December 3, 2008

This Week in My Classes (December 3, 2008)

Both classes met just once this week, for "Exam Review and Conclusions" in both cases. Although reviewing for finals is of course important, lately I feel compelled also to offer what I only half-jokingly describe to my colleagues as "closing perorations"--remarks aimed at drawing out, or drawing together, the major intrinsic motives for our work in the class. The accounts that follow here are reconstructed from my lecture notes and retain the...looseness...of that genre.

In Introduction to Prose and Fiction, I returned us to our course epigraph, taken from Ian McEwan's essay "Only Love and then Oblivion": “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” A major point I tried to drive home over the term is that (literary) reading and writing have never usually been intended as ‘academic exercises’—writers use literary and rhetorical strategies to further ideas and achieve effects in the real world, by changing the way people see the world, or think about the world, and thus the way they act in the world. It is possible to conceive of all of the readings we did as outreach projects of this kind, though their strategies have ranged from the very direct and overt (such as Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech) to the subtle, even ambiguous (Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” for instance, an invitation to her readers to acknowledge the ‘grandeur’ of life in its smallest forms—but to what ends?). Even the aesthetic and affective aspects of our readings alter our perception of the world around us, as well as our experience of and in it.

We particularly worked on understanding the tools of a writer’s trade, from argumentative strategies to rhetorical and literary devices, so that we could talk about how we got the ideas we did from them, how they made these ideas memorable, or thought-provoking, or persuasive. We worked on distinguishing between better and worse readings of their works—better readings being those that account most fully and accurately for the material in the text--and we discussed the concept of "coduction," a coinage by Wayne Booth that describes the way we test, modify, and improve our readings by conversation with other readers.

What in particular did we study? We worked through our lists of the "Elements of Prose" and the "Elements of Fiction," learning terms and definitions for key techniques. We need to know enough about writing styles and techniques to test and explain our interpretations, which can be wholly inaccurate if, for instance, we fail to recognize irony (as in Swift’s “Modest Proposal”) or unreliable narration (as in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”). In some cases historical context is also crucial: you can’t work appropriately with Wiesel’s Night, for instance, without understanding, first, that it is a version of his own life story, and second, that his story is an individual piece in the larger story of the Holocaust--which itself, of course, is part of a number of still larger stories including the history of Germany as a nation, or the history of anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere—which is also an important part of the story of TheRemains of the Day. Sometimes literary history is a great aid to our understanding: the history of different literary genres, for instance (such as the short story) or argumentative styles (such as oratory or rhetoric) can help us appreciate about how our individual examples work with or against literary conventions (such as the way female gothic texts--"The Yellow Wallpaper," say--use but also subvert the traditional gothic mode). And information about individual writers can help us understand texts that might otherwise be obscure in their purposes or styles, and illustrate the point that writers too work with the kind of knowledge (the sense of options) that we developed in this course (self-consciously placing themselves into genres, traditions, and also historical and political moments).

The larger context for this work is my hope that our readings and discussions encourage the students to think about writing and literature as in some way relevant to their own lives. The aim is not to turn them on to any particular writer or form, but to demonstrate that the process of engaging with writing (both fiction and non-fiction) matters because writing is one of our sites of interaction with each other. The larger aim, then, is to experience something of the variety of conversations that people have about prose and fiction and learn what is necessary to participate in these conversations in a responsible, well-informed, and rewarding way.

In The Nineteenth-Century Novel, I remind the class that I opened the course with review of some of the pejorative stereotypes associated with the Victorian age in general and Victorian literature in particular (assisted by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando). As I explained at that time, the object of the course was not so much to disprove or dispel myths and stereotypes as to complicate them and rethink them. In fact, to some extent, I embrace and advocate a specific aspect of the stereotype, namely earnestness--which I believe is important, Oscar Wilde notwithstanding.

I chose an array of novels that in some sense do represent the “Victorian” qualities of social and moral earnestness—though, in their sheer variety of style and approach (narrative techniques and structures, plots and characters, tone, humour, ‘flavour’), I think they make it more difficult to generalize (pejoratively or otherwise) about Victorian literature. All of our books in their own ways ask us to get worked up about “the way we live now”—using fictional techniques (intrusive narration, direct address, thematization, multiple narrators, sensationalism, comedy, pathos…) and artistry to engage us. Even in our ‘lighter’ books, this preoccupation with social conditions and the need for or conditions for change helps explain the stereotypical association of Victorianism with ‘earnestness.’ But where the issues are important ones (marriage, morality, authority, the status of women, class conflict, conflicts between duties to ourselves and duties to others, care for the weak and suffering and ill...)—where the stakes are so high, being earnest surely seems appropriate, if not essential—what would it mean, after all, to take these issues lightly? To me, that quality of earnestness, then, is nothing to be ashamed or apologetic about, but is part of the appeal of Victorian novels, as is the way that the great 19th-century novelists combine it with great humour, charity, curiosity, and formal innovation.

A further, and related, feature of these novels, and one that seems to me of increasing importance, is the imperative they communicate that we, as readers, have a lot of responsibilities: to read well, to judge carefully, and to think about our own role in the social worlds and institutions the novelists examine so imaginatively and often so critically—many of which have continuations or counterparts, after all, in modern society. At heart, this is the demand these novels make on us—to get involved, as readers—to acknowledge that the world they talk about is always, if not always literally, our own. When still an aspiring novelist herself, George Eliot remarked that “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot." Right now, there is a lot of interest in fiction in this way, as a literary form that perhaps is specially suited to bringing about change in the world as well as in individuals. For example, Martha Nussbaum has published a book called Poetic Justice in which she holds up Dickens’s Hard Times as exemplary of the potential role of the literary imagination in public life—holding up a vision of human flourishing that contrasts with the theories most at play in socio-economic theory today, and that she argues is best cultivated precisely through the form of the novel. This is part of a broader attempt on her part to get the novel as a genre recognized as a form of moral philosophy. I myself have published a paper arguing for the value of George Eliot’s Middlemarch as an ethical text.

My general point is that the very qualities that make 19th-century novels problematic if your approach is formalist, aesthetic, or modernist can be those that make them matter if your approach is philosophical, activist, humanist, or communicative—why not, we might ask, use the powers of language and story-telling to get people thinking and talking about the way they live with other people, or about their ability to face themselves in the mirror in the morning? Yes, these novels are demanding in their length and complexity. But the greatest demand they place on us as readers is to be active, rather than passive, whether through the great moral "labour of choice" we experience vicariously in The Mill on the Floss or through the exercise of our sympathetic imagination and social conscience on behalf of those who need our help, as Bleak House might inspire us.

And then, in an equally Victorian spirit of optimism, I conclude with a list of more 19th-century novels for future reading.

Now, on to exams!


Amateur Reader said...

I realize that I just started writing about this - literary earnestness - today, at least in an oblique way, and I think I'm going to continue, one way or another, all of next week. I have been keeping up with your teaching posts; I am not quite another student, but your influence is apparently being felt.

Reading Vanity Fair, as I am now, the idea seems inescapable. When does Thackeray mean what he says, when does it really matter? Same for Thomas Carlyle - the irony is so thick, so continuous. Rhetorically, they're quite different, but they share a strategy. Both act like jokers; both could hardly be more serious.

I might make a comment about your oppositions - formalist vs humanist and so on - but I don't want to step into that argument. I'll just say that, like you, I don't understand why I shouldn't be interested in all of those approaches.

Do your students appreciate the lists of books? I always did, but I was not a typical student. Book (music, film) bloggers in general are probably abnormally fond of lists.

Rohan Maitzen said...

When does Thackeray mean what he says, when does it really matter?

Good question. I think, when he talks about death, we see where he's going with all the other stuff. "The doctor will come up to us too for the last time there, my friend in motley. . . . Your comedy and mine will have been played then, and we shall be removed, oh how far, from the trumpets, and the shouting, and the posture-making." (from my second-favourite chapter, "In Which Two Lights are Put Out"--tops, of course [you'll see why] is "A Rescue and a Catastrophe").

I agree too about embracing differences in both novels and approaches to novels. The house of fiction has many windows, etc.

Some of them were certainly try to write down all the titles I rattled off--which reminds me, I promised to post the list to their Blackboard site.

Robby Virus said...

Can we convince you to post the list of all of us non-students as well?

Rohan Maitzen said...

RV: My pleasure. You were unofficially on the syllabus, by the way: I directed students' attention specifically to your first post on Vanity Fair because (a) it delighted me, and (b) I thought it might be inspirational to them to see that someone could read the book by choice and get a real kick out of it. :-)