Lit Up

Earlier, I posted on the fruitlessness of teaching students how to write literary criticism. The argument was part tongue in cheek, part all business. In brief, I'm ambivalent about the value of this activity. This ambivalence lies in the fact that not teaching students how to write literary criticism is not the same as refusing to teach them how to do literary criticism. Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference. I don't think so. When it comes to the art of unraveling a literary work--or as students of literature pejoratively put it, of "dissecting" The Scarlet Letter or Death in Venice--we should instruct students in this activity. I'm just not convinced this is the most effective way of teaching students how to write better, and too often beginning literature courses are treated as an extension of one's training in academic writing. But, in my view, the experience of writing literary criticism comes too early in the trajectory of the typical student's college career. Unless the inability to write has burdened him with remedial composition courses--something of a norm on American college campuses--writing literary criticism within the first two years of study is just too soon to engage in the art of analyzing one of our most complex human artifacts.

A small digression: I've always been amused by the distinction in our culture between the "hard" and "soft" sciences. In academia, hard sciences, like physics and chemistry, are not uncommonly seen as more difficult, more challenging than the "soft" sciences of psychology and sociology. Hell, just look at the adjectives! But this bias is built on a strange notion. The soft sciences are soft not because they're easier but because they're the more complex of the two. And why? Because they have humanity as the object of their analysis, and human beings by nature deceive--if not the scientists who observe them then themselves. Our capacity for deception and delusion inevitably muddies the stream of reproducible results and controlled variables upon which "good" science depends. Pity the poor psychologist rather than the physicist. Grasping human behavior is enough to give even the keenest of minds a migraine. And narrative is, if anything, a demonstration of this seeming incomprehensibility, a neverending case study in the instability and unknowability of intention and response, human cause and effect. If human beings instantiate in every living moment the Heisenberg principle, stories are little more than exemplars of the principle at work. And yet we're sending in students to write coherently about them?

Perhaps I make mountains of molehills here, but I wonder if compelling nineteen-year-olds to intelligently and (one hopes) intelligibly interrogate a literary text is an episode in the kind of all-too-human irrationality we ask them to expound on. It is difficult enough to figure out, say, a character's ostensible motivation; to ask students to peer further beneath the literary veil and comment on the unstable source of that representation, which may range from the author's unconscious predilections to the ultimately unknowable historical milieu of the work, seems sheer madness. Here we blithely walk students into literature's hall of mirrors and ask them to look from reflection to reflection--the cascade of narrative ambiguities, which is generally agreed to be a good thing in a literary work done well--and then expect them to walk out loving the work and the craft of writing literary criticism.

Instructors of the art are inevitably disappointed by their charges, who leave the hall frustrated with results that are more pedestrian than not. At best, we hope for diamonds of insight in the rough. Some students who stick it out may even come to enjoy the ride--despite the results. In these are our first English majors born. But was the ride worth it for them?

In the end, frustrations aside, I have come to believe it was. Uncertainty and ambiguity in a work of literature is a good thing. I'm with the New Critics on that point. But try getting your typical first-year college student to accept that. Not so easy.

That is because eventually they will have to accept the fact that life as lived is rife with uncertainty, and making it through depends on learning how to navigate its shoals. Literature of any real quality demands suspending the Hollywood-driven Manichaeanism that childhood depends upon. Engaging students in the act (and if they're further interested, the art) of literary criticism is among their first steps in exploring and accommodating the not-so-black-and-whiteness of reality. Literary criticism is essentially a safe space to pick apart life through the vehicle of narrative. The more robust and thoughtful the picking apart, the better the training the student receives for handling the blows life will inevitably deal. Better to explore earlier in a textual work why a crime was committed than later in a courtroom as a witness, plaintiff or defendant. Literary criticism for this reason, among others, is a species--maybe a subspecies--of ethical training. It is the unexamined life being examined, through the lens of narrative.

But, mind you, this describes only the act of engaging in literary criticism. It is not the same as the act of writing it. For when you write literary criticism--not a bad thing in itself--you have now more heavy-handedly codified the flux of possibilities that circulated prior to committing ideas and arguments to paper. Granted, codification will sometimes have the ameliorative effect of pushing you to think through and state more clearly your views of the work at hand. For while uncertainty may characterize the nature of reality, so, too, does stability, if only for a while. Uncertainty, after all, is not the same as chaos. And the writing of literary criticism, while difficult in the extreme at times, is not a mission impossible. Indeed with time, maturity and the ability to walk the high wire of our quotidian existence, it is even something we may want to teach. But only when it really is worth the teaching and not before. A softening up that concentrates more on discussion and more imaginative forms of engagement would do far more till then.