Trilling observed that the modernist literature he had on his syllabus – Eliot, Yeats, Lawrence, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Gide – “asks every question that is forbidden in polite society. It asks us if we are content with our marriages, with our family lives, with our professional lives, with our friends.” He then rolled his eyes at professorial efforts to convey the character of such outlaw works to undergraduates, mocking a typical exam question for his course: “Compare Yeats, Gide, Lawrence, and Eliot in the use which they make of the theme of sexuality to criticize the deficiencies of modern culture. Support your statement by specific references to the work of each author. [Time: One hour.]'”
Trilling was exasperated by the absurdity of teaching morally subversive modernist works in the morally conventional precincts of a university, to the point where he somewhat hysterically exaggerated what he called the “force and terror” of modernist literature (there is terror in Syria, not in Gide). But he was, after all, a college teacher, and he was not able to see that the classroom also ruins literature’s joys, as well as trivializing its jolting dissents…
…Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.
So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies.
Full Text: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323823004578595803296798048