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There's more to study than politics

By Simon Haines - posted Thursday, 15 June 2006


Literature and politics are hand in glove. If we still remember the Aeneid it's probably for the love affair between driven Aeneas and abandoned Dido, but it was as a story about the founding of Rome that the epic secured Virgil his emperor's good graces and a head start on posterity's.

Antony and Cleopatra is about empires and power struggles involving that same emperor, though of course it's also about, well, Antony and Cleopatra.

Othello is the story of the African general of a European army who is tricked into murdering his supposedly adulterous upper-class European wife (it's her story, too!).

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The political dimensions are inescapable. Not only are the stories partly about politics, of both the big-picture and domestic varieties, but the political circumstances and climates of opinion surrounding and influencing the poets as they wrote are important, too.

Scholars have always regarded as vital the task of telling readers what they can, and finding out more, about this latter issue: and in the past 15 years or so there has been a resurgence of valuable historical and reconstructive scholarship of this kind.

But as any teacher knows, in our efforts to convey masses of information or to correct what we see as misinformation, we can sometimes cause new misunderstandings, including by our omissions, or in the very cast of our own thought.

Many historical scholars have been keen to counterbalance the theoretical excesses of the 1970s and '80s (the "deconstruction" era), when academics in literature departments were so interested in exposing the internal contradictions in texts and showing that literature was an undifferentiated stream of "thinking about language" that many of their students must have decided it had nothing to do with men and women.

But this very counterbalancing has tended to leave the impression that what was left out was not men and women but their politics alone.

Poststructuralist reports of the death of the author were exaggerations; she was reborn as a radical, or a reactionary, or black, or white, or abused. That was what we needed to think about. Maybe (most damagingly) that was all we needed to think about.

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Were we radicals or reactionaries ourselves? How did our politics (race, gender, class) affect our reading of her politics?

Good questions in themselves, but, insidiously, what happened then was that literature courses and curricula, first at universities but now apparently at the school level too, started to take shape around the politics.

Of the 1790s, the 1640s, the Roman Empire: but above all of the past 100 years. Modern political doctrines and attitudes (Marxist and post-Marxist variants often featuring strongly) inevitably infiltrated the study, even of pre-modern authors.

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First published in The Australian on June 9, 2006.



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About the Author

Simon Haines is head of the School of Humanities at the Australian National University in Canberra. He is author of Poetry and Philosophy from Homer to Rousseau (Macmillan, 2005)

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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