Friday, November 8, 2019

How to ruin “English,”
one small example

I looked, from morbid curiosity, to see what one dreadful book says about that passage from “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”:

As he gazes at the contents on exhibit — enamel bedpans and urinals overseen by a wooden dummy wearing a rupture truss — [Daumier-Smith] experiences an abrupt stripping of his ego that reveals his alienation. He suddenly comes to realize that no matter how technically perfect his art might become, it is tied to intellectual logic and he will always remain uninspired, adrift in a world he considers mundane and ugly. He recognizes that he is spiritually unconscious, with no connection to the divine inspiration that true art requires or true living demands. His art is polluted by ego.
Oh yeah? That’s the kind of reading that ruins “English” for so many students: skip the details of the surface in favor of an “interpretation” of a sort that seems available only to teachers. When I was in high school, we called it “deep reading.”

What might be more deserving of attention in that passage: Daumier-Smith’s feeling of being out of place (which recalls his earlier feeling of being a loser in a game of musical chairs), the awkwardness of navigating the garden (as in Eden, you have to watch your step), the “dummy-deity” (a blind god, or a self-effacing lavatory attendant). And: the price of the truss has been marked down.

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