The Moral of the Story
Excerpted from the beginning of an article by Sumana Roy entitled “The Problem With the Postcolonial Syllabus”:
In the essays my students write, I have begun to notice a common pattern. They are structured almost like Aesop’s fables. A moral seems necessary at the end– a kind of wrapping up, whichever way one chooses to look at it, like a prayer of gratitude after a meal, or an antacid tablet to aid the digestive process. Occasionally, I notice this in their poems as well, how the concluding lines must justify the existence of the lines preceding them. I have begun calling it “moralitis.” Without a text’s display of morality, we seem to be at a loss about how to justify its existence.
“Why are you so suspicious of pleasure and delight?” I asked the students on Google Meet. I later wondered whether that sounded like a moral question, but a few of them volunteered responses. Their answers told me that they didn’t quite understand whether I was scolding them good-naturedly or praising them.
It wasn’t really their fault. In most– almost all– of the literature courses they take, the texts they study are supposed to be illustrative: They are used to critique some kind of -ism that is being scolded or praised by the course instructor. I remind myself, and my students, that when the discipline began life in the 19th century, the first professors of English literature often had backgrounds in rhetoric and theology, and were concerned primarily with the transmission of moral and religious values. Only decades later did the discipline become predominantly concerned with directing our attention to beauty and its backstory, as well as to stylistic and aesthetic questions that had previously been considered extraneous to academic study. Initially, it was possible to see this as an addition to the territory covered by literary studies: not only law and morality but also beauty and form. But we are often left with the impression that beauty (I’m using it as shorthand) must exist in stark opposition to morality, even as, living from moment to moment, we are made aware that they coexist, without disharmony.
Today, there is a welcome movement among some North American scholars to emphasize enchantment and attachment as responses to literature that are as valid as moral analysis. Still, I know of no literature department in any culture– and certainly not in any of the Indian languages– that suffers from a surfeit of pleasure.
You can read the article in its entirety at Chronicle.com.
- Posted in: Books and Literature