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Monday, January 21, 2013

A Week with the Liberal Arts

Monday, January 13, 2013
I needed to give my Honours and Graduate students some context for understanding the importance of George Eliot's last novel, Daniel Deronda--also the only novel she set in the time of her writing.  Her biographer, Frederick R. Karl writes that "Her approach to Deronda in these final months indicates she saw it as her most significant, and perhaps final, statement in fictional terms.  She had located all of her voices, all of her beliefs, and all of her strategies for composition, especially in the juxtaposition of opposing elements, and she had resolved them in a renewal of spiritual beliefs."  That seems to me a lot to hope to accomplish, with any confidence, in a single work.  So I thought we needed to get back to first principles.  What is a novel at the end of the nineteenth century?  Again, the question is too big, but just manageable.

The novel, I told them, is about common people--unlike myths or fairy tales or epics or Romances. We thought about the vast array of characters Eliot collects here--from knights to artists to middle-class families of women trying to keep body and soul together by drawing and doing needlework to Jewish pawnbrokers.  Toward the end of the nineteenth century, particularly after the passage of the Forster Education Act, the values of such a disparate group of individuals is diverse and conflicting.  The class system is in flux; consequently, heroes and heroines make themselves up as they go along.  There seems to be more promise of freedom in the air, yet even in an atmosphere that gestures toward the "modern," characters can suddenly find themselves smack up against limitations and social proscriptions.

What followed was a lively discussion of some of the main characters--Daniel himself, Gwendolen Harleth, and the evil Grandcourt.  The challenge for me was not allowing students' "first impressions" to go unquestioned:  in this novel Eliot put so much energy into exploring the characters' complex motivations that it is a travesty to lapse into certainty or put labels on characters.  Interestingly, the only character of whom this is not true is Grandcourt, who is consistently described as unimaginative.  In one of her final descriptions of him, Eliot notes that "There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity" (509-10).  In contrast, Daniel tells his mother that "What I have been most trying to do for fifteen years is to have some understanding of those who differ from myself" (540).

While trying to read Daniel Deronda twice over the Christmas break was a bit of a stretch, it seems like the perfect place to begin our exploration of the novel for the 50 years the bridge the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.  For what does the novel itself do, but to help us "have some understanding of those who differ from myself"?

Tuesday, January 14, 2013
Earlier in the term when I'd talked to my first-year students about poetry, they'd revealed that finding the "message" in a poem was often frustrating.  This notion that any literature or art has a "message" was one that I wanted to put to rest quite quickly, so I asked them to describe what it's like to be reading something you're so immersed in that you look up and are surprised to see where you actually are.  Beatific smiles flashed across several students' faces; they didn't at all mind talking about the delights and surprises of that kind of reading experience.

So when we began to read Margaret Atwood's "Death by Landscape," I suggested that the author didn't have a message but rather wanted us to have an experience along with Lois, the character whose best summer friend disappeared while on a canoeing trip.  "What's it like to be sitting on a rock with your back to your friend, to hear a shout, and to find her gone?  How would that change your view of the world?"  "What's it like to have someone accuse you of having pushed her off the cliff?  How does that affect the rest of your life?"  "How does such a disappearance affect your relationship to nature?"  Towards the end of the class, we moved from the central story of the camping trip Lois and Lucy take when they are 13, out into the narrative frame of Lois's life after her children have moved out and her husband has died.  She lives in a condo that keeps nature at one remove:  the plants are in pots and she can only see the landscape that's far away.  She can't even hear the wind.  Yet she has a whole wall of small Group of Seven paintings.  I left them with a question for Thursday:  Do those paintings help Lois in any way to understand Lucy's disappearance?

Thursday, January 16, 2013
My first-year students had some remarkable thoughts about how the paintings play a role in Lois's life.  They noted that both the paintings I'd shown them on Tuesday and Atwood's descriptions of those Lois owns are layered:  there's a tangled foreground, and then a mysterious background that seems to hide things--like Lucy.  They express the mystery of Lucy's death, one student thought.  Another said that they help her grieve by keeping the memory of Lucy always present.  Wonderful fights broke out.  Well not really, but there were disagreements--which made me smile, of course.  Because the real question for Lois is where Lucy is.  On the one hand, she can't simply have disappeared; on the other, she remains at the centre of Lois's sense of who she is and how she relates to the world.  So they tried to imagine how works of art could express those contradictions between remembering Lucy, suggesting where she might be, and articulating her absence.

I handed out their next two assignments and explained my expectations; it seems to me easier for students to write well if they understand what the assignment is trying to teach them to do.  At one point, I talked about three formal vocabularies.  One is jargon:  language used, in essence, to say "I'm smarter than you are."  Writers who use jargon aren't really trying to communicate.  A second is legitimate specialized vocabularies.  What if we didn't have words like "metaphor" or "depression"?  How would we communicate these ideas?  A third is  "How I think the professor wants me to sound."  I urge them to avoid the syntax and vocabulary associated with this style.  "Express good ideas clearly and you will sound formal," I told them.

Next I introduced Earle Birney's "David," another death by nature narrative, so we can start it next Tuesday.  One of my keen students asked "Is Birney using jargon when he uses words like "arete," "pika," "bergschrund," and "serac"?  How will I convince them next week that Birney is using language that is remarkably precise, language that suggests we know or understand the ways of mountains, which the poem itself clearly queries?  How will I explain Kant and the sublime?  They get their heads around quite a number of things that I certainly can't conceive of, so I may have difficulties finding a way to explain this mid-twentieth-century idea of nature as a dangerous unknown.  I also have the sense that my students might tire of paradoxes and contradictions by the end of the term.

Thursday afternoon
I moderated a presentation given by Dr. Ken Coates about the Future of the Liberal Arts Education.  Dr. Coates is currently the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.  He's an historian who has turned to university administration, serving as Dean of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan and Dean of the College of Arts at the University of Waterloo. He gave us, in essence, a terrifying pep talk.  It seems true that we now have to justify the liberal arts; in times of economic uncertainty, students are eager to pursue professional degrees.  It is also true that governments across Canada and around the world are investing less in post-secondary education.

But the most meaningful moment came when Dr. Coates talked about being asked to justify the liberal arts and did so with a kind of thought experiment.  "Take a piece of paper and write down the ten things that worry you at night before you go to bed.  Turn it over and write down the ten things that give you joy or pleasure.  Now cross anything off either list that isn't illuminated or created by the liberal arts."  And of course, there's that "aha" moment, for most of us realize that there isn't anything on those lists that we are inclined to cross off.  He argues that we need to have more faith in ourselves.  But we also ought to be building bridges with high schools and employers.  We should also make at least some of our research speak directly to the wider world, something the Faculty of Arts is trying to do in a variety of ways. 

Friday, January 18, 2013
I'm trying to prepare Monday's Honours/Graduate class today so that I can free up Monday for preparing my first-year class, and hence empty Wednesday for research.  Finding the rhythm of a term when it changes every 13 weeks is always a challenge, but when it means you have a day to concentrate on the ideas and the literature that feeds your soul, it's worth it.  I've not taught Daniel Deronda before, so I continue to read secondary material about it.  Today before making Monday's lecture notes (which I will have to finish Sunday when Bill is watching the Superbowl semi-final games), I read "Daniel Deronda:  A New Epistemology" by George Levine.  Levine begins by reminding us that one of the challenges left to us by the Enlightement, which promised (among other things) that if we observed the world carefully we could understand it, is the difficulty of moving outside one's own viewpoint.  Levine writes "Disinterest and objectivity are always impossible and always necessary....[But] detachment is an aspiration rather than an achievement."

This problem makes its way into George Eliot's wonderfully sympathetic and ethical novels by asking "How is it mentally and morally possible to know others without imposing on them the distorting desires of the aspiring self (without which there would have been no particular reason to understand the 'other' in the first place)?" (Levine 59).  Levine argues that Daniel is the character who is most gifted at this process of understanding others, and that again and again Eliot's narrator attributes sympathy to Daniel's every interaction with people.  It is as if Levine has picked up where I left off my first lecture, noting (after Terry Eagleton), that the novel is the genre whose very raison d'etre in the nineteenth century is to take us into the lives of others so that, attracted by intriguing people and unpredictable but inviting plots, we can understand the lives of people entirely unlike ourselves.

We have a kind of mise en abyme here or a set of Russian dolls.  The point of the liberal arts is both to query how we know the world and its inhabitants and to provide us with more self-conscious ways of understanding and constructing such knowledge.  In turn, we study novels which, psychologists tell us, allow us to 'rehearse' being someone else in situations completely unlike our own.  And then comes Daniel Deronda, where the evil character, Grandcourt, in spite of his wealth, is consistently described as "unimaginative." In contrast, Daniel, who has no distinct social place in nineteenth-century Britain as the abandoned child of an opera singer, is valued for the sympathy he brings to every encounter. 

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