Landing : Athabascau University

On being moved by literature, and the work of the "fierce humanities"

Writing is the axe that breaks the frozen sea within.
- Franz Kafka

A student in LTST 605 posted a candid comment recently about being affected by reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Chopin's The Awakening -- about finding them sad and depressing, almost oppressively so. Without naming names, I was moved by this post to reflect further on literature’s ability to affect us as readers: this ability is one of its enduring powers, one of its perceived dangers, one of its greatest mysteries.

We encounter literature's power to move us when it invites us to imagine an unknown place or forgotten time, to identify with a character or a voice, to construct "you" as a certain kind of reader or audience -- that is, to be "interpellated," hailed by the text to respond as a certain kind of subject. With whom does Conrad invite you to identify: Kurtz? Marlowe? With whom does Chopin invite you to identify? (One answer to a question like this is implied in the narrative’s focalization: through the particular point of view, and the particular tense -- past, present, future -- in which the story is told.)

Literature's affective capacity is also dangerous, as all too many states and censors have long realized. A text has power to incite, persuade, to mobilize, sometimes in unexpected ways. Abraham Lincoln was only half-joking when he implied to Harriet Beecher Stowe that her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin had precipitated the US Civil War. The organization PEN International exists to champion the causes of writers censored, imprisoned, tortured, or executed by repressive states and regimes.

The enduring mystery of literature's power to move us, though maybe less critically examined than its powers and dangers, is nevertheless one of reasons students and scholars take up literary studies in the first place: to affirm and explore what U of Toronto professor emeritus Ted Chamberlin calls the "covenant of wonder with the world" established early in our childhood by story and song.

And sometimes this exploration leads us to texts and sites where we find that wonder inverted, turned to terror and atrocity, with

much of Madness and more of Sin
and Horror the soul of the plot

as Edgar Allan Poe wrote. Here, we may need to brace ourselves for what we find -- or what we recognize -- but we should not be discouraged from going ahead, so that we may honour literature's robust role as testimonial, as the bearing of witness, the "unforgetting," as Dionne Brand calls it, of persons or histories that the dominant powers of the world would rather we forget or ignore.

The role of literature as bearing witness has been on my mind lately, while I've finished writing a MAIS course about the literature and culture of the black Atlantic: the people scattered and oppressed by slavery and (continuing) aftermath. The literary, musical, and oral productions of this diaspora, taken together, are a testimonial to what Paul Gilroy calls "black pain" and a testament to human will and imagination. The course assigns, among its readings, a selection of slave narratives, some of the most painful but also inspiring and hence necessary literature of modern history.

Tackling such tough stuff calls on literary scholars and students alike to practice what Cary Nelson calls the "fierce humanities": "teaching that seeks not merely learning, but unlearning, that seeks to unsettle knowledge and assumptions." The example Nelson draws from his own teaching experience is of a course on Holocaust poetry, the reading of which he describes as "unendurable," but the critical purpose of which "is to help all of us confront the infinite human capacity for evil and to evaluate poetry's capacity to bear witness to it."

In the university literary studies classroom, one of our guiding assumptions is that critical reading isn't supposed to be easy, in terms of either ability or comfort. But critical reading is an ability that can be taught and learned, and in the end reading's only really "critical" if it's challenging your sense of comfort, in one or more ways, and if you take the time to reflect on how and why the reading is challenging you. That process of reflection is crucial for working through what you're feeling, for reassessing your assumptions, for turning the affective response -- the being-moved -- into learning and critical practice.

That is what reading does for me – stands out as the repository of all that is interesting and what I might want to know – even what I do not yet know I want to know. A new book  is a chance to find something new in the world – new to me at least, which means new in general because it changes me in new ways. Change is good (who said that?) and reading lets me access it. Quite a privilege really. (Hutnyk)

So the student's discussion of the sadness they've felt reading Chopin and Conrad, which I thank them for so generously sharing, suggests, in a way, a kind of learning moment, an encounter with literature's ability to affect the reader in its representation of a question of social justice, a question rendered strangely, even fearfully beautiful through the artistic techniques that are literature's tools, or its weapons.

Would not being affected be a preferable alternative? To read such tragic or horrific narratives and not be moved? I'll never forget an appalling failure of literary learning to which I was once witness. As a grad student I belonged to a campus creative writing group, comprised of undergrads and grads. To one meeting we invited the Trinidadian-Canadian author Dionne Brand. For an icebreaker, she wanted to know what we were studying, and we went around the room telling her. The last student to do so said "In the course I'm in, we're reading a lot of slave narratives." The student then added, in the tone of one commiserating with a classmate: "they're really boring." The remark showed this student not only unaware of Brand's own work (much of which concerns the legacies of slavery and colonialism), but also inured -- by privilege, or racism, or a deeply frozen interior sea -- to what literary studies is about, and why it's important.

 

Works Cited

Chamberlin, J. Edward. "Some Thoughts Towards a New Literary History of Canada." Spaces Memories conference, Canadian Literature Centre, U of Alberta, 15 Oct. 2011.

Hutnyk, John. "For Daisy." Trinketization blog 10 Feb. 2010. Web. http://hutnyk.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/for-daisy/

Kafka, Franz. Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1923. New York: Schocken, 1948.

Nelson, Cary. "Keep your hands off the 'fierce humanities'." Chronicle of Higher Education 28 Aug. 2011. Web. http://chronicle.com/article/Keep-Your-Hands-Off-the/128804/

Poe, Edgar Allan. "Ligeia" (1838). The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Ed. David Galloway. London: Penguin, 1987.

Comments

  • Tackling such tough stuff calls on literary scholars and students alike to practice what Cary Nelson calls the "fierce humanities": "teaching that seeks not merely learning, but unlearning, that seeks to unsettle knowledge and assumptions." The example Nelson draws from his own teaching experience is of a course on Holocaust poetry, the reading of which he describes as "unendurable," but the critical purpose of which "is to help all of us confront the infinite human capacity for evil and to evaluate poetry's capacity to bear witness to it."

     

    This was certainly something that I brushed up against with the reading course in post-apocalyptic lit that I finished in August. Some of the fiction was interesting, but some of it bordered on intolerable - it was a lot of very dark literature to take in all at once. It seemed to make it more worthwhile, though: the confrontation was part of the experience of engaging the sense of the post-apocalyptic as a cultural force and a cultural imagining.

    Heather Clitheroe October 16, 2011 - 10:03pm

  • New to the blog but very engaged by it.  As I reflect upon the "fierce humanities," I can't help thinking about how Indigenous pain has been marginalized in Canadian literature as "resistance writing."  I find this amusing as I recall Osip Mandlestam, Akmatova, Lorca, Ngugi, Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ginsberg, Kerouac,



    - Marilyn Dumont

    an unauthenticated user of the Landing October 17, 2011 - 11:50am

These comments are moderated. Your comment will not be visible unless accepted by the content owner.

Only simple HTML formatting is allowed and any hyperlinks will be stripped away. If you need to include a URL then please simply type it so that users can copy and paste it if needed.

(Required)

(Required)