February 11, 2009

This Week in My Classes (February 11, 2009)

It's all about violence in both classes this week--Chandler, Hammett, and mean streets in Mystery and Detective Fiction, and the struggle for survival in Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt. Now that I think about it, another interesting commonality is that in both contexts the violence is approached with detachment: cool, wry cynicism in the hard-boiled detective stories and scientific curiosity in Darwin.

Today in particular I wanted to loosen everybody up: in the faith and doubt seminar, discussion continues to be a bit lackluster compared to what I'm used to in fiction-focused classes (is it me or them or the material? probably some of each), and in the mystery class, the larger format and the wide range of material (all requiring a good dose of literary and historical context to set up the examples) means more straight lecturing than I ordinarily do. In both courses, though, the goal is always to enable them to carry on well-informed, precise conversations about the material themselves, so it is crucial for me to shut up (or at least quiet down) sometimes and let them try out the ideas and skills we've been accumulating.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction today, then, I asked them to use our reading, Chandler's (long) short story (is it really a novella?) "Trouble Is My Business," as the chief exhibit in a debate about the literary capacity of genre fiction. We read "The Simple Art of Murder" for Monday, in which Chandler claims that Hammett proved "the detective story can be important writing." In making this case he focuses primarily on Hammett's realism, but he also argues for the effectiveness of Hammett's prose for his purposes. So I invited them to hold his story up to that standard, or indeed to any standard they might have for what makes literature "important." Half of them were asked to develop the argument for its importance, the other half against. They rose well to the challenge. Originality, realism, style, and depth seemed to be the basic qualities they expected to find in important literature--but, as we've discussed more than once this term, originality in particular is a tricky question when dealing with genre fiction, as it is defined through its adherence to conventions. Some of the more interesting specific debates were about Chandler's language, from the tough talk (how realistic is that smart-alec patter? and if it's not realistic, do we appreciate it for other reasons?) to the "poetic" language (all those colorful similes! or are they too often cliches?). One of my own standards for importance is having ideas--not necessarily being overtly or didactically philosophical, but engaging us by aesthetic means in a process of thought about something that matters, something below or beyond the mechanics of plot. I didn't think "Trouble Is My Business" offered much in the way of ideas. I do think The Maltese Falcon does--which is why I agree with Chandler's assessment of its merits. In any case, the main point was to let them exercise their wits on the readings and test some assumptions about how they might (or do) judge different forms of writing. Are we satisfied with concluding that something is good "of its kind," or do we accept a hierarchy of kinds? When the more relativist position was put forward at one point, I asked how many would choose not to see a film simply on the grounds of the kind of film it was--a large majority raised their hands. While this could be considered simply an expression of taste ("I just don't like things of that kind"), if pressed, I think we would defend our tastes, or our choices, on the grounds that some kinds of things seem more worth our while than others--not our taste in ice cream or pizza, of course, or of red wine over white, but our taste in something requiring intellectual and emotional engagement, such as a book or a movie. I think this is a worthwhile conversation to have, if only to keep us thinking about why we like or value the things we do. I was pleased to get a lot of participation, including from people who had not put up their hands before.

In the faith and doubt seminar, I also devised a discussion exercise. We're reading excerpts from Darwin this week and a large part of what I want them to take away from it is a sense of how awareness of Darwin's scientific work and theories affects literary forms and interests in other writers we'll be reading. Scholars such as Gillian Beer and George Levine have done wonderful work showing how diffusive the influence of Darwin was on Victorian poets and novelists, from bringing scientific topics explicitly into their work to encouraging different ways of looking at the world or conceiving of the work of the novelist--no longer, for instance, modelled after the creative design of God but after the observations and inquiries of the natural historian. I made up a handout with excerpts from different works and invited them to consider how they might read through a 'post-Darwinist' lens: what ideas or strategies in the writing do they pick up on, what detail becomes more telling? Here are a couple of the passages I gave them:
I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I now noticed a decided similarity between the dog’s way of eating, and the man’s. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction, of somebody’s coming to take the pie away. He was altogether too unsettled in his mind over it, to appreciate it comfortably, I thought, or to have anybody to dine with him, without making a chop with his jaws at the visitor. In all of which particulars he was very like the dog.

It is one of those old, old towns, which impress one as a continuation and outgrowth of nature as much as the nests of the bower birds or the winding galleries of the white ants: a town which carries the traces of its long growth and history, like a millennial tree, and has sprung up and developed in the same spot between the river and the low hill from the time when the Roman legions turned their backs on it from the camp on the hill-side, and the long-haired sea-kings came up the river and looked with fierce, eager eyes at the fatness of the land. It is a town 'familiar with forgotten years.'

Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom. In this way, metaphorically speaking, a strong lens applied to Mrs. Cadwallader's match-making will show a play of minute causes producing what may be called thought and speech vortices to bring her the sort of food she needed.
In general terms, we've talked about how Darwin's theory gives everything a history (or, as he says in Origins, a genealogy), as well as emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things. It starts to become clear why Henry James would have complained that Middlemarch is "too often an echo of Mssrs Darwin and Huxley"--not a reading that I think would come intuitively to the modern reader, so accustomed have we become to Darwinian ways of seeing.

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