Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lit Theory and I Never Got Along

At the risk of losing your respect, I will freely admit that I hated Lit Theory.

My undergraduate studies in English largely consisted of enjoyable book-club discussions of highly interesting works, so it was a rude awakening to learn that grad school involved mucking about with literature the same way Dr. Frankenstein mucked about with human anatomy. From my first semester, my Lit Theory professor and I argued about the point.

Every class was the same. The professor would trot out abhorrent specimens of film and prose – taped-together images draped over skeletal plots – that left us all scratching our heads. Then the professor would demonstrate his carefully constructed analyses of the “texts”, like a magician whisking away a cloth to reveal a hidden rabbit. “Is this not a work of genius when viewed in this light?” he asked.

“It… no. That there? I think I just broke my brain,” I said. “What’s the point of reading a story that’s only good after careful analysis?”

“It makes us better than the masses,” he replied, stuffiness apparently being an acceptable life-path for some people.

But my grades were at stake, so I kept at it. After hours of course work, the brainwashing kicked in. I analyzed everything, dividing it into “literature” and “not actually literature.” No sitcom was safe. Every commercial contained hidden commentary on the war in Iraq. The Disney channel became a statement about disillusion and the inevitability of old age.

My friends and family thought I was paranoid. “None of that stuff is actually there,” they said. “Okay, maybe we can see the Disney channel thing, but you’re way off on the rest of it.”

It was easier to believe my professor was full of it than that all of my loved ones were too dense to properly interpret written and visual media, so I started counting the number of times contributors to my writing group said, “It’s interesting that you saw all that in my piece. I certainly wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote it.” I quickly noticed that they said this every time, and confronted the Lit Theory professor with this condemning information.

He replied, “Of course they weren’t thinking about it: authors don’t really write their works, they merely channel the deeper beliefs of the subconscious mind, which we then uncover and interpret to find the true meaning of the text.”

…Whatever. I heard all that as, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I am the great and powerful Oz.” I was knee-deep in a degree program that I was beginning to suspect didn’t actually contribute to society. However, when I still couldn’t stop analyzing everything, I stopped reading and watching television, instead spending my free time playing solitaire and listening to music that didn’t have lyrics. I was miserable.

One night, on my way to make a sandwich, I passed through the living room where my husband was watching a movie. “What do you suppose they were trying to say, with the glass on the floor like that?” I asked.

He stared at me. “Did you just… Are you seriously deconstructing Die Hard?”

I had to think about it. Deconstructing was just so natural by now. “I think so. Maybe. Yes?”

He turned off the TV and made me sit beside him on the couch. “Dear, this has to stop. This is an intervention.”

That was the end of English for me. I abandoned all plans for a PhD and took up Library Science instead. I joined book clubs, and ran a few myself. I read more not-literature and watched more movies with explosions in. I may not be better than the masses, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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