A Good Week of English Lit. Teaching

I had a good week of teaching (and learning!)  last week, which meant I (and my students) benefited greatly from student input, with particular highlights of two Seminar Presentations, one in my module Modernist Prose Writing on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the other, in the core module level 5 Literature and Modernity, on Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’.

The first two presentations of the season, these were of the highest standard immediately, hopefully setting the gold standard for the rest to follow. Both were delivered in a ‘thinking aloud’ manner, either  by way of (one person) speaking to Power Point slides (Conrad; mostly highlighted text passages), or to memorising notes (Poe; pair presentation with pre-arranged part allocation). Both presentations cut to the chase of the two texts. On a very high level, the Conrad one dealt with the complexities of the text’s existentialist message as it cuts across the binary divide, before a backdrop of colonial capitalism, between black/white, individual/mass, first world/third world, primitive/civilised etc.. It also opened up in an ananlytical way the detail in the Modernist techniques of Conrad’s innovative (1899!) prose style. – The Poe presentation delivered a fascinating reading of this short tale, by ‘presenting’ the seminar with more than one option of meaning, before homing in on a number of central points. The prophetic ‘textuality’ (almost post-modern?) of the piece was highlighted. The man of the crowd was identified as a symbolic (Allegory!) incarnation of the new socio/psychological identity model of ‘the crowd’. In the light of this monstrous phenomenon, symptomatic of the late modern age, writing cannot function any longer according to the tried and trusted models of ‘simple’ symbolisation. Symbolic representation (this is Poe’s point, it seems) needs to be designed to incorporate difference. Extended systems of interlinking symbols are needed. The ‘Man’ is an anorganic hybrid of contradictory attributes (‘dagger/diamond’) belonging to different class categories as they are listed with almost sociological precision in the middle section of the story. The possibility was offered that the ‘Man’ could also be read (Poe says, as part of the text of the story in German [missing Umlaut over the ‘lasst’], that he ‘cannot be read’; : “Er lasst sich nicht lesen”) as the narrator’s shadowy alter ego. Reconvalescing from a strange fever: opium, most likely, or syphillis as was suggested, he is obsessively following a figment of his own dark imagination which takes him  into the innermost recesses of his half-crazed mind: the horror of modern crowd identity/ nightmarish loss of individual identity boundaries etc.: ‘ a shadow chasing shadows’, the team said.

Both presentations initiated powerful seminar discussion. In a wonderful way, to me at least, and also to those students, I assume,  who are taking part in these two of my modules, a bridging link became visible between the two texts: the horror at ‘the heart’ (wrong symbol?!) of them both.

Martin Jesinghausen