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Playing towards the Truth

Why literature classes should be play and not work

We humans are story-shaped and story-making creatures. From stories we receive the gifts of meaning, hope, purpose, revelation—even, in that great Story, salvation. A life without story is no human life.

This we know by nature: precious few children must be forced into listening when “Once upon a time” or “It was a dark and stormy night” signal the beginning of a tale. Yet these children become students, and these students encounter stories gussied up in the guise of Literature or English Class or Humanities, and then, too frequently, they decide stories are dull, difficult, dead.

What are we, their teachers, to do?

Perhaps, to start, we should accept some blame for it. The literary theories that bedevil the academy work havoc in our classrooms, too.

As Formalists, we teach students to catalogue the elements of setting, plot, and character, or the meter, rhyme scheme, and tropes of a poem, in pursuit of an elusive final Meaning.

As Historicists, we painstakingly detail the main actors and events of the literature’s time period, interpreting it as a “sum total” representation of the ideas and currents that produced it.

As devotees of Reader-Response, we lead delightful but directionless conversations with students on how they respond to the piece, what thoughts it aroused, what connections they can make with their lives.

Each theory and each classroom approach supplies genuinely helpful tools for quarrying the rich ore from literary mines; but the goal of “exhausting” the piece of literature too often yields exhausted students, and leaves the literature’s riches barely touched.

What if we gave our students literature, not as a cave to mine, but a field to frolic in?

Speaking from his own experience, a wise teacher of mine describes literature as the “play of possibilities.” He describes how, as a young man in an unchurched, blue-collar family, he resigned himself to the naturalistic outlook that the surrounding world offered him. Then he began to read the stories of Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner; and through these stories’ characters, he himself vividly lived out both descriptions of the naturalism he assumed to be true of the world, and also directions in which it might lead him. But his “playacting” of these possible roles gradually led him to see beyond them to a new possibility, opened by faith, to transcendence. Literary “play” ushered in new life.

When we study literature in school, we too often forget this dimension of play. But play itself can be serious business; it is possible that we learn the truest things we know through play. This, at least, is suggested by Josef Pieper in his essential book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Pieper describes the destructive modern obsession with “total work,” the condition in which work (defined as production and characterized by incessant labor) becomes the telos of all of life, and he observes that this mentality leads us to judge the value of an effort by its sheer difficulty rather than its essence. Thus, we think that love of enemies is the worthiest form of love simply because it is difficult—whereas, with Aquinas, Pieper contends that love of enemies is worthy simply because it is love, and most meritorious when given with ease. Or we think that we have taught a valuable lesson (or written a valuable paper, or read a valuable book) simply because of the labor we expended on it, rather than considering the value of the lesson or paper or book in itself.

To the contrary, Pieper declares:

[T]he essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of ‘difficulty,’ so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift—the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation; it comes effortlessly and without trouble. On one occasion St. Thomas speaks of contemplation and play in the same breath: ‘because of the leisure that goes with contemplation’ the divine wisdom itself, Holy Scripture says, is ‘always at play, playing through the whole world’ (Proverbs 8:30f.).

If it be true, could this insight give us the courage to play in earnest in the classroom—to make it a place not only to analyze and evaluate, but also to spill out and be immersed in literature’s possibilities?

This week, my ninth-graders and I have been reading early American literature. The stories are vivid—John Smith’s skirmish with Indian warriors and rescue by an Indian princess, the Pilgrims’ entrance into an unpromising Promised Land, John Winthrop’s Puritan-consciousness of the blazing transcendence in a fight between snake and mouse, and Mary Rowlandson’s Indian captivity narrative. If they were in kindergarten, they’d find these stories fascinating. But they are high school freshmen and need to be convinced.

So as we read, I ask them questions. Based on how he writes, what is Captain Smith’s view of himself? Does his pride cause the strife in Jamestown? Or is his self-confidence the key to the colony’s survival? Odd, isn’t it, that the difficult characters are the ones who make a story interesting—what sorts of difficult characters in our own lives might be essential for our stories? William Bradford describes the Pilgrims’ first glimpse of the New World. Have you ever been in a storm on the water? Was it in your mind that if you could just reach the shore, you’d be safe, warm, and dry? Can you imagine if the shore actually held more dangers and unknowns than the ocean did? What sort of people must these Pilgrims be, to have this kind of resolution?

As we toss around such questions, the students do not really feel that they are working. Some moments are silent, some filled with laughter. We are playing, and they feel that. The play encompasses attentiveness to form, to historical context, and to our own responses; but rather than tools for mining, these things become playthings of imagination. With them we paint pictures, play roles, assemble puzzles, play into truth. Play invites students out of their world, so limited by the technology and media that only mimic boundlessness, and into a world of genuine imagination, possibility, empathy, and insight.

And the play goes deeper as students grow; reading for the “play of possibilities” trains us as discerning, charitable readers.

This same week, reading The Picture of Dorian Gray with thirteen seniors, I made the observation that the lavishly sensuous narrative pulls us into an experience of Victorian aestheticism, even as the plot surrounding Dorian’s life puts that experience on trial. A student then jumped in, connecting this interpretation with our last year’s reading of Paradise Lost. We had seen then how Milton’s poetry made us empathize with Satan’s heroism, only to catch ourselves in sympathy with the devil and in dire need of the salvation prophesied to Adam and Eve. You could read about this brilliant interpretive approach in Stanley Fish’s critical work Surprised by Sin; but we had stumbled into it almost by accident, as we played along with Milton’s epic and imagined ourselves into its narrative—suddenly finding ourselves in confrontation with our own hearts.

The stakes are high; we play in dead earnest; we play towards truth, and stumble by sober, joyous accident on “the sudden illumination,” the “true contemplation” that stories are meant to give.

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