Teaching English as “the most intimate subject in the curriculum”

On Twitter, John Warner offered a few reviews of his new book of short stories, Tough Day for the Army, followed by this Tweet:

Warner’s comment is grounded in his being a writer, but I suspect also in his being a reader and a teacher. I want to stress his #agoodthing and use this brief but insightful moment to push further against the mostly dispassionate academy where New Criticism has flourished and laid the foundation for its cousin “close reading.”

With a sort of karmic synergy, I read Warner’s Tweet above just as I was diving into a new Haruki Murakami short story, “Scheherazade,” and the companion interview with Murakami about the story.

“Scheherazade” is classic Murakami—odd, awkward, and then ultimately an unmasking of the human condition. As a writer myself (my creative, expressive writing exclusively now poetry), I was laid bare as a reader and writer toward the end of the story:

It was also possible that he would, at some point, be deprived of his freedom entirely, in which case not only Scheherazade but all women would disappear from his life. Never again would he be able to enter the warm moistness of their bodies. Never again would he feel them quiver in response. Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it entirely on the other. That was something Scheherazade had provided in abundance—indeed, her gift was inexhaustible. The prospect of losing that made him saddest of all.

A recurring motif of my creative self is confronting exactly what Murakami states directly: “Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy.”

And it is this type of lucidity in stories, novels, poems, and films when I often cry because I am filled too full of feeling deeply what the author has both expressed and felt (I assume), what I know as well.

If we turn to the interview by Deborah Treisman, however, we can see Warner’s point above clearly since Murakami repeatedly deflects Treisman’s efforts to mine meaning from the story; for example, Murakami replies to two separate questions with:

Sorry, but I don’t know the exact circumstances that brought about the situation, either….Because what’s important isn’t what caused Habara’s situation but, rather, how we ourselves would act in similar circumstances….

I don’t know, but things certainly don’t look very good for Habara….

What matters to Treisman as a reader (and interviewer) appears insignificant to Murakami.

These exchanges highlight that text has both author intent and reader inference (think Rosenblatt’s reader, writer, text triangle)—but the exchanges also allow us to consider (or reconsider) that text meaning often depends on a power dynamic that involves who decides what matters and how.

Murakami’s “Scheherazade” focuses on an unnamed character (called “Scheherazade” by Habara, the other character in the story) who is a source of both sex and storytelling for Habara, who is mysteriously restricted to his house:

Habara didn’t know whether her stories were true, invented, or partly true and partly invented. He had no way of telling. Reality and supposition, observation and pure fancy seemed jumbled together in her narratives. Habara therefore enjoyed them as a child might, without questioning too much. What possible difference could it make to him, after all, if they were lies or truth, or a complicated patchwork of the two?

Whatever the case, Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart. No matter what sort of story it was, she made it special. Her voice, her timing, her pacing were all flawless. She captured her listener’s attention, tantalized him, drove him to ponder and speculate, and then, in the end, gave him precisely what he’d been seeking. Enthralled, Habara was able to forget the reality that surrounded him, if only for a moment. Like a blackboard wiped with a damp cloth, he was erased of worries, of unpleasant memories. Who could ask for more? At this point in his life, that kind of forgetting was what Habara desired more than anything else.

As readers, we share with Habara a brief journey through Scheherazade’s episodic tales of her own adventures, leading to the end where Murakami appears to suggest that her storytelling is more intimate for Habara, and thus more important, than the sex she shares.

Just as Murakami’s interview reveals the range of what matters in text, that Habara “enjoyed [Scheherazade’s stories] as a child might, without questioning too much” (and we might add, as Treisman does in the interview) speaks against the dispassionate ways in which formal schooling frames text and dehumanizes the reading experience for and with children and young adults (hence, New Criticism, close reading, and the enduring “evidence hunt” of reducing text to what can—or should—be mined from that text).

In her “Language Teaching in a Changing World,” Lou LaBrant (1943) warned:

Too frequently we give children books which have enough value that we call them “good,” forgetting that there are other, perhaps more important values which we are thereby missing. It is actually possible that reading will narrow rather than broaden understanding. Some children’s books, moreover, are directed toward encouraging a naive, simple acceptance of externals which we seem at times to hold as desirable for children….Let us have no more of assignments which emphasize quantity, place form above meaning, or insist on structure which is not the child’s. (p. 95)

LaBrant, then, builds to her key point: “Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum” (p. 97).

Teaching English as “the most intimate subject in the curriculum” is connected to, as LaBrant explains in “The Place of English in General Education” (1940), the essential element of being human: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Seven decades since LaBrant made these arguments, we must ask—especially in the context of Warner’s Tweet and Murakami’s story and interview—why do we persist in reducing text to the dispassionate responses demanded in the academy, whether that sits within the mechanistic processes of New Criticism or the decontextualized demands of close reading? Where in formal schooling is there room to “[enjoy] [text] as a child might, without questioning too much”?

In the answer-driven classrooms that have traditionally and currently mis-served both the text being analyzed and the students evaluated by how they analyze those texts, Murakami sends a much different message:

Habara is a man who has experienced an irrevocable turning point in his life. Was the turning point moral, or legal, or was it a metaphorical, symbolic, psychological kind of thing? Did he turn the corner voluntarily, or did someone force him? Is he satisfied with the results or not? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The instant he turned that corner, though, he became a “desert island.” Things can’t go back to the way they were, no matter what he does. I think that is the most important aspect of this story.

As author of this story, Murakami is interested in the questions raised, what is left unknown to him: “I don’t know. Scheherazade is a riddle to me, as well—what she is thinking, what she is looking for.”

Fiction and poetry seek the mysteries of the human condition, the unknown, the unanswerable. As LaBrant and Murakami tell us, language and teaching are about the intimacy of being human—not about the dispassionate calculation of meaning, the objective pose that is both misleading and efficient as well as manageable.

Unlike Habara, we are not in fact trapped in the house of such dispassion; we have chosen to remain there. Instead we should step outside, to enjoy text “as a child might, without questioning too much.”

2 comments

  1. jeanhaverhill

    quote: “we must ask—especially in the context …why do we persist in reducing text to the dispassionate responses demanded in the academy, whether that sits within the mechanistic processes of New Criticism or the decontextualized demands of close reading? Where in formal schooling is there room to “[enjoy] [text] as a child might, without questioning too much”? this is the essence of a discussion that must take place with regards to our curriculum frameworks and the English Language Arts.

  2. Bob O'Neil

    I, too, have thought that the close reading of the New Criticism was a reason why I find that high school English teachers tend to shy away from poetry. The poems they read in college were often unrelated to their own experiences, and so, for them, arcane. Analyzing was more important than engaging and responding. And the analysis they got was likely to be mysterious. I I have also thought that there is no more important aid to writing than reading.
    However, I also find that when a high school English department offers a course in poetry writing, it is well subscribed. But the students have read very little poetry and have a dim idea of what writing poetry can be. I have a friend who has had success by teaching poetry exclusively by living poets. At least that overcomes one obstacle to engaging.
    So putting these things together I have compiled an anthology of largely living poets writing about the experience of growing up. It gives students an idea of how to go about their own poems without being restrictive . It’s at http://www.heydays.ws.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s