It is heartbreaking to teach literature sometimes. Very rewarding, but often heartbreaking. I teach a lower-level group of high school juniors this year -- nice bunch of kids and many of them way smarter than their work habits show. We are studying American literature and, believe it or not, I insist on teaching them Moby Dick. How do you study the foundations of American lit. without Melville's greatest work?
No, I don't have them read the while book. (I didn't read it until grad school.) We read selections and we watch the movie with Patrick Stewart as Ahab. It is a pretty good Cliff's Notes version that manages to keep many of the themes intact; it also remains faithful to a lot of the book's dialogue. And, the kids like it.
What's heartbreaking is teaching sections like the St. Elmo's fire scene and being (every time) chilled to the bone by the profundity of it; being ignited with my own internal fire of appreciation for the lofty heights that the human animal can achieve in seeing Melville's brilliance in action.
How do you teach that? How do you impart the soul-deep fulfillment -- the actual "high" -- that rises up in you when, for instance, Mr. Starbuck, brought to his lowest of lows, seeing Captain Ahab posing with the aid of a natural phenomenon like static electricity as a God figure, utters the phrase, "Forbear, old man -- God has turned his back on thee. This light is not thine. This light is not thine..."
Literature and music have always been to me as is wind to Coleridge's Aeolian harp; the strings vibrate into feelings of wonder and beauty. Forgive the purple prose, but...how else can one say these things? No wonder the Romantics were poets.
I know it is probably something one can't teach; the strings are either there or they are not, I suppose. I just wish.