Friday, 9 June 2006

The Othello Wars

Great curricular argy-bargy of the past is timeless and speaks to us across the generations. The Australian has yet another story today about how neo-Marxists are hellbent on spoiling Literature for the "kiddies". Again the namedropped fetish text is Othello, and again the article says that while there is "nothing wrong in looking at literature such as Othello from feminist and racist points of view" [sic], Year 11 and 12 students ought first to be taught to experience direct emotional and personal connection with the play (or perhaps to taught how to simulate it, I wonder?)

The occasion for the article is a speech given to the Lowy Institute by Simon Haines, the Dean of Humanities at ANU. Dr Haines is reported as saying, in the course of his presentation on "links between Milton and the terrorist mind", that teachers seemed to feel that poetry had to be wrapped in a political or theoretical package in order to make it palatable and beneficial for their students.
"I'm never quite sure whether they think poetry is much too hard, obscure and unpalatable for the kiddies if it's not made relevant and tasty, or they're scared poetry is too soft and mushy and needs some hard political roughage to make it good for them -- to produce better outcomes, as they say in WA," he said.
"There's nothing either soft or obscure about jealousy, or suspicion, or malignant scheming, which are the themes of Othello.

"As we all know, these things are around us all the time; they're some of the most basic contours of life."

I agree that there is nothing soft or obscure about the "themes" of Othello - though I'm less certain that studying those themes is really the same as studying the play's poetry. But I simply can't see how it's possible to present topics like jealousy, suspicion, and malignant scheming as 'basic contours of life", crossing cultures and epochs and structuring the existences and histories of numberless individuals, without the organising aid of some kind of basic framework which recognises that certain "contours of life" recur for explicable reasons. Any such framework is a political theory, and without one, nice thoughts about how jealousy and suspicion affect us too are nothing but gossip.

The article goes on to say that poststructuralist literary theory has been "replaced" in universities by revitalised historicism. That is more or less true. But if the implied point is that feminism and so forth is intellectually worthless to high school students because it's out of fashion, then why on earth advocate replacing it with connoisseurship, which is even more intellectually worthless? Why not recommend that the curriculum writers get up to scratch on the latest research and scholarship? Perhaps this is no good either because looking closely at (say) early modern culture and history will only bring us back again, with renewed force, to the necessity for political theory.

The real issue is not how to teach literature but how to avoid teaching the literature's own politics. As Desdemona said, I understand a fury in his words -- but not the words.

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