Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Of Catamites and the Teaching of Texts

In class today we had a discussion of the following passage from Plato's Gorgias (494d-495a)

What an odd person you are, Socrates—a regular stump-orator!
Why, of course, Callicles, that is how I upset Polus and Gorgias, and struck them with bashfulness; but you, I know, will never be upset or abashed; you are such a manly fellow. Come, just answer that.
Then I say that the man also who scratches himself will thus spend a pleasant life.
And if a pleasant one, a happy one also?
Is it so if he only wants to scratch his head? Or what more am I to ask you? See, Callicles, what your answer will be, if you are asked everything in succession that links on to that statement; and the culmination of the case, as stated—the life of catamites—is not that awful, shameful, and wretched? Or will you dare to assert that these are happy if they can freely indulge their wants?
Are you not ashamed, Socrates, to lead the discussion into such topics?
What, is it I who am leading it there, noble sir, or the person who says outright that those who enjoy themselves, with whatever kind of enjoyment, are happy, and draws no distinction between the good and bad sorts of pleasure? But come, try again now and tell me whether you say that pleasant and good are the same thing, or that there is some pleasure which is not good.

It's very difficult to convey to students just how much of a face-slap Socrates' remark about catamites is. They had all read the passage, of course, but (and also of course) when I asked if they all knew what a catamite was, not one of them had a clue. This led, of course, to a long discussion that embarrassed most of my students, most of whom, despite their pretensions, have a more delicate sense of shame than I do. (My attitude is that of Reason in Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose. At one point in the discussion, Reason talks about testicles and the Lover is shocked -- it's not something polite people do, and certainly not a ladylike thing for Lady Reason to do. Lady Reason, apparently irritated by this, launches into a speech -- but everyone launches into speeches in Jean de Meun's Roman -- about how God created testicles and she is the daughter of God, and therefore she has every right to talk about testicles if she sees fit.)

But it started me thinking about the primary difficulty in teaching texts to students. Here was a shocking thing to say, so shocking that the man beyond shame himself, Callicles, is shocked that Socrates would even bring it up. The attitude they should have had was to start up and say, "Whoa!" (or "Snap!" or give a low whistle). Callicles, as we say, got burned. But it just passed by: the students had just let it roll past their eyes without bothering to look up the word.

Part of this is translation; the difficulty of making a lively translation that is accurate is one of the most serious difficulties a translator has to face. There are plenty of lively texts that are killed by a competent but lifeless translation: the greatest treason of translation, perhaps. Part of it is perhaps context. People don't read things for school as if they would be lively: and if you don't expect it at all, you're likely not to see it. Possibly this is due to the fact that they are required to read it, but I think the real reason is that people simply don't think that things read for school should be lively, so they read them in the least lively way possible.

From what my students have said in the past, I think most of them would say that the problem was the "language". I'm not sure that this is so. For one thing, English, as it is usually found in easily intelligible conversation, is not, in fact, a very lively language. It has its beauties, but it is largely very pedestrian and bland, a language for greengrocers and supermarkets. And liveliness is really conveyed by the meaning. If you have a basic understanding of what a kinaidos was, you can see why Callicles was shocked when Socrates said his view put forward the life of one as ideal, and you can see that Socrates is not pulling his punches. A very lively exchange, however it is written up, can read as lively or dull depending entirely on how you approach it.

It's clear enough that one of the important things when teaching texts is to bring out to students just how vivid and lively they are (if they are), because this is what captures the student's interest enough to cause them to go farther. But it's a tricky thing to do. You can stop at every point and explain it, but this often has much the same effect as trying to show that a book is funny by stopping to explain the punchline of every joke: it's not that it can't work, but that it's only going to work if they already have some sense of the funniness of the text. It seems a bad thing to say that one teaches by hit-or-miss methods, but I really can't think of any approaches that aren't, in fact, very hit-or-miss. And what seems to work sometimes doesn't really do so: there's always that serious danger of capturing the students' interest, but in such a way that you've drawn their interest not to features of the text but rather to features of your entertaining way of talking about it. Interested students are better than bored students, but students interested in what zany thing you are going to entertain them with are not necessarily the same as students interested in what you are teaching.

It's a conundrum. I don't see how to get around it. And perhaps it's insoluble. But what do you think?

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