As promised, in the next few posts I want to share my approach to literary interpretation. It is “my” approach, not because I invented it — I did not — but because it is the approach I use. It is not so much a method as a set of expectations, expectations shaped by certain assumptions about humanity, the world and the transcendent.
The posture toward literature I will share is most akin to what is known as, rather misleadingly, the “classical” approach. It is called “classical” because it is informed by some of the virtues and ideals valued by classical Greece and Rome. Most classical interpretation is also shaped by the fundamentals of Christian theology. That classical interpretation has roots in both classical and Christian traditions means that it also has affinities with Medieval perspectives, that stimulating period of history in which scholars attempted to synthesize the best of classical and Christian ideology into one system. Even though I have trekked a good bit from my early Calvinism, my approach to literature also owes a couple of key assumptions to that tradition. So, for lack of a better word, mine is a “classical” approach.
James Berlin, a now deceased writing professor, once wrote that “to teach writing is to argue for a version of reality.” It was this quote that, in my first semester of grad school, jolted me awake to the philosophical implications of what I had gotten myself into. I had naively believed that ASU’s English professors would teach me some tried and true methods for helping college students learn how to write. I don’t want to suggest I did not learn some valuable techniques. I certainly did. But the most important thing is what I learned from Berlin — that I need to develop a writing pedagogy that matches my worldview — that fits the version of reality I think is true. To do otherwise would be to lack philosophical integrity. It would be to separate method from ideology, a union no man should ever put asunder.
Berlin was correct. To teach writing is far more than a set of techniques. It assumes a version of reality — it requires the teacher to commit himself to a particular view of what it means to be human, what it means to communicate, what it means “to mean” and to translate that meaning into interpretable script. It implies profound things about the power of language and the existence (or non-existence) of truth. To teach writing requires an assumption about what truth is and how you get it. To teach writing implicitly invites, if it does not require, the student to share the teacher’s version of reality.
The question that composition teachers must answer is this: is writing about the articulation, representation and transmission of truth? If, as many contemporary English professors believe, there is no such thing as “truth,” then they must answer “no” that question. If writing is not about the articulation of truth, what then is it about? According to Berlin, knowledge is not something which is acquired or discovered, it is created. Writing, hence, is not about representation but about the generation of new knowledge. Berlin answers my question by asserting that the act of writing has the potential to create truth that never existed before.
I once invited, at another’s suggestion, a wealthy and brilliant venture capitalist to speak to my freshman composition students. Among other provocative comments, he said this: “It is an amazing thing to sit in a board room with the smartest business minds on the planet and realize that, simply by speaking, we can make it so.” As he uttered these last few words, he held out his hand and breathed an invisible world into the palm of his hand. Whether or not he appreciated the implicit allusions to Genesis 1, I do not know. But the audacity of his claim was startling nonetheless.
This is what Berlin meant. This is what he wanted writing teachers to do — to teach students that by writing they could “make it so.” That is heady stuff, and freshmen eat it up. Instructors devour it. The vacuity of the project comes to light, however, once you see that the “truth” Berlin & Co. have in mind is not new at all. It ends up sounding a lot like, well, you know. (I am trying to avoid the “p” word for as long as possible).
I share this diversion into composition theory because, even though I disagree with Berlin’s project, his insight is spot on. In fact, I would say it is not only English teachers that argue for a version of reality. Literature itself portrays, explicitly or implicitly, a version of reality. I will delve into one way to explore that reality in my next post.