Friday, February 28, 2014

Literature or Academia, or Both?

Not long ago a friend of mine, who happens to be an English professor, directed me (and several hundred other Facebook friends) to an article in which another professor, Kevin Dettmar, offers a good-natured defense of literature as a profession against the seemingly vapid (but “deeply seductive”) vision provided by the film Dead Poets Society. Here’s the link.

He hates that film, and we can tell by the vehemence of his criticism that this feeling goes far beyond what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.”

In fact, the film horrified Dettmar. He felt—and continues to feel, a quarter-century later—that the world it portrays has nothing to do with genuine literary study.

I don’t remember the film well enough to argue any differently. I saw it when it came out and seem to recall that it was slightly manipulative and preachy. (When is Robin Williams anything but?) I might mention here, before I forget, that a far better portrayal of the world of advanced literary study can be found in the Curtis Hanson masterpiece, Wonder Boys.

Dettmar claims he’s a fan of passion in the classroom. But he finds the lessons Robin Williams teaches in the film to be full of sloppy reasoning. And although Williams advocates “thinking for yourself,” he never lets his students do that.

How odd, then, that Dettmar speaks approvingly of two lines Harvard poetry professor Helen Vendler uses in the classroom.

“What we have loved, / Others will love….and we will teach them how.”

“That’s how I teach, or hope to teach,” Dettmar says. Well, Mussolini might have espoused the same formula. We will force you to love what we love.

In fact, a close reading of Dettmar’s article exposes quite a few instances of sloppy analysis. For example, he opposes “feeling” a poem, which we derive from the sound of words, with actually reading it, which allows us to analyze it carefully. This is a false opposition; the feeling we derive from a poem is just as likely to derive from its imagery and patterns of organization as from its mere “sound.” The feeling comes from the reading.

Then again, he accuses Mr. Keating, the hero of Dead Poet’s Society, of offering a jejune interpretation of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In the film Keating remarks: “Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’”

Dettmar is here to tell us that Frost said no such thing. It’s a character in the poem who makes the remark. And according to Dettmar, this character lays so many qualifications on his choice that we would be justified in believing he never stepped off the well-beaten path at all. Dettmar concludes that Keating’s “use of those closing lines, wrenched from their context, isn’t just wrong—it’s completely wrong. The result, according to Dettmar, is that Keating arrives at a moral point "entirely different from that of Frost’s poem.”

I have no trouble believing that instructor Keating has missed some of the underlying irony and ambiguity of Frost’s message. But if his moral point is completely wrong, I was eager to learn what the moral of “The Road Less Taken” actually is. But Dettmar doesn’t produce any such judgment. And in fact, his own analysis of the lines in question is more seriously flawed than Keating’s.  

He notes that the road as Frost describes it was “grassy and wanted wear,” but observes that the narrator presents a series of qualifications that “contradict” the description—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same…both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.”

Here Dettmar is way off base. The qualifications don’t contradict the initial assertion. Not at all. They merely suggest that the difference was slight. At the end of the poem (I just now went down to the basement to fetch my Modern Library edition of Frost’s poems) the narrator is still asserting “Two roads diverged in the yellow wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by…” 

Once all the qualifications have been offered, the narrator returns to his original description. Obviously, the distinction still holds.

Dettmar compounds his error by committing the most grievous sin an academic can make: he puts words into the poet’s mouth arbitrarily. He presumes that the narrator equates “the road less taken” with “the exceptional road.” But where in the poem does that word appear? It doesn’t. This interpolation is entirely unjustified.

The steady back-current of the little soliloquy of which the poem consists is that the two roads are hardly different. This fact draws our attention to the poem’s most important line—the last one:  “And that has made all the difference.”

Difference how? What has been the difference? We don’t know. Probably not a good one, in so far as the narrator offers this judgment “with a sigh.” But the judgment is hardly more than a speculative musing, to be delivered “somewhere ages and ages hence.” I wouldn't call the poem light-hearted, but neither is it in any way seriously distraught.

The moral of the poem, crudely put, is this: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Instructor Keating’s interpretation is not entirley accurate--less subtle, more inspirational than Frost intended. Dittmar’s is deflationary, nihilistic, and sloppily reasoned. The poem has none of the “hollowness” Dittmar imputes to it. I give his reading a C -.

In the spirit of literary camaraderie I ought to mention that although I received degrees in anthropology and history as an undergraduate, I also took plenty of English courses—almost enough to bag a triple-major. (I even took a course from a professor who claimed Frost as a personal friend. He kept referring to him as "Robert" with an affectionate Bostonian twang.) I loved literature then and still do today. But studying literature proved difficult—just as teaching it is—because the values it transmits are so basic and so important that very few academics find it possible to refer to them without embarrassment. Honor? Justice? Love? Zany merriment? “I didn’t get a PhD just to talk about that.”

And as far as I can tell, things got much worse when the New Critics were replaced by literary sociologists who considered literature merely a source of data regarding various symptoms of societal injustice. 

Dittmar approves of the rise of Continental literary theory in the 1980s, but he doesn’t tell us why. Perhaps he approves because their poses are analytic and “professional,” rather than sentimental and axiological.

To his credit, Dittmar ends by admitting that Dead Poet’s Society has considerable charm. But he’s wrong to suggest that the “sentimental humanities” portrayed in that film present a challenge to genuine academic methodology and rigor, or somehow undercut its dignity.

It's worth noting, I think, that the most insightful books about literature are usually written for the general public, not the academic community. I’m thinking, for example, of Michael Dirda’s Readings, Tim Parks’s Hell and Back, Javier Marias’s Written Lives, Frank O’Connor’s The Mirror in the Roadway

And how about Borges’s This Craft of Verse, Kenneth Rexroth’s brilliant series Classics Revisited, Robert Hass’s What Light Can Do, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Czeslaw Milosz’s Visions of San Francisco Bay, Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, Sven Birkerts’ An Artificial Wilderness, Roger Shattuck’s Candor and Perversion, to name a few? These are books about literature that are also works of literature themselves. Few of them come out of universities--though several were originally lectures delivered at universities. None, I suspect, were written primarily with academic readers in mind.

And in the end, Dead Poet’s Society is about high school kids, after all. Would Keating have served his students better by suggesting that all roads are the same, and it doesn't matter which one you take? I don't think so. The film's “feel-good” approach to the humanities, which Dittmar feels threatened by, continues on into adult life in the form of impassioned works that are no less well-reasoned for being direct, personal, honest, and full of feeling. In such works the peccadillos of academic dispute have been left far behind. No one is attempting to win tenure, score a generous grant, or  defend their professionalism here. What’s at stake is to expose the beauty and misery and liveliness and mystery of living—to expose it, defend it, capture it, celebrate it.

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gerald apostol said...
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