Nacht Blog: This Book Made Me Feel…

NACHTIt’s not everyday that lectures on Nietzsche pack in an audience at sardine-can density, but such was the case Monday night when I attended a talk by Frank Farrell, professor of philosophy at State University of New York (SUNY) Purchase. Farrell’s thesis—that recent critical theory has mishandled Nietzsche, making him appear more like a poststructuralist and less like an emotional humanist and aesthete—was certainly piquant, and the talk elicited spirited discussion during the Q & A, but today what interests me is not what the mustachioed philologist of Basel thought, or how we read him now, but rather a relatively minor point in Farrell’s lecture.

Midway through the talk, almost in an aside, Farrell noted that he once knew a professor who, having taught critical theory for years, finally chucked the theorists and decided to make students stand at the front of the room and recite literature aloud until they felt its aesthetic power, its cadence and lyricism, its sublimity. Farrell himself attempted to demonstrate these effects by reading a particularly mellifluous passage from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and concluded the thought by proposing that literature professors might better serve their students by asking them more often how the experience of reading made them feel.

Now, before discussing this proposition further, it’s important to note the route by which Farrell arrives at this question.  He is clearly concerned that the decades-old affinity between literary and cultural studies (which imports ideas from anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, sociology, etc.) has foregrounded questions of hermeneutics at the expense of poetics, preferring to read texts as pastiches of cultural scripts, codes, biases, and ideologies rather than works of art, produced by dint of genius, that use aesthetic techniques to move the reader. For Farrell, it appears, the current academy’s emphasis on theory and the analysis of culture has all but effaced the work of art as art, and as a result today’s students do not connect emotionally with their readings.  They are hard pressed to give answers to the question (and not incidentally the title of Farrell’s second book), “Why does literature matter?”

Thus, Farrell’s wariness of theory and his desire to make students feel the full aesthetic force of the texts they read have profound motivations behind them: he wants us to talk about how literature makes us feel so that we can know why literature matters.

So, is there a compelling case for the reintroduction of recitation, the common study of prosody (the theory of rhythms and sound in poetry), renewed attention to aesthetics, and the like? Do contemporary English departments do violence to the integrity of literature by spending more time talking about a work’s relation to external ideologies than its internal techniques of artistic achievement? Do students trained in critical theory lose the ability to read literature as literature?

In positing just one possible answer to these important and difficult questions, I realize that my thoughts break down into two parts.

I would first like to suggest that this line of questioning, as it is usually formulated, fails to consider the full range of literature, broadly defined, that contemporary students consume. That is, anyone concerned that young people no longer know how to enjoy literary works emotionally—but rather see them as one more kind of cultural inscription begging for a resistant reading—has somewhat myopically neglected the obvious effect of film and television (and popular genre fiction) on today’s readers/viewers.  The late twentieth-century taxonomy of art broke the old category of ‘leisure reading’ down into component parts among films and TV shows, resulting in much less reading, but hardly a decrease in the consumption of art works that use the aesthetics of the narrative or lyric to connect the particular with the universal, the mundane with the beautiful, self with other, etc.

So young people today certainly connect emotionally with literary works, but that brings us to the central question of whether such feelings belong in the classroom. Should time be spent discussing how we feel about literature, or are professors right to discourage such subjective reactions?

Surely absolute answers are not in order here. A classroom full of emotional responses would drown in what T.E. Hulme called “spilt religion,” the Romantic gushing of human possibility, beauty, and infinitude. A literary discussion devoid of any consciousness of art’s emotional effects, however, numbs itself to an essential dimension of literature. The problem, of course, is how to engage with pathos, which must be both felt and apprehended in order to give literature its due. In Book 17 of the Odyssey, we read of the recognition of Odysseus by his old dog Argos, whom he trained as a puppy before leaving for war, and who now can muster only a feeble wag of welcome to his long lost master.  How can we not be moved to join Odysseus in “wiping away a salt tear” as the disguised hero must continue on through hostile Ithaca and poor Argos, finally at peace, gives up the ghost?

[…] death and darkness in that instant closed

the eyes of Argos, who had seen his master,

Odysseus, after twenty years.

One challenge of emotional response in the classroom is to engage with the poetics of that feeling. Saying, “that was so sad!” is not sufficient. Connecting that sadness with the greater theme of waste and lost time in the Odyssey, with the inability to declare one’s identity fully, with the disruption of normal relations, say between human and dog—these are ways of giving voice to that sadness.

Plate of Odysseus and his dog Argos, by Jean-Auguste Barre

I would further argue, however, that the work of teaching literature cannot end at the vocalization of why emotional responses are produced. Literary theory justly asks us to analyze emotions as well, to withdraw from them and understand the way they fit in with broader social and psychological structures. Is there something suspicious in the deployment and purity of the master-dog relationship? Does it prime us to think of Odysseus’ kingly and fatherly prerogatives as innocent and natural, rather than cruel and despotic, especially when he will shortly kill all the suitors who thought him dead and hang twelve household maids who were depraved enough to have sex with them?

We should not ignore the possibility of these motivations, yet we cannot either let the motivations subsume the effects. Only through both methods of responding to Argos’ death, with equal feeling and suspicion of feeling, can we do justice to literature.

This piece was also published in Nacht.


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