Discovering Your Dialogue With Literature

This is NOT what I mean by "dialoguing with a text."

This is NOT what I mean by “dialoguing with a text.”

You will hear me use the word “dialogue” once or twice this year, as we start the course with a unit about your dialogue with literature, move into units where we witness the dialogue that one work of literature has with another, and within those works of literature, talk about the way that authors use dialogue to examine big ideas through the lenses they’ve given to their characters.

On top of that, I will ask you to write dialogues with imaginary people (or people as you imagine them) and even with inanimate objects. You may at some point wonder, “What’s up with this guy and those dialogues?” Well, I’ll tell you. (Tricky, aren’t I?)

Most students enter this class believing that the goal in literary analysis is to decipher all the riddles in a text, or those offered by the teacher, in order to figure out the author’s “message.” They imagine that all the pages of a novel ultimately funnel into a single statement of meaning, and that a poem is a decorative way of saying something pithy, like “Seize the day!” In this model of the relationship between writer and reader, the writer is a self-appointed bearer of wisdom standing with a megaphone in a kind of featureless place that exists only in dreams, and you are forced to listen to the torrent of words until she finally gets to her “point.”

But authors are typically people with active, not static minds. They tend to strive to understand ideas, to understand why people act as they do, not to explain an idea or define a type. They want, as artists, to take language and images to places they haven’t been before, and in going to those undiscovered places, they will necessarily discover a new way of thinking or seeing. They are more interested in complexities and ambiguities than in characters or plots that are simple or facile.

One of my goals for this class is that you will think of literature as the act of human communication, that you will understand that another thoughtful, passionate human being was trying to grapple with important ideas through the art of writing, and was hoping that you might consider the work as an offering that you could use to understand something about your life and time (“I place my hope on the water in this little boat of the language…”), in addition to hearing what he had to say about his life and time.

Thousands of years ago, Plato wrote his philosophy in the form of dialogues, perhaps, as you’ll read when we get to Borges, as a means of reconnecting with his mentor, Socrates, whose method of questioning remains an essential part of Western education. Questioning was, and still is, a means of cutting through assumptions and weak logic in order to get closer to the truth. By challenging the premises that support our beliefs, we strengthen our convictions and get closer to our own truths. By thinking about the ideas presented to us in books and poems, considering those ideas in the light of other texts we’ve read, in the light of our lived and observed experiences, we can use literature to make meaning of our lives. Without a sense of dialogue, the best you can do is “know” what someone else told you to think about a book.

I will be pleading with you this year to empower yourself to enter challenging, iconic texts as a peer in the ongoing conversation of life (there’s no not-cheesy way of saying it), instead of considering yourself an unworthy acolyte whose only hope is to remember what the teacher told you to think. Value the experiences you’ve had, the beliefs you bring into the classroom, and temper any certainty about your truth with the humility that knows you’ll be wiser than you are now two years from now, and wiser still five years after that. If you play your cards right, you’ll get to feel that there remains much to be discovered even reach (gulp!) my age.

These first couple of weeks of school, my choices for your reading will reflect these layers of dialogue. You’ll read a lecture from Virginia Woolf in which she dialogues with the female writers who had preceded her in their struggles to create works of genius. You’ll read an excerpt from Steinbeck’s East of Eden (allusion is a form of dialogue) in which two characters have a conversation about the various translations of a passage from Genesis. You may read a chapter of Moby Dick in which Father Mapple delivers a sermon about Jonah and the whale, and its meaning in 19th century Nantucket, and you may have read the book last year about the story that inspired Melville to that novel, or the chapter from The Brothers Karamazov in which the Grand Inquisitor puts Jesus to the test of whether or not he is a true Christian.

Gender politics and religion – what safer ground on which to build the foundation for a lifelong dialogue with literature?