“Leaving Literature Behind”

“Leaving Literature Behind”

Cleaning out my archive of half-finished blog posts.

I thought this was a great article: “Leaving Literature Behind”. By Bruce Fleming, an English prof at the U.S. Naval Academy. I’ve tried many times, always unsatisfactorily to put into words the way I was disturbed by my studies in grad school to the point that it derailed my initial plan to get my PhD. This article helps me to formulate it: the problem is that the classes and prof’s expectations drove too great a wedge between my experience of reading and enjoying books and the papers I was supposed to write about them. The thing was that as an undergraduate I was taught from a very Catholic perspective. It was understood by everyone that there was an absolute Truth and that somehow the study of literature was a part of the pursuit of the True the Beautiful and the Good. I was taught to listen to the author of a book, to hear what he had to tell me about the world, about what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” In grad school I found that the author became quite a secondary figure and the search for meaning in the text itself got somehow sidetracked. It’s not so much that I didn’t find the study of Irish culture interesting. I did. But I always sensed that somehow we’d got off onto a side trail and weren’t really studying Literature.

But Fleming says it more succinctly:

Literary studies split off from reading in the early-to-mid-20th century as the result of science envy on the part of literature professors. Talking about books somehow didn’t seem substantial enough. Instead of reading literature, now we study “texts.” We’ve developed a discipline, with its jargon and its methodology, its insiders and its body of knowledge. What we analyze nowadays is seen neither as the mirror of nature nor the lamp of authorial inspiration. It just is � apparently produced in an airless room by machines working through permutations of keys on the computer.

And a very interesting analogy:

Literary study in the classroom nowadays offers views of the work of literature rather like the views of Mt. Fuji in Hokusai’s celebrated spring series on “100 Views of Mt. Fuji.” In each view, the mountain, while present, is frequently tiny and in a corner, viewed (in the most famous print) beyond the crest of a wave whose foam seems to make fingers at the edges, or (in another) through a hoop that a barrel-maker is shaping.

Those are not the front-and-center shots on a postcard. They foreground the angle of the mountain, its treatment, much the way a literature professor does with a funky viewpoint that got him or her tenure. Of course the postcard shot has its own point, but in a real sense it’s more neutral than the angled treatment. It doesn’t push our noses in its approach: It defers to the object it is depicting. We’re far more conscious of the treatment of Mt. Fuji in an artsy Hokusai print than we are in a postcard shot. And that means, we’re all but compelled to see the mountain the way it’s presented, rather than being able to work on our own presentation. That’s why literary studies is intrinsically coercive.

The premodern classroom � up until, say, the New Criticism, that first critical application of modernism � never denied that each individual student might be making his or her individual “View of Mt. Fuji” from the postcard shot the professor was supposed to be presenting. But those views were individual, and no claims were made for them beyond that. The power of the professor in the professionalized classroom � and the pressure on students to conform � is thus exponentially greater than it was before people started thinking that the point was the “View of Mt. Fuji” rather than Mt. Fuji viewed. If you want a good grade, you adopt that viewpoint. That’s what’s being taught, after all. Several generations of students have by now learned to give in to the power of the literary-studies professor � and hated every minute of it.

There is a point to college or university guidance of literature. Most people never read serious literature at all without a guide. Too, people get more sophisticated as they have things pointed out to them, or as they read more. And many people just don’t know what they may read to begin with. So there’s a reason for teaching. We professors just have to remember that the books are the point, not us. We need, in short, to get beyond literary studies. We’re not scientists, we’re coaches. We’re not transmitting information, at least not in the sense of teaching a discipline. But we do get to see our students react, question, develop, and grow. If you like life, that’s satisfaction enough.

Yeah, I think what it was is that I liked seeing my professors’ views of Mt Fuji. But somehow they kept taking over. I always felt when it came time to write I was trying to present my own view but I’d keep losing it and ended up presenting a warped and watery view that was my attempt to look through someone else’s eyes. I was never true to myself. Finally I couldn’t bear the strain anymore. I completed my Ma but without much heart. And I never applied to PhD programs. I enjoy reading and writing about books much more when I don’t have to conform to that alien view that seems necessary in contemporary literary studies. At the same time, I do recognize that I’ve lost something that was valuable, a discipline that could have been that I don’t have.

Read the whole article here.
via Melissa Wiley

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  • I have this book on my “To Read” list, but haven’t gotten to it yet and, as my reading on my two current books has slowed down, it may be a while before I get to it. I am looking forward to it though. I have read his In Defense of Food. I really enjoyed that book. Occasionally I thought he went off the deep end a bit too extreme for my circumstances, but overall I thought it was a really interesting and enjoyable book.

  • i am so glad you like this book.  i can honestly say that this book truly changed the way our family eats and approaches food.  after i read it a few years ago we joined a csa, cut out fast food, and began to pay attention to the meat we ate.  but never did these changes seem oppressive.  it’s opened up a whole new world of farmer-supporting, researching, and veggie and grain eating that we’ve found fun and exciting. 

    i do totally agree with you about his worldview and approach, though.  and i, too, wanted to go knock him over the head when he brought singer into the picture. 

    “in defense of food” was great, too, and functions more as the “how to” of “the omnivore’s dilemma.”  i’d also highly recommend nina planck’s “real food.”  pollan praises it, and again, it helps you figure out what to eat on a daily basis. 

  • I’m impressed you could get through the book—I found his worldview (chiefly the garden variety eco-granola-industrial farming=bad views) totally annoying, not to mention predictable. I actually read as much, if not more, non-fiction than fiction these days…

  • Ok.  I really HAVE to read this book.  I am doing all of the changes anyway, supporting local farmers, eating organic, being careful of my meat, I might as well have the knowledge to back it up.