Thursday (HUM303)

I looked over the writing assignments completed in class today. Here’s a couple of things:

1. Virtually without exception people were satisfied with the group work. We’ll make it a permanent component of class, though of course we won’t be doing it every day. For instance on Tuesday, we’ll be getting into the historical context of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. If, as I suggested, you screened the short documentary Life During the Early Years of Napoleon’s Reign then you’re already ahead of the game. That suggestion was made in order to compensate for the cancellation of class on Tuesday.

2. Remember we changed the schedule of readings. If you’re using a pdf version of the syllabus that is more than 2 weeks old it is out of date. Consult the course information page for further information.

3. The analysis of a pivotal moment or event in Wilhelm Meister’s formation should be longer than a single sentence. It should be precise in detail and attempt to encompass the multi-dimensionality of that event or moment. Goethe’s novel is not journalism, it is literature. To simply write that Wilhelm was upset because he broke up with Marianne and this changed him as a person is not an adequate response to the prompt or the text. There are deeper questions to be asked and answered here– questions about the relationship between fantasy and reality, desire and obligation, the personal and the social. I encourage you to plumb those depths, and hopefully our class on Tuesday will aid you in that effort.

In the meantime, consider this:

The literary text operates on two levels of signification (meaning-making) simultaneously: the denotative and the connotative. The denotative level of a text is its so-called literal meaning. Something happens: a dog barks, an old man coughs, a leaf falls. Yet there is a secondary level of meaning which in a sense “lies beneath” this surface meaning, what is called the connotative (or figural) level of the text. That bark, that cough, the leaf fluttering through space, mean something more, perhaps especially when they are juxtaposed with one another.

Let’s play a game. We’ll take the 3 images from above a make a terrible poem with them:


A dog barked twice

And the old man coughed again

Just as a leaf twisted free from its branch.

The question the reader is impelled to ask is: what is the relationship between these three actions/images? Is all of this happening in the same general space or is the dog in Honduras and the old man in Bayview? It’s not a causal relationship, surely? In other words the dog’s bark didn’t make the man cough which caused the leaf to fall, right?

Probably not. But the man’s cough, which follows on the dog’s bark, coincides (“just as”) with the fall of the leaf.

Hmm. Is there any implication here, based on our previously existing cultural knowledge or training, that might allow us to draw conclusions about the meaning of the cough and the leaf?

The leaf has “twisted free” and thus seems to be dead. It takes a pretty strong wind to blow living leaves from branches, after all. This seems to indicate that it is Fall, a season often associated with age and death.

Okay, so death. And an old man coughing. That might seem to presage death as well. At the very least our terrible poem connotes a sense of gloom. A kind of psychological tone has been established here.

We could probably go even further. The dog barks twice and the man coughs “again”– a parallel! Two repetitions. Does this liken the dog and the man somehow, as if they were responding to one another? If so, does the lonely sound of a dog barking in the distance further color our sense of this poetic scene? Are those two sounds somehow equal? Frankly, it all sounds pretty depressing, and I just made this up.

My point, however, is that this is exactly what language– particularly, emphatically, what literary language– does: it generates meaning. Or rather we, the users (readers, writers) of language generate meaning (we signify) virtually without ceasing.

It’s this kind of procedure that we will all be required to undertake in reading the texts for this course. Not necessarily to read every image line-by-line  but to be open and attuned to the secondary level of signification, to the metaphorical and symbolic dimensions of things.

In other words, Wilhelm and Marianne “breaking up” means a whole hell of a lot.