Monday, February 16, 2015

The allure of allusion

There's nothing like teaching a text for a umpteen-millionth time only to discover that you've been overlooking an important allusion--so important, in fact, that it's mentioned on online cheat sites. First I'm congratulating myself for noticing this interesting allusion and then I'm kicking myself for being the last person on the planet to have noticed it, or maybe I've noticed it before and forgotten it utterly. Such are the trials of the aging professor.

Not that my students would notice. Today in two classes I found myself urging students to spot interesting allusions and failing utterly, primarily because the students haven't read the works alluded to or they don't see how they're relevant. 

"Who's read Moby Dick?" I ask, and how many hands shoot into the air? 


"Who's read Frankenstein?" 

One student! Great! 

"Who's read Cormac McCarthy? Walt Whitman? John chapter 12?"

We're clearly not getting anywhere with this discussion.

One of the things I love about teaching literature is the ability to make connections across broad stretches of time and space, to suddenly discover the Garden of Eden and the problem of pain springing up in the middle of a nineteenth-century short story, to unearth monsters or heroes in contemporary poetry and find their close relatives in The Odyssey. This is the experience I wish for all my students: to overhear longstanding conversations conducted across the centuries between authors as distant and different as Stephen Crane and Herman Melville, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman, Andrew Grace and Homer.

And if they listen long and hard enough, maybe one day they'll be able to talk back.     

1 comment:

Bardiac said...

So true!

It takes years of reading to get the allusions, doesn't it. And it's best if that's guided reading.

But 18-25 year olds simply haven't spent their time that way, mostly.