I’ve been trying to gather together some old articles and new ideas about appreciating and teaching literature. In the process, I composed the following paragraph about interpreting the hero’s interludes with Circe and Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey:
So in what respect has this combination of characters provided a tantalizing, artistically indefinite commentary upon events? If only today’s young student would pursue these echoes down the corridors of experience! I believe the mythic presentation tells us that sex spells death to the soul if it has no context, no reason for being other than a self-annihilating, unedifying pleasure—infinitely renewable but infallibly, immutably annihilating in each of its reprises. What does Penelope offer that two goddesses cannot? Context; purpose. Children to raise; a home with which one’s identity readily and permanently fuses; companionship as the body ages and years in this world dwindle. In the living world of Ithaca and in the embrace of his living wife, Odysseus will find a forever-sameness within whose bounds change is natural and welcome. In the dead world of a goddess’s icy beauty, he finds an undying sameness that suffocates any possibility of meaningful change. And in what other terms would we cast a spiritual definition of human life, if not as an ascending sequence of deaths and rebirths—of changes that lead to an ever more significant, identity-assertive unity?
Of course, I was immediately struck upon rereading these words by how “offensive” they would be to just about any young person enrolled in a college English program. And then I had the further thought… “Why?” If your old Uncle Clyde sidled up to you during the holidays and began, “Wilbert, my boy, you have a bit of potential, but you also have a lot of major problems. Here, I’ve made a list…” well, you would take a bathroom break and then squeeze through the window above the tub. But I speak not of such cases. Imagine, rather, that you happen to read a piece about the health risks of corn flakes or mashed potatoes. Say that your favorite food has been targeted. Are you “offended”? Would you write the author a scathing email? Or if this person delivered his culinary death sentence from a rostrum, would you spring up and chant, “Hey, hey, ho, ho! This food Nazi’s got to go!”
Or what if you received a recall on your car because the airbag has a nasty habit of inflating spontaneously as soon as the driver reaches 60 m.p.h.? Would you not take heed of the notice? Or would you fire back, instead, “I love my car. This message offends me!”
We seem to be surrounded by people who are “offended” by the existence of firearms, and hence by any mention of or reference to them… except in the context of a grotesquely violent Hollywood flick where the cool antinomian studs are heisting the evil corporate mogul’s Moon Rock. They are “offended”, these sensitive plants among us, if the presence of guns in gang activity is underscored, or if the proliferation of gang activity in certain subsets of the population is remarked, or if a certain race or ethnicity happens to overlap that certain subset significantly. We can’t say much of anything to put our highly “offendable” brethren on their guard, and we can’t wage a public discussion in the interest of reducing the dangers that circulate around them.
Certainly a teacher cannot analyze a text and propose that it carries a warning against promiscuous recreational sex.
If you find yourself constantly among the “offended”, may I ask how you ever propose to learn anything? You cannot be warned of a peril. You cannot be confronted with an example that may reflect negatively upon your own practice. You cannot be introduced to a fictive world where your own values are not applied and promoted.
So how do you learn anything? How do you grow up? What motivates you to discard your diapers and put on a pair of big-boy pants?
Where is your pride in being an intelligent adult? Where is your humility as a member of the human race?
Where is your sanity as a free citizen allowed to cross the street without a government mediator interpreting traffic signals for you in a non-offensive manner?