Dear Mr. Wallace,
I’m starting to get a bit of a complex; this is the second essay I’ve read about an author that I know by name only. I consider myself pretty well-read, but apparently I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
So Kafka is funny.
If I do get a chance to read any of his stuff, I’ll be sure to look for the “wit [that] is too subtle for US students” (63). Although, based on your essay, if I look too hard I will probably ruin the joke. As you say, “there is no quicker way to empty a joke of its peculiar magic than to try to explain it” (61). If you look too close and work too hard to figure it out, the joke just loses its funniness.
Which got me thinking… I am a high school English teacher; it’s my job to look too close and to work too hard to figure out the literature that I teach. And what’s more, it’s my job to teach students to do the same. I have to decipher the symbols and hunt for the biblical and mythological allusions, and then pass along these treasure-hunting skills to the 150 students who file in and out of my classroom each day. But your essay got me thinking, am I running the risk of “killing the joke,” so to speak? Does digging too deep into the text – and bringing my students along with me – spoil the enjoyment of the literature?
There is both an art and a science to literary analysis, and a very fine line that separates them. The art allows us to enjoy and experience the magic and beauty of the words on the page. The science takes us beyond the experience into a deeper understanding of what makes the words so magical and beautiful. But probe too deep and the magic disappears.
You explain it as “the equivalent of tearing the petals off and grinding them up and running the goo through a spectrometer to explain why a rose smells so pretty” (61-62).
Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, in his “Introduction to Poetry,” describes it as “[tying] the poem to a chair with a rope to torture a confession out of it,” or “beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.”
So in teaching my students to understand and analyze literature, am I killing the enjoyment of it? They need to know how to interpret literature and find meaning in it, but I also want them to love (or at least like) it. How do I find that balance?
It is a difficult tightrope act as both a reader and a teacher. Digging under the surface can produce some wonderful literary nuggets that can deepen the understanding and appreciation of the text. A little work and effort can reap huge rewards. But dig too deep, and the literature turns to goo.