Incarnational literary studies: Exam Reading Week 2

This week I read:

  • Part of Cathy N. Davidson’s Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America
  • Part of The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Jonathan Senchyne
  • The second half of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity and Restoration
  • A wee tiny bit of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Reading a number of different things this week was nice. The Bunyan and the Rowlandson were quick and now out of the way (I did enjoy them! It’s just nice to get things finished). I’ve decided that to tackle the Locke (and probably any other philosophical works), I’m going to kind of let it wash over me, while still taking notes. Trying to parse out every little point will make it take far too long. And speaking of taking a long time, I’ll be reading it in small pieces over a couple of weeks so I don’t get bogged down in it and get stuck there.

The scholarly books were both very interesting. Davidson’s book is from the mid-eighties, and its one of those “foundational in its field” academic books. That is, it shaped the way the field looks today, and most scholars after her reference this book. I haven’t encountered much about the earliest American novels before, since in both high school and college classes the American novel tends to begin with “the greats” – e.g. Hawthorne, Melville, perhaps Fenimore Cooper. I didn’t even know there were earlier American novels until I started my PhD! It’s true that the American novel was rather late to the scene — the first one was published in 1789–but there were about a hundred early novels that don’t really get talked about much. I enjoy the information, and, for the most part, the analysis, that Davidson provides, although her approach is very overtly feminist and marxist. This isn’t surprising; it’s the normal approach today and was even more normal in the 80s, but I tire of these interpretive approaches, really.

The Senchyne is the text I want to focus on this week, despite only having read the Introduction so far. But to get to my point, I must first provide some Context.

I’ve been meeting a lot of new people lately, which leads to a lot of “what do you do?” questions. When I mention I’m doing a PhD, the follow-up question is usually “what do you want to do with that?” and the answer is, I don’t know. I am increasingly dissatisfied with the state of Academia–it’s become more of an ideological bubble than ever before, it’s struggling in all sorts of ways, the jobs available continue to shrink, and frankly, I don’t think that there is a place in academia for the questions I ultimately want to engage. Really, the idea of becoming a stay-at-home mom who scribbles at stories and ideas after the kids are in bed becomes more and more attractive.

That doubt, of course, leads to further doubts–should I still be doing this PhD? Would my time be better spent elsewhere? Some of these doubts, fortunately, have been eased by the beginning of the semester. I like doing a deep dive into a topic (which is what exam reading ultimately is, in spades), I like teaching (though I could do without the grading), I like the generally busy and convivial air of the lively campus.

It’s odd that I’m doing work in print culture, because I firmly believe that a traditional, classical approach to the humanities is the best–close reading and discussion of the Major Canon, and so on. Why then, am I rummaging around in the dusty corners of the archive? Why am I concerning myself with books that nobody has read in hundreds of years? Why am I doing what is essentially historical, and not so much literary, work? What is an Orthodox way to approach literary study? How do I bring my understanding of the world to my work? It’s hard to do, because of that ideological bubble I mentioned above.

Reading the Senchyne introduction helped me answer some of those questions.

Senchyne mentions at one point that print culture/book history/bibliography–terms that describe slightly different approaches to studying the material and social contexts of books, instead of the abstract contents (or in addition to, I suppose)–are often set against the predominance of Critical Theory, which is very abstract and concerned solely with Ideas. Senchyne goes on to argue that the two things–material and Idea, print culture and critical theory–are not opposed, and I suppose he’s right.

But his mention of this potential duality helped me see clearly something I’ve been sensing intuitively. I am doing print culture because I enjoy it, and part of the reason I enjoy it is that it’s not critical theory, which I dislike. I may be burned at the stake for heresy if any of my colleagues or professors ever read this, but it’s true. I find it difficult and, frankly, mostly pointless. Treating theories as lenses that help us explore books in different ways is useful, sometimes, if they are good lenses, but Theory has become something like a religion or a worldview (or an identity?) in academic circles, (and they’re not good lenses usually) and, well, no thank you.

Focusing on materiality helps to balance the at-times extreme, almost gnostic, abstract world of theory. But materialists often go too far (I’m looking at you, thing theory), and ascribe to material more agency than it ought to possess; it becomes almost mystical, and often collapses the distinction between objects and people.

What literary study is looking for, I realized, is incarnational approaches. The Incarnation (yes that Incarnation) is in one degree about the marriage of spirit and material; it is God-become-Man. Literary study is struggling to find a way to approach both the ideas that a book or poem or play contains, the truth they invite us to uncover, and also the way that those ideas are contained in physical objects and impact actual people. The incarnational approach may offer a way to integrate those two apparently disparate approaches into one coherent whole. But even more important, by thinking incarnationally instead of gnostically or materially, we invite an entirely different way of thinking about literature, one that is open to the Orthodox, spiritual, way of seeing the world. It could be an escape from the ultimately materialist, modernist and post-modernist ways of reading that infuse the academy right now.

Don’t ask what the incarnational approach actually looks like. I have no idea. I had this thought literally yesterday. But as I keep reading and preparing for exams, I’m going to start trying to figure it out.

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