Thursday, March 13, 2014

_A Handful of Dust_

I am working as a teacher of English in a context where I do not, generally, have much say over what texts I teach.  This can make for awkward situations, as, obviously, being unable to make my own selections about my content can lead to confusion or a lack of focus in my teaching, if I myself don't understand the rationale behind the choice of a specific text (and, believe me, most often very little effort is made to convey the rationale behind text choices at my institution).  A case in point would be that, this year, I was told to teach Evelyn Waugh's novel, A Handful of Dust.  Now, naturally, I've heard of Evelyn Waugh before, and even saw Bright Young Things, the movie version of his Vile Bodies, although I've never read even Brideshead Revisited, let alone any of his less famous books.  But I'd never even heard of A Handful of Dust prior to starting work at this school, so it was certainly somewhat intimidating to be asked to teach a book I knew almost nothing about.  And when I read it, frankly I was mildly confused by it and had to skim a bunch of articles that were shared documents from the department in order to get even the barest sense of what to think about the book.

Now, however, I must say I'm really re-evaluating my initial reaction towards the book and even feel like it was a very good choice.  On a professional level, I'm finding this text much more exciting to teach than the other texts I taught last year.  My school has an odd way of teaching literature to high-school-aged students - we are expected not only to teach texts and close reading but to explicitly teach "theory."  However, because these are high-school-aged students without much background in literary studies, we are teaching them relatively simple theories, which ultimately boils down to teaching them a few theories of tragedy in their first year (Aristotle's, A. C. Bradley's theory of Shakespearean tragedy, Arthur Miller's "Tragedy and the Common Man") and teaching them about different forms of comedy in their second year.  When we were doing tragedy last year, I found this remarkably frustrating.  I didn't see that teaching them A. C. Bradley really added much to their study of Macbeth, and in fact it may have detracted from it, since they became more focused on using the theory as a way to simplify the text than actually putting any effort into reading Macbeth.  Similarly, although "Tragedy and the Common Man" is useful for establishing Arthur Miller's intentions in writing his plays, reducing Death of a Salesman to the theory again seems to close down inquiry or take what could be a relatively accessible play on its own merit and reduce it to an example of a broader theory.  I don't think studying the theory along with the play adds very much, and it was frustrating in that it seemed to be a way of protecting the students from having to think on their own.

A Handful of Dust, which we are explicitly teaching as a satire, is a different matter.  The text has a nice mix of being stylistically fairly accessible, so that the majority of my students are able to understand the prose, while at the same time being rather difficult to grasp as a gestalt.  Without understanding specifically that it is a satire, what satire means, and what the purposes of Waugh's satire were, it is difficult to grasp the text fully.  Thus, in teaching the students about the nature of satire and exploring the specific ways in which the theory of satire applies to the text, I feel that I am genuinely doing something useful, helping them to appreciate and get value out of a text which would, without the theoretical elements, be very opaque to them.  Moreover, the discussion of the students' confusions about the text and how the concept of satire may explain them intellectually even as their emotional responses to the text may conflict with what the satirical purpose would gesture towards is interesting and educational for both me and the students; I feel like in our class sessions they're actually learning and doing more thinking because they have to process their emotions and see how they interplay with the actual text (perhaps because the students read the text before they had much idea of what satire was, or because the targets of the satire may seem rather distant to them, they are much more emotionally involved in the text than I was when I read it).  Teaching it, then, becomes educational for me to as the process of dealing with student reactions and squaring them with the theory helps to give me passages into the text and articulate my own intellectual understanding of it.  So it's really enjoyable.

But that's not all.  I can't say I enjoyed the book that much when I read it, as much as I enjoyed coming to a better understanding of it via the process of teaching.  However, on a personal level, teaching this text has also been really rewarding to me because it's brought me to a very Eliot-centric moment in my life.  Of course, A Handful of Dust is named after the line from "The Waste Land" (quoted in an epigram).  There are also key thematic and symbolic resonances between the texts (eg, the use of fortune tellers in both, the travel over the course of both from urban London to a non-Western wilderness landscape) that help to ground my understanding of A Handful of Dust (since, contrary to my expectations when I first read "The Waste Land" back in college, I now have a fairly tolerable understanding of the poem, without, bizarrely, having any clear idea of how I developed it, since I don't remember ever either discussing it in class or reading much analysis of it, and I certainly had no idea what was going on with it when I first read it).  I had an amazing experience privately meeting one of the more passionate and dedicated students in my class, who had finished the text long before the rest of the class had, to discuss the poem with him as a way into the novel, and we ended up spending a couple of hours texting each other that night in order to continue the discussion - it was very rewarding and reminded me of how much Eliot meant to me.  Then this led to me being inspired to think about Eliot in an exciting conversation with reader Abangaku, which was also very inspirational and exciting for both of us, I think, and led me to read "Ash Wednesday" in more depth than I ever have before, which was also very meaningful for me.  In addition, I'm currently on a committee that's working on setting up a program for especially talented middle-school-aged students in English, and so far the most likely name for the program would be the "Eliot Program," although admittedly part of the reason for this is that we're mostly pretty leery of using the name of a white male, and Eliot is nicely ambiguous - which is a shame because, as much as I too am leery of using the name of a white male, I really do actively dislike George Eliot.  But it's probably made up for by the T. S. aspect.

Eliot for me, unusually, is not a school poet.  Most of the poems and poetry I care about are those that I studied in school - even Shelley I took a course on.  I think Blake and Eliot are the only real exceptions to that rule.  With Blake it's obvious that it's the Gnosticism that draws me in.  With Eliot, I have to say, it's Diana Wynne Jones.  Just as Shelley was, Eliot was a huge personal influence on DWJ and was something she drew on in her books - I've mentioned previously my speculations about the Dalemark series.  I think that I was indoctrinated in Eliot's concepts and ideas at a very early age by reading DWJ without even having needed to read Eliot - I really do see Eliot's ideas as being presented and discussed in DWJ's work such that, as rushthatspeaks once wrote, "the emotional logic felt strangely familiar."  Read rushthatspeak's essay on this point for more details.  So, given that I've been reading and loving DWJ since I was eight and the way she thinks has become a fundamental part of my worldview, having this Eliot moment this past month has been a great experience for me - it's one of those moments where my conceptual understanding of the world seems justified, to see Eliot come up everywhere.  But of course it's all a coincidence, a resurgence of a mode of thinking sparked off by a particular text - so I really have to pay tribute to that text and the person who is forcing me to teach it, because it has added a lot of value to my students' and my own lives.

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