(Cross-posted at The Valve)
While teaching last semester’s Brit Lit Survey, I kept realizing that there were assumptions my students were making that did not seem conducive to a clear discussion of the works. There is a temptation when studying so much literature across so much history at a time to collapse all the historical and religious differences and see similarities between everything, especially in their papers. I was trying to find a model for getting them to think about conceptual differences this semester, so I came up with something that may sound a little crazy.
I said, “Imagine everything that you experience through your five senses that can be verified by someone else. If you see an elephant, you can ask a friend if she sees the elephant. If your milk tastes sour, you could ask someone else to taste it. Put all of those things in a circle and call it ’empirical experience.'” I drew a circle on the board.
Then I asked them to think of all the things that don’t fit in that circle and I wrote them up around the circle. Experiences with God, creative thought, dreams, ghosts, sexual ecstasy, madness, and the world that is too large or too small for human perception went outside the circle. They are all things that an individual might “feel” or “know” as an individual, but never be able to directly get verification of from someone else. For example, if I claim to have had a prophetic vision of God, you’re going to have to call me insane or trust me on it. I can’t ask you if you agree with my description of the vision because you can’t share it with me.
One of the ways I’m trying to get them to think about the history of English literature is as a series of shifting relations between the inside and the outside of that circle, and the methods by which writers attempt to transcend, destroy, or maintain that boundary. Does a writer use the verifiable as a source of metaphors for achieving the unverifiable, as in Donne? Does a writer try to show that the boundary is merely a construct, and that the outer lives within the inner, as in Blake? Does a writer assert the existence of the outer, but redirects the focus toward the empirical, as in Pope? Does a writer seem to deny the existence of the outer, by suggesting that no boundary exists around the empirical, as in Pater? (These are gross simplifications, but maybe useful for illustrating the variety of possible relationships to the model.)
We’re reading a number of poems about apocalypse this semester, and my students are always rather curious about why so many English poets are obsessed with it. A great number of my students were raised in the Christian church, but only one of my 50 this semester claims to have read Revelations, so they’re suprised to see its imagery so frequently employed in poetry when it doesn’t play a large role in their religious training. My guess is that apocalypse is what many poets see as the ideal end of poetry.
Most of my students are used to thinking of “apocalypse” as “the end of the world” or “nuclear crisis” or something. I’m trying to get them to think of it as what its Greek origin (apokalyptein, to uncover) suggests, that it is a removal of a boundary between the empirical world and the divine, allowing us to verifiably experience (directly, together) something beyond what our senses allow. For different poets in different eras, poetry can have the power to suggest what that uncovering would reveal, or that there is nothing to uncover, or that humans can’t imagine beyond that covering, or that poetry itself can perform that uncovering.
In some sense, a communal experience of the sublime in a poem is a moment of potential apocalypse, as it’s tantalizingly almost verifiable.
I am hoping that this model will provide us with a way of talking about religion, sexuality, and creativity without merely reverting to our own personal experiences with them. I am not someone who bans discussion of personal experience in any way, but I do find that a student can get hung up on thinking of a piece of writing as reflecting his own experience, and then arguing that it is therefore “true.” As Blanford Parker once told me when I complained to him about this, students need that moment of self-recognition before then being able to make finer distinctions, but getting them to move from pleasure to analysis is the most difficult step.