Friday, September 25, 2009

The Baby and the Bathwater

Yesterday's post elicited two interesting comments. Meridith's comment, with which I agree fully, points the discussion in a direction I have been wanting to take it. I will leave it to the side for now, because it requires further reflection.

For now I will respond only to the somewhat sardonic comment by someone who has dubbed himself Anonymous.

Anonymous feels that I have fallen into a contradiction. Why would I not, he reflects, be more than happy to see students migrating away from English departments toward more practical disciplines like business and finance?

The short answer is: I would, and I am. But this does not mean that I think that no one should ever study literature or that literature has nothing to teach us.

The point I was making, after William Chace, is that English departments have largely abandoned the study of literature in favor of dubious theoretical pursuits.

My first thought, however, was that Anonymous seems to have gotten the impression that I was throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Actually, I was following Chace's recommendation that we try to save the baby. After all, critical theory and deconstruction have been hard at work trying to drown the baby in the bathwater.

Why so? Primarily because they want to collapse the distance between literature and life. If they can break down the wall between fiction and reality, they can induce people to live their lives as though they were stories. Their point-- and I would almost call it a delusion-- is that all of life is a story.

If you can study anything as though it were a literary text, you are telling people that they are living out fictions. Only they do not know it, and they are not good enough actors.

The space of fiction derives from the sacred. It has more to do with ritual, even sacrifice, than it does with the marketplace. It is a space of performance, not exchange or trade.

Theorists like Judith Butler have no use for the free market or free trade, but they value performance and consider that all of life is a performance. I would read this as meaning that Butler considers life to be a theatrical performance, where the author's words bring things to life.

But this rough magic, to quote Shakespeare's Prospero, merely refers to fictional spaces. It creates, as Prospero adds, an "insubstantial pageant" that is destined to fade away.

The notion that we should live our lives as drama does not come down to us from Shakespeare. It is an ideological add-on; no more, and no less.

Admittedly, the melancholy Jaques in "As You Like It" declared that "all the world is a stage." But, in yet another paradox, that does not mean that all the world is a stage.

In my view the statement faithfully represents the perspective of someone like Jaques, who is chronically depressed, and who has lost touch with reality.

In many ways Jaques is a residue. He represents what is left of Orlando's hopeless romanticism, his belief in fictional love, his yearning to live his life as a great romantic drama.

After all, the play is about Rosalind's effort to cure Orlando of his romantic love. Rosalind does not want to live out a great love story; she wants to be married.

Thus her famous near-cynical words about love: "Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them; but not for love."

In short, to be pleased to see the collapse of English departments under the weight of their theoretical pretensions is not the same as to say that there is nothing of value in literature,or that literature has nothing to teach us.

That was the point of Chace's article, and it was a point I endorse. At the minimum English should teach students how to use language effectively. Without this skill-- which is basically a social skill-- you will not be able to present your ideas clearly and effectively and will have difficulty negotiating a deal.

I am confident that most coaches recognize that relationships of every stripe can rise and fall depending on how you phrase your speech. Here English departments can make a highly useful and practical contribution to the education of young people.

These skills do not make you a better actor in a life full of psychodrama, but they help you to be a better player in the game of life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wasn't saying you were throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I was saying you were a hypocrite, because you suddenly expressed reverence for "literature" when one of the primary ways that you denigrate "therapy" on your blog is by the way it encourages people to “tell stories.” It’s not only that therapy (supposedly) encourages people to “live their life as if it were a story,” it’s the simple fact of narrating one’s life, narration itself, that routinely draws your contempt. But, I stand corrected. I think. Let’s see. Literature, real literature, is good, as long as it’s never ever confused with reality, and “practical solutions.” If therapy is bad, it’s because therapy shouldn’t ever be like literature, but should only be a practical solution to life, like “business,” or “finance.” It shouldn’t involve telling stories. And yet, you think we can learn from stories, which means telling stories and reading stories must be therapeutic, in some way.

Is that it? I get confused. Because then you complain that “critical theorists” like deconstructionists and “Judith Butler,” who you don’t like, believe that literature is “sacred,” and has nothing to do with “exchange or trade,” and therefore business and finance, and therefore reality. So literature should have something to do with reality? Well then why is therapy bad, if it is literary?

I don’t think it’s using language effectively to come up with a construct like “critical theory and deconstruction.” Deconstruction IS a critical theory, for one thing; for another, to collapse the vast, diverse realm of critical theory into ONE giant term, and then attribute monolithic beliefs to this meaningless caricature, is ridiculous. In fact you sound a lot like Judith Butler.