|Texts and Contexts|
Corley halted at the first lamp and stared grimly before him. Then with a grave gesture he extended a hand towards the light and, smiling, opened it slowly to the gaze of his disciple. A small gold coin shone in the palm.
Those are the final forty-two words of “Two Gallants,” the sixth story in James Joyce’s Dubliners. They comprise my text for this morning. For context I wish to invoke our recent and still ongoing department-wide discussions on the practice and teaching of close reading in the undergraduate classroom. My primary goal in this talk is unashamedly modest: simply to provide a useful conceptual space for further collective talk amongst ourselves on the various gnarly problems associated with trying to teach close reading skills.
There appears to be a renewed interest throughout our profession in the topic of close reading. It may be that I’ve only recently begun to pay attention, but the past three or four years seem to have produced an unusually large number of books and essays with some form of the phrase “how to read” in the title, “how to read” in all cases meaning “how to read closely.” The ones I’ve looked at encompass a wide variety of critical perspectives and agendas, but all have a bracing fervor about them. Each pauses at least once in order to sound a call—some are muted calls, others clarion—for us to re-commit ourselves to what is perhaps our only shared heritage as literary critics, our faith in the value of reading well. Indeed, the bulk of our professional activities as academics might be said to originate in the belief that a wide gulf separates simply reading from reading well. Implicit here is the claim that knowing how to read well is itself a fundamental virtue, one that provides the necessary ground for the cultivation of other virtues. Certain habits of attention, of intellectual rigor, the refinement of sensibility and emotional response, as well as of the ability to analyze, to synthesize, to discriminate, to evaluate: the development of these and other positive character traits have always been bound up for us with the cultivation of close reading skills. Interestingly, the “how to read” books I’ve been reading (and, needless to say, reading well) invariably define the project at hand in terms of recovery rather than of innovation. In other words, a return to fundamentals, to origins, rather than an effort to elaborate new paradigms or chart new territories.
Of course the question of close reading has never really gone away. It is always as close as your next class meeting. Our professional commitment to the rigorous explication of texts (texts in the most catholic sense of that term) is most visible in the classroom, where it structures much of our thinking about pedagogy. To take only one example, a commitment to the value of close reading largely determines what gets read in the classroom. A “text”—of whatever kind—that will not support a close reading is, almost by definition, without interest. Even those of us who on occasion include in a syllabus works of popular or mass culture or items of cultural ephemera require them to enact, as it were, a certain resistance to assimilation, a certain productive drag on our efforts to “read” them. Before we are willing to work on texts, we need to be assured that they do in fact require work. In other words, as professional readers we attend only to texts that comport themselves as worthy adversaries.
Here I return to Joyce. Hard to find a worthier adversary than him! Indeed, Dubliners can seem as if written expressly for classroom use. The challenges these stories present, the kinds of resistance they offer, appear to be precisely the sort of thing close reading is designed to meet, and overcome. So why do I have so much trouble teaching them? Why are my efforts to lead classes to and through close readings of these stories so, well, unsatisfying, not just to me but to most of the students in the room as well? I realize these are my problems teaching Joyce, not yours, and they may well point simply to my own failures. Yet I suspect that they are representative problems, not confined either to me as a teacher or to Dubliners as the taught. In my experience at least, it is often the texts that lend themselves most readily to close reading that work least well in the classroom. Why is that? I wonder. The usual answer—that the ability to read well is after all a rare skill, and that most folks are unwilling or unprepared to aspire to the dreadful joys of a craft so long to learn—that answer, in addition to being unhelpfully self-congratulating, is also just inadequate. The issues are more complex.
In January I taught a Center for the Liberal Arts seminar for secondary school teachers in Virginia Beach, and we read Dubliners. The room was full of excellent readers, and indeed we had an excellent discussion of the book. Following my usual practice, I began the session by soliciting questions and topics from the class. Immediately a hand went up. “What happens at the end of 'Two Gallants’?” I was asked. I was not surprised by the question, and here is why. I have taught Dubliners often, at all levels from introductory undergraduate courses to advanced graduate courses, and every time I teach it—as in, every time—someone asks me: what happens at the end of “Two Gallants”? You know what happens. I just read you the last forty-two words of the story. "Corley halted at the first lamp and stared grimly before him. Then with a grave gesture he extended a hand towards the light and, smiling, opened it slowly to the gaze of his disciple. A small gold coin shone in the palm." If you’ve never read “Two Gallants,” don’t worry. I can tell you the rest of the story in exactly one hundred words. On a warm August evening in Dublin, Corley and Lenehan, two young men without prospects in life, walk and converse. Corley, who has a small reputation as a lady’s man, has an appointment with a young woman, from which Lenehan expects to benefit in a way left unspecified. Corley meets the woman and they go off. We remain with Lenehan, who walks the streets, reflecting on his dreary life and drearier prospects. He eventually arrives at the rendevouz point, where he sees Corley and the woman part. Excited, he rushes up to Corley and asks sharply: “Did it come off?”
Corley then halts at the first lamp—and so on. Let me make two observations at this point. First, there is nothing difficult about “Two Gallants” at the level of "what happens." If pressed—and I always press, just to be sure—any student who has read the story can give a plot summary like the one I just offered. Second, as such a summary should make clear, whatever interest the story holds has relatively little to do with its events. Even inattentive readers recognize that. And so the question, “what happens at the end of 'Two Gallants’?” I take to be shorthand for a much longer series of questions about how to understand and then evaluate what happens at the end of the story. The narrator of “Two Gallants,” following Joyce’s practice throughout Dubliners, offers next to no explicit guidance here: no commentary, no analysis, no suggestions about what details to pause over or what frameworks—ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, and so on—to use to make sense of events. None of this is unusual, or specific to Joyce. “Two Gallants” asks its readers to do more work, perhaps, than many other texts, but it is a kind of work that is familiar to us. It’s familiar, too, I would argue, to most students in our classes, even those who may not be very good at doing it.
The name we usually give to this work is close reading. It matters almost not at all what our allegiances are as critics—formalist, New Critical, Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist, structuralist, deconstructive, or, as my daughters like to say, “whatever”—we begin, we affirm, by reading closely. What we mean by that is usually left unspecified, in part because close reading is not so much a set of skills (though that’s the way we usually talk about it) as it is a particular form of attention. Indeed, when we ask students to read closely, what we are really saying, first and foremost, is: pay attention. I am not being flippant here. Paying attention is hard to do. But if you do pay attention, if you are patient and attentive enough, you will see some interesting things and think some interesting thoughts about whatever it is you are reading. To quote from a critic not usually associated with any contemporary school of criticism, interesting writing has “for the susceptible reader the effect of a challenge for minute consideration; the attention of the writer, in every minutest detail, being a pledge that it is worth the reader’s while to be attentive too, that the writer is dealing scrupulously with his instrument, and therefore, indirectly, with the reader himself.” For such a reader “there will be an aesthetic satisfaction in that frugal closeness of style which makes the most of a word, in the exaction from every sentence of a precise relief, in the just spacing out of word to thought, in the logically filled space connected always with the delightful sense of difficulty overcome.” That is Walter Pater, who would, one feels, have been a interestingly good reader of Dubliners.
When we ask students to read closely, we are asking them to pay attention in the way that Pater describes. Fostering the habit of such attention is, presumably, our primary goal as teachers of literature. And so, when the question “What happens at the end of 'Two Gallants?’” arises, I invariably respond by saying, in effect, let us see what we can see if we attend more closely to the story. What students see is often quite remarkable, and I mean that as praise. I will contend, contrary to common wisdom, that most undergraduates, even the English majors, are accomplished close readers. In “Two Gallants,” for instance, they recognize the gaps that separate the narrator not just from the characters but from the implied author. They are alert to the story’s silences and absences. They are sensitive to the workings of generic convention, even when they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. They can locate and elaborate patterns of images, they can unpack a metaphor, they recognize irony when they see it. They are skilled at reading against the grain and beneath the surface. They positively revel in aporia. As a teacher, all you need is to overcome their inertia, just nudge them into motion, and they will do with considerable skill what you’ve asked them to do.
Nevertheless, what I am increasingly struck by is how quickly we all run out of interesting things to say. Even the most promising lines of inquiry tend soon to exhaust themselves. They starve from lack of nourishment, a nourishment whose name—and this is my moral for this morning—is information. In my experience, most undergraduates strenuously resist the idea that information is useful or even relevant to what they do as readers of literature. They are too busy burning with a hard gem—like flame to do anything more. I can most readily illustrate what I mean by returning for a moment to that gold coin in Corley’s hand at the end of “Two Gallants.” What is the value of that coin? I now ask my students. Not its symbolic or figurative value, but its value as a coin, as a piece of currency. Has Corley’s lady friend just given him the equivalent of a hundred dollars? five? a quarter? a Sacagewea commemorative coin? Has she just handed over her quarterly pay? her entire life’s savings? What is its purchasing power? Could Corley pay his rent with it, or is it just enough to buy him and Lenehan a couple of pints? Until you can answer these and other similarly mundane yet very complicated questions, you cannot evaluate the close of the story. You cannot fully answer the question, what happens at the end of “Two Gallants”? Indeed, no “reading“ of any kind, of this or of any other story in Dubliners, can proceed very far in the absence of information. The kind of information I am talking about it is not in the text, and it cannot be divined by close reading. No matter how closely you pay attention to the words on the page, you cannot learn the value of that coin in Corley’s hand.
What you can learn, I think, is to recognize when you don’t know something. You can become adept at locating the places where more information is needed, information you may finally be compelled to search for in some book other than the one you’re holding in your hands. As we all know when we sit down to write our own essays, close reading does not occur until a certain amount—usually a quite large amount—of contextual reading has taken place. Joyce’s texts are particularly apposite here. Viewed from some angles they appear to offer themselves to us as closed, self-sufficient systems: well-wrought urns, in other words. But as the work of the best Joyce critics always demonstrates—critics such as Michael Levenson, Jennifer Wicke, Bob Kellogg, and Victor Luftig (others, too, but those are the ones I prefer to hang out with)—the more vigorous the textual analysis, the more firmly rooted it is in contextual information of one kind or another.
This is all fairly obvious, I know, but it points to a pedagogic problem, since it is not obvious to many of our majors, even the best. Indeed, it strikes them as deeply counterintuitive. The resistance to facts runs very deep. That resistance is, I think, an inevitable result of the way they are trained as readers, of the way we train them as readers. Too much information is too often seen as an impediment to aesthetic appreciation. When I teach Ulysses I require students to purchase Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, a book disliked even by some Joyceans but one I passionately admire and would like, in fact, to have written. Students hate it. And, since they tend to consult it only after they have made themselves positively ill struggling with Ulysses, they see every recourse to Gifford as a “defeat.” Implicit in that response is the assumption that one ought to be, or even could be, the kind of reader for whom a “crib” such as Gifford’s would be unnecessary. On a smaller scale, students—and this includes the teachers in my Center for the Liberal Arts seminar—are unanimous in their scorn for Terence Brown’s extensive annotations to the Penguin edition of Dubliners. One student told me she was considering whiting out all the endnote numbers in her text so she wouldn’t be distracted by them.
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that collecting information is a substitute for critical thinking. I do believe that it is a necessary pre-condition for such thinking, though it is hardly a sufficient one. I am also not suggesting that we ought to busy ourselves compiling lists of “What Your Second Year Needs to Know” in order to read “Two Gallants” or other literary texts. Finally, as important as it is for students to “know things” as well as to “feel things” about texts, I don’t think the best pedagogy is simply for us to tell them what we think they need to know. Instead, we might focus our teacherly energy on the difficult task of helping those in our classrooms both to recognize gaps in their knowledge and to develop the skills they need to fill those gaps. Needless to say, the pedagogic challenges here are substantial. I think our ongoing discussions about undergraduate teaching, for instance, could profitably include discussions about how to integrate close reading with contextual reading. How do we help students learn to close read context? How do we help them recognize the pedagogic value of ignorance, the value of learning to say at appropriate moments while they read: I don’t know. There is something here I do not know, and I need to find it out. I need to find it out not just because facts have their own value, their own intrinsic interest, but also because my aesthetic appreciation of (or my ideological critique of) this piece of writing will be unformed, uninformed, unpersuasive, of minimal value, in the absence of certain information. I quoted from Pater’s essay “Style” a few moments ago. If you know that essay, you will recall that Pater insists that good readers are “scholars.” They not only know how to pay attention, they not only possess exquisitely refined sensibilities, they also bring to their reading a wealth of knowledge. Scholarly readers weigh the “value” of individual words, Pater says. For Pater, the reader who knows how to value a particular word is sensitive to its placement within the artistic patternings of a text, but such a reader also knows the historical value of the word—knows the history that it brings to the text. That value permeates the text, but is not created by it. And so the reader who aspires to the fullest response—aesthetic or critical—to a text must be, in the best possible sense, a pedant.
I have been focussing on undergraduate teaching so far, but I think these issues are relevant for graduate instruction too. After I had completed a draft of this talk, Victor Luftig lent me a copy of Peter Rabinowitz’s provocatively titled essay, “Against Close Reading.” I recommend it to you. At one point Rabinowitz quotes a well-known dictum from Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Literature: “before extensive reading can be profitable,” write Brooks and Warren, “the student must have some practice in intensive reading.” In fact, Rabinowitz says, just the opposite is true. You need to read a lot of things before you can read any one thing well. And most of the things you read you will not read closely, nor should you. I said at the beginning of my talk that a commitment to close reading was probably our only common ground as critics and teachers. But it is also the case that we share a commitment—almost never acknowledged—to the kind of reading that is the opposite of close reading. What does one call the opposite of close reading? Skimming maybe, or skipping? Skipping is what Henry James calls it in “The Art of Fiction,” where he sharply criticizes those who considers reading merely “an exercise in the art of skipping.”
That’s a sentiment we can all get behind. Except that everyone in this room is a master of the art of skipping, of skimming, of sliding and gliding over pages of print in search of the gist, the point, the general sense. Skimming makes up a substantial portion of all the reading we do, or so I am guessing. It is not easy, either. It requires as much attention as the closest of close readings. It’s an advanced reading skill. We almost never talk about it, though, probably because it seems somehow shameful. Yet it is among the most useful professional tools we have. A few years ago a close friend of mine who is pursuing her doctorate in history at the University of Delaware was told by her dissertation director that she would never be successful as an historian until she learned, in his words, “how to gut a book.” My friend was appalled, and I suppose I was too at first. It seems so violent. God knows I don’t like to think of my own so agonizingly composed publications being gutted with callous and deadly precision by heartless professionals. Who likes being reduced to a gist? And yet I know what my friend’s dissertation director was talking about, and if I’m honest I’ll admit that I agree with his assessment. More than that: I see nothing wrong with skimming, skipping, gutting, “making use of” books. You can’t write your own book or your own dissertation until you’ve gutted a lot of other books—in the right spirit, of course. So why do we never teach this skill? How would you go about teaching it anyway? Why don’t we theorize it? Why won’t we even talk about it in polite company?
As you may know, James Joyce was a world-class skimmer, a magpie of a reader whose Dedalean theorizing flowers in a Bloomian compost pile of information. And, to return one last time to my main point this morning, Joyce also knew the dangers of interpreting in the absence of sufficient information. He knew that you can’t close read in a vacuum:
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadows, listening to distant music, a symbol of.
Like my best undergraduate students, Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead” has no trouble producing credible readings of the scene before him. None of those readings account for Michael Furey, of course, precisely because he’s not-yet-in the text. How much better then it would have been for Gabriel had he just said to himself: there is something here I don’t quite understand, some information that appears to be eluding me. What else might I need to know before I can say with certainty what a woman standing on the stairs in the shadows, listening to distant music, is a symbol of?
|TEI markup by Chad Sansing|