This Week in My Classes (February 5, 2009)

Between winter storms, snow days, and miscellaneous family scheduling crises, I have to say it feels like a triumph just to show up in my classes right now.

Fortunately, in Mystery and Detective Fiction we have been reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I have lectured on a few times before, so though there are logistical preparations to make, the intellectual effort has not been tremendous. I did find the moral problems of puzzle fiction more pressing than usual this time because a particularly tragic local murder case (as if there are any other kinds!) wrapped up recently, really bringing home to me the peculiarity of treating violent death as lightly as Christie’s books do. Where is the sense of horror or violation? Even Poirot, though his perspective is more somber, seems more interested in the moral degeneration in the culprit (“His moral fiber is blunted. he is desperate. He is fighting a losing battle, and he is prepared to take any means that come to his hand, for exposure means ruin to him. And so–the dagger strikes!”) than in injustice and cruelty of Ackroyd’s death. I have to agree with critic Julian Symons that one of the costs of this genre is “the sense that the author has any feeling for the people in the story.” On these grounds, at least, I’ll be glad to move on to hard-boiled detection next week, and especially to P. D. James a bit later. I think the Victorians were right in the emphasis that they placed on literary treatment when evaluating literary ethics. The murder in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is even more horrible than that in Ackroyd (if these things can or should be measured), but the detachment necessary to solve the mystery is always highlighted as a problem, an unsuitable reaction, if you like, for a human being facing evil.

In Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt, we have wrapped in In Memoriam. Our discussion last week was really faltering, and one cause I identified was the general unfamiliarity of the class members with scansion. Many of the beauties of In Memoriam are subtle ones, brought about by variations on the consistent and superficially limiting form. Paying attention to the rhythm of the lines is one way to slow your reading down enough to appreciate other effects as well. So we did a class workshop on scanning, working towards an understanding of why T. S. Eliot (not a very Tennysonian poet, at least on the surface) would have said of In Memoriam that it gives us “132 passages, each of several quatrains in the same form, and never monotony or repetition.” Section VII is usually my lead example. Take the final quatrain, for instance, with the almost brutal effect of the extra stresses and harsh alliterative consonants in the last line:

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

In a poem that is preoccupied, among other things, with “the sad mechanic exercise” of “measured language” (V:6-7), we should feel acutely the moments in which grief disrupts the meter.

I think this session helped us move past some of the problems they were having integrating discussion of content and themes (what is Tennyson saying about faith, trust, hope, death, science?) with poetic analysis, which should help us when we get to Arnold a bit later, and then to Hopkins.

I’m now working hard on Darwin in preparation for next week’s readings. I admit, I have a bit of science envy, so I was particularly excited to come across the series of lectures from Stanford’s “Darwin’s Legacy” course, which I found first at iTunes U (and what an amazing resource that can be!) and now, I discover, also available on YouTube. Of particular relevance to our literary focus will certainly be George Levine’s talk on Darwin’s work and/as literature, but I took a look at the introductory one and couldn’t resist watching the whole thing, and since then I’ve also watched the second one, on “Religion and Science: Probably Not What You Think” (given by Eugenie Scott, the Director of the National Center for Science Education), and most of the third one (by Darwin biographer Janet Browne). I’d better get down to my business and watch Levine’s lecture this weekend. I know I could review his books instead, but I do enjoy the lecture format. I miss being a student! What a pleasure it is to listen to such smart, passionate, articulate, knowledgeable people.

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