Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Problem With Close Reading Is How Few Texts Merit It

David Coleman's essay, Cultivating Wonder? (via, via), features an example centered around a short piece by Martha Graham from what was apparently the original This I Believe Edgar R. Murrow radio series in the 1950s. It begins:

I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which come shape of achievement, the sense of one’s being, the satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

Coleman's wonder cultivating questions is:

How does the idea of practice unfold in Martha Graham’s “An Athlete of God”?

The first paragraph, and the text as a whole, sounds pretty good the first couple times through, especially if you approach it as the work of a Great American Genius. But really, it is kind of a mess. It is a short, popular text, penned to be read aloud once, written by someone not known for writing such things.

Graham's piece never resolves the basic question of whether "practice" is something undertaken by only an elite through specific actions, by everyone just by living, or some combination of those. If we learn by practice do we not learn by not practicing? If we practice nothing do we learn nothing? Can we not learn by something we experience once?

The more you dig into the text, the less it makes sense and hangs together. It does not address that when she says "dance" she really only means a very specific kind of dance, probably. She says dance holds an "ageless magic for the world," but that's highly contingent on context. She ends by praising the smile of the acrobat, but the acrobat smiles because it is his job. He is not an artist, he is an entertainer. To closely read this text you have to conclude Martha Graham knows or cares little about the world outside of dance.

It wasn't meant to be re-read and doesn't stand up to it.

Coleman seems uncertain as well about Graham's meaning and ultimately states, "The mystery of what Graham means can be illuminated only by further reading," which could be translated as "finding a better text on the subject." But then again, what is the subject? Why would one read this in the first place? Where would it fit into the curriculum other than as a moral exemplar of hard work and grit?

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