“Who cares?” A student asks an insightful question, and this is the deflating comment from across the room. How to respond to this? “The wielder of the gradebook cares?” No, it is never good to go that route. The very existence of that book can be an uncomfortable reality for both parties. “Your classmate and colleague cares?” Perhaps, but why respond to an alienating comment with further alienation? “Why don’t you care?” Closer, but it could validate the lack of collegiality that has damaged the classroom community.
“When have you cared?”
“When has a narrative grabbed you, and become the most important experience, pushing back your consciousness of your own breath?”
Each of us had a moment when some author arrested us with a semi-mystical meeting where something pre-existing inside us recognized both itself and what it lacks in the other. The brightest and longest enduring of such experiences for me has been my reading of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’ve been thinking about him since I first read “Spring and Fall” ten years ago. These ten years haven’t been enough. Ten more years wouldn’t be enough. My reading of Hopkins has convinced me that the human person and his or her works are inexhaustible.
In Why Read, Mark Edmundson notes that he “compelled the students to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, reader and author, where the stakes mattered.” This is an orientation that I think we need to reclaim in literature departments. Of course, there are reasons for the conscious eschewal of authorial intention, since no matter how close a reader is with the author, there can never be a complete identification to the point where the reader knows what the author intended. However, this same tendency has led to such a sanitizing of literature that I almost wonder if some critics would prefer that a poem literally was an unmade artifact without creator and without a final end. If we were as a community to return to the concept that every writer and reader is a Virgil and a Dante then perhaps a culture of respect would prevail, not only with the text but with other readers of the text.
Though this sounds nice, it carries more danger with it than first thought. If I acknowledge that the book I am holding originated in the mind of an immortal mystery, then I have to recognize that that same person had the faculties that I do. What I mean is that if I can read poetry, then the poet was reading poetry, and by extension the poet reads me. It sounds nice to say that poetry comes from a person, but that means reading is a relationship and relationship entails vulnerability and an openness to change. Edmundson closely relates our reading of literature with the act of reading ourselves through literature: “We need to learn not simply to read books, but to allow ourselves to be read by them.” We resist a relationship with the author through the text for the same reason that we resist any relationship: to avoid the pain of vulnerability.
“Who cares?” You do, because you are engaging the class instead of sitting silently in the corner, waiting for it to end.