Teaching Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

October 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve posted before about teaching, specifically on how I deal with contemporary texts across media, addressing such examples as Felicia Day’s webseries, The Guild, Aaron McGruder’s comic strip, The Boondocks, and Kim Deitch’s experimental graphic novel, Alias the Cat! Those three examples are drawn from my version of the Reading Popular Culture course, hence I had thought that my multi-media approach had an organic connection to the nature of the material itself. However, this quarter, I am teaching Introduction to Fiction, and I’ve designed the course very differently, and, I had originally thought, much more conventionally, that is, much more like a prototypical English class. However, as the quarter goes on, I’ve noticed that I’m drawn to bringing out the same kind of intertextuality across media in the fiction course as I was in the popular culture course, and that it serves a similar function. To demonstrate what I’m talking about, I offer ten points of entry into Zadie Smith’s 2005 novel, On Beauty, which I have brought to the classroom this fall.

One. Do the “on beauty and being wrong” activity from Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which served as a major explicit inspiration for Smith’s novel. Scarry says in that lecture, “It seems a strange feature of intellectual life that if you question people—“What is an instance of an intellectual error you have made in your life?”—no answer seems to come readily to mind. Somewhat better luck is achieved if you ask people (friends, students) to describe an error they have made about beauty. It may be helpful if, before proceeding, the reader stops and recalls—in as much detail as possible—an error he or she has made so that an- other instance can be placed on the page in conjunction with the few about to be described.” Before the first day of class, I asked students to come up with just such a case study from their own lives, which they then shared during our first meeting. It set up one of the organizing principles of the novel, which is that the search for beauty often aligns with error, as well as suggesting that, the more aware we are of the contours of our own experiences of beauty in the world, the more we will have to say about the ways in which such experiences are depicted from different characters’ perspectives in the novel.

Two. Introduce Lisa Zunshine’s idea that fiction can “sharpen our ethical sense.” Because I’d never taught a literature course, I wasn’t entirely sure how to go about guiding the work of close reading with the large group of students in the class. So, because I’d noticed in our first discussion that there was interest in discussing different characters’ motivations in terms of ethics, I decided to spend the entirety of the second class on the ethics of various highly questionable social decisions made by the characters at the Belsey’s epic 30th anniversary party. The result was a lively and enjoyable discussion that enabled us to focus on the emotional precision of Smith’s prose, as well as exploring our own potential investments in the storyworld she created in On Beauty.

Three. Bring in Zadie Smith’s review of The Social Network, in order to anchor our conversation about 21st-Century friendship. In that review, as well as in much of the press about Facebook and its hold on our culture, Smith worries about the reduction of friendship (and almost everything else important) to a yes/no binary operation, run by advertising interests. She says, “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.” Because the emotional center of On Beauty is in the value of long-term friendship, including but not limited to friendships that form the basis of good marriages, it is revealing that Smith is so resistant to the implications of The Social Network. It is worth addressing the work her novel does to offer a storyworld guided by older principles, but set in the same era and the same city, as well as populated by a related milieu, as the first half of The Social Network.

Four. Discuss the value of free indirect speech in the portrayal of Kiki’s experience of Mozart’s Requiem. This is a perfect moment to bring in music, and set one’s own experience of instrumental music (which so many of us, myself included, so rarely listen to) against that depicted in this memorable sequence from the novel, allowing one to note the distinction between the thoughts one is able to articulate to oneself about a piece, versus the elusive emotional references best left to the fine-tuning of a good novelist.

Five. Discuss the appearance of Nick Laird/Mr. Zadie Smith’s poem in the novel, there attributed to Claire Malcolm. To read in the age of the internet is so different than what it must have been like before. When I first saw Claire’s poem in Smith’s novel, my thoughts went immediately to a possible poet-referent: Does Zadie Smith have secret ambitions to poetry? Is this a famous poem, and she is conflating Claire with the famous poet who produced it? And once I discovered the truth, I had new questions. What must it be like to have one’s actual work attributed to one of the less sympathetic characters in the novel? In any case, going through this process transparently, in class, updated the elementary school dictum to “look up words you don’t know” nicely for me.

Six. Self-respect and Rembrandt. Katie the ghost student is moved by art in a way unmatched by any other character in the novel, at least as far as we can tell. One can’t help but become curious as to the accuracy of her description, and the validity of her analysis. Just like with Kiki’s take on Mozart, one longs for confirmation. Google images is there to help, and it turns out that Katie’s interpretation is dead-on, and indeed pleasurably trumps Professor Belsey’s in all ways valued by the novel.

Seven. Meet the real Doc Brown, who, in the novel, is the MC of the Spoken Word Night at the Bus Stop, who also happens to be Zadie Smith’s brother.

Eight. Note the eerie connection between the depiction of Kiki’s loss of love for her husband and Adorno’s Minima Moralia 106.“The most blissful memory of a person can be revoked in its very substance by later experience. He who has loved and who betrays love does harm not only to the image of the past but to the past itself. Irresistibly evident, an impatient movement while waking up, a distraught tone of voice, a faint hypocrisy in pleasure, obtrudes itself in the memory and turns the earlier closeness even then into the distance that it has since become.” This is an excellent opportunity to raise again the first day question of the line between psychological realism in fiction and philosophy.

Nine. Explain the Windrush reference at the beginning of the final section. Embedded historical references are important, and are so easy to flesh out when you’ve got a tech-enabled classroom. Again, this feels much more conventional and obvious than showing fanvids or other transformative works, but it is awfully similar in terms of the enhancement of the reading experience.

Ten. Assign Forster’s Howards End, which, along with Scarry’s lecture, was a major inspiration behind the text. I thought it would be cool to talk about adaptation, of course, but particularly adaptation within the same genre. There is an excellent movie of Howards End, as well, but I think that the possibilities created by a discussion of literary adaptation are powerful, too, and will help us to stay focused on the particular, language-based pleasures of literary fiction, which is our focus. Which is, I guess, to say that, while I love everything that technology brings to the teaching of various kinds of texts, I think that it should always be incorporated to extend and contextualize extant pleasures of reading, rather than to replace them, or shift conversations about fiction to conversations about something else.


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