- Ted Blodgett and the Pedagogy of Wonder
E.D. Blodgett was a man of great and expansive learning, driven by curiosity about dead languages and far-away literatures and by those that were near. He was a masterful poet whose delicate works garnered Canada's highest awards. Others in this tribute issue address what he meant to the discipline of Comparative Literature and to Canada. I will talk about how he was a teacher.
Everyone who studied with him will agree that they have never met a man so finely attuned to things beautiful and painful, complex and simple, funny and serious, and so accomplished in building a life saturated with the intensities that come from reflection and creation. It is important to know that all of these pursuits were meaningful to him because they could be shared. Over 50 years, working in eleven universities and colleges in five countries, he taught courses as diverse as the Classical Tradition, Dante, Chaucer, Provençal and Old French Lyric, Ancient and Contemporary World Literature, Literary Criticism, Forms of Poetry, early and contemporary Canadian and Québécois Literature, and Feminist Literary Theory. One of his former graduate students remarked that "he made you feel as though you could study anything, as long as you did it with some sincerity." He supervised 22 PhDs and 25 MAs, who wrote about topics as diverse as the ballad in Old Provençal, Japanese Shishosetsu, visual poetry in Russian and Ukranian literature, and Canadian film. These supervisees have gone on to teach at universities around the world, make films, write poetry and plays, and join professions such as law.
In a paper published in CRCL/RCLC in 2013, "Comparative Literature in Canada: A Case Study," Blodgett asked a question about which he thought deeply: "What is the teaching of literature for?" In this essay, he pondered the great shifts as the discipline's foci shifted from philological approaches to New Critical ones, and then became informed by French theory. He described his regret that the discipline in [End Page 541] Canada had later failed to respond swiftly enough to accommodate Cultural Studies. He offered opinions on the hazards and merits of translation. He reflected on how Comparative Literature must wrestle with the history of ideas, asking which ideas might be engaged, in what spirit, and in what way.
In the classroom, Blodgett answered this question by putting the text first and treating it with great reverence. I completed my PhD under his supervision, but my career in Comparative Literature began when I found myself in his Canadian Comparative Literature class in my first year of undergraduate studies. I was dazzled. It was the first time in my life that I saw what a brilliant mind can do as it passes over and through a text with patience and care. We sat around a wooden seminar table in the Old Arts Building on the University of Alberta campus, the light dappled from the tree outside, Blodgett's giant body humbly bent over the text, reading Alice Munro. He read passages aloud, in his deep baritone, and showed us how the prose was crafted. This text, which on first reading seemed to be dull, bogged down with the everyday, suddenly became a wonder to behold-a thauma idesthai. We saw the work's brilliance, its symmetry and balance, its textures and gestures. Thaumata are luminous things, retrieved from everyday materials and crafted with extraordinary skill. Thauma idesthai is Homer's description of what it feels like to behold daidalon such as Arete's purple yarn, Aphrodite's textiles, Odysseus's tunic, Achilles's shield, and other kinds of craftsmanship such as pottery and dance and song.
"What is the teaching of literature for?" For Blodgett, it was for cultivating the experience of wonder. It was clear that for him, wonder was the experience he had when he observed a finely-wrought text. His private quest for wonder is what drove him to close his office door at noon every day and gently pluck out Renaissance madrigals on his lute. (How many scholars today use their lunch hour to play the lute?) Yet it was the classroom...