This Week In My Classes: Appeasing Fascists

remains-coverYou never know what twists of fate will bring new relevance to the readings you’ve assigned. Teaching A Room of One’s Own soon after the David Gilmour fiasco, for instance, made Woolf’s arguments about women’s writing (“everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists”) seem unhappily current; teaching Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress just post-Ferguson made Easy Rawlins’ problems seem painfully contemporary (“they figure that you did something because that’s just the way cops think”).

This term it’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle, devastating novel The Remains of the Day that resonates with current events in ways that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Ishiguro has said in interviews that he used the appeasement era as an abstract cautionary tale about how we are all, in our own ways, butlers, including politically: going about our jobs either unable or unwilling to see how we might be serving larger agendas, finding dignity in doing our work well rather than in ensuring we do the right thing. He wasn’t literally warning us not to give Nazism a second chance — and yet here we are.

Because we’re studying the novel in Close Reading, a lot of our interest is in how Ishiguro tells his story. In particular, so far we’ve been talking a lot about Stevens as an unreliable narrator — about how the gaps and inconsistencies in his story, and the misfit between his language and the events he describes, lead us to mistrust his version of events and begin to tell an alternative story that, in profound ways, contradicts the one he clings to so desperately almost to the very end. And no wonder, because how terrible to admit, when there’s no second chance, that in dedicating your life to dignified service you’ve sacrificed not just your true dignity, as a thinking person, but also your humanity. How much worse, too, to acknowledge that even your dutiful subordination was fatally flawed — that in serving your master you enabled one of history’s great villains to triumph. Immersed as we are in Stevens’s consciousness, we can’t help but sympathize, I think, with his resistance to these painful truths, which can be faced only at great psychological cost. How much easier to maintain, as he does for so long, that all he could reasonably do is his job, leaving the complications of world affairs to “his lordship.”

remains-cover-2As much as the specific context of nascent fascism, this indirect approach to it through the internal ruminations of someone well-meaning but ultimately morally compromised, perhaps beyond redemption, seems timely to me. Stevens does not refuse Lord Darlington, for example, when instructed to dismiss two Jewish maids to preserve the “safety and well-being” of his guests. Against Miss Kenton’s passionate rebuke — “if you dismiss my girls tomorrow, it will be wrong, a sin as any sin ever was one” — he sets his own professional standards: “our professional duty is not to our own foibles and sentiments, but to the wishes of our employer.” It might seem a relatively modest act of bigotry to be complicit in, but it’s inexcusable nonetheless, intolerable both in itself (as Miss Kenton rightly notes) and as a concession to the creeping encroachment of worse horrors. Resistance may even mean the most on this personal scale, where you can act before events outsize and overtake you — but in any case the most anyone can do is refuse to cooperate with — or to normalize — what they know to be wrong. From inside Stevens’s head, we feel the appeal of compliance, of pretending that this one thing, or the next thing, doesn’t really matter very much. But against that dangerous ease, as we travel with him to a fuller understanding of what his political passivity has enabled, we can set our own rising horror — at the waste of his life, and at the possibility that we ourselves might do no better. It’s a cautionary tale indeed.

This Week In My Classes: Strangeness and Subtlety

millonflossBecause of the Thanksgiving holiday on Monday, my graduate seminar didn’t meet this week. If only Eliot had written her novels in a different order, we could have used that extra time for reading through Middlemarch — always the book for which I like to allow the most weeks because it demands and rewards such luxurious patience. But we are only on The Mill on the Floss, so instead we just delayed our discussion of the second half. Not that The Mill on the Floss doesn’t also demand and reward patient reading! In fact, rereading it has been one of the best parts of the past couple of weeks for me. It still absorbs me, especially as we rush towards the final catastrophe in Books VI and VII. I hope the students feel the same way.

My Introduction to Prose and Fiction class, however, has two meetings this week. We have wrapped up our work on essays and are in the middle, now, of our short fiction unit. We read “The Yellow Wallpaper” for Wednesday’s class, and I was reminded all over again what a strange, creepy, brilliant story it is. Though obviously one key thing I wanted us to discuss (which we did) was Gilman’s critique — through her narrator’s sad, horrifying, weirdly comic disintegration (“I got so angry I bit off a little piece [of the bed] at one corner – but it hurt my teeth,” she says, with such disquieting reasonableness!) — of a whole destructive patriarchal system, I also tried to keep some emphasis on literary details, including symbolism (an easy one, in this case), personification, and imagery:

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.

The colour is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

All of these vivid details contribute, of course, to our sense of her character and situation: it’s not hard to pick up on the wallpaper, and then the woman she “sees” behind the pattern, as a projection of her entrapment and despair. That’s one reason that the story’s a classic, and that it’s so fun as well as useful to teach: there are subtle details, but as a whole it’s almost as flamboyantly expressive as the wallpaper.

bviewshortfictionToday in our smaller tutorial my group will be reading a story that is equally artful but far more subtle: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Family Supper.” Here, I think, we will have to work much harder to move past our initial impressions of what the story is about, of what details in it are significant and how they add up. Ishiguro is a master of understatement but also of moods and shadows. Despite its innocuous-seeming title, “A Family Supper” has an atmosphere of menace from the opening account of the poisonous fugu fish, and the title itself starts to seem less and less innocent as we learn first of the death of the narrator’s mother (at another seemingly-innocuous supper) and then of a father who killed himself and his whole family to escape the dishonour of his failed business. There isn’t much overt action in the story, and the ending especially feels like an anti-climax. With Ishiguro, though, the conflicts tend to shimmer around the characters, to be represented as much by what they don’t say or do as by what they actually say or do.

I’ve been following Dorian’s wonderful series of posts about his short fiction class, and it has got me thinking about the role of leading questions in our teaching — often he comments on what he’s hoping or expecting students to come up with in response to his prompts, for instance. This is not the same as trying to steer them towards one “correct” answer, of course, and the process he describes is intensely familiar to me. There’s no point asking completely open-ended questions that, as far as you know, will get you nowhere in particular in terms of understanding the story in front of you, so we ask leading questions to help our students discover for themselves what we already know is there. The process also models for them the right (meaning most productive) kinds of questions to ask. But at the same time, you want to allow for different readings, for original observations, for the idiosyncrasy of genuine individual engagement. One reason I like to mix in stories I don’t already know well, like “A Family Supper,” is that it is easier for me to back off, to be open-mindedly curious and see where our discussion takes us. I have some ideas about the story’s central themes and how its specific details (the fugu fish, for instance) fit into them — but it’s still somewhat strange to me, and its subtlety means working harder to make something of it. I hope it isn’t too elusive for the students to take an interest in it. (Updated post-tutorial: I think we had quite a good discussion, particularly about the family dynamic in the story and the way both cultural and generational expectations and differences affect it. Some students said they found it frustrating that there’s so little action, or that the conflict feels so unresolved, but I suspect that’s one reason we ended up with so much to say about it — unlike a more plot-driven story, “A Family Supper” forces us to look for meaning in other places.)

Next week it’s “Araby” and then Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” so back again to established classics. One of my TAs has volunteered to teach the session on “Araby,” which means I get to return to one of my favorite roles in the classroom — being a student again!

This Week in My Classes (November 19, 2008)

We’ll be working on The Remains of the Day until the end of term in Introduction to Prose and Fiction. Today I highlighted the problem of politics in the novel, looking at the many moments in the novel when Stevens expresses pride in his own indirect contribution to society through his service to Lord Darlington. One of the most comic, yet piognant, examples is the long section on how his finely polished silver “made a small, but significant contribution towards the easing of relations between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop” during a meeting at Darlington Hall: “Lord Darlington himself suggested that the silver might have been at least a small factor in the change in his guest’s mood that evening, and it is perhaps not absurd to think back to such instances with a glow of satisfaction.” Perhaps. Stevens’s insistence that he reflects on these moments with pride and satisfaction is clearly in tension with his repressed awareness that Lord Darlington’s commitments during this period are problematic, to put it mildly, and thus his own belief in the dignity of his life of loyal service is severely compromised.

We also looked at the links between Stevens’s own political self-effacement–his frequent admissions that international affairs are “over [his] head” or not for “the likes of us”–and the anti-democratic arguments of Lord Darlington and his cronies. In particularly painful scene, Stevens called on, ostensibly to answer a series of questions about current affairs, but really (as he and we quickly see) to demonstrate his own limitations as a political participant. His only response to each question, that he is “unable to be of assistance on this matter,” is wholly in keeping, of course, with his identity as a butler, and thus Ishiguro is able to draw us along from the inadequacies of that role on a personal level to its inadequacies as a model for a democratic citizen. Lord Darlington and his friends use Stevens’s subservience and ignorance as arguments against democracy; as Lord Darlington explains, “Democracy is something for a bygone era. . . Germany and Italy have set their houses in order by acting. . . . Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there. . . . The man in the street can’t be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you.” Translated, that is, from a household to a nation, Stevens’s idea of dignity as defined by submission and service to the will and needs of another leads direct to fascist dictatorship.

The proclamations of Harry Smith about “the privileges of being born English” including the right to “express your opinion freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out” set up the grounds for resistance to tyranny and a very different standard of dignity. I’m interested in the relationship of this conflict between repression and self-expression, service and independence, fascism and democratic liberty, and the novel’s narration. On the one hand, the first-person narration is in a way a direct counter to Stevens’s own reluctance to accept his role as the main character in his own life. He has seen himself as a secondary character, telling Miss Kenton,”my vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself.” In telling his own story here in the novel, he is forced to see his life a different way, with himself, rather than his master, at the “hub” of things; one result of this shift in perspective is, of course, his realization (or acknowledgment) of his own failures. But he does at least, and at last, speak for himself. Isn’t a fundamental principle of democracy that each voice deserves to be heard, as each vote deserves to be cast? And yet Stevens is hardly a poster child for democracy, precisely because of how badly he has lived his life, how flawed his judgment has been, how unreliable he is. How can we feel good about trusting our wellbeing as a collectivity to individuals as flawed, self-deceived, and ignorant as Stevens’s own voice shows him to be? This is a good conversation starter, anyway, and as a classroom question, it helpfully draws our attention to relationships between the form of the the novel and the ideas it is so clearly but complexly engaged with about what dignity really means and what democracy really requires and entails.

In 19th-Century Fiction, we’ve just started our work on The Mill on the Floss. I always begin a George Eliot ‘unit’ with a survey of her life and philosophical and fictional principles, with an emphasis on her interest in providing a secular alternative to Christianity as a framework for morality, on the relationship she theorizes between realism, sympathy, and morality, and on her interest in and ideas about determinism–so that’s what I did on Monday. Today, though, we will get going on the particulars of this remarkable novel. It’s an enormous shift, stylistically, from Bleak House: the prose is so balanced and philosophicaly, the story so overtly grounded in historical and social analysis, the characters so psychologically complex. I’m loving the humour of it especially, this time. The first couple of chapters, with Mr Tulliver puzzling over how to set Tom up for an education that will serve Mr Tulliver’s desire to get the better of rascally lawyers are hilarious: “I want him to know figures, and write like print, and see into things quick, and know what folks mean, and how to wrap things up in words as aren’t actionable. It’s an uncommon fine thing, that is, . . . when you can let a man know what you think of him without paying for it.” He’s just as unintentionally funny about the great mystery of breeding, which has led him to the puzzling situation of having a daughter who is far more ” ‘cute” (accute) than her brother:

“It’s a pity but what she’d been the lad–she’d ha’ been a match for the lawyers, she would. It’s the wonderful’st thing”–here he lowered his voice–“as I picked the mother because she wasn’t o’er ‘cute–bein’ a good-looking woman too, an’ come of a rare family for managing; but I picked her from her sisters o’ purpose, ’cause she was a bit weak, like; for I wasn’t agoin’ to be told the rights of things by my own fireside. But you see when a man’s got brains himself, there’s no knowing where they’ll run to; an’ a pleasant sort o’ soft woman may go on breeding you stupid lads and ‘cute wenches, till it’s like as if the world was turned topsy-turvy. It’s an uncommon puzzlin’ thing.”

Like his listener Mr Riley, we may find our “gravity [give] way” here! And yet of course there’s nothing really funny about Maggie’s experience of being a “small mistake of nature” in this way, and much of the first few chapters is also devoted to showing her painful encounters with the limits set on her development because she is, as Tom points out, “only a girl.” There are many memorable incidents in the first volume: Maggie smashing the head of her doll, for instance (into which in the past, we’re told, Maggie has often hammered nails to “commemorat[e] . . . crises in Maggie’s nine years of earthly struggle); Maggie trying, and failing, to share the jam puff with Tom in a way that will meet his perverse but rigid standard of what’s right; Maggie chopping off her recalcitrant hair to free herself from the censure of her carping relatives–only to repent; Maggie pushing Lucy in the mud and then running away to the gypsies in hope of finally being “in harmony with circumstances.” Eliot is particularly good at evoking the “bitter sorrows of childhood,” the “strangely perspectiveless conception of life” that gives childhood suffering its special “intensity.” She also writes beautifully about the special relationship we have to the landscapes of our childhood, where the scenery is infused with memories and so speaks to us of who we once were and who we might have been:

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, – if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass – the same hips and haws on the autumn hedgerows – the same redbreasts that we used to call ‘God’s birds’ because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?

The wood I walk in on this mild May day, with the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet – what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad-petalled blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home-scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows – such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep bladed grass today, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love.

This Week in My Classes (November 14, 2008)

(cross-posted, slightly expanded, at The Valve)

This is a great week for me because in both of my classes I am teaching books I am really passionate about. In Introduction to Prose and Fiction, we have started Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and in 19th-Century Fiction, we are just finishing up Bleak House. It’s hard to imagine books more stylistically different: Dickens offers a teeming overabundance of words, characters, and plots, while Ishiguro at once models and thematizes restraint and understatement. Yet both are immensely moving and humane; their artistry is both intellectually and emotionally demanding, and their beauties are at once aesthetic and ethical. If, as Leslie Stephen said, we “measure the worth of a book by the worth of the friend it reveals to [us],” both offer us companionship of an inspiring kind. Wayne Booth proposes we consider what “kind of desirer” we become if we cooperate with the implied author of a text: “Is the pattern of life that this would-be friend offers one that friends might well pursue together?” The best literary “friends” are identified by “the irresistable invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own.” (All quotations from from Booth’s The Company We Keep: an Ethics of Fiction, the only critical work I’ve read in a decade or more that I know has had a profound impact on how I imagine and articulate the task of criticism.) ions */ @font-face {font-family:”Bookman Old Style”; panose-1:2 5 6 4 5 5 5 2 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:647 0 0 0 159 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:””; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Bookman Old Style”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:EN-CA;} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;=By these standards, I think both The Remains of the Day and Bleak House are among the very best.

Still, the devil is always in the details. So here’s what I tried to get done this week.

In Intro to Prose and Fiction, the topic today was first-person narration–again, since we have already spent two classes talking about that. A major interest of mine is helping them work with the concept of unreliability so that they can talk about it with some precision. For instance, it is important to control the urge, once you recognize that a narrator is not altogether to be trusted, to assume that you can’t believe anything they say and can just speculate wildly about what really happens. Point A: there is no “really happens”–there’s only what’s in the novel. Point B: unreliability works as a fictional device because there are limits to it. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for instance, we believe in the basic elements of the story: there is a house, there is a husband, there is a room with hideous patterned wallpaper. What we don’t believe is that there are women trapped in the wallpaper, or crawling in the garden, etc. I’m fascinated by the artistic feat of presenting two (at least) very different versions of one story with just one set of words, so I usually spend a lot of time on this issue. More specifically, we have been talking about Stevens’s ‘butlerspeak’ and how the tone and diction of his language helps us understand his character, including its problems and limits. We have begun making connections between the inadequacy of his language for expressing the human qualities of his life and the inadequacy of his values more generally. We’ve watched some excerpts of an interview with Ishiguro in which he remarks that he had an idea, working on the book, that “most of us [are] butlers–politically, and morally, perhaps, too.” This idea about what it means to be a metaphorical butler will be important to our discussions next week, when we will have moved further along in the book.

In 19th-Century Fiction, we spent Monday’s class and part of Wednesday’s considering the novel’s two narrators–Bleak House is unique among Dickens’s novels (as far as I know, among Victorian novels) in dividing our attention in quite this way, and the dramatic differences between the prophetic sage-like voice of the 3rd-person narrator and Esther’s almost excessively self-effacing and evasive voice invite careful consideration about why both approaches are necessary to achieve the novel’s goals. (One theory we worked on: to solve the social problems he focuses on, you need both breadth of analysis and perspective, and depth–sensitivity to the personal implications.) On Wednesday I also talked about the theme of infection, about ways we can read Jo’s illness metaphorically, for instance, as a symptom of the broader spiritual disease Dickens sees plaguing his society. It’s illuminating to compare the depiction of poverty and social decay in a more literal novel, like Gaskell’s Mary Barton, to Dickens’s handling of Tom-All-Alone’s. It rapidly becomes clear that literal, material, social, or economic causes are not Dickens’s primary interest. Like his philosophical mentor (and the dedicatee of Hard Times), Thomas Carlyle, Dickens tends to present the tangible aspects of poverty as manifestations of an underlying spiritual malaise or failure–of human fellowship or compassion. We looked at the ‘Irish Widow’ excerpt from “Past and Present” and discussed the ways in which infection literalizes the premise of Bleak House that everything, and everyone, is connected, even if you can’t see or anticipate how.

For some reason, on this reading I found the work Dickens does with Sir Leicester especially moving. It’s interesting to consider that in his own way, Sir Leicester becomes a charity case in the novel, as much in need of our compassion and sympathy as Jo ever is, and deserving of them, too, because he proves capable of a moral transformation through love. Here are the affecting descriptions of him after the discovery of Lady Dedlock’s guilty secret:

Sir Leicester, left alone, remains in the same attitude, as though he were still listening and his attention were still occupied. At length he gazes round the empty room, and finding it deserted, rises unsteadily to his feet, pushes back his chair, and walks a few steps, supporting himself by the table. Then he stops, and with more of those inarticulate sounds, lifts up his eyes and seems to stare at something.

Heaven knows what he sees. The green, green woods of Chesney Wold, the noble house, the pictures of his forefathers, strangers defacing them, officers of police coarsely handling his most precious heirlooms, thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him. But if such shadows flit before him to his bewilderment, there is one other shadow which he can name with something like distinctness even yet and to which alone he addresses his tearing of his white hair and his extended arms.

It is she in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honoured, and set up for the world to respect. It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself, and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.

And just a bit later,

“My Lady is too high in position, too handsome, too accomplished, too superior in most respects to the best of those by whom she is surrounded, not to have her enemies and traducers, I dare say. Let it be known to them, as I make it known to you, that being of sound mind, memory, and understanding, I revoke no disposition I have made in her favour. I abridge nothing I have ever bestowed upon her. I am on unaltered terms with her, and I recall—having the full power to do it if I were so disposed, as you see—no act I have done for her advantage and happiness.”

His formal array of words might have at any other time, as it has often had, something ludicrous in it, but at this time it is serious and affecting. His noble earnestness, his fidelity, his gallant shielding of her, his generous conquest of his own wrong and his own pride for her sake, are simply honourable, manly, and true. Nothing less worthy can be seen through the lustre of such qualities in the commonest mechanic, nothing less worthy can be seen in the best–born gentleman. In such a light both aspire alike, both rise alike, both children of the dust shine equally.

Today, as we wrapped up our too-short time for the novel, I emphasized the importance of affect, pathos, and sentimentality in Dickens’s project of fiction as an agent of social reform. Though there are many respects in which I think Bleak House exemplifies self-contained aesthetic possibilities, in its formal structure and thematic coherence, its unifying metaphors, and so on, there’s no mistaking Dickens’s intention to shake us out of our complacence about the state of our world and our own responsibility for those who suffer. I can’t think of a novelist today who could do this and not sound ridiculous:

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

What makes this an impossible move today? Many things, I suppose, from the fragmentation of our sense of audience, or of readers (who is included in “you” or “us” these days?), to changing theories about the role of art in society. But for Dickens, there’s nothing inartistic about reaching out from his text in this way. His novels have nothing in common with the kind of literary artefacts meant to sit, like golden bowls on a mantlepiece, and be admired. At the end of Hard Times, he’s even more direct:

Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold.

And here is where I feel the two novels I’m teaching converging. Both inspire reflections on how we might look at what remains of our own days and how we will judge our contributions to a wider world, as well as to ourselves.