Thursday, November 07, 2013

Good-bye Grad School, Part ad infinitum

And furthermore..... :-)

What I enjoy about the study of literature is figuring out how I can connect with something an author wrote centuries ago or last week. In a really well-written poem or novel (using my culturally biased opinion about what makes a well-written poem or novel, of course), the more you study it, the more layers of connection you can find.  Also, I love words and I am continually astonished by what can be created with them--so I confess to a bit of hero worship with anyone who can make marks on a page and create something that is moving or engaging or even just plain old entertaining.

The reason I loved being an English major back in my day was because I loved figuring out how that worked. What can be said that illuminates this work? Why should someone read it? what's meaningful about this poem/novel? how do we understand the words on the page? what context helps us understand it better?

That's what I enjoyed about studying literature.  And when you read works of literary criticism from before about 1980, that's usually what they're doing.  They're finding ways in to the work, how to enter the experience of it, how to understand it, what it means. But the growing influence of literary theory makes that a problematic undertaking these days.

For one thing, the idea of "meaning" has been called into question. What means something to me may mean nothing to you, and probably what means something to any of us will not be meaningful to the sentient seahorses of Alpha Centauri IV. And for another, if the author is a member of a demographic group which has brutally oppressed your demographic group for centuries, you may refuse to read anything he's written no matter how artistic or "universal" it may be, and who could blame you?

So now we take an adversarial position toward literature. Literary criticism is often written now to prove that a work isn't universal. Who says there's anything relevant about something that a dead white male wrote two hundred years ago? the point isn't to tease out what makes a novel or a poem relevant, but to knock the author off his pedestal, to prove exactly how irrelevant it is--how it upholds the prejudices of his time, how it ignores and/or marginalizes the point of view of various minorities, how it might even have helped to create the social structures that oppress women, minorities, gays, and people of lower economic class.

For example. In Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park, most of the story takes place among a group of young people who are all staying at an estate in the English countryside while the owner of the estate, Sir Thomas Bertram, is off dealing with his plantation in Antigua. Although there is occasional mention of a letter from Sir Thomas, the novel is about the young people back at Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas is off-stage for almost the entirety of the novel. None of the action takes place in Antigua and almost no details are given about what Sir Thomas is doing there besides a vague mention that he is trying to straighten out his financial affairs.

But now we know that owning a plantation in Antigua almost certainly meant that the fictional Sir Thomas was a slaveholder, and thus the financial underpinnings of the estate of Mansfield Park are based on slave labor.  This never comes up in the novel.  Slaves are never mentioned, the living conditions of the slaves are never described, and Sir Thomas's practices as a slave owner (was he kind? brutal?) are never discussed.

But once you know, can you read Mansfield Park without a feeling of creepy complicity? Do we participate in the same mindset that found slave ownership acceptable if we ignore the reality of the source of Sir Thomas's wealth? Are we in denial about it in the same way that the young people are in denial about what is financing the food on their table, the clothes on their backs? in the same way that Jane Austen herself was probably in denial about the source of the wealth of a large British estate?

Mansfield Park is an easy example, because it's usually the least favorite of Austen's novels and almost nobody likes the heroine Fanny Price, who is a bit of a self-righteous prig.  You almost welcome the chance to be able to poke at her pious moralizing.  But maybe you get the idea of what I'm describing anyway. We've gone from the hero worship of my earlier era of literary studies (where authors were godlike creatures with special access to universal knowledge that they shared through their writing) to an adversarial stance where the goal is to bring down the reputation of previously admired writers.

I loved grad school, and I loved the opportunity to have my mind stretched by literary theory. But this part of it is an approach to literary studies that doesn't work for me. Mostly because I don't see the point of blaming people for having the cultural prejudices of their time. Maybe this is because of my own experience with this.  I was raised as an Evangelical in the Bible Belt, by a father who was German Baptist and a mom who is a died-in-the-wool Southerner. I inherited all of their prejudices, I breathed them in, or maybe it was even more integral than that--I absorbed them some kind of familial osmosis. It wasn't until I was in my twenties and had moved away from home and out of the milieu of my childhood that I could seriously question those ideas, let alone leave them behind. Even in my fifties I still deal with the residue of my upbringing all the time.

It's damn difficult to get beyond the prejudices of the way you were raised, and that is true even if, like me, you've had the benefit of a top notch education, several moves to entirely different regions of the country, and mind-expanding access to travel and the world wide web.  How can we expect someone who lived her entire life within a hundred mile radius of her birthplace to have accomplished what is enormously difficult for me today?

I just don't see how we get to stand up on our moral high horse, as people of the twenty-first century, toward people in any other time period.  I firmly believe that any grace we are able to extend to them for being products of their own time period will surely need to be extended to us as well by people living a hundred years from now.  Who knows what malicious opinions we hold right now that seem as natural as breathing to us, yet will seem inhumane and unethical in the future?

But having said that, we still need to know.  It does change the way you read Mansfield Park to think about Sir Thomas as a slaveholder.  For me, it doesn't therefore make the novel unreadable or morally reprehensible.  I can understand that for others that is not true, but for me as a reader, while it is knowledge I'm glad to have, it doesn't change my opinion of Austen as a writer or my admiration for her achievement.

It leads to a more nuanced reading, perhaps, a better understanding of the times and the people who lived in them, but the literary achievement is still there. One of my professors, who was sympathetic to my discomfort with theory, told me to get all the adversarial stuff out of the way first. Discuss exactly where and how and why an author is sexist or racist or capitalist or whatever, and then move on to the discussion of how a particular work is still worth reading today. Works for me.

Gah. I'm not kidding, I always worry that there won't be enough to say in these things to fill out an entire post, and then I just go on and on. This one is 1400+ words but I couldn't figure out where to split it in half, so if your eyes are glazed over, it's with good reason. And I'm not even done. There will probably be more of these. I'm having NaBoBloPoMo (National Boring Blog Post Month). But not tomorrow. Tomorrow is Food on Friday.


  1. Great description! (I did my first BA in English Lit.) I agree there's little point blaming dead authors, but that we need to look at these things all the same. We can critique AND appreciate.

    Ever study Birth of a Nation in film class? lol The teacher didn't tell us what it was about. Maybe an intro about how it invented all these film techniques we still use, then she just let us watch it. You go along, it's a cute little civil war movie, then ... HOLY SH*T!!! We're all gasping and laughing in shock. Is the movie worth showing? I think so, but it HAS to be shown in a critical setting.

    I really enjoy your posts, Auntie B. It's like having coffee with a really interesting, educated, heavy-deep girlfriend. The kind of person you want to go out to an all-night restaurant with and taaaalk taaaalk taaaalk. (Well, at least that's my idea of a good time.) You're so honest and self-aware and broad minded. And I think your Christian beliefs are similar to mine, which is something I don't get from just anywhere.

    Your blog is vair vair interesting. :-)

    1. "critique and appreciate" -- great way to think of it. and thank you for your kind words--the pageviews on the grad school posts are about two-thirds lower than usual, so I think there are approximately three of us that find them interesting. :-)

  2. Four!!!!
    I find this fascinating. I read Mansfield Park again a few months ago and was struck by the slave issue. And by Fanny's priggishness. I found Edmund a bit condescending as well. Perhaps the supporting characters took over Mansfield Park.

    The need of contemporary culture to knock everything and everyone off any kind of pedestal raises the question why? At its best, this impulse reveals the cost - often to innocent people - of the success of the few. At its worst, I think it is a kind of petty, junior-high impulse to toss verbal mud at anyone not of my "group."

    .....1400 words and you were just getting rolling. There are a few of us out here who look forward to these longer posts (I think of them as introvert posts).
    We four say an enthusiastic thank you!

    1. Hmmm, looks like I never replied to this, and since I need to add a caveat to what I typed above, I will add it here. I'm reading Clare Tomlinson's biography of Austen in preparation for the class I'm about to teach on Sense and Sensibility, and apparently there is a mention, BARELY, of slavery in Mansfield Park, by Fanny. I somehow entirely missed this the last time I read it, but maybe that is what you are referring to?? I'm really interested by Tomlinson's take on Mansfield Park, I may actually read it again.

  3. Five! And yes, I know I am WAY late. But I'm catching up, and had to chime in, even if no one ever sees this comment.

    Now, leave me alone, I have more posts to get to.

    1. I saw it :-) OK, it's a good thing there are at least some people interested in this stuff because there are two more coming. I think.