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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004) ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004)
ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
Introducing the Theme
What is Literature?
To give it to you briefly: one way to define literature is to say that it is "verbal art." That distinguishes it from all other forms of writing. It's not journalism, for instance, nor is it research. It's not an opinion piece, a commentary or an editorial. It's not a grocery list, or a letter, though you can imagine it pretending to be any of these things. But literature has its own distinct purpose for language, it's own raison d'être.
Literature is the kind of writing that creates works of beauty using language. I like this definition, myself, and I often come back to it. The OED, for instance, takes this approach, defining literature as "writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect." Notice how it adds the idea of "emotional effect," however. You can't understand art unless you take its effect on an audience (in our case, the reader) into consideration. Literature is that form of writing intended to produce emotional effects. This definition is nice, but it does have its limitations. For instance, propaganda and advertising are also forms of writing intended to produce emotional effects, and they can be raised to the level of art, achieving beauty of form, but we don't want to call them literature. I, for one, want to be emphatic that literature is NOT propaganda. So, not to quarrel with the OED, which is a lot smarter than me, but sometimes you have to keep probing beyond strict dictionary definitions. I probably wouldn't stop there.
You could say that
literature is the kind of writing which creates an imaginary world similar to
or alternative to our actual world. "Imaginary" would be the essential
ingredient here. You have to imagine a world that is believable or "realistic"
or one that's a fascinating enough alternative so we'll have some reason to
be compelled to pay attention to it. In this case, we are recognizing that all
literature is, in the broad sense, an "imaginary world." But as the
unifying topic for our class, we mean something a little more specific.
How can we move from general definitions toward a better understanding of our specialized theme of "Imaginary Worlds"? What defines an imaginary world?
An imaginary world is one that is fictional. It's a world that presents an alternative reality to the ordinary world we're familiar with. A world where things can happen that don't happen in our "real" world. An imaginary world is a world that's not strictly realistic. It's out of the bounds of "ordinary" reality, ordinary possibility. There's an element of "impossibility," as one of your classmates suggested today. In the very first line of Franz Kafka's wierd story, "The Metamorphosis," the main character Gregor Samsa has turned into a giant man-sized cockroach: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." That is very obviously out of bounds. Even though everything else in the story is entirely realistic and believable, this one magical element creates an "imaginary world" that is game for our purposes.
Why build a course on this theme? Well, we had to pick some kind of theme. Obviously, the possibilities are endless, which is what makes this a fun course to put together. My hope in selecting this approach is that it will build to some kind of strange experience, that stringing imaginary worlds together one after the other has the potential to produce some interesting effects. I have no idea what these will be, but I'm curious, I'm eager to find out. Because the literature is so powerful (apart from its context in the "Imaginary Worlds" theme), some interesting ideas are bound to arise. I anticipate some serious academic fun, for myself at least, and hopefully for you, too. Every few days or so we'll get to expand our reality, escape gravity and spin into weightless impossibility. In the theraputic land of suspended disbelief, we can throw off the winter cold, get some real justice, or examine our human predicament from a completely fresh perspective.
And even though at least some of it should be fun, since literature is grand fun, the original fun, it's nice to know it's not the kind of fun that amounts to a waste of time. On the contrary, traveling into imaginary worlds brings the "real world" into sharpened perspective, and things appear in a fresh, revealing light. We travel, paradoxically, "away" from our world to see it more clearly, we travel away from ourselves to understand ourselves more clearly. Exploring imaginary worlds leads us, maybe surprisingly, to explore really fundamental questions: What does it mean to be human? Once you take humanity away by introducing something transhuman, alien, nonhuman, you begin to long for that good old human element. You see it in a new light. Before seeing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you may have thought your troubling memories were worthless, that to be rid of them might make you happy. But the further you travel into that imaginary realm where memory-wiping is a possibility, the more you realize: you need your memories; they are an essential part of you, even the troubling ones. Especially the troubling ones, maybe. Reading Brave New World you may find you miss the good old imperfection and fallibility that's a necessary consequence of our free will and bad choices, that without freedom, happiness becomes so empty and shallow as to be not happiness at all. Or, faced with absolute, inhuman, merciless divine justice in the Inferno, maybe you long for a little good old human imperfection and misguided tolerance. The point is that by bringing to light what is "alien," "transhuman," or in other words "imaginary," perhaps we understand more deeply what it means to be human in reality.
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and "The Zebra Storyteller"
Surprisingly, it's possible to yank these two very independent pieces of literature together. Seeing them together helps reveal something you might not see reading them independently. Juxtapositions often do this. You can really make some interesting discoveries putting things side by side in this way. It's something I find myself doing a lot as a reader. I like to synthesize.
Both of these works explore, allegorically, the effect of imagination, the function of imagination, the consequence of imagination. It's not the only way to read these pieces, just one way. But before we try to understand what they say about it, we should establish what we ourselves bring to the table.
What is "imagination"? How would you define it? Here are some ideas that came up when I brainstormed for a definition, or for my attitudes about "imagination." I'm listing them in no particular order of importance.
One thing that becomes clear as we consider these works together is that they both create an experience through storytelling. One is about storytelling (and it tells a story), and the other tells a story. Keats seems to be warning us about the dangers of getting too far from reality, of being lured into the "faery" realm and lost there. Holst tells a story in which the point seems to be that the farther you get from reality, the more protected you'll ultimately be. They are at opposite ends of the scale.
The stories both lead us to think about, among other things like talking Siamese cats, the Zebraic language, and pale knights-in-armor, this abstract concept of "imagination." Think about them in that light for a moment. What do do you think they tell us about "imagination"? Look back over them. Tease it out, if you can.
What do you think is the role of the imagination in our practical lives? How do you use imagination? What are the dangers, if any? What are the benefits? (Write a response for next class: 1-2 pgs.) Entertaining different ideas about this, seeing what different writers have to say about the role, the function of the imagination, might be an interesting thematic thread for us to weave throughout the course. Maybe. We'll see. If I don't return to it, maybe you will in one of your papers.
Keats and Holst seem to suggest completely differently ideas about the role of the imagination in our practical lives. Is that okay? If we call ourselves a democracy, of course it is. Diversity and debate and the richness of competing ideas is what defines the democratic ideal. So we will not be afraid of contradictions, not in the literature, not in ourselves. Walt Whitman said, "I am large, I contain multitudes." He was talking about himself, but he was also talking about America.
So why should we feel the need to all feel the same way? Why should we have to entertain just one interpretation, just one way of understanding a piece of literature? Is that what literature is? An imaginary work that communicates one theme, and you either get it or you don't? No. Literature is an experience and it can be a different experience for each and every one of you. The best literature is ambiguous, not pointed. It raises questions that we answer individually. Think of it as a Roarsarch image, if that helps. Hopefully there'll be a lot of perspectives that arise in this class. That's one of the things that will make it a good class. If the only voice you hear is mine, you'll get bored with it soon enough, unless I'm fascinating, which I can tell you with some confidence here on day one: I'm not. I'm fascinated, but not always fascinating. So you'll have to bring the class alive if you want an alive class. It's up to you. For subject matter like this, the opportunity is there to have a really lively forum in which a lot of views get expressed. Respectfully, of course. That goes without saying, I hope. You're 25 people. Some of you will share the same views. It's easy to be respectful with people who share your views. But what about if you're sitting out there and you disagree with what you're hearing? Are you going to be free enough to put your voice out there? What will that depend on? What would stop you? These are important first day questions and issues to get out on the table.
The point is that in my role as instructor of this class, I view this class as a democracy. This is a democratic classroom, not an autocratic one. My views about the works we read is only to be understood as one perspective among many. Because I'm the instructor I'm responsible for guiding and facilitating, but not for preaching. When I lecture, I do it in an effort to get things started, provide a springboard, indicate a direction. I share with you how one reader understands and uses the material. Lecturing is a form of modeling. How can we read this? How can we understand it? How should we look at it? I'm offering you one set of answers you entertain. Hopefully, I can be helpful, because I'm not just any reader-I'm a reader with lots of background and lots of appreciation, and a ton of enthusiasm for the literature. I realize that in a gen. ed. course of non-lit majors that's not where you're necessarily coming from as a reader, but I can hope to turn you into someone who loves literature like I do. Ultimately that's the unstated, but absolute goal of this course. I realize that's a big hope, a big goal. There's a lot of challenging reading in this syllabus, more maybe than I might have attempted in a freshman-level, introductory course had we still been using the "anthology" approach rather than the "topics" approach. But most of you are not freshmen. Those of you who are will be fine, too. We've got some tough reading ahead, but it's great stuff that's either stood or bound to stand the test of time, and I hope you'll find it provocative and meaningful and worth it. But I realize I'm going to have provide some guidance. I'll probably want to lecture sometimes.
It can be tiresome to listen to a lecture, but it can be informative and helpful, too. This is coming from someone who's sat through many a lecture. I like a good lecture myself. So I'm not always that against giving them when I feel they might be useful to you. But I also recognize that my lecturing puts you in a passive role-and that most of you hate this role and find it boring. There's no way around the fact that being passive is undesirable if you're going to really learn something. So, that being understood, I encourage you to find a way to be active if I start to lecture. Raise a question, start a digression, add your comment. Ask for clarification. Interrupt me. I don't mind.
We want to hear as many views as possible. A diversity of views enriches all of us. Seeing points of view different from our own helps us grow, understand the world and other people more. It's far more challenging and stimulatingand helpful!to me personally to hear from students who disagree with me than from students who agree because when you disagree, I have to stretch and grow and learn. And that is my goal in every class I teachto learn something.
Questions? Contact me.
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