Posts Tagged ‘literature’

On literature and religion

May 27, 2018

I’ve written before about the connections I’ve found when thinking about literature and religion, and also about science fiction and religion (here and here, if not elsewhere!). Recently I found myself back with the theme…

It’s possible to see religion as something human beings have evolved or developed as a way of coming to terms with our own eventual mortality, a knowledge we have because of our powers of perception, reasoning and understanding, and a knowledge which might otherwise blight our existence. We are here, briefly, conscious of what goes on around us, we live, experience, remember things and cannot really understand it all coming to a stop, even though before we existed, everything was going on fine without us…

If there were no god, no heaven, no afterlife, then, nevertheless there are still impulses in us (some of us?) that take us away from the purely material plane onto one which has been called spiritual, acknowledging an aspect of how our minds work. I say some of us, because I know there are people who do not seem to be bothered by thoughts of this kind, or else deal with them in a different way from me, and appear to get on quite happily with their lives… the world is surely large enough for all of us. But some of us do experience a need or a drive to make sense of it all.

So for me, and others like me, religion is a way of addressing those spiritual impulses or leanings; for us there are very real issues that we engage with, that take us onto different levels of awareness or consciousness, that address our existential angst, I suppose.

Then I turned my thoughts to a novel I’ve always rated highly, for lots of different reasons: A for Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov. It’s a Soviet utopia, set a thousand or so years in the future after the inevitable triumph of socialism has transformed the whole planet, and humans are turned towards the cosmos and other worlds. No religion of any kind is mentioned; clearly it has died out under conditions of actually existing socialism, though it is referred to as an aspect of humankind’s primitive past. Yefremov nevertheless allows his characters to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and the natural beauty of the world, too, in ways which today we might call spiritual. But he is the only SF writer I know to have imagined the end of religion.

Olaf Stapledon‘s epic Last and First Men is different altogether. If humans cannot cope with the prospect of disappearance and individual annihilation, we are offered another picture, of our race evolving, mutating and moving to other planets in the solar system over geological time periods, during which we (?) become totally different species. And with a pang we realise that pretty early on in his imagined cycle, our particular humanity and its civilisations and achievements vanish, obliterated by the vastness of time and geological change, with absolutely no trace left behind…not just individual, but collective death.

Many less ambitious writers have written post-apocalyptic novels, and it’s a marvel that one of the few objects that usually survives the cataclysm that starts the novel is a copy of the Bible, so that humanity can safely ‘rediscover’ God, often in an even more warped version than many believers seem to find attractive today. John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids is a good example: post-disaster mutants are an abomination in His sight and must be hunted down and destroyed. No change there then. But for me the saddest of all is Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where, after a nuclear holocaust, monks are again the repositories of knowledge and learning, carefully salvaging the knowledge of our past; eventually, thanks to their efforts, ‘civilisation’ re-emerges after hundreds of years, only to travel down exactly the same pathway to another nuclear war…

I’m not really sure where this has led me, sceptical about much religion and the miseries it has caused (though I don’t only blame religion for human misery) and yet, from my own upbringing inevitably drawn to the spiritual that I find in myself and others, and all around me. None of this balances the knowledge that I only have a tiny amount of time to enjoy what our world offers.

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How I read…

January 14, 2015

Now that I’m taking my blog seriously, I have found myself reflecting on what has happened to my reading as a result. Am I behaving any differently from before, when I was a teacher?

I’m still reading as widely, and as randomly as I used to: there will be a series of books on a similar theme or by the same author, and then I will strike out at a tangent. You can see that from the sequence of this blog. I think, however, that I’m applying critical skills more sharply and widely. Studying literature, which I suppose I must date from when I studied English Literature at A level, involved gradually developing skills: this continued as I went to university, and then did post-graduate research, and afterwards went into teaching. These skills originally were focused on my reading of prose, poetry and drama, and involved exploring and understanding how a writer works to achieve effects, and evaluating her/his success. Understanding context was also crucial, at least in the ways I was trained.

These skills have never left me (and I always used to be able to assure students who had taken their study of literature to a certain level and were then moving on to something different, that they had a reader’s toolkit for life), but I now find myself applying them to everything I read, whether literature or not. Evaluating and assessing a writer’s use of the language and their ability to communicate meaning effectively, as well as judging the quality of their argument, is what it is all about.

So now, I’m finding myself thinking rather more deliberately as I read, and often jotting things down that occur to me; I reflect on my reaction, on what pleases or annoys me, and consider why. I have often been asked whether having studied literature spoils my enjoyment of what I read, and occasionally students have complained that analysing and studying a book too much spoils it for them; I’ve never felt that to be the case myself, as no matter what skills or analysis I bring to bear on a text, that innocent first reading is always there, the desire to know ‘what happens?’ and the thrill of getting to the end. Even in a non-fiction text, there is still that discovery of newness, and the wondering whether the whole will contribute in a helpful way to my knowledge and understanding.

I love reading: somehow, it connects me to places, people and worlds I’d never otherwise encounter, and I feel more human because of this.

Teaching literature for examinations…

June 8, 2014

Being mainly a post for UK readers, provoked by recent controversy over the literature content of GCSE specifications, and the desire of the Gove(rnment) to exclude some well-known and loved American literature texts from being taught…

It strikes me there are a number of issues. Firstly, logistical and practical: as an ex-Head of English I know there are stock cupboards up and down the land which will contain hundreds of copies of To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. These will now be redundant; major new and expensive purchases will be required in short order; money that might have been otherwise spent on broadening the choice of reading books throughout the school will now go to narrowing it. There will be little time to draw up and resource new teaching plans and work schemes, but hey, teachers are only working about sixty hours per week so there’s plenty of time for them to catch up.

Secondly, and far more seriously, there are paedagogical issues. The reasons the two texts mentioned above have been so popular are several: OMAM is brief and relatively straightforward to teach; in my experience it did not stretch the most able students enough, but it was accessible to the less able, and enabled them to engage with literature.

TKAM is a very well-loved novel, and rightly so. It’s complex enough to demand lots from the whole range of ability; it raised a wealth of relevant issues for teenagers to relate to, and it allows some serious analysis of how literature is created and how it works.

I always felt a teacher must teach texts s/he loved, in order, first of all to convey some of that love of literature to students: the next generation of readers. Obviously, when one is teaching for an examination, the love of literature cannot be the be all and the end all: students need the skills of literary analysis, to understand how language is used to create all kinds of effects, and how plot, narrative and character are sustained and developed.

I shuddered when I read the lists of texts that were being prescribed (and yes, whatever weasel words education secretaries and exam boards use, they are prescribing). Some are incredibly dry, some too long, some of no real connection to the world of a teenage student. Authors such as Hardy, Dickens and Austen are lengthy, use old-fashioned and more complex language codes and styles; they clearly have their place at higher levels or in life after study, but not in a classroom full of 14-16 year-olds. Does the Gove(rnment) actually want to kill off the study of literature in our schools? I think we should be told.

Finally, there are some broader issues. When I first began teaching, there was 100% coursework; no exam, but a required portfolio of essays covering a range of different aspects of literature. Literature is literature, so the skills being taught and assessed were the same, as were the standards. The problem was abuse of the system by a small number of teachers and students; instead of addressing, policing and correcting these abuses, the system was done away with. The students I taught in those long-gone days read, studied and wrote about a far wider range of literature than today’s students, hemmed in by exam specifications, are able to do.

I think the Education Secretary is not fit for purpose; nor are the exam boards and their new specifications. I despair for the current cohort of students and teachers; I’m glad I am retired, for I would not have the heart to inflict this sort of thing on my students or my teaching colleagues.

On studying literature

March 25, 2014

Is it a self-indulgent waste of time?

I’ve faced this question a number of times, and it seems more urgent in these crazy economic times, when reading for a degree at an English university costs such a ridiculous amount of money. Surely all those thousands of pounds might be better spent?

I realise I’m not really qualified to answer that question: I received a free university education, for three degrees and a teaching qualification, and grants for eight years to fund my living costs whilst I studied. I don’t feel guilty about any of that, as I felt the country was investing in both my and its future, I then went on to teach for twenty-eight years, and repaid all the money the taxpayer spent on my education many times over. I think today’s students (although possibly rather fewer of them) are entitled to the same offer.

However, that doesn’t answer the question. As a student I hitch-hiked many thousands of miles in Britain and Europe, and it was a challenge, when a helpful lorry-driver asked me what the point of my studies was, or why he should be supporting me through his taxes. I always tried to justify the study of literature, and was listened to.

I have always felt it’s important to study something you are really passionate about: you only get one go at being a student, and it shouldn’t feel like a dose of castor oil. I have also always felt that a university education is about training one’s mind and intellectual capability, and that, in the end, most university courses do this to the same extent, whatever the subject of the degree, and that an employer is going to be hiring you for your mind, and what you have shown it to be capable of.

I recognise that increasingly this may not be the case, but, higher education does often lead to higher earning power and therefore paying more in taxation. So the debt is repaid in the end. And, if one works in a career which I would describe as service to the community, the debt is repaid in another way too: you are giving back what you have learned, to future generations.

A nation is not just the sum total of its economic achievement: its art and culture, for want of better words, are part of the sum total by which we may judge its level of civilisation, and though there is much in our country’s history which I abominate and execrate, there is an enormous amount of which we may justly be proud, and if future generations do not learn about it, then it will be lost, and we will be the poorer for this. It was very satisfying introducing students to a wide range of literature in a wonderful language. And, most of the time, it was highly enjoyable as a career, and that is something which is not granted to everyone, and for which I am grateful.

So yes, we do need people to study literature out of their love for it, and some of those need to go on to disseminate that to future generations. And we all need to be challenging and tackling the philistines out there who deny the importance of this aspect of our lives.

Ford Madox Ford: The Good Soldier

March 29, 2013

I’m sure other people buy books because they feel they ought to read them, and then leave them on a pile for ages: this novel sat for ten years awaiting my attentions! I’d heard it praised in various quarters, and yet in the end I was deeply disappointed. Yes, I could appreciate the various modernist aspects, the shifting timeframe and the unreliable narrator, but I couldn’t appreciate the superficial and pointless characters, none of whom really engaged my attention or sympathies in the least.  And yet, I was glad I’d read the book… I feel confused, as if I’ve missed something, and am beginning to think that I’ll have to go back to it and re-read – though maybe in another ten years.

This unsatisfactory experience takes me back to two key questions: firstly, what literature will survive to be read by future generations and why? – to which there is clearly no obvious and straightforward answer, and, secondly, why does so much English literature annoy me? By this I mean that, to me, what is being written in other lands – European and world-wide – is often more interesting, engaging , relevant, than what is being originally written in England or in English. None of my top three novels of the twentieth century is an English novel.

I know I’m generalising, maybe ridiculously, here, and yet… no-one can know all literature, there’s just too much of it; everyone therefore selects and gets to know and like various aspects, and defends them against all-comers. I’ve spent much time exploring East European literature, especially that from the Soviet era, I’ve read fairly widely in other areas, too, including science fiction and utopian literature. I suppose this means I like my literature to engage with ideas and history as well as characters, perhaps in a way that I don’t feel English literature has done.

So, even though I think I’m probably missing something, I’d need another existence to explore it.

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