Reading · Teaching

Context is Key, or Where’d I Leave My Chaucer Goggles?


So I changed my new mantra from Context is King to “Context is Key” because nothing that sweeping needs to be gendered, and because I really think it works like a key. I’m thinking about how we use the text to read the text, how some works teach us how to read them, how scenes and characters mean different things if they come after others and you’re cued to them, and how deep reading of an author or a work can give you a particular view of the world.
There’s a lot there, but it’s all connected.
As a grad student in Medieval Studies, I didn’t have to mess with theory very much. Most of it was written way after my stuff, and so only marginally applicable. Just like you can’t reach back and call Chaucer a feminist when he would have had no concept of what that meant, it’s not really fair to judge a medieval poem by a 20th century theory.
But you can judge it by its own standards. I like the idea of using the text to view the text. Beowulf, for instance, offers a basic case to begin. The poem opens with a description of an ancient king, Scyld Scefing (or Shield Sheafson, if we modernized it), and some events of his life. His name is a train wreck, obviously–one that would have gotten him beaten up on Anglo-Saxon playgrounds–unless we read him like a mythic hero-king: one who provides both protection (he’s literally a shield) and sustenance (providing, for example, a sheaf of wheat) for his people. We get a brief biography, then he never comes up again, but he does set a standard from which we can judge Beowulf as a hero-king.
Other poets aren’t as brazen about giving directions to read their work, but they kind of do anyway. After reading Chaucer’s “Friar’s Tale,” where the devil refuses to claim a horse when its carter verbally damned it to hell–on the grounds he didn’t literally mean it–readers of the “Franklin’s Tale” are ready to criticize Arveragus for making his wife keep the little oath she made “in play” over her wedding oath, because even the devil recognizes intent—certainly her own husband should.
So some books teach us how to read them. By the end of a book, we’re keyed to subtleties the author couldn’t have made use of before, at least not to as great an effect.

But some authors also teach us how to read the world. After fifteen years of teaching Chaucer, I have learned to see humor in unconventional places, to look for patterns, and to judge intentions. Edmund Spenser has taught me to expect to find magic everywhere. Ovid has helped me view the world as interconnected and constantly changing, and to value change as refreshing, even rewarding. I think of this like putting on glasses in a process similar to when critics read from a particular theory’s “lens.” So if you need me, I’ll just be over here polishing my Chaucer glasses, trying to filter some sense out of the evening news.


The Dualists’ Dilemma

I love how some ideas just keep getting reworked. We don’t outgrow fairy tales; we just repackage them. We recreate some of the same archetypal scenes (this is just so-and-so’s odyssey) and characters: he’s such a Casanova. Today I’m entranced by our idea that we are dual in nature—a mixture of good and evil, or a compound of body and soul.

Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde explores our good and evil natures, but not in the way the cartoons taught me. Tweety Bird got huge and scary and violent when his evil side came out, as did many others, but Stevenson’s Hyde was smaller than Jekyll—wiry, malnourished, wild. Jekyll came to understand that he had cultivated his good qualities, and thus his body was tall and strong; his evil side was purely evil, and he had quelled his evil side, not fed it.
This is reflected in the Cherokee story about the grandfather who tells the boy there are two wolves inside each of us—a good wolf and a bad wolf. The boy asks which one is stronger, and his grandfather replies “The one you feed.”  Jekyll’s wolfish Hyde is in danger of growing when Jekyll sets him free and exercises him.
The popularity of Stevenson’s work in the 20thcentury, from cartoons to films to Star Trek episodes means this idea struck a chord with our imagination. In the Star Trek episode, entitled “The Enemy Within” splits Captain Kirk in to his good and evil side, and complicates matters by making his good side really problematic. He can’t make decisions or lead effectively. The implication is that the “whole” Kirk has enough ego and chutzpah to step on toes if he needs to get something done. Of course it’s the original Star Trek, so the evil Kirk is a pleasure-seeking hedonist, drinking and chasing women (more aggressively than usual).  Different context, but same idea.
The other way we seem to split ourselves, and perhaps with an even longer literary (and philosophical) history is the Cartesian dualist division between the physical and the conscious, or the body and soul. This is ancient, of course, but it hasn’t left us for all our technology. It came up today in class, reading Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight. (Incidently, Calvino also explored the other dualism in The Cloven Viscount, where the titular hero gets blasted in to his good and bad sides by a cannonball, but today we were talking about matter and spirit.)
The nonexistent Knight is an empty suit of armor that walks and talks and rescues damsels, fueled, as he tells Charlemagne, by “will power… and faith in our holy cause” (7), which Charlemagne concedes is enough to get us all moving. This nonexistent knight is given a squire who is his opposite: a man who seems to be “all body” in the sense that he doesn’t know he exists, so he “becomes” everything he comes in contact with—ducks, pears, soup, and Charlemagne himself.
This novella is a thought experiment: what if we could separate our mind and body in to separate forms? What would a mind look like with no body? Nothing. He needs the armor to give him shape. What would a person be like with no core soul binding him to one identity? A person who seems to carry traces of all races and who, having no core identity of his own, borrows one from his immediate environment, which changes as he moves around. He’s not a duck at dinner time, only when he’s walking by the duck pond and dives in. He’s soup at dinner time, not knowing whether he should eat the soup, or feed the soup to a tree with a hole in it, or become the soup itself. He literally dives in to whatever surrounds him.
Why so many stories with binaries over the years? We have a long history of thinking of ourselves as composite, frequently of two parts. And is the real progress of the last century that we don’t anymore? That now we tend to think of ourselves in multiple parts or roles? Today my students discussed the idea of a Disco Ball theory of identity: we all have lots of different facets, not just two constituent parts. That idea could take us far afield from Jekyll and Hyde, more like boldly going where no one has gone before.
(Images from Shutterstock, Star Trek Season 1, Episode 5, and the Harvest/HBJ edition of The Nonexistent Knight)

Mystery Texts, Gaps in my Vast Fund of General Information, and the Case for Surrealism

This week’s “Mystery Text” in the Senior Symposium class was Julio Cortázar’s surreal short story, “Axolotl.” I love it. A man who discovers axolotls at the zoo in Paris swaps consciousness with one, and tells the process by which he finds himself trapped in the axolotl, as his former body walks away.
Students never guess the author—maybe once in twelve years, but not because they read it in our courses—just because they were cool and seeking out Latin American writers. And I give them credit if they guess Borges. He’s mid-20th century Argentinian too, and he gets taught in our world lit classes. For these purposes, he’s close enough.
I have not studied either of them, though, really. I read one Borges story and one Cortázar story in a 20th/21stcentury fiction class in grad school that I took in the summer. I was a medievalist—what did I need the contemporary stuff for?
But over the years I have bought a dozen books by these two, and another half dozen by Alberto Manguel, another Argentinian (who read in the afternoons to Borges as a kid, when Borges was going blind). I don’t know if you can call a niche of literature wildly outside one’s specialty a hobby, but I do keep buying books.
So after ten years of using Cortázar as a Mystery Text (this is an exercise for our seniors that feels like a literature practical in the style of I. A. Richards, but with the twist of using what they deduce to assess our program’s effectiveness at teaching literary traditions) and giving a cheesy internet biography to help them contextualize Cortázar at the end of class, I found myself this time really responding to Cortázar the activist, Cortázar the anti-Peron exile, even Cortázar the Parisian ex-patriate.
I started looking for a biography in English.
Because I have plenty of time right now.
(This is false. I am right in the middle of winter quarter. I’m on a search committee and have been going in two extra days a week for three weeks meeting all the candidates for my search and another position. It’s midterms—exams are piling up, and so are Chaucer translations; my partner was out of town for four days; we’re getting a new roof. I don’t have time for extra, unrelated reading.) But I’m really ticked that I can’t find an English biography of a 20th century Argentinian author.
Someday I may stop being curious. Someday I may not chase down characters and authors and practice new skills and stand in awe at things I don’t understand. But today is not that day. Today I’m imagining the kind of man who could write the bizarre “The Night Face-Up” and the lyrical collection Save Twilight, who could leave his country forever on principle and live in another language and culture and hemisphere. What pushes us to explore the surreal faster than a frustrating reality? And how long will it take me to get up to reading speed in Spanish?

(Image pilfered from Wikipedia.)