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n English in Africa - Whither/wither literature? Some South African concerns
Whither or wither literature?
The question arose sharply last year, at least for me, when I was teaching an English Studies Honours class. No common ground here, I heard myself muttering, on which to build an advanced, however slightly advanced, study of literature. No core of works which all the students have read and to which I can refer. More pointedly, no common understanding of what might constitute the literary work, whether canonical - several had not encountered Shakespeare since their matric year - or an expression of the culture, say, the TV soap.
The literary theory class - the module having been completed in the previous semester - had not introduced its students to the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy. There had been no introduction to the major historical and/or aesthetic ways in which literature has traditionally been conceived: for example, work to world (Aristotelian mimesis); affect or pleasure; the genius of Romantic creativity; Eliotian or Modernist autonomy; later, the New Critical well-wrought urn. The literary theory class, instead, offered philosophically unsophisticated generalities - these were literary students, after all, not philosophy students - from Marx and Nietzsche, from Foucault and Derrida, or a catalogue of postcolonial terms about subalterns, others, migrants and diasporas. In a module entitled "Renaissance and Its Continuing Significance," I posed a question that I had encountered soon after taking up my first lecturing post: "Beneath his black skin Othello is one of us. Discuss."
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