Wednesday, February 16, 2005

More Metaphysical Ideas (not ideology)

[Ralph Waldo] Emerson's own method... was to skim works of literature and philosophy, of all types and from all cultures, with an eye to the ideas and phrases he could appropriate for his own use. This was his notion of research. It was based on the conviction that organized study deadens the mind, and that genuine insight arises spontaneously from the individual soul. "To believe your own thought," as he put it in a well-known passage in "Self-Reliance," to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius."
It is with shame that I admit that I haven't read any Emerson, although Menand references him so often and so tantalizingly that I think that I just might have to, if I want to live any type of intellectual life at all.

But so anyways my point is that this is the antithesis of what we do in English class right now. With every book we read, we read and read and read. Entire 45-minute classes spent picking away at a single paragraph, discussing the significance of the word "abyss" when William Golding could have used "hole." Masticating until the text is reduced to a sodden, lumpy, indigestible mess*. I am reminded of (nerd alert) a sentence completion I once did on a practice SAT - which was like "X debunked the idea that memorizing poetry at a young age prevented children from formulating original thoughts later in life." I wasted precious seconds pondering whether said debunkage was valid.

And as fatiguing as I find English-class-style analysis to be, I am troubled just as much by Gordsellar:
what feels like a spontaneous, naive (ie. unstudied) insight into a text is usually a rather standard and formulaic reading of the text. You may think you under stand a book straightforwardly but your straightforward "understanding" is really built upon a huge network of preexistent reading and understanding strategies which you have been taught. Given the kind of things that have gone into building our education system—the way curriculum has been formulated with the approval of "specialists", the way literary figures and establishments have rallied behind insane, awful, ridiculous things like, oh, war and slavery and the like, why should we trust "received" understandings of how we come to understand books?
Some punchy phrases seem to be in order. It seems as if Emerson says that, thought-wise, "breadth breeds depth," while Gordsellar says that "depth breeds depth." Both, of course, agree that depth of thought is the ultimate goal.

I'm trying to come up with a stance on the issue, but the truth is that I don't know. As a reader, I fall somewhere between these two camps. I read every word, but I also mostly go along for the ride, taking my flashes of insight as they come and not actively seeking them out within the text. Perhaps this approach is the worst of all, for it requires the least work on my part: Emerson had to skim with a critical eye, picking out the most important parts - he skimmed, but it was active skimming. Gordsellar reads with a critical eye, also actively. Meanwhile, I am passive. Horridly so.

Although, (note considerable peak of mood at this thought), this blog will hopefully encourage me to do the former - to read with an eye towards thought-provoking ideas, then to write about them, hopefully resulting in some sort of spontaneous insight, while lit blogs in general will encourage me to do the latter - to discover other reactions to a text, and compare those to mine.

P.S. As far as librarian pick up lines go, this one takes the cake: Baby, I may be the one with the overdue books, but you’re the one with the fine.


* Although I think I am bothered more by the things we discuss than the style of analyzing in general. It seems that our "critical observations" about a book never really amount to more than people, including me, raising their hands and voicing ill-formed ideas. If you can't tell, I'm not particularly fond of English class and never really have been, although I still hold out the hope that it's simply because I haven't found a suitable teacher. As a matter of fact, while I'm digressing, I might as well come out and say that there is an English teacher at our school who, by all accounts, is all I'm looking for and good-looking to boot, but I unfortunately will probably never have him due to forces outside my control. And I confess that this actually relieves a small part of me, for I'm terrified of the idea that someday I will meet a worthwhile English teacher who will look right through me and calmly tell me that I have no English abilities whatsoever. Which, to digress further, is probably why I've made no effort to publicize this blog.