Controversies, Fall 1999

        English 211 students are enouraged to consider the study of literature as an ongoing conversation with readers of many eras.  Feel free to use these discussions from a previous year's public folder postings as starting places for papers, as ways to stimulate your thinking about the week's readings, and as ways to review for quizzes and exams.   I'm not above drawing upon them for quiz and exam construction, so why shouldn't you take avantage of them, too?  You also can use them as a starting point for your own public folder posting to continue the discussion.  Remember to include the URL of the controversy in the body of your posting.  It automatically becomes a hyperlink when you post it, and that will save you from having to provide all the context, yourself.

Controversy #1 (Fall 1999): "What's the difference between a vision, an inspiration, and hallucination?"   This didn't go far because it was so early in the semester, and because the questions Heather asked are so profound.  Where do novel ideas come from?  If you're a strict materialist, even what I'm typing is the product of electro-chemical impulses in a computer made of meat.  The ancients believed the world was animated by a host of invisible entities which could enter us and alter our beings, making us smarter, sexually aroused, angry, or insane as they wished.  The medieval Europeans held on to some of that belief in their angelology and demonology, and the tradition of divine visions, which still persists today.   Particpants: Heather Baron and Arnie.

Controversy #2 (Fall 1999): "The political functions and risks of literature in the real world"  The difficulties of authors composing extend far beyond the problem of how to put words on the page.  What if "Writer's Block" is more like the "Executioner's Block"?  Literature has real consequences in the world, especially in that hothouse climate of an early modern court, like Henry VIII's.  Sir Thomas More was raised to understand all the devious and dangerous consequences of published words, and it's obvious Utopia took some calculated risks in light of that knowledge.   Particpants:  Nicole Barnabee, Amanda Ripley, and Arnie.

Controversy #3 (Fall 1999): "Love, Desire, the Lyric Poem and the Invention of Literary Personae"   The frank discussion of desire and its confusing relationship with love sparked this conversation about the nature of lyric poems' relationships to poets' actual lives.  The urge to read lyric poems as truthful statements in ordinary language is amazingly strong in most readers.  Can we blame this on rock and roll, too?  I doubt it.  The problem involves social sophistication and the capacity to envision the performance circumstances for manuscript circulation poems.  These debates lead to an important issue, the function of personae in literature.  Participants:   Nikki Frame, Donald Pfeffer, Shana Hellman, Natasha Gorski, Heather Baron, Nicole Barnabee, Charles Gibbons, and Arnie.

Controversy #4 (Fall 1999): "Faustus' 'Clown' and Variant Textual Versions"   The apparently incompatible or at least strange appearance of the "Clown" in Marlowe's subplot brought out the possibility that his character might vary from the "A" to the "B-Text" of the play.  That kind of parallel reading can give us clues to the play's revision in and after performance as actors and author react to the audiences' responses.  Build characters who get big laughs, and trim those who don't?   Particpants:  Beth Allee, Heather Baron, and Arnie.

Controversy #5 (Fall 1999): "Metaphysicals, Romantics, Moderns: Influence? "   Signs of possible literary influence across the centuries are explored in this short exchange involving speculations on Herbert, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Dylan Thomas (!).   Particpants:  Natasha Gorski, Kathleen McGill, and Arnie.

Controversy #6 (Fall 1999): "Dramatic Justice in Volpone"   What do we expect to happen to obviously good or evil characters by the end of a drama?  Should the evil always be punished and the good rewarded?  Historians might tell us that these kinds of neatly wrapped up ethical states don't last long in real life, though Sidney's "Defense" will perhaps give us a counter-argument to this "reality-based" dramatic criticism.   (It's also called "verisimilitude," or "life-like-ness".)   Remember that plays are intended to set up powerful emotional dynamics in their audiences, and perhaps the playwrights might want to send us out of the theater with a sort of "charge" pent up inside us.  Particpants: Beth Allee, Heather Baron, Nicole Barnabee,  Marjorie Bliss, and Arnie.

Controversy #7 (Fall 1999): "Hell in Milton and Shakespeare "     This one began as a misunderstanding generated by my selective assignment of portions of Paradise Lost.   That raises issues about how survey courses operate and what cautions students (and teachers!) should bring to this kind of reading.  Further thought brought us to see that some deeper concerns lurked here in the depths.  As I look back on this discussion, a final question occurs: why have a "Hell" at all?  See More's Utopia   for one answer, but the consequences of going Hell-less are interesting to contemplate.   I believe that you can find survey data from recent decades which indicates Americans tend to believe in a Heaven, but not in a Hell.  Hmmm... Particpants: Shana Hellman, Beth Allee, and Arnie..

Controversy #8 (Fall 1999): "Women and Sin in Paradise Lost"   The pattern should be emerging by now, given our reading of the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, Amelia Lanyer, and how many others, that Anglo-European Christians tended to identify women as particularly prone to sin.  The "Eve" narrative in Genesis provides some of the stimulus, but many of the early church fathers like Paul, Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome, developed a theological position which extended Eve's guilt to all women and Adam's "susceptibility" to all men.  Milton plays a famous role in this process.  Particpants: Shana Hellman, Beth Allee, and Arnie.

Controversy #9 (Fall 1999): "War and Government in Paradise Lost"  So maybe I inflate this exchange a bit in calling it a "Controversy," but students so rarely can penetrate Miltonic syntax and diction to find the enormously rich layers of satire it contains that I pounced on this one.  (TAsha is one sharp reader!)  Paradise Lost is a particularly important expression of England's emergence into the modern era of politics and social class formation, and to the degree that its version of Hell's "Legislature" sticks in people's minds, it serves as an important cultural marker for what people think makes politics work, for better or worse.  I hereby invite our Political Science and International Relations Department to co-sponsor a team-taught seminar in Paradise Lost and the formation of the modern notion of political process.  Particpants: Natasha Gorski and Arnie.

Controversy #10 (Fall 1999): "Behn on Slavery, Christianity, Racism, and Feminism"   This is a classic case of a controversy that shot off into many directions because its primary text was so interestingly troublesome.  First, Shana spotted some important inconsistencies in Behn's description of Oroonoko and Imoinda which raise questions of Behn's authorial control of her intentions.  Heather tries to plumb Behn's motives for trying to write against slavery as an institution, but notices also that the plot at times resembles two famous satires on the vanity of human ambitions Candide and Rasselas, both published in the winter of 1758-9, seventy years later.   Heather's reading, influenced by her having taken English 212 first, is a perfect example of the way context shapes readings (see Controversy #7 from Fall 1999).  Marjorie and Suzanne remind us that authors don't necessarily have to do all the thinking for their audiences, and that the definition of terms like "radical," "feminist," and "racist" change over time, just like the meanings of any other words.   That led me to a little mini-essay on "Reader-Response Criticism."  I hope it helps.   Participants: Shana Hellman, Heather Baron, Marjorie Bliss, Suzanne Elbeeze, and Arnie.

Controversy #11 (Fall 1999): "Swift's Unstable Satire"  Swift loves to construct satires like lethal piņatas which, when struck from any position ("Oh, it's about that!") will tend to turn upon the reader-player and shower her/him with shocking discoveries.  Beth, while trying to pin Jonathan down, lured Heather, Corey, and Mei-Ling into their own further discoveries of his satiric machinery's plan.  Sometimes, as in "A Tale of A Tub," one wonders whether there is anything in the universe that is not foolish, evil, or both.   For more about satires that seem to leave one no moral center in which to stand, you might want to look at the evolving discussion of "low-norm satire" in Jonson's Volpone, Controversy #6 from Fall 1999

Controversy #12 (Fall 1999): "Literate Characters, Literate Audiences and Early (Post-) Modern Literature"  Yes, I know, those () Po-Mo Parentheses are an annoying stylistic affectation, but here I am in the middle of the summer thinking about this stuff so you can read it in the Fall, so cut me some slack!  In this case, they're at least defensible because there is something important about the emergence of literate characters on the stage and in the audience.  Non-class-dependent and non-trade-dependent literacy make social boundaries porous, advancing a servant to knighthood with the stroke of a pen, not a sword (i.e., Waitwell/"Sir Rowland").   Gendered literacy also disappears when the nearly all-male reading population of the previous centuries now must deal with contesting readings (and texts) by women.   No sooner has the "Early Modern" period emerged than the Post-Modern appears to leap, fully armed, from its forehead.   Participants: Corey Wronski and Heather Baron.