Monday, November 29, 2010

The Tales We Tell (Again and Again)

Roman de la Rose, MS Douce 195, f. 1 - Bodleian, Oxford
In talking about the ethics of readership (what do we do with the knowledge we gain), a student of mine wanted to discuss the "politics of reinscription," by which she meant, I'm paraphrasing here, "those stories we tell or get told over and over again even though they're totally harmful, or frightening or depressing." This is a very bright student who loves medieval culture, Romantic literature, and science fiction - three traditions that are keenly aware of their re-framing of twice (or a million)-told tales. Why repeat stories that hurt?  I find myself asking this question as in both of my classes, and one of my independent studies, I will be working through texts rendered difficult by their retelling of grotesque racism (in the Women's Studies class) and of brutal violence (in the Love and War class).  I spent the better part of the afternoon being repulsed by what I was learning about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of Herland who had been taught to me as an unmitigated heroine of feminism in college 20 years ago.  There had been a comment or two about the noticeably white racial identity of the women of Herland, but that was it.  Scholarship since then has unearthed her other writings, letters to the editor, journals, and pamphlets and good God was she vile.  Specifically against African Americans. And here is the na├»ve and hopeless part of my attitude to all of this: I care deeply about the African American students in my class and I simply don't want to subject them to reading through her racist screeds and nasty comments, even packaged in critical secondary scholarship.  I wince similarly in "Love and War," where my female students are having to read the Jealous Husband speech from the Roman de la Rose, in which he calls his wife every name in the book and then brutalizes her.  This is my third time with the text, and I feel as though I am better able to frame it so that it doesn't just sit there, raw and ugly and painful - I now have responses from critical authors; I've found places where the text (the author?) responds to its (his) own misdeeds - in other words, I've found some good reason that they have to "suffer" these nasty texts. 

The problem is that somewhere in all of this I detect my own cowardice.  In my compulsion to protect my students, am I just protecting myself from having to discuss the nastier aspects of the human condition?  I admire professors, one of my dearest friends among them, who day after day confront the most devastating aspects of the human condition (the Holocaust, rape, racism...).  And it's not that I can't address those topics in class - it's that I have a very hard time assigning reading that I consider still toxic to certain of my students.  I've been through the experience of having a student who was raped write to me about the class's assigned reading on rape - and no she wasn't helpless to it, and yes we talked about it, and indeed parts of her felt vindicated and parts of her felt further bruised.  What right had I to evoke those memories for her for the benefit of having other students think this through? What right have I to subject my African American students to reading about Gilman's nasty ideas to make a point to my white students about the virulence of racism? In having a rape victim read about the violence of rape, am I not just perpetuating that violence? In having black students read a racist writer, am I not just perpetuating racism? On a lighter note, the only place I've ever seen a porn movei was in a Women's Studies class in college - could I have done without seeing that particular exploitation of women? Probably.

Here's the cowardice part: there are times when I would honestly prefer to let the sleeping dogs lie. What if my female students never had to read that "all women are lying whores"? What if my black students never had to know of Gilman's bright idea to sequester African Americans until they "evolved"?  Wouldn't they be a little bit more free from fear and humiliation?  This logic breaks down with the Holocaust - an evil that must be discussed because it must never be forgotten.  And we should never forget the suffering that came and still comes at the hands of rape and of racism.  We should honor that with at least our discomfort, if not more (much more) - our vow, our commitment, our activism.

And so what if my activism is the suppression of racist and sexist texts?  No good.  We have to confront this stuff. Students have to know This, It, That happened so (the logic goes) that This, It, That doesn't happen again.  We get told over and over that we need to make our students "uncomfortable" and yes, I agree with that, but I think that that better applies to majority students, to taking them out of their comfort zone and making them realize their privilege and its costs to others.  And yet, just writing this, I feel the wincing give way to some kind of conviction: that I can frame this so that it doesn't hurt my students. I myself feel humiliated by some of the text in the Rose (it really is horrible), but I've had years of academe to create a bulwark against it. I can gain mastery over that text with the frameworks of history and literary criticism. And I can teach those frameworks, and the use of those frameworks to my students - in some sense that is the most important part of my job, no? And resistance - resistance so that we don't "leave" the topic with silenced victims but instead with the voice of resistance: Christine de Pizan to erotic violence; bell hooks to racist feminism; Viktor Ullmann to the Holocaust.  Or is that another form of escapism? of not letting the really tough, depressing stuff sit there being tough and depressing long enough?  It has to be made clear that bell hooks doesn't write away racism (it actually really does have to be made clear that resistance doesn't "make everything all right").  A balancing act of two ethics: those I owe knowledge (no injustice should be silenced) and those I owe my students (to cause them no harm or humiliation).  The "answer" is to keep talking, to be aware of (maybe even honest about) the two (multiple) sets of obligations we have.

Above is Robinet Testard's opening miniature to the Roman de la Rose: on one side the author (who writes terrible things, even if they are not in his own voice), and on the other the dreamer (who will "hear" all of these things and have to decide what to do with them).  Students and I have often come to hate him for what he wrote - but he himself reminds us these terrible things are in the world of the dreamer whether the dreamer be awake or asleep, and he is only telling of them again (and again).  Whether and how we wake up to that knowledge is up to us.

1 comment:

  1. This is a little silly, my commenting here, but I wanted to get this down: a reason this pain and confrontation is worthwhile is to talk about how _students_ can resist it, modeled on/inspired by other forms of resistance. This seems obvious to me this morning - not so much last night.

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