Amardeep Singh
Monday, January 10, 2005
Why teach literature? Part 2: The Reading Experience Responds
Dan Green, of The Reading Experience, has written a substantial response to my "Why Do We Teach Literature?" post from last week. The primary issue I was working on in that long post was whether and how teachers of literature might honestly represent what they do to the broader world, when the broader world doesn't think much of it, and takes any opportunity it can to say so.

Dan makes some points that are tough for me to immediately refute. His general argument might be paraphrased as "Even teaching literature for its educative value -- lessons for life -- is insufficient. Other, non-literary, texts might provide the same lessons as effectively. There is no overly compelling reason to teach literature in University classrooms, so why not just take it out entirely?"

To begin with, I may as well acknowledge that some of my speculations (especially on taking a "soft utilitarian" approach) might be a little shaky. My point about teaching Ulysses, for instance, for its 'lessons' rather than for Joyce's virtuosic display of literary prowess, is highly arguable (though Dan doesn't criticize me specifically on that claim). If you wanted to question the meaning of "blood" -- as a metaphor for family, as a metaphor for race -- you could just as easily do it with social examples, such as interracial marriage, or cross-racial adoption.

And I am worried about the implications of requiring that literary texts be taught for their usefulness. If I were a member of a department that was thinking along these lines, what would happen to messy texts? Would they go under some kind of pedagogical "black-list"? Well, the truth is that messy texts like Finnegan's Wake and Pound's Cantos are almost never taught, for the much more practical reason that students (and most techers, including myself) can't make heads or tails of them. The word that teachers use to describe these books is "unteachable," and I think that term may be related to my concept of "usefulness." The difference is that teachability is defined by pragmatic questions, whereas usefulness is defined conceptually.

As I've been writing this I've been glancing at the bookshelf in my living room, and thinking about where the various writers might be located on both the "usability" and a "teachability" axes. So many modern writers are in fact committed to imagining a major role for literature in the broader, "secular" world, the world beyond small, hieratic enclosures of writers and committed aesthetes. Even some writers who fall under the "esoteric" category only do so at some moments in their careers. Gertrude Stein wrote Tender Buttons (I once tried to teach it, and failed pretty miserably), but she also wrote the bestselling, highly accessible The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as well as the occasional children's book. The latter are also of some (if not overwhelming) literary value.

Or take Rushdie. I mentioned The Satanic Verses as an example of a book that seems to require the impossible of its readers at certain points, which I think makes it less "useful" in the classroom. But is there any doubt that in many ways Rushdie is using the novel as a philosophical meditation (and social commentary!) on the tension between the fluidity and constancy of the self in a changing world? Is that not a teachable point?

I have recently taught some other quite difficult, messy texts, with variable success. I felt that my experiment teaching H.D.'s Trilogy fell a little short this fall, but was then shocked to find that a third of the students in my seminar were working on research papers on one or another aspect of the poem! Normally, generating that much interest is a sign that a teacher managed to activate student interest. I was also reasonably pleased with the results when I taught (again at the graduate level) some weird/difficult stories by writers like Kafka and Borges. Many students still didn't quite get it, I think (particularly Borges); here, perhaps, my sheer enthusiasm carried things.

I also taught Nabokov's short story "That in Aleppo Once..." to my undergraduate (sophomore) class in the fall. Here, I have to admit that it really didn't work.

The reason I feel confident teaching literature for its potential social usefulness (again, broadly conceived) is that I think that an overwhelming number of writers, British, American, and non-Western, themselves write with some idea of usefulness in mind. The value of literature is almost never just "literary," even for writers; one also reads (or writes) literature to engage ideas from philosophy (inclusive of ethics and morality), history, and politics. None of these related regimes of thought are by any means required to be obviously present, and some writers might really not be interested in things like politics or history. There aren't many of them, and most who say they aren't interested are lying. Even the great, "literary literary" T.S. Eliot explicitly coupled his taste in literature ("classicist") with a politics ("royalist") and a religion ("Anglo-Catholicism").

I'm still thinking about this, but I wonder if we might need to look at what exactly the "literary" is. What are its boundaries? What is its essential property? Does it have a center and margins? Are there forms of cultural expression that contain "literary value" that are not themselves literature? Take Joyce again. Certainly, the formal experimentation and the linguistic play of Ulysses are literary values? But aren't those elements themselves a questioning of the philosophical and literary historical "shape" of modernity?

I have a suspicion that the disagreement between Dan Green and myself about why and whether to teach literature in a university classroom might boil down to our differential responses to the meaning -- and the limits -- of the literary. I think literature can be both personally and socially "useful" to a community of readers, without diminishing or marginalizing its other qualities. The literature a professor chooses to teach in a classroom probably should be useful, however a teacher chooses to define or interpret that word. Furthermore, it should be actively used -- that is what distinguishes the role of "teacher" from that of "discussion facilitator."
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