I’m after much bigger fish than just teaching World Literature–I want to alter each of my student’s intelligence (for the good I note lest some former student point out that I made him or her dumber). Those who have hung with the blog and it’s digressions might remember that I have written about teaching “critical thinking” a couple of times. I usually spend lots of time on teaching pattern recognition and lots of time on inferential skills.
In addition to my ambition to create better thinkers, I really want to build better readers. One central way I do this is by expanding my students’ notions of what a text is and then helping them learn to become more self-reflective, self-conscious readers. As far as I know, NONE of the terms below can be found in any book or article. I thought them up and I apologize in advance for the lacuna that they leave. I’m still working on filling in other kinds of readers besides the ones listed here. (Feel free to send me suggestions–just know that I am likely to steal anything good)
The recipe this week is to take Ovid’s demanding Metamorphoses and focus on the following stories: Lycaon–who refuses to recognize Jupiter (when EVERYONE else does), tries to feed him a Molossian slave, plans to kill him in the night and, for his troubles, is changed into a wolf (hence “lycanthropy”). You’ll then need to read the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha. When Jupiter floods the earth and destroys EVERYONE and pushes the world back to primeval chaos, Deucalion, the most upright man who ever lived, and his wife Pyrrha, the most upright woman are saved. Completely bereft they approach the Oracle and ask what to do. The oracle tells them, “Go from this place, loosen your garments, and throw behind you the bones of your great mother.” You will also need the story of Pyramus and Thisbe–a favorite of Bill Shakespeare who used it twice (Romeo and Juliet and in A Midsummer’s Night Dream). Bill Shakespeare not only loved this story but Ovid’s Metamorphoses must rival Holinshed’s Chronicles and Plutarch’s Lives for favorite text (despite my admiration, I’m not a Shakespearean–and I refuse to fetishize him as many of my brethren do). Pyramus and Thisbe are supposed to meet at Nisus’ tomb near a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives first, is scared by a lioness coming from the kill, runs away leaving her veil. Lioness mauls veil and leaves. Pyramus arrives, sees lioness’ footprints and bloody veil, kills self for allowing Thisbe to be killed. Thisbe returns, sees dying Pyramus, pulls the sword from his side and kills self. Parents repent and place ashes of thwarted lovers in the same urn. Lastly (well–only is this assignment is it last–there are numerous other things going on by I’m giving you the Spark Notes version of several classes), you’ll read the story of Diana and Actaeon. Seems Diana is bathing with her nymphs surrounding her when, fresh from the morning hunt, the unlucky Actaeon stumbles upon her. Without her bow and arrow–and outraged that he has seen her naked–she throws water on him and changes him to a stag. He runs, is pursued by his hounds (hilarious epic catalogue of hounds’ names–that Ovid, what a card) and eventually is dragged down and torn apart while his friends yell for him to join them.
Each of these stories contains “a text” and “readers” and each is a commentary on the act of reading.
i like to begin with the story of Lycaon and introduce the concept of the Eisegetic Reader (patent pending as I have invented this remarkably helpful term). Exegesis is commonly understood to be the explication or interpretation of something. Eisegesis is its inverse. The Eisegetic Reader comes to a text determined to come to a conclusion REGARDLESS of the evidence. An example I use with my students is the Flat Earth Society. All evidence that does not fit their world view must be “fabricated” or otherwise dismissed. The quarterback who throws into double coverage because he has already made the decision about who to throw to before he reads the defense engages in Eisegetic reading. No one in Lycaon’s castle recognizes Jupiter but when he reveals himself as a god EVERYONE else bows down before him. Lycaon willfully persists in forcing his reading on the “text” of Jupiter. (There is an interesting charter myth here about hospitality and one about cannibalism, too [more on charter myths at a later date] and we cover it all but this blog is about reading.) Jupiter punishes the bad reader. Students, though at first uncomfortable with the term Eisegetic Reader, recognize the symptoms, can generate examples themselves, and become aware of their own Eisegetic tendencies.
The story of Deucalion and Pyrrha allows us to introduce the Literal Reader and the Mature Reader. Pyrrha interprets the Oracle’s command by saying that she will not desecrate her mother’s grave (important social convention being communicated here) but this is a perfectly literal reading. And, as I tell my students, except in the case of Exit signs, the Literal reader is bound to fail. Deucalion ‘interprets” the Oracle’s injunction to “throw the bones of your great mother over your shoulder” to mean the stones or clods of earth on the ground–the Great Mother. But, interestingly, he doubts whether he is right. He is right but his skepticism and doubt allow him to be a good reader. Perversely perhaps, but certainty is the enemy of good reading! Deucalion is right of course (and what follows is a chthonic or autochthonous creation that explains why we are “out of the earth”) and we now have the terms Literal Reader and Mature Reader to add to Eisegetic Reader.
The story of Pyramus will give us the characteristics of the Immature Reader. The same dust that holds the lioness’ retreating footprints would certainly hold the footprints of the running Thisbe. So a walk in an 80 foot circle would have revealed this fact. Like ALL Immature readers, Pyramus jumps to a conclusion before he has all of the facts. That Ovid punishes bad readers so severely is an interesting stance–Lycaon changed to a wolf, Pyramus dead, and Pyrrha saved only by her husband’s reading ability.
But what happens when no matter how skilled the reader, the text cannot be understood. Enter the Actaeon story. Changed into a stag, there is no way, no matter how skilled the hounds or his friends, that they could deduce it is Actaeon they are hunting and not a “regular” stag. This allows us to introduce the concept of the “corrupt text”–a text that can’t be read no matter the reader’s skills.
Armed with these terms (and these stories) my students and I become better readers of ALL texts and as Shakespeare might have said, “all the world’s a text.” We just need to be Mature readers, and doubt ourselves to get at the truth.