Literature’s Mischief

My favorite literature professors in college had one trait in common: a sense of mischief. They were serious, devoted scholars, leaders in their fields—but their eyes and words twinkled when they spoke. They understood and conveyed the aspects of literature that wriggle away from us, stump us, play tricks on us, tease us with allusions, and run away.

They stood outside of literary fashions and jargon. Elsewhere I would hear people say “subversion,” “embodiment,” the “I persona,” and other such words, over and over. Such terms did have meaning, but many used them for safety. “Subversion” was one of the most frequently abused; any tilting, any twist of a trope becamse “subversion.” Sometimes I wanted nothing more than to gallop off into the fields and read with bees, not buzzwords, in my midst (though I am allergic to bees).

Later, I found a similar tendency in K–12 education, in the emphasis on “reading strategies.” Here again, jargon stood in for crafty, well-tuned reading. Students (supposedly) learned how to predict, make inferences, and determine importance, as though these skills could be applied uniformly. The strategy-promoters treated literary works as interchangeable, replaceable, and subordinate to processes.

But literature doesn’t bow to strategies or to fancy terms. It makes its own way and takes a feather-duster to our thoughts. On January 1, 1917, Robert Frost wrote to Louis Untermeyer, “You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume I meant nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.”

Here Frost points to the egoism of casual reading. When you read something breezily, you tend to make it what you think it is. It becomes, in some sense, an image of yourself. It’s attentive reading that takes you into the surprises and the mischief.

It would be foolish to try to locate mischief in every literary work; not all literature is mischievous, and mischief takes many forms.. The point is to recognize it where it does occur and to have room for it in oneself—room for zigzags and leaps and wiggles.

Examples of mischief in literature abound. I’ll give just a few.

1. The opening lines of Reflections on Espionage, a spy tale in verse by John Hollander:

Cupcake here. Hardly anything to report
Today: the weather will be suitable
Only for what can be done in the morning
And on the outlying islands….

Here’s the utterly unlikely opening “Cupcake here” (who ever heard of a poem beginning with “Cupcake here”?) set against the humdrum “Hardly anything to report / Today.” And there’s already some suspense: what is it that can be done in the morning and on the outlying islands? The reader is drawn into the tale, the verse, the codename (there will be many more), and the rest.

2. A passage in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. There’s hardly an unmischievous passage in that book.

I define a nose, as follows,—intreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition.—For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs,—I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.

The narrator is clearly inviting the reader to find other meanings in “Nose”—but that’s not all. There’s the impish digression—the beseechings, the moral buildup, the syntactical crescendo—all leading to the truism “a nose is a nose.” There’s something suggestive in “of what age, complexion, and condition soever,” as though the reader’s physique had something to do with the matter. There’s the appeal to the “love of God,” when all the while the narrator is using the wiles that he attributes to the devil.

3. This will be the last example: a poem in Saul Bellow’s short novel Seize the Day. The mysterious guru Tamkin has written the poem for T0mmy Wilhelm, the central character, who finds himself adrift in midlife’s muddle. The poem is dreadful, by Bellow’s design—forced, silly, bombastic—but like Tamkin himself, it has a few flecks of truth. I’ll quote only the title and first stanza, so as to stay within “fair use.”

MECHANISM VS FUNCTIONALISM

ISM VS HISM

If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

With these three examples I have only dipped into the topic. There are thousands more. I have not tried to classify mischief or to provide a history of it. But the examples have these traits in common: they bend to no fads (though they may play with a fad or two), they bring out possibilities of language, and they push a person into thought and laughter. And if  there is a God who looks down upon our bumblings, it may well be such passages, among other things, that convince Him (or Her, or some Mysterious Pronoun) that we were worth the ruckus.

Should Schools Make Kids Read Books They Don’t Like?

For the right reasons and in the right ways, yes.

Some educators believe fervently in allowing students to choose which books to read in school. Proponents of “Balanced Literacy” and similar programs argue that if students choose books that interest them, they will be more motivated, gain more from the books, and eventually wend their way to literary classics. By contrast, when schools and teachers impose books on students, then students come to see reading as obligatory, difficult, and dreary.

Ideally, a school should do both: select certain books for their beauty, merit, interest, and significance, while giving students opportunities to choose books that interest them. But because the former requires considerable knowledge, planning, attention, and time, it should receive priority during the school day. Students should have some quiet reading time at school—at least once a week—but should grapple together with literary works in literature class.

Why? There are many good reasons: building students’ literary knowledge, fostering common knowledge, and more. I’ll focus on one reason that doesn’t get mentioned too often: the importance of disliking a book. Dislikes can be fruitful. First of all, to quote Marianne Moore out of context, we “do not admire what / we cannot understand.” Through sticking with something that they initially resist, students can come to a better understanding of it. Sometimes it’s the vocabulary that throws kids off. Sometimes it’s the characters’ names. Sometimes it’s the form; the story may not go the way they expect a story to go. Sometimes it’s an unfamiliar setting or context. Sometimes the kids don’t understand the metaphors or allusions at first. But through attentive reading and lively discussion (guided by a knowledgeable teacher), students may break through these obstacles and find their way into the works. They would not have done this if they had been confined to their own urges, to the books they liked right away.

Beyond that, even if the dislike doesn’t go away, it can be instructive. When it comes to literature, strong reactions serve us well. There are those who don’t like Hemingway, plain and simple, or don’t think Tolstoy deserves all the acclaim he has received. These are important reactions; they come from a person’s conception of literature: what it is, what it should be, and what makes it good. But you can’t form such a view unless you have read something you disliked—carefully. Knee-jerk reactions don’t go far; penetrating critiques do. By honing such responses, allowing oneself to be both right and wrong along the way, one finds one’s ground.

Now, a student should not be subjected to torture, nor should a teacher. There should be enough variety that students will take to some works right away; there should be enough careful planning that he or she may ease into challenges and develop requisite background. Enthusiasm goes a long way, too, as the educator Jessica Lahey has pointed out. Teachers should have room to teach some of their favorite literature so that they can light it up for the students. Even so, a teacher may do a splendid job with a work that isn’t quite a favorite; it challenges her to find the good, which does exist if the work is worth its salt.

There is such a thing as literary merit. It takes different forms but comes down to endurance. An excellent work of literature reveals more of itself over time. It doesn’t fall out of fashion, or if it does, the falling doesn’t harm it. It’s the sort of book that one wants to keep in the shelf, not just for its presence but for rereadings. Teachers should guide students into such works; students should learn to trust the books, the teacher, and their own instincts. The three may clash at points, but such a clash has value. We read not only for pleasure, but also for confrontation: to be lifted out of where we are right now, into other possibilities and ways of seeing the world. In this confrontation there will be some dislike. No way around it. So it should be. And dislike can tantalize the tongue and mind like cocoa.

The Importance of Saying Nothing

A piece about saying “nothing” seems like a contradiction, since the words preclude the “nothing” in themselves. But there is a “nothing” worth considering in words. It is the “nothing” of taking things into the mind without pushing anything out immediately: of spending an evening reading, thinking,  listening to music, working on a problem, or talking with a good friend. For those who write and blog frequently, it can be difficult to seize such “nothing.”  

Writers sense pressure to put something forward, over and over. They think they’re supposed to have something to say, day after day, even if it isn’t substantial. Supposedly, through scraping their feet on the surface of things, they will make a mark over time. Unfortunately, that sort of scraping will not be remembered in fifty years.  To have something to say, you must build it; to build it, you need to be quiet for long intervals. We are nervous about taking that time.  

The problem is not particular to the Internet era. The writer’s “voice” always risks crumbling into noise. Part of this is due to our culture of “empowerment,” which tells people to believe in themselves and to show this by putting themselves forward. Aspring writers are told to write, write, write—and publish, publish, publish. Practice is good, of course, but silence is also practice. We do not hear enough about the importance of slow research and reading, of holding the pen (or pattering fingers) still, or waiting before publishing a piece.  

What happens to the writer who takes the time to read and think? The view widens; objects come into clearer focus and arrangement. Patterns, rhythms form in the mind; phrases come back to memory. The writer sees how much has been said before—and instead of being intimidated, he or she perks up. The challenge now is not to churn things out but to join this interchange. I want to speak with Epictetus about his purple thread, with Ralph Waldo Emerson about the “glass tripod,” and with William Butler Yeats about “the winds that blow through the starry ways.” Of course, this will not take the form of interviews; I am not concerned with their explanations or motives, nor could I ask about them even if I wished. Rather, such conversation will show itself in a stronger sense of language, of rhythms and thoughts that have come before me.  

A bit of quiet allows a person not only to take things in but to form sound ideas and opinions. Sometimes we don’t know what we think about an event, policy, or tendency; while there is no harm in putting forth a hypothesis, a tentative view, it is sometimes even more satisfying to wait and see. One can treat oneself to reserve as though to a jewel.   

A carefully formed opinion can be both strong and tranquil. In 1931, Henry McBride wrote in the New York Sun: “Dr. Valentiner … has the typical reserve of the student. He does not enjoy the active battle of opinion that invariably rages when a decision is announced that can be weighed in great sums of money. He gives his opinion firmly and rests upon that.” (Marianne Moore quotes this in her poem “The Student.”) This restfulness is liberty, a house.  

Granted, writers are not made for vows of silence. They are garrulous at heart—or some are (most generalizations about writers are wrong). If they are fortunate, they have something to say and know how to say it well. But under their writing, some pressure of knowledge and discernment must build. It must swell up until the right phrases take shape and other possibilities fall away. That’s worth a bit of quiet, a gentle tumbling out of date and out of fame.

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