Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Love That Is Pure and True vs. A Critical Love

So, the Muse called tonight when I was in the midst of reading for the article that I'm writing. It was an auspicious time for him to call, as my hand was beginning to cramp from note-taking, and I was ready for a break.

But so I started talking about what I'd been working on and what was going on while I was doing it (a marathon of watching The Potter on ABC family) and the Muse asked whether I'd considered writing a book on The Potter. My response? "Well, of course I have, but it would never work because it would be a book that was crazily footnoted with all of my beliefs about the way that things should have been tied together in the concluding book(s), and it would have absolutely no scholarly merit. In addition, I'm not one of those people who works on things they love."

Of course, after making this bold statement, I then explained further that it's not that I don't love what I do work on, but rather that I do think that there are two ways of approaching literary scholarship. Some people I know fell in love with a text, or with an author or authors, and this is how they found their way into their Life's Work as Scholars. In other words, they fell in love, with a love that was pure and true, and they pursued that love into research, into everyday life. I, on the other hand, have consciously avoided work on those things that I love in that particular way. I like loving some books and some authors uncritically. I like not theorizing them. I like not putting them into context. I like, ultimately, not knowing everything about them, or about the authors who wrote them. I like being allowed just to love them - unconditionally - and getting to know them better would compromise my ability to do that. Now, it is true that I often teach books that fall into this category, but this somehow doesn't compromise my ability to be uncritical in my love for them. I can present the critical approaches, and talk about the ways in which people read the books, but I can also still just think certain things are "awesome" without regard to fitting it into an argument. I can respond like a reader - not like a scholar or a critic. Or like a scholar or a critic who has chosen not to focus on those things is probably more honest. At any rate, though, there are books and authors that I love with a love that is pure and true, and I do not do scholarship on them. It keeps them special for me.

In contrast, those texts that I do investigate and interrogate and consider in my scholarship are typically ones that I initially... well, ones that I initially had some sort of a problem with. Even those that I did "love," I wanted to write about because I had to work out some problem in order to justify or explain my love for them to myself. And the ones that I didn't love on the first read? Well, I wrote about them in order to try to figure out why I found them so unlovable. My feelings about them were complicated, and I had to find a way to approach them intellectually in order to understand those feelings. In other words, it's never, for me, been about delving ever deeper into the psyche of the love-object, loving something passionately and uncritically, first and then diving into it head first to flesh that out. I'm comfortable with the passionate and uncritical love, and I don't particularly like holding it up to scrutiny. No, what I work on, well, I've always felt like those things demand that I scrutinize them. And a lot of times that is because at first I react really ambivalently toward them.

Now, the Muse noted that "there is no such thing as A Love That Is Pure and True," and perhaps he's right. Perhaps what I'm saying is that I hate working on a book or an author on whom I have a crush, because it's just so delightful to crush hard on something that I don't want to muck it up with analysis. And then he said something about, "Oh, well, if you support the idea of this uncritical love, then this would mean that knowledge/criticism are ultimately a bad thing." (This builds on a philosophical argument we've been having lately, and you might imagine that I'm not the one endorsing the "knowledge is a bad thing" side of the argument.) My response? Well, it was something along the lines of the fact that perhaps a love that is critical is ultimately deeper, more interesting, more complicated than the Love That Is Pure and True, and thus, ultimately, though more difficult, more valuable. The fact is, I trust the texts that I do scholarship on a hell of a lot more than the ones that I keep "special." I know that I can sit with those texts for years; I believe in them; I believe that they will stand up to the scrutiny and that I have something to gain by struggling along with them. No, I don't romanticize them. I don't glamorize them as pure and true love objects. But ultimately, they're more than just comfort on a cold night to me. They're more than a crush or a one-night-stand. Ultimately, I respect those texts - I'm not merely infatuated with them.

And as I was having this conversation, and as I think about this conversation now, I realize that maybe this approach to the work might give a teensy bit of insight into other kinds of love that have nothing to do with work. Ultimately, maybe I've been focusing far too much on the uncritical, unconditional infatuations and far too little on the kind of love that I really could sit with for years and years. Or maybe this metaphor is totally broken and I've just been in my head for far too long tonight :)


Feminist Avatar said...

I like your theory.

I love what I study (which is people's letters); I mean really love it. It was a shock as a grad student to learn that not everybody studied what they loved. Yet, the more I study those letters and the more I understand the people I study, the more I don't always like them or agree with them. I can see their flaws and their warts. But it just makes me love what I do more, because it's like having a relationship with them and learning that you don't like them or you do is actually really great.

Not sure what this tells us about real life love. Maybe that through being critical we get to know them better and it builds a stronger love.

Second Line said...

I think this is exactly why I don't date academic women.

dr zombieswan said...

I have noticed, lately, that I hardly ever teach those authors I REALLY love. I've started very tentatively teaching them because why am I not doing so? Partly because I am afraid students will mess them up for me. Partly because of this same reason: I'd rather be in love without analysis of them. I can teach Hemingway and appreciate the art without it hurting my feelings if a student says "I think it's stupid" or gets it totally wrong. Etc. But Anne Sexton, or E.E. Cummings, or who else? Others. I just haven't taught much. But when I used a Sexton poem for my final exam last semester I was pleasantly surprised at what students came up with, and so, I'm doing more of it.

And, as someone who did the dissertation (which will hopefully be the first book) on something I love, which is essentially pop culture because I love it, and am looking at now people saying "Really, she did research on THAT?" I know that sometimes you have to, in academia, be snooty and teach/write/think about things other people are snooty about. Cause one day you want Tenure (if you already have it, well, then you can do anything, right?)

So anyway. Long comment heist to say "I Totally Get This."

Horace said...

Second Line: perhaps you are being coy or ironic, or you comment enough here that everyone else knows you were kidding... but if you were not, that was a singularly dumb-ass thing to say.

Let me chime in here to add that As someone who was not careful about protecting the works and styles and books I loved from my own critical eye, I have trouble doing any reading for pure pleasure anymore, much less any theatre-going. These days, pleasure reading has been reduced to Entertainment Weekly and when I'm feeling plucky, The New Yorker. I'm honestly not sure the last time I read Capital-L literature without the critical faculties kicking in hard enough to disrupt the pleasure of it. Even the Potter.

So please please don't write about the Potter...

Second Line said...

You seem to have decided for me Horace. So now who's the dumb-ass?

Dr. Crazy said...

For what it's worth, SL, I'd thought that your initial comment was sort of jerky, too, but I had chosen just not to respond to it.

Let's not fill the comments with something that's utterly beside the point, yeah? Horace called you on a comment that was pretty lame, and sure, he could have done so in a way that was nicer, but he didn't call you a dumb-ass - he said it was a dumb-ass comment. And, in my opinion, it was. You went off on a tangent, SL, in a comment that I think you imagined was funny and not insulting, and another reader called you out on it. Is there really anything more to say? Does calling Horace a dumb-ass somehow make your comment less lame? I'd say no. But so anyway, enough of this in my comments, please :) Any more of it - from anybody - and I'll begin deleting.

Second Line said...

It was meant as a joke, nothing more.

Dr. Crazy said...

No problem, SL. Water under the bridge :)

Terri said...

i confess i thought it was hilarious! (kudos to crazy for laughing it off)

Shaun Huston said...

I've been thinking about this post for a day or so, and I think I have a slightly different take on this question of text love.

I don't actually work very hard to protect texts that I love for pleasure from critical analysis. I do, however, find myself reacting to certain texts differently. In some cases, I almost immediately develop an idea for an article or an essay. In other cases, it never occurs to me. I may use the latter kind of text in courses, but not in writing and research, even conceptually. I do not think that this happens because I want to reserve certain texts for a love that is "pure and true," or if it does, it isn't happening consciously.

Perhaps going against the grain, and certainly in distinction with horace, I have not found that critical analysis "ruins" or "corrupts" my love of a text (I do share with horace the observation that I'm not sure I know how to turn off the critical impulse in any event). As in the original post, it deepens that love, and each time I teach a film course, I try to convince my students of this, many of whom actively resist adopting a critical academic stance towards popular movies. I have, certainly, had the experience described by dr zombieswan, where a text I love falls flat with students, and that can be disillusioning, and yet I continue to use and assign such texts. What I hope to do in many of my classes is help students reach a point where they can see at least something like what I see in the text.

I will freely admit that as I have become promiscuous about the kinds of texts with which I will engage critically, there are certain kinds of texts, particularly films and TV shows, that I just can't bring myself to watch anymore because their banality or venality or lack of art or craft makes them too hard to bear. On the other hand, it's not like I don't have a few reality shows that I watch. And part of the fun of getting sucked into a marathon of something like "The Ultimate Coyote Ugly Search" is deconstructing it. I can't even imagine what enjoying something like that for "pure" entertainment would be like.