Many years ago, I was teaching The Tempest to some freshmen. A few of them complained that they couldn't "relate" to the play. At which point, I wanted to jump on the nearest desk and yell that THERE WAS NO POSSIBLE REASON ON THIS GREEN EARTH THAT THEY SHOULD "RELATE" TO THE TEMPEST. It's The Tempest, for crying out loud, not a docudrama about being a college student in upstate NY. Which brings me around to the novelist David Gilmour, who doesn't teach women writers because "I’m very keen on people’s lives who resemble mine because I understand those lives and I can feel passionately about them – and I teach best when I teach subjects that I’m passionate about." Indeed, when asked if he needs to "relate" to the works on his syllabus, he explains that "I believe that if you want to teach the way I want to teach, you have to be able to feel this stuff in your bones. Other teachers don’t, but I don’t think other teachers necessarily teach with the same degree of commitment and passion that I do – I don’t know." Putting aside the not so passive-aggressive critique of those "other teachers" out there, the ones who don't "feel this stuff," this account of what it means to invest in "people's lives who resemble mine" seems to skip a few steps.
So, as those of you who have been putting up with this here blog for nearly a decade know well, I write about Christians. Thanks to demographics, I also teach Christians. (Because it's pretty hard to be a Victorianist and get away from Christians. Even the agnostics and atheists are still thinking in Christian terms.) Even this semester, when I'm teaching a course about Judaism in the 19th-c. novel, I've still got a whole lot of Christians going on. Now, in case you hadn't noticed, I'm Jewish (the name does tend to be a giveaway, I find). And yet, I get all excited and intense about "my" Christian novelists (despite their frequent lack of, er, aesthetic flair), and I suspect that one of my colleagues may have regretted asking why I thought Bleak House was one of the great English novels of the nineteenth century (let's just say "expounded at some length and with much gesticulation"). But my life most emphatically does not "resemble" that of any Victorian novelist I can think of--in fact, my life doesn't resemble that of any nineteenth-century Jews, male or female.
"Relate" and "resemble" posit that the objects of relation or resemblance are static, objective categories. Take, for example, "I relate to George Eliot," or "my life resembles George Eliot's." What does that mean? That you have a longterm liaison with a man who cannot divorce his wife? That you are a successful intellectual with no "respectable" female friends, a moral arbiter considered immoral by much of the genteel world at large? That you write great novels? That you're actually kind of conservative? That you read everything in sight? All of the above? What? Or have you imagined a relation or resemblance into being, a spark of connection that has something, perhaps, to do with Eliot, but just as much with what you needed to find in Eliot? And if you grant that, then perhaps you can grant that there are other ways of thinking about one's "relation" to a work or author that do not rely on mental mirrors in order to work?
For many academics,much of the "passion" is about the non-resemblance, the non-relation. Even those who may be like me are not, necessarily, like me. (I don't think I have much in common with Amy Levy, let alone Grace Aguilar.) Even recovery work still derives from an awareness of the strange: I can enter into figurative dialogue with that "lost" Jewish woman novelist, now found again, but I cannot flatten her circumstances and mine together into an indistinguishable pulp. Historical continuity does not necessarily encompass identity or more than token resemblance. I have nothing in common with Charles Dickens, and could really do without his antisemitism. But I could go on all day about Bleak House...and teach it all day, too. The space between myself and a work has just as much passion and promise, it seems to me, as does any comforting relation.