to a third person, a mutual friend of us both. Our confiding friend, our first one, wants this to happen: She wants her friends to know the story. How do we proceed? Surely we proceed as sensitively and humanely as possible. We honor our first friend's way of understanding the illness or the love affair. If we are a good friend, we tell the story such that, were the first friend there in the room, she would nod with approval and gratitude.

We may not believe the first friend's entire sense of the story. We may have a different idea of what happened and why. But we honor our first friend by keeping true to her insofar as we can. We do not, say, begin with a Freudian or Marxist reinterpretation of what it is she has told us. If we do, we are no friend at all. We have not given someone we care about due consideration.

Just so, we need to befriend the texts that we choose to teach. They too are the testaments of human beings who have lived and suffered in the world. They too deserve honor and respect. If you have a friend whose every significant utterance you need to translate into another idiom — whose two is not the real two, as Emerson says — then that is a friend you need to jettison. If there are texts that you cannot befriend, then leave them to the worms of time — or to the kinder ministrations of others.

In a once-famous essay, "Against Interpretation," Susan Sontag denounced interpretation and called for an "erotics of art." She wanted immersion in the text, pleasure, the drowning of self-consciousness. She sought ecstatic immediacy. To be against readings, as I am, is not to be against interpretation, and it is not to be against criticism. If interpretation means the work, often difficult, often pleasurable, of parsing the complexities of meaning a given text offers, then interpretation is necessary before we decide what vision of the world the text endorses.

To be against readings is also not to be against criticism. Once the author's vision of what Stevens calls "How to Live, What to Do" is made manifest, it's necessary to question it. In time, I learned to ask whether Malcolm X's views about Jews and women were conducive to a good life for anyone. His sense of race relations, early and late in the book, also needed some examination and some skeptical questioning. But this sort of questioning needs to occur once the author's vision is set forth in a comprehensive, clear, sympathetic manner. Criticism is getting into skeptical dialogue with the text. Mounting a conventional academic reading — applying an alternative set of terms — means closing off the dialogue before it has a chance to begin.

You may find that after you've listened to your friend's story about her love affair or her divorce that you can't buy everything she says. Her vision is self-idealizing or skewed. Then, as a friend, you need to bring your reservations forward and to discuss them with her. So it is with the text: The teacher and students inquire into it, and often they too answer in its behalf. But it all begins with a simple gesture. It all begins by befriending the text.

That gesture of befriending should have a public as well as a classroom dimension. The books that we professors of literature tend to write now are admirable in many ways. They are full of learning, hard work, honesty, and intelligence that sometimes, in its way, touches on brilliance. But they are also, at least in my judgment, usually unreadable. They are composed as performances. They are meant to show, and often to show off, the prowess of the author. They could not conceivably be meant to provide spiritual or intellectual nourishment. No one could read a representative instance of such writing and decide based on it to change her life. Our books are not written from love, but from need.

I think that it is possible to write books and essays in behalf of literature that will demonstrate its powers of renovation and inquire into the limits of those powers. Such books can and should be inspiring not only to members of the profession but to educated (or self-educated) and curious members of the general public who are willing to do some hard intellectual work. As a profession, our standing in and impact upon society beyond our classrooms now is minuscule. Yet we are copiously stocked with superb talent: Some of the best young minds in America continue to be drawn to the graduate study of literature. But unless we as a profession change our ways and stop seeking respectability and institutional standing at the expense of genuine human impact, they are destined, as Tennyson has it, to rust unburnished, and that's a sorry fate for them and for all of us.

One must admit that it's possible to develop too exalted a sense of the transforming powers of literature and the other arts. What worked for me and you and you may not have a universal application. It's probable that most people will be relatively content to live within the ethical and conceptual world that their parents and their society pass on to them. Burke and Johnson thought of common-sense opinion as a great repository of wisdom stored through the ages, augmented and revised through experience, trial and error, until it became in time the treasure of humanity. Perhaps the conservative sages were right. But there will always be individuals who cannot live entirely by the standard dispensation and who require something better — or at least something else. This group may be small (though I think it larger than most imagine), but its members need what great writing can bring them very badly indeed. We professors of literature hold the key to the warehouse where the loaves lie fresh and steaming, while outside people hunger for them, sometimes dangerously. We ought to do all we can to open the doors and dispense the bread: We should see how far it'll go.

Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is author of The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days, published in 2007 by Bloomsbury.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 33, Page B6

No comments: