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How some students proved to their teacher they don’t need protection from troubling literature

Notes from a literature classroom reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ without caring for #triggerwarnings.

How some students proved to their teacher they don’t need protection from troubling literature

In our “Corporeality and Desire” literature class this week, we discussed Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel that returned to social media conversations over the last couple of years with a stigma conferred by 21st century high-moral talking-heads – being called upon to be banned in literature classes as a #_____ novel, or at least to be appended with a “trigger warning”. The text is in our reading list for the course (perhaps an incendiary list for ban-and-trigger hashtaggers).

I was not really surprised by our class discussion; it confirmed my steady suspicion that students can, and do, rise above ridiculous censoring and infantilising strictures sought to be imposed upon them for “their own good”, and produce responses and readings that would shame those who wish to “protect” them from life’s fearful asymmetries. To be protected in such a way – how patriarchal, ironically enough! – is surely not what they have come to literature for.

Plunging in

The class took the novel head-on in its difficulties. The student who introduced the book started her presentation by stating simply that one both loves and hates Heathcliff, and grapples with this contradiction even when one leaves the book behind (possibly the reason why one never quite leaves it behind). In the course of two hours, we flowed and stopped, agreed, disagreed, questioned and speculated, juggling a bunch of key words and ideas that hover around two generations of lovers perched in ghostly houses on a desolate heath in a remote country, created over two centuries ago: passionate love, exhilarating devotion, difficult desire, humiliation, revenge, anger, jealousy, rage, class, gender, sexuality, location, emotional and physical violence, hunger-striking and a weakening body, deaths, corpses, exchanged locks of hair in a coffin, burial, afterlife, sadism, masochism, “love as molten lava”, “desire as fire, burning everything in its gaze and touch”, deteriorating bodies and passions…physical, emotional and psychological desire that wrack mind and body and wring it both liquid and dry, at once growing wondrous blossoms and exposing shrivelled roots.

We then swam to more difficult shores: the body as text, the text as body; the sexualities of language (“ejaculated” for speech, someone noted), charged climatic conditions of “Wuthering [withering, weathering] Heights” signifying the tumult and turmoil of physical/psychological distress and destruction wreaked by passionate love; the body (of both character and text) as impossible to wholly apprehend and understand, demanding immersion and resistance at once; the recognition of the failure of a linear hermeneutics of knowledge (of both character and text); the experience of reading – engrossing and exhausting and frustrating; the destitution of reading and (not) knowing; bodies and novels and their transgressive, heady, futile, agonized desiring to reach beyond grasp – in love, and in language.

Lineages of the erotic

A range of other novels about complex loves surfaced, thrown into the pool, borne upon personal literary echoes, creating ripples: Michael in Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K in an inspired comparison with Heathcliff, Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman. And some knotted talk of understanding systems of breaking-down, of passions flying and tattered, of reparations unrealisable – but the desire to love and hold, know and discard, remaindered and returning in endless cycles, through life and death, and after death.

All this, and some more, from one class reading a novel that had been “called out”, and called upon to be banished from the classroom. There was further gratification in the linking of Brontë’s brutal, memorable novel with an earlier class discussion, in which we read Anne Carson’s exposition, Eros the Bittersweet, on Sappho’s love fragments.

Hell, yes! We were beginning to trace lineages of the erotic through centuries of impassioned writing…I learnt a great deal about reading and thinking desire, in two hours of sweating (doing English, in August) over Heathcliff and Catherine, those impossible lovers. And I learnt, hallelujah, how students will always come through when thinking deeply and passionately about what they read and how they read – and how insulting it might be to give them triggers and bans instead of spaces to fly critically and imaginatively with the books in their hands.

Postscript

Following class, in the afternoon, I attended a film screening organised by students, of Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows (2018) – a film traversing tortuous terrains of love and sex and memory in a present moment of crisis. This was part of a new weekly initiative by the students to watch and discuss good and difficult cinema together. On a sweltering afternoon in a small stuffy classroom with no air-conditioning, a roomful of students engaged now with a visual text that offered no easy answers to the terror and beauty of desire and life…

Post-postscript

In the evening, this was found on the Facebook page for our course, posted by a student of the class:

“In response to the discussion on the sweetness and bitterness in the novel –

‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic

Orders? And even if one were to suddenly

take me to its heart, I would vanish into its

stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but

the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,

and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains

to destroy us.’

- Rilke, first elegy”

Life, literature, and their immeasurable, immutable connections. No to listening to warnings from “the wise” about what to take to the humanities classroom, and what not to.

No to cynical or conciliatory gestures of atonement and restoration when suitable time has elapsed and moral diktats thundered from pulpits and most of the trolling and hashtagging have been laid to rest, deleted or layered silently over on social media handles.

And no to trigger warnings, bans, and protectionist, saviorist impulses. Enough of our students can confound us still with their ability to embrace all challenges of loving, living and losing that literature throws at them – and astonish us with the capaciousness to contend with it all, putting their burgeoning, soaring, critical-emotional imaginations to work.

They have seen love and hatred, friendship and rivalry, silence, suicide and death up close already in their young lives, and they discover them again and again, in wonder and in shock, lurking – magnified or shrunk – in the pages of the books they read. And then others: dreams and nightmares, fantasies and fears. They make the connections, tremulously but tirelessly. Those that do, everyday (and there are so many of them), are more than enough for us: they “help us with their youth”, and they can yet “teach us well”.

Brinda Bose teaches English literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Topic: #jnusu
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