Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Terry Eagleton on Sensitive Reading

I just read an interesting interview with Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton.  It covers a multitude of topics of interest, and several elements caught my eye in a general way concerning politics, religion, and culture (by the way, his discussion of the failed modern surrogates of religion is quite interesting).  But one that caught my attention in a specific way that has quite practical implications:
How do you feel about current literary criticism? You were an episode in the history of literary criticism yourself, in a sort of transition phase from Leavisism to the present day…
I’ve got a book coming out called something banal like How To Study Literature because I fear that literary criticism, at least as I knew it and was taught it, is almost as dead on its feet as clog dancing. That is to say, all of the things that I would have been taught at Cambridge—close analysis of language, responsiveness to literary form, a sense of moral seriousness—all of which could have negative corollaries… I just don’t see that any more. Somewhere along the line that sensitivity to language which I value enormously got lost. I didn’t really know about this because I had moved up in the echelons of academia and I wasn’t close enough to the undergraduate ground as it were to be aware of this. But when I got to Manchester [Eagleton began teaching at the University of Manchester in 2001], I was appalled by the way that people could be very smart about the context of a poem, but had no idea about how to talk about it as a poem. Whereas even if one did that badly or indifferently, it was still something one automatically did, in my day. This book coming out next year is really an attempt to put literary criticism as I see it back on the agenda. And to talk about questions of things like value, what’s good, what’s bad, form, theme, language, imagery, and so on.
I agree; it is a lost art.  I tend to find that most of my students aren't used to it; haven't done it; and so I always try to incorporate it in my assignments.  It is how I start every new project--reading very closely, sensitively, and then bringing in broader and broader contexts.  I remember as a TA for the historian, Robert Somerville, we would periodically give an entire class a quiz in which they would have to read closely a passage from a primary source dealing with Christian history, break it down first and then place it in its social, historical, and theological contexts.  This was often what I spent nearly a year doing when teaching Literature of the Humanities.  I remember one of the best classes I ever taught was a two-hour session where we did not venture beyond Genesis 1:1-2:3.  We read it closely, analyzed the language, looked at how different verbs were being used, repetition, variation in repetition (there is a lot more variance than people typically discuss), its architecture and broader organizational patterns, before turning to broader ideological implications (gender, etc.), and contextual issues of Sitz im Leben and historical context.  It is something I bring into my Bible classes.  My second exam (we have three) is always for them to read a passage of about fifteen lines, and struggle with that passage, discussing its language, imagery, form/structure/organization, themes, and then arguing why those elements, put back together, are significant in context.  They struggle at first, because they are not used to it, but I get some quite stunning analyses by the end.  I remember taking a class with Seth Schwartz, historian of ancient Judaism, where he said that you can't just read a text, but you have to be aware of and clear concerning how you are reading a text.

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