Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

how to read literature

How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

Summary: An introduction to the basics of understanding literature–symbols, themes, and contexts–that enrich our reading of literary fiction.

Have you ever read a literary work and had the feeling that there was so much more going on in the text than you were grasping? Or have you read a review of a book that you read, and felt that the reviewer saw much more in the text than you had? Have you felt that you describe the characters and summarize the plot, but wondered what all of it might signify (although sometimes a story is just a story, but not often in serious literature)? Or were you like me in literature courses where this was all brought up very seriously and pretentiously in ways that made you feel utterly stupid, or worse, where it was just assumed that you understood this stuff?

If you identified with any of these descriptions, I think you will welcome this book as a welcome aid to enrich your reading. For one thing, Foster engages us in an informal, offhand style that makes all the different literary devices he is discussing interesting and fun, and make you feel you are not as stupid as you thought. Here, for example is a passage from the chapter “Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)”:

“The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. That’s why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered. Forty-five-year-old men either have self-knowledge or they’re never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.”

Foster, who is the lit prof all of us wish we had, helps us to see that memory, symbol, and pattern are key to going beyond characters and plot. As we are reading, asking “where have I seen that before?” can be helpful to understanding what is going on. Shakespeare, the Bible, and Greek mythology are three common sources upon which writers consciously or subconsciously draw. One of the key things is that “there’s only one story” and that writers draw upon what they’ve read, a phenomenon known as “intertextuality.” Have you ever felt your books are talking with each other? They just may be.

Then there are symbols, and the challenge of interpreting them: rain and weather, trips that are quests, shared meals that in some way signify communion, going into and coming out of water (baptism), all the symbols that point to sex, and the other things that sex points to.

Then there are patterns, like the vampire pattern–the older person who sucks the life out of the younger, innocent, the hero pattern and how it is usually those next to the hero who die (like the crew in the red uniforms on Star Trek) or the pattern of the Christ figure. Then of course, there is irony which turns the patterns on their heads.

Foster walks us through all of these, with a variety of examples from literary works. I found his use of these works to illustrate various elements from symbol to irony piqued my curiosity to read works I have not read. After covering these elements, he invites us to put them into practice with an exquisite short story by Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden Party.”

The book concludes with the encouragement to read what we like while offering a reading list of works he has mentioned throughout the work as places to start. What I most appreciated was his encouragement in the previous chapter in his discussion on Roland Barthes “death of the author.” His point is that what we really have access to is the text and our opinion of it. He urges:

“Don’t cede control of your opinions to critics, teachers, famous writers, or know-it-all professors. Listen to them, but read confidently and assertively, and don’t be ashamed or apologetic about your reading. You and I both know you’re capable and intelligent, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Trust the text and trust your instincts. You’ll rarely go far wrong.”

Now doesn’t that make you want to read great literature?

Review: A Subversive Gospel

A Subversive Gospel

A Subversive Gospel (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Michael Mears Bruner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2017.

Summary: Proposes that the grotesque and violent character of Flannery O’Connor’s work reflects her understanding of the subversive character of the gospel and the challenge of awakening people in the Christ-haunted South to the beauty, goodness, and truth of the gospel.

A number of years ago our book group decided to read the collected works of Flannery O’Connor. It was a challenge. The stories involved everything from a stolen wooden leg to a rape to the murder of a whole family. The word “grotesque” is often used to describe her work. The question arises, why did this single Catholic woman, who lived on her parents’ farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, suffering and ultimately dying of lupus, write such strange stories?

Michael Mears Bruner explores this question in his contribution to the Studies in Theology and the Arts series.  His discussion focuses particularly around the novel The Violent Bear It Away (an allusion to Matthew 11:12 in the Douay-Rheims version) and a statement about the main character, Francis Tarwater, about whom O’Connor says:

“His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf.”

Bruner’s thesis is “that through the medium of her art, Flannery O’Connor showed her readers how following Christ is a commitment to follow in his shadow, which becomes a subversive act aesthetically (“bleeding”), ethically (“stinking”), and intellectually (“mad”).” Elsewhere, and repeatedly in the text, he refers to the “terrible beauty, violent goodness and foolish truth of God.” Bruner helps us realize that O’Connor writes in a Southern context that has been effectively innoculated against the Christian gospel–grown so comfortable with Christian language that it is impervious to the radical and startling claims of the Christian faith–the beauty of God’s love revealed in suffering, the goodness and righteousness of God revealed in the violent death of Jesus, and the foolishness of a message wiser than human wisdom. The grotesque and the violent in O’Connor’s stories startle us awake to realities to which we’ve grown too accustomed.

Bruner begins with tracing the development of O’Connor’s writing from the earlier to the later works which reflect a theological turn that he attributes to the influence of Baron von Hugel’s thought. He then looks at the moral and theological vision that shapes her work as a Roman Catholic in the fundamentalist south. He connects her dramatic vision with her subversive aesthetic and then goes deeper into how her work subverts the transcendentals of beauty, goodness, and truth. Finally he applies this approach to her last novel, The Violent Bear It Away. A brief conclusion is followed by a liturgical celebration of the Eucharist using O’Connor’s work.

The body of this work consists of dense literary analysis, and it is helpful to have recently read and have a copy of O’Connor’s work handy. In the process, Bruner joins O’Connor in challenging the nostrums and platitudes of Christian faith with the subversive character of O’Connor’s work. One example is this passage:

“Yet this hardly settles the matter regarding the notion that God might indeed be terrible, and so what do we do with this component of O’Connor’s fierce theology? She refuses to placate us with religious euphemisms and spiritual jargon, preferring instead to ‘shout’ and ‘draw large and startling figures” in our faces” (p. 154).

O’Connor wrote to disturb the comfortable, and Bruner demonstrates just how subversive she was in her story writing. He also helps us understand the theological turn in her writing and the influences other critics have noted briefly or not at all. He helps those of us disenchanted with enculturated, saccharine versions of Christianity who ask, “is that all there is?” to see that O’Conner writes out a more bracing vision, one we might even need to brace ourselves against. She defies all our conventions of beauty, goodness, and truth, Bruner argues, because that is what the gospel does. She bids us ask the dangerous question of whether this is in fact the gospel we’ve believed–as dangerous a question as a Flannery O’Connor story.

 

Review: The Personal Heresy

the personal heresy

The Personal HeresyC. S. Lewis, E. M. W. Tillyard. New York: Harper One, 2017 (originally published 1939).

Summary: A discussion of whether the personality of the author should enter into the criticism of a work of poetry.

In 1934 C. S. Lewis published an article in Essays and Studies to defend this assertion:

In this paper I shall maintain that when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, character, or a personality at all.

The article was written for anyone to take up. E. M. W. Tillyard published a response in the following year that led to two more rounds of responses between Lewis and Tillyard, resulting in this book in its present form.

In a nutshell, the controversy between the two men concerned whether, in poetry, we have access to the personality or mind of the poet in some degree (Tillyard) or whether poetry is about something in the world (Lewis). Lewis contends that in poetry, the poet is saying “look at that” and not “look at me.”

Tillyard proposes that in a poet’s work, we encounter a certain “fixed state of mind.” What makes the reading of and reflection upon poetry worthwhile is contact with particularly perceptive minds, and that in literary criticism, to attempt to discern the character of the poet’s mind, as well as what that mind perceives is a valuable part of the critic’s contribution to understanding a work.

What both strenuously object to is “poetolatry,” and particularly using the biography of the poet as some kind of critical shortcut to understanding a work of poetry, without doing the hard work of study and reflection upon the poem itself. The subsequent discussion then is a back and forth between Lewis, who thinks personality does not enter in any important way in the understanding of a poem, and Tillyard, who tries to find various arguments and approaches and examples to persuade Lewis, and the reader, otherwise.

It is of a piece with works like The Abolition of Man, in Lewis’s defense of the objective against the incursions of relativism and subjectivism. While I find myself in agreement with Lewis, and particularly with the slipperiness of assertions about an author’s personality, I also recognize that the style and perception of different writers does reflect something of their unique personalities. The problem, it seems is saying just what this is, and in this case, I think we are wiser to stick with Lewis’s approach, because the work, and what the poet has said in it about something is really all we have. Anything else seems largely a speculative venture, at least in my own critically untrained opinion!

One of the delights in reading this is to see two scholars sharpening each other’s thoughts in dialogue, while respecting the person with whom they are in disagreement. It also strikes me as characteristic of many academic dialogues I have observed–while ideas are sharpened and clarified, positions rarely change, at least within the frame of such a discussion. The ground of disagreement may diminish, the areas of common agreement are more clearly articulated, but usually some fundamental disagreement remains. Even if you do not understand all the terms of the argument, this is a glimpse of the academic world at its best, as these closing words of E. M. W. Tillyard suggest:

…Mr. Lewis is an admirable person to disagree with; and I incline to admire his arguments as much when they seem wrong as when they seem right. He is, indeed, the best kind of opponent, good to agree with when one can, and for an enemy as courteous as he is honest and uncompromising; the kind of opponent with whom I should gladly exchange armour after a parley, even if I cannot move my tent to the ground where his own is pitched.

Would that the university world, and our public discourse were marked more by this kind of spirit!

Review: The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Margaret R. Ellsberg ed., Foreword by Dana Gioia. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of the life and faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins through commentary and a selection of his poetry, letters, journal entries, and sermons.

The life of Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to me a life of startling contrasts. He writes wonderfully vibrant poetry using innovative rhythms–poems that often are celebration of the glory of God evident in the creation. At the same time, he is a devout Jesuit, whose submission to the order meant largely a life as priest and academic examiner in slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, London and Dublin. He died of typhoid contracted from antiquated plumbing. We follow the man who burnt his early poems when he converted to Catholicism and entered the Jesuits, whose life was shaped by the Exercises of St. Ignatius, whose passion was God’s glory, and the incarnation of Christ, revealed afresh in every Eucharist. We also see a man deeply torn between his artistic sensibilities and the physically and psychically crushing routines of most of his life as a Jesuit, to which he seemed ill-suited, that comes through in the anguished “Terrible Sonnets.”

Margaret Ellsberg weaves the narrative of Hopkins life and faith through a combination of commentary, and selections of poetry, letters, sermons, and journals throughout the course of his short life. Because there are only 49 of his poems extant, many of these are included in this selection, set in the context of his life. It is fascinating that Robert Bridges, who subsequently published his works, struggled to make sense of them and found at least one sufficiently difficult that (in Hopkins words) “you wd. not for any money read my poem again (“The Wreck of the Deutschland”). Ellsberg’s work gives us clues, sometimes from Hopkins himself, to the understanding of his poetry, and that is what makes this work most attractive, along with the selections of his poetry.

As much as I love Hopkins poetry (my favorite is “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”), the title of this work (part of a series sharing “The Gospel In…”) mystifies me in some ways because the gospel may have evoked praise and wonder with regard to God’s work in the world but mostly despair with regard to his own life. Wonder and devotion there is in great measure, but a sense of peace, of wholeness seems lacking. There is the dutiful fulfillment of assignments that seem poorly fitted to who he is, which makes one wonder why he chose the Jesuits and the priesthood. Compounding his struggle was physical weakness, and perhaps a melancholy character. But gospel also implies “good news”, hope for us in our fragile humanity. Only on his deathbed does he find some peace, as he whispers over and over, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy.”

Perhaps there is something of temperament in all of this, an artist not fully at home in his world, torn by the tension between “God’s Grandeur” and the ugliness of much of what he endured around him. One wonders if different choices or different assignments might have made a difference. Or was it something “unreconciled” in his “gospel” that seemed to result in a life of great devotion but little contentment or peace?

Yet we have this great poetry, much of it an effervescing abundance captured in the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Hopkins life remains an enigma to me, but I can thank his Maker and mine for the gift of his writing. I leave you with “God’s Grandeur”

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief

Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief
Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief by Roger Lundin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The very fact that I am writing these words and you are reading them suggests some kind of belief about the function of language. Exactly what that function is has been called into question by recent literary theory. At one time if I said I was writing about a book by Roger Lundin titled Beginning with the Word, you would think that my words had reference to the actual (or virtual) book. Recent literary theory has separated word and thing such that any use of words is simply representing what they signify in my mind, my own subjective experience, and not the actual book.

Certainly there is warrant for this idea. One of the daunting tasks of reviewing is to attempt to do justice to an author’s ideas, whatever one’s critique of them may be. Actually, this is something I felt I struggled with more than usual in reading this book, reading it twice, and even then, not being sure I am doing the author’s ideas justice.

What Lundin seems to be doing in engaging 19th and 20th century writers like Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner as well as theologians like Karl Barth, as well as literary theorists like Ricoeur and Gadamer is to explore the skepticism of belief in both modern literature and literary theory that arises from this separation of word and thing. In so doing he explores the desire to believe in the midst of such skepticism, the desire for a storied existence in a literary culture suspicious of any metanarrative. He considers the power of words to awaken awareness using Frederick Douglass’s autobiography of how reading gave him an awareness of his personhood and the desirability of freedom.

Lundin would propose that there is even yet ground for belief because of the Word who became Flesh, the One who incarnated a union (reunion?) between word and object. This is a central tenet of Barth’s theology and provides a basis for a belief in the transcendent, in the possibility of grace, and for being part of a story that makes sense and gives meaning to life.

The author positions himself not as one proposing an “absolute” argument as a modernist writer might, but rather speaks as a “witness” weaving together a theology of the Word, his own experience, and themes in literature (story, making sense of time, a longing for home, and dreams of justice and deliverance) to affirm that it is possible to make statements of belief that aren’t simply polite fictions, personal sentiments, or statements about what we know isn’t so, but rather affirmations of ultimate, life-giving realities rooted in the One who brings Word and Thing together.

I confess that I struggled to follow the train of the author’s thought at points, particularly where he delves into literary theory. The thematic approach reflects less a linear argument than coming at an idea from several perspectives. Yet I suspect that for some these elements along with the humble yet forthright “witness” that affirms while leaving room for others might in the end prove winsome and more persuasive than any absolute, linear argument. Certainly for any student in literary studies who wrestles with critical theory and questions of belief, this is an important resource.

[This review is based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. I have not been in any other way compensated for the review of this book.]

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Review: Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman

Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman
Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman by George Steiner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading George Steiner, I discovered that discussions about the future of the humanities, and their decline or demise are not limited to the present. This collection of essays, written between 1959 to 1967 give us a window into the conversation in Steiner’s generation, particularly concerning the place of literature, as well as the other arts, in our society.

Steiner contends that the thread that holds this collection together is the attempt to articulate a philosophy of language after the Holocaust and the totalitarian regime of Stalin. What is evident in reading these essays is the trauma of this period on literature, as words were twisted in ways that represented black as white, and where people could read Goethe and listen to Schubert and preside over the extermination of the Jewish people and consider it all in a day’s work.

The first group of essays in this book particularly explore this theme and whether in fact “Humane Literacy” can have a transformative effect for good. The essay on “To Civilize our Gentlemen” particularly explores this idea and the possibility of reading that fails, in the words of Kafka, “to wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull”. In this same collection, we see the despair of some artists and the lapse into wordless silence where words seem inadequate to the human condition. Equally, in “Night Words” Steiner explores the real problem with “high pornography” which is the utter banality of the writing.

In subsequent sections, he gathers essays under the titles of “Language out of Darkness”, “Classics” (which includes a fascinating essay on Homer and the differences between The Iliad and The Odyssey), “Masters”, “Fiction and the Present”, and “Marxism and Literature”. I found much of this heavier going not only because I don’t live in the world of literary criticism, and even less, am I aware of the critics, and many of the works that were being discussed in the early 60s.

Nevertheless, Steiner draws very fine portraits of critics like F.R. Leavis, and Georg Lukacs, and particularly the literature emerging out of Central Europe in the post-World War II, Stalinist purge era. We have his fresh take on the advent of the media age heralded by Marshall McLuhan and the shifting consciousness of moving from an age of print to an age of the image. Steiner seems dubious of McLuhan’s prophecies, yet it cannot be argued, I think, that in the years since Steiner wrote, we have indeed witnessed and are continuing to witness a media revolution that is continuing to shape and change our relationship to the word and verbal discourse.

Equally, Steiner draws fine portraits of other writers and their work. I think particularly of the essay on Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in her early 30s (“The Art of Dying”) and his essay on the life of Leon Trotsky, a tragic figure in Marxism. The puzzle for me was how all these fit his proposed theme, and yet the exploration of these figures was worthwhile.

Recommendations? I’m not sure I would recommend starting here in reading Steiner (even though I did!). Bettter places to start are his early works, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky and The Death of Tragedy or the works for which he is most known, In Bluebeard’s Castle (in which he explores anti-Semitism) and After Babel, where he devlves more deeply into language. This might be best for those acquainted with Steiner’s other work, and the literature of this period.

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