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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Apocalypse in my class

Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Guest Author, on 02/06/07 at 11:29 AM

(Cross-posted at The Long 18th)

While teaching last semester’s Brit Lit Survey, I kept realizing that there were assumptions my students were making that did not seem conducive to a clear discussion of the works. There is a temptation when studying so much literature across so much history at a time to collapse all the historical and religious differences and see endless similarities between everything, especially in their papers. I was trying to find a model for getting them to think about conceptual differences this semester, so I came up with something that may sound a little crazy.

I said, “Imagine everything that you experience through your five senses that can be verified by someone else. If you see an elephant, you can ask a friend if she sees the elephant. If your milk tastes sour, you could ask someone else to taste it. Put all of those things in a circle and call it ‘empirical experience.’” I drew a circle on the board.

Then I asked them to think of all the things that don’t fit in that circle and I wrote them up around the circle. Experiences with God, creative thought, dreams, ghosts, sexual ecstasy, madness, and the world that is too large or too small for human perception went outside the circle. They are all things that an individual might “feel” or “know” as an individual, but never be able to directly get verification of from someone else. For example, if I claim to have had a prophetic vision of God, you’re going to have to call me insane or trust me on it. I can’t ask you if you agree with my description of the vision because you can’t share it with me.

One of the ways I’m trying to get them to think about the history of English literature is as a series of shifting relations between the inside and the outside of that circle, and the methods by which writers attempt to transcend, destroy, or maintain that boundary. Does a writer use the verifiable as a source of metaphors for achieving the unverifiable, as in Donne? Does a writer try to show that the boundary is merely a construct, and that the outer lives within the inner, as in Blake? Does a writer assert the existence of the outer, but redirects the focus toward the empirical, as in Pope? Does a writer seem to deny the existence of the outer, by suggesting that no boundary exists around the empirical, as in Pater? (These are gross simplifications, but maybe useful for illustrating the variety of possible relationships to the model.)

We’re reading a number of poems about apocalypse this semester, and my students are always rather curious about why so many English poets are obsessed with it. A great number of my students were raised in the Christian church, but only one of my 50 this semester claims to have read Revelations, so they’re suprised to see its imagery so frequently employed in poetry when it doesn’t play a large role in their religious training. My guess is that apocalypse is what many poets see as the ideal end of poetry.

Most of my students are used to thinking of “apocalypse” as “the end of the world” or “nuclear crisis” or something. I’m trying to get them to think of it as what its Greek origin (apokalyptein, to uncover) suggests, that it is a removal of a boundary between the empirical world and the divine, allowing us to verifiably experience (directly, together) something beyond what our five senses allow. For different poets in different eras, poetry can have the power to suggest what that uncovering would reveal, or that there is nothing to uncover, or that humans can’t imagine beyond that covering, or that poetry itself can perform that uncovering.

In some sense, a communal experience of the sublime in a poem is a moment of potential apocalypse, as it’s tantalizingly almost verifiable.

I am hoping that this model will provide us with a way of talking about religion, sexuality, and creativity without merely reverting to our own personal experiences with them. I am not someone who bans discussion of personal experience in any way, but I do find that a student can get hung up on thinking of a piece of writing as reflecting his own experience, and then arguing that it is therefore “true.” As one of my advisors, Blanford Parker, once told me when I complained to him about this, students need that moment of self-recognition before then being able to make finer distinctions, but getting them to move from pleasure to analysis is the most difficult step.


Interesting. What do you make of the similarity between these theories of the “apocalypse” and the aesthetic model of epiphany? Are you teaching about epiphany?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/06/07 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For me, “epiphany” seems related more to moments of cognition or divine localized manifestation, rather than appealing to a shared extra-sensory perception. In my head, I guess I’ve related epiphany more with prose, and apocalypse with poetry, but I’d be willing to trouble those boundaries some.

By Carrie Shanafelt on 02/06/07 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Suddenly, it strikes me that the reason “epiphany” leaves me a little cold is that it’s a fundamentally Catholic concept. I was raised Baptist, in a theological environment of apocalypse in which mere manifestation was deemed a rather weak possibility for the individual’s interaction with the divine. I wonder how often these religious prejudices color the language we use to describe literature.

By Carrie Shanafelt on 02/06/07 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And I should also cite some of the sources of this model beyond my own religious upbringing. First, Joe Wittreich’s Visionary Poetics got me thinking about apocalypse and prophecy as a function of poetry, and Blanford Parker’s Triumph of Augustan Poetics provides a really fascinating scheme of how various historical threads of the Christian imagination appear in English poetry, both secular and religious.

By Carrie Shanafelt on 02/06/07 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Iain Sinclair, the greatest living English prose writer, has a deep apocalyptic strain in his writings.  His non-fiction writings about London are deeply informed by his sense of groups like the Diggers and the Levellers, who thrived in the post-apocalyptic world of the English Civil War.  London writing following the Blitz is similarly apocalyptic.  Michael Moorcock’s brilliant *Mother London* really captures this.  And then there’s Peter Ackroyd.  Not my favorite novelist, but there’s that visionary apocalyptic strain there too (esp. *Hawksmoor*, which is very much influenced by Sinclair’s book-length poems “Lud Heat” and “Suicide Bridge").

By on 02/06/07 at 04:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is Mother London really apocalyptic?  I thought that it was much more focussed on themes of subcultural survival and continuation.  For a novel set in the Blitz, there are many rescues, few deaths.

The brilliant Moorcock work that I’d nominate as apocalyptic is the Cornelius Chronicles set, especially in its themes of apocalyptic desire.  The jungle scenes that progressively become a roof garden, an apartment window box, and the dream of an apartment window box (pointed out in an introduction by John Clute) serve as a perfect example of the appeal of the apocalypse and the horror of mundane existence.

By on 02/06/07 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Re: apocalypse vs. epiphany

I wonder if you’re not focusing too much on the more narrowly phenomenological aspect, and so missing an important difference between apocalypse and epiphany.  I mean, the difference is not going to be that one of them is more intense, or whatever. And both are supposed to reveal something supernatural.

Which brings me to the Catholic/Protestant thing you brought up. I’m guessing that the content of the revelation is different in each case: Protestant innovations in doctrine tended to encourage something like individual prophecy, whereas the Catholic encounter with the divine, being mediated by the Church, didn’t allow for such radical interpretation.

If that’s the case, I don’t think that favoring “apocalypse” in this context signals a prejudice on your part, since arguably the same individualizing tendencies are at work in the literature you’re referring to.  Things would be different if you claimed to find them everywhere, like (say) Bloom’s “gnosis.” Certainly one shouldn’t use the two categories interchangeably just for the sake of ecumenism.

By on 02/06/07 at 05:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t understand this inside-outside distinction at all.  People who believe that they are born again also believe that they are part of a community of believers, all of whom have the same experience of personal contact with God.  I am not a believer, but I have no difficulty understanding what a father means when he says he loves his because I have the experience of loving my children.

I believe that perhaps the greatest value of literature is that it can explain emotional states of others by evoking that emotional state in us.  In so doing it allows us to understand consciously an emotional state that previously was inchoate and unconscious.  Or it provokes an emotional response in us that previously was merely latent.  It is able to do these things because the author is able to evoke and consciously experience an emotional state within him or herself and to communicate it to us through words that cause us to replicate that emotional state.  If the author’s emotional state were entirely inside, as you posit, then literature would be an entirely personal affair, with no more communicative force than dreams.

By on 02/06/07 at 06:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pedantic note: It’s not “Revelations,” it’s “Revelation.” (Short for “The Revelation to St. John.")

By on 02/06/07 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The key difference between “epiphany” and “apocalypse” is that only the latter contains necessarily the idea of the hidden, of something not just unknown but unknowable until the decisive moment occurs, the moment at which it can be uncovered. The original Epiphany—the “showing forth” of the Christ Child to the kings from the east—is not apocalyptic because there is as much mystery in it as revelation: the kings know that this child changes everything, but they don’t know how. This is what Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” is about.

Wordsworth and most of the other Romantics have epiphanies ("spots of time"); Blake has them too: “’What,’ it will be Question’d, ‘When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’” This is not an apocalyptic vision because it is something always there, to be seen by anyone whose “doors of perception” have been “cleans’d.” But what Blake writes about, often enough, in his poems, is the truly apocalyptic.

By on 02/06/07 at 08:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am totally aware that this in no way holds up as a theory, but it does make, in my experience, a pretty fruitful teaching model, especially for dealing with a course that requires me to cover 300 years of British literary history. I find that it’s incredibly difficult to get across what a big deal it is to most 18th-century writers to avoid describing the divine, and what a radical move Blake is making to address it directly.

Has anyone here any experience with trying to get across large-scale theological differences in the classroom, to undergraduates? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you.

By Carrie Shanafelt on 02/06/07 at 10:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Your writing has really got my mind going. I will be back for more. I wanted to share one of my Christian Poems with you:


Glory To God

Kerry Dale Hancock Jr
messenger in Christ

By Kerry Dale Hancock JR on 02/07/07 at 02:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’m trying to get them to think of it as what its Greek origin (apokalyptein, to uncover) suggests, that it is a removal of a boundary between the empirical world and the divine, allowing us to verifiably experience (directly, together) something beyond what our five senses allow.”

apocalypse, in Greek historical/sociological context, then relating to the Greek Dionysian frenzies, a sort of Apocalype of the Self, where epiphany, in this context, would be moot: there is no self for the revelation to be revealed to.

A look into the Greek Orthodox tradition, with its emphasis on the “unknowable” might help with these distinctions.

By greg on 02/07/07 at 11:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess my concern with your model, Carrie, is that it’s too binary. For instance, when you write “if I claim to have had a prophetic vision of God, you’re going to have to call me insane or trust me on it. I can’t ask you if you agree with my description of the vision because you can’t share it with me,” I agree that the vision itself may not be sharable, but I would also note that people who have such visions devote an enormous amount time and energy trying to find ways to convince people that their vision is genuine. That is, it’s not that often that visionaries—visionaries who speak to other people, anyway—simply say “take it or leave it.” They have a wide range of rhetorical strategies intended to convince people that they’re trustworthy, starting with the usual disclaimer: “I know this is going to sound crazy, but . . . .”

By the way, I think that one of the best books on the apocalyptic and its literary variants remains, forty years on, Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending.

By on 02/07/07 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alan, I think using overly binary models may be especially useful in the classroom specifically because they invite the kinds of troubling you suggest. It’s not that the model doesn’t make any sense; it’s that it invites contestations of what those boundaries are doing, if they exist at all, and whether they can be erased or transcended by literature.

I guess I’d say I’m uncomfortable with using completely faithful models (if such a thing could exist) in the class, especially for modeling philosophical and theological problems, because it would stifle the conversation. Anytime my students think they can’t contribute anything, that I already know everything, then the jig is up and no one cares anymore. Allowing that room for them to trouble the distinctions I offer is the soul of the discussion.

By Carrie Shanafelt on 02/07/07 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good point, Carrie. It’s my common practice to tell students on the first day of class that I will begin the course by telling them outrageous lies, and gradually make the lies less outrageous as the weeks go by, approaching truthfulness—truthiness?—asymptotically.

By on 02/07/07 at 10:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me that several things are being lumped together in this discussion that could usefully be distinguished, and that, when they are distinguished, one can see that some theological rabbits have been pulled out of some commonplace epistemological hats.

1) There surely is a distinction between things that can be observed by creatures like us and things that can’t be. 

And (2) There surely is a distinction between experiences that can be shared and those that can’t be.

But it’s too quick to suppose that everything that can be experienced can be the subject of a shared experience.  And it’s much too quick to suppose that the subjects of unshared experiences must be otherworldly or divine.

By Christopher Mole on 02/08/07 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Carrie, the Blogocalypse Carnival is coming to Mostly Harmless April 1.  Submissions due March 31.  Sorry for the short notice.  Would love to include a follow-up on this teaching the apocalypse post in it....

By The Constructivist on 03/19/07 at 08:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was just planning such a thing! The scheme has been working wonderfully as a structure that my class has been troubling as we moved through the Enlightenment and now through the Romantics. I will do so at my nearest opportunity.

By Carrie Shanafelt on 03/19/07 at 09:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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