Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Welcome to Haunting America

A warm CitizenSE welcome to my Fukuoka University and Kyushu University students in my two sections of Haunting America this semester. Given that we've spent a good amount of class time the first two weeks of the semester doing close, contextual, and comparative readings of Emily Dickinson's Poem #670 ("One need not be a Chamber"), today is a great opportunity for me to recap my reasons for assigning it to kick off our course and to summarize some of my own readings of it.

As we discussed this week, the key question this course revolves around is, "What is haunting (about) America?" (If you think of the "(about)" in the previous question as a kind of ghost--sometimes there, sometimes not--it'll give you another way to think about the title of the course than the reading I gave it last week in class, where I emphasized that the "Haunting" in "Haunting America" could be read either as a gerund or an adjective.) I chose Dickinson's poem because it's short and rich and opens up so well to the various ways of reading ghosts, spirits, specters, apparitions, and hauntings in American literature from colonial times to the present that we'll be experimenting with and reflecting upon this semester.

Last week, I asked you to consider several questions:

(1) What seems to be the point the speaker is trying to make in this poem? How would you paraphrase it?

(2) What do you find interesting about the way the speaker goes about trying to make it? (Consider, for instance, the use of imagery, metaphor, allusion, rhythm, rhyme, voice, and so on--all that elements that work together to constitute the "form" of the poem.)

(3) What is your reaction to the speaker's point? What questions does the poem raise for you?

These questions, although they overlap a bit, move from imagining the poem as a kind of dramatic monologue to considering it as a formal structure to examining your own response as a reader to it. In class this week we continued discussing them, and I linked our discussions to the "how to do things with ghosts" idea of the course, which attempts to encompass literary, religious, psychological, anthropological, sociological, historical, philosophical, theoretical, and political ways of reading hauntings. I compared Dickinson's moves in her poem to two of the best-known ghost stories from English culture--Shakespeare's Hamlet and Dickens's "A Christmas Carol"--to see what light classic Renaissance and early Victorian hauntings shed on Dickinson's poem. And we all broadened the comparisons still further, exploring how Anglo-American assumptions about and traditions of representing ghosts and hauntings are similar and different from the assumptions and traditions of the cultures you're bringing into the classroom. In what ways are Japanese ghosts similar to or different from American ones? Is it worthwhile to generalize about European and Asian traditions of hauntings and spirit possessions? Where do they overlap? Where do they diverge?

Of course, what happened in each classroom was unique. So I want to use the remainder of this post to pull together what I said in both classes about Dickinson's poem and how it connects to the course.

Literary. One way of reading "One need not be a Chamber" is as a metacommentary on the tradition of the literary gothic. This intertextual mode of reading the poem emphasizes its genre, its allusions to other works of literature, its playing with specific conventions of writing and with the expectations and assumptions readers bring to it. Dickinson's speaker constructs a series of metaphors that are based upon allusions to classic scenes from the popular gothic novels and stories of England and America. To what end? I'll let you all ponder that question!

Religious: Why does Dickinson's speaker emphasize the startling, dangerous, even horrifying nature of unexpectedly encountering "one's a'self" and discovering "Ourself behind ourself, concealed"? Why not celebrate such encounters and discoveries, along with her contemporary Walt Whitman, who in "Song of Myself" proudly proclaimed, "I contain multitudes"? Many critics have argued that it's Dickinson's lifelong fascination with New England Puritanism that helps account for her speaker's tone. Whether the speaker is emphasizing that the American Puritan interpretation of the Christian notion of original sin--their doctrine of humanity's total or innate depravity, of our essential fallenness--is the source of the "Or More--" that closes the poem or is suggesting that Puritan theology itself is horrifying is for you to decide.

Psychological: Of course, with all the speaker's references to the Brain and the self and the interior, Dickinson's poem engages topics that have interested psychoanalysts and psychologists of all kinds since the late nineteenth century. From Freud's readings of dreams and slips of the tongue to the latest technological advances in brain scanning, scientists have entered into the terrain that Dickinson attempts to map through metaphor in her poem. Here at CitizenSE, I've done my share of writing on trauma, which has been described as haunting, but Dickinson's poem also engages the uncanny, identity, and other aspects of consciousness, the unconscious, and the affective that can be grouped under "the psychological." What do ghosts and hauntings--and our reactions to them--reveal about us, our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, hopes, fears, desires, aversions?

Anthropological: Several decades ago, Laura Bohannon wrote a now-famous essay called "Shakespeare in the Bush," in which she reported on the reactions of an African tribe she was doing field work on to her retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in order to clarify their cultural assumptions about ghosts and how they differed from her own. This is a classic example of the connections between literature and anthropology, but there are more recent ones, as well. Over the past few decades, ethnographers have become increasingly aware that the way they write up their field work matters--and in so doing have looked to various kinds of literature and literary criticism for inspiration, models, and warnings. So although no anthropologist can go back in time to observe and interact with Dickinson, we can imagine severals ways in which they might find her poem interesting and useful.

Sociological: Last week one of the books I passed around was by a sociologist; in Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon argues that reading hauntings--in literature and life--should be part of the contemporary sociologist's skill set. Just as anthropologists tend to analyze contemporary cultures, sociologists tend to analyze contemporary societies, but certainly in both fields there are comparativists and historicists who analyze evidence from the past as well as the present, from the written record as well as from everyday life. There are many different kinds of sociological approaches to literature--a quick search on google scholar or the databases available through the Kyudai and Fukudai libraries will turn up some on Dickinson. (I encourage you to familiarize yourself with these research tools throughout the semester.)

Historical: Traditional literary historians are interested in the life and times of the author, in the sources of and influences on the author's works, in the author's motivations and intentions, and in the reactions of the author's readers; more recently, a range of newer historicists have attempted to question and extend this range of concerns and interests. As my comments on anthropological and sociological approaches to literature and to hauntings suggest, people working in these fields need to be interested in history to even turn to Dickinson in the first place, rather than focusing solely on the present. Reading "One need not be a Chamber" historically raises questions like, "When did writers begin to focus on the ghosts in our heads rather than out in the world? What does Dickinson's poem reveal about antebellum American conceptions of haunting?"

Philosophical: Dickinson's poem also engages issues and concepts that have interested philosophers for millennia (in the West, at least): the relation between mind and body, materialism versus idealism, rationality and the irrational, and so on. Those working on the philosophy of mind, the problem of consciousness, metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology may well be interested in what the speaker has to say.

Theoretical: The speaker relies on a series of binary oppositions--inside/outside, presence/absence, life/death, literal/figurative, safety/danger, spiritual/material--but also emphasizes the ways in which ghosts and hauntings trouble them. It's possible to read Dickinson's poem deconstructively, as well as in relation to the many varieties of literary and political theory that have traversed the globe since the mid-twentieth century.

Political: Ghosts often signal something hidden or forgotten or denied or disavowed, perhaps an injustice or a crime or a scandal. Throughout the semester, we'll be examining the political dimensions of literary hauntings, the ways in which writers use ghosts to comment on or reflect upon or otherwise respond to ethical and political issues in their own times and the ways in which we can use literary hauntings to illuminate similar issues in our own time. Certainly in a post-9/11 United States, Dickinson's poetic meditation on the relation between real and imagined threats is quite relevant; recent events in the world and on the campus of Virginia Tech have made all of us quite sensitive to the complexities and ambiguities of fear, horror, terror, and danger.

I hope you all find this post useful. If so, we should consider whether we want to start a class blog, in which we post our reactions to the short stories and novels we'll be reading in class for all the world (or that portion of it that finds its way to our site) to see. I'm open to it being a multiple-language blog, as well. Let's talk about it in class next week. See you then--and hopefully back here at CitizenSE!

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