Tuesday, April 8, 2014
When I was considering my undergraduate degree and excitedly discussing it with whoever would listen, an older friend said to me, “They say if you want to hate literature, you should study it.” Oh.
This friend is someone I generally consider to be pretty wise, but in this case he turned out to be wrong. Here I am, almost at the end of nearly five years of study, and I love literature more than ever.
I have certainly had to read stuff I didn’t care for. I’d say about 50% of the texts set for my classes were ones I wouldn’t naturally pick up for myself, mostly because it seems that many tertiary texts highlight the bleak and the gritty. Yes, I have had to wade through postmodern criticism that desperately seeks out phallic symbols in the most unlikely of places and brings everything -- yes, everything -- back to Oedipus. I have read stories that gave far too much information and stories that gave far too little. I’ve been called upon to dig out meaning I really didn’t even think was there. I do have a few choice things to say about certain bits of convoluted postmodern literary theory but I can honestly affirm that none of it has made me hate literature. Even when I hated where a novel went, I couldn’t hate the novel itself. There is always some spark of wonder and I think that studying a piece of writing will draw that out -- for me, at least. And as for the stuff I already loved and had to revisit? Plumbing the depths of these works didn’t drain them of all joy. Rather, I got to see nuanced sides of the works that I’d never considered, delicate layers of meaning and artistry that I didn’t even know were there. Far from making me hate literature, studying it only enhanced my appreciation for it.
It’s not just books that work like this. I remember being set a very complex Bach prelude and fugue back when I was studying piano. The movement of the voices -- four of them, spread amongst two hands -- was immensely complex and interwoven, and I pretty much despaired of playing it with any fluidity. I groaned as I picked apart the work note by note, dragging and fumbling my way through. But as I gained a little proficiency (it was never wholly easy for me, let me be clear), I actually began to love it. Of course, the work did not change, but I did. I got to know it better, and in knowing it better I was more able to see its beauty. More recently, I see this happening for one of my music students. “I hate this!” she moaned, staring at a new song which included some unfamiliar techniques. “This is the worst song I’ve ever had to play!” I tried to tell her that maybe it would become her favourite; that’s how it often worked for me. She was frankly disbelieving. Two weeks later, with her fingers moving deftly over the notes, she confessed that it was now her favourite. And because she is eleven years old and entirely unselfconscious, there was no sheepishness. She just grinned widely.
I wonder if the process is the same for learning to love people? In my teens and early twenties, I craved that instant connection with new friends, the undefinable “click,” so difficult to explain but so easy to recognise when it’s present. It’s the sort of feeling that has you laughing with someone and showing them your truest self even though you’ve only known them an hour -- because something about them, or the way you and they are, together, says it’s okay, it’ll work. I used to think friendship needed those click moments, but now I’m not so sure. There are friendships in my life that started off very slowly, awkwardly, brokenly. There are people I know with whom I had to make a concerted effort to reveal parts of my heart, taking a risk and putting it out there in a clunky fashion because it was never going to happen organically. Some of these people are my dearest friends now. With some, I’m still my quietest self, my most hesitant self, but they are true friends and real friends because I have known them long enough to see the intricate layers of the notes and the melodies that criss-cross and compete but somehow come together to make something amazing.
Perhaps studying something will make you hate it. But I don’t think so. I think that if you really want to learn to love something, looking a little closer is the best way to do it.