The Problem with College

What college does to you is get you thinking, about books like Elizabeth Enright's Saturdays, "I wonder what gender constructions occur in this book and if they would upset contemporary critics?"

This may sound, on the surface, like a good thing to think. It isn't.

It isn't for several reasons. The first is that a socially conscious critical eye is not the best way to enjoy something.

Think of a book as a car. The narrator is the driver (the narrator is not necessarily the same person as the author; the author is the manufacturer). You, the reader, are the passenger. Now, sure, as you are driving along, you may criticize the driver's handling of the car, or for that matter the car itself. You may even want to get out of the car before you reach your destination. But the last thing you should do is run alongside the car, shouting at the narrator and paying more attention to how the car looks or what other people think about the car than where the car is driving. I mean, how pointless is that? (Not to mention, you might get run over.)

The second problem with excessive dismantling & labeling is that it creates an attitude. Some of you know I had a tough time my first semester back to college, and I won't (I promise) go on and on and on about it here. When all is said, what upset me was the attitude. It's one thing to critique writers like E.B. White, it is another to create (in the class and subsequently in the students) an attitude of disdain because the writer has failed to live up to the dismantling process.

Now, there are a number of reasons you might not want to get into the symbolic car; some of those reasons might be moral. But contempt at the car's cheapness or the car's popularity or the car's appearance (or the other passengers) is not the best reason. However, each to his own. What is far more annoying, in my mind, are those who go for the ride and spend the whole time rolling their eyes and loudly informing the other passengers that this is just too bourgeois and who, once the trip is done, turn around and scorn the ride. If for no other reason, it's kind of rude.

The final problem with aggressively dismantling books in search of social agendas is that some cars (such as Enright's Saturdays) was never intended to be a discussion of gender relationships or a discursive analysis of WWII. Shoving it into that mold is akin to hopping into a Colt and then being dismayed that you aren't in a Volkswagon. Or searching through the Colt's glove compartment and being tantalized by the lack of a Volkswagon driver's manual.

I won't go so far as to say that deconstructing narrations along sociological lines is always a mistake. It can be informative and even be kind of fun. But I am uneasy when such analyses are promoted both as a first step and a final one. As a first step, the enjoyment of the text is lost; as the final step, the true uneasiness of the text is overlooked. In this last context, I back the reader-response theorists (well, some of them) who claim that what we bring to the text is as necessary a component to the reading experience as what is already there.

I say this because so much of deconstruction seems to reside on a belief that "secret messages" are hidden within the texts, that those messages can be deciphered by the knowledgeable and the unsuspecting reader warned. Because, you know, you might just read Mein Kaumpf and turn into a Nazi.

Which is patently foolish but well describes the underlying fear: that certain constructs are being enforced through narration and that only through exposure can such insidious propaganda be defanged.

When it is much more likely, and always has been, that people see what they want to see and remember what they want to remember and learn what they want to learn and that if you want secret messages to be there, you will always, always find them.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is not possible that a big reason college professors endlessly deconstruct books is because said books suck and can be "enjoyed" no other way? It is a continuation of the conceit of intellectuals--heaven forbid they enjoy the same thing us "commoners" do.

(Isn't this similar to your professor who couldn't just enjoy New England Cliche instead of whining about it?)