You might remember in my long story about grad school that I made a first attempt to get a master's degree in English Lit immediately after undergrad back in the mid-80s. But it didn't go well. I was burned out on school, questioning everything I had been raised to believe, and dealing with some emotional trauma that I didn't even really understand at that point. I didn't have enough energy left for graduate work.
I slogged through the classes because even burned out I could still do what I was told, but when it came time to take some initiative and write a thesis, I bailed. I bailed promptly. Immediately. I never wrote a single word of my thesis. "Repressed Sexuality in the Novels of Edith Wharton" was my topic, which would be a "well, DUH" topic in 2013, but back then it was fairly cutting edge. Apparently not cutting edge enough to hold my attention, though.
|My Edith Wharton first editions, which I bought for less $8 each back in the 80s|
I could tell from listening to the other students that Intro to Theory (LIT 300) was a beast, a class that almost no one enjoyed and that even discouraged people from becoming English majors--an idea that was nearly shocking to me. Back in my day, the English department prided itself on taking all comers. The idea of "weeding out" potential students was not thought of.
So I had a lot of catching up to do. I (of course) immediately bought a theory-for-dummies type book and attempted unsuccessfully to read it (Jonathan Culler's Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory, which is still sitting on my bedside table and I still haven't finished it). There are plenty of posts from my own experience with LIT 300 if you dig far enough back- I audited it back in the summer of 2010. Then I took two more theory classes while I was working on my master's, but I barely scratched the surface.
It's a vast area of study, immensely vast, humongously huge. And I'm going to summarize it for you in three blog posts. Just kidding. You're only going to get the bits of it that I'm still thinking about three years later. If it's a topic that interests you, there's always Jonathan Culler. (or try this book, which was actually far more readable and ended up being truly helpful, or this one, also very good, which they used in the graduate level Intro to Theory class.)
So first of all let's talk about the idea of Art. There's painting, there's music, there's dancing, there's sculpture, and so on, and there is also literary art. Fifty years ago, the people (mostly men) who were deciding what should be studied as Art were well-known to be choosing works of Universal Significance, works that had Stood the Test of Time and were therefore Worth Studying. In Literature, they developed what was known was "the canon"--the "best that had been thought and said," books that were significant to our culture, the ones everybody knew were Important. When I was an undergrad back in the early 80s, we all knew who these writers were: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Matthew Arnold, Joyce, Eliot-- you know the list. The fact that they were (for the most part) white males was just an accident, right?
Of course now we know that "the canon" was actually made up of works that fit certain assumptions (more on that tomorrow), and that it was no accident at all that they were mostly white males. We also know now that there is no such thing as a universal or eternal standard for deciding which literary works rise to the level of "art," if it is even possible to define "art." At the end of my first Lit Theory class, I was pretty nearly convinced that there is no such thing as Literary Art, because there is no divinely-ordained or even humanly-agreed-upon standard that doesn't devolve into bias and prejudice, so what's the point in even talking about it?
But three years later, I think that this is a problem that isn't really a problem after all. Like my original thesis topic, the statement "there is no such thing as universally-acknowledged works of literary art" seems provocative the first time you hear it, but then it's "well, DUH." Every generation decides what is capital-A Art. The definition of What-Is-Art has always reflected the prevailing tastes of the time period. The problem comes in thinking that we, god-like, can discern some universal standard for deciding What Is Art. If we're aware that we're of our time, that our tastes reflect the biases of our time/place/etc, what's the problem with studying the works that seem to us to be worth studying? This is not a problem. The next generation is going to knock us down anyway. Why not have our day?
more tomorrow. Also, fair warning: since I'm traveling this week I may not be able to respond to comments.