Oh, I love the internet. Saul Bellow, writing in ye old New York Times, takes overzealous literary students to task for failing to see the forests for the trees, and he does so in fine form.
"Deep reading has gone very far," Bellow writes. "It has becomes dangerous to literature."
Bellow continues by illustrating his point with a story that cuts directly to the heart of the devoted grad student.
"'Why, sir,' the student asks, 'does Achilles drag the body of Hector around the walls of Troy?'
'That sounds like a stimulating question. Most interesting. I'll bite,' says the professor.
'Well, you see, sir, the 'Iliad' is full of circles - shields, chariot wheels and other round figures. And you know what Plato said about circles. The Greeks were all mad for geometry.'
'Bless your crew-cut head,' says the professor, 'for such a beautiful thought. You have exquisite sensibility. Your approach is both deep and serious. Still I always believed that Achilles did it because he was so angry.'"
Buuuuuuuuuuuurn. That student may not be the best example, as his analysis seems reasonable and serious. But beware the students of Moby Dick.
Are you a Marxist? Then Herman Melville's Pequod in Moby Dick can be a factory, Ahab the manager, the crew the working class. Is your point of view religious? The Pequod sailed on Christmas morning, a floating cathedral headed south. Do you follow Freud or Jung? Then your interpretations may be rich and multitudinous.
I recently had a new explanation of Moby Dick from the young man in charge of an electronic brain. "Once and for all," he said. "That whale is everybody's mother wallowing in her watery bed. Ahab has the Oedipus complex and wants to slay the hell out of her."
Yikes. Bellow proceeds to excoriate the "dabbler" in deep reading, warning them to "be sure that your seriousness is indeed high seriousness and not, God forbid, low seriousness."
Personally, I long for a new day when the New York Times pretends to any sort of seriousness whatsoever.
Go read the whole thing. The complete article is available here: