Adventures in Eng. Lit.

As regular readers to my blog will know I used to say that I don’t do literature. It all goes back to a traumatic experience with my English literature A-level, which has left me marked for life. But since I bought my Sony Reader I have once again ventured into the world of literature. It And now I have begun listening to a course at Open Yale on literary theory. I will try to keep an open mind but I am sceptical about it. I will be getting my dose of Semiotics, Deconstruction, Lacan, Derida, Postmodernism etc. To be honest, this may be more for its comic value. I guess what I said about having an open mind… Literary theory has become something of a laughing stock in the last few years and really does bring academics into disrepute. Frederick Crews, and Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley, had a book called Postmodern Pooh, where he laid into the kind of meaningless pretentious drivel these people come out with. Some of the fake essays in it include:

Why? Wherefore? Inasmuch as Which? by Felicia Marronnez

The Courage to Squeal  by Dolores Malatesta.

The Fissured Subtext: Historical Problematics, the Absolute Cause, Transcoded Contradictions, and Late-Capitalist Metanarrative (in Pooh) by Carla Gulag

You Don’t Know What Pooh Studies Are About, Do You, and Even If You Did, Do You Think Anybody Would Be Impressed? by N. Mack

In another of the essays Sisera Catheter provides a ‘gynocritical approach (The term gynocritical was coined by Elaine Showalter and refers to the branch of modern feminist literary studies that focuses on women as writers, as distinct from the feminist critique of male authors.):

Seeing himself castrated and thus ineluctably “female”, Eeyore bends his head between and behind his forepaws, evidently attempting an acrobatic autoerotic feat that, if successful, will not only restore his depleted narcissistic libido and give him something to chew on that’s nicer than thistles but also exchange his former adult self for a polymorphous perversity whereby the oral, anal, and genital stages can merge in an endless preoedipal, nonphallic loop. In short, he is so unsure of his maleness that he now hopes to transform himself into an unborn baby woman.’

I have also been working my through the Western canon. So far, I have read four – The Picture of Dorian Gray, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Pride and Prejudice, and Moby Dick. The canon itself has been part of the culture wars, getting a lot of flak with critics attacking the dominance of dead, white male Europeans. I am critical of a lot of literary theory but it has shown some of the limitations of the traditional ways of seeing literature. We do need to know the role of class, race and gender. How can these not have influenced literary output? My problem is that most of the theory comes from one particular ideological perspective. Add the pretentious language, meaningless jargon and it’s enough to put you off literature for life. Compare this to Richard Dawkins describing evolution or Steven Pinker setting out the mechanics of human language. I know which one I think gives you a better understanding of our world.

The problem I face when reading is that reading the Steig Larsson Millennium series is easier    than the classics. The problem is how to find the balance between enjoyment and enlightenment. Of course, they are not mutually exclusive. I am a bit out of practice with literature but I think it is going to be worth the effort. You should at least give the book fifty pages to get into it, after that you can be excused. What I love about reading is the way your tastes evolve. I have no idea what I will be reading in ten years’ time

I think the canon is a positive thing but that doesn’t mean we have to slavishly adhere to it. I like to be an omnivore trying to look for variety. It’s nice to have the canon as a source of ideas but there is no way I’m going to do anything but scratch the surface of that august list. In Changing Places David Lodge invented a wicked literary game he called ‘Humiliation‘, in which participants have to own up to their most horrendous literary lacuna. All the participants have to come up with the name of a classic book which they haven’t read and which they assume their rivals will have read. You score one point for every person in the group who has read the book that you haven’t touched. In Lodge’s novel American academic, Howard Ringbaum, admits that he has never read Hamlet – winning the game but losing his job.  My humiliation would be War and Peace or Wuthering Heights. However I don’t think I could outdo Hamlet. I would be most interested in your choices for the game. I’ll let you know how I get on with the Open Yale course and with the classics.

Here is the syllabus for the Introduction to Theory of Literature course you can download at Open Yale:

1. Introduction

2. Introduction (cont.)

3. Ways In and Out of the Hermeneutic Circle

4. Configurative Reading

5. The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork

6. The New Criticism and Other Western Formalisms

7. Russian Formalism

8. Semiotics and Structuralism

9. Linguistics and Literature

10. Deconstruction I

11. Deconstruction II

12. Freud and Fiction

13. Jacques Lacan in Theory

14. Influence

15. The Postmodern Psyche

16. The Social Permeability of Reader and Text

17. The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory

18. The Political Unconscious

19. The New Historicism

20. The Classical Feminist Tradition

21. African-American Criticism

22. Post-Colonial Criticism

23. Queer Theory and Gender Performativity

24. The Institutional Construction of Literary Study

25. The End of Theory?; Neo-Pragmatism

26. Reflections; Who Doesn’t Hate Theory Now?

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