05/05/2010

THE AGE OF ANXIETY - TEACHING 20th CENTURY LITERATURE

This morning I started introducing the cultural background to 20th century literature ( Edmund Freud, Karl Marx, William James, Henry Bergson,  Albert Einstein,  among others) . Getting closer to our contemporary world, to our time,   I should have felt safe, at home. Instead, this morning -  as always when I start talking about WWI and  the 20th century   to my students  - I didn't feel at home at all. I felt  rather displaced, as landed in  a foreign country. I've reluctantly left my beloved Victorian Age to start  telling  them about the so - called Age of Anxiety.
 They didn't notice anything strange: they were silently taking notes, carefully listening, nodding or smiling at the recognition of  bits of their Phylosophy  or History lessons. But I was just longing for what I love most. Why can't I love teaching Joyce, T.S. Eliot, V. Woolf, Ezra Pound or Orwell as much as I love the Brontes, Dickens, Gaskell, George Eliot, Stevenson or Wilde? I find the themes in the first decades of 20th century literature  interesting but so depressing at the same time.

We are going to read Joyce's Dubliners, just two of the short stories, Eveline and The Dead. Their main themes are the stillness, immobility, dullness ( paralysis ) the protagonists  are caught in and their failing attempts to escape . I love both short stories since  they are so beautifully sad. But ... no sense of hope in them. The epiphany contained in the narration of the events never leads to a solution. Then we are going to read and analyze some pages from Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. The protagonist's life, re-lived in one crucial day, will lead the reader  - as the protagonist herself - through a journey of self-awareness , self-acceptance and final resignation to the reality of old age and death. Beautifully sad. Not much hope in it. The moments of being in this narration, again,  do not convey any sense of hope.

Finally we are going to study Orwell as a committed writer in the 30s and we will discuss his criticism to totalitarianism reading pages from Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. A promising revolution turned into a strict dictatorship and a nightmarish dystopian description of  post- third WW world.  Hints to dangerous, haunting current realities. No sense of hope again.
I'm sure and convinced any young person should read or at least  know about Orwell's books and his warnings. But can you understand my uneasiness? Maybe I'm just in the wrong mood these days. This is why I need reading something light, just for my delight (see sidebar on the right - currently reading)

7 comments:

Alexa Adams said...

I know exactly what you mean, though I do not teach. "I felt rather displaced, as landed in a foreign country" - as early twentieth century writing should make you feel: isolated, stranded, endangered. I wonder if modern children, truly creatures of the 21st century, their life events influenced by the politics of terrorism rather than the nationalism that lead to the world wars, can really relate to the destabilization early twentieth century writers were struggling to comprehend, or is such madness so commonplace to them that they take it for granted?

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Alexa Adams
Nationalism, prejudices and intolerance are unfortunately something our young people support in a blind shallow way. Many of them sympathize with fascism and nazism, war to them is what they play in videogames. They spend hous virtually killing as many foes as they can. Can they understan what Owen calls the "pity of war", they great sufference in it? We try our best against TV and videogames but it's not easy.
The 19-year-old students I have this year - a small group of 14 girls and 3 boys - are still sensitive, hard working and thoughtful. But once they go to university after next summer, I'll be left with the others. Thinking of next school year I've thought of looking for a different position several times these days. And I love my job.

Luciana said...

Oh, I also think the beggining of last century was indeed a sad time. And I think those problems are still present, at least in my reality. In Latin America nationalisms are still very strong. I only read Virginia Woolf's essays, but I liked them very much. Orwell's "Animal farm" is also very nice. I made a comparison between it and current Brazilian politics when I was a senior at High School. So, you see, I think younger people can understand the impacts and the truths those stories have. I hope your mood improves, I hate my depressive days. I hope you get better soon!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Luciana
I'm sure you can appreciate good literature, as I do, I can assure you. but my thought are now like..."well, the fun is over for this year. Let's wait for next one".
As I wrote, these texts are immensely important and beautiful. But sad, so sad. Especially because they are so true nowdays.
Thanks for your active contributions!

lunarossa said...

I love those books, MG, and I agree with you that they are pretty sad. What worries me is that, if you look around in Europe and beyond Europe, the economic depression and the choice of many young people has brought us back to a political limbo. Often young people don't realize the dangers of nationalism and totalitarism because they don't have any experience of it and all they can think of is getting rid of the "foreign surplus" from their country. That's why your contribution, as a teacher, to their education is so terribly important. I don't envy your responsability but I really admire it. All the best. Ciao. A.

Theresa N. said...

Like you after reading about something "dark" I have to have something "light" to read next. It keeps me balanced.
Theresa N
weceno(at)yahoo(dot)com

mjmbecky said...

It's interesting who those dark books reach though, don't you think? We just finished reading/studying Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. While some of the students thought the themes too heavy, others couldn't put the book down and said they snickered throughout their reading of the novel.

I totally agree with you though, as you consider the texts you need to expose the students to in class. Often, I run home and grab something light to read, just so I can escape!

Good luck with your studies though. I sure love to read your posts that discuss your teaching, and feel a kinship to you on that account! :)