Saturday, October 27, 2007

All me, all the time

I was brushing my teeth the other night, not thinking about anything in particular, when between spitting and rinsing I found myself muttering, "Thus does the whirlygig of time bring in his revenges."

For a second I had no idea where that line had come from. Uh. . . Shakespeare, right? And. . . Twelfth Night? Yes. Duh. I was teaching Twelfth Night that week. But what was that particular line doing rattling around in my subconsciousness?

I shrugged and went to bed, but the next morning I found myself thinking about that line some more, as well as some of the play's many other references to time ("Time, thou must unravel this, not I/It is too hard a knot for me t'untie"), and I realized how consonant they are with a lot of the thinking I've been doing lately. "Man," I said aloud at one point, "I should totally re-read Twelfth Night again!"

And then I laughed, embarrassed at myself.

Re-read it, why? For its fortune-cookie wisdom? Its secret messages to me alone? Isn't this exactly what I want my students not to do--to believe that a work of literature has value only insofar as it relates to their lives. . . and that as soon as it doesn't, it's pointless?

Of course, I don't believe that about Twelfth Night or anything else I read or teach, but sometimes I do think I have a tendency to relate too intensely and too personally to the things I work on. I worry that this is naive and unprofessional of me. But I also wonder how one can help it.

There are scholars, I'm sure, who do what they do for the sheer intellectual challenge of it all, and who derive immense satisfaction from that. But even though the "personal" element of my work isn't at all obvious--it has nothing, for example, to do with gender- or religious- or class-based identification, or with events in my personal or family history--I can't pretend that my scholarship is somehow perfectly objective or that it doesn't reflect, in a deep and fundamental way, my own personality and my understanding of human nature and institutions.

I guess there's value to this awareness, and I know that discovering aspects of oneself in the intellectual and cultural productions of another age isn't the same thing as imposing oneself or one's beliefs upon those works (in the former case, one is hopefully expanding and challenging oneself and one's preconceptions; in the latter, one is finding only what one is prepared to find).

Nevertheless, I still feel vaguely ashamed and Billy Phelpsian when I admit to such things.


Flavia said...

Not that it's at all relevant, but after having searched online unsuccessfully for my all-time favorite Dorothy Parker book review, which happens to be of Phelps's book Happiness, I've decided to throw copyright caution to the winds and reproduce a couple of choice paragraphs:

The professor starts right off with, "No matter what may be one's nationality, sex, age, philosophy, or religion, everyone wishes either to become or to remain happy." Well, there's no arguing that one. The author has us there. There is the place for getting out the pencil, underscoring the lines, and setting "how true," followed by several carefully executed exclamation points, in the margin. It is regrettable that the book did not come out during the season when white violets were in bloom, for there is the very spot to press one.

"Hence," goes on the professor, "definitions of happiness are interesting." I suppose the best thing to do with that is to let it pass. Me, I never saw a definition of happiness that could detain me after train-time, but that may be a matter of lack of opportunity, of inattention, or of congenital rough luck. If definitions of happiness can keep Professor Phelps on his toes, that is little short of dandy. We might just as well get on along to the next statement, which goes like this: "One of the best. . . was given in my Senior year at college by Professor Timothy Dwight: 'The happiest person is the person who thinks the most interesting thoughts.'" Promptly one starts recalling such Happiness Boys as Nietzsche, Socrates, de Maupassant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Blake, and Poe. One wonders, with hungry curiosity, what were some of the other definitions that Professor Phelps chucked aside in order to give preference to this one.

"The Professor Goes In for Sweetness and Light," The New Yorker, Nov. 5, 1927.

Dr. Crazy said...

What I usually tell my students, and what I think is true for me, is that excitement about literature *starts* with those "aha! Here I am in the text! This is so true!" moments, but that literary criticism starts when we move beyond those initial reactions, interrogate them, and go deeper. I don't think that personal response is shameful or somehow antagonistic to good criticism. It's just not *enough*. So I absolve you, and you're no Billy Phelps :)

Anonymous said...

I think having moments when what you're thinking about, or where you are in life, resonates strongly with a particular text, is different from the starry-eyed undergrad's "Ohhhh I soooo identify with this!" Those moments might even change our thinking about texts in important ways. A critical eye isn't just a well-oiled machine operating in a void, and I think it's important to recognize and nourish the more purely "personal" reactions we have, lest we fail to grow.

That said, you're right to the extent that it's difficult to know what to do with those personal moments unless you've been well trained in the rigors of austere criticism-at-a-distance. And I think one of the most noxious remainders of second-wave feminism is that there are still enclaves where people think that saying "This makes me feel..." constitutes literary criticism.

As for the people who "do what they do for the sheer intellectual challenge of it," my strong suspicion is that they are a) miserably unhappy and/or b) full of shit. On the other hand, there are definitely things that I'm disinclined ever to work on, precisely because I have too much "personally" invested in them. (Twelfth Night happens to be one of them.)

No guilt, Flavia. No guilt!

Flavia said...

Thanks, guys! And Dr. C., I think that's a really good way of presenting it to students (and oneself).

I also know, of course, that there's an awful lot of very good work--especially on matters of race and class and gender and religion--that's been done in the past 50 years largely because the face of the academy changed, and formerly excluded groups started doing research on and asking questions about, let's say, depictions of women or ethnic minorities. So that's a model for the way work can be "personal" without (necessarily) being easily or simplistically so.

Susan said...

I completely agree with Neophyte. I don't think anyone can "do what they do for the sheer intellectual challenge of it". That is, there is always some piece of ourselves satisfied in our work, something we care about for some reason. My hunch is that a lot of the ABDs out there got stuck with a topic that didn't have that -- and without it, it's impossible to continue without being miserable. Since even when you are working on something you love, there are times you want to trash it, if you don't....

The academic language in which we are asked to frame projects doesn't make room for this, but I think it's best to be open about it.

gwoertendyke said...

perhaps i share your billy phelpsian persona but i think ones personal relationship to art of all kinds is integral to the intellectual. that doesn't suggest a one-to-one correlation as parker brilliantly and hilariously underscores; but it also doesn't posit some kind of detatched sensibility. poe, blake, et al, these were not detatched, impersonal critiques. they all were pretty passionate, it seems to me.

finding lines of poetry in your head i think is one of the great benefits of studying literature. i usually regret that i cannot recall more of them to mind.

students in my experience are more able to maintain the tension between beauty, genre, aesthetics--and whatever they are supposed to be opposed to--more often than we give them credit for. (and i mean me, not you, flavia!)

Anonymous said...

I'm with adjunct whore on this one; having poems as companions is one of the pleasures of the literary academic life. Life is too short not to murmur Shakespeare to oneself while brushing one's teeth!

And I do tend to teach along the lines that Dr. Crazy suggests here; I often begin with "personal response," and then we go from there. And that opening response sometimes gives students the fuel to keep going when things get tougher in the critical work.

Anonymous said...

Given the topic under discussion, I think it's amusing that I totally overidentify with this post! Twelfth Night is my favorite Shakespeare play (as the journal name would indicate), and I have the hardest time teaching it, precisely because I am so invested in it.

I'm also having a hard time getting my students to move beyond the "I relate to Hamlet" mode of thinking about literature (it's only my second year of being a TA, so I hope to improve!), but it does feel slightly hard to justify my stance when the week on this play rolls around.