"Difficult Pleasures" (Idea for a Class - Would People Be Interested? Or People More Generally?)

Does this interest people?

Proposition for “Difficult Pleasures”

We propose to offer a course, “Difficult Pleasures,” that pairs a particular primary text with a work, or works, of literary criticism. We wish to explore the meanings of primary texts, as well as the interpretations of these meanings, and the creation of new meanings, by critics and scholars over the years. We are not interested in limiting the course to a particular genre, although we want to focus on what has been called “imaginative literature,” as opposed to social science, philosophy, anthropology, theology, etc. Therefore, in Difficult Pleasures, we wish to focus on novels, poems, short stories, plays and essays.

This class is for the common reader, by which I mean anyone with an interest in reading great imaginative works, regardless of their academic pedigree, race, sex, gender, socioeconomic standing, nationality, age, religion, etc. You need an internet connection, an interest, some time each week to read and discuss, and (how much should we charge for this?). We could think of this class as a sort of “Great Books” course for what has been called “secular religious literature,” though with the bonus that we are also reading criticism and scholarship, some of which could probably be considered secular religious literature as well.

One of our underlying philosophies in “Difficult Pleasures” is that our backgrounds and our minds differ, but our hearts are the same. We are interested in experiencing the texts that shaped our way of thinking, feeling, being, doing and imagining, as participants in what is called Western culture or even Western civilization. We are not interested in this course in separatism, ideology, or even, for the most part, “popular culture.”

Another belief that undergirds Difficult Pleasures is the idea that the “progress” of literature is cyclical, not linear. A new book does not mean it is good, helpful, interesting, or imaginative. In the same vein, an old book does not mean it is bad, unhelpful, boring or unimaginative. Categories like “old” and “new” in the context of this class are less interesting or helpful than the William Jamesian categories of “dead” and “live.” We want to read living texts - texts that have endured over time, or that are likely to endure over time. We are not interested in regressing to prejudices of the past. But we are interested in absorbing and revising the best parts - aesthetic, cognitive, imaginative, spiritual - of our literary heritage, from Homer to Shakespeare to Toni Morrison to Anne Carson and beyond.

If there is polemic to this pedagogical proposition, it is that the moniker “dead white male” to describe authors ranging from the Yawhist to Homer to Dante to Shakespeare to Joyce is, to put it mildly, the height of ridiculousness, hubris, shallowness, naivete and reductiveness, akin to identifying our own parents, and therefore our intensely freighted, ambivalent relationship to these people, in the context exclusively of their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. “My Dad, yes, he is a white cis Jewish male. Nothing more.” These modes of explanation and interpretation limit what the human being is and can be. We do not deny that social categories are very important for understanding ourselves and others. But we are mostly interested, like Bloom, in reading as a fundamentally solitary act. In the solitary act of reading, we are more than these social categories. They are a part of us, but they are not the whole story. There is a spiritual, imaginative and aesthetic component to reading imaginative literature that cannot and should not be reduced exclusively to one’s racial, economic, religious, political, sexual, gender or national background. Toni Morrison was right when she described “the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you." The spirit, Morrison’s “part of the self” - the heart, the daimon, the conscience - is not male, female, trans, white, gay, cis, black, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc. It is beyond language entirely.

Difficult Pleasures, like the history of Good Books programs before it, wishes to fight against separatism and specialization. We believe these entrenched modes of thinking lead to isolated silos, instead of something more meaningful, universal, profoundly strange and connected. We also believe that the world we see is a reflection of who we actually are, a la William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” If we want to change the world, we need to start with ourselves, and extend ourselves. We should not be content with the cavern. For that reason, in Difficult Pleasures we emphasize the importance, above all else, of the Quixotic individual as an individual. I was raised a Conservative midwestern white cis Jew. But I derive much more intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual sustenance out of reading an ancient Indian man’s works (Patanjali’s sutras), or a gay White man born on a fruit farm in Sodus, NY (John Ashbery’s poetry), than works by Solomon Schechter or Ted Kooser or whomever else At the end, echoing Bloom once again, we want to “confront greatness,” the proverbial burning bush, the best we can, without averting our eyes or hiding our face too much. That is what and who Difficult Pleasures is here for.

Here are some twinnings we could cover in Difficult Pleasures:

E.R. Dodds and Homer
Brian Stock and Augustine
Eric Auerbach and Virginia Woolf
Harold Bloom and Hart Crane
Gary Saul Morson and Tolstoy
Northrop Frye and William Blake
Elarine Scarry and Shakespeare
James Boswell and Samuel Johnson
Michael Clune and Marcel Proust
Travis Travisano and Elizbaeth Bishop
Sara Lundquist and Barbara Guest
George Hutchinson and Walt Whitman
Sharon Cameron and Emily Dickinson
Helen Vendler and Wallace Stevens
Wolfgang Iser and Walter Pater
Christopher Ricks and John Keats

Other texts and authors we wish to explore, in future twinnings:

Jane Austen
Ralph Ellison
King James Bible
Franz Kafka
Henry David Thoreau
Ralph Waldo Emerson
William Wordsworth
Anne Carson
Thylias Moss
Richard Wright


SInce I"m throwing the term “Difficult Pleasures” out there for the Whitman/Blake/Milton group, I revisited this post. I’d still love to do something with or like this, although I have to admit I don’t have as much of an allergy anymore to popular culture (for the most part), which has been showing up really intensely in my poetry lately. Just wanted to add that addendum.

@AndrewField81 and all, I left a comment on this idea, which I really like, in this other thread: Visionary Voices Read Aloud (Milton, Blake, Whitman, etc.) - #29 by madrush. Just making the connection for interested readers.

With regard to engagement with “secular religious literature,” and solitariness of reading (and yet the odd community of solitary readers), you may appreciate some of my exuberant comments here: The Ecstasy of a Book Club

I really hope some others will respond to your course proposal because I think it could be a really powerful learning experience. From your list, I would be particularly interested in studying: Homer, Augustine, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Bishop, Dickinson, and especially, Ralph Ellison and the King James Bible.

Reading Ellison would be a way to revisit the hermeneutic circle opened up in these early discussions:

While reading the Bible—as literature—would give us the deep context for pretty much anything and everything else we would read in the Western canon, especially Milton, Blake, Whitman, and other Visionary Voices. With such a profound grounding in the sources of our selves, we could then re-encounter the Great Books of the East and perhaps forge the early paths of an integral-planetary literary tradition and a cosmic culture. This could easily take us the rest of our lives, and then some!