Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

The Audacity of Literary Studies

Marjorie PerloffThe Modern Language Association held its annual meeting in San Francisco December 28 through 30, and its theme, “The Way We Teach Now,” was selected by MLA president Gerald Graff, whose classic Professing Literature the Press re-published in 2007 as a 20th anniversary edition. Teaching, as both a concept and an occupation, was a central concern of the convention; for those seeking faculty positions in the humanities, job prospects were bleak: according to the Los Angeles Times, search committees often received upwards of two hundred applications for each vacant position, and many positions were canceled due to funding cuts. But outside the interview rooms, talk of teaching was more intellectual. Among the several conference sessions devoted to the subject, one of the liveliest featured a talk by Marjorie Perloff, “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” Perloff answers the question not, as her fans might expect, by reference to poetic language (the subject of her Wittgenstein’s Ladder) or the Futurists (see her The Futurist Moment), but with a compelling close reading of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Professor Perloff kindly granted us permission to reprint her comments here; we hope her take on teaching is instructive, pardon the pun.

Marjorie Perloff

The title our convener, Jean-Paul Riquelme chose for this session says it all. Not “how to teach literature,” but why. Not “why teach literary criticism or literary theory or literary history” but “teach literature,” a phrase that compounds subject matter and discipline, rather as if economics were called money, mathematics were called numbers, or history were called the human past. As for “anyway,” defined in the OED, as (#1) “In any manner, to any degree or extent, in any way however imperfect,” or, in its more usual current usage (#3), as the adverb conjunction, “however the case may be, in any case,” anyway in this context implies impatience, even exasperation: why attend this lecture anyway when you can read it online? Have you ever heard anyone say, “Why teach biochemistry anyway?” or “Why teach constitutional law anyway?”

For the last few decades, as Rita Felski notes in a recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education (19 December 2008. B7-9), “A puzzling paralysis over justification grips [our] discipline.” The word literature is now regularly coupled with apology. It seems—and this conundrum has occurred throughout history: witness Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry (1581)—that teaching students about “literature,” that broad umbrella term that includes lyric poetry, fiction, drama, autobiography, the personal essay, but also the philosophical treatise or the comic book, is a specious discipline because it is not properly definable and certainly not scientific: however many theories of literature have and will be put forward, none has ever proved to be the theory of literature. Then, too, taste varies enormously and is partly (some would say largely) culturally determined, so that there can be no local, much less global agreement as to what constitutes “great” or even “good” literature. In my own area, Modernist, avant-garde, and contemporary poetics, I find myself constantly at odds with friends and colleagues whose work I respect but whose admiration for (or denigration of) poet X I cannot share. Given that there is no formula for what does and does not constitute a literary work, why teach literature anyway? What knowledge does the reading of literature impart? And what is the value of that knowledge?
I thought about this question a great deal during the past presidential campaign. In the fall of 2007, when the common wisdom was that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic candidate (she was thirty points ahead and already featured on magazine covers as the future president), I happened across Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father (first published in 1995). I had already read The Audacity of Hope and was much taken with Obama’s blueprint for change, but Dreams (a book I literally couldn’t put down and read in two sittings) was different. Without ever mentioning Obama’s political ambitions, the memoir shows how and why its author, a candidate all but unknown and untested at the outset of the campaign, was likely to become our next president. Indeed, had the two Clintons and their various surrogates read Dreams from my Father, they would not have underestimated Obama so grossly. Had the CNN or ABC news analysts read it, they might not have made so many foolish predictions or silly generalizations. “Who is Barack Obama?” they collectively asked, knitting their brows. But reading the candidate’s own self-representation was evidently not an option, for reading literature—and autobiography is, of course, a form of literature—occupies an increasingly insignificant position in our culture. For those who actually govern the country, reading seriously and critically seems to have been replaced by being briefed. Hillary Clinton, you recall, had not read the infamous report on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq; she was briefed on it.
How to read: it is this discipline that we as literature professors can—and—must teach our students. For reading—or rather, rereading because one reading is never sufficient—is neither easy nor instinctive; it is a learned process and like absorbing a foreign language or mastering calculus, it takes time. As currently taught in primary and secondary school, reading literature is largely the processing of ideas: underline the topic sentence of an essay or the key lines of a poem and tell the class what the text in question “says.” In the case of fiction or drama, the discussion turns to how the plot plays out and what the characters are like. “What would you do if you were Desdemona?” was a question my daughter Carey had to write on in her English class at the Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia.
The fallacy of such literature acquisition is that it wholly ignores the one and only constant in literature, which is language. Literature need not be fiction and it need not convey “important” ideas. But language is the material of literature, and common sense tells us that what we have designated as literary discourse from Plato to the present is that discourse whose main aim is not to convey information. “Do not forget,” said Wittgenstein, “that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information” (Zettel). And Wittgenstein specifies this distinction in the following passage from the Philosophical Investigations (#531):

We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)
In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)

In the information age which is ours, this distinction is often lost on those accustomed to read whatever they happen to be reading—computer manuals, scientific papers, stock market reports, or even political speeches or summaries of senate hearings—for information or, at best, persuasion, as in the case of an editorial or Op-Ed piece. Word choice, imagery, metaphor, metonymy, irony and parody, the effect of verbal and phrasal repetition, the role genre and convention play in generating meaning, and especially, as Wittgenstein notes, the function of syntax (from the choice of articles and prepositions to verb tense and mood, to word order in a given sentence)—these defining elements are curiously ignored. Indeed, in the political arena, Dreams from my Father was considered less important than The Audacity of Hope, because after all Dreams doesn’t lay out a program; it’s just a memoir of childhood and youth. And since most memoirs are ghost-written—John McCain has one called Faith of my Fathers, written “with” (in other words, by) Mark Salter—there’s no use paying attention to them anyway.
In New Hampshire, we recall, immediately after Obama’s upset victory in Iowa, Bill Clinton dismissed Obama’s popular denunciation of the Iraq war with the words, “I mean, give me a break. This whole thing is just a fairytale.” And Clinton proceeded to detail how “he”—the former president to this day cannot bring himself to refer to Obama by name—had taken his anti-war speech off his website. Ironically, “this whole thing,” if we take Dreams from my Father as synecdoche, is a fairytale, not, in Clinton’s derogatory sense as being false, but in having a fairytale plot (rags to riches) that anticipates a happy ending. Here is the book’s opening page:

A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called, to give me the news. I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan. It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for most of the day. The apartment was small, with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.
None of this concerned me much, for I didn’t get many visitors. I was impatient in those days, busy with work and unrealized plans, and prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate company exactly. I enjoyed exchanging Spanish pleasantries with my mostly Puerto Rican neighbors, and on my way from classes I’d usually stop to talk to the boys who hung out on the stoop all summer long about the Knicks or the gunshots they’d heard the night before. When the weather was good, my roommate and I might sit out on the fire escape to smoke cigarettes and study the dusk washing blue over the city, or watch white people from the better neighborhoods nearby walk their dogs down our block to let the animals shit on our curbs—”Scoop the poop, you bastards,” my roommate would shout with impressive rage, and we’d laugh at the faces of both master and beast, grim and unapologetic as they hunkered down to do the deed.
I enjoyed such moments but only in brief. If the talk began to wander or cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself. I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew. (3-4).

If the typical freshman were asked to comment on this page of Dreams, s/he would find little to remark on beyond paraphrase: there is nothing, after all, in this initial composition of place that demands explanation. Dreams is not a difficult book to read; its realistic narrative avoids esoteric allusion and philosophical digression, proceeding chronologically, after the prelude cited here, through the familiar stages of childhood, boyhood, and youth, evoking comparison to such other coming-of-age memoirs by African-Americans as James Baldwin’s, Malcolm X’s, or Clarence Browns. There is a long section on Obama’s work as community organizer in Chicago and a longer one about his journey to Kenya in search of his roots, but very little about his schooling at Columbia or the Harvard Law School.
But “realism” is of course itself a literary mode. “Following the path of contiguous relationships,” Roman Jakobson wrote famously, “the Realist author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time.” Dreams opens with the sentence, “A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news.” We don’t yet know that the news in question is the death of Obama’s father, an absent presence in his life (Obama met his father only once for a brief period when he was eleven), but suspense is created because the news comes, not from Barack’s mother or from the grandparents who raised him, but from a stranger—a fitting emissary to bring the word to one who dwells on a border—specifically, at this juncture, the shifting border “between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan.” Ninety-fourth between Second and First Avenues was then—and remains now—respectable but grungy and fairly dangerous: lots of street crime occurs in this neighborhood in the shadow of Mt. Sinai hospital.
The word border recurs in the third paragraph, this time referring to conversation that might “cross the border into familiarity.” The border is Obama’s condition: we soon learn that our narrator is half-black half-white, half-African, half-American—which is not at all the same thing as being African-American. That border, that stubborn difference, will define Obama the candidate. In the words of John Cage, not either-or, but both-and. Not the red states or the blue states but the United States of America. Not Left or Right—a condition that continues to confound the press and the blogosphere, which regularly tries to “place” Obama in one or the other category (is he a Socialist as Sarah Palin would have it? A Conservative in sync with Wall Street as Alexander Cockburn declared in The Nation?). And not quite a centrist either, for a border person is by no means at the center; rather, such a person partakes of two different cultures and is hence cognizant of both and yet not quite at home in either.
It is this doubleness that Dreams conveys on its very first page. The scene is hardly pretty, a “treeless, barren block lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows most of the day.” The heat is irregular, the doorbell doesn’t work so that guests must call from the corner gas station, and that station is the very image of dreariness and menace, what with that black Doberman, “its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.” But—and this is the Obama the Clintons and the media failed to understand, the narrator of Dreams hardly sees himself as having been an underprivileged black slum kid. “None of this concerned me much,” we read, for “I was impatient in those days, busy with work and unrealized plans.” The work, at this stage, is student work—”on my way back from classes”—and even at this stage, he is a young man who had plans. He knows how to talk to the boys, those Puerto Rican neighbors (another minority) with whom he exchanges Spanish pleasantries about “the Knicks” and the “gunshots” (contrary to Hillary’s later charges, this is someone who knows quite a bit about guns). Like the boys, he sits on the stoop smoking, distanced from the “white people from the better neighborhoods” walking their dogs on “our” turf. Like his companions, he can laugh at the white people’s response to the “Scoop the poop” outcry of the locals. Yet, as we learn in the third paragraph, “I enjoyed such moments—but only in brief. I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.” But—and this is what makes the Barack of the memoir so distinctive—”solitude” is not necessarily equivalent to loneliness or isolation, for it is also the condition for making plans. Victimization, in this context, is not an option: if the doorbell doesn’t work, use the phone; if dogs shit on your curb, think up a way to clean up the mess. Yes we can.
Not that it is easy. In what is perhaps the book’s most painful episode—nine-year old Barack, waiting for his mother in the Embassy library in Jakarta, where the two had moved, three years earlier, when the boy’s mother married an Indonesian fellow-student named Lolo, comes across a collection of Life magazines:

I thumbed through the glossy advertisements—Goodyear Tires and Dodge Fever … men in white turtlenecks pouring Seagram’s over ice as women in red miniskirts looked on admiringly—and felt vaguely reassured. When I came upon a news photograph, I tried to guess the subject of the story before reading the caption.…
Eventually I came across a photograph of an older man in dark glasses and a raincoat walking down an empty road. I couldn’t guess what this picture was about; there seemed nothing unusual about the subject. On the next page was another photograph, this one a close-up of the same man’s hands. They had a strange, unnatural pallor, as if blood had been drawn from the flesh. Turning back to the first picture, I now saw that the man’s crinkly hair, his heavy lips and broad, fleshy nose, all had this same uneven, ghostly hue.
He must be terribly sick, I thought. A radiation victim, maybe, or an albino—I had seen one of those on the street a few days before, and my mother had explained about such things. Except when I read the words that went with the picture, that wasn’t it at all. The man had received a chemical treatment, the article explained, to lighten his complexion. He had paid for it with his own money. He expressed some regrets about trying to pass himself off as a white man, was sorry about how badly things had turned out. But the results were irreversible. There were thousands of people like him, black men and women back in America who’d undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.
I felt my face and neck get hot. My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the face. Did my mother know about this? What about her boss [a black man]—why was he so calm, reading through his reports a few feet down the hall? I had a desperate urge to jump out of my seat, to show that what I had learned, to demand some explanation or assurance. But something held me back. As in a dream I had no voice for my newfound fear. By the time my mother came to take me home, my face wore a smile and the magazines were back in their proper place. The room, the air, was quite as before (pp 29-30).

Something held me back: up to this point, Obama’s narrative of self-discovery as despised (and perhaps self-hating) Other is familiar to readers of African-American fiction and memoir. The scene is also reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” with its similar epiphany of what one is, prompted by a startling magazine picture. But we are not, I think, prepared for the twist at the end of the paragraph: not only does the boy hold back, but by the time his mother comes to take him home, he is smiling. And everything is back in its “proper place.”
What can this mean? Is young Barack a sad little goody-goody, trying to please mommy? No, because in subsequent sequences, he defies her quite openly. Is he a budding Machiavellian, smiling while he covers up his rage and makes his plans? No, again, because the narrator of Dreams will emerge as anything but angry or self-pitying. Or is this boy perhaps a realist, one who already understands that there is no use talking to his mother about what he has seen, for, idealist that she is, and white to boot, she won’t really understand what her son is feeling. It is the same mechanism that makes him remain silent when, while a student at Columbia, he takes his mother and half sister to see the film Black Orpheus. His mother remembers the movie, one she had viewed long ago, as “the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” even as Barack himself finds its exotic representation of people of color—a representation that has always been his mother’s—hopelessly sentimental and inauthentic. But he remains silent.
This, then, is a young man who learns to internalize his feelings, learns to endure his teachers’ “bamboo switches,” learns to eat “dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy)” (36-37), and to survive the local Islamic school, then a Catholic one, and another that is secular. Given the circumstances, there were, in this boy’s life, three choices: to drop out, to become a radical and fight the system—the Malcolm X path—or to regard his existential situation as an amazing challenge. It must change. Barack flirts with the first two alternatives during his teens, but he comes to prefer the third way. It is not a Pollyannaish decision: much of the time, things are pretty bleak and toward the end of the narrative, Obama learns that his revered father, the mythic African prince, was in fact a drunk and a polygamist, a brilliant and gifted man who made all the wrong choices. The coming-of-age narrative presents its protagonist as equally gifted as his father and as desirous to change the world as his hard-working and Utopian mother, but one who is not going to make their mistakes. To read Dreams is to know that, whatever else, this is not someone who was going to let himself be swiftboated like John Kerry. Not by anyone, as Obama told the press calmly and even cheerfully.
Now consider the claims made by those who had not, of course, read Dreams—or at least had not read it critically. Hillary’s repeated claim that “Senator McCain has experience, I have experience, but what does Senator Obama have? He has a speech,” is belied by the narrative of the extraordinary experience this candidate had as a young boy going to school in a linguistically and culturally alien community in a poor and violent fledgling nation, and as a young man living with his many and often poor relatives in Kenya. Even more absurd was the charge of elitism, the claim that this candidate preferred arugula to hoagies and six-packs, that he was “out of touch” with hardworking (a code word for white) Americans and couldn’t understand daily life in the factory towns of western Pennsylvania. Hillary, you recall, phoned all the superdelegates and told them that Barack Obama was, quite simply, unelectable. And she may have really believed this, really believed that her ceremonial visits to foreign heads of state were somehow more significant than having had to cope with ordinary people in Jakarta, in East Harlem, on Chicago’s South Side, and in Kenya.
What the reader of Dreams learns, then, is that its protagonist is extraordinarily tough-minded. The opposition, first from his fellow Democrats in the Primary, then from the Republicans in the general election, totally failed to understand this. Indeed, there would have been plenty of the candidate’s ideas and programs subject to criticism and disagreement, but lack of experience was not one of Obama’s problems. Nor was elitism, and least of all a secret allegiance to Islam. “Give me a break: this is just a fairytale.” Yes, and the fairytale—a complex literary genre—has a curious psychological veracity.
Now let us repose the question: why teach literature, anyway? I want to posit that the study of literature bring the student closer to actual life than does any other discipline offered in the curriculum. It does not promulgate truth, for there is no external unitary truth outside of language, and studying great literature will never make anyone a better person: the example of Hitler, the Wagner and Goethe lover, should have put that notion to rest long ago. Think of Heidegger’s brilliant essays on Hölderlin, Benjamin’s supreme study of Baudelaire. But in everyday life? There is no necessary or even contingent connection between being a profound writer and being a decent human being. Nor do the writings of great poets—witness Ezra Pound or Louis Aragon or, most recently, Harold Pinter—communicate the “right” political or ethical ideas.
So we must admit to our students that the study of literary works, great ones or otherwise, will neither make them behave more ethically nor lead them to THE TRUTH. Why, then, teach literature anyway? Because, I would posit, literary study is the only discipline that teaches difference—from the linguistic difference between, say, the indefinite article and the definite one—a difference that much engaged Gertrude Stein—or to the difference, constructed in language between one individual and another. In the Cultural Studies now dominant in English and Modern Language departments, the focus is squarely on issues and commonalities: open your MLA program and you will find predominantly titles like “Emergent Ecologies: Ecocriticism and the Emergent Church” or “Pirates, Play, and the New Imperialism in late Victorian Fiction,” or “Migratory Subjects: Black Women, Citizenship, and the Dominican Diaspora.”
Such studies are surely useful, but they gloss over the difference that makes literature—like life—so endlessly fascinating—and surprising. The protagonist of Dreams from my Father—notice the “from” rather than “of” and all that it implies about the relationship between father and son—does not, as we have seen, fit any of the predictable slots for “African-American leader.” Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Franz Fanon: none of these are really his counterparts—or even mentors. The memoirist who talks about “crossing the Plaza Major in Madrid, “with its De Chirico shadows and sparrows swirling across cobalt skies” (Giorgio de Chirico is a fairly offbeat Modernist painter, a great favorite, for example, of John Ashbery’s) or characterizes his fellow community organizer in Chicago, Rafiq al-Shabazz, as inhabiting “a Hobbesian world where distrust was a given” (197), is just not quite like anyone else. He is unique.
System-building has been at the center of our discipline since at least mid-century. Every literary item is made to fit into a system, whether Freudian or Lacanian, post-colonialist or globalist, or to accord with a paradigm, whether of cognitive science or, most recently, ecosystems. But in the end any poem or novel or autobiography that is of more than passing interest always escapes the system imposed on it, opening itself up to yet another system or set of norms down the road. In this context, the much maligned language-game knows as “close reading” is perhaps our first obligation to students. Close reading simply means reading attentively and bringing to the text in question as much knowledge and practice as possible. The New Critics, contrary to popular academic opinion, did not invent close reading, which has existed in every advanced literary culture from China in the Tang Dynasty, to Livy’s Rome, to the fin-de-siècle Vienna of the satirist Karl Kraus—a remarkable close reader.
Why do we study literature anyway? To make the connections between the progress of human lives and their verbal representations. To thicken the plot.