SHIFTING FOCUS: STRANGERS AND STRANGENESS IN LITERATURE AND EDUCATION by Peter Roberts, ed., Reviewed by Thomas Cole
 

SHIFTING FOCUS: STRANGERS AND STRANGENESS IN LITERATURE AND EDUCATION
Ed. Peter Roberts
(Routledge, 2015) 136 pp.
Reviewed by Thomas Cole on 2017-07-29.

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This collection of essays, which reprints a special issue of Educational Philosophy and Theory from 2013, aims to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Each chapter focuses on at least one novel or play, ranging from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) to Albert Camus's The Stranger (1942). Indeed, as Lesley Hall and Ruth Richardson recently noted on the Victoria listserv, this book will interest scholars of the very long nineteenth century as well as of educational philosophy.

Strangeness and strangers are the main themes of the collection, but they rarely remain stable categories. In fact, each appears more as a specter for much of the book. While contributors do not mention either Donna Haraway or Mary Louise Pratt, Haraway's concept of becoming with and Pratt's contact zones definitely relate to the effect of literature as both estranging and educative. As Peter Roberts writes in the introduction, "there is educative value in encountering, experiencing and reflecting upon that which is strange," and "[t]o be committed to education is to be willing to accept risks, to be challenged and to change" (2). Contributors share this conviction that education requires a willingness to give oneself over to the strange experience.

If "knowledge should enable us to connect with others and the world," but fails to do so, Roberts writes, "the results ... can be tragic" (3). According to Roberts, this is the main point of Claudia Rozas Gómez's enjoyable chapter on Frankenstein. In "shunning his 'fellow creatures,'" to pursue knowledge alone, she argues, Victor shuns both others and strangeness: "Victor's failure to connect with others can, at least in part, be attributed to the nature of the knowledge that he pursues and the way in which he decides to seek it" (13). On the other hand, the creature's willingness to accept strangeness is what educates him and nurtures his social sense. Cast out of Victor's lab, he attaches himself to the de Lacey family and quickly learns "through observed conversations, stories, songs, and everyday experiences [that enable] him to develop empathy and social connectedness with others" (13). For Rozas Gómez, then, Victor and the creature exemplify two contrasting ways of learning. While Victor's solitary pursuit of knowledge--learning from experimentation--exemplifies the banking model of education, the creature's way of learning with others, especially in light of their difference, anticipates the critical pedagogy expounded in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968).

Nesta Devine finds a similar contrast in two novels by Charlotte Brontë. Both the eponymous heroine of Jane Eyre (1847) and Lucy Snow, the heroine of Villette (1853), are strangers to their employers, devoid of family and friends in their new locales. Each demonstrates, Devine argues, "two different, contemporary, conflicting views derived from the philosophical schools of German Idealism and Kantian rationality" (33). While Jane's passion--her Romantic Idealism--frequently puts her at odds with her elders, teachers, or employers, Lucy's "cold enlightenment"--her Kantian rationality--keeps her from interacting with any one, romantically or otherwise, "unless it is a rational, purposive act" (33), which explains why she cannot act on her love for Dr. John. As for the two approaches to teaching, Devine claims,

Romantic idealism as a template for teaching has serious shortcomings, both in the quality of the pedagogy that emanates from it, and in the sustainability of the teacher's life when romantic expectations dominate. Similarly, enlightenment rationality has problems, particularly in a kind of cold and ineffective pedagogy. Rationality does result in a successful business, but we have no indication that it results in especially successful teaching. (40)

For Devine, Jane Eyre and Villette stage contrasting interactions between teacher and pupil. Adele does benefit from Jane's style of teaching, and Lucy betters herself professionally in her position (35-6). Brontë's texts, then, serve to evaluate the philosophical merits of each teacher's methods.

While Devine shows how Brontë's novels investigate two methods of education, Ruyu Hung finds in Kafka's Metamorphosis an alternative to both rationality and Romantic idealism: "sentimental education." Citing Richard Rorty as a major influence, Hung argues that Gregor identifies with the stranger, and through "depth-perception, the stranger can be perceived as a living person, a 'somebody,' whose face shines with sweats of toil, whose eyes sprinkle with hope, rather than a mere 'other'" (88). As Gregor becomes the Other, his family withdraws from him, and the story thus "manifests the cruelty of exclusion of the other. Even a person who was familiar to us could possibly become a stranger when he or she is unable to communicate" (87). For Hung, then, Gregor's metamorphosis metaphorically signifies the fate of anyone who becomes strange to his or her community. Yet while this way of reading Gregor's metamorphosis is appealing in its attempt to recover the Other from its abjection, Kafka's story may not be the best example of such estrangement. Since its very first sentence describes Gregor as "ungeheuren Ungeziefer," a monstrous vermin that is nearly unrepresentable, such a figure might well metaphorically signify a generalized Other. But according to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, "Kafka deliberately kills all metaphor, all symbolism, all signification. Metamorphosis is the contrary of metaphor" (Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature [1975], 22).

If metamorphosis nonetheless serves to furnish "sentimental education" in Kafka's story, as Hung argues, the estranging effect of literature as a whole can help us "understand ourselves and our world" (44), as Roberts suggests in his essay on Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864). Roberts persuasively argues that the "Underground Man is a stranger to us, and yet not so much so that we cannot relate to him." As the man of inquiry bent on examining his existence and community, he also interpellates us in a manner defined by Louis Althusser, to which Roberts alludes. "The Underground Man, when we first encounter him," Roberts writes, "seems to have few endearing characteristics. He is self-absorbed, petty, vindictive and rude. It is, however, impossible to ignore him: he 'shouts' at us, forcing us to enter his psychological and social world" (49). By confronting us with harsh realities, the Underground Man dramatically awakens us from "intellectual slumber" so that we may examine ourselves (49). Likewise, according to Elias Schwieler, Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" becomes a "teaching tool that serves a purpose other than teaching the text itself" (61). In Schwieler's reading, "the sense of being a stranger and the experience of the strange as the uncanny are ... part of learning which leads to an ontological, life-changing, journey" (64).

Two other essays consider the limits of self-exploration and the problem of class estrangement. Considering epistemology in David Copperfield, Richard Smith argues that even the process of knowing ourselves more deeply can be detrimental if it goes too far. By contrast, John Freeman-Moir shows how the sense of estrangement may spring from the experience of severe limitation. Examining the servant named Efix in Grazia Deledda's Canne al vento / Reeds in the Wind (1913), Freeman-Moir finds him living estranged from those he serves: living "a version of the examined life within the objective conditions of class estrangement and terrible oppression" (80).

Alan Scott's piece on the strangeness of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot unexpectedly dovetails with Aidan Curzon-Hobson's article on Camus's The Stranger. While many see Waiting for Godot as a "form of ludic nihilism or ... some comedic but desperate existentialism," Scott reads it as "an introduction to strangers in a strange universe ... to realize a certain truth about our existence, namely that we give meaning to the world; the world is always a representation" (98). Since Beckett never explained what Waiting for Godot is about, Scott faults him for avoiding the important question, "Can theater be 'transformative and critical'?" Yet Scott salutes the play's educative power even as he laments its would-be political impotence. "For me," he writes, "watching the neoliberal juggernaut driving over the lives of millions of people in both the developed and the developing countries, it is the nihilism of capitalist social relations that needs artistic expression and it is Beckett who is the impotent comic retreating to the silence of his own desolation. And yet Beckett's strange world ... taught me so much" (105). Likewise, Curzon-Hobson reads Camus's novella as a work intent on interrogating the place and strangeness of individual existence. "Camus's characters," he writes, "bear witness to the absurd as the great educator" (109). Scott implies the same about the absurdist Waiting for Godot.

For all of its virtues, particularly in the essays on Frankenstein, the Brontë novels, and Metamorphosis, this collection prompts an objection. Its contributors tend to interrogate earlier texts through twentieth- and twenty-first century lenses. For example, while I find Rozas Gómez's reading of Frankenstein fascinating and illuminating, I wonder why she links the novel to Freire. A thorough-going answer, I believe, might be that Victor's doomed quest for knowledge exemplifies problems that Freire would analyze 150 years later. But this is my own answer to the question, not one that Rozas Gómez provides. Even though most contributors reject presentism and "anachronistic" readings that might "extend backward to" earlier epochs (37-8), they might have offered a rationale for applying later theories to earlier texts.

The volume would also have benefitted from more thorough and rigorous editing. In the sole endnotes to their contributions, for instance, two of the authors divulge the shortcomings of their work: "I do not draw a rigorous distinction between the stranger and the other," writes one, and the other notes: "This quotation is often attributed to Marx but I am unable to find the exact reference" (93; 106). Also, the collection contains several typos, misplaced commas, and run-on sentences, none of which I would expect of a Routledge publication.

Despite these shortcomings, each chapter of this book deepens and refines our understanding of some well-known masterpieces, opening new lines of inquiry into canonical texts. Beyond exploring strangeness and strangers, therefore, these analyses of educative strangeness in works of literature will appeal to educational philosophers as well as literary scholars.

Thomas G. Cole, II is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Florida.


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