Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why DO we read?

I became an English major for a couple of reasons. One, because I love to read, and two, because I’ve “gotten” a lot out of what I’ve read (and wanted to share this awesome avenue of discovery with others – yeah, I’m English Ed.). For the most part, I have enjoyed my college English courses – I’ve learned a lot about different time periods, authors, genres, movements, and schools of thought, literary and otherwise. I’ve learned how to analyze works and to unearth a lot of essential questions about humanity that they pose. My studies have been, as a whole, gratifying. But I must say that I agree wholeheartedly with Edmundson’s argument on page 60:

But asking critical questions should not devolve into a mere parlor game. That is, we should not teach our students that the aim of every reading is to bring up the questions that might debunk the wisdom at hand, and then leave it at that. We must ask the question of belief. Is this poem true? Can you use this poem? Or are you living in a way that’s better than the poem suggests you might live? To these queries, we should expect only heartfelt answers.
By refusing to ask such questions once we have coaxed the work’s vision forward, we are leaving our students where we found them.

In my experiences, though these great “essential questions” are always POSED in lecture or discussion, I don’t feel like they’re ever actually DISCUSSED. They're very rarely applied directly to our real, modern-day lives, and even more rarely do we actually interact with them in a personal way. WHY are we reading a particular work? How does it specifically pertain to us? How can it help us? What is it saying to the world today?

What about you? Do you find that your classrooms center on the “culture of cool” (Edmundson's term for a general depersonalization of the classroom [and the modern-day culture at large] in place of students’ possibly-embarrassing genuine investment and self-discovery)? If so, has this been beneficial to you as a student of English? As an individual in your everyday life? Have you ever actually been changed by a work of literature? Is this growth of the reader even important or necessary? Is literature the appropriate venue for this kind of growth/self-discovery?

Although I agree that Edmundson’s rhetoric is a bit extreme at times (especially regarding the ineffectiveness of the modern-day liberal arts college), his focus on literature as a tool for the reader to discover his/her Final Narrative matches my views well. As a reader, I have always attempted to extract core truth(s) from literary works, test whether these statements are valid against the backdrop of my life, and then evaluate whether it’s necessary for me to alter my opinions or lifestyle based on this new knowledge. I do also believe that literature can and does serve other important purposes – as a tool to record history, or as an aesthetic pleasure, for example – and that the dissection of works via the New Criticism method can be illuminatingly worthwhile. However, in my opinion, Edmundson’s assertions capture what I have always found to be literature’s highest calling: it asserts the truth that someone else has discovered, and presents it to me to ponder and perhaps adopt in a life-changing sort of way.

mazzucchelli's novel

With Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli is making a novel. But its not straightforward in this form, & not only for its graphic nature. Even in traditional written form, the charachters, especially Asterios, dont quite behave - nor are explained - in the depth that most charachters in modern novels are. In a sorta existential tale theres not a lot of Dosteovsky-ness, so to speak. Instead we get an old fashioned tale - part greek tragedy, part greek epic.

In a weird way in sorta felt to me like an old novel. To go even further it felt a bit like perhaps the first novel ever written - Don Quixote. Its probably a horrible comparison, but whatever, its my post I guess. I thought this for two reasons:

1. I thought Mazzuchelli was making fun of the traditional novel form the same way Cervantes was making fun of the chivalry tales prevalent at the time. The allusion to Hesse really started me on this, I think.

2. He's trying to make an original form of charachter. For me, almost the thesis of the novel was that scene where Hana is giving a sculpting lesson in which she states that a sculpter is transforming a finite space. I think thats how Mazz views a charachter - or perhaps people in real life - as a finite enitity floating within the infinite space of a finite book. Hell, even the narrator is a sorts doppelganger within Asterios' own mind.

He's putting down his own idea of a charachter in this abstract form of graphic just like how Cervates put down his rather new concept of charachter in a form never really done before - straight prose with consciousness.

Sporadic thoughts, sorry, but hopefully they relate to each other enough.

Monday, August 30, 2010

What does it mean to study the humanities?

Edmundson 19-21

I was immediately struck by this section in the book because as an English major, I tend to receive criticism from my friends whose studies revolve around math or the sciences. I find it difficult to understand where the criticism is coming from because I do not feel that I am doing less work than my peers nor that am I learning less.

Seeing Edmundson’s argument that the program was changed to entice students to study the humanities surprised me. I do not feel that I am graded more easily here than in other classes but rather that my limits are pushed because I am forced to think critically not just repeat information I have been told. I also find that the program that I am following, while it allows for some choice in classes and professors, has a rather set structure and classes that are mandatory for all similar majors as well as some classes that must be taken in succession. This is similar to majors across campus.

Why is it that you chose this major over others that are more “success-ensuring?” Do you feel that the restrictions are looser or that you are graded more easily in these classes compared to those you have taken in other content areas? Do you agree with Edmundson’s idea that the ability to choose courses and professors gives the students a power over teachers?

-- Sally Lennon

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why Read?

On pages 6-7 of Why Read?, Mark Edmundson writes
Universities have become sites not for human transformation, but for training and for entertaining. Unconfronted by major issues, students use the humanities as they can. They use them to prepare for lucrative careers. They acquire marketable skills. Or, they find in their classes sources of easy pleasure. They read to enjoy, but not to become other than they are. “You must change your life,” says Rilke’s sculpture of Apollo to the beholder. So says every major work of intellect and imagination, but in the university now—as in the culture at large—almost no one hears.

When I picked up this book to begin to read it, I had some fairly high expectations. For the most part, I enjoy reading. Literature classes offer a chance for me to explore works that maybe I would not consider reading on my own otherwise, whether it be because I have heard negative reviews of the books in question or because I haven’t even heard of the books in the first place. So this book, Why Read?, a book about reading, seemed great. I really thought I would enjoy it—enjoy being the operative word.

And then I start reading this book and here’s this Edmundson guy telling me that I am totally, utterly, entirely wrong, and I probably won’t learn anything if I’m doing it to enjoy it. He accuses today’s college-student population of being completely consumer-driven, and incapable of improvement and change because we want everything we do in life to entertain us. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to enjoy what we do here in college. There is a difference between entertainment and enjoyment, and Edmundson seems to have made them one and the same. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing with your life, in or out of college, then why do it? With our undergraduate studies, we are preparing for the rest of our lives. It is perfectly fine to want to enjoy it, especially if it costs $25,000 a year. So what, instead, is the “point” of reading, and college overall, according to Edmundson? What is his definition of “enjoying” reading, and what is yours?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Asterios Polyp, pt. 2: synchronic vs. diachronic structure

I want to focus on the last section of today's reading from Asterios Polyp (beginning with the panel of a yellow foot with a white dot on it).  This section is only twelve narrative pages, but these are a specific kind of narration, what we call synchronic narration.  This is opposed to a more traditional form of linear, diachronic narration, which moves forward in time.  Synchronic narration, on the other hand, moves across time, emphasizing the connection between thematic and symbolic elements, often ignoring or undercutting temporal causality. [These terms might be familiar from linguistics or biology, where there are use to distinguish between pattern-connections and historical development; see synchronic analysis at wikipedia.]

We start this section with the recurring figure of Asterios sitting by himself, examining his foot for a blister; Initially, he is isolated on the white space of the page, then he looks up and is alone his bedroom in Stiff Major's home:

Another page repeats his bodily self-examination, and when Asterios looks up a second time, he is in his marital home, with his wife, Hana, in the doorway:

What follows is a loosely-connected series of panels depicting incidental moments from Asterios and Hana's life together, mostly focusing on Hana's body and its functions:

There is very little narrative proper here.  The repeated scene of Asterios taking out tweezers and using them (the middle tier of panels through each page); the daily bodily life of Hana (in the bathroom, in the bedroom, while sick, tired, happy, and living a typical life).  This section seems to be focalized from Asterios' perspective, rather than his dead brother's, and the synchronic leaps seem to be his as well.

If this is the case, I wonder if it is too strong to read these pages as self-examination, in which Asterios attempts to come to grips with the facts of his former life, rather than his idea of that life.  Is this a limited form of catharsis?  Or just a fleeting scene in the manner of what we've seen before?