Sunday, 6 June 2010

Coriolanus and curriculum

Hazlitt, in his essay on Coriolanus, writes about imagination, the faculty that makes poetry, and understanding, that that informs analytical and deliberative prose, as follows:

The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things, not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolizing faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion; the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion.

If this is right, it needs to appear in a theory for English. It implies that any hope in the curriculum of integrating the experience of literature with the study of history or sociology in schemes of single-subject ‘humanities’ is doomed to failure, if the integration is to be one of substance and not just of timetabling. If education is primarily about the Enlightenment concerns with understanding, knowledge and reason, then any intense exposure to literature, or at any rate poetry, would seem to work against education’s purpose.

But surely Hazlitt’s wrong?

Well, note how he goes on:

The one is an aristocratical, the other a republican faculty.

HIs reason for bringing up the distinction between imagination and understanding in an essay on Coriolanus is that Shakespeare’s poetry all goes to the ‘aristocratical’ Coriolanus and none to the people in its democratic, undifferentiated mass, and that that’s in the nature of poetry.

On Saturday there was the tenth annual Hazlitt Study Day in Oxford. Uttara Natarajan’s opening lecture addressed this issue by suggesting, on the basis of related writings by Hazlitt, that his point wasn’t general but was meant to relate only to the specific context of this play. But her talk was so interesting that I constantly set me off thinking, so I kept finding I’d missed key things she said.

If I can get the written version I'll come back to the issue again.

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