Teaching Literature: Sad vs Funny

Tightly Wound has a post on “The MLA Wonders Why You Should Teach Literature: Again.”

I am getting ready to teach a literature course. I’ve been thinking about those questions.

What is the point of teaching literature?

My answer to my students is to help them understand the culture.

But the question I answer in class most comprehensively is one that wasn’t asked.

Why is literature always depressing?

I hate to be depressed. I like it when the good guy wins. I like it when the hero emerges unscathed. I like it when the bad guy loses. But in literature that rarely happens. Why not?

This is a shortened form of my lecture on this topic:

Do you remember when you thought knock-knock jokes were the funniest things in the universe? And you would tell them again and again and just roll on the floor laughing? How many of you still love knock-knock jokes? (No show of hands, please.)

Your sense of humor has changed just over your lifetime, maybe even only over a small part of your lifetime.

What is funny changes just like that. Jokes that were hysterical when I was in college have to be explained to you because you don’t know the context.

But sad things don’t change. It’s sad if your father dies today and it was sad three thousand years ago. It’s bad if you accidentally marry your mother today. And it was thousands of years ago. It’s still horrific if you walk in and find your wife’s body after her suicide. It’s still horrific if you gouge your eyes out. It’s still horrific if one of your sons kills the other son. All those things are still sad.

That’s why we still read Oedipus Rex and Antigone.

Sad things stay the same. Funny changes.

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