What’s Dialogical About These Texts?

Here is a little overview of the pieces you might or must read, along with a little snippet of my purpose for giving you these choices.

What’s dialogical about East of Eden?

Most blatantly, the title, which is an allusion to a location first named in Genesis (the book, not the band). And when you spot allusion in any text, you see a way in which the words or images of one artist found their way deep inside another artist. East of Eden is where Cain was exiled after he killed his brother in a fit of jealousy about God’s favor, and where Milton sent Adam and Eve after they ate that apple. The core of the excerpt I’m asking you to read involves different interpretations of 16 lines from the book of Genesis, and is presented to you in the form of character dialogue between Samuel and Lee. Personally, I think the whole thing is pretty darn inspiring, and the reason you’re reading it is because of a dialogue about books I was having with a dude named Bo McGinnis a few years after he graduated from this place.

If you read it with a sense of the humility of everyone involved (you can’t have characters as humble and thoughtful as Sam and Lee unless the author who imagined them has the humility to be curious instead of knowing), you’ll see the desire to figure out the nature of our freedom, the quest for justice that makes all this earthly struggle worth the effort.

Melville? Dostoevsky? Can’t we just read Rowling?

I get it. You’re scared, you feel unworthy, just like Jonah, just like the Grand Inquisitor. Well, you only have to choose one of these texts, not all three. The most challenging of them is definitely “The Grand Inquisitor.” Before you do any writing or podcasting related to its role in a dialogue with literature, I’ll ask you to just try to understand what it is literally saying, as the point of the conversation between the Inquisitor and Jesus is probably not the kind of stuff you talk about at the lunch table.

If you choose to read “The Sermon,” from Moby Dick, and the Book of Jonah, you will see an obvious dialogue between a book of the Bible and Melville’s whaling tale. In the novel, this speech sets up the journey that the narrator is about to take, and is couched in the profession whose work Melville chronicles in the novel. It would have been pretty hard to grow up in puritanical New England in the 19th century without having the story of Jonah and the importance of whaling somewhere in your mind. So what does the interaction between the Book of Jonah tell you about a chronic human question?

If you choose to read the section from Crime and Punishment, you’re the more politically minded type. For the sake of context, Raskolnikov has done a bad, bad thing, committing a murder just to see if he could do it, and then trying to rationalize to himself the murder he committed. At this key moment in the book, Razumikhin is having a conversation with Porfiry Petrovich, the detective that inspired the character of Goren on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” Razumikhin’s ravings about the ideas of the utopian socialists are Dostoevsky’s way of dialoguing with the philosophies of the nineteenth century; when Porfiry and Raskolnikov start to discuss in more detail Raskolnikov’s article, Dostoevsky is operating on two planes: one in which his character is being drawn to a moment of personal crisis, and another in which the very concept of creating a new law is being considered through connections that span history and place.

Similarly, “The Grand Inquisitor” works on two planes. Most dominant is the expository plane in which the concept of freedom, and the way Jesus’s choices in his confrontation with the Devil shaped the history of the world, is explored. This story is a “poem” dreamed up by the character Ivan Karamazov, and in this chapter he is telling it to the novel’s hero, his brother Alyosha. Ivan is in a moment of deep personal crisis, where he can’t find a reason to believe in a God who would allow people to suffer the way they so often do, and his brother is a novice monk, filled with the capacity to bear others’ suffering in his service to God. At the end, you probably won’t see a certain shift in Ivan’s mind as he registers his beloved brother’s reaction to his story, but he changes the ending because he doesn’t want to disappoint Alyosha, or maybe because he wants desperately to believe in the God who hurts him so much. Either way, his revised ending, in which the kiss glows in the Cardinal’s heart, is clearly a change of mind, and defies any sense of certainty or resolution about what Ivan “really thinks” (especially because there’s more than 500 pages of novel left remaining for Ivan to not figure his stuff out).

How do the non-fiction texts contribute to this concept of a dialogue?

First, let me tackle “The Riddle of Poetry,” one of the series of lectures given by Jorge Luis Borges in his Harvard lecture series titled, This Craft of Verse. This is the piece that addresses the presence of literary dialogue most directly, and the inquiring tone, dripping with Borges’ humility, demonstrates the intellectual rigor associated with inquiry. There is much to admire and much to inspire in Borges’ lecture, whose principles are not limited to poetry, at least as far as you conceive it to take the form of lines and rhymes. For this piece, I’ll ask you to select one passage that resonates with you, either because it says something new that you want to believe, or it reinforces something you’ve always felt to be true, and I’ll ask you to write or record your thinking about that passage.

The second lecture, chapter 4 from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is a bit more challenging, as it addresses things typically unseen, voices missing from this literary dialogue of which I speak. It is the one piece you’ll read that asks you to question the authority of the literature you read, by pointing out the groups that have been excluded from a seat at the dialoguing table. Woolf points out eh way that the power hierarchy in society has denied women a role equal to men in the dialogue that is literature. Essentially, the “big ideas” that have run through millennia of literary output have been the big concerns of men who occupied a position that allowed their work to find an audience. As you read Woolf’s lesson about centuries of British literature, you may be able to extrapolate her argument to the voices of African-Americans, Latinos, non-heterosexual or gender-conforming people in the discussion of world and American literature.

At the end of all this reading, I’ll ask you to write a reflective piece that synthesizes the different readings with your own understanding of what literature should be and do as a way of demonstrating your grasp of this concept of dialogue, which is so essential to everything you’ll do in this class this year (have I said that enough?).

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