Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Irony in action

Sometimes, classes don't go so well. There may not be a critical mass of enthusiasts in the room. The material may be too far without the familiar. They may not (whisper it) have even read the book. Their tutors may have failed to convey enough passion (hold on to that word, I'll be coming back to it later) about the text in question, or enough detail to load the students' metaphorical guns.

That's how my The Sorrows of Young Werther class felt today. We had a lecture by my colleague which to my mind was superb. The various origins and strands of European romanticism were clearly delineated. Art, music, politics and literature were introduced and brought together, origins were unearthed and popular responses indicated. Questions were posed to the students and answered. Everything, I felt, was going well.

We even conducted an anonymous poll of how many people had read the 110 page novel by this stage (this is the third week of the module). 6 ticked 'Fair cop guv! I've not read it at all'. 18 ticked 'I've read some of it', 'some' = '2 pages' or 0.72% for at least one student. Only 10 had read the whole short novel. Novella really. Which is when I started to worry. This is a novel which extols the cultural and philosophical necessity for passion, albeit backhandedly: young Werther has so much of the stuff that he would rather 'burn out' than fade away, and eventually kills himself. He is an adolescent idealist, a man high on life, one who proclaims the superiority of Nature over the Rules. Obey the Rules, he says, and you get a conformist, boring society which never produces anything interesting, innovative or beautiful. Break the Rules and you may encounter disaster but you'll also get excitement, originality and adventure.

I read out this passage, giving it all the histrionic verve a shy and retiring fat bloke can muster. 'What did he mean'? I asked. Utter, utter blankness. And so it went on. We looked at the passage in which drawing a rural scene led him to consider Nature v the Rules. What was he doing? Nothing. This, readers, is the definition of irony: utter indifference to a work which attacks those capable only of dull indifference.

And so, interminably on, broken only by the very few students who dared speak and on whom I didn't want to lay the burden of the whole two hour experience. It soon became clear that the reading poll was not entirely accurate, should we say. More depressingly, though I don't want the students to follow Werther all the way, passion was almost entirely lacking. If you're a regular reader, you'll know that I understand the pressures of modern student life. Nobody likes being the only one to break the silence. Nobody wants to look like a suck-up or a swot. Studied disdain is the order of the day. And yet, and yet: surely to sign up for and to pay for and to attend a class on literature requires a little more commitment? Whatever the complications of your life, being asked to read 110 pages in three weeks isn't an outrageous imposition. Nor is it oppressive to answer factual questions about a short text.

I tried, readers, I tried. Into the silence, I introduced the Art v Nature debate. Tasks were given, exercises set. I read them Thackeray's sardonic summary of Young Werther (see previous post). We talked about the philosophy of gardens, of the Sublime, of the Picturesque, of the Cult of Youth, of Rationality versus Feeling, or Rousseau and Montaigne and experience versus reason, of Goethe's ambiguous representation of his younger alter ego. Or should I say, I talked about these things, delivering what amounted to an extra lecture despite promising myself and them that this was their chance to be heard.

Ho hum. It's early days. Everything is more complicated than it seems. No doubt I'm expecting too much. I am utterly drained. But as Beckett said, 'Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Enough'.


Anonymous said...

So very recognizable!

(Such a shame though, I wouldn't have minded attending. Read Werther a couple of years ago, in German though. Would have liked to see and hear what you've done with it)

Keep up the good work, Comrade. One day they'll get it. Maybe not in your classroom, but one day.

Anonymous said...

Really, the fact that Young Werther would be a dead cinch for the Bulwer-Lytton Prize aside ('Paul Clifford' was actually better), the little bed wetter Werther moans like an epeeist and makes 110 pages seem like 330. What brain dead modern uni student wouldn't find it deadly boring? They're missing a trick...it's actually great comedy! :-)

The Plashing Vole said...

Anonymous: I don't entirely disagree with your assessment of Werther.I did suggest to the students that Goethe is mocking his younger self and that readers are meant to find him ridiculous. That did strike a chord.

Totally agree about the epeeist comment. Precious types, arent' they?