Brian Morton of Sarah Lawrence College had a fine article in yesterday’s NYT about a topic I’ve addressed in the past. As a medievalist — as a teacher of literature — part of my job is to walk my kids through the ideas and perspectives that are expressed in literature from across the centuries. Of course, that includes ideas and perspectives that are both alien to our own and recognizable as elements of our cultural past. Things like the anti-Semitism in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (or in the original edition of Brighton Rock) are blazingly repugnant in a post-Holocaust world.
Closer to home, I’ve had readers tell me that they wouldn’t finish Broken Glass Waltzes because of Kenny Rockford’s less-than-feminist attitudes. (Oddly, I’ve had other readers tell me that they loved the strength of Jean Cassidy’s character in the same book. As ever, YMMV.) Similarly, I acknowledged some difficulty on my part recently when I read John D. MacDonald’s The Girl, The Gold Watch, & Everything, because it makes some assumptions that I don’t share. But I’m willing to acknowledge that the works are in some ways artifacts of a world in which we no longer live, and that although my attitudes may differ from those of the books’ milieux, those attitudes say more about me than they do about the works, and certainly more than they do about the authors.
And that brings us to a wonderful point Morton makes, about a sort of intellectual blind spot we forget to notice:
It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.
As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.
I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.
[…] When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
… and that brings us after a bit to his punchline, which I suspect I’ll use frequently in the years ahead:
If we arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of curiosity (those essential tools of the time-traveler), we’ll be able to see the writers of the past more clearly when we visit them, and see ourselves more clearly when we get back. We’ll be able to appreciate that in their limited ways, sometimes seeing beyond the prejudices of their age, sometimes unable to do so, they — the ones worth reading — were trying to make the world more human, just as we, in our own limited ways, are also trying to do.
Read the whole thing, as the kids say. I’m glad I did.