Monday, August 17, 2009
Monday, August 10, 2009
Before I go off on my next idea, here's a bit of housekeeping, a defining of terms. I want to be able to use the word "God," but of course, when I use that word it may mean something entirely different to me than what it means to you, leading to some confusion. It certainly means something different to me now than it did when I blithely told a young Jewish man I met at an icebreaker in college how happy I was that God was my best friend. (Yes, I really did do that and it gives me shudders down to my toes to think about it now).
I didn’t use the word “God” at all for a long time—I avoided it even in my head when I was just thinking. What the heck does it mean? I’ve said this before, but is “God” some kind of sentient, all-knowing, all-seeing Being in the Sky? Is it a cluster of ideas shared by a community that takes on a life of its own in the collective mind of the group? Is it something individual to each one of us? Is God, as the new age folks used to tell me, within me? And what the heck would that mean? Is God a Higher Self, a Divine Source, a Deity Within? I don’t know. I really, really don’t know. Further, I don't think it's possible to know. But I sort of tentatively decided about a year ago that I had been at this long enough that I could go back to using the word God to describe a certain force in my life for which I have no other name. I don’t really understand what that force is, (ouch, I just remembered Star Wars and The Force and that’s not what I mean here, but how else am I going to say it?) but it is convenient to have a name for it whatever it is, and God works as well as anything else and also conveniently fits into a number of other ideas. It also enables me to have conversations with other believers without endlessly saying “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” Although in that instance, it may unfortunately give them the idea that I agree with them about the nature of God when in fact I probably don’t. How could I, since I don’t really know what God is?
The point that I’m so convolutedly trying to make here is that when I use the word “God,” what I really mean is “What-I-think-of-as-God.” But it would be entirely tiresome to type that out every time I want to refer to “What-I-think-of-as-God.” I did briefly consider using a cutesy acronym (WITOAG) but thankfully I gave that up quickly. So, that’s all I'm saying. Just don’t take the word “God” too literally-- here, or anywhere else, come to think of it. And I'm still capitalizing it. I considered not doing that, but it just didn't seem right.
Sunday, August 09, 2009
Lo these many years ago when I was in graduate school—we’re not saying how many years, but over twenty anyway—you had a choice of taking “History of Literary Criticism” (LitCrit) or linguistics. I had taken linguistics my senior year of undergrad, and the syllabus was so nearly identical to the class that was being taught at my grad school that they waived the requirement. I didn’t get any credit hours for it, but they checked off the box that said I had taken either linguistics or LitCrit. So I have no idea what was covered in LitCrit. My impression was that we were going to read Aristotle, Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, all of which I had read in courses covering the relevant era, so I didn’t think it was a big deal to skip it.
But it appears in the years intervening that either the study of literary criticism has entirely changed, or I was dead wrong about what it was. Literary Theory, as it is now called (and apparently it is more accurately called simply “Theory” since it is a multidisciplinary approach), is a complex and nearly infinite field of study which involves calling into question every assumption you ever had about opening the pages of a book. Does it matter what the author intended? Does it matter what kind of attention the reader pays to the work? (which reminds one vaguely of Schrodinger's poor cat, alas.) Does the historical context matter? Can you assume certain things about the nature of gender, race, or social class, and/or is it even possible to speak objectively about these topics? What exactly is literature, and how is it different than any other printed matter? All this and more awaits if you enter the exciting world of Theory. I started with a brief 130-page introduction aptly called “A Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory” by Jonathan Culler and all I can tell you so far is: it's a mind bender. I’ve always thought of myself as an intelligent reader, but apparently I’m just one of the masses of the literary ignorant. I love it when I learn new stuff that totally turns my previous ideas on their oblivious little heads, but I have to say I’m a little worried this time. If I keep reading this stuff, will I get to the point that I can’t just sit down and enjoy reading a novel? Will my head be so filled with reader response theory and intertextuality and foregrounding that I can’t get sucked in to the latest Tres Navarre? Because that would be a real problem for me. I’m not sure I want to go there, but if I’m off to grad school (they still haven’t let me in), that’s what’s ahead.