The Distinguished Teaching Award

Stephen J. Prior Professor of Humanities Maurice Géracht, a member of the English department since 1966, received the Distinguished Teaching Award in the spring. On Sept. 24, at the President’s Convocation and Faculty Awards ceremony, as is tradition, he delivered an address to the assembled faculty. What follows are his remarks to his colleagues.

On Close Reading

Thank you Dean Freije for your generous introduction: I especially thank my department colleagues for nominating me for this honor. I stand here representing them, as well as you all, dedicated, distinguished, teachers that you are.

With this in mind I thought I would share with you an exercise some of us have adopted to introduce our Critical Reading and Writing Courses; I have found it equally effective to introduce mid-level fiction courses. One colleague, Beth Sweeney, uses it late in her an upper division fiction course for altogether different ends. The exercise is a reading of John Barth’s “Frame Tale” from LOST IN THE FUN HOUSE. The tale is being distributed to you as I speak by my colleagues, and you are to read as soon as you have it so that we can shortly refer to it. You are also to make sure you have one of the little stickers also being passed so that you can complete your reading assignment.

You will note that, while complete, this is not a very long text— a reason for choosing it for this occasion—or maybe it is the longest ever! In the classroom situation, a full 50-minute discussion to un-pack this tale is not unusual (sometimes it even fills 75 minutes). We have some 20-25 minutes and I will leave you with the tale, and mostly with questions.

I won’t begin this afternoon as is my usual habit by citing A. Pope, or J. Dryden, or George Eliot, or Henry James, but rather go to Friedrich Nietzsche [carpooling with Brit Smith has broadened my horizons]. In 1887 Nietzsche, in his preface to DAWN recommended the practice of slow reading. He writes:

It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, … that is to say, a teacher of slow reading; in the end I also write slowly.

 [The Liberal] art … demand[s] of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take Time, to become still, to slow down … for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today … in the midst of an age of "work," that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to "get everything done" at once, including [reading] every old or new book: [close reading] … does not easily get anything done quickly, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers. … ‘slow’ because the aim is not to collect but to consider. [Emphasis added].

So onto “FRAME-TALE” the first tale from LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE (1968).

Read the tale out loud—every word.

In my intro fiction courses I tend to organize “slow reading” or “close reading” by considering:

1) Narrative structure (the component parts); 2) the narrative technique[s] (who tells, and the manner[s] ‘tis told; 3) the use[s] of language. I will here follow this procedure.

The component parts of the structure of this tale are visually apparent:

1- the title: FRAME-TALE;

2- the instructions below the title (incl. “continued”);

3- ONCE UPON A TIME THERE on the right hand margin;

4- WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN on left hand margin of page verso;

5- the instructions below: “continued”);

So what do we have? As is, as yet, we have no narrative, no discernable structure;

-We have a title resonant for literate literature readers;

-Unconventional instructions; (perhaps more familiar for children’s paper patterns and models rather than adult lit?)

-Two conventional fairy tale openings.

As the parenthetical “commentary” at the bottom of each page might suggests the narrative structure of the tale needs “to be continued”—to be moved farther along, to be kept going, to be resumed, to be renewed and to be sustained.

Most surprising, the reader is commanded to collaborate, to actually, to literally “frame” the structure (puns intended) of FRAME-TALE.

 

Let’s say:

We’ve taken LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE out of the Dinand Library or we have just bought the book.

How many of us would follow the author/narrator’s instruction to “[cut on dotted lines]. Twist end once and fasten AB to ab, CD to cd”?

Is there in these instructions a touch of the subversive?

Would we feel some remorse had we done this to our own newly purchased book? [N.B. my first edition is still intact; thanks to Tom Parsons in Graphic Arts I have found a way to both have my book and read it too!]

By now we have all “[cut on dotted lines. Twist end once and fasten AB to ab, CD to

cd.”

 

****

There are a number of things I wish we could address at the same time, but we’ll need to address them in sequence.

The narrative technique[s] (who tells, and the manner[s] ‘tis told).

First the instructions to the reader: “[cut on dotted lines. Twist end once and fasten AB to ab, CD to cd.” by of “Frame Tale.” Note the imperative voice—a command!

What kind the author/editor/narrator —reader relationship does this transaction is establish? Is it unusual for the reader to be thus addressed?

For readers accustomed to 19th century and modern fiction (mostly realism) this direction is a bit unusual—it is a break from the convention of realism. For readers familiar with different or older traditions, the direct address will recall the work of Cervantes (DQ, 1605-1615), Fielding (TJ, 1749) and Sterne (TS, 1759), among others (those authorial voices were ever present, ever polite and friendly, eventually even intimate). Among those others recalled is the Argentinian Jorges Luis Borges who in “the Circular Ruins,” etc. We’ll leave that thread for another time.

What is important to note is that the most familiar and dominant convention of fiction, “that fiction is not fiction,” that fundamental convention of realism is here disturbed by the “direct address”— in a verbal narrative, the “direct address”—the address to the reader—is the equivalent of “breaking the fourth wall” in the theater, TV or movie. That address insists that what we have on hand is “make believe,” is artifice, is something made, is something crafted. It continually proclaims, “Don’t forget I’m an artifice!” On the contrary, “realism” uses all of the artifice it can muster to hide the fact that it too is artifice.

 

Is it unusual for the reader to be asked to do something?

We are not usually literally asked to cut away a piece of text and re-organize it. Re-organizing sequence of narratives of course is nothing new. And Sterne periodically invites his reader to supply his or her own text, and even provides spaces, including a torn chapter, for the reader to contribute and supply. Fielding urges his reader to return to, and re-read previous chapters.

But the direct demand for this sort of collaboration is playful wit making explicit what is implicitly demanded by all serious writing of all readers: active, engaged, reading.

 

In class I usually get the following responses to a first reading of FRAME-TALE (show samples):

1) arm bands (a good portion of the class)

2) double twist (a fair number class)

3) Möbius strip (handful)

4) single strip (some few)

5) whole sheet (occasionally 1 or 2, often 0)

in that descending order of frequency.

 

1a-The first group responded to the authorial/editorial direction to detach the strip and join it together—but it didn’t account for ALL of the text direction and details.

2a- The second group responded to the authorial/editorial direction to detach the strip and join it together but gave it a twist and attachment the text did not warrant.

3a- The third group accomplished the task asked of them .

4a- The fourth group did not get past the first step.

5a- The fifth group …  it would be easy to be discouraged and dismayed, but actually I don’t know what is happening, and in class these students do not, on the spot, share their views. Maybe they are still contemplating the opening moral/ethical question: do they want, even symbolically, to deface a book? My practice is always at the end of class to hand out extra copies of FRAME-TALE to all, and urge students so inclined to re-start and create an artifact, a readable sculpture to place on a dorm shelf.

***

Questions raised by just constructing the Möbius strip include:

What does this invitation to participate in actualizing the text mean?

Is it the reader’s reading that, at least in part, creates the text?

Does the reader have any constraint in actualizing, i.e. “reading” or constructing the text?

Does the text endorse some “reading” more than others? How?

Is the “reader” a totally free agent in the transaction with the author in the construction of the text at hand? What is the nature of author/reader collaboration?

Does the text determine the manner and matter of the reader/text/author engagement?

Does a story exist without its being told? Does it exist if it is not heard or read (or seen)?

In this instance, is there a plausible and valid construction, other than a Mobiüs strip?

 

Read the Möbius strip:

What would have happened if we had not followed the author/editor’s instructions and insisted on retaining the conventional linear text [linear literary realism]? Is the linear text of “FRAME-TALE” readable as is? Does it go anywhere?

Does the recursive Mobiüs strip transform the phrases? Do they now go anywhere?

Does the form, the Mobiüs structure, give the inchoate phrases significance?

What if one does not know what a Mobiüs strip is? [As math concept, as geometric figure, as a symbol, a subject for sculpture, etc.]

What if one does not know what a “ frame tale” is?  Does context matter?

 

ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN ONCE UPON A TIME —— an ever on-going regress.

What does this signify?

Is a story something that has become so diluted that it is now a parody of itself?

Is the narrator of this yarn—a traditional storyteller with the fairy-tale beginning of “Once upon a time...”—becomes a mindless automaton, endlessly repeating the same thing without ever saying anything of importance?

What do the endless re-writings and re-viewings of the familiar conventional phrases precisely demonstrate?

 

Or, could putting this story on a Mobiüs strip, which has no discernible beginning or ending, be referring to the needful reiteration of literary ideas and forms, ideas continually growing out of each other and yet returning to the ones that came before, a circular form? Is it narrative collapse? Or is it inexhaustibly fresh beginnings?

One thing for sure: this is not a conventional story. I mean a story with a beginning, middle, and an end—one that has characters, some sort of plot, and a conflict with a resolution. Yet it does signify, as we have already seen.

Asked to read the Mobiüs strip out loud, my students, like most readers, silently supply the sequence variant punctuations not in the original in order to have it yield sense. Furthermore, punctuation and meaning will vary with the repetition. For example: "Once upon a time there was a story that began, once upon a time”;

in this punctuated example we may recollect a time when a story began "Once upon a time";

or "Once upon a time there was, a story that began: once upon a time”; in the second articulation we are, as it were, stuck in a constant present loop that has no story to tell, no past tale to recollect, or future to promise; or, " Once upon a time there was a story that began "; this last version implies that unlike a past time, stories no longer begin. Here the narrative voice, to which the reader also helps give life, speculate on the nature of storytelling, it's traditions, it's difficulties and frustrations, it's repetitions and renewals, the occasional declarations of its demise and Phoenix rebirths. 

 

The use[s] of language.

Finally, even the words "Once upon a time there was," words so familiar because of their repetition story after story, generation after generation, that we hardly pay them any attention, are in fact given renewed life as these are re-written and re-viewed in this fresh architectural or sculptural con-text: given as it were, like the narrative structure of "Frame Tale" a fresh twist, by the surprising adverbial phrase that completes the predicate "a story that began." In narrative terms, Barth's tale never proceeds; it only endlessly re-starts even as it suggests further significance with each re-reading and re-viewing. Perhaps, as Barth’s tale may also suggest, we only have the same stories to re-tell, exhaustion lying not in the narratives that need to be told and re-told, not in Alexander Pope’s words “What was often thought,” but exhaustion because of what “is e’er so [poorly] express’d,” because of what fails to “to give us back the image of our mind.”
 

Today the liberal arts continue to teach students how to contribute to the conversation, not only of Western, but also of World cultures, by exploring those cultures through wide readings of texts [texts here broadly defined], analysis, discussion and debate. This insists on a community of scholarship both past and present, introducing students to what Mathew Arnold hoped was “the best which has been thought and said in the world.”

You are tired of hearing this, you know the value in being able to analyze and write about text in a sophisticated way as a life skill; but more than ever we do need to strongly convey that “slow reading”— close reading— is about being more than just a learning to be a savvy reader, more than somebody with a worthy framed liberal arts degree, more than being a potential successful professional or CEO, more than prepared for career success. Its aim is not to “REV-UP” in order to more easily collect and "get everything done," but again to repeat Nietzsche’s words: to consider “deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open.”

Close reading demands reflection, close attention, and engagement. It’s about empathy. It’s about nurturing a moral imagination, which can entertain, in the words of Henry James, “the unseen from the seen.” It’s about being open. It’s about understanding. In the word favored by this community, it’s about discernment. Ultimately, it’s about an ethical response to life.

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