I started my first MFA class with a pretty clear idea of how things were going to go. Literary theory. Okay. I’d studied this during my undergrad degree. Cool. A bunch of dead white guys from Europe and North America will talk endlessly about what they think a text is, what the job of an author is (if any), and what role the reader plays in all this. They’ll get bombastic about how texts work. And then they’ll prescribe how we should read them. I’ve read Cleanth Brooks. Roland Barthes. Northrop Frye. Harold Bloom. I know how this goes.
Except for one troubling fact. Reading these guys at 20 is one thing. Reading them at 38 is something else. And I imagine reading them at 56 will be different, too. In fact, I’m beginning to see that I can never come back to the same book twice, or even the same idea. I’m not the same person.
It’s not that I’m smarter. God no. I’ve met 10-year-olds who are smarter than I am.
No. What I have is experience. As a reader. A writer. A person living in the world. Chronic migraines have, if anything, left me a tad dumber. But they, too, have given me experiences that shape my reading, particularly because I understand that reading is a perception of words strung together forming a whole, a single coherent meaning. We hear voices, see people who don’t exist, and cry over things that didn’t happen—all because someone printed some black lines and curls on a page. The deeper I plumb the depths of my own neurology, the more incredible human perception seems. Our perceptions are such fragile, fickle things. Yet we regard them as if they are reality itself.
I can prove to you that’s not the case. What you see is not what is there. None of us has ever encountered reality without the lens of our own perceptions. What you see is actually upside down. And then your brain flips it right-side up for you. But flip a switch, send an unusual electrical current spilling through my brain, and I can no longer read. Sometimes it’s because I can’t see. But other times it’s because I can see words printed through the snowfall of my vision. And they make no sense.
Reading, I know in a way I never did before, is an additive experience. It’s cumulative. You not only have to see the symbols on the page and recognize letters. You have to know what a particular cluster of them means—a word and its definition. But not only its definition. Also its connotations, its implications, its cultural baggage. And then you have to grasp and retain its relationship to another cluster of symbols. And then you have to go on down the whole sentence like that.
On bad days, I simply can’t do it. I get to the end of the sentence with no memory of how it began. I’ve had this experience when reading in foreign languages but never in my first language. And so this time around it is my own experience of reading, and sometimes not reading, that lends a kind of urgency to literary theory.
An urgency that, as a razor-sharp college sophomore, never occurred to me.
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I’m not saying that the first literary theorists of the twentieth century are right about everything. They’re not. They have all the assumptions and biases one would expect of privileged academics who are white, heteronormative, cis men. Their entire field, in fact, is rooted in hermeneutics, which began centuries ago when Christians began debating how to interpret the Bible. Many of these early twentieth-century literary theorists were Christians themselves and brought to bear the imperialist assumptions of modern Christianity as well as its tenet that wholeness is not only possible, but necessary.
But none of this means their ideas have no value.
I know this is a hot debate in our culture right now. A lot of people on the left believe that if we find fault with someone as a person, we must toss out everything they’ve created. And if you want to personally do that, fine.
But we also don’t need to go back to the Dark Ages just so we can feel good about ourselves. My abusive dad was a software engineer and database architect. I know a number of companies he wrote and designed software for, but guess what? I’m not going to stop using toilet paper or buying cereal or using computers just because my dad played a role in their production. Everyone has to decide this for themselves. But society as a whole doesn’t benefit if we sweep abuse, racism, misogyny, and other forms of violence under the rug, pretend they’re rare rather than systemic problems, and then deny everyone access to certain goods or materials because someone behind them was cruel and predatory.
And so it goes with these men of early literary theory. We absolutely need to talk about their biases and errors. We absolutely need to revise literary theory and re-envision reading and writing as human rights and expressions of freedom, rather than the domain of a privileged few.
We don’t need to erase these white men and their ideas. We just need to reckon with them.
* * *
And I want to reckon with some of them, especially Iser and Brooks. But that will have to wait for another day. I’m having an aura, so I’m going to rest. And we’ll continue next week. What are some of these ideas worth reckoning with?