That Dang Cockroach in the Ice Cream

Yes, I deleted a provocative story from my syllabus in a maternal impulse.  I happen to know one of my students, and I know he has a pornography addiction. (However, I might be writing about a previous semester.)  I attend the LDS addiction recovery services weekly with a young man who is trying to overcome a drug addiction.  I go to the family support sessions, where we often have wives or fiancees of porn addicts.  I see their pain.  I hear them say, “I’m ready to give up.  I hate that he keeps relapsing,” or, “I can’t do this anymore.”  Usually, “I keep praying.  I keep praying.”

I take all addictions seriously.

In many ways, this censorship of my reading assignments goes counter to my literature-loving self.  I am a real fan of Saul Bellow, and wanted to include his “Something to Remember Me By” in my syllabus. But I am very aware of the Bellowesque descriptions of a woman’s sexual organs. Can I teach a brilliant story which has such graphic descriptions? What if this story is simply too much for my addicted student, and what if there are others like him in my class?  Where does my responsibility lie?

Previously, my solution has been to provide a warning (but could that also be an invitation?) about the story, and to also provide alternative reading, but to keep it in my syllabus. I am personally unaffected by the images Bellow evokes, just astounded at his skill and at the unity of the story’s elements. Finally, the couple of pages devoted to sexual imagery (a prostitute seems to be seducing a kid, but ultimately just steals his clothes) are only a minor part of the whole story, which is rich with meaning and insight. I gained new thoughts from my reading of it, and plan on reading it again as I prepare to teach.

Remember that BYU and all Church schools are different than others. I know for sure that if one of my teachers said, “I thought this story—which is one of the best ever written—might do some moral damage to some of you who have less sophistication than I have”, I’d be offended—and then I’d go read the story. But I approach my classes with a rather maternal attitude. I become a midwife to my students’ creative work. Do I also help expand their imaginations by the stories I introduce them to? But shouldn’t they get to know Bellow? Shouldn’t they learn to see the whole story and not stop at a provocative paragraph?

The question is, should we get to the truth through an alley which is simply too dangerous for some readers? Do I have a right to decide what my students are prepared to read and what they should approach with caution? If they don’t learn to read Bellow, have they kept themselves from some of the greatest literature in the world? As a corollary, do people who never learn to read well suffer by not experiencing the literary journeys of Dostoevsky’s Ivan, Morrison’s Sethe, or Twain’s Huck Finn? Do they settle for sugary kitsch when they could be sitting at Babette’s feast?

For now, my decision is to delete Bellow from my syllabus.  Perhaps this sort of reaction just happens when English teachers become grandmothers.

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29 Responses to That Dang Cockroach in the Ice Cream

  1. Kristine says:

    It seems problematic to me to define all erotic writing as pornography. Part of the reason we have an epidemic of porn addiction in the church may be exactly that we can’t read or discuss stories like this one in a way that models a healthy acceptance of sexuality as an important part of human life…

    • Margaret Blair Young says:

      Yes it does seem problematic. I have chosen to err on the side of caution, obviously. And it may indeed be an error. I have no hesitation in teaching Lawrence’s “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” or Boyle’s “Greasy Lake.” And I am personally a fan of Bellow. It was a maternal decision, not a literary one. I don’t think reading and discussing stories which include graphic sex or brilliant but vivid descriptions of a woman’s body help us avoid pornography.

      • Mark Penny says:

        I’m with Grandma on this one. You did the right thing, Margaret.

        My name is Mark Penny and I threw out A Hundred Years of Solitude and Cloud Atlas because I didn’t want sex scenes and descriptions of prodigious genitalia rolling around in my head. I defy anyone to prove that I am culturally deficient for not having finished those two books.

        In high school, I opted out of Brave New World because it contained elements that at the time were problematically suggestive for me. Years later, when those problems went away, I read it through and thought it a reasonably worthwhile piece of writing.

        If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, I say.

  2. Melissa says:

    I agree with you and the previous commenter. The fight is hard to overcome, taking decades usually, one less battle is one step closer to sobriety. I hope.

  3. Nickel says:

    I agree with Kristine. I teach art history and cover a lot of nudes and images that deal with sexuality. I don’t teach at a church school, but one with a lot of LDS students. For so many students, they have never been given the opportunity to discuss sexuality and when given the opportunity and the right environment, the flood gates open.

    So much of literature touches on sex and sexuality. Can’t we just accept that it is part of the human experience and that it is a legitimate topic to discuss, even at a church school?

  4. I actually like the analogy of literature as streets in a city of insight.

    I feel like I can afford to miss out on certain works because I don’t doubt literature’s abundance. We are fortunate to live in days when there is almost always another wonderful route to be taken so that you don’t have to agonize over the need to miss some things out of caution or simply from time constraints.

    • Th. says:

      .

      This is a vital point. Harder to argue in a class where Work X has been assigned to you, but in general—the world is so full of books we can’t read them all. We must pick and choose. We’ve no other option.

  5. Margaret Blair Young says:

    I’ve never had a problem with the many nudes I’ve seen throughout Europe–meaning in art museums, not on the beaches. I find that they glorify the human form and are not particularly sexual. I do think the question ““Can’t we just accept that it is part of the human experience and that it is a legitimate topic to discuss, even at a church school?” needs context. HOW do we discuss sex? Do we frame it in any moral context, or simply show how to put a condom on a cucumber? Some of the greatest works of literature have shown adulterous sex as the beginning of moral unraveling. Some have shown unexpected results from intimacy where the participants were too young to understand the bonding that should and usually does come with sexual intercourse. The protagonist in Bellow’s story does not have sex with the prostitute he sees, and is made to feel foolish. The context is not immoral at all. But Bellow is so good at describing the woman’s body that I have to consider the effect on a reader who has discovered the hollow excitement of masturbatory fantasies triggered by highly sexualized women.
    I doubt I would be so sensitive had I not sat with the wives and fiancees of men who can’t seem to get aroused without hyper sexuality. Some of these men become impotent with their own wives and can only respond to a provocative image.

  6. You know, having just been in Delhi, it occurs to me that maybe another good analogy for literature is local cuisine. And maybe sometimes you really want to give people a taste of the best street food as a cool local experience. Or at least have them eat in dhabas on the freeway without worrying about the different standards for washing dishes. There different levels of risk, of course, to those and various other degrees of choice.

    It seems like a tragedy to me if you take students to India and have them live off bread and nutella packed from home. And it seems like a tragedy if you take students to India and some of them spend half the trip stuck in the hotel with diarrhea. The trick to eating in a foreign place is to find the right balance between adventurousness and security. And I don’t find it problematic to treat literature in a similar way.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Balanced folks are nice to find.

    • Scott Hales says:

      This reminds me of what I sometimes call the “pay off” in literature. The idea is: does the reward from the “great” stuff about the book/movie/play compensate for truly “questionable” stuff. Does the beauty of the Bellow story make up for the aspects of the story that could lead to addiction?

      Was the diarrhea worth it?

      For some people: yes. For others: No. I’ve never felt comfortable making that judgment call for others since we all have different thresholds. I think Margaret made the right choice–seeing how you can’t revolutionize LDS culture and attitudes during the first week of the semester. As I state in my comment below, we need to do a better job of teaching both youth and adults to contextualize content and better discern our individual thresholds.

      Also, what I think is fascinating about this discussion is that it assumes that literature has eternal consequences. That’s a neat thought. Maybe if we took it more seriously as a culture we would pay more attention to teaching how to navigate it.

      • Th. says:

        .

        I’ve never felt comfortable making that judgment call for others since we all have different thresholds.

        I feel the same way. Here’s what I find troubling: is when people choose not to make the decision even for themselves. As you’ve phrased it, it’s a celebration of agency. But many people—the R-rated thing and the only-if-sold-at-Deseret thing are the easiest examples—would rather surrender their agency to an outside group rather than engage in important questions of what, in fact, is good for my soul.

        There is risk in either path. But only one path recognizes our personal responsibility.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Not sure I agree with your final statement. I’ve seen peer pressure and abdication of personal responsibility work the other way too…

        • Th. says:

          .

          Sure. I was just using the allegedly “typical” Mormon example. I don’t argue your point.

  7. Scott Hales says:

    Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately–and even considered writing about it for my next post on this blog. I’m not a fan of the cockroach discussion because I think it gets in the way of or distracts from more important conversations we could be having about literature. At the same time, the fact that we can’t stop talking about the cockroach seems to suggest that maybe we haven’t found the right approach to the problem yet. We keep failing in Mormon culture to come to some resolution on the matter–which is to be expected, seeing how rarely resolutions are ever come to in any matter of controversy.

    I’m not really 100% convinced by Kristine’s argument either, although I think more open dialogue about healthy sexuality would certainly be helpful. I think we have trouble in Mormon culture–and this is what my post was going to be about–with teaching context. Certain church manuals, for example, teach us that we need to avoid media that is violent or sexual in any way–yet that seems to me to be a bit broad. At this point, the go-to place in arguments like this one, of course, is the scriptures, which is full of plenty of violence and sex. Generally, we permit discussions about violence and sex in the scriptures because the scriptures (or lesson manuals) generally provide context that makes the depictions “safe.”

    The problem is, we don’t extend the rule of context to our discussions about media that is not scripture–mostly because we never officially talk about media in church (and even at time on the bloggernacle) except in terms of it being “worthy” or “unworthy” for consumption. Context and meaning are never part of the equation–even though they are instrumental to combating what may be potentially harmful for some in literature. I am willing to bet, for example, that one reason that Mark was able to return to Brave New World was that he was better able to contextualize the book. I had a similar experience with Cold Mountain, which is currently one of my favorite novels.

    Of course, I think this is essentially what Kristine is saying in her comment: as a culture, we need to teach the context of sexuality better. I think Margaret’s “maternal instinct,” however, is a reaction to the fact that her students/”children” within the church school setting have not been adequately trained by the culture to process the context of the alley.

    Incidentally, I had the same problem when I was a BYU English major–I was always putting down what were considered “great” works of literature because I didn’t know how to process the sexual content. What I will always be grateful for, I think, is a religion class I took through the English department, taught by David Paxman, that basically taught us how to process and contextualize objectionable content (and by “objectionable,” I don’t just mean “sexual.” Often, the class focused on how to process information that challenges testimony). It has made my graduate work at a non-Church university less of a constant moral crisis. By far, the best class I took at BYU.

    Also incidentally, I came across the following passage yesterday doing some research. It is by Dr. Thomas E. Cheney, a long-forgotten BYU English professor, from the March 1950 issue of the Improvement Era:

    “Latter-day Saint culture has continued, during its entire existence, to root more deeply into world thought and culture, and there it has found nourishment. But at times and to some degree we have failed to be aware of the beauty of world literature. We have seen elements of ungodliness and have failed to search for the good it contains. We have thought we could produce something new, unaware of the truth of the maxim, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ The young writer who sits in the throes of literary creation and feels the thrill of inspiration as words flow from his pen often fails to realize that other great thinkers have had the same flood of glory, and that only the few have given new light to the world. Now in our second century we shall read, select, and judge great literature of the world, for we have come to the realization that, to be great writers, we must be great readers and great thinkers.”

    I think that was as true in 1950 as it is today. My hope is that by our third century, we as a culture will have finally figured it out to navigate the alley appropriately.

  8. Courtney says:

    Margaret,

    Excellent, thought-provoking post. I teach at a school in the South and while there are few Mormons in my classroom, there are many devout students with similar issues about sexual and language content of fiction that I teach. It gets particularly heated in workshops as students turn in their own writing, which can cross the line quickly into pornography and gratuitous language usage, especially in the early explorations.

    Scott, the idea of learning how to process images and descriptions that challenge our moral center is extremely intriguing to me, and I think part of what happens naturally in college and especially to young adults. I find my adult students have far fewer problems with content–even though many of them are more deeply religious.

    Some of my secular students have never encountered descriptions about sex that aren’t basically pornography and I find it helpful to them to have them read stories where the images, while perhaps graphic are not meant to titilate, usually those aren’t on my syllabus, but suggested in conference.

    And of course as a writer, I’ve been called out for some of the sexual images and language used in my own writing. I don’t mind the warnings in reviews, but I do bristle when assumptions are made about why I used them. I’m more callous about language than sexual imagery (another time I’ll tell you all about the summer of swearing).

    Does anyone else get student’s whose writing goes over the line? I’m curious–and that is most likely another discussion. Where is our obligation to that text?

    Brilliant thoughts from all of you. I don’t comment all that often, but I lurk, so much do I lurk.

    • Courtney says:

      clearly should have proofed. students, not student’s.

    • I borrowed two principles from Orson Scott Card for teaching creative writers about content issues:

      1) All language is available to writers. Swearing in a story is very different than swearing in a class comment and is absolutely permissible.

      2) Audiences have every right to stop reading your work at any time. And language and sexuality can be barriers because while a fictional murder is often easy to treat as fiction, the concentration of anger into a profanity or the titillation of a sexual sequence can be very real. And because vulgarity and sexuality can produce strong reactions, they can sometimes distract from the more nuanced work of a story.

      As a result of these policies, I’ve had some swearing (including f-words) in BYU classwork. No porn, though, for which I am grateful (especially considering how bad beginning writer porn is likely to be). I’ve also not had stories where I found the violence unusually disturbing.

  9. These are great comments. Thank you.

  10. Not a lot of graphic sex in my students’ stories, but quite a bit of swearing. The students feel liberated by being in a character’s voice to use lots of swear words. I don’t mind that, but I do tell them that swear words are like neon lights, and they’ll draw attention to themselves and can even disrupt the sentence’s focus. Modifiers can do the same thing. So I just caution them to be sure their words earn their place.

  11. Jonathan Langford says:

    Some random thoughts–

    Do you, Margaret, have a right to decide what your students are prepared to read? Of course. That’s part of what it means to be a teacher.

    I like Scott Hales’s comment about learning to contextualize. And I like Kristine’s notion that a more healthy approach to sexuality might involve learning how to process texts that include erotic content. At the same time, I applaud Mark for knowing his own limits, and Margaret for respecting that her students may have limits that are different from hers.

    It seems to me that this is one of those cases where the right path has to involve acknowledging both sides of the issue — and that the “right” action may be different at different times, in different circumstances, and for different people.

  12. julia says:

    Thanks for this interesting and frustrating essay. I marvel how I got through the first 20 years of my life, being pretty much totally naive and happily so. I blush and laugh when I think that as a High School Senior, I performed a scene from Maxwell Anderson’s “Ann of a Thousand Days.” I got rave reviews and “Superior” ratings.
    It wasn’t until after I was married that it dawned on me what I (Ann) was saying!”

    I do remember my mother was a bit concerned about the presentation but I’m sure she knew that I had not the slightest idea what the scene was really about. I was sweet and innocent but believed I was a sophisticated, intellectual actress! Ignorance is bliss!

  13. I always love Julia Blair’s comments!

  14. Maria says:

    Margaret,
    I applaud your kindness and consideration to your student with a weakness. It reminds me of a dear friend, who is always careful that any food she shares with me does not contain the allergens she knows I react to.

  15. Mark Penny says:

    Interestingly (to me, anyway), this discussion is happening as I’m reading Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters. I’m not a big fan of the style in books like this, but I am learning a lot nonetheless.

    The book is about archetypal characters and archetypal journeys. I began reading the book for insights into characterization–and I got some, such as understanding that successful characters and the stories they move around in have what I call “archetypal definition”, a sort of tinting and sharpening that makes them stand out in the mind. However, I also gained a few insights on life. I realized, for example, that each of us is, to some extent, an archetypal character of one sort or another, and that this determines, to a great extent, what we think of doing, how we try to do it, and how we react to what other people do. The fact that each archetype has a positive and a negative manifestation (eg, saviour (messiah)/destroyer) reflects the fact that the same archetypal character can play very different roles in different people’s lives. Two saviours or two warriors can end up locking horns when they choose different sides of an issue, for instance.

    The issue of sexual content in literature and the media is certainly one over which saviours and warriors can find themselves tackling their homologues. Context, as Scott Hales says.

    In the battle between the earthy and the spiritual, the saviours and warriors in both camps in Zion’s camp need to be cautious. Both can end up leading their followers carefully down to hell.

  16. If you knew one of your students was a victim of sexual abuse & working through trauma, would you consider removing novels from the syllabus that included that sort of content? I’d guess you would. To me, this is no different.

    I grew up in a rather relativistic household when it came to literature. My mother was a convert to the gospel at age 19 and a book lover. She had plenty of books that (I think) wouldn’t be on the shelves of most LDS households. I am a prude, but not because I was raised that way… I dislike reading things I wouldn’t want to see through my neighbor’s window, because it is real for me. Having said that, you’ve made me curious about the short story you cite. Smiley face.

    I feel that the line where worldly content overpowers a positive message for a reader really is different for each reader. Like other stated, we all have different strengths and weaknesses (and traumas, and situations in life) and so what might be good for one person is not for another. Therefore, as always, maybe the point is not to judge each other for what we do or do not consume.

  17. Emily Debenham says:

    I totally relate to your dilemma. I taught high school Latin and we had an opportunity to go support the drama kids by seeing a part of a production they put on during our class hours. Several of our class members were in said production so we went as a class to view the play. It was a comedy of some sort and not appropriate. The girls ran around in lingere for much of the play. The costumes did cover everything inappropriate, but as we walked back to class two boys were walking in front of me. One turned to the other and asked if he liked the production. The boy next to him shook his head and said something that indicated he didn’t feel it was morally appropriate. The other boy was confused but didn’t really comment further.
    This was in Texas and while there were a lot of Mormons in the area they boy was not Mormon he was just a very good Christian boy.
    I feel bad to this day that it was I that made the decision to expose my students to something that made them feel uncomfortable and morally unsafe.
    As their teacher I really did feel responsible for what they viewed because I am the one with the control in the classroom. I made the choices about what they would see and view, and was resposible to respect their feelings and needs. I was very disappointed in myself, and made an effort to find out more about drama previews we were invited to in the future.

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