Ross Koppel
Dr. Garcia
English 190
2 May 2018

I transferred to this institution after more than a few years as a part-time community college student. The transition was not easy, but I had the wonderful experience of taking almost exclusively classes in my field after becoming a full-time student. To condense what I have learned over the last year and a half is not easy, but an attempt can be made.

More than anything, what I have learned in the English Department is to embrace ambiguity.

There are no right answers in the English Department. There are only compelling arguments. One of the most impactful lectures I experienced occurred during Spring of 2017. We were in English 033, studying Story of O by Anne Desclos. The professor had developed a reputation for being able to draw a single unifying philosophy from any given text. For the first time, he looked the class over and told us that he had no single unifying answer. Instead, we were provided with ten competing concepts, ranging from a Marxist analysis of labor in the novel to the argument that the eponymous O, a sex slave, was a neo-Christian messianic figure. To have a professor give ten competing conceptualizations of a text was an eye-opening experience. There are no right answers, only compelling arguments.

This was compounded by English 100, which offered many lenses with which to analyze texts. The structure of the class was excellent: one primary novel to be analyzed and many different techniques to analyze with. I quickly learned that each of these lenses were not simply techniques in a toolbox to use to write an essay, but competing, intersecting ethical approaches to literature. The Marxist approach pits labor against the narrative. New Criticism and Formalism analyze the techniques and tensions that authors use to create meaning. By way of contrast, Reader Response theory asserts that this alleged meaning inherent in a text is nonexistent, and it is the reader who creates meaning. I learned about Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction. Each of these Critical lenses represents its own ethos. Critical Race Theory analyzes racial tensions but ignores Asian people. Feminist Theory analyzes the role of women in literature.

Around the time I began learning these theories, I wrote a long feminist essay about the female archetypes present in Chicana/o folklore. Before diving into the English major, this type of thought would have been completely beyond me.

Around this same time, I will admit that I became so overloaded with information that I forgot what Literary Criticism is. I still have no idea, but at least I have a hypothesis. I call it “Mental Sorcery,” and I first experienced this while sitting in a lecture about Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad. As the goddess Dulness mounts her throne, an ape shows the reader its ass. This really is a marvel of close reading, and I still do not understand it, but the Professor explained it very well and I was convinced a year ago. In essence, Alexander Pope had just lampooned the portion of his audience that would take the time to analyze the text close enough to uncover this ape. That is to say, Pope had just lampooned Literaturists, English Majors and Critical Scholars. This little anecdote may seem pointless, but that is what Mental Sorcery is to me. Mental Sorcery is the ability to draw meaning from a seemingly meaningless text.

A number of weeks before being mooned by an ape, I learned from Thomas De Quincey about the difference between The Literature of Knowledge and The Literature of Power. Knowledge teaches while Power moves. My pet theory about what I have really learned in the English Department is that Literary Criticism is the ability to turn the Literature of Power into the Literature of Knowledge.

And then there was William Blake.

At one point, I thought I understood literature. I thought I had a solid grasp on how to be a literary critic. Then there was Blake. Not only did William Blake force me to use every little bit of close reading skill, every critical lens, and every formalist analytic technique I had learned just to find a little bit of understanding, but William Blake made me feel like doing this was fundamentally wrong. The English Department had made me Urizenic, but Blake set me free.

See, Blake has this power. To understand Blake, you have to use literary techniques, but in so doing, you lose Blake. This is the ambiguity of literature in action.

I think I might be a little off topic. Literature and ethics are very closely intermingled to me. As I learn more about what literature is and what literature can accomplish, I learn more about what the world experiences. I have Literature and Human Rights to thank for that. On a more micro-level, literature is not just a view into the world, but a way of interacting with it. I have heard it said that the novel is a technology that organizes. The novel is an item that allows a polyphony of voices to come together. The characters, the reader, the author and the narrative itself all mesh together to create something.

More than anything, the more I learn about literature, the more I feel that I do not understand literature. The same can be said of ethics. The more I learn of the literary ethos, the less I feel I understand my own ethics. There are too many competing ideologies, too many critical lenses. There is an overload of information, and I have difficulty explaining anything anymore. To put into words exactly what literature has made me feel and think and why is a difficult task, but that’s ok.

Literature is supposed to help me understand the world, but instead, all I understand is that it is perfectly acceptable to understand nothing.

 

Of all the things I do not understand, I do not understand survey courses. I really don’t get the point. I don’t get how the literary canon is formed, I don’t get why the selected texts are selected. I don’t get why time periods are more important than genre, and I don’t think I have ever walked away from a survey course feeling like I understand what the overall lesson of the course was.

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