10 November 2007

Celidah and Context

I think I have discovered where the modern liberal arts, particularly the study of English literature, have failed. (At least, I've come a step closer to realizing what my father has been telling me for years.) Part of becoming educated is to develop a sense of context. To properly understand a text, a student has to have read many of the books that influenced the writer. He may even need to have tried writing texts himself to get a feel for the narrative. The goal of context is to build up a body of ideas and experiences held in common with a writer. Without this context, modern students are simply floundering in the dark for a world of lost meaning.

Tonight, thanks to a tradition barn dance called a celidah sponsored by the chaplaincy, I am one step closer to the context I need for the works of Jane Austen. Just imagine the experience...

The band slows toward the end of a song, signaling a dance is about to begin. A young man asks me to dance. I feel no sense of drama because my heart already belongs to someone else, but I am excited to be dancing. We line up in triplets--girl, boy, girl. The caller briefly outlines the dance and off we go, galloping down the floor, turning, and returning again. A few spins, a circle, and we're off galloping again until the caller calls out "boys advance" and the two women pass our partner on to another man. As the dance continues, I notice how different it is to be partnered with each different men. Some are unfamiliar and strange, bizarre partners. Others just aren't attractive, probably sweating profusely. Some can't dance very well and I lead them through an awkward round before passing them on gratefully. Others are familiar and I cling to them like a lifeline in a storm of chaos. Around and around we go and every time we switch, I imagine the ecstasy of meeting the man I love at the next reel. And that is the moment I realize what it must have been like to be Anne Elliot. I look around them warm room, sweaty, smiling young faces all around me, and realize I've stepped into the world of any of Jane Austen's heroines.

That is context. That is a life experience that will fundamentally shape the way I read a particular author's books for the rest of my life. The celidah opened a window into another time and another place, bringing one step closer to the sophistication and art of Austen's works.

Of course, that realization comes with the far more humbling one that I will never grasp the full depths of Austen's works. She is in a time and a place far removed from me. I shall have to continue, as an English student, to do my best to have as many exciting experiences and to explore as many new ideas as I can.