‘From a Time of Ambiguity’ (Fourth and Final Entry): ‘On Literature and Politics’

My name is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a Russian living in the nineteenth century on the verge of destitution, and I have just murdered a rotten old pawnbroker and her loving sister. My name is Othello, an African Moor, living in the predominately caucasian society of Venice, and I suspect my wife, Desdemona, of infidelity. My name is Odysseus, a Greek warrior who courageously fought in the great war against Troy, and after those ten years of warfare, in addition to ten years of anguish at sea, I have returned home to Ithaca at last. My name is Dante, an Italian invested in Florentine politics, and I have seen the rings of hell, and I descended with Virgil down to the freezing pit where Satan himself suffers. My name is Wormwood, and I am a demon luring a patient into sin with the help of my uncle, the arch-demon, Screwtape.

Dear Reader, I must apologize for the confusion that I have conjured up in your mind just now. You must trust me that such delusion was not constructed with ill intention. My real name is Joseph Lankford Jekel. I am a nineteen year old, white male, born on March 1, 1996. The reason for my seemingly schizophrenic identity does not come from a disorder of the mind, but rather a freedom that comes from experience. This experience is not my own. However, I have experienced these things. I am each of these people. You might ask, reader, “but how?” I tell you that literature is the method through which I have experienced these things. Through reading novels, plays, epic poems, and short stories such as Crime and Punishment, Othello, The Odyssey, Inferno, and The Screwtape Letters, I have been able to experience what others have experienced. Through the characters of Raskolnikov, Othello, Odysseus, Dante, and Wormwood, I have been able to escape myself, and move into the being of another. C.S. Lewis says that we read literature for the following reason:

We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and selectiveness peculiar to himself… But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I’ve got out.” Or from another point of view, “I’ve got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.[1]

Reader, I merely say all of these things to you to explain how much literature means to me. And by showing you the importance of literature, show you how much devastation comes with what I am about to tell you.

There is a problem in the reading of literature in our universities. This problem may seem trivial to some, but as I have said, this is a matter of utmost importance to me, not to mention the countless others who enjoy literature as much as I do. Not only are English departments affected by this problem, but most, if not all, of the humanities are plagued by it. John M. Ellis, a writer and critic, describes the problem as follows:

The most striking thing about the new prescription for the study of literature is how very specific it is. Traditionally, literature has been considered to have an educational social function, through one conceived in general terms: it has been thought to develop a richer understanding of human life and to train the mind. But critics who have determined views about what is wrong with our society—namely, its oppressiveness with regard to race, gender, and class—believe that readers should be concerned with those three aspects of society above all others. They are convinced that their triad of issues is fundamental and that anything else is superficial.[2]

As Ellis says, there is a recent focus on race, gender, and class, as well as oppression in general within the discipline of literature. Politics have always played a role in literature, but it is not always the most prominent topic within a literary work. The fact that these critics and professors are pushing for more and more coursework rooted in race, class, and gender shows a narrowing of our vision of literature.

Before I continue, reader, and before you even consider me a racist, sexist, or elitist, please offer me a chance. Think with me for a moment. Let’s say I am reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brönte, a novel about a young orphan girl who grew up under the control of her spiteful aunt. Then, Jane was put into an all-girls disciplinary school, where physical punishment was all too common. The story narrates her journey through life, finding love with Mr. Rochester, the owner of Thornfield Hall, where she became a tutor to a young girl. In reading this novel, gender would be at the forefront of discussion.

Now let’s imagine that I am reading Othello, a play by the almighty playwright and poet, William Shakespeare. In this play, Shakespeare tells of a high statesman, Othello, an African Moor living in an almost exclusively white, Venetian society. He marries the lovely, and Caucasian, Desdemona. However, after leaving Venice, the horrid Iago tricks Othello to believe that the faithful Desdemona has cheated on him. Iago’s poisonous words give rise to “the green one-eyed monster” of envy, which grows ever the more from Othello’s personal insecurities regarding his race and religion. If I were reading this play, race would be at the forefront of topics to be discussed.

Finally, let us assume that I am reading Inferno, the first of three parts of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Dante moves through the nine rings of hell with the great epic poet, Virgil, leading him. His dead love, Beatrice, called Dante into this quest to see Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, with the permission of the Lord Almighty. This specific part of the comedy narrates his own navigation through the abyss of hell. There are references to Florentine politics and class in every canto of the poem. So, given that I were reading this epic poem, class and politics would be main topics discussed.

Thank you for following me through the plots of some of the most renowned works of literature. I merely meant to show you, reader, that there is a clear place for race, class, and gender in literature. This place is neither hidden nor outrageously prominent. Oppression is in literature just as any other theme: love, morality, death, grief, redemption, etc… depending on the work at hand. However, oppression is so emphasized in literature now that it has begun to wrap its hands around the throats of English departments, suffocating them to only speak on these topics. Ellis speaks on this saying, “the justifiable statement that everything has a political dimension does not imply the quite different and wholly false statement that politics is the deepest and most important consideration in every situation.”[3] So just because all, or almost all, of literature has an element of oppression, gender, race, or class doesn’t mean that those topics are the most prominent to talk about. And as I have shown earlier, sometimes they are the most prominent. But why make them the most important every time we read any book, when that simply isn’t the case in every piece of literatue?

I see where race and gender come into literature, I just don’t want them to destroy that which I love. Let me help by explaining exactly why this is so wrong. You may be tired of my quotations and references. Let me just clue you in that I am not an expert. I am merely a teenager. Therefore, I seek help from people who have devoted their lives to literature to assist me in speaking on something that I have been invested in for only a year. Phillip Cary describes the distinction between reading from literature (exegesis) and reading into literature (eisegesis) in this passage:

Let us mention in passing that when I teach my course on great books, “getting something out of it” is a phrase I use to describe how to do a bad job of reading. Instead of getting into the book, you try to get something out of it. It’s as if what you read is supposed to leave no mark on you; you just grab what you want and take it away. You don’t let the story or drama or poem get into you and shape your heart… Instead, you treat the book as something like a store where you go shopping, and you try to figure out which items you want to take from the shelf and bring home with you.[4]

Instead of letting the work impact us ourselves, people try to impact the work itself. They use literature rather than allowing it to make a mark on them, to transform them. The race-gender-class scholars, as Ellis calls them, read into literature, only reading in order to obtain their own political agendas out of the book. This seems adulterated to me. I want a piece of literature to change me, to shape me as a human being; I want to read from literature.

This gets me to my next point of discussion. I have invested much time to show what I love and to reveal what is going wrong with how people approach it. I have interviewed professors at my current university in order to see what they had to say on the topic. At a public university where race-class-gender scholarship is the norm, this was a suicide mission; I was jumping into the middle of the ocean with an open wound, blood calling all the sharks to come and attack me for not being “diverse enough.” I interviewed five professors, and I will be talking about three of them, using pseudonyms in order to keep the names confidential. I also quote them, not verbatim, but close to it, given that I took notes of what they said, rather than recording the conversation. The two I exclude just didn’t really say anything different from one or two of the three professors I am including.

One day I went to Dr. Stevenson. I started by introducing myself, and informing her of what I am interested in, and why I was there. I then proceeded to ask my first question; “What classes do you teach?” Dr. Stevenson teaches ‘Introduction to Gender Studies,’ Studies in Popular Culture,’ and ‘Science Fiction.’ I then asked her the question that I must ask anyone interested in literature: “Why literature.” She said something along the lines of “Literature is the expression of everything that is human.” She was drawing on the fact that literature makes us more human, which I actually agree with in part: I would add to what she said. I then asked her to talk about Race-Class-Gender Politics in English. She reacted hastily, somewhat explaining away the focus on politics, saying that politics have always been in literature (which is true, but there is an overly emphatic focus on the political aspect in all literature now). So, I attempted to clarify (perhaps not so successfully) and asked her why people are starting to read into literature and she responded with “Why do we read literature other than to read into it?” Dr. Stevenson may have misunderstood me, and had something else in mind. She very possibly meant something completely unrelated to what I was inferring, that she reads eisegetically. The situation was getting to a point of conversational tension, so I proceeded to wrap up the interview. However, if she meant what I have previously discussed, then I disagree with her eisegetical reading. We cannot read our own political agendas into a piece of literature. Again, she quite probably did not mean to encourage the practice of eisegesis when she said this. However, it is still a problem elsewhere despite whether she herself encourages it.

Another interview, in which I asked the same, if not extremely similar, questions, occurred that same week. I met with Dr. Pepita, a cross-professor in the English Department and the Latin Studies Department. She teaches ‘Modern American Literature,’ Latin American Literature,’ ‘World Literatue,’ and ‘U.S. Latino Literature.’ What struck me most about this interview was her response to the “Why Literature Question:” “[Literature] gets at the heart of experiences that cannot be quantified. It provides a way to connect different question of class, oppression, and racism.” Now this isn’t so striking to most people, but she seemed to say that race and class are the reason for literature. I see that those topics come into play, but is oppression the reason we read literature? C.S. Lewis, and myself, would say differently. She probably doesn’t think that oppression is the reason to read literature. However, her answer did scare me and it does show that race, class, and gender are at the front of her mind. There are professors out there who do think that literature is solely for the use of attacking oppression.

I met with one professor that I deeply appreciated and agreed with. I appreciated all of the professors for meeting with me, and our meetings were civil, and even extremely natural with kind conversation. I just didn’t agree with any of them except for Dr. Voltaire. He teaches ‘Introduction to Shakespeare,’ Introduction to Literature,’ and occasionally the following classes: ‘The Lyric in English’ (teaching Donne, Yeats, Milton, T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Whitman, and Frost), ‘Renaissance Drama,’ and ‘English Literature from Beginning to 1700.’ He responded to the literature question by saying, “[Literature] gives us an insight for who we are as people. It is all about language. It shows us how to be people. However, some of my contemporaries might answer this question with political answers.” This man knew what he was talking about.

Dr. Voltaire reveals something about me, reader. As you may have inferred, I typically adhere to the Western Canon of Literature. These new oppression scholars usually rebel against the traditional list of books that are read because those works of literature supposedly come from alleged racists, sexists, or elitists. They dislike the stigma that comes with the Western Canon: the old, white, rich male. The question is whether this stigma accurately represents the Canon. In what I have seen, it does not. Ellis says that the “reality is quite different: the literary canon is the result of the activities of all kinds of writers, many of them loners and oddballs who irritated their ruling classes. Far form being willing propagandists for the social order, they were often viewed in their own times as dangerous subversives.”[5] Not only this, but the Western canon does not consist of only white males.

First, there are many female writers, some of which trump most of the male writers. These include Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brönte, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Conner, and more. Then there are African American Writers like Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr. and more. Then there are Latin writers such as Cervantes, who wrote maybe one of the most read novels of all time, Don Quixote. There are also a few homosexual, or thought-to-be homosexual, writers in the canon. These writers include Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, E.M. Forster and possibly more. There are, of course, plenty of white, male authors in the Canon, but that can be attributed to the way things used to be, where white males were the only people who could contribute. Now, women, African Americans, and all people have the chance to write. Naturally, the Canon will develop in this area as time progresses.

In addition to all of this, all the authors in Canon are in the canon for a reason. They are the greatest writers, and they have allowed uncountable amounts of people to experience something outside of themselves. These writers have stood the test of time, not just because of the color of their skin, or the position they held in politics. Just as I ought not reject an author because he or she is of a certain gender, sexual orientation, race, or socioeconomic class, so should we not read an author solely on the fact that they are of a certain gender, sexual orientation, race, or socioeconomic class. We ought to read authors because of their writing, both style and narrative, both imagery and language, and their ability to help us get out of ourselves into some other being, not because they are the correct ethnicity or have the desired sexual organs.

I want to reinforce the whole idea of reading from verses into literature with an anecdote form C.S. Lewis’ Preface to Paradise Lost:

If we stripped the armor off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honor, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate… Instead of stripping the knight of his armor you can try to put his armor on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honor, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C. S. Lewis in Lucretius… For the truth is that when you have stripped-off what the human heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being.[6]

I would rather know what it feels like to be Raskolnikov, Othello, Odysseus, Dante, and Wormwood, than strip them of their beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors to form them into an image of myself.

            There is a solution in the reading of literature in our universities. The ‘affirmative action’ type of reading and curricula formation needs to stop. We ought not create classes and read literature about ‘indigenous poetry’ or ‘women writers’ just because they are indigenous or female, respectively. In doing so, one is insulting those writers; they are essentially saying that these writers are great for indigenous writers or for women writers. These writers are denied there undeniable, untainted greatness. Great women writers, like Jane Austen, will be read outside of gender literature classes. Great latino writers, like Cervantes, will be read outside of latino classes. Great African American writers, like Langston Hughes, will be read outside of African American literature classes. Great homosexual writers, like E.M. Forster, will be read outside of homosexual literature classes. This is so, because all of these writers are great writers, not because they are women or men, Latino or African American or white, or homosexual or straight. They will be read for their ability to get us, the readers, outside of ourselves and into the being of another.

Reader, I merely bother you with these things that may seem completely irrelevant to your life because literature is what I love. And what I love is being attacked and distorted in ways that I wish I didn’t have to describe. I would only hope that I would listen to you, reader, about what you love, and about the truths that you tell me. I hope you can see from my perspective, and try and walk in my shoes, as I have done in the situations of many literary characters.

____________________________            

[1] Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge, England: University Press, 1961. 137-138

[2] Ellis, John M. Literature Lost Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1997. 33.

[3]Ellis, John M. Literature Lost Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1997. 137

[4] Cary, Phillip. Good News for Anxious Christians: Ten Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2010. 167-168

[5]Ellis, John M. Literature Lost Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. New Haven, Conntecticut: Yale University Press, 1997. 52

[6] Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. Dheli, India: Atlantic Publishers & Distributers, 2012. 61

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