Last week I had three wonderful experiences that made me realize just how much my appreciation of English and Comparative Literature, reading, and literary criticism has swerved towards a more engaged, subtle, and even philosophical position. My week started with a chance conversation. Somehow a professional colleague and I ended up discussing McClintock’s ‘porno-centric imperialism’ in Victorian literature. My week closed as I listened to National Public Radio broadcast interviews of Pulitzer Prize winning authors including Dr. Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘Swerve.’ I tell you about the mid-week revelation in a minute.
One of the stunning things about these experiences was realizing how, in the few minutes required to have them, my whole way of thinking about what, why, and how I read was illuminated, and even changed. They were random moments of enlightenment that come, as they say, in bursts. For example, my colleague and I work in the field of ecology, conservation, and management of threatened and endangered species. How Ann McClintock’s work about Imperialism and Victorian literature became part of that discussion I really can’t recall. My colleague apparently had some further spirited discussions because several people called me to expand the conversation. They were conversations so powerful that they changed what I will study the next two years; that was the first swerve of the week.
Swerve number two came while listening to Dr. Stephen Greenblatt read from his book, ‘The Swerve: How The World Became Modern’ and his inspiration, Lucretius’s poem ‘On The Nature of Things.’ I could not tell which was more captivating, Dr. Greenblatt’s interpretation of the poem and its fascinating role throughout history, or the actual poem as he read it aloud. Listening to such a competent reader and thinker was a very enjoyable experience. It made me realize how much I have come to value reading works of literary criticism. In fact it made me realize how much my reading priorities have changed as I engage with the formal study of English Literature.
When I first started studying it was very important, for some reason, to read a primary text several times before reading any critical essays. This week as I listened to Dr Greenblatt it suddenly occurred to me that, over the last few years, my reading priorities have swerved. Now reading some stimulating essays along with a primary text enhances the pleasure of reading.
The pleasure and anticipation of reading literature that becomes more vivid and compelling through engagement with some well-chosen scholarship brings me back to my mid-week revelation. As the powerful effect of these great works of art was magnified this week by scholarship, I remembered something a friend and mentor said in an art history course I had years ago. She encouraged us students to always remember that art is something people do; it is active and serves a purpose.
In his poem Lucretius’ says its purpose is to free the mind from fear and, in a swerve of its own, discusses sub atomic particles; last week an extended work of literary criticism based on this two thousand-year old poem won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. The Pulitzer board noted Greenblatt’s argument shows how the poem anticipates the ‘science and sensibilities of today.’ In a swerve of my own it occurred to me that literature and fiction is another way of conveying information – it no less valid or less serious than any other way. Somehow, despite its power, literature and fiction manage to convey something very fragile, precious, and elusive. Maybe that is why some people ‘do’ art, and why others then write award-winning masterpieces describing them to readers like me.