Monday, 05 May 2008

Concerning the Fine Line Between Literary Criticism and Rank Paranoia It's not so fine. Bad readings often resemble paranoid ravings because the critic draws specious connections between irrelevant topics. Ninety-two percent of Pynchon criticism never escapes the paranoid orbit of his novels for a reason. When you inform someone his analogy borders on criminal infelicity—e.g. the presence of shoes in the novels of Jane Austen and Kathy Acker represents an irrational fear of hormiga brava and thus constitutes an implicit indictment of European imperialism—the ideal response would be a frank acknowledgment by this person that the intensity of his research may have skewed his perspective. "I have read too closely," he should admit. "I sound like a belligerent wino." Under no circumstances should he declare his professional credentials authorize the paranoid ravings of a belligerent wino. Which brings us to the case of Priya Venkatesan. Those who seek background or a serious discussion of Venkatesan should consult Margaret Soltan and Timothy Burke. I simply want to register my disgust with her pedagogical and interpretive skills. From her interview with The Dartmouth Review: TDR: There is one specific incident where I heard from one of the girls in your class who was pretty outspoken, and one day she hadn’t spoken for a while and you said, “Could we have a round of applause for this girl, she hasn’t spoken in ten minutes?” PV: She was probably the most abrasive, the most offensive, the most disruptive student. She ruined that class. She ruined it. She ruined it. That class actually had a lot of potential, there were some really bright kids there, but every time she would do a number of things that were very inappropriate. [...] Then what happened was, I was lecturing on morals and ethics and she just gave me this horrible look, and I was pretty disturbed. I just said what is going on here? The problem with [girl x] is that she can’t take criticism. She can’t take the fact that there is something wrong with her work. Now, some people are like that, a lot of people are like that, unable to take criticism, but the fact of the matter is that I have the PhD in literature, I make the assessment if someone has talent for philosophy, literary theory, and literary criticism. A student might say, well, the hell with you I’m still going to become a literary critic, I had to do that, there were people who criticized me while I was a student, you’re not a good writer or whatever, but I said well I’m still going to go ahead with my goals, but I never made any personal attacks on them or made life difficult for them or was rude to them. I just did the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism, and [girl x] is the kind of student who does not know the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism. She thinks the way to go about doing it is to go to my superior or to try to...
Because I'm All Out of Clever Titles, I Christen Thee "History & Literature" Eric and Ari's discussions about how to best incorporate literature into history classroom inverts the problem I face when designing a syllabus: "How do I demonstrate the significance of a novel outside the context in which it acquired its importance?"* I feel compelled to contextualize for reasons best understood by the example of Huck Finn. Consider Huck's classic epiphany in Chapter XXXI. He's written a note informing Miss Watson where she can find her runaway slave, only to get to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper. It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll go to hell"—and tore it up. The reader's annoyance with Huck dissipates because Twain allows them to participate in his recognition of shared humanity. Twain yokes together those clauses with semi-colons, crafting a sentence like a cartoon snowball on a mountaintop. With a gentle nudge, he tips it down the mountainside, and minutes later everyone cheers as two stories of packed snow smashes into prevailing wisdom. Students cry when they read this passage. They talk of Huck's heroism in voices trembling with patriotic pride: "How brave! For this boy to forsake the only moral order he has known! 'And a child shall lead them!' How brave of Twain to condemn the South in this manner!" I allow them to talk in this vein for a couple of minutes, then ask them to open their book to the title page and read what it says below the title: Then I ask them when it was published. They don't know what to make of any of it. "It was written twenty years after the end of the Civil War," I say. Blank...

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