As a teacher’s assistant and graduate student at a respected university in the northeast, it often enters my mind the futility of talking about literature.
After all, I’ve overheard the conversations of students in the sciences and many of them seem to accomplish so much more (just finished designing a program for a cell phone app, created a website for cross-referencing social networking sites and geographical locations of individuals with like interests, etc.) and I compare it to what I accomplished for the week (just finished discussing the importance of reading Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky contrapuntally to include the voice of the colonized, wrote a paper identifying American Exceptionalism in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, did a close reading of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, etc.).
Just last evening a friend of mine exclaimed that he had no idea why he was here. (Not existential really. He meant grad school.)
I told him that, often, I wonder if the strong feeling I and other students express towards literature in class is really genuine. After all, are my students really upset that the Duke of Gloucester might have mentally raped Lady Anne? Are they going to take that with them over the weekend and torture themselves with what this disgusting literary character got away with?
Does it bother me that Captain Delano doesn’t see the fact that the ship coming into port has actually been usurped by Caribbean slaves because he assumes the African race isn’t intelligent enough to mastermind so complex a plan?
So, it’s all a play then, right? We’re in class pretending like we care about these things?
It doesn’t bother me that we’re playing, but we are, aren’t we?
The ideas of modern literary critics like Edward Said, William Spanos and Gayatri Spivak is (more or less) that the critic, the teacher is a “witness”. That literature is a social phenomenon, arguing against the aesthetically-removed sons and daughters of I.A. Richards and the New Criticism school who argue that literature is self-sustainable, that it must be studied contrapuntally with the time in which it was written.
It’s critic Harold Bloom’s nightmare as this sort of criticism, in his most conservative view, ends in the nebulous realm of cultural studies that (he believes) is dismantling the importance of literature studies in the Western world.
Why do we discuss literature, still? I thought things were only like this at universities below the golden thrones of the Ivy League, but Columbia University discusses literature in the same way as Bow-Tie Bumpkin University of College in Sticksville America. It all centers around a bunch of people gathering about a table and asking, “What do you think?”
Is it worthwhile?
It depends. People like talking about music, people have blogs to discuss movies and soft drinks and sex and fishing…to say something is trivial, that something doesn’t matter, takes the gusto out of a lot of the technical, scientific matter that seems to accomplish so much.
After all, what’s facebook if not literature, music, movies and otherwise fluff.
The difference between the round table discussion of literature at a graduate school and the social network site is very small, but it’s an orientation; it’s a desire, in many cases, to become better thinkers and better adjudicators of society and the direction society appears to be heading.
Just tonight I listened to Johnathan Franzen, after he read ten pages from Freedom, answer an audience member’s question of what his book might be trying to say. More or less he said that he didn’t feel he had to answer that question, that the point of literature was that we took it in and sat with it, that it complicated life and we allowed it to. Because we wanted someone to. We needed things not to be as simple as we sometime think they are.