Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Against “deep reading”

From Thomas Beller’s conversation with an unidentified woman who knew J. D. Salinger, about a teacher’s assertion that Salinger was a “symbolist”:

“I mean, you know, it means that when the guy is throwing an orange in the air in ‘The Laughing Man,’ it’s a sign of fertility. Remember that one?”

I did.

“Well,” she continued, “a symbolist means the teacher says that when the guy tosses an orange up in the air it means the orange is a symbol of fertility. Or you know how when the Chief’s girlfriend starts showing up to the baseball games and she insists she play, and then she hits a triple? It means she’s pregnant and in her third trimester.”

We spend a minute being dismissive and contemptuous of this approach. The primary objection is that it sucks all the joy out of the work. This is the ingenious and maddeningly effective technique applied by the humorless: Their interpretation always sounds plausible until you remember how essential, if unquantifiable, humor is to the equation. Humor is beyond their reach.

Thomas Beller, J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (New York: New Harvest / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).
The habit of teacherly misreading that Beller describes has ruined literature for many young people. When I was in high school, we called it “deep reading,” after a television commercial for a liniment that promised “deep heating.” “Deep reading” meant that nothing could be what it appeared to be: every element of a story had to stand for something else, quotidian details coming together to form something like an allegorical pageant. In the more rarefied quarters of academic criticism, “deep reading” turns, say, the s that begins and ends James Joyce’s Ulysses into “a code symbol” for syphilis.¹ In truth, there’s nothing deep about “deep reading” (thus my continuing use of quotation marks): it’s a reductive way of engaging works of the imagination, operating on every one of them in the same damn way.

Beller is right that such interpretations are humorless, but I cannot agree that they always sound plausible. They never sound plausible to me, and not because they ignore humor: the horrors of “deep reading” may visit any work of literature, lighthearted or dour. “Deep reading” fails as a persuasive way to make meaning because it operates in only one direction, from details of a text to some arbitrarily divined meaning. Orange: fertility. Triple: third trimester. S: syphilis. But flip things, and we’re suddenly lost. What should a writer do to suggest fertility? Oh, of course: have a character toss an orange into the air.

I’ve talked about the illogic of “deep reading” on any number of occasions with students who have been subjected to it in high school. Many years ago a student worked out an ingenious reading of William Carlos Williams’s poem “This Is Just to Say”: the stolen plums symbolize the poet’s mistress; the poet’s wife has been waiting to confront him at breakfast about his transgressions; the mistress was on the wife’s mind (in the icebox, where you keep things) as she waited to talk to her husband. This student showed genuine insight into the element of transgression in the poem, and in positing a scene of adultery, he drew uncannily close to the sorrows of the Williams household. But if plums stand for mistress, what would Williams have to do to make a reader think plums? No, he wouldn’t toss an orange into the air. He would have to write plums.

Eudora Welty has a great comment on “deep reading” in her essay “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead?” (Critical Inquiry 1 (1974)). Its title is, alas, the question Welty most often heard from students, about her story “A Worn Path”:
It's all right, I want to say to the students who write to me, for things to be what they appear to be, for words to mean what they say. It's all right too for words and appearances to mean more than one thing — ambiguity is a fact of life. But it is not all right, not in good faith, for things not to mean what they say.
In Williams’s poem, plums are forbidden fruit, and an occasion of covert, solitary pleasure. But they’re plums. Plums is plums.

¹ Really.

comments: 6

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

The girlfriend at the baseball game is seated next to a baby carriage, if memory serves me right, so there is certainly an allusion to fertility. But the third trimester would be really visible to the narrator, so that reading is really a weird stretch, especially if the baseball metaphors for sex were current when the story was written.

Telling kids what to think in this decoding of symbols thing is basically the same as telling them not to think. I took a non-honours english class in high school and they basically gave us a decoder ring and didn't try to get us to work out anything for ourselves at all.

Michael Leddy said...

A decoder ring: that’s wonderful. Yes, what the “deep reading” approach seems to tell students is that they’ll never be able to think about lit on their own.

Zhoen said...

Thankfully, I was only subjected to this regarding one poem, The Road Not Taken. Several times, but always that poem. Always bothered me, because it seemed inconsistent with the words.

Then I came across Satire, That Blasted Art - John R. Clark, which demolished the meticulous "deep reading" presumption of English teachers.


Michael Leddy said...

If you read “The Road Not Taken” carefully, it’s easy to see that the “deep reading” (road of life, going one’s own way, marching to beat of different drummer, and so on) manages to ignore what the poem really says — that there was no discernible difference between the roads, that the poem’s speaker would have preferred not to have to choose, that his destination is unknown, and that the poem ends in a lie (!). Hardly the stuff of graduation ceremonies, where the poem is so often read.

The Arthurian said...

I really like this post.

Michael Leddy said...

Well, thanks. :)