5.10.2009

Mind & Heart

This would probably have worked better as a personal-message on Facebook or a comment or whatever, but since I intend this blog to be a record of what I'm thinking, I'm going to do a second (or third?) follow-up to my post about defending the study of literature.

My friend Wrangler--who might by now consider himself my adversary--brought the conversation to a very fine point in the comments section two posts ago. He wrote,

But to claim that I have not had this "experience" of which you speak is offensive, elitist, and exactly the kind of egoist orientation toward others (as unresponsive texts awaiting the light of your intelligence) that forces me to resist Literary Study in the first place. Check that--that lead me to transfer out of a PhD program in literature to a program in rhetoric.
Wrangler makes two important points: 1) I shouldn't be so presumptuous to claim that he has not had the literary experience. 2) Literature is defined as "unresponsive texts awaiting the light of your intelligence."

To make quick, conciliatory work of point #1: I assumed Wrangler hadn't had the experience I am trying to describe because he has told me on numerous occasions that he doesn't believe in that kind of experience. In my most recent post, I called it "enlightenment," "gnosis," "escape-from-dialectic," etc. I'd like for Wrangler to weigh in on that point, and to let me know if he has had a moment like that, but that is a minor point in my judgment compared to point #2...

#2: Wrangler gave up on literary study because it did not seem worth his while to study "unresponsive texts awaiting the light of [his] intelligence."

That would make sense to me if literary texts were like ongoing conversations in a parlor. But what I have learned is that literary texts can be like a dear friend who has just found out on the phone, in front of you, that their father has died... and you as the reader are like a person whose parents are both still living.

Those of us in the field of literature who are trying to emphasize this distinction may be called "experientialists" (if the term doesn't bother): scholars like Sacvan Bercovitch, who prefaced his 1993 book The Rites of Assent with a personal narrative about his Jewishness, his Brooklyn-ness, his 1950's-ness, and tried to explain why these texts "felt" the way they did to him... and like James Phelan, whose 2007 book Experiencing Fiction moves still further from the rhetorical situation that Wrangler describes. In this new kind of literary study, analysis and explanation are devalued while something else is privileged.

What is this something else? Well, if you assume that your "job" during/after reading a novel is to "respond analytically," either in writing or in conversation... you may assume more than is necessary. It may be only & precisely your job to listen.

This is a different take on ethics. It is an alternative to the Levinasian, yes -- but I think it is no less formidable. Where Levinas asks his ethical beings to "respond" to the "face" of the "other," Experientialists (that term has a nice ring, ey?) see the response as something that happens after the ethical moment. The ethical moment takes place in the "other's" narration of experience -- e.g., when they tell you that they just found out their father died. Reading literary texts is the perfect kind of practice for these unspeakable moments precisely because they force us to become allow us the opportunity to become quiet and attentive. And that, in my view, is ethical behavior.

Of course, many a reader will persist in "responding" to the literary texts they read by jamming marginal comments in, writing notes to themselves, underlining, composing essays, publishing books, etc. But I see all of that kind of activity as akin to whipping out a tape recorder after "My father just died--" and asking, "Do you mind if I record this?--I'm working on a book about death and mourning and I could so use this."

Analysis vs. Experience. Mind vs. "Heart."

I absolutely anticipate that my three or two readers will have "had enough of all this" by now. In case not, I recommend two compelling podcasts on the topic:

1. "The Heart Doctrine," from Gnostic Radio (skip the "donate here" button)
2. "The Zen Tree Fort in the Sky," from Buddhist Geeks Podcast

Number two is probably more engaging. Number one is probably a better "argument."

CHALLENGE: In my humble and limited imagination, the arts--music, poetry, etc.--offer much more in the way of "Heart" than the coarser disciplines (Corporate Finance, Management... Linguistics, and... Rhetoric?). But prove me wrong: I'd love to read a blog-post titled "The Heart of Rhetoric," so that I may understand how that discipline engages human emotion and sentiment.

N.B. -- I'm not saying that analytical thinking is always wrong and "Heart" stuff is always right. But I do believe American academic culture to have gone too far, even within its context, in the direction of Head, while neglecting the Heart.

3 comments:

EnthyAlias said...

You say:

"Of course, many a reader will persist in 'responding' to the literary texts they read by jamming marginal comments in, writing notes to themselves, underlining, composing essays, publishing books, etc."

I would add: by teaching literature to others as a means of forcing the "experiential" onto them. You teach from your head as much as your heart, right? Or do all of your students just meditate for credit?

After all, what do we do with the experience? Again, as I noted in my other comment on the previous post, you are focusing solely on the individual and ignoring the role of the social in 1) how we can even have these experiences (thanks to editors, publishers, and, yes, head-oriented universities) and 2) more importantly, how the original authors of those experiences were able to (or wanted to share them.

Literature is not a religious experience. It's an Art. As is Rhetoric - which does have a heart, though I won't get into that here.

Casey said...

I will forfeit the argument about literature's role in the university... I find myself outmatched. When it comes to "forcing," it seems all the other disciplines are in position, and Literature looks to be on the receiving end.

Nevertheless, until someone stops me (the mad professor, indeed) from considering and experiencing literature as my religion, and from effectively playing the role of "minister" or "priest" in the classroom, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. Needless to say, I believe there is a profound difference between exposing a young person to an idea--religious or otherwise--and forcing it upon them. I walk that line carefully.

Anyway, it's clear that Literature is not a religious experience for you. But just like the stubborn fundamentalist who practices despite the atheist's most refined rhetoric... I'm getting on with it.

Here's how Barbara Packer described my religion in her 2007 book, The Transcendentalists:

"To New Englanders, who had scarcely outgrown their Federalist assumptions that a literary man was either a member of the clergy or a lawyer who dabbled in poetry and aimed to win converts to virtue by fictions in which virtue is pleasingly arrayed, such ideas were electrifying. Carlyle was proposing an alternative vocation, a vocation new to America. The literary man need adopt no particular profession; he need produce no poems or plays or essays. The literary life, if sincerely lived, would serve as well as literary works themselves to shadow forth the Divine Idea to the residents of this time and place" (34).

Monica said...

"Reading literary texts is the perfect kind of practice for these unspeakable moments precisely because they force us to become allow us the opportunity to become quiet and attentive. And that, in my view, is ethical behavior." Nice, Casey.