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Wednesday, December 17, 2003

One more dribble on O'Connor and theory

I think my pen sorta ran out of ink when I was trying to connect two important dots in the O'Connor post, so let me just trace over that faint impression again. I wrote:
. . . you snatch away . . . from raw literary recruits the notion that the poem means whatever you can find in it at your and their peril. If there's one thing uninitiated students hate more than having to slog through a morass of theory it's being told their interpretation of a poem won't hold water.
Since I immediately go on to concede that some interpretations are "better" ("believable" is the word I appropriate from O'Connor), it looks as if I'm just chary here of imposing this evaluative understanding on neophyte readers (and thereby disabusing them of the comfort that any interpretation, including theirs, goes). Nothing could be further from the truth. (Well, actually, several things could be. But that inference's not exactly right anyway.) This is why I think it's vital to teach "theory" as well as read stuff together and get excited about it.

By "theory" I mean hermeneutics, methods of interpretion (precisely what O'Connor seems to despise). Teachers teach students to produce readings adducing textual evidence according to conventional rules. They should be generous when evaluating students' interpretations at this level, doing so mainly according to whether and to what degree they apply those rules taught them. Students feel justifiably outraged and discouraged when they pay close attention to the language of a text, marshall what they take to be evidence, put together a more-or-less cogent line of argument, and in response are told, "Yes, but unfortunately you're still totally wrong. If you read a lot more literature, you'll know why." XYZ would never have used this word to mean that. If you'd read more of his work, you'd know immediately he was being ironic here. Those images are just a standard convention of this genre; they aren't as significant as you make them out to be. This here is a clear allusion to Milton, not to Richard Brautigan. usw. I think too many literature teachers feel deep anxiety about hurting the poems, so to speak. Moreover, they reckon they've failed dismally the student they've allowed march off into life cherishing a patently ridiculous interpretation of "Dover Beach." If the student's experience with the teacher really inspires her to delight in reading, writing, and thinking about the two, then soon enough she'll see the flaws (if such there be) in her reading. And if not, so what? Cui mala?

Why O'Connor should be so defensive about over-interpretation anyway is a tale all by itself. After all, how many postwar American novels don't just invite but run screaming around the wilderness for an allegorical reading, let alone a reading as elaborate as Wise Blood does? How she resisted calling it Motes' Progress is an enigma. If you don't show up at the first page of the book with a fairly nuanced understanding of Christian theology and especially the crucial differences between Catholic and Protestant theologies (e.g. in the notion of justification, the demands of penance, the relation between man and god) as well as knowledge of American Bible-belt usages, you can forget having the slightest idea what her characters are talking about and why they're all behaving as though certifiably insane (of course, most of them are, but that's still insufficient explanation for the positively freakish religious cast to their insanity).
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