Via Eric Rasmussen, I encoutered this wonderful essay by Mark Edmundson, “All Entertainment, All the Time.” Edmundson, who teaches English at the University of Virginia, recounts his disappointment with student evaluations that described his course, blandly, as enjoyable:
Enjoyable: I enjoyed the teacher. I enjoyed the reading. Enjoyed the course. It was pleasurable, diverting, part of the culture of readily accessible, manufactured bliss: the culture of Total Entertainment All the Time.
As I read the reviews, I thought of a story Id heard about a Columbia University instructor who issued a two-part question at the end of his literature course. Part one: What book in the course did you most dislike; part two: What flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you? The hand that framed those questions may have been slightly heavy. But at least it compelled the students to see intellectual work as confrontation between two people, reader and author, where the stakes mattered. The Columbia students were asked to relate the quality of an encounter, not rate the action as though it had unfolded across the big screen. A form of media connoisseurship was what my students took as their natural right.
But why exactly were they describing the Oedipus complex and the death drive as interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? Why were they staring into the abyss, as Lionel Trilling once described his own students as having done, and commending it for being a singularly dark and fascinatingly contoured abyss, one sure to survive as an object of edifying contemplation for years to come? Why is the great confrontationthe rugged battle of fate where strength is born, to recall Emersonso conspicuously missing? Why hadnt anyone been changed by my course?
I'm currently teaching Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in my “From Books to Movies” course, and it's a challenge. Lolita is a difficult book. The protagonist is a reprehensible pederast, one who writes directly to the reader, who tries to manipulate us into accepting his deeply flawed view of the universe. The book is also a dense, difficult read, chock full of French phrases and complex structures, rare words that should have intrepid students running for the OED, language games and allusions to other works of literature. It is also one of the most carefully crafted novels of the twentieth century. The novelist exposes us to a dark and troubled mind, and does so very artfully, and at times, comically. Yet I find it very difficult to get students past the subject matter, and to read the book itself. I also believe that literature isn't meant to be only entertainment, all the time, that sometimes some of the best literature is meant to make us feel not vacuously delighted, and not comforted, but challenged, and even uncomfortable. Novels like Dostoevski's Notes from Underground, Kafka's Metamorphosis, Don Delillo's Libra, even Joyce's Ulysses, are meant to disturb us more they are meant to entertain us, or to comfort us. These books meant to make us think about things we might otherwise not think about, to make us see things from a perspective we might not want to see things from. Literature can delight, can comfort, can instruct, but it should also challenge us, and discomfort us. It's hard for me to teach that, to teach how to appreciate the complexity, the difficulty, and the challenging moral questions that a novel like Lolita can raise.