Friday, January 16, 2009

The seventh resolution

Read more literature and less literary criticism

That most lyrical of boatsmen, Mark Twain, once wrote:

Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river.

In River Town Peter Hessler explains why he came to China aged 26, instead of starting a career:

At Princeton I had majored in English, and after graduation I had spent two years studying English language and literature at Oxford. My original plan had been to become a Professor of Literature, but over time I became less enamored of what I saw in English departments, especially in America. Part of it was simply aesthetics - I found that I couldn't read literary criticism, because its academic stiffness was so far removed from the grace of good writing. And I could make very little sense of most criticism, which seemed a hopeless mess of awkward words: Deconstructionalism, Post-modernism, New Historicism...And I resented the way that English departments constantly tinkered with the canon, hoping to create a book list as multicultural as the fake photographs they put on the covers of their undergraduate brochures.

In The History Boys Richard Griffiths tells the Students to familiarise themselves with the poems now. Of course they hadn't lived through the things that the poems were about: love, war, misery, heartbreak. But someday they would, and some of the poems would make sense.

There is a time to analyse literature and a time to live it.

When I am in the park studying, strangers often come to see what the Laowai is reading. There are well over 100 Chinese poems that if you say the first line, even a working-class person will be able to finish it for you. The same goes for songs. These poems are about love, nostalgia, homesickness, death, things that can't be learnt in a classroom, but life teaches them the meaning of the poems. Despite the popularity of television, the poverty of the countryside, and the noise of the cities. They have the ability to hear the rhythm of a poem that all of the well-educated Westerners I know have lost.

Hessler later writes about an epiphany when a piece of Shakespeare that he had formally studied 10 years before made sense for the first time in the silence of a Fuling classroom:

You couldn't have said something like that at Oxford. You couldn't simply say: I don't like Hamlet because I think he's too conservative and sensitive and selfish. Everything had to be more clever than that; you had to recognize Hamlet as a character in a text, and then you had to dismantle it accordingly, layer by layer, not just the play itself but everything that had been written about it. You had to consider what all the other critics had said, and the accumulated weight of their knowledge and nonsense sat heavily on the play. You had to think about how the play tied in with current events and trends. This process had some value, of course, but for many readers it seemed to have reached the point where there wasn't even a split-second break before the sophistication started. As a student, that was all I had wanted - a brief moment when a simple and true thought flashed across the mind: I don't like this character. This is a good story. The woman in this poem is beautiful and I bet her fingers are slim like scallions.

I taught the song "Turn Turn Turn" just before Christmas. There's a time to read, a time to write; a time to think, a time to live; a time to criticise, a time to surrender.

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