Monday, February 8, 2021

Reading Out of School

When, in casual conversation, the mention of a title elicits the reply, "Oh yes, I read that in school," we can assume that the speaker has not deeply read the work. He may have scanned all the words; summed them to sentences, paragraphs, chapters; answered correctly a few elementary questions on a 'pop quiz' (e.g., "In the Iliad, what was Hector's wife's name?"; "To whom does Celie write her letters at the beginning of The Color Purple?"), and perhaps even repeated a standard interpretation on the midterm exam. But has he actually read the work--read it, that is, deeply enough to justify the objective noun in that question, to allow the novel, the story, the poem, the play to "work" upon him, to alter him in some fundamental way?

Likely not.

Because that kind of reading--deep reading, close reading, slow reading--reading in which the text can overcome our various resistances and alter our selves, reading that destroys and by that destruction opens a space in which we might change our lives... no, that kind of reading doesn't happen in Mr. Horseradish's junior English class. Nor in virtually any college or graduate literature courses. In general, the techniques of reading and interpretation fostered in our educational systems serve to tame and stabilize even the wildest works of art. While speechifying against 'objectification,' we treat artworks as objects for analysis and exploitation, reducing them to the level of that Eliotic patient etherized upon a table. 

For an example of a work commonly assigned at all three educational levels, let us consider Hamlet. High school readings of the play are necessarily superficial. Students still novices at Shakespearean English can hardly be expected to deconstruct Polonius's advice to Laertes or hear the key changes in the "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy. And as for interpretation, most English classes practice what might be called 'vulgar humanism,' implicitly treating the characters as actual--albeit cardboard-thin--persons to be judged "good," "bad," "tragic," "foolish," etc. "Do you like Hamlet?" teachers might ask. Or, "What do you think of Ophelia?" To which some (refreshingly honest) students might answer, "He talks too much" and "Bitch be cray." No high school student has probably ever replied, "I think 'Hamlet' is nothing but a label for a set of characteristics constructed by the author, himself (a pronoun we must place sous rature) a socially constructed intersection of Early Modern energies; and Ophelia's madness is due to her closure in phallocentric language and her consequent failure to apprehend the aporia designated by the signifier 'Hamlet.'..." Like Yorick, I jest... 

Reading rarely goes much deeper in most undergraduate English courses. Even the best college students can merely apply to the text (as safely objectified 'other') a shallow knowledge of critical theory gleaned from introductory surveys. This enables them to produce term papers with titles like "Queering Hamlet: An Osrician Decentering" or "Who Killed Ophelia? : A Radical Feminist Intervention" (Spoiler alert: the patriarchal butler did it.) What such instrumental application of theory to text really achieves is the reification of the writer as 'queer critic' or 'feminist critic' and the extrusion of a chitinous layer of jargon around that (un)critical self to ensure that the text never deeply touches it. In graduate school, that multi-year, cavernously indebting endeavor in which mature adults learn to think and speak like the imaginary genius high schooler in the paragraph above, the situation is even worse. When graduate reading is not a hermetically-sealed indulgence in the Alexandrian pastime of criticizing critical theorists--a chess game in which artworks are barely pawns--it exhibits the same self-protective distancing strategies as undergraduate reading, but with a deeper, more rigorous understanding of the theories in play. Graduate reading, like the professional academic reading it precurses, tends to interpret artworks as allegories of the critic's theory of choice, thereby interposing the prophylactic text of critical theory between the work under discussion and the critic's self. Thus Hamlet, after mortgaging Elsinore to pay for grad school, finds himself there bound, gagged and scalpeled, forced to watch as trainee doctors (Ph) carve away the parts of him useful for their Greenblattian or Foucaultian or Lacanian or Butlerian interpretations and lug the excess guts into the neighbor room, where only the ghost of Harold Bloom might nose them as he drifts up the stair. When it comes to art, we don't murder to dissect; we dissect to murder.

So, what is the alternative?

First, we must strip off that crit-theory condom and learn to read dangerously. By which I do not mean we should ignore critical theory and all the challenging deconstructive, psychoanalytic, political, sociological, etc. interpretations it has produced. Rather, we should study theory and take anything from it that enlightens, deepens or complicates our experience of a given work--the way Barbara Johnson's deconstructive reading illuminates Billy Budd, for example; or the way Lacan and Derrida respectively complicate "The Purloined Letter"; or the way Bloom's influence theory deepens Wallace Stevens with Whitmanian echoes--while jettisoning all that is dogmatic, reductive, and conducive to readings that sound like prosecutors' closing arguments. To read dangerously means, on one level, to read closely and deeply and allow the work to suggest the hermeneutic. Let the poem, not Helen Vendler, tell you how to interpret the poem. Let the novel, not Rene Girard, teach you the interpretation of the novel. Authentic reading is always reading 'out of school,' in every sense of the phrase. It is extracurricular, unsupervised, independent, free, outside the disciplinary structures (Merci, Monsieur Foucault) of high school or university. And also, in the now-archaic sense of 'telling tales out of school,' reading out of school tells secrets, reveals parts of ourselves we would rather not see. It speaks the blunt, complex, contradictory truths about us. When we read The Great Gatsby in high school, our teachers didn't introduce the book by saying, "Here's a little novel that will show you how everything you think you know about your country and yourself is a damned lie." But if we read the book out of school and arrive at a milder understanding, we are not reading it independently enough. For Gatsby depicts--during the Charleston-stepping boomtime of the Roaring Twenties, no less--a country of unrelieved failure and futility, and it reveals the charismatic, romantic American self (which D. H. Lawrence during these same years described as "hard, stoic, isolate, and a killer") to be a construction as artificial and ridiculous as a Mr. Potato Head. If we can read Gatsby and reach the end without once seeming to feel the ground shifting under our feet, if we can return the book to the shelf nodding our head and saying to ourselves, "Oh yes, Great Gatsby, great novel, American classic, tragic tale of the American Dream," we have not understood the novel at all. The mental Maginot Line we have built around our Potato Heads has resisted the incursions even of Fitzgerald's bulldozing little book.

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