I see stories everywhere. When my son calls me to his bedside late at night, after I've kissed him goodnight, and he says, "Daddy, I can't sleep", he is telling a story. Is it a true story? That doesn't matter too much, does it? What seems to matter at that moment to me is that an eleven-year old boy needs to get some rest and, even more importantly, is troubled by the fact that he wants to sleep but is having a hard time doing so. Well, I can't make him go to sleep. But I can see that he is telling himself a little tiny story - "I can't sleep" -- and that it's not one that is likely to help him go to sleep. So I figure my job is somehow to get him from that story to another story: more or less "I can sleep." How can I help him to get that "not" out of his story? And if for reasons of psychology or circumstance or both, I can't, then how can I help him to accept it and to tell the story of this "failure" in a different way? That is teaching to me.
The universe is not made of stories. It is made of all kinds of things that are not stories: matter and energy shaped into other people, trees, rivers, cars, buildings, roads, the inchoate flux of experience passing through us more rapidly and densely than we can possibly absorb, let alone make sense of. So the universe is not made of stories. But stories are our point of contact with the universe. They are the means we have of making sense out of what is going on inside us and around us; they are the way we have of shaping memories of our past, describing our impression of the present, and plotting our various possible futures.
At the core of stories lies language. Seven years ago, I was invited to teach Comparative Literature 240: Introduction to Comparative Literature, a large lecture-discussion format course. The course included many students from engineering, pre-medicine, pre-business, and pre-law who had no organic interest in literature. Why should they read? I asked myself. But I didn't really know. So I asked myself: Why do I read? I read, I concluded, to live, to help me live better. Exploring the metaphor further, I came to believe that language is to our intellectual, spiritual and emotional life as air is to our physical life. Like air, language is a fundamental medium without which human beings could not exist. Moreover, and again like air, language is much more than merely an inert and neutral medium in which we exist, as though air or language were the container and we the contents. Instead, while air and language exist independently of each of us individually - outside of us - they each also exist within us, helping us to make ourselves what we are. We partake of this independently existing "medium," drawing it into ourselves, there transforming it into the stuff - part of us in fact -- we need to live, and then sending it back out in altered form for someone else's use.
Reading to live, I thought, could be seen as mindful practice for our lives in language. By mindful, I mean simply fully and openly - that is, non-judgmentally -- attentive to the various aspects of our selves - physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual - engaged in the process of reading. To read mindfully means to become more conscious (in my courses this involves keeping a detailed and structured reading journal after each session of reading) of the nature of the words we take in as well as of their environment; more conscious of the full range of effects (from a knot in the stomach to intellectual excitement) they have on us; more conscious of how we transform and appropriate those words, weaving them into the preexisting fabric of words and images we use to understand our world and who we are; and finally, more conscious of their effects when we do send them back out into the world. This awareness, in other words, is simply an enhanced understanding of the web of cause and effect relations that we reweave every time we participate in language, and, in particular, of the power we have to shape that web. Through this awareness of our creative role in continually re-spinning the web of language we may also develop an awareness of the responsibility and freedom that accompany, inextricably intertwined, each thread of language we take in and send out, whether or not we acknowledge or avow that awareness. But true power however, by which I mean simply the capacity to harmonize our intentions with our effects in the world, depends upon our not only acknowledging, but affirming simultaneously the creative freedom of choice and the accompanying creative responsibility entailed in reading to live.
This course, "Reading to Live," provides a basic stance that now informs all my teaching. I want to demonstrate and communicate to my students a way of reading that better accommodates the multifaceted nature of my experience not only of texts but also of the world of my daily life. I want to demonstrate and communicate to my students a way of reading that could communicate the wisdom and joy of reading to non-academics. And I want to do this only so that they can see how to do it for themselves, in their own way. To achieve this, I suspend and subordinate my expert's intellectual response to a text, assigning it a cooperative role in my effort to understand and elaborate the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of that segment of the fabric of language that I activate when I begin to read. I may have much, by virtue of training, experience, and expertise, to teach my students that they should know. But I try to be very careful in our classroom to listen first to the experiences and responses of the students (sometimes we have long silences!). I can thus better incorporate into the experience of reading an equal respect for the different kinds of knowledge generated by my extra-intellectual faculties. It thus also respects as valuable the great variety of faculties by which my students approach and make sense for themselves of literary texts. This subordination of the intellectual implies approaching a text much the way we might aspire to approach a human being: with humility, respect, and a willingness to be moved and to grow from the encounter, without a preconceived notion - which in literary studies often emerges as a result of the exclusively intellectual, specialist's approach to the text - of what will come of that encounter. The result is a mode of reading more informed by the full range of my experiences in the world, more open to actually being changed by a text, and thus more capable of feeding feeling, understanding, and practical wisdom back into those experiences. In a sense, then, teaching is nothing more than an artful, caring conversation, as all conversations should be: empathetic, attentive listening coupled to measured, humble response.
I hope to help equip my students - or better yet, to help them to see how they are already equipped - for living. To my mind, the test of the experience of the literature classroom actually takes place outside the classroom, outside the confines of the university, when a student, a reader, a weaver of the web of language, encounters, perceives, and engages the world within and around her. The world we live in has its share of tragic and heartbreaking, limiting and disempowering stories. It has its share of seemingly inevitable injustice. Can this student encounter such a world and assume her creative freedom and responsibility? Can she become, as Nietzsche encourages, the "poet of her life"? In doing so, can she enhance the powers of others to see and to articulate new stories, stories that remember differently, describe differently, and project different futures? If I have been successful as a literature professor, then she will be able to. And, when she cannot, she will have cultivated the equanimity and vision necessary to accept that not as inevitable and permanent given fact, but as just another passing story that, perhaps with the collaboration of others, she will sooner or later get to read and so to retell.