Today we began class by summarizing our current list of essential questions as well as the answers that we have come up with so far:
1. What is the value of studying literature?
- A salary
- Building empathy
- Touching our emotions
- Fostering discussion
- Addressing the affective domain (i.e., rather than memorizing and listing the facts of what a horse is, such as how many legs they have [the cognitive domain], instead considering what the experience of being next to a horse is like or even of what the horse’s personal experience or emotions might be)
- Addressing cultural controversies
2. How do authors and readers construct meaning?
3. What is the significance of literature as a form of art?
Regarding the third question, about art, I began by wondering what the significance is for the study of literature that the primary evidence is an art form. After all, literary studies is one of the humanities disciplines. What does this particular form of evidence add to our study of humanity? Archaeology, for instance, tends to look at evidence that consists of the sort of artifacts that societies leave behind. One of you suggested bowls, for example. The evidence that a psychologist may be interested in, by contrast, may be in the data from experiments involving humans or from questionnaires. As many of you noted, college students will do just about anything for $2, some pizza, or a cool t-shirt. Drawing on the responses from college student populations or from the national population is the basis for much study in psychology. So what could focusing on art as evidence suggest about humanity that bowls or human experiments do not?
One suggestion from one of you is this:
- Suggests the interests of both the creator and the audience
This is a great point, since generally creators will be creating things that are of particular interest to them. Yet at the same time, they are generally not going to create things that no one else cares about. If the creator has an audience in mind, that creator is going to want to interest both the creator and the audience. Sure, we can get people to catalog their interests through a questionnaire, but this is a way to determine interests that does not depend upon the researcher first developing a sufficiently targeted questionnaire or experiment. The art work serves itself as a data point from which one could interpret the interests of those creating and receiving the art form.
Another of you suggested this:
- Conveys emotion
This is another great point, and I want to emphasize here the word “convey.” I think a good followup question is this: what about emotion is being conveyed? This student’s suggestion intrigues me because I think it goes beyond merely the conveyance that emotion is happening or what the intellectual description of what that emotion is. Rather, the the thing that the artist could be attempting to convey is the emotional experience itself. This is an interesting way to gain insight in humanity because it leads to reflection upon our own emotional reactions and how they may compare to others and to the artist’s experience. We can talk about what the emotional experience might have been like for those people who drew cave paintings, but that is quite different than the prospect that the emotional experience the artist had could engender an emotional experience within ourselves for us to consider.
After considering the enigma that is art, we turned our focus to Yeats and his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” After taking some time picking this poem apart, one of you noted that is similar to Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Both poems involve the speaker reflecting on a tranquil natural scene. After considering this, we decided that there is some difference between the speakers. Wordsworth’s speaker can reflect from his couch; Yeats’s speaker would not only rise from that couch, he would go to that natural scene and build a cabin so he could live there. This becomes an interesting contrast between these reactions to the peace of the nature. Does the memory support us as we continue to live in civilization, or does it tempt us away from civilization altogether?
This conversation led us into a discussion of the whether you thought there was a difference between being calm and in your home and being calm and in nature. The general consensus was that no, those are two different kinds of calm experience. Some of you thought that you would be calmer at home, where you are safest, and some of you thought you would be calmer in nature, away from stressful reminders. But you also thought that they felt like different sorts of calm, even when they were at roughly the same level. At this point, I suggested that one of the values of literature is in hitting these delicate differences in human experience that perhaps cannot be touched in any other way. To make my point, I turned to an analogy to music theory while drawing the following on the board:
First, we considered how emotions could be expressed kind of like the power chords often used in heavy metal music. They are formed of the 1st and 5th note in a key. These chords have zero nuance and amount to the emotional impact of a sledgehammer. Nonetheless, they can have a powerful affect. I compared this to the simplistic but heavy emotional impressions frequent within superhero action movies today, twitter flame wars, and soap operas where everyone is either ecstatic or trying to murder each other. A more nuanced set of emotions might be similar to the major chord, which has a third note (the 3rd note of the key) that permits tonal nuance. This chord is the bedrock of much of the rock, pop, classical, and other music that we listen to today. It can be found in anything from the Rolling Stones to a complicated piece of classical piano music. Even more nuance can be found by adding a fourth note (such as the 7th note of the key), which is the something that jazz music does routinely. After explaining all this, I asked you to consider how the human heart could be thought of like a string instrument with two, three, four, or maybe even hundreds of strings. Part of what literature is often trying to do is to hit multiple strings at once in order to set up complex emotional experiences with subtle tonal differences. This is something that the class’s wisdom regarding the difference between being calm at home and being calm in nature suggests warrants attention. Humans are fully able to be sensitive to such subtle differences, but what in our everyday lives points us to consider these delicate gradations of the human experience? If much of everyday life hits us like a power chord, what can also pluck the more nuanced melodies of the heart? And how can we train ourselves to be more sensitive to literary works that are the emotional equivalent of complex jazz?
Based on the above, the following has been added to our list of values that literature provides:
- conveying nuanced tones of the human emotional experience that are not easily conveyed otherwise and training us to become more sensitive to those subtle tones
We next moved to “The Second Coming,” for which I drew the following terrible picture on the board demonstrating a falconer launching a falcon who then flies in circles that expand ever outward as the bird searches for prey:
The point of this picture was to get you to imagine the ever expanding circles that would develop as the falcon flies farther and farther out. A most certainly better picture of what Yeats had in mind is this:
Notice that at the point that the circle reaches its widest point, a new center is born from which a new ever-widening cone extends until it reaches the original birth of the first cone. These cones capture Yeats’s conception of the cycles of history. For an interesting summary, if you are interested in learning more, click here.
Turning to “The Second Coming” with all this in mind, the poem becomes more understandable, but the class still raised a number of important questions. For instance, is the “beast” supposed to suggest something about Egypt and the sphinx? Is the beast supposed to be biblical, suggesting the apocalypse? Should we be afraid of the beast? Does our answer change if we step out of a western, christian worldview? How do we determine whether the beast’s slouch toward Bethlehem is good or bad? Don’t we need some sort of “center” to which to tie such value judgments? But what if that center has fallen apart? What if that center cannot hold?
This conversation of ever-widening questions led into a discussion of Carl Jung’s work on dreams and the collective unconscious. We discussed dreams, and one of you shared a pretty crazy one that reoccurred nightly for a week as part of an ongoing war story involving her family. Jung was interested in what dreams and the images within them may reveal about the workings of our unconscious, which can include workings of the mind that have not or cannot be yet articulated within the conscious mind. Furthermore, since individuals share many aspects of the same culture, there can be some sense of the imagery in dreams tapping into a “collective unconscious.” Are there things that society in general is trying to work through that the individuals in that society process unconsciously?
Yeats felt that an important part of poetry was to attempt to convey the workings of this collective unconscious, using imagery that would affect readers in a fashion that is somehow deeper than can yet be expressed. I admitted that there was something about “The Second Coming” that always freaks me out, and many of you agreed. There is a disturbing underlying feel that is on one level certainly expressed with words likes “slouching,” “pitiless,” and “slow thighs,” but there is something about the language that also aspires to affect us in ways we cannot quite articulate.
This discussion prompted us to add the following to our list of literature’s values:
- addressing the collective unconscious
A few of you noted that this poem seems relevant to today and our current political moment. There is a sense some can have today that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Likewise, the sense of things falling apart and anarchy could resonate today. On the other hand, some of you noted that this could be a generational perspective. Someone who is sixteen may not share the same sense of things falling apart that an older person may feel. These are excellent points; we should be attuned to what perspective the reader brings to the interpretation and to consider what bearing that perspective has on the poem’s significance.
For next class, we will finally turn to James Joyce and then to two difficult poems: Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”