A second defense of the humanities

Following on the heels of my first post dedicated to neglected defenses of the humanities, here’s a second defense. Another extremely valuable activity that by definition belongs exclusively to the humanities, and not the social sciences, is thematic reading.

What I mean by thematic reading is analyzing a text, typically a work of literature, to extract some meaningful idea from it. We imagine that the text was created as a result of choices involving form and content, and that these choices were motivated at least partly by the writer’s desire to convey the thematic meanings that we take from the work. What the actual author actually intended isn’t necessarily relevant. For the most part, the thematic reader doesn’t really care about what motivated the historical person Herman Melville, as a historical fact, to make the choices of form and content that resulted in Billy Budd; we care about the useful meanings that we can get from the work, whether the actual author intended them or not.

In other words, thematic reading is the kind of ordinary, run-of-the-mill literary analysis that a lot of American high school students have been forced to do ever since New Critical “close reading” took over college English departments after World War II and began to filter down through the secondary education system. It’s something that you can teach high school and college students to do with a novel or play or poem, without much prior training: make sense of why everything is the way it is in the text by assuming the writer chose every aspect of the form and content in order to say something, to convey significant statements about the way things are or should be. A very simple example of thematic reading would be the “analysis” that appears after every chapter of plot summary in Cliffs Notes; a very complex example would be Helen Vendler’s analysis of the way Wallace Stevens conveys through his poetry a model of “plenary desire” metamorphosing into “wasted despair” and then being rearoused into “affluent desire” again, in a “recurrent and unbiddable cycle.”

So that’s what I mean by thematic reading. You analyze the choices that apparently went into a written work in order to extract some statement of what the work says, some theme that could be rephrased as a claim or series of claims about something. Toss a poem into the thematic-analysis mill, and out comes an interesting thought or two. Reach into a play and extract an intriguing claim about jealousy. And the work you analyze doesn’t even have to be literary. It could be a work of philosophy or narrative history. It could be a meaning-rich but less literally textual object like a film or a painting. The work doesn’t even have to consist of words. You can play the thematic interpretation game with license plates or children’s picture books or conceivably even things that were created without intention, like clouds, although in my experience you’re less likely to find thematic meanings there that will be interesting or valuable to anyone.

Alternatives to thematic reading would include: analyzing a text as a cultural object, and asking what economic or cultural or ideological forces shaped its creation; aesthetically evaluating a text, or even simply appreciating its beauty or sublimity by, for example, reading a poem out loud; locating a text within the history of literature by, for example, evaluating its innovations and distinctive features and its significance to later works; and so on. Usually, good thematic readings end up containing a little of all of this – a little authorial biography or cultural history to make the laborious unearthing of a deeply buried meaning more plausible, a little aesthetic or literary-historical evaluation interspersed with the thematic interpretation, and all of it blended together without distinct labels.

At this point, I should note my awareness that a defense of the value of thematic reading, especially in the terms laid out above, will probably sound hopelessly, embarrassingly crude and naive to nearly anyone with a professional involvement in the humanities, such as graduate students and professors of literature.

This is a large part of the problem.

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