The Teacher Explains Why We Begin the Way We Begin

This unit is about establishing the mindset I’ll be expecting you to apply to the work you do all year long in this class. It is predicated on the idea that literature is by nature dialogical, that is, that every piece of literature you read picks up on an existing conversation about something essential to our understanding of ourselves, and once it makes its place in the conversation of what it means to be human, serves as a point of reference for the next generation of writers.

As 21st century humans, you might be laboring under the fallacy that human progress is linear, that we are supposed to be one step more advanced than the generation that preceded us. If this notion is true to you, then you are confusing technology with humanity. There is no question that technology progresses and progresses. The weaponized drone is a technology light years beyond a spear or an arrow, and military aircraft transport a much more efficient means of moving troops than Hannibal’s elephants. But we still fight wars over trade or cultural conflicts. Athenian direct democracy might have led to the improvements that were Rome’s Assemblies and Senate, but the questions of citizenship and governance – and what organizing system can result in the most just and most functional society – are incredibly similar to the questions Americans are asking themselves in this election cycle (or, at least, the Americans who approach electing their leaders rationally; see Act 1, Scene 1 of Julius Caesar for a glimpse into the way Shakespeare presented a Roman view of the masses – “you blocks, you stones, you less than senseless things!” – and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for a 20th century writer’s Shakespeare-infused view on a future that is not yet here.)

Closer to home, we remain plagued by questions of identity; what it means to be free; whether or not our choices matter; if realities exist beyond our perception. Brilliant minds have probed these problems, and the works that have endured have offered us ways of thinking about the questions, but they’ve never provided answers that would make us stop asking the questions. This is because every generation has a different set of details, has different contexts, in which those same questions take on new meanings.

Treating literature as a means to thought (as opposed to a means to knowledge) requires some humility on your part. It asks you to be comfortable not knowing answers, not wishing for the ego trip that goes along with declaiming on the “meaning” of a work of literature. It requires you to be comfortable with the responsibility of knowing that only you can make meaning, and that being able to say, “Book Title X means blah blah” is a means of showing not only ignorance, but also fear of thinking for yourself, and that you’re much better served by reaching a point where you can say, “Book Title X made me think about blah,” and then having an open-minded discussion about the details that provoked your thinking.

So how will the readings of our first unit move you toward these understandings? Here’s a preview:

First, a helpful hint: when I say dialogue, you are likely to think about the words authors put inside quotation marks when characters talk to one another. Technically speaking, I’m talking about a dialectical in literature, but by using the word dialogue, I am hoping that the literature speaks to you, and that you respond to it, and it responds to your response by giving you a slightly clearer understanding of what it is saying to you. I also believe that you will see that the authors we read are responding to things that were said before, and that they are hoping to move the conversation along.

The kind of dialogue that might be your mental dictionary’s default – characters speaking to one another – is essential to our purpose, but only when you can recognize the moments when authors use a conversation or argument between characters for an expository purpose. When you can recognize exposition in character dialogue, you will spot those moments when an author is themselves (technically incorrect, but I’m trying to get beyond the binary, know what I’m sayin?) probing a “necessary question” of the text. The quoted words are Shakespeare’s, not mine – while he probably didn’t see himself in dialogue with me, I fancy myself in dialogue with him.

So let me get to the point of discussing how the readings fit the purpose. I’ll do it in dialogue, just because #form&function is how I roll.

What’s dialogical about “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World?”

This story, believe it or don’t, is the first most important thing you’ll read this year. If you do your whole reality-testing American thing with it, you’ll miss the point, which is carried instead in the possibilities of imagination and language in Marquez’s story. This is a story about the power of story, nay, about the fact that we have no way of knowing who or what we can be unless we can find our story. If imagination is the interaction between what’s inside our kooky brains and what we know other people see each day; and a storyteller’s language choices are based on what he knows will put a silent (awesome!) in a reader’s soul, then you will all the subtle things that give flavor to the dialogue between what Marquez imagines and what we can perceive as possible.


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