Aesthetics & Style: Experiencing Thoreau with Dr. Bernstein


“Experiencing and Knowing Thoreau: Aesthetics
and Style” Hey there. It’s Professor Bernstein, and in
this video, I want to guide us more fully into an exploration of what it means to experience
and know Thoreau and in order to do this, I’m going to introduce to some basic ideas
about aesthetics and style. If you’re in my Thoreau class, you’ll recall
that we started the semester by raising questions about what it means to know Thoreau and what
it means to know an author in general. And I called attention to the course catalogue’s
description of how Major Authors classes are supposed to “provide students with an intensive
study of the work of a major author” and teach them about the “cultural and historical context
from which” the writer’s “work emerges.” Students are “expected” to be able to “demonstrate
their mastery” of this material. Knowing important points and issues in a writer’s
work. . .and knowing about the cultural and historical context within which it emerges—those
are all good things. But something’s missing here—something very
important. You! This approach to knowing an author leaves
you out of it—on a significant level. You’re just absorbing and demonstrating that you’ve
absorbed these things. But you’re experience of the author’s writing—your
felt response to it? It’s left out of the picture. Lindsay Waters, the executive editor for the
humanities at Harvard University Press, explains that this is a serious problem within literary
studies. He argues that “literary scholarship has become
disconnected from life” and declares that “something else even more suspicious has happened
to professional criticism in America over the past 30 years, and that is its love affair
with reducing literature to ideas,” which is not “at all the same thing as art.” Waters explains that “literary criticism no
longer aims to appreciate aesthetics — to study how human beings respond to art. Do
you get dizzy when you look at a Turner painting of a storm at sea? Do certain buildings make
you feel insignificant while others make you feel just the right size? Without understanding
that intensely physical reaction, scholarship about the arts can no longer enlarge the soul.” So let’s just consider this for a few moments. First of all, Waters provides a really simple
but useful definition of aesthetics—it’s the study of how we respond—physically,
sensuously—to art. He’s also touching on something else that’s
very important. . .this “physical reaction” to art is what connects art to our lives—it’s
what has the capacity to “enlarge the soul.” What do you make of what Water is saying in
relation to what we’ve been discussing so far this semester in relation to Thoreau,
Romanticism, and Transcendentalism? How does taking our physical, sense-oriented
response to literature help us more fully know Thoreau? How can it enlarge our souls? What does it even mean to study our physical
reaction to art? Has this way of approaching literature ever factored into any of your
college classes? I know this approach might be new to some
of you, so let me give you an example that Waters shares and one example from my own
experience studying philosophy. Waters says that “a criticism devoted to aesthetics
might take a novel like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and note how its main character,
Caroline Meeber, again and again finds herself in front of sheets of glass — store windows,
mirrors — that seem to beckon her in. The question would not be whether her vanity or
love of material objects is good or bad; it would be how Dreiser invites all of us to
fall through the glass with Carrie, to become a part of the story and experience ourselves
as vain and frail and ambitious.” So we’d be
experiencing for ourselves what Carrie’s experiencing
as she’s beckoned in by all these sheets of glass—and we’d be experiencing this through
the author’s language and style—and our felt responses to it. Let me give you this other example. We talked
about how Thoreau can irritate us. Well, there one sentence—a 224-word sentence—at the
very beginning of Jonathan Edwards’ essay on “Being.” Edwards was an 18th-century American
philosopher and theologian. This sentence was so painful for me to read—it was so
ugly and unpleasant—that I actually threw the book across the room when I first tried
to read it. Now, I could have just dismissed this essay
based on my frustration, but instead, I decided to really probe why the sentence made me feel
this way and how it was intimately connected to the argument Edwards was trying to make.
And this contemplation eventually led to a 40-page essay that I wrote—which focuses on this sentence and
Edwards’ thought experiments and how he used the style of his writing to get his readers
engaged in his ideas. So when you’re reading Thoreau I want you
to think about how his words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters make you feel. You might even
want to consider what you notice about the pacing of Walden. Is it fast? Is it slow?
How does the pacing make you feel? Why does it make you feel this way? How is it connected
to the larger issues in the text? See what happens. We’ll be continuing to explore our aesthetic reactions to Thoreau
as we study Walden and his journal. So that’s it for now.

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