Posts Tagged imagination
Greetings from Chicago!
Looking at my list of Blog Posts, I see that it has been since October that I’ve last written anything for this column. I guess the easiest way to explain that (aside from Holiday planning and travel) is that I didn’t have much to write about in those intervening months.
Today I decided to open my computer and write what will be my second to last post as Director of Anglophone/American Literature at NeMLA. My position ends at this year’s conference in Pittsburgh.
Before I launch into the topic for this post (the role of the imagination in literary studies), I just want to take a moment to thank a few people who have made my experience as Director incredibly rewarding. First, there’s Ben Railton, who put into my head the idea that I could self-nominate for this position and actually get elected. Then there are my fellow Director’s Susmita Roye and Lisa Perdigao both of whom I have had the privilege of collaborating with on Special Events programing. I learned a lot from their past experience. Thanks to Carine Mardorossian for being so patient with me as a newbie to NeMLA and to Brandi So who helped me with more than a few software glitch issues. Finally, I’d like to thank the members of NeMLA, without whom there wouldn’t be a need for a board at all. It’s been a privilege to serve you in the role of Director and a real treat to get to view the session proposals for the entire conference. Let no one tell you that literary studies isn’t strong as a field. It’s simply evolving (perhaps a bit slowly) to meet the times.
I hope to meet some of my readers in Pittsburg and hear the wonderful research projects you are working on. Remember to look for my signature bow tie. : )
Several semesters ago, I taught a version of a course on Literary Criticism and Literary Theory that began with a pair of essays. One was by Susan Sontag and the other by Jean Paul Sartre. In the first of these essays, Sontag decried the violence of literary analysis as it is taught in schools, ripping apart a work of art to see how it works rather than appreciating it for what it is–a mode of expression where the parts are greater than the whole and meaning can never fully be discerned. She made the daring claim that we should simply learn to emotionally engage with art as art rather than forcing it to mean something. Sartre, in contrast, argued that art and artists had an obligation to engage their audience to effect change in the world. (It’s not accidental that Sartre is probably better known and understood for his fiction than his philosophical treatises.)
These essays were meant to provoke a semester long conversation on what exactly this thing we call “literature” is and what as dedicated readers we are supposed to do with it. Not surprisingly, we came to no consensus on these issues. Here are how my thoughts have evolved on the subject since I first chose to introduce it in this class.
On the one hand, I find myself agreeing with Sontag. Poems, Short Stories, Novels, all the ways that humans can be creative are not like machines that can be ripped apart and studied for how and why they work. Perhaps the best critique of this reductionist approach to literature comes from Edgar Allan Poe when he explains his poem “The Raven.”
Yet, on the other hand, I can’t help but feel drawn to Sartre’s perspective that no form of communication is disinterested. Even artists want something from us.
How do I reconcile these twin beliefs? I focus on characters in fiction who become more real to us than the people we see on the streets every day.
This semester I am teaching an Introduction to American Literature course. I’ve always been committed to teaching works by lesser known and local authors. This spring I chose to meet that goal by teaching a course on Chicago Literature.
So far we have read poems by Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks. Works by contemporary poets Eve Ewing and Kevin Coval are yet to come. We’ve also read novels by Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie) and Richard Wright (Native Son) and still have works by Nelson Algren and Bill Hillmann waiting for us towards the semester’s end.
Since our classroom looks out on the loop and the Sears Tower, it’s not hard for us to envision the world these writer’s create.
Teaching the Sandburg poem “Halsted Street Car,” I told my students to think of their morning commute. How many of us have seen the exhausted workers whose faces are “tired of wishes / empty of dreams.”
Reading Sister Carrie, I asked them to imagine her walking through the State Street shopping corridor, arm in arm with her dapper salesman boyfriend Charles Drouet. Who, I asked, are the Carrie’s they see walking that same street today? Where are the Drouet’s? The materialist desires both represent are far from gone. Otherwise, why would the stores still be there?
With Native Son, we reflected this week on the legacy of the Kerner Report and the growing number of black males in prison. I asked my students to find cases similar to that of Bigger Thomas and they delivered. I asked them to imagine what Bigger’s life would be like without racial barriers and we couldn’t. Even in our imagination he remained a criminal, just maybe not a double murderer.
Now as we move on to Gwendolyn Brooks, we are considering the role of black women in the worn out communities of the South and West Sides who are asked to hold the tattered fabric of community together against tremendous odds.
I see Sister Carrie and Charles Drouet, Bigger Thomas and his mother, Sandburg’s Contemporary Bunkshooter, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Sadie and Maude and Chocolate Mabbie. I see them all when I walk the streets of my Chicago.
And what do these fictional characters become real mean to me?
First, they remind me to be careful. That it is easy for the imagination to wander into the realm of stereotype and through that engage in prejudiced actions.
Second, they remind me that although Chicago is a city that isn’t kind to fools and where a wrong turn can lead to a quick end, it is also a city of resilience and incredible kindness (especially among those who have nothing). Some of the kindest and most decent people I have meet are from areas in the South Side that outsiders are warned to stay way from.
And third, they remind me that the imagination is about envisioning what isn’t there or what might be and not simply a way to see “what is” in a different light. One persons’ realism, after all, is another person’s utopia.
As a teacher, I never know what my student’s will take away from my classes. Teaching literature itself can be as unpredictable as the art we examine. I do hope, however, that my students will think about the thorny issue of how “art follows life” and use that as a spur for action. To create the neighborhoods they want to live in rather than driving over the same damn potholes their grandparents cursed at.
Until Next Time….
Greetings From Chicago!
It’s hard to believe that August starts tomorrow. Summer is moving along fast. My summer has been both restful and productive this year. Reading for my book progresses nicely and I even managed to finish revisions on my First Year Writing course early. Now I can enjoy the weeks leading up to the Fall semester without stressing over the changes needed to my course schedule and writing assignments. This year I’m teaching four sections of Academic Writing I in the Fall and I decided to focus more consciously on the concept of genre. I’ve always felt that genre represents something of an unspoken contract between the reader and the writer. It generally gives you a sense of what you are about to read and (as a writer) it gives you some parameters to work within to make sure that what you are writing is properly understood. Beyond that, I’ll be using the class to focus on implicit versus explicit argumentation. The plan is sketched out. Now I just need to make sure it actually works for the students. I should have a greater sense of this by about week 4. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow I head off for my last trip of the summer. I’m flying north to Vermont to visit my family. It’s interesting to read about my home state in the books associated with my research. The Green Mountain State keeps coming up in discussions on the various attempts throughout US history to reform agriculture and improve human relations to the land. Apparently Vermont is not only imagined as some sort of vacationer’s paradise but also as an Agrarian Utopia. Having living in Vermont for nearly 21 years of my life, I can’t help but laugh. This isn’t really the Vermont I know. Author’s on the topic of agriculture and environmentalism seem obsessed with the eclogue. I lived the georgic. I was part of the labor mechanism that supported the outsider’s illusion. Oh well, it’s good for local business and there are worse ways to make a living. Like painting old dumpsters. (Yes, this is a job I have done. Don’t recommend it for people with weak stomachs.)
For this month’s post, I want to comment a bit on the relationship between history to literature. This topic seems especially important now that shows like The Man In the High Castle and Confederate are being produced. Generally speaking, I have no problem with counter-factual narratives. Some are quite entertaining. We shouldn’t hold fiction to the same standard as non-fiction. Engaging the imagination is the point, after all, of figurative language. Getting us to imagine a world of “what if’s.” History is a different story. It relies on narrative and imagination, just like literature, but it should be held to a more vigorous standard. History needs to show us what the world was actually like at a specific place and time (good, bad, utterly horrific). We should then be able to imagine as accurately as possible what people lived through during the time period examined. Perhaps a good way to sum up the distinction I see between history and literature is that history complicates and literature creates empathy.
Of course, there are exceptions to the little schema I’ve provided above. Many of the historians I enjoy reading create empathy with the characters in their non-fiction narratives. Ken Burns is a great example of this in a visual narrative medium. Also, there are plenty of good fiction writers who complicate our relationship to the fictional world they have created. Empathy in Gone Girl is a difficult enterprise. What worries me, however, is that the line between history and literature is starting to blur to an unhealthy degree. Even more worrisome, we don’t seem to be talking enough about this blurring. It’s like I tell my writing students, you have to know the rules of writing before you can break them. Otherwise it’s just a grammatical error and not a cutting edge technique. The same is true when mixing elements of history and fiction. You have to know (or want to know) the truth before you can start engaging in the act of imagination. Otherwise you end up with narratives that consciously or sub-consciously serve dangerous ends. You start to forget what is the fictional story and what was the real course of events. You also might start to not even care anymore about the distinction.
Others have written more eloquently than me on the problems of our “post-truth” era and its relationship to “fake news” and “reality TV.” So I’ll spare you my analysis of those trends. What I want to end this discussion with instead is a provocative juxtaposition of Mad Men with The Walking Dead. Neither of these, of course, are history. They are both Television shows. What they share, however, is a similar emotional starting point. Nostalgia. In Mad Men, this nostalgia is painfully obvious in the mid-century modern details of each frame. (Material nostalgia is rampant right now and deserves a good book.) Yet it is also ambiguous in its message. Are we supposed to mourn the loss of a world where straight white men ruled the world? Where smoking and drinking happened everywhere with impunity? Or are we supposed to look back at this episode of US history as a warning and take a moment to reflect on how far we have come and how far we have yet to go? With The Walking Dead, more subtle messages (at least for me) are hidden behind the gore. If you can set aside for a moment the fact that the living dead are killing and eating people, you start to see that the show both feels nostalgic (for a world before the crisis) and also points to that nostalgia as a source of crisis.
Will we choose the Zombie or the ash tray? And are they not the same thing? A reminder that obsession with the past can be unhealthy. That what is past is never truly past. Perhaps HBO can redeem itself by staging one of Faulkner’s works like Go Down, Moses instead of a stupid fictional docudrama imagining a world where the southern states won the Civil War. Or we can take a break from imagining the past or the future and look at our present. Beautiful, Scary, Confused, Ugly, and Poignant. I’d like to see that on the page and screen.
Here is where I end my post. I just have one more thing to add. A reminder that the deadline for NeMLA paper submissions is fast approaching (September 30). You can check out the various CFP’s here <https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp>. I have several sessions that I have proposed. You can see descriptions of them in my last NeMLA post (#19) along with links to the CFP for those sessions. Let me know if you have any questions about what I’m looking for. If you can possible afford to attend and see a session of interest, I would very much like to meet you in Pittsburg.
Until Next Time….