Posts tagged literature
Posts tagged literature
I do a good deal of lecturing in my classes, but most of my lectures are to some degree improvised and circumstantial. When I walk into a classroom where students have just read a work of literature that’s new to them, most of my excitement comes not from the opportunity to tell them what I know but from curiosity: What do they want to know?
Maybe the coolest thing about being a teacher is just this: Everything that’s worn and familiar to me is new to my students.
In any genre it may happen that the first great example of contains the whole potentiality of the genre. It has been said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote. Cervantes sets for the novel the problem of appearance and reality: the shifting and conflict of social classes becomes the field of the problem of knowledge, of how we know and of how reliable our knowledge is, which at that very moment of history is vexing the philosophers and scientists. And the poverty of the Don suggests that the novel is born with the appearance of money as a social element—money, the great solvent of the solid fabric of the old society, the great generator of illusion. Or, which is to say much the same thing, the novel is born in response to snobbery.
Snobbery is not the same thing as pride of class. Pride of class may not please us but we must at least grant that it reflects a social function. A man who exhibited class pride—in the day when it was possible to do so—may have been puffed up about what he was, but this ultimately depended on what he did. Thus, aristocratic pride was based ultimately on the ability to fight and administer. No pride is without fault, but pride of class may be though of as today we think of pride of profession, toward which we are likely to be lenient.
Snobbery is pride in status without pride in function. And it is an uneasy pride of status. It always asks, “Do I belong—do I really belong? And does he belong? And if I am observed talking to him, will it make me seem to belong or not to belong?” It is the peculiar vice not of aristocratic societies which have their own appropriate vices, but of bourgeois democratic societies. For us the legendary strongholds of snobbery are the Hollywood studios, where two thousand dollars a week dare not talk to three hundred dollars a week for fear he be taken for nothing more than fifteen hundred dollars a week. The dominant emotions of snobbery are uneasiness, self-consciousness, self-defensiveness, the sense that one is not quite real but can in some way acquire reality.
Money is the medium that, for good or bad, makes for a fluent society. It does not make for an equal society but for one in which there is a constant shifting of classes, a frequent change int he personnel of the dominant class. In a shifting society great emphasis is put on appearance—I am using the word now in the common meaning, as when people say that “a good appearance is very important in getting a job.” To appear to be established is one of the ways of becoming established. The old notion of the solid merchant who owns far more than he shows increasingly gives way to the ideal of signalizing status by appearance, but showing more than you have: status in a democratic society is presumed to come not with power but with the tokens of power. Hence the development of what Tocqueville saw as a mark of democratic culture, what he called the “hypocrisy of luxury”—instead of the well-made peasant article and the well-made middle-class article, we have the effort of all articles to appear as the articles of the very wealthy.
Trilling, Lionel. “Manners, Morals, and the Novel.” The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. Leon Wieselteier, ed. Northwestern University Press, 2000.
Twain has little patience for those who are, to his mind, overly confident of their own virtue. His fairly robust distaste for clergymen occasionally slips out, as does his special detestation of missionaries (whom he evidently sees as little more than ambassadors of our corrupt culture in more unspoiled quarters of the earth). Most patriotism he regards as a nasty, fraudulent, and degrading emotion, whose chief effect is to blind men to their national evils: in the case of the United States, lynch law at home and imperialist atrocities abroad.
And then there are his various reflections on faith, including one particularly long, harsh, and disdainful commentary on the idiocy of human hope in providence in the midst of a world of such unimaginable suffering and so many monstrous misfortunes. On these matters, almost nothing of what he has to say could have been printed in his lifetime without harm to his popular reputation, and yet nothing brings us nearer to the essential truth of the man.
- David B. Hart
The evil woman uttered a loud curse and became so terribly afraid that she did not know what to do. At first she did not want to go to the wedding celebration. But, she could not calm herself until she saw the young queen. When she entered the hall, she recognized Snow White. The evil queen was so petrified with fright that she could not budge. Iron slippers had already been heated over a fire, and they were brought over to her with tongs. Finally, she had to put on the red-hot slippers and dance until she fell down dead.
“Snow White.” The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Jack Zipes, trans. Toronto, Bantam, 1987.
Writing about disconnection and loss is easier than writing about the nurturing, strengthening, consoling aspects of faith. Which, I suppose, was equally true of the stories of the mid-century titans that Elie cites. Faith, being the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, has never been easy to portray aesthetically. This is why Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, has to throw up his hands in incomprehension when faced with Abraham’s trust in a God he scarcely even knows. In any time or place, a strong and vivid and truthful story about faith is a rare bird indeed.
- Alan Jacobs
I cannot boast that [this book] contains much which a reader could not have found out for himself if, at every hard place in the old books, he had turned to commentators, histories, encyclopedias, and other such helps. I thought the lectures worth giving and the book worth writing because that method of discovery seemed to me and seems to some others rather unsatisfactory. For one thing, we turn to the helps only when the hard passages are manifestly hard. But there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t. Again, frequent researches ad hoc sadly impair receptive reading, so that sensitive people may even come to regard scholarship as a baleful thing which is always taking you out of the literature itself. My hope was that if a tolerable (though very incomplete) outfit were acquired beforehand and taken along with one, it might lead in. To be always looking at the map when there is a fine prospect before you shatters the ‘wise passiveness’ in which landscape ought to be enjoyed. But to consult a map before we set out has no such ill effect. Indeed it will lead us to many prospects; including some we might never have found by following our noses.
- C.S. Lewis, from the preface to The Discarded Image
Certainly one element in the greatness of Huckleberry Finn, as also in the lesser greatness of Tom Sawyer, is that it succeeds first as a boys’ book. One can read it at ten and then annually ever after, and each year find that it is as fresh as the year before, that it has changed only in becoming somewhat larger. To read it young is like planting a tree young—each year adds a new growth ring of meaning, and the book is as little likely as the tree to become dull. So, we may imagine, an Athenian boy grew up together with the Odyssey. There are few other books which we can know so young and love so long.
- Lionel Trilling
“Why We Read Jane Austen.” The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Leon Wieseltier, ed. Northwestern University Press, 2000.
Award-winning novelist Ralph Ellison occupies the middle ground in the black debate over [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn]. In his essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” Ellison, who kept a photo of Twain on his desk, admired Huck and Jim’s “compelling image of black and white fraternity” and lauded what he felt was Twain’s salutary influence on black writers, but ultimately found the presentation of Jim “a white man’s inadequate portrait of a slave” (Ellison, 1958, p. 222). Also taking an even-handed approach is Nikki Giovanni. When asked if the poet was “excited” about the characterization of Jim she answered:
No. I like Twain and think he is one of America’s greatest writers because he chronicled a certain period. Yet he like all writers must be judged from the perspective of his time, which is a very difficult thing to do. Viewing him from a modern standpoint spotlights flaws that in themselves are unacceptable. There are many things that he did not and could not have known in his period (Giovanni, 1992, p. 20).
Fikes, Robert. “The Black Love-Hate Affair with the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Western Journal of Black Studies 35.4 (2011): 240-5. ProQuest Discovery; ProQuest Research Library. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.
It was blacks’ overwhelmingly unfortunate experiences with [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn], typically as youthful readers, that has prompted elementary and high schools to quietly delete the book from the curriculum. The novel perennially places high on the American Library Association’s “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books” and seemingly everyone’s list of most popular and most significant books. It still has a number of loyal, well- versed black defenders; and recent evidence that Twain may have privately financed two blacks through Ivy Leagues schools and that Huck’s speech was modeled after that of a precocious black servant boy Twain encountered in 1874 are intriguing asides. But so long as a large segment of the nation’s black population feels isolated, vulnerable, and wrongly deprived of their proper status in society, unflattering representations of them, be it in a revered novel or elsewhere, particularly when it appears to mock, belittle, or jest using the most hateful and provocative epithet in the English language, they will persist in confronting the source of their pain. They will not quit challenging [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] until they are somehow convinced it no longer diminishes their humanity.
- Robert Fikes
Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.
- Michael Cunningham