The Question of Timelessness

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From Keesey’s Contexts for Criticism:

“They are especially effective for dismantling foundationalist and essentialist arguments, for demolishing totalizing claims, for deconstructing ideologies, for delegitimizing power, and generally for demonstrating that nearly everything called universal, timeless, and natural is really local, historically contingent, and socially constructed” (416).

I really thought that this was interesting.  Disney calls a lot of its older works “timeless masterpieces” but the truth is, out of those, I have seen very few.  How timeless are they?  What makes something timeless if it is even possible?  This persona taken on by Keesey seems to believe that no matter how timeless a writer tries to make his/her work, it will be outdated.

I do not necessarily agree with this statement.  I think that it is possible to make something that applied in the past apply today for a different reason.  Dr. Jerz’s famous example is of Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.  Back in Shakespeare’s day, Shylock was the villain.  Today, because he was treated so badly (for being Jewish) could be seen as a tragic hero.  No matter how he’s looked at, the work is still relevant because of social concerns.

I can, however, think of works that in my opinion, are no longer relevant to us.  It is a belief of mine that The Scarlet Letter should not be taught in high schools.  For a teenager this work is boring.  It really does not relate to them.  The book is even hard to read as a college student because it seems to have lost its relevancy.  There are other stories about cheating and forbidden love out there that are a lot more exciting.  At a younger age we need to be careful of what we make our children read.   When I read The Scarlet Letter in high school I was extremely put off and never thought that I could actually enjoy reading.  Instead of these dusty classics we should add a few pieces of contemporary literature such as Hard Love.  This book stresses important teen issues and is still good writing.  Students could learn to love reading if they read this.

I’m not suggesting, however, that all classics should not be taught.  I just think that instead of reading six books that are a part of the canon we should only read five.  The missing one would be contemporary and would hopefully inspire teens to read.

What do you think?  Can you think of any other works that are, in your opinion, irrelevant to us today?

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2 Comments

If you are teaching a course in American lit from 1800-1915, it's hard to imagine how you could justify fitting in a contemporary novel, though I can certainly understand for younger kids the "Wishbone" concept of telling a parallel story that helps the kids relate. So, maybe a work of historical fiction, set in the time period you're studying?

Greta Carroll said:

Angela, I’m going to have to disagree with you on a couple things here. First, I don’t think that Keesey necessarily means to imply that just because things are culturally constructed they are not timeless. Sometimes the very reason things interest us is because they are so different from what we are used to. I simply think he wishes to point out that we value things for different reasons throughout time. We still value them, just for different reasons than they might have originally been valued for; your example of Shylock is a case in point. The Merchant of Venice is timeless. We still read it today and laud it as a masterpiece, but the things we value about it and emphasize are different from those watching it in Shakespearian England.

The other thing I’m going to disagree with you about is the Scarlet Letter. I read the Scarlet Letter for the first time when I was 16 and I really, really liked it. I still like it. My point in bringing this up is basically that no matter what book you pick there is going to be someone who doesn’t like it. Some kids will relate to it, some won’t. And just because we as a teacher don’t like book doesn’t necessarily mean that our students will also not like it. After all, our likes and dislikes are socially constructed according to this theory, so who’s to say that the culture that kids grow up in today doesn’t teach them to value The Scarlet Letter more than we were.

I do like the idea of pairing classics with contemporary works though. Teach a classic, teach a contemporary work. Or as I was explaining to you the other day, you can teach some classics and then do Lit Circles and let the kids themselves pick what they want to read within certain parameters, that way those who want to read a classic can and those who want to read a contemporary work can.

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