This morning I read "The Secret Sharer" by Joseph Conrad.
I'd read it once before, in my early 20's when taking a college English course, but I hadn't gotten anything out of the tale then but the hammered obvious point about the "double" or "doppleganger."
Reading it then was for me a waste. I was too young, too inexperienced in reading and life, to understand it. The story is very subtle. I didn't appreciate or see its subtleties, its depths, its hard-won experiences.
It's the worst kind of story to teach and discuss. Far better to discuss Jack London, who paints his tales with broader sweeps of noisy color. Better to discuss other of Conrad's tales. "Typhoon," which acts on a more concrete level, with a simpler, yet admirable, lead character, would be more apt a story for young readers, who need that captain's model, to talk about.
"The Secret Sharer" is taught because it allows windbag profs to pontificate about the mysterious "doppleganger," turning young students away from literature in the process; many, forever.
Reading has to be a joy, not a duty. The reader can't be told the meaning of the story-- he has to find the meaning himself.
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The present educational system for higher education works fine for fields requiring intense and rigid discipline where answers are wrong or right-- mathematics for instance. Set up the classroom boot camp and have your charges jump over hurdles of quadratic equations, weeding out those not able to stay in line and keep up with the pack.
For a field like literature this style of learning is a disaster.
When you make the student dependent upon the professor for a grade in order to progress, a superior overlooking inferiors, you've brought into play all the intangibles of a dependency relationship, whose key action quickly becomes manipulation of the superior. Like workers manipulating a boss or slaves manipulating a master, the career-ambitious students learn not about the meaning of literature-- how to connect the words of Joseph Conrad with the currents of their own souls. Instead, the students read the professor!, studying his unconscious expressions and tics, his giveaway poker tells, to know what he believes and what he wants. They then give him what he wants.
The Achievers progress by recycling the expected concepts. In this case, "the double" or "the doppleganger." Aha! The student "gets" it. He's learned the story-- but what has he learned about it? He's learned what his professor learned, what his professor's professor learned. The liquid depths of the story remain untouched.
The imaginative student who comes up with a novel, off-the-wall view of what he's read will be treated like a moron. "You didn't get it," the pony-tailed preppy student next to him will say with disgust, while the phlegmatic professor pouring coffee into his system to recuperate from last night's drunken binge tavern meeting with a coed will grunt phlegmatically in the affirmative. The student didn't "get" it. He must be a dunce. No wonder he enjoys Jack London and comic books.
The truly independent student will silently observe these proceedings with scorn from the back row.
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One thing I'm happy about with the ULA is that we "elders" of the group have connected with some of the best new writers out there. Here in Philly, I would take Eric Broomfield as a bet for future artistic greatness a thousand times over the local young Achievers obtaining conformist jobs in the local machine. Not only is "Jelly Boy the Clown" open to experience and the world-- has plunged himself into it in no less a fashion than did a young Joseph Conrad-- he comes to writing with no rules or inputted concepts. No barriers operate around his head. The Achievers in town, by contrast, are intellectually stunted. They've never discovered their own meaning of poems and stories. They've been taught what to think instead.
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On this reading of "The Secret Sharer" I quickly saw that the key relationship the new captain has isn't with the fugitive hiding in his cabin, but with his first and second mates, who are watching his every move. His takeover of the ship is the story. The device of the "double" merely helps offset this. More, there are aspects to the story, of language and form, which connect with the reader in ways which can't be expressed. Conrad touches notes which approach the true meaning of art.
Literature can't be taught. All the instructor can do, at most, is leave the student an open path. Then, through reading, the student finds the meaning, his own meaning, for himself.
Rather than classrooms I would have silent reading rooms with widely spaced armchairs, so the student can read-- whatever he wants, but read. Reading is the only way to learn what literature is about.