Why teach The Great Gatsby?

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From now on, when people question my choices in entertainment material, I am going to say, I watch x or read y so that I can, one day, stand atop my own Mount Olympus and "observe the stupid, bungling, relentlessly sinful acts of [my] children and still resist the temptation to thunderbolt them all to ashes".

This quote come from a devotional given at BYU in 2005 by the dean of the college of humanities, Van C. Gessel. The full text can be read here. I really like the underlying sentiment that Dean Gessel is presenting. Plus, the man quotes T.S. Eliot and references a Graham Greene novel in the brief talk, so I'm sold.

However, I am a little bit bothered by what appears to be a not so mild form of chronological snobbery. Is MacBeth really all that much better at showing us the end result of evil than, say, Requiem for a Dream? Or, can we not understand true sacrifice as well from Dancer in the Dark as we can from any work that predates the second World War?

My only hope here is that Dean Gessel was being provactive. That, if pushed into a corner, he'd admit that Ian McEwan's Atonement explains beautifully our inability to manage the consequences of our actions, despite the pressence of a vulgarity so base it doesn't even seem to register in his (Gessel's) world. But, at any rate, check it out. It's a very strong case for why avoiding evil in literature and art isn't what we're here to do.

4 comments:

Annie said...

i agree with your support and your reservations. i got from that article that i should read 'in cold blood,' but i shouldn't watch 'capote.' this makes no sense.

Petra said...

I liked the talk as well, with the same reservations. And Dean Gessel translated Shusako Endo, so that's one more reason to totally love him.

alea said...

really? I liked Silence. What did Gessel translate?

Petra said...

Pretty much everything but Silence, including When I Whistle and Deep River, which last remains possibly my favorite Endo novel. (I'd have to read both it and Silence again to make sure.)

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