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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nose-Picking Is Encouraged (Teaching Notes on “Ulysses")

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 11/25/08 at 04:28 PM

[Below is a modified version of a wrap-up lecture I used in an undergraduate class last week, closing out our unit on Ulysses. The class is titled “James Joyce and Modern Ireland,” and it is aimed at senior English majors.]

When I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I took a class on Ulysses with a senior Joyce scholar who, in a pretty egregious example of a pedagogical faux pas, “required” us to buy two of his own books on Joyce and modernism from the bookstore. He also told us, via the course description, that he expected us to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before the beginning of the term, which none of us ended up doing. I bought both of the professor’s books and never read them (recently, I finally threw them out). I also didn’t read Portrait of the Artist until around the time of my Ph.D exams several years later; my loss, for waiting so long.

Though my reading of Joyce was a revelatory and entrancing experience that fall, the class itself was somewhat of a disaster. For one thing, the in-class dynamic was quite tense, particularly around questions of gender in Joyce’s novel. As a rather radicalized, “politically correct” college student of the early 1990s, I was offended by Stephen Dedalus’ tortured relationship to women, a problem my professor wasn’t interested in (I didn’t have the tools to see that Joyce disagreed with Stephen as well). I was also bored by Joyce’s “mythic method,” and didn’t really know what to make of the dense grid of literary allusions and parodies in the novel. Early on, I got into some heated arguments with the professor in class, and then retreated into defiant (Stephen Dedalus-like) silence as the semester continued. By the end of the term, I had silently vowed that Ulysses was not going to be my “thing”; I ended up writing my senior thesis the following year on Salman Rushdie, and worked with another professor, who had taught me, brilliantly and engagingly, Borges, Barthes, and Octavia Butler.

Fifteen years later, the roles are reversed. Is it possible to do Ulysses with undergraduates, and get it right? That is to say, without boring them and overwhelming them with an endless proliferation of mythology, religion, and authorial hagiography? (The people who come to heap praise on James Joyce may not realize that they are in fact unwittingly burying him: Death of the Author by deification. Or should I say, deifecation?)

Just as one joins one’s second rock band to show up the first, when you start to teach as a college professor, you often hope to correct what you think your own professors got wrong, while also preserving, if possible, what they got right. My goal this fall was, first of all, to try and teach Joyce in such a way that my students would enjoy him on their own terms, and be organically (rather than academically) interested in his works. Doing that requires inserting just the right amount of background, including 1) a sense of the trajectory of Joyce’s career, 2) sufficient explanation of Joyce’s relationship to Irish nationalism and the British Empire, and 3) some background on Joyce’s relationship to contemporaneous aesthetic modernism in Europe in the 1910s. We started with Chamber Music, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, and (briefly) Pomes Penyeach, and we’ll be closing out the term in the next couple of weeks with a small dose of Finnegans Wake (where I am admittedly utterly dependent on Joseph Campbell). I have also been encouraging my students to engage, head-on, the questions about Stephen Dedalus’ seeming hatred of women, and anxiety about women’s bodies, while also adequately identifying and embracing Bloom as a “womanly man,” as well as Molly Bloom’s position of control (if not dominance) in their marriage.

My most direct reversal of the way I was first taught Ulysses was my choice to directly underline and foreground Joyce’s use of the body in the novel, with as much directness as I could muster without embarrassing either my students or myself. So: yes to nose-picking, defecation, urination, masturbation, voyeurism, exhibitionism, menstruation, decaying corpses, sado-masochistic play, cannibalism, drunkenness, and fat. Yes, yes, yes.

To give a specific example. As an undergraduate I remember getting “shushed” by my professor in the first weeks of the term, after he lectured us about the end of “Proteus.” The professor had a great deal to say about the literary, philosophical, and theological allusions in the following passage:

Come. I thirst. Clouding over. No black clouds anywhere, are there? Thunderstorm. Allbright he falls, proud lightning of the intellect, Lucifer, dico, qui nescit occasum. No. My cockle hat and staff and his my sandal shoon. Where? To evening lands. Evening will find itself.

He took the hilt of his ashplant, lunging with it softly, dallying still. Yes, evening will find itself in me, without me. All days make their end. By the way next when is it Tuesday will be the longest day. Of all the glad new year, mother, the rum tum tiddledy tum. Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet. Già. For the old hag with the yellow teeth. And Monsieur Drumont, gentleman journalist. Già. My teeth are very bad. Why, I wonder. Feel. That one is going too. Shells. Ought I go to a dentist, I wonder, with that money? That one. This. Toothless Kinch, the superman. Why is that, I wonder, or does it mean something perhaps?

Ah yes: Lucifer, Tennyson, the Nietzschean superman – all topics I knew next to nothing about at the time. The professor also found the Christian imagery at the very end of the episode (the “threemaster”) especially important. He was, however, completely uninterested in the part in between, where Stephen picks his nose:

My handkerchief. He threw it. I remember. Did I not take it up?

His hand groped vainly in his pockets. No, I didn’t. Better buy one.

He laid the dry snot picked from his nostril on a ledge of rock, carefully. For the rest let look who will.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t get away from it. Huh—Is he really picking his nose? It was the first time I had ever seen an acknowledgment of this “shameful” bodily act in print. Can’t we read Stephen’s picking his nose as a kind of satirical counterpoint to the weighty literary and theological allusions that surround this event? My professor’s answer: no. No nose-picking, not in this class.

Fifteen years later, here I am: students, what do you make of the fact that Stephen Dedalus, near the end of this dense cerebral episode on the nature of sensory perception, Aristotle and Aquinas, urinates into the ocean, and picks his nose? What do you make of the fact that Leopold Bloom wakes up with the thought of the “inner organs of beasts and fowls,” cooks a pork kidney for his wife, and then goes to the privy to defecate?

In my own approach to Joyce’s novel, I have drastically downplayed the “mythic method” and the framework of reference to The Odyssey. The Greek epic shapes the novel mainly negatively, and we don’t need to say that much about it (in my view, the most interesting use of The Odysseyin Joyce’s book are actually the lyrical riffs on Homer’s style, not so much the specific plot parallels). In The Odyssey, when Odysseus returns home after his 17 years abroad, the suitors who had attempted to woo Penelope in his absence are all slaughtered. In Ulysses, by contrast, Bloom decides against violence, confrontation, and divorce (leaving open the possibility of exposing the affair using some machination, and perhaps through that, making Boylan go away). Instead, he kisses his wife on the rump when he finally enters the bedroom, makes up some stories about what he did with his day, and then, before going to sleep, asks for breakfast in bed the next morning.

Bloom’s actions and travels during the day parallel Odysseus’, but represent a modern consciousness and an urban, cosmopolitan sensibility. Instead of killing the Cyclops (“Citizen”), Bloom merely tells him off. (Richard Ellmann suggests that the cigar he holds throughout episode 12 is the blunted modern echo of the spear Odysseus uses to blind the one eye of the Cyclops in Homer’s epic.) By reversing the pattern in this way, Joyce was making a point about what is intellectually interesting and important to people who live in the 20th century. Like Virginia Woolf, he’s especially preoccupied with what goes on in a complex individual’s mind, especially as that person deals with complex problems (“My wife is cheating on me. What do I do? This young man, who has not been particularly nice to me, looks like he could use a hand. How do I handle it?”).

That said, Bloom is still somewhat heroic in some key ways; he doesn’t just roll over and accept what life seems to have in store for him. For one thing, he’s constantly hustling to make and sell ads – even though the novel ends without him having made the sale on the Keyes ad he had been thinking about in the early episodes. He responds to direct insults when he hears them. He is incredibly generous throughout the day – as he gives money several times to help those in need, and most importantly, when he helps Stephen Dedalus survive a very dangerous series of encounters with treacherous “frenemies” like Buck Mulligan, as well as the dangers of the red-light district of Dublin (“night-town”) in Episode 15.

Bloom grosses some people out, and indeed, we have to acknowledge that his tastes are pretty idiosyncratic and peculiar. He has a thing for women’s drawers, and buttocks. He really likes the “inner organs of fish and fowls,” which are not widely eaten today (except perhaps by Anthony Bourdain), and takes special pleasure in kidney, because of the faint tang of urine. In a novel full of incapacitated alcoholics, he doesn’t drink much, though he does savor a glass of wine in Episode 8. He seems to know a little bit about a thousand things, including biology, astronomy, philosophy, literature, and religion – though sometimes he misremembers what he thinks he knows.

That said, Joyce’s point seems to be that Bloom’s idiosyncrasies don’t make him extraordinary, but a normal, modern man. What’s extraordinary is the degree to which he seems to be able to be self-conscious about his particular tastes. (Molly has her own unusual tastes, as we see in Episode 18.) It might be that for suburban Americans at the beginning of the 21st century, the intensity and directness of life in Joyce’s Dublin seem a bit too extreme. Most American cities no longer have “red light” districts, as prostitution is now a different kind of business; most Americans do not buy fresh meat at a butcher shop, and as a result are at somewhat of a distance from the process by which meat is produced (we don’t see the blood). And of course, you will never see a group of medical students getting drunk on their off hours at the maternity ward today (perhaps that’s for the better!). And those are just three examples. Does the fact that most of us live more contained, sanitized lives mean that we are somewhat less interesting people than Leopold or Molly Bloom? Perhaps, though even in the “Purell” version of life, odd, unpredictable, and very physical things still happen – though perhaps not quite as often. (You encounter fewer people when you’re driving a car instead of walking, and there’s less room for random or impulsive choices, like Bloom’s sudden decision to spend a few minutes in a church early in the novel.)

Of course, the most overwhelming part of the novel is Joyce’s endless stylistic improvisation. Every chapter is slightly different, stylistically and thematically. Starting around Episode 7, the stylistic inventions become quite obtrusive, sometimes reaching such an extreme (Episode 14) that the text itself becomes impossible to read without constant reference to annotations (or, let’s be honest, a certain amount of skipping and skimming).

We could dismiss this as virtuosity run amuck – Joyce had too many ideas, and too much access to information he could pour into his book. Some readers, like Virginia Woolf, have thrown up their hands over the years at this aspect of Joyce’s writing, finding it irritating, self-indulgent, and boring.

That said, the hyper-inclusiveness of Ulysses can also be defended, as a particular facet of modern life. We do have access to tons of information – things are constantly entering our minds, getting processed, and then getting spat out. Advertising, popular music, television images, and the news, are all fodder for our brains, and if we were to give a true portrait of what goes through an average urban person’s mind over the course of an average day, it would probably include a fair amount of that disposable material.

[And here, a hint for students writing papers on the novel] The encyclopedic quality of Joyce’s novel does pose somewhat of a problem for people who write about Ulysses. There is simply too much there, too many examples, too many variations on the major themes. The best essays on Ulysses tend to take a narrow theme as a focus, and use the development of that theme as a way of finding an angle or a reading of the novel. A classic structure is to take a theme that interests you, and show how it develops in three stages (possibly, amongst the novel’s three major characters). For instance, if you were interested in cooking and food, you could take a look at the food that is cooked at Martello Tower in Episode 1 (where Stephen does not eat), one or more of the episodes involving Bloom eating through the middle part of the novel, and finally Molly’s own references to food and eating at the end. The goal, of course, is to find an argument that shows some sort of movement or growing awareness relating to food, as described through these three glimpses into Joyce’s characters’ minds.


A friend of mine who has written a student guide to *Ulysses* and taught it a few times to undergrads always reminds students of the essential human elements of the novel: Stephen is a poor intellectual and poet who has respect neither as an intellectual or a poet and who dreams of upsetting all authority while not being able to secure a key to his own apartment.  Bloom is a gentle family man who would rather wander the city than confront his wife, who is cheating on him in their own bed.  All the allusions simply amplify these key aspects (to oversimplify things).

My own take is that *Hamlet*, far more than Homer, is the key ur-text for *Ulysses*.  Split Hamlet into a paralyzed over-thinker (Stephen) and a gentle-man afraid to resort to violence (Bloom), split Hamlet’s disgust at female sexuality (Stephen) and his obsession with rank nature (Bloom), split Hamlet into a hatred of paternal authority (Stephen) and a sentimental idealization of fathers and fatherhood (Bloom), and you have the essential ingredients for Joyce.  Students are probably more familiar with *Hamlet* than with most of Joyce’s references.

I’ve been considering teaching *Ulysses* to my high school juniors.  They’ve managed to read *Beowulf*, *Sir Gawain*, and Chaucer (in Middle English).  We’re on *Hamlet* now, and we’ll juxtapose it with Stoppard’s revision.  Next year, I may have my juniors read one section of *Ulysses* each month or so, aside from the Norton selections.  I’m convinced that, with some guidance on the “plot” in advance, they will be able to deal with *Ulysses*.  It might be a disaster!

By on 11/25/08 at 08:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sigh. I told SEK that focusing on the naruralistc surface of Ulysses was like trying to discuss Girl Before the Mirror as a portrait, skipping that cubism stuff. The schema is not a mistake, not an overlay on a naturalistic novel. It is the point, in many ways.

I once tried to show that Ithaca was about Kant’s 2nd Critique. Moral Law, Starry Skies, Impersonal Catechism, Astronomy, Practical Reason, and Bloom’s kitchen cabinet all connected imaginatively. You are free to decide that Joyce was not competent to write about Kant or Opera or the History of the English Language but you shouldn’t deny that those are subjects in the book. Not as Baroque embellishments, but as actual subjects.

Over at Waggish the poster has discovered that FW is in part a commentary on Vico. Not merely a structuring device, Joyce was seriously exploring the philosophy of history. The direction(s) Joyce was moving was clear halfway thru Ulysses.

And even so, I am doing a Joyce a great disservice.

I might recommend teaching only one section. Perhaps Sirens, discussing not just the narratives, character, and psychology (alcohol, politics, sentiment) of the section, not only how Joyce uses music to inform the naturalism & narrative, but what Joyce in Sirens has to say about music. That could take a month, and might better inform your students about this radical novel.

By on 11/25/08 at 09:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it might be a bit melodramatic to say that Bloom helps Stephen through some “very dangerous” situations.

Also, “<i>Stephen is a poor intellectual. . .” Compared to whom?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/25/08 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, Stephen is poor and he’s an intellectual.  I didn’t mean “He’s poor for an intellectual.” Compared to Bloom, who is comfortably lower-middle-class and can afford his cheese sandwiches, baths, scented soaps, etc., Stephen is pretty broke.  He can’t even go drinking until he gets his pay for tutoring.  He’s living hand to mouth. 

Bob: I don’t think there’s a necessary conflict between naturalism and Joyce’s schema or allusiveness.  Joyce, following Chekov, pushes naturalism into perspectivism, presses realism to one possible extreme case.  Let’s remember that a good deal of the allusions are Stephen’s own schemata.

There are layers to any literary work.  Insisting that students peel every layer of the onion doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that they are students.  Our job is to push them to develop their skills and knowledge, not to force them to consider everything, all at once, that specialists find interesting or important about a single literary work.

By on 11/25/08 at 10:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought you meant that he wasn’t a good intellectual.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/25/08 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, fair enough. Upon re-reading I also realized the word “dangerous” was redundant. It’s now in strikethrough. If that’s the most egregious error you found in this post, I’m actually a little relieved! 

Bob McManus, I think Luther B. already made one of the main points I was going to make, probably better than I can.

I would also add that I taught the novel with this particular slant because I knew it would be impossible to get to everything, so I at least wanted to make sure I got through to my students consistently, with an approach that would make them want to keep reading through the long, hard slog of the later episodes (esp. 14-17).

At the graduate level, I would approach it rather differently—with the arguments of critics as the driving force, rather than my own interpretive slant ("Semicolonial Joyce”; “Subaltern Ulysses”; “Joyce, Race, and Empire”; “Modernism’s Body”; “James Joyce and the Politics of Desire”; “Modern Epic”; “Joyce and the Jews”; “Ulysses on the Liffey").

By Amardeep Singh on 11/26/08 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

When I studied Joyce as an undergraduate I was excited by the ‘mythic method’, and was bored by theoretical frameworks.  I don’t mean to say that gender and politics are not valid areas of study in Joyce, but that the primary focus should be on Joyce.  Something my seminar leader said was that Joyce actually prefigured much later theory.  When writing an essay on Joyce no recourse to theory is necessary, which is a relief since it is difficult enough on its own (and in conjunction with the Bloomsday book). 

I would question the idea that the value of a literary text dimishes the more references have to be made to notes and secondary sources.  I remember it was a rewarding process of active engagement with the text.

By on 11/26/08 at 11:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I find the “body” layer essential to the Ulysses-experience, both from a Joycean and an undergraduate/didactic point of view. The “snot-green” and “scrotum-tightening” sea and the loo-episode are particularly rewarding. These passages can teach you some simple but important things about the way literature uses language to capture human experiences, and helps undermine some of the subjective theories students might have about the nature of “high-brow” literature.

I have never studied Ulysses in terms of themes or theories, but I have difficulty imagining how one would go about this without getting lost in the language. Perhaps that poses less of a problem with allusions, because these one can pursue more playfully; Ulysses itself is, after all, a playful novel that does not always take its literary references seriously.

Luther Blissett’s Hamlet-take makes a lot of sense to me, but I’d still say the Odyssey is more important to Joyce’s goal than is Hamlet. For one, Odysseus is a much more complete character than Hamlet as far as the human condition is concerned: he is a father and a son, a lover and husband, a king and a slave, a peacemaker and warrior, and, above all, a survivor. And Hamlet, while staging the various roles in various characters, does not present us with a character that is all these things at once. Furthermore, the song of Odysseus’ actions, the verse of his relentless pursuit of home, is one of the most powerful affirmations of life in language we have, and it is this poetic feat, I believe, that Joyce wants to achieve in Ulysses above all else: the echoing “Yes” to life, something that, for all I remember, Hamlet isn’t quite so clear about.

By on 11/26/08 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me that if you try to focus on Ulysses as in part an examination of the fear of cuckoldry or the search for a father you are giving your students something they have encountered many times before in fiction much easier to read. Why read Joyce for that?

If you teach Aeolus in depth they get rhetoric, journalism, nationalism, nostalgia, formalism in ways that could be related to current events. And teach what is nearly unique about Joyce.

My experience is that lifetime Joyce fans, and not just scholars, are fascinated by the “puzzles and games” and subsequently are moved by the humanism. The ones who drop Joyce early are those who struggle to uncover the naturalistic narrative and wonder why they should bother.

By on 11/27/08 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Give ‘em a handout of Rhetorical figures with examples and have them search for uses & misuses in Aeolus. Give a little prize for the most successful. Then maybe search for the wind allusions, and the connection of rhetoric with hot air. How do the winds get bagged or unbagged?

Everybody loves puzzles. They’re fun.

Then ask your students why Joyce put all the figures in. It wasn’t because he was crazy or merely having fun.

By on 11/27/08 at 02:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bob, it’s not an either/or.  In my experience, students “get into” a novel based on its central conflicts and characters, the questions it asks and the skillful ways it defers answering them.  When I’ve seen *Ulysses* taught, students were hooked by the existential crises facing Bloom and Stephen in the opening chapters.  They more they cared about those struggles (and let’s not pretend Joyce doesn’t take these conflicts utterly seriously), the more they cared about *how* Joyce developed those conflicts.

I agree with you that close readings of the literary technique of each section would be fun and completely doable.  I’m teaching *Les Miserables* to tenth graders right now, and we look closely at the rhetorical figures used, how they contribute to appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos, what images and symbols define which characters and settings, etc.  But the students seem to get more from the in-depth analysis when they actually care about the big issues: character, conflict, theme, atmosphere, and tone.

(I also agree that students love puzzles and games.  A colleague of mine has a scavenger hunt with *Hamlet* to see which student can find the most metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche.)

Robert Scholes gets it right when he talks about teaching.  Students need to get a sense of the big, dramatic picture of any literary work.  Once they’re hooked, they will dig into the guts.

By on 11/27/08 at 06:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Right around the turn of this century, a list of the 100 best books of last century was compiled. “Journalists” reporting on the book, who get befuddled by anything more complex than a simple declarative sentence, scoffed at the idea that the “unreadable” Ulysses would be #1.

I had in mind to don a trenchcoat.

And wander the streets of the city, copies of Ulysses in the lining, accosting any ragged pimply-faced boy.

I’d whisper, “Psst. Want some really DIRTY stuff? Hookers, adulteresses; wanking and shitting and sniffing knickers? You want the REAL underbelly? Five quid.”

You can’t get to Paradiso if you haven’t read Inferno.

By David on 11/29/08 at 05:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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