Sorry for the recent silence. I’ve been working, applying for jobs, crawling out of a funk, and visiting with Z. Not much time for procrastination.
In fact, I’m dropping in not to procrastinate but to ask for your input on a piece I’ve written. For one of my fellowship applications, I have to write a 2-page statement of how I would teach a particular text as part of a General Education course in literature. This is a challenging statement to write, because I am used to explaining my teaching methods in specifically literary critical terms. For General Ed, I have to emphasize more universal lessons and applications—to justify a general educational value in learning to read literature closely and critically. So I’ve drafted my statement (first draft, here) and I was wondering if any of you would read it and tell me if it suggests that I have something to offer as a teacher.
UPDATE, Monday 10am: Thank you, all, for your very helpful feedback. I have spent the morning revising my statement and will post the current revision here in case anyone’s curious. I could rework this thing all day, but at some point I have to just send the damn thing.
Every thing must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase; and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it. (Mary Shelley, Introduction to Frankenstein)
In every class I teach, I ask students to perform an intellectual balancing act as they read: at once to question everything they believe they already know, and to imagine what they have yet to learn. This act of imagination is an essential counterpart to the act of self-interrogation. Without it, critique threatens to become nihilistic, dismantling the world as we know it only to strand us in the ruins. Critical imagination, however, translates dismantled knowledge into potential knowledge. It enables us to take the materials of what we were and use them to reinvent what we know and who we are. Thus critique becomes productive, part of a creative process.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a text that thinks about many of the questions and problems that I invite students to consider. An allegory for the reanimation of old cultural materials in new contexts, Frankenstein offers itself to a discussion of what brings materials such as the literary text “to life,” and specifically to consider our own roles as readers, writers, and dialogue participants in sustaining the cultural life of texts. I ask students to think of a literary text as an event rather than an object, and to position themselves as active participants in that event. To this end, we practice the skills of close reading and formal analysis to become able to read the internal logic of the text’s ideas. We also pay close attention to the way cultural context works its way into the text’s thoughts. Frankenstein is, in many ways, put together like the monster it represents, a compilation of parts taken from multiple genres and refashioned into a new creature. The novel incorporates ancient mythology and modern science, mysticism and natural philosophy, Lockean theories of personal development and the adventure of an oriental tale, Romantic poetry and domestic fantasy, Gothic landscapes and epic tragedy. It somehow puts these pieces together into something that has been taken variously as a horror story, a descriptive theory of identity, and an early example of science fiction. In teaching Frankenstein, I like to bring these contextual materials into our reading. Pairing Shelley’s novel with Ovid’s tales of Prometheus, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Percy Shelley’s “Mutability” and “Mont Blanc,” Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and selections from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, I ask students to think—as they read, in writing, and in class discussion—about how the novel dismantles and reinvents other texts, and what these other pieces enable the novel itself to do. How does their presence animate Frankenstein? These are questions that make room for understanding not only Shelley’s novel, but the very notion of literary tradition as a living compilation. As I taught Frankenstein this semester, one of my students offered to bring in an episode of The X-Files entitled “The Postmodern Prometheus.” A reincarnation of both the narrative of Frankenstein and the novel’s Frankensteinian (now recognizable as “postmodern”) method of creation, the episode effectively and entertainingly demonstrated how the novel lives on in our own culture, helping us to make sense of a cultural landscape as myriad and complex as that which Shelley perceived around her.
In teaching any literary text, I show students how this dual literacy—on the one hand, to be able to perform a formal analysis, and on the other, to be able to frame a text in a historical or cultural context and read that relationship—enables us to understand not only individual texts but the social and cultural work of literature more generally. Frankenstein’s own concern with invention as a process of dismantling what we already possess and rearranging it into something new makes it a useful model for what I want students to achieve through their engagement with literature. I like to pause at the passage from the novel’s introduction quoted above in order to show how Shelley focuses from the beginning on the question of how something, or someone, takes shape—never out of nothing, but only ever out of the “chaos” of the past. Shelley suggests here that “the capabilities of a subject” must be found initially in the “dark, shapeless substances” of our unmade ideas, our suspended selves. I emphasize how the mode of invention she describes—which produces the very world we live in, and us as subjects of that world—is an aesthetic process, and act of “moulding and fashioning ideas” out of the dismantled materials of what we once knew. The intellectual merges with the artist in this passage; creativity becomes the basis of knowledge. Shelley’s own literary invention mirrors acts of world-making that used to be reserved for the gods, and shows us the power of learning to participate ourselves in this process.
Students of the humanities, in my experience, often enter literature courses expecting to learn something about themselves. What many of them do not anticipate is the unsettling and uncomfortable feeling of effectively turning oneself and one’s ideas and knowledge into objects of inquiry. Frankenstein emphasizes not only the productive potential of invention, but, more famously, the horrific experience of it. In doing so, however, it again offers a model to guide us through this process to the point at which it becomes, and feels, productive rather than destructive. What is so terrifying, I ask, in or about this narrative that approaches the “human subject” as a question rather than a given reality? Why does Shelley pose the question of what makes a human being in the form of a creature just beyond the limits of what can be called human? Through close reading, I demonstrate how the figure of the “monster” effectively suspends the very definition of the human for the duration of the novel, enabling us to follow the processes of invention that bring whatever it is that makes “the human” into being. As one of my former students pointed out, the monster seems most human when he is least sure of his own potential humanity. The category of the “human,” in the monster’s narrative, takes on the status of an ideal. His inability to close the distance between himself and the ideal actually confirms his subjectivity. Subjectivity appears as a sense of incompletion sparked by the unique ability to reach mentally beyond where we stand. The human (or human-like) subject is able to conceive something greater than himself and desires to become that greater self. This desire remains unrequited in Frankenstein, because to satisfy it would be to extinguish the concept of humanity that flares up in the novel: the idea that we are defined by the constant reinvention of our ideas and, also, our ideals, and our struggle to refashion ourselves in these newly imagined images.
I invite students to approach every class as an opportunity for intellectual reinvention. Like Frankenstein’s monster, who is made less out of recycled body parts than out of reincarnated stories, we are subjects made out of the traditions of literature that have given us shape. By learning to read these texts critically and imaginatively, we become literate in the materials of who we are. By learning to write about and discuss these materials, we participate in the act of bringing them to life and seeing what kind of life they sustain. These skills, I propose, enable us to see ourselves as part of a creative process; we need them to become our better selves.