What a Long Strange Trip It Is

Well, since I finished reading most of the research paper drafts (see post below), I did some errands and surfed through my blogroll for a bit to catch up.  I must tell you about the following article I discovered:

It’s an article that, serendipitously, relates to a project I’m working on, and, at the same time, affects me more emotionally. A recent issue of Columbia Magazine published this thoughtful piece on why literature still matters. Morris Dickstein’s essay “The Undying Animal” is a mediation on why those who work with literature “love what we do.”  I simply must quote the first paragraph so you can hear his voice and his passion:

Caught up in the rush of our ongoing lives, we rarely get the chance to step back and reflect on why we do what we do or, more important, why we love what we do. Working with literature as scholars, editors, and critics can become as habitual as any other form of work. Our criticism grows procedural or theoretical, betraying the spirit of the writers we admire. Slipping out of routine into reflection is part of the discipline of literature itself, which pares away the casual and the incidental, the merely lifelike. Instead it concentrates impressions, ideas, and feelings into language that yields meaning. The poem is the poet’s way of suspending time and attending to the minute vibrations of the inner and outer world. The demands it makes on us as readers are personal, not professional, or personal before they are professional. At a time when literary study is on the defensive, even in universities that once nurtured it, we need to raise the question why literature matters, hoping this will illuminate why the collective work of an organization of writers and scholars matters as well.

The essay concludes by reminding us that we love literature because “it disquiets us, throws us off balance, unsettles our easy assumptions”–an idea that echoes so deeply within me but that is so challenging, for me, to explain in a classroom to students who see literature’s purpose as ultimately confirming their worldview.  Dickstein’s essay reminds me of Azar Nafasi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, her (not uncontroversial) memoir about the years she spent teaching American literature in Iran, where she, too, tries to explain that great literature is subversive:     

I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned tradition and expectations when they seemed immutable. I told them I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them feel uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes. (94)

Alice may have been confused and perhaps a little frightened, but oh, what a long, strange trip she had!