Rebecca Schuman has published a very interesting article in Chronicle of Higher Ed about the prospects of salvaging the field of Germanic Studies from disappearing into oblivion. The article offers an impressive contrast with the poorly written, extremely predictable and painfully embarrassing stuff CHE has been publishing lately, so do read it.
What I like the most about the piece is that it outlines a project that used to be my own but that was almost completely beaten out of me in grad school:
So here is my new mission: I want to inspire everyone to see that although worthwhile as entertainment and edification, German literature also provides praktische Erkenntnis (practical insight) into more-successful living. For example, also in Faust, the title character’s deal with Mephistopheles brings into stark relief an important point about boundless ambition at any cost. And we can recognize Gregor Samsa, the cockroach-esque monster from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as a cautionary tale of what happens if you don’t move out of your parents’ house. We can even take the descriptions of class struggle and the means of production in none other than The Communist Manifesto and recognize their part in the development of some of capitalism’s most successful (and worker-friendly) ventures: Costco, Trader Joe’s (owned by Germans!), and even that bastion of faux-hippie libertarianism, Whole Foods.
I also wanted to read and teach literature in this way. This plan horrified my professors, however.
“And here you go discussing the content of the novel again,” my thesis adviser would say in her best “and-here-you-go-peeing-in-the-middle-of-the-living-room” voice. “Stop talking about what happens to the characters and discuss the first-person narrator instead.”
I tried to master the art of discussing the first-person narrator without mentioning what that narrator was actually narrating but I was never very good at it.
“What matters about a text is not what it says,” a rising star of literary criticism with 2 books published in prestigious presses by the age of 30 explained to me. “What matters is that the text is a sort of a living body with bodily functions. The rhetorical devices used in it are bodily functions and you should concentrate on them.”
I wasn’t into metaphors as bodily functions all that much, so the prof called my research “pedestrian.”
“This story by Juan Rulfo has more adjectives than adverbs!” an elderly professor would exclaim. “While the other story has more adverbs than adjectives! And if Clarissa asks me once again why this is important, I will complain to the Chair. It is important because we are bringing the quantitative aspect into literature. How exciting is that?”
I didn’t think it was at all exciting, so the elderly academic did end up complaining to the Chair who scolded me gently for being intellectually rigid.
Still, I always hoped I was not the only person who cared what happened in a work of literature as opposed to concentrating exclusively on how the narrative was structured and delivered. I’m glad to see there are other people who are not terrified of looking at the content of a novel or a short story.