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"Everything I Teach My Students Is Wrong…"

with such complete authority and no argument to back up such claims. Of course, in our writing classes, we teach that everything one says must have proof, must be neatly backed up. Dorothy then remarked, “Everything I teach my students is wrong.”And to a large extent, I have to agree. I have to teach to the test. My department has a comprehensive exam that all English majors must pass, and my job is to make sure that my students learn enough facts about American literature from 1600 to 1865 that they can pass the exam. When they don’t pass the exam, then we have to figure out what we can do with them. But the usual dilemma thrusts its horns in here: the facts are easily measurable and easily taught, but what about the love of literature or the love of learning? And that brings me to…Brio! One section of Barthes’s book is called “Brio,” which handily translates as “Brio.” Cognates are your friends. He begins by saying, “If I agree to judge a text according to pleasure, I cannot go on to say: this one is good, that bad.” This value-judgment is too “tactical” for the pleasure reader. Instead, his only judgment must be “that’s it for me!” The question of what “it” is, is, of course, the thing that gets answered with each new discovery, with each new book that makes you shout with brio, and this happens every time the book “exceeds demand.” It is more than you had hoped for, more than just a good way to pass a rainy Saturday afternoon.As I have been reading this little book little by little, I keep getting this strange feeling that I had read it before. The words themselves did not sound familiar, but the feelings behind them have struck me so forcefully–it has been one moment of “that’s it for me!” over and over–that I wonder if I have somehow absorbed Barthes by cultural osmosis. When Barthes started talking about Commentary, I felt like leaping up and spilling my latte all over the coffee shop’s already stained couch. He asks the best question: “How can we read criticism?” Exactly. How can we read it? Not why should we, but how can we. Barthes says that in the case of reading criticism he is a “second-degee reader,” a very nice turn of phrase, I must say. Since so much of Barthes’s ideas about pleasure and reading sound like he really should have called this”The Erotics of Reading” (there’s a great title for you!), he sees his reading of criticism as something voyeuristic. He “observe[s] clandestinely the pleasure of others,” and then he “enter[s] the perversion.” I have always thought that criticism is sort of perverted, and here is Barthes agreeing with me. The problem arises (please do take this as a pun) when the criticism is not perverted enough. Why be a voyeur if you’re not going to see anything really kinky and exciting? (More googletraps here, I am sure.) Do you want to peek into the bedroom where all you see are a couple of vague shapes vaguely moving under the cover of the sheets? Or, do you want to peek into the room where candles are flickering, black leather and lace is flung about, massage oils puddle on the satin sheets, and–oh, my god, I didn’t know that one could bend that way! Now, I’m not really a voyeur–Once in junior high, a group of us had a sleepover in one friend’s back yard. We thought it was cool to run around the dead and empty streets after midnight, and as we were doing this, we saw one house with a brightly lit window. When we looked in, we saw a woman walking around her house nude. For some reason this momentarily terrified us, so we scampered off. Regaining what few wits we had, we returned to the scene to peer more seriously through the window. All we saw was a rather disappointing (but still naked) backside disappearing into a back room–but I think the latter is probably more worth your trouble. After all, if you’re going to risk arrest on some sort of indecency or peeping tom charges, you might as well get a good eyeful, right? So commentary or criticism should also be really juicy, worth taking the time to ogle lasciviously. Instead of rather depressing and deflating training films about the risks of VD, we want to see real sex. Instead of rather depressing and deflating rehashes of the latest un-trendy theoretical interrogation of the text, we want to see real reading with real brio.I am not the first to say this, but I’ll risk repeating the idea. Criticism should not be the poor stepchild of literature but should be just as literary. That it rarely is does not mean that it is impossible but that we have forgotten what we as critics can do. Think of Pope: “True wit is nature to advantage drest/ What oft was thought but ne’er so well exprest.” This is literary criticism, folks. This is also great literature in its own right. Let’s reclaim the space in the literary that rightfully belongs to criticism. I think the way to find this space is to use brio.

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