The Pedestal Problem
My post this week is going to be a little different because I've been busy with school work and didn't have time to write a carefully planned post. Instead, I'm going to share some less polished thoughts on an aspect of literary academia that I like to call "the pedestal problem."
I noticed "the pedestal problem" not long after I began studying English Literature in college. I was taking a British Literature class and we were reading Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. If you've read the play, you'll understand what I mean when I say that it's incredibly anti-Semitic. The main villain is a cruel stereotype of a Jewish man and the play is full of negative tropes. I consider myself a Jewish atheist, meaning I don't believe in God, but I still embrace many of the Jewish traditions and values I was raised with. Needless to say, the anti-Semitism hit pretty hard and I expected my professor to talk about it in our class discussion. However, when I tried to raise the issue, my professor said, "well, the play is a product of its time." She moved on, but I didn't.
In the past few years, I have heard the "product of its time" excuse from multiple professors and it is always in regards to a work by a white male author. In my studies, I've noticed a pattern of literary academics dismissing criticisms of beloved authors due to the historical context of their work. To an extent, I understand the idea that an author is a "product of their time," but I don't think that's a reason to ignore the racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism in the work of famous authors. Shakespeare contributed A LOT to the literary canon and his plays are important to study, but his prominence in academia should not make him immune to criticism. This is what I mean when I say that literary academia has a "pedestal problem." With certain authors, always white men, there becomes a culture of putting that writer on a pedestal and thus refusing to truly analyze their work.
When we fall prey to "the pedestal problem" we are doing a disservice to literary academia. When we don't criticize the white male authors at the forefront of the canon, we perpetuate the idea that sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism are an acceptable part of a work because of its historical context.
The semester after I took my Brit Lit class, I took an American Literature course with an incredible and inspiring professor. One day he told us:
"We aren't reading history to understand art. We are reading art to understand history."
This quote now hangs over my desk as a reminder that literature is not inarguable fact. Literature needs to be interpreted and analyzed in the context in which it was written and in the context in which it is read. Literature is how we understand the world, as it was, as it is, and as it could be. When I critique the work of so-called literary geniuses, it is not because I don't respect their contributions. It is because I am not afraid to admit that they have flaws.
Literary academia as a whole is flawed. That's the whole point of this blog! To truly understand our subject, we have to recognize the works that don't exist. There are countless women, people of color, Jewish people, etc. that didn't have the chance to be popular authors because they were writing in an era that did not consider their work worthy of being read. There are pieces of the literary canon missing due to hundreds of years of oppression. If we can't recognize the problematic attitudes that have shaped literature, we are allowing those attitudes to continue.