Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Idea-Induced Nausea


I needed a break from my reading. I'm poring over the first chapters of Beginning Theory by Peter Barry, to make sure I don't miss a thing (as suggested by the book itself). But then I come to the parts about Matthew Arnold and the Touchstones. No, it's not a doo-wop band. It's a nineteenth century literary figure and his coined term.

I can't stand this idea. Notwithstanding the fact that I don't really understand it, it still makes my stomach churn. The guy's motives are sickening enough (he's one of those that supposes literature can help us uphold our morals and keep us from trying to buck tradition), but the Touchstone (is is capitalized) is the clincher.

I might come back to this and explain the Touchstones some more when I have a better grip on them (perchance you may be equally nauseated!), but that's not the point of this little ramble.

The point is that I haven't been so turned off by something I'm reading in a long time. Especially something about literature. Fiction and poems can occasionally be disappointing, but usually criticism and theories just keep me reading, even if I disagree with what's being said. So it was really weird to just want to throw a book. It's not even the book's fault. Barry is just telling us what's happened in theory, not defending Arnold. So my squirmy chair repositioning and my eyes darting away on their own felt strange indeed.

Barry tells us that as beginners we should be patient with theory, and warns us against thinking that it is impossibly difficult because of:

A) our own intellectual shortcomings
B) shortcomings in our education prior to this course/book
C) the language of theory being rather difficult to read.

I do let "A" freak me out once in a while, but I am not concerned about "B" (I've been inundating myself in this stuff for a little while). "C" has never been an issue as I'm a fan of tough reading, and as many words as are needed to get something across precisely are OK with me.

After ticking off this list, Barry does tell us, however, not to be endlessly patient with the theorists. We should require theory "to be clear, and expect it, in the longer term, to deliver something solid." I can sort of go along with that, though I don't know if I always expect absolute clarity and solidity in theories. But I do expect to not be strung along, and to not be nauseated. A temporary challenge, discomfort, or apparent brain "impass" is welcome and stimulating. But a challenge for the sake of a challenge is not comfortable, and not productive.

Maybe I will get comfortable with Arnold, or maybe I will be able to figure out what is wrong with him and relieve the nausea by explaining it away. Why does his name come up so many times in the chapter?! For me, someone who always likes ideas, and even the chance to find the flaws in bad ideas, this period of extreme discomfort is not normal.

I have to finish the chapter now, and I will try to come back to those sections and reread them in a day or so. Maybe I'll bring Arnold up in class tomorrow (with less intense language of course, and I might not mention the puke factor or my urge to commit violence against printed materials). As for the other sections, I have soaked up a whole bunch of new names (not totally new, but unread by me so far), like I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, and a few other people who like to go by their first two initials.

-- R. N. Byrd

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