Bored of darkness

In Heart of Darkness on the NAS Blog, David Clemens, a literature professor, wonders why each year more students complain the same readings — Hawthorne, Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Sophocles, Phillip Larkin, Tobias Wolff, and J.G. Ballard — are too dark.

. . . If such authors do anything, they force us to face existential questions. Once, students went to college to experience just this sort of perennial questioning. Today, questioning is a nonstarter having been replaced by what Phillip Rieff called “the triumph of the therapeutic” and, as he predicted, by students preoccupied only with themselves and with attaining a “durable sense of well-being.” This ends any interest in reading about what Victor Davis Hanson calls “the tragic limitations of human existence and how to meet them and endure them with dignity.”

The “Facebook and Twitter crowd” think medicine will postpone their senescence indefinitely, Clemens writes. “With death no longer inevitable, they find that a literature based on the tragedy of mortality is both archaic and irrelevant.”

BTW: Library Examiner has literary vampire links.

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  1. Hmmm, I wonder… Having taught Heart of Darkness to college students at times that were much less dark than these, I have another theory. Students had a pretty durable sense of well being back then, because they weren’t worrying about terrorism, climate change, unemployment and financial peril. The “perennial questions” were more of an academic exercise back then. Escapism might have a stronger pull these days.

  2. I think these good literature teachers need to realize that they are not teaching in isolation. Their instruction lives within a larger context of school in which getting the right answer and passing the test are the supreme-and sometimes the only–value. If that’s the greatest good for most of a student’s day, it can be a difficult gear-switch to ask them to push instant response and instant grade gratification to the side, and care more about the deep questions of life. Yes, school SHOULD be about investigating those questions. But if it rarely is, kids can get confused and annoyed when they’re called upon to do that.

  3. While my student years are pretty much behind me and I recognize the value of the work of (most of) these authors, I am not interested in reading any dark and depressing literature anymore. I know how awful the world can be. I know how horrible people are capable of being. I know about the constant dangers of the world. and disease and dementia and the hovering inevitability of death. I have no interest in wallowing in these sad and terrible thoughts. The idea that the only literature or theater or film worthy of our time needs to address human existence as a dark and hopeless journey annoys me. I’ll take a large dose of escapism, with characters who try to make the world better and some happy (or at least not totally depressing) endings.

  4. I doubt that there has ever been a time in history where 18 year old freshmen taking an intro to lit class were particularly interested in the topic *senescence,* the promises of regenerative medicine notwithstanding. The fact that the prof sort of trendily complains about the facebook and twitter generation while writing on his blog is somewhat ironic as well…and does make me wonder how well he is presenting the “perennial questions” he seems to think were of such importance in the Golden Age of Literature ™.

    Maybe he should focus on some other perennial questions that might be more relevant to his students than old age. There are plenty of those…

  5. As a fifty-something I still find Hawthorne and Melville to be not only dark but also labored and long. As an adolescent, I read Hawthorne out of curiousity regarding some of his themes and Melville because I was dragged through Moby Dick as the single novel that we were offered in the study of “the novel.”

    But–I would suggest that Dickens, and Alice Walker, for instance frequently deal with “tragic limitations of human existence,” but more agreeably to my tastes. I don’t have any problem with any individual author on the list provided being a part of any curriculum. But clumped together they do look awfully depressing.

  6. I think this is a great question at Christmas.

    Maybe it’s time that literature professors realize that these existential forays into the human condition are indeed dark. And that people are looking for an ANSWER!

    In the enlightenment/modern era, the belief was that humans could rise above this condition. But in the post-modern world, it’s recognized that humans can’t do it alone. Ironically, the pushers of post-modernism don’t know what to do with the questions their teaching generates.

    Which leads us back to Christmas. Clearly the authors of the New Testament believed that the limitations of human existence were tragic, but that God provided a way to do more than meet and accept them. The birth of mankind’s Saviour is a reason to celebrate. Joy to the world indeed!

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Dark is boring.
    Saw a book in the library with a jacket blurb telling me about the struggles of three generations of….some of whom the teaser tells us were unconventional in the worst sense of the word.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Crap. If you want dark, read history.
    How Moltke’s lack of moral courage allowed WW I to start.
    Or the French in 1936, WW II.
    Rebecca West, The New Meaning of Treason or Black Lamb and Gray Falcon.

  9. Escapism isn’t literature.

  10. Hmm. I wouldn’t teach all those authors in the same course. That is a little heavy. In general, one’s students will like some books and dislike others in a completely unpredictable mix. The trouble is when we listen only when the kids say they dislike a book. I guarantee that not EVERY student disliked Conrad when he taught it last semester, and that some of those who disliked Conrad thought Kafka was kinda interesting. My students tend to really get into Oedipus. Personally, Hawthorne is like a root canal for me, but I ADORE big, messy moral novels like Moby Dick (in which there is human redemption, fwiw, albeit not in the whale classification chapters).

  11. >Escapism isn’t literature.

    Sure it is.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    I liked learning about old-time whaling.
    The rest of it…guy was nuts.

  13. greeneyeshade says:

    If you can find it (I have it in a book, but it doesn’t seem to be on the Net), look up Alan Coren’s essay “Under the Influence of Literature.” I copied it for my daughter’s English teacher, now, alas, deceased, the year they studied Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and he loved it. To say more would be to give too much away.

  14. Terrence, this is stupid stuff.

    Guess I’m an uncultured rube. Who’re Larkin, Wolf, and Ballard? High school English assigned one Hawthorne novel, The Scarlet Letter (a snore, imho). Sophocles wrote for the stage, so I would not recommend reading him. That’s like reading the screenplay for an episode of The Practice, seems to me. Love Melville, though I would recommend Typee first, or the short story “I and My Chimney”. Read White Jacket or Redburn or Billy Budd, also, before Moby Dick. Melville is an acquired taste, and you need to work up from sonatas through concerti to symphonies. Just like Solzhenitsyn; people try first to read The Gulag Archepelago and do not get through it. Read Matryona’s Home, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, The Cancer Ward, and The First Circle before The Gulag Archepelago.

    It will do good to heart and head, when your soul is in my soul’s stead.

  15. In high school, we read Dickens, Shakespeare, Melville (Billy Budd), Conrad, Sophocles, Beowulf, Hawthorne, Homer, Virgil, Boccaccio, Dante, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Frost, St. Vincent Millay, and others.

    It wasn’t a particularly happy time. Stagflation and the Cold War brought plenty of worries with them. However, we were free to be happy, or unhappy. No one was pushing pills on us to regulate our moods. Unhappiness was not a medical condition requiring medical attention. English and literature teachers weren’t concerned about pleasing our adolescent desires. We read the classics. Great stuff. Good preparation for college, and for conversing with adults.

    We also read fairly depressing stuff outside of class. Anyone remember Go Ask Alice? Or The Collector?

  16. greeneyeshade says:

    I should have added that American distaste for tragedy in life and letters goes back a long way. William Dean Howells, comparing American and Russian literature, said “The more smiling aspects of life are the most American” _ and, as Joseph Epstein remarks, “caught his critical lunch” for saying so. Howells also grumbled, “What the American public wants in the theater is a tragedy with a happy ending.”

  17. Claus – how old are you?
    Because 1950s-1989 everyone was living under the threat of the Cold War turning hot – ie nuclear war. Before that people had WWII, then before that the rise of Nazism and the Great Depression, oh and the fear of a Communist revolution (or the reality in some places).
    The world isn’t any darker now than it was before.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    Dark is when the characters are at least somewhat sympathetic and are forced by circumstance to make choices, none of which are good.
    Dark is not when the characters are doing stupid stuff, counterproductive stuff, injuring themselves or others for no explicable reasonn.
    That’s just annoying.
    “Zoo Story” by Albee. Peter and Jerry, no explanation of why they’re both nuts. Ditto “Boots” by Algren. Took away any taste I had for the kind of books everybody says I should read.
    Dark is, oh, I don’t know, notifying next of kin.
    “Pardon me, sir or madam, but your husband, son, or brother–pick one or more of the above–has been killed in action.”
    I need to read this crap?
    I had a good comp teacher in college, but he showed the usual symptoms of never having been more than a summer vacation away from education–he thought Hemingway was great. Vicarious action and man of the world.
    Those who haven’t the emotional ability to conceive of, or the actual experience, of “dark” want everybody to read “dark” for some reason.

  19. nate zuckerman says:

    Some dolt siad in a commwent that we ought not read Socrates since he wrote a play, to be seen and not read.

    And so we wait for each and every
    Shakespeare play to be staged?
    Why did the Elizabethans print Shakespeare’s plays if they were not to be read?

  20. I wasn’t under the impression that the personal victimology naratives that the classics are being replaced with were particualrly uplifting.

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    I felt that way particularly when reading Catcher in The Rye.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    Screen plays and novels are different. Harder to get something out of a play if it’s merely read.

  23. bandit: lol… they’re *horrible*. My daughter is reading something about teenagers being “unwound” — being killed and having their organs harvested. The last book was about a teenager who somehow managede to have cancer without his parents noticing (they didn’t see the bills??).

    Give me some good old-fashioned rancid hippo meat any day over that.

    Richard: why do you think Americans take such pride in their anti-intellectualism? In other places, if somebody doesn’t like, for instance math, they don’t brag about it.

  24. I’m trying to think of any cheerful, upbeat, work of great literature written for adults. I’m drawing a blank. Dickens might come closest, but all the characters come through harrowing times. People die. People make bad choices, and live to regret them.

    Great literature captures characters’ interior thoughts and feelings. Perhaps David Clemens’ students have trouble empathizing with suffering?

    Unwind! The same author wrote, _The Schwa was Here_.

  25. Richard Aubrey says:

    If I had to guess, taking your assertion as given which I don’t, the reason is that American intellectuals give intellectualism a bad name. Odor. Reputation.
    Who’d want to be like them?
    I’ve never read Turner, but the influence of the frontier meant the guy who could do stuff in the real world was important, since he could survive. The guy who could handle the classics but not an ax, a plow, a rifle, was, to be brutal, worse than useless because he wanted to eat, too, in return for…?
    The culture still honors the guy who can do stuff in the real world, since it still needs to be done.
    I don’t mind philosophy, as long as the philosophers leave me alone.
    And intellectualism isn’t the same as education. There aren’t many engineers who would consider themselves intellectuals.
    Perhaps the difference is that in, for example, Britain, the scions of the upper classes couldn’t go into trade, but they were expected to serve in the military. If you end up teaching classics at Oxford, a tour in India meant you had been useful, andn demonstrated some real world competence, too.
    Our intellectual class insists we honor them for their great thinking whild doing nothing useful.
    Somebody, maybe it was P.J. O’Rourke, asked rhetorically whose graduates had done more to damage the nation, those from the Ivies or those from community colleges.

  26. Mark Roulo says:

    Some dolt said in a comment that we ought not read Socrates since he wrote a play, to be seen and not read.

    And so we wait for each and every
    Shakespeare play to be staged?
    Why did the Elizabethan’s print Shakespeare’s plays if they were not to be read?

    I didn’t post that comment, but I agree with the basic sentiment.

    No, we don’t have to wait for each and every Shakespeare play to be staged. We can watch them on VHS tapes or DVDs.

    The Elizabethan’s may have printed the plays because they did not have access to this technology.

    Would you also read sheet music instead of listening to the music being performed? The arguments seem to be similar.,,

    -Mark Roulo

  27. If you want to perform music, it’s an enormous advantage to read sheet music. Each performance of a musical piece introduces variations. If a director mounts a Shakespeare play, she doesn’t only look at videotapes of past versions. The play is the most fruitful place to look.

  28. Richard: Odd, I thought we were talking about Conrad, Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Kafka. I was unaware that they had immigrated.

    I know many, many engineers. They all consider themselves intellectuals and most are well read. I believe we live in very different universes.

    Shakespeare printed his plays so that they could be staged, of course. And reading them is a very different experience, I agree. What happens on the stage often flies by too quickly to really absorb the richness of the language — and the written words usually support several interpretations. Reading the plays is enjoyable in a different way than seeing them.

    The irony here is that you, Richard, are quite close philosophically in your American anti-intellectual exceptionalism to Melville and Hawthorne and even Hemingway. This is delicious.

  29. Cranberry:
    I think that when people call works dark, they don’t merely mean that some people might die, and some people might make bad choices and live to regret them, instead they’re thinking of works where while characters might make bad choices and suffer some what, there’s a happy ending for all the good characters and the overall message is not one that life is terrible.

    In this case, examples that come to mind include Emma by Jane Austen, As You Like It by William Shakespeare, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope and anything by P.G. Wodehouse. This is probably not a complete list.

    As for Shakespeare, I like reading him, seeing stage performances and seeing film/DVD.

  30. Richard Aubrey says:

    We were talking about classics in general.
    However, I must say I am impressed at the discovery that ”
    Richard, are quite close philosophically in your American anti-intellectual exceptionalism to Melville and Hawthorne and even Hemingway. This is delicious.”
    You are an authority because…? Also, lots of big words. Really impressed.
    I know engineers and they are well-read. Never said they weren’t. But they do not consider themselves intellectuals, and if there is any whiff of opinion, it’s contempt. Engineers, after all, build stuff that others can use. Intellectuals depend on farmers and engineers and all the other doers of civilization to give them time to sneer at the doers.
    See Kipling’s “Sons of Martha”, sometimes used as the text for the Calling of The Order of The Iron Ring.

  31. LOL. I’m impressed, too!

  32. Richard Aubrey says:

    An English prof once told me I would never understand war until I’d read The Iliad.
    Needless to say, he wasn’t a veteran.
    Best characterization I’ve heard of the piece is the dressed-up account of a raid by a boatload of Rhodian pirates with the gods’ interferences being the personalizing of the grit of battle.
    Thing is, the profs and others claiming to be intellectuals keep telling me stuff that is objectively false. What am I to do with that?

  33. Nate: “Some dolt siad in a commwent that we ought not read Socrates since he wrote a play, to be seen and not read.”
    Same to you, buddy. What’s your opinion of sheet music?

  34. Richard Aubrey says:

    I believe that’s Sophocles.
    No law against reading a play.
    Point is, you get more out of it when you see it.
    And you get less when you read a play than if you read the same story written as a novel.

  35. Lightly – last year my son was assigned “The Sign of the Beaver” a heartwarming tale about how about a dozen settlers in 1670 in the Penobscot Valley in Maine meet up with the local Abenakis. The protagonist boy is left alone for the winter in a cabin and gets hated on by the Abenaki boys then the Abenakis all leave for the Great Lakes because the settlers can’t read the Indian signs and fish where the Indians don’t want them to. The setttler kids Dad had gone back to MA because the Mom is pregnant back there but the baby dies. So when the Dad comes back in the spring with the Mom and other kids the boy has run out of food because somebody stole his rifle. There was a lost dog in there somewhere too. It was such a feel good story my son got assigned it again this year. I guess the point is things are really easy now?

  36. bandit: I have never heard of the beaver story and I’m not sure what your point is? What am I missing, please?

  37. I think far too many English teachers and profs dismiss comedy and satire as not worthy. I’d far rather read Saki and Mark Twain than most of their contemporaries. And Tom Jones is funny as hell.

    Philip Larkin’s funny! In a dark way.

    They fuck you up, your mom and dad
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-stylen hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can
    And don’t have any kids yourself.


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