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Coffins into Life Buoys: Learning and Teaching Melville and the Arts AARON ZLATKIN Northern Kentucky University Class of 2000 ne of the trademarks of Melville’s work is that he shows the world on two levels-that of human experience and that of signs, symbols, and premonitions. When Ishmael first arrives in New Bedford, in the dismal solitude of that Hyperborean night, his primary concern is for cheap boarding and escape from the cold. As he wanders through the town, he little recognizes the ephemeral world of signs, symbols, and premonitions of which he is a part, and which so urgently attempts to speak to him. Ishmael studies the sign above the Spouter-Inn, remarking upon the “ominous...connexion” between the name of the inn and that of its owner, Peter Coffin. And then, despite this blatant warning that spouter = coffin, a connection Ishmael even makes himself , he nevertheless proceeds indoors to the warmth of the dilapidated structure -anything to escape the diaphanous dark of a New Bedford December. We as readers of his plight can appreciate from our safe vantage point how Ishmael could be so blind to what might seem obvious foreshadowing to us. We know it is all too easy to disregard symbols when they are drowned out by the need to fulfill basic requirements. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is most distressing about the state of education today, especiallyin the field of literature . Students are traditionally too busy worrying about “making the grade,”or pleasing the instructor, or just getting by, to be able to recognize the symbolism in a text and apply it to their own lives. For them, the basic necessity is not shelter or food, but rather approval. For instructors, it is often easy to forget that the most important function of literature is to invoke-emotions, memories, and new ways of thinking about the world. Most of what we students learn in the classroom comes through “efferent ” reading of the text at hand. Louise M. Rosenblatt, the noted readerresponse theorist, uses this term to describe reading done toward the end of using extracted information on tests, in papers, and in classroom discussions. Reading Moby-Dick in such a class, you would take away from it names, events, a big bad whale, and a cannibal with a heart of gold, but little about the meanings behind these things. You would probably be encouraged to remember some basic symbolism: the coffin set up as a life buoy, the eagle pinned to the mast. But what you have been required to remember and what you really 3 2 L E V I A T H A N A A R O N Z L A T K I N think about these powerful images of life and death, are almost always two different things. Certainly you would not even think about looking for other symbols from the text not included on the quiz review sheet. Ironically, you have to graduate from high school or college, free yourself from the spurious confines of requirement and standardization, before you can read the text in a fresh way, and maybe even find a connection to your own life therein. My own experience was not of this efferent type, and I can only hope that it signals the beginning of the end for this narrow concept of teaching literary texts. In Dr. Robert Wallace’scourse “Melvilleand the Arts”in the Spring semester of 1996, we began with a thorough reading of Moby-Dick, replete with student input in seminar format on the various layers of meaning in the symbols and characters of the novel. We kept running journals of our thoughts regarding the experience of reading the text, even including things like responses to the smells invoked by Melville’s language. This required us to engage the novel “aesthetically,” the second type of reading outlined by Rosenblatt, which concentrates on the act of reading itself. This more open attitude towards the learning experience was integral to the environment which allowed what followed to take place at all. In addition to the art works produced by the members of the class in response to the novel, and the gallery exhibit...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 42-46
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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