The “s” is important. Do keep reading, writes Mark Edmundson in The Chronicle Review. It’s readings that are the problem, readings that hinder reading. Often masked under the title “theory,” readings don’t just provide sophisticated language for voicing one’s ideologies, be they Marxist, Darwinist, new historicist, or whatever the rage. Like a kitchen appliance which initially allures with its glitz and potential—dices, slices, chops, purees!—such theories quickly tarnish. Master the mechanics, and it’s a relatively routine task to run any sort of book or essay through them for—pronto—an academic interpretation.
It’s the meat-grinder approach to thinking. (See here for a marvelous satire: The Pooh Perplex, with such chapters as “A.A. Milne’s Honey-Balloon-Pit-Gun-Tail-Bathtubcomplex” and “The Theory and Practice of Bardic Verse: Notations on the Hums of Pooh.”)
Of course, however interesting Milnes’s bathtubcomplex may be, nobody reads or enjoys Winnie-the-Pooh (or almost any other book) for its suppressed Freudianism (or any other ism). Edmudnson writes:
This, I think, is where literature can come in—as can all of the other arts and in some measure the sciences, too. By venturing into what Arnold memorably called “the best that has been known and thought,” a young person has the chance to discover new vital possibilities. Such a person sees that there are other ways of looking at the world and other ways of being in the world than the ones that she’s inherited from her family and culture. She sees, with Emily Dickinson, that a complex, often frayed, often humorous dialogue with God must be at the center of her life; she sees, with Charles Dickens, that humane decency is the highest of human values and understands that her happiness will come from shrewdly serving others; she likes the sound of Blake and—I don’t know—forms a better rock band than the ones we’ve been hearing for the last decade and more; he seconds Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke and becomes a conservative, in his way twice wiser than NPR-addicted, Prius-proselytizing Mom and Dad.
In short, the student reads and feels that sensation that Emerson describes so well at the beginning of “Self-Reliance”: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” The truth of what we’re best fit to do is latent in all of us, Emerson suggests, and I think this to be right. But it’s also true that we, and society, too, have plenty of tricks for keeping that most important kind of knowledge out of reach. Society seems to have a vested interest in telling us what we should do and be. But often its interpretation of us—fed through teachers and guidance officers and priests and ministers and even through our loving parents—is simply wrong. When we feel, as Longinus said we will in the presence of the sublime, that we have created what in fact we’ve only heard, then it’s time to hearken with particular attention and see how this startling utterance might be beckoning us to think, or speak, or even to live differently.
Everyone who teaches literature has probably had at least one such golden moment. I mean the moment where, reading casually or reading intently, being lazy or being responsive, one is shocked into recognition. “Yes,” one says, “that’s the way it really is.” . . .
Although Edmundson can’t quite bring himself to admit it, what “really is” can often be found in the cumulative wisdom of our culture—Arnold’s “best that has been known and thought.” In a description that could be extended to most classic literature, Alexander Pope lauds true wit as what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. I wish that line applied as truly today, both to our thinking and our expressing.