If there's one thing that infuriates instructors no end, it's the complaint "I can't relate to this [book, poem, whatever]." Or, alternately, "I like this book because I can relate to it." Both provoke our exasperation, largely because they presume that the student's self is at the center of the universe: reading literature becomes a matter of reconfirming one's own experiences. I think most of us interpret "I can't relate" as "I won't learn." But as this report from a student suggests, "I can't relate" doesn't necessarily mean "I won't learn"; instead, it can also mean "I don't feel." The student comes to understand the poem as an intellectual artifact, but still cannot internalize the poem's meaning. In other words, it's still an alien text which appears to have arrived from a different cultural planet. George Eliot addresses this distinction between intellectual and felt understanding a number of times, especially in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda: there's a difference between purely "theoretic" knowledge (ideas disconnected from feeling and practice) and true knowledge (bound up inseparably with one's relationship to the world). To what extent are we, as instructors, attempting to move students beyond a "merely" intellectual understanding of a great literary work--the sort of understanding that might generate a perfectly good answer on an exam--to a "felt" understanding? Or are we even equipped to do such a thing? Surely an honest inquiry into our own responses to great literature will reveal that we too often stop at an unfeeling response. For example, I've been reading Lady Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji . As a trained "professional" reader, I'm certainly aware that I'm reading a great work of literature: I can appreciate the author's scope, her skilled manipulation of poetic tradition (about which more in a second), her ability to delineate character, and so forth. But I don't feel much of what I'm reading, for perfectly commonplace reasons: everything in the setting is foreign (from the architecture to the musical instruments to the religious beliefs), the poetic tradition is completely alien, and the characters' motivations don't always make immediate sense. To feel the book, I would need to invest a fair amount of time in reading up on Heian literature, culture, and politics--and I will probably do so at some point. But to many students, Victorian presuppositions about, say, goodness or conscience or what-have-you seem as alien as the culture of Heian Japan. Moreover, there are cases when the student "feels" a novel or poem only by misreading it--and not just students, either.* Marianne Thormahlen's brilliant The Brontës and Religion, for example, makes a pretty airtight case that you cannot secularize Jane's subjectivity, although early feminist readings of the novel (Gilbert/Gubar, for example) often try to split Jane's belief in women's need for work and independence--expressed in Brontë's private writings as well--from her Christian faith.
Certainly, one of the things that can characterize professionalized reading is that it may work through a purely intellectual understanding of a work to a felt understanding, but such feelings are not necessarily aesthetic or appreciative. Someone complimented me on an article that came out this year by remarking that I seemed "in the mindset" of the writers discussed--although I'm Jewish, the writers were almost entirely CofE evangelicals, and about half of the texts were Jewish conversion literature! And it's true that (some occasional moments of irritation aside...) I was trying to represent a viewpoint entirely "other" to me with not just fairness, but genuine sympathy. That is, I wanted to explain how the ideas worked and what they did. Griping about their rightness, wrongness, or sheer foolishness wouldn't have helped either my argument or the reader's understanding.** But this response derives partly from years of training, in which I learned how to turn difference into a challenge, a problem to be solved. (Which is why I say "Well, I really should go learn something about Heian Japan," instead of "This doesn't speak to me; why should I bother?") Most students have not yet learned how to turn the statement "I don't relate" into the question "Why don't I relate?" Moreover, in many instances we don't have the time to then move students to the next step, which is to find the pleasure involved in answering that question. In some cases, the problem may be that the difference is not felt as enough of a shock, which might energize further investigation.***
In other words, I appear to be arriving at a somewhat pessimistic conclusion, which is that in many cases teaching students great literature will not always be the same thing as teaching students to feel great literature.**** We may get students to do well on an essay question about Robert Browning, but will they want to read Browning ever again? (Obviously, with a good instructor, many students will come to enjoy the works assigned on the syllabus, and a few students in every class will be moved to read more.) Or is just getting students to the questioning phase the measure of success? Such questioning has the merit, at least, of inspiring students to read books they might not otherwise have picked up--the KJV, the Pilgrim's Progress, the Inferno, whatever--and that, in turn, may one day help them feel what we can only get them to comprehend.
*Although isn't it true that a work with "universal appeal" is one that can be appreciated even when most of it in fact remains incomprehensible? I suspect that a lot of people who enjoy Middlemarch do so without understanding its representation of late-1820s-early-1830s politics, its precise critique of evangelicalism, and so forth, even though such things are hardly peripheral to the novel's meaning.
**Kevin L. Morris' excellent survey of anti-Catholic fiction, "John Bull and the Scarlet Woman: Charles Kingsley and Anti-Catholicism in Victorian Literature," Recusant History 23 (1996): 190-218, runs into some trouble near the end because he loses his temper. That he does so is understandable, but it leads him to oversimplify things.
***By "shock," I mean the sort which my father tells me experienced when, as an undergrad in the late 1950s, he first read Boccaccio.
****As I explained when I gave my job talk, my aesthetic tastes are pretty conservative. It's just that I tend to write about books which are only of historical interest. (Or, as I like to quip, there are three kinds of books--the good, the fun, and the interesting. I teach the first two and write about the third.) It seems strange, but I don't experience this as a contradiction--just two different kinds of enjoyment.
(This excerpt from J. Peter Euben's Platonic Noise brings up several problems with what Euben calls the "instrumentalization" of literary study; among other things, Euben discusses "boredom" and "relevance." Here's an old entry from a Tulane message board, apparently by a student, on "relating" to Toni Morrison. An Australian site brings up useful ways to discuss the relevance of King Lear; be sure to click through to the "Objections to studying King Lear in the 1990s" page. While I had quite a few problems with this essay, it correctly points out that many literary classics are not really appropriate for the secondary school classroom.)