why studying literature will break your heart, rot your brain, and destroy all your chances of happiness

maiWhy do we always know who the bad guy is?

Let me specify…we’re not talking complicated, Dostoyevskian, “which one of the three brothers is the most irrevocably effed?” kind of bad guy. We’re talking two guys walk into a novel, and one of them you’re really going to hate.

So, I guess we’re talking Tolstoy.. It’s either Levin and Vronsky, or it’s Vronsky and Karenin.

Why do you always immediately know which one is which? Why do you know that Willoughby is Willoughby? More importantly, why do you know that Brandon is Brandon?

(By the way, this unfortunately works in life, too. Yes, every single broken heart was always written from the beginning. Jane Austen wrote your life. Deal.)

I’m distracted. (Why else do I ever write?) I’m distracted by a severely disappointing love story that occurs in a book I’m otherwise examining for its portrayal of certain detours away from the Fanonian idea of manichaeistic violence that is seen in most early post-/colonial Senegalese literature.

Here’s a hint – Love is not one of them. Love is a symptom of violence. Love is what happens when you don’t do what your older sister told you to and marry the rich man. Love is what causes you to get pregnant and smallpox. Love is a disease and it’s living death. Love turns you into a zombie.

What fascinates me about this particular love story is the complete lack of indication that it’s not going to work out. But you still know. She sees him on his bicycle at the movie theater, and you know. He is too shy to say hello, and you know. He rides the train with her all the way to Thiès, promising to honor both her and their unborn child by marrying her. Look, here’s 1000 francs for your mother. I swear I’ll come to Louga and we’ll have a traditional ceremony and I’ll bring you back to Dakar and we’ll raise this child together. But you know he won’t.

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why studying literature will break your heart, rot your brain, and destroy all your chances of happiness

Hey – yeah, you there. Did you know that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude? (1) * Oh, you weren’t aware?

Well, maybe you already knew that the whole time you were sitting, alone, at the bar, expecting your date to walk in any minute, you were in fact singing a syntactical aria. (6) No? You weren’t informed? Oh, well, have I got news for you. You weren’t actually furious at all. No, that was the syntactical fury belonging to a figure called Waiting. It felt like extreme anger and insecurity and sadness, but it was most definitely syntax.

Feel better? No?

It’s not so bad, because these bundles of sentences (7) eating your brain, have absolutely no horizontal order and have been thrown together at random. So, there’s that.

Novel? No, of course you aren’t writing the novel of your life! Ha! No, there’s no transcendence and no deliverance either.

Oh, you were expecting a great romance? I’m so sorry.

Well, cheer up! All these horrifically painful moments (combined, of course, with the fantastically beautiful ones) are episodes endowed with meaning!

No really, this is good. This is the love story.

Your love story? No, no, I’m talking about the love story subjugated to the great narrative Other.

What do you mean it’s got nothing to do with you? It’s got everything to do with you! In fact, you’re the only one it’s got anything to do with!

You’re right, that doesn’t sound too good.

Ahem…um… Is this seat taken?

*Did you say Barthes? Page numbers taken from the 1990 Howard translation of A Lover’s Discourse.

S/Z, or, the “if you give a mouse a cookie” of theory

S/Z is the first work of proper “lit’r’y theory” I ever picked up. It was a required course for comp lit majors, and I have my suspicions that this was the first work listed on the syllabus precisely so that we could take the appropriate advantage of drop/add week. Years later, and after having read much more of notre cher Roland, I came back to it, and I have a theory of my own. That it’s probably the most important book you could ever read if  you are invested in the study of literature. Particularly if you want to teach literature. This theory has a secondary component, which is that S/Z can also devolve pretty significantly if not done correctly.

Barthes claims that the author is dead. But there is a responsibility that comes with believing his claim. And if you neglect that specific responsibility, you will slowly but surely (or, in fact, quite quickly) unravel the possibility of any contextual knowledge.

Remember that story “If you give a mouse a cookie”? All about the inescapable and uncontrollable series of events that come disastrously to pass with the smallest of acts? There’s a trajectory that one can trace, should one have a relationship with Barthes, that follows a similar process of cause and effect. Allow me to demonstrate…

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