Devin Griffiths: Remaking Victorian Poetry
Dec. 19, 2016
The election is a crisis – George Eliot would say it “makes an epoch” – and it calls for reflection and action. In the immediate aftermath, I found myself wondering what value my work and my teaching offers as we move (or are dragged) forward. Immediately after the election, the syllabus had me teaching the middle sections of Eliot’s Felix Holt in one class, and the conclusion of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White in the other. Neither felt right; they didn’t seem to address the fear of what would come next, the sense of loss, or hold the kind of possibility I was looking for (that, frankly, I’m still looking for). And I didn’t want to fail the moment.
I’ve resisted the phrase “strategic presentism” – in large part, because it seems to ignore the powerful presentism intrinsic to nineteenth-century historicism; the way that writers like Scott, or Eliot, or Nietzsche, and their critics, were also strategic historicists and hence, that C19 historicism was often presentist in all the right ways, too. But in the wake of the election, I needed that move to feel more immediate. I needed to feel the presence of these writers in the classroom and see what they had to say. I also wanted to make space for our fear of the future, to use literature to create room, as Donna Haraway has recently put it, to “stay with the trouble” and see what might happen.[i] I didn’t want to feel like turning back to the Victorians that day was turning away from the fears we shared and the fears that were uniquely our own.
Largely because “Ah, love, let us be true to one another” (a pivotal line in the poem) had popped into my head late on election night, and because of its otherwise unremitting darkness, I decided to teach Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” in both classes. After class I quickly wrote up the discussion and posted it to Facebook. I’m sharing it here (largely unedited except a shift in tenses) because I want to keep that moment present.
On Students, Hope, and Dover Beach
I taught Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” when my classes met after the election, and used it to raise the question: how can we find hope in our readings of literature and use it both to address these moments of crisis and effect change? I stressed this was a huge question for me (for all educators, I suspect, who worry that this election marked a failure of our efforts). And I said that I wouldn’t prejudge how they must ultimately read the poem — whether it could succeed in those terms.
Then we went through it, digging out all of the materialist, secular, disenchanted, violent implications of the poem — especially the potential meaninglessness of our political struggles against the gaping void of deep time, within a nature that does not care, and amid political turmoil that suggests that seeming progress is temporary and always swimming against the dark currents that circulate within human behavior. We talked about 1848. We talked about entropy.
We even talked about the rhyme scheme in “Dover Beach,” and the way the last stanza seems to sequester those few hopeful lines and reverses the usually salutary logic of a sonnet’s volta.[ii]
I connected it to the way that, in his statement Nov. 9, Obama abandoned his 8 years of rhetoric, his consistent claim that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” Now he had to acknowledge, as he put it, that “the path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag, and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back.” [A few days later, he repeated this sentiment in a powerful interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates.] It was a startling admission of a real crisis for his faith in the progressive shape of history. If the line doesn’t bend, does it break?
We stayed with the trouble; we wallowed in it.
Finally, I stressed that literature isn’t about what you think or how you respond — it’s about figuring out what you can do. And then I asked: how would we have to read those few lines, what complexities would we have to give to its few words, to “love,” to “true,” to “one another,” to counterbalance the darkness of that larger vision? How do we play with a stacked deck? How do we find a usable light in the darkness?
And (though we worked through tears periodically), they offered such extraordinary and varied hope alongside their disillusion. They felt activated. They advocated paths forward. I was inspired. They are amazing, and working with them is another privilege that I did not earn.
It felt both scary and good to post this to Facebook, and it felt even better to see that it struck a chord within my community. Like others, I felt my thinking would continue to evolve. The comment thread on this post is where Ryan Fong first suggested this pedagogy series for V21.
At the end of the semester I revisited that experience and the post with my students. We talked about strategic presentism and what it might mean today. Here’s what they had to say:
One student thought it helpful to know that progressive revolutions had failed in the past (1848) but wasn’t sure if that was comforting. Another noted that between Obama’s early optimism and Trump’s latter pessimism she could see something of Dickens’s “noisiest authorities” and their argument over whether it was “the best of the times [or] the worst of times” in A Tale of Two Cities. A third took comfort in the acknowledgement, by Felix Holt‘s Parson Jack, that “what’s good for one time is bad for another,” that the current times (both the period of the first radical reform bill, and ours today) call for radicalism rather than complacency – that in the right moment, anyone might need to become a radical.
Overall, I was struck by their general relief, a sense of gratitude that we’d taken the time to talk explicitly about the relation between what we were studying and what they faced. A few said that none of their other faculty had addressed the election explicitly (and I noted that there are some very good reasons for this).[iii] Before the election, our students were facing a crisis in confidence about their degrees, and whether studying literature would be relevant to their future lives and the workforce they would join. Nov. 8 amplified these fears.
But we’re also in a moment of startling clarity. Language is the most powerful tool we have to create communities, to define identity, but also to manipulate and to stigmatize others. Language, and the ability to manipulate its various media, as Viet Nguyen has recently insisted, can provide a powerful refuge, but it’s also a source of political power. I’d spent a whole semester talking about the complex interaction of serial publication, lending libraries, radical presses, court proceedings, and epistolarity — how one network could be deployed to amplify or transform another, how specific media could incubate new genres of expression and new politics, and the effect when one formation (say, mass celebrity) crosses into another (say, popular politics). It’s now clear that this isn’t an academic discussion.
I’ve been moved to think differently and to try and operate in new ways by all of the reactions I’ve read in the days since. I’m lucky to be part of an extraordinary community of friends and educators, and it will take time to take stock of everything I’ve learned. In light of Ronjaunee Chatterjee and Amy Wong’s post on teaching to this “survivalist moment” in Victorian studies, I regret that our discussion of “Dover Beach” did little to address the politics of marginalization or the “monolithic” formation of Victorianism in the popular conscience. And reading how Roger Whitson developed his upcoming and unabashedly presentist course on the nineteenth-century Transtlantic, it strikes me just how much more aware I might be in designing a future-oriented syllabus from the ground up. What we’re interested in here is not the human condition in general, or even over time, but specific conditions and the tools and strategies that have been used to address them. Sure, everything on a syllabus can be relevant, but some things afford more relevance than others.
But my main takeaways are three old things I’ve long struggled to practice, and one new: (1) taking risks in the classroom generates new possibilities; (2) I need to be vulnerable, both about my own knowledge and my uncertainty of where our studies might lead; (3) as both an academic and a person, I must also insist on those things I am confident are true. The new piece (4) is that literature is powerful when we ask what it can do today, and if you do this with tense intellectual attention, you get a better grasp of the past and the present. We all need our perspective pushed. In this sense, I don’t think my choice of what to teach was as important as both my uncertainty about what we would find and my painfully sincere investment, my insistence that this poem and this classroom experience could make something new. I hope these insights will help me to have better, more moving conversations as we figure out how to make an epoch of Trump.
[i] Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene (Duke, 2016). Though it’s a challenging book to work through, Haraway’s point about the importance of “making kin” while yet “staying with the trouble” (particularly as the latter draws on Tim Morton’s call for an embrace of our “dark ecology”), seems especially important today.
[ii] This was at the suggestion of Carolyn Williams, who’s long been my mentor for all things poetic.
[iii] Specifically, the precarity of untenured faculty, and the more general uncertainty over the status of protections for political speech and their application at any given university, particularly as we look forward.