March 8, 2010

This Week in My Classes (March 8, 2010)

It will be easier next time. And better, too, probably.

Or at least, this is my comforting mantra every time I come out of my Brit Lit survey class these days. Today it was a madcap dash through Yeats, with some gestures towards "What is modern(ist) poetry?" Wednesday and Friday are T. S. Eliot, next Monday it's Auden, then Dylan Thomas, then Seamus Heaney. It is nerve-wracking trying to decide what to say when you're moving so fast. I'm sure learning a lot, though, and that's always exhilarating. Did you know, for instance, that Yeats had a testicle transplant? Or, more to the point (if there is one) that he considered himself a Romantic, or at least that's what he said sometimes? We spent most of our time today on "Easter 1916." I wasn't altogether intending that until I started reading about Yeats's "distaste" for the War Poets, who he omitted from his edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse. I was surprised that they aren't represented in our Major Authors edition of the Norton anthology, and reading about Yeats's objections to their depiction of "passive suffering" along with other information about his own turn to political poetry after the Easter rebellion got me thinking about the possible extremes in representing political violence--I suggested in class that his view of the War Poets would be one problem, a kind of lament, I guess, with something like "The Charge of the Light Brigade" perhaps at the other end, didactic and bombastic. "Easter 1916" perhaps successfully occupies more ambivalent territory, epitomized in its refrain about a "terrible beauty." How far might the stakes be understood to include the aestheticization of violence that "Easter 1916" itself inevitably participates in? Is its beauty part of what is, terribly, born of the firing squads? I wish we could have read "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" or "Dulce et decorum est" along with it, if only to test Yeats's "distaste" against our own reactions. And yet I suppose that is not really the main point to be considered about Yeats--and I did save a little time for the widening gyres of "The Second Coming."

We had our second session on Indemnity Only this morning in Mystery & Detective Fiction. I wanted to explore Paretsky's (or at least V. I. Warshawski's) feminism more inductively this time, considering how exactly V.I. behaves, what her values and priorities are, rather than assuming she represents any particular dogmatic idea of feminism. (Coincidentally, as I was typing this, Sara Paretsky sent out this 'tweet':" Today is Int'l Women's Day--a national holiday in Ukraine. Good wishes to women everywhere, with hopes for equality in our lifetimes.") We talked, for starters, about V.I.'s good looks, self-consciousness about eating too much, and interest in clothes, all stereotypically 'feminine' concerns. The suggestion I eventually made is that Paretsky sets Vic up to illustrate the compatibility of feminism with femininity--or, that femininity need not be equated with weakness. Similarly, Vic is fiercely independent, with a chip on her shoulder especially about men encroaching on her 'turf,' but she shows a softer side in her interactions with young Jill Thayer, calling her 'sweetie' and 'honey' and offering her help and comfort: strength is compatible with tenderness. One context for this discussion is our recent work on The Maltese Falcon, in which Sam survives by choosing against his softer sentiments: that kind of toughness is idealized in some versions of hard-boiled detection, as is the inhuman detachment of Dupin and Holmes. It's easy to see that these models repeat and solidify old ideas about men and women (such as the 'separate spheres' model of the 19th century). The Maltese Falcon hints at how damaging it can be (morally, emotionally) to live up to such a standard of masculinity. It wouldn't necessarily represent progress, from a feminist perspective, to show a woman living up to the same standard. The greater challenge is to create models, for both men and women, of living freely and fully in both professional and private life. Like Grafton (whose Kinsey Millhone can never really accept the compromises of romantic partnership, at least on conventional terms), Paretsky seems to suggest that there's still a way to go before such a resolution is possible--though in the later novels in the series, Vic does settle, more or less, into a long-term relationship, in this case poor Ralph is just not up to it, not because he's a bad man, but because he's an ordinary man raised with "ordinary" (traditional) assumptions.

Tomorrow, it's the George Eliot graduate seminar and round two of Middlemarch--which reminds me, there's no student officially responsible for discussion questions this week, so I'd best go start up an open thread on our class blog. This week's installment includes Chapter 42, currently my very favourite.


M said...

Wow! What an interesting week! I'm also slouching through the moderns with my students, or, more appropriately, slapping and dashing our way through Kafka, Yeats, Woolf and Faulkner.

Happy to have found your blog!

Hannah Stoneham said...

What fascinating classes you do have. I notice that you are reading Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf - I have this but have not started yet - would be great to read your thoughts on this biography some time!

Enjoy chapter 42 of Middlemarch - one of my favourite novels.

Thanks for sharing


Rohan Maitzen said...

@only words: welcome! and good luck...

@Hannah, I have stalled a bit in the Hermione Lee just for lack of time to concentrate on it, but I'm hoping to charge through it once classes end. Middlemarch is my favorite novel, so saying Chapter 42 is my favorite part of it is high praise indeed, from me! We didn't really talk about Chapter 42 that much in class after all. I'll have to make up for that next week. It was a good discussion, though.

Ludwig Richter said...

I wish I could have sat in on your Brit Lit class this week. I think I would have enjoyed the discussion.

The questions you raise are very interesting to me--particularly the question of "the aestheticization of violence." I had thought about raising that question in my philosophy class, especially in connection with Adorno's much-quoted (or perhaps much-misquoted) dictum that "to continue to write poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric."

I think about that quote in relation to, say, Paul Celan's "Todesfuge"--an aestheticization, one might argue, of not just firing squads but mass murder.

Even Ungaretti's minimalist masterpieces from the trenches of World War I represent an aesthetic. Stripped down as the poems are, they're still the product of an early Modernist stylization. I don't know whether Jarrell read Ungaretti, but I can't help but think of "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" in connection with Ungaretti's early poems.