Enthusiasm: The Heart of Literature

One of my favorite new courses here at New York City College of Technology is “Gothic Literature and Visual Culture.” I had nothing to do with its development, though I wish I had, for it pays absolutely no attention to the sub-discipline boundaries within the field of English—or even beyond it. Students are as likely to read William Beckford’s Vathek as they are to watch Lost Girl. There’s no attempt to divide literature into value-laden categories or even to define what “literature” is. There’s no necessary focus on certain tools or approaches. The point is to experience, to study, to analyze. To enjoy. To expand.

Today on Facebook, David Golumbia reminded me of an article by Barbara Herrnstein Smith that I read just about a year ago, “What Was ‘Close Reading’? A Century of Method in Literary Studies.” I liked it so much that I sent Dr. Smith a fan email that included this, “my hesitation with close reading comes more from making it the supreme focus (as David Coleman [Common Core creator and head of the College Board] does) than from any concern for its value as a tool. As with [Franco] Moretti, it ignores the central value of literature as entertainment and of literary studies as exploration of the value of entertainment and entertainments,” She wrote back, “Thanks for the nice message. I’ve been delighted—and surprised—by the enthusiastic reception of the piece…. Yes, on the ‘entertainment-value’ of literature: among other things, a needed corrective to the unrelieved solemnity of many of its current defenses.”

Golumbia quotes from Smith, stating that she “dismantles one of the most disingenuous claims that is frequently made in support of digital humanities”:

As literary studies have been pursued under the auspices of structuralism, semiotics, New Historicism, deconstruction, feminism, critical race theory, postcolonial criticism, and queer theory, the types and cultural status of the texts examined by literary scholars and read closely in their classrooms have continuously expanded. Those ‘texts’ now include writings of every form and provenance, whether currently admired or reviled and whether currently read or unread; and they can in principle (and often do in fact) include any inscription, or image, or artifact whatsoever. Wilkens suggests that less close reading of individual texts and more computational studies of large bodies of texts will somehow address the other ‘problem of the canon,’ by which he presumably means the past snubbing of popular writings and of works by women and members of minority groups. But if the offense is that many worthy or interesting texts remain unread because of past biases, then what is wanted, surely, is to have those texts read, not just counted. Wilkens seeks to promote research methods that he sees as undervalued in literary studies. The aim is commendable but his arguments do not serve it well.

As one who went to graduate school to better read literature, not to study it, this passage resonates within me quite strongly. I wanted to explore down in the weeds, still do, and not from an airplane high in the air. I learned much more about the Sahara traveling by land up to Tombouctou and back than I did crossing it on Air Algeria—though I certainly saw a greater expanse from up above. Sure, there’s something to be said for the view from afar, but it doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the up-close-and-personal.

My first graduate class was David Morris’s “Gothic Literature” at the University of Iowa almost 40 years ago. I remember it because of the reading, books of varying artistry but all quite new to me, and mysterious—and because of the movies, including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which I had never even heard of (and which helped spark my academic interest in film). The approach Morris took always began with the experience of reading or viewing, moving in different directions from there, depending on the student and the need.

Too many people want to define us into subservience even in the study of art. They prefer maps to the experience of the actual landscape, studies to experience. This has always been the case (Walt Whitman’s reaction to the “learn’d astronomer” was by no means original), but it creeps back into our lives as often as it can, moving us away from joy in favor of categorization. Too many others want to define what is good or important for us, telling us about them instead of letting us discover for ourselves.

Today, in The New York Times, poet Adam Kirsch writes that the

Nobel Prize is in fact the ultimate example of bad faith: A small group of Swedish critics pretend to be the voice of God, and the public pretends that the Nobel winner is Literature incarnate. All this pretending is the opposite of the true spirit of literature, which lives only in personal encounters between reader and writer.

He’s writing about Bob Dylan’s “silence” in response to gaining the prize, but his point is much broader. He ends, “Mr. Dylan may yet accept the prize, but so far, his refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.”

“Question Authority,” says the sanctimonious bumper sticker. “Trust Yourself, but See the World,” might expand the thought.