The Art in the Popular

By Cantor, Paul A. | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Art in the Popular


Cantor, Paul A., The Wilson Quarterly


"I remember, in the course of making Speed, I learned Hamlet," says Reeves. What does that tell us about Speed? "It ain't Shakespeare."

Interview with Keanu Reeves, Rolling Stone

I have just finished writing a book titled Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization. That may not sound so odd, until I reveal how I have spent the rest of my life. Most of my scholarly career has been devoted to Shakespeare, about whom I have published 15 essays and three books, including the volume on Hamlet in the Cambridge University Press Landmarks of World Literature series. I have also published extensively on Romantic literature, and even when I have written on contemporary subjects, I have dealt with authors generally regarded as both serious and complex, such as J. M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie. In my teaching, I have always been a staunch champion of what is usually called the Western canon. I began my career in the old General Education program at Harvard with a course on myths of creation, and at the University of Virginia today I regularly teach the introductory comparative literature survey, which begins with the Iliad and the Odyssey and runs through all the trad itional great authors, such as Virgil, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, Austen, and Dostoevsky.

With these credentials, why am I now writing about Gilligan's Island and Star Trek? I could simply say that everyone needs to relax and have a little fun once in a while. But in truth, I hope to show that we can learn something from American popular culture, especially if we study it with the same care we have learned to bring to the analysis of traditional literary masterpieces. And perhaps the serious study of popular culture might have a genuine pedagogical value. I am not one of those misguided optimists who think that television (or any other technological development, such as the Internet) is the answer to all our educational problems. In fact, I am as appalled as anybody at what television appears to be doing to our young. Every year, it seems, I watch the attention span of my students shorten and their ability to read the complex language of older literature diminish. I do what I can to combat these trends, but there is something to be said for a strategy of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Given t hat we are now forced to live with television--proposals to ban it have not generated much support--we might as well search for ways to turn it to some good use, even if its overall influence on students remains deleterious.

If my students seem to be totally immersed in popular culture, I try to meet them halfway--not surrendering completely to the world of the media, but using it to help my students understand the world of high culture that is supposedly so remote from their experience. For example, when I discuss the centrally important theme of vengeance in the Iliad or the Oresteia, I relate it to modern forms of revenge tragedy, westerns such as The Searchers or Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or gangster movies such as the Godfather films or Goodfellas. John Ford's The Searchers is positively Aeschylean in the way it uses the theme of revenge to explore the complex and ever shifting boundary between civilization and barbarism. I show my students that if they have seen The Godfather, they already know something about the tension between law and justice, which is such an important issue in Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. My new book culminates in a discussion of one of the most bizarre hours of television ever broadcast, the " Home" episode of The X-Files. Though clearly an exercise in American Gothic, this grim tale of incest and infanticide harks back to the origins of Western drama, and, like Greek tragedy, pits the primal power of the family against the civilizing power of the community and its broader standard of justice.

Getting our students to "read" popular cultural critically may well become our task as teachers in an age increasingly dominated by the mass media. …

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