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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 16, novembre 1999

Romanticism and its Others

Sous la direction de Neville Newman

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005886ar

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Article

The Resistance of Reading: Romantic Hypertexts and Pedagogy [*]

David S. Miall

University of Alberta


Introduction

1

Although the question of what it might mean to read literature is a long way from being settled, we are now confronted with a further problem: how we are to understand literary reading that occurs in a hypertext environment. The problem will, of course, be of growing importance as more literary materials become available in this form and as education turns increasingly to electronic tools. [1] What difference does it make to deliver literary texts electronically instead of in print? If we wish to facilitate a particular kind of reading amongst our students, are there specific design principles to which we should be alert in hypertext? What role can or should hypertext play in the literature classroom?

2

These questions have hardly been examined yet, despite some extensive and influential studies of hypertext, from George Landow's notable experiment with Intermedia to Stuart Moulthrop's radical claims for the hypertext medium. [2] These accounts, which now constitute a certain speculative genre of theoretical writing about hypertext, have been criticized for proposing ill-informed views of the mind [3] or a misleading liberationist ethic. [4] My principal concern, however, is that the nature of literary reading is misrepresented in this writing. As a result, the learning processes appropriate to the literature classroom are left obscure. In this essay I argue for an alternative view of literary hypertext that will facilitate student learning. I take as my main example Romanticism: The CD-ROM, a hypertext for Romantic writing which I designed, and a project by three students based in part on texts and graphics from this hypertext. Before describing the hypertext, however, I will briefly offer my own critical assessment of current hypertext theory, then put forward a view of the reading process through examination of a text by Wordsworth.

The Reading Surface

3

The arrival of hypertext is said to realize in practical terms the claim of postmodern theories of literature. This argument is encapsulated in the subtitle of George Landow's well-known book, Hypertext, which announces the convergence of critical theory with hypertext. In the emergent cultural order thus produced, the older world of the printed book has become subject to a number of questionable interpretations. For example, according to Jay David Bolter "there is a solemnity at the center of printed literature . . . because of the immutability of the printed page". [5] Similarly, Moulthrop and Kaplan insist that the printed book "creates a bias toward hegemony and monologue". Since hypertext is said to oppose this "strategy of containment," it threatens "the orderly and autonomously meaningful text" with its "unvoiced assumptions". [6]

4

Hypertext thus promises to set us free both from the hierarchical and confining textuality of the book and a publishing and teaching apparatus invested in promoting a narrow literary canon. This claim rests on several premises: an associationist model of the mind, the proposal that all text is intertextual and hence permeable, and an emphasis on the topographical properties of hypertext. That each of these claims is contestable suggests that despite the work of influential commentators such as Bolter or Landow, hypertext is still at a pre-paradigmatic stage: that is, we have no agreed theoretical framework in which to locate it, and no settled body of knowledge on either the nature of hypertext or its appropriate applications.

5

Perhaps one of the strongest claims made for hypertext has been that it models the mind in ways that are impossible for print technology. In fact, the image of the mind put forward by some writers is reminiscent of the now largely discredited information processing model of early cognitive science: the possibility that "haunts" us, says Hillis Miller in a recent paper on hypertext, is "that the human brain is no more than an extraordinarily powerful, complex, and compact computer". [7] If so, another much older idea has also returned to haunt us, that of associationism. As L. M. Dryden puts it, "In its structure of branching links and nodes, hypertext simulates the mind's associative processes, thereby providing an electronic platform for constructing and recording the reader's literate thinking". [8] Even it were true that the mind functions associatively, no conceivable hypertext could be built that would accommodate individual differences in patterns of association. As a reader responds to a specific passage of literature, the feelings, ideas, memories, or literary allusions that help to shape understanding cannot be modeled in advance by links coded into the text.

6

The appeal to association, however, seems derived less from interest in the mind than from a rhetoric of liberation, with hypertext as the best hope for an anti-hierarchical mode of representation. This is clear from Landow's advocacy, as he shows in a frequently cited passage:

we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks. Almost all parties to this paradigm shift, which marks a revolution in human thought, see electronic writing as a direct response to the strengths and weaknesses of the printed book.

Landow 2

In this view, reading is not limited to the individual text. In the unmargining electronic environment where texts are systematically interlinked, hypertext "blurs the boundaries of individual texts" (Landow 25). Thus in hypertext "the notion of an individual, discrete work becomes undermined and untenable within this form of information technology" (Landow 56). In a hypertext environment as large and dynamic as the internet, Moulthrop explains, a given text "has no clear defense against the potential vastness of the network and its multiplicity, if not 'randomness'". [9] Moulthrop is one of several recent theorists to promote hypertext in opposition to what he calls "the monology of print". [10]

7

A direct result of this approach is to erase the distinction between literary and other kinds of reading. As Landow's writing shows, the "problem" said to be addressed by hypertext is that of information: in other words, information retrieval in hypertext will be much superior to older linear modes of access (Landow 21-22). It is within this framework that, in advocating a hypertext system for reading Milton's Paradise Lost, Landow treats the engagement with the poem as the same process as seeking information about it (Landow 80-81). Landow, like most other hypertext advocates, can make this move because the question of what it means to read Milton receives no serious consideration, as another of his comments shows. One might say, Landow remarks, that hypertext linking embodies "the way one actually experiences texts in the act of reading; but if so, the act of reading has in some way gotten much closer to electronic embodiment of text and in so doing has begun to change its nature" (Landow 82).

8

In its pursuit of the anti-hierarchical, several theorists claim Barthes's ground, who argued in S/Z for seeing text as a set of networks without beginning or end, a system to which "we gain access . . . by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable". [11] Similarly, in his essay on "The Death of the Author," Barthes spoke of text as "a multi-dimensional space," and of text as a "space of writing" that is "to be ranged over, not pierced". [12] This metaphoric account becomes literalized in subsequent accounts of hypertext. The notion of text as a space of signifiers is central to Bolter's understanding, since hypertext appears (literally) on a computer screen: "In place of hierarchy, we have a writing that is not only topical: we might also call it 'topographic.' . . . Electronic writing is both a visual and verbal description. It is not the writing of a place, but rather a writing with places, spatially realized topics" (Bolter 25). This move also has consequences for understanding literary reading, not least its vulnerability to what Coleridge called "the despotism of the eye", [13] his disparagement of the type of philosophy where only that which can be represented in visual terms is considered.

9

The other implication of Barthes's account is the abandonment of linearity, a feature that appeals to all hypertext theorists as self-evidently beneficial. "A hypertext has no canonical order," Bolter tells us. "Every path defines an equally convincing appropriate reading, and in that simple fact the reader's relationship to the text changes radically. A text network has no univocal sense; it is a multiplicity without the imposition of a principle of domination" (Bolter 25). This allows Landow to claim that the computer enables us to treat text as data, with all the benefit of random access that this offers: "A data base search . . . permits the active reader to enter the author's text at any point and not at the point the author chose as the beginning" (Landow 94).

10

This brief review of some of the principal claims made for hypertext is intended to show that it problematizes understanding of what it means to read literature. In addition to our supposed liberation from the "seriousness" of pre-hypertext literary reading, [14] with its canon of approved texts and its monologism, hypertext is supposed to facilitate our entrance to a world of reading reshaped for the associationist mind. Apart from the interesting question whether new literary forms will be made possible by hypertext, [15] the hypertext medium seems to devalue most previous writing and our accepted modes of reading it, if we take such claims at face value. It means unmargining all existing literary texts, facilitating multilinear readings of them, and treating each topographically as a network of signifiers with no overall integrity. Clearly, reading in this context is radically different from anything we have been used to practising or teaching in the literature classroom.

11

This is a major concern. At the same time, hypertext will become increasingly prominent as a means of conveying our existing literary heritage. How is it to be represented electronically? What can teachers and students do with it, and what are the appropriate forms for the discussions that make a part of any effective learning in the literature classroom? What will it mean to move the learning environment out of the classroom onto the computer or the internet?

12

These questions were raised for me specifically by the task of designing a hypertext containing the primary Romantic texts (recently published as Romanticism: The CD-ROM, 1997) and making it available to students in Romanticism courses during the several years it has taken to develop. [16] With almost completely open choice of design and function provided by the authoring software I chose (HyperWriter!), the question of how students would negotiate their reading in the hypertext environment I was creating became a key issue. In describing some of the answers I reached (albeit provisionally and without systematic study), I will be putting forward a view of reading that differs significantly from the hypertext theorists I have been reviewing. At the same time, I hope that it will show something of the promise of hypertext both as a literary medium and as a vehicle for learning.

Literary reading

13

The passage I will focus on now is by Wordsworth. It is appropriate for several reasons: as landscape description it might be thought particularly suited to the topographic form of hypertext; as a description with several apparent gaps in it, it might also be construed as a pre-hypertext example of the jump between lexia; as an account of a pathway that was lost then found, it might seem to be an experience of the multilinear. That it is none of these things will reveal something of what it means to read a literary text, as I will try to show.

14

In the summer of 1790 at the age of 20, Wordsworth set out with his friend Robert Jones on a walk across Europe, beginning with a march over France and into Switzerland. The most extensive part of the walk was a tour of various impressive sites in Switzerland which took them across the Simplon Pass into northern Italy. In Book VI of The Prelude written some fourteen years later Wordsworth described several parts of the walk in detail. The crossing of the Simplon Pass occupies lines 494-572 in the 1805 version (which I will cite in preference to the revised version published in 1850). In it, Wordsworth relates the crossing in three sections: (i) the ascent from Brig as far as a path on the farther side of the summit, where he and Jones discovered they had lost their way; (ii) a passage that celebrates the power of the imagination, but which seems disconnected from its context; and (iii) an account of the transit through the Ravine of Gondo towards Italy.

 

Figure

The Simplon spital, view south

15

In the first section Wordsworth describes lingering over lunch at the Simplon spital, so that some other travellers (probably mule drivers) who had been their guides left before them. Continuing, they descended as far as a stream:

The only track now visible was one

Upon the further side, right opposite,

And up a lofty mountain. This we took

After a little scruple and short pause.

504-7

But Wordsworth appears to have been misled by the mountains ahead of him (to the south), thinking that the summit of the pass still lay ahead. His faulty schema for crossing the Alps is at length corrected when they encounter a peasant who, despite the lack of a common language, puts them right:

     all the answers which the man returned

To our enquiries, in their sense and substance,

Translated by the feelings which we had,

Ended in this—that we had crossed the Alps.

521-24

At this point a passage of 24 lines follows on the Imagination. It begins:

     Imagination! lifting up itself

Before the eye and progress of my song

Like an unfathered vapour; here that power,

In all the might of its endowments, came

Athwart me.

525-9

The passage is remarkable for its poetry as well as for the claims it makes, but it represents an odd digression in the narrative. Next comes the transit through the Gondo Ravine, which perhaps represents some of the most remarkable lines Wordsworth ever wrote. He captures the strange and sublime scene in images such as these:

The immeasurable height

Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,

The stationary blasts of waterfalls,

And everywhere along the hollow rent

Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,

The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky

556-61

The passage culminates in a celebration of the continuities between the human mind and nature— at least, that is how it appears to me as I read it. The characteristics of the Ravine, Wordsworth says, "Were all like workings of one mind, the features / Of the same face" (568-9).

16

The difficulty Wordsworth had in representing his experience of the Simplon crossing is perhaps indicated by his deferral of writing about it for some fourteen years, as well as the difficulty presented by the odd irruption of the central passage on the imagination. The power of the poetry has meant that much critical attention has been paid to it, from study of its geography (where in fact did Wordsworth and Jones lose their way?) to analysis within a psychoanalytic or a New Historicist perspective. In my reading of the passage I suggest that Wordsworth came expecting one experience; he found another. His reading of travel writers such as William Coxe's Sketches of . . . Swisserland (1779) had created the expectation of a sublime experience in the crossing of the Alps, but this expectation was given in conventional, even picturesque terms. Wordsworth failed to realize the moment when he attained the summit of the Simplon, so he missed perhaps the key experience he had come to Europe to find. His subsequent experience of the Gondo Ravine was unlike anything Coxe had led him to expect.

 

Figure

Gondo Ravine

17

But my purpose now is not to offer an interpretation of the passage, [17] but to ask what it means to read it. That the passage has been given numerous, often opposed readings, suggests its difficulty. Why is the passage resistant to being read? I will suggest that, like Wordsworth, we may come expecting one experience but find something else is offered. The passage looks as though it will adhere to a certain schema for understanding, but this is systematically thwarted. Wordsworth introduces the episode by relating the circumstances of "A deep and genuine sadness" (492). This seems to point to the negative experience of missing the crossing of the Alps, but it prepares us for neither the hymn to the imagination nor the transit through the Gondo Ravine. In these passages Wordsworth manifestly transcends his disappointment, creating triumph from defeat. These lines, in a word, present us with a transforming experience, but one that matches neither the standard topos of landscape poetry nor the guidance we might expect from an autobiographical narrator. The passage exceeds the conventions of both topographical description and of a traveller's report. Rather, Wordsworth requires us as readers to make an inductive leap, asking what kind of insight into the experience could be given by an "unfathered" imagination, or the sight of "winds thwarting winds." The answer lies in how we construe the poet's response, an answer that takes us beyond the visible terrain through which he has passed.

18

Unlike the information processing called for by Landow, or the playful, ludic attitude proposed by Bolter, this passage seems to call first for the immersion of the reader in the extended, highly evocative language of the poetry: it is an effortful, constructive activity. Sven Birkerts describes the opening phases of this effort, as we encounter such a passage for the first time. It involves him in the need, he says, "to accustom myself to the rhythm and voice of the work. This is a big part of the struggle, making the transition from not reading to reading. . . . The words have to come alive in the ear—I have to hear them and hear them deeply". [18] To become attentive to the tone of the words, to hear the rhythms and textures at work within them, takes a rather special, extended kind of attention. A part of the work seems to be the evocation of our own concepts, memories, and feelings, which are required in order to situate the new perspective that the poem seems to be offering us; but the poetry in its turn may modify these. This kind of reading embodies a dialogical process, an interactive exchange of our concepts and feelings with those of the poet. It is a process that seems to unfold in alternating phases of receptivity and self-awareness. [19]

19

No hypertext system currently available can effectively represent individual responses of this kind, whether they depend on literary comparisons, memories, or the other personal sources involved in reading a literary text. Clearly, the argument of Moulthrop that reading of this kind enforces monologism is misconceived: on the contrary, the dialogue in which we are engaged by a significant text is a major reason for turning to literature. A text "reads" us as much as we read a text, but this means pursuing our own "links," not those predetermined by a hypertext author.

20

The reader's freedom to pursue interpretive pathways of her own choosing is practically enforced by many literary texts. To take two obvious examples: Coleridge's Mariner shoots the Albatross without apparent motive. Although no reason is assigned for the act, there appear to be few readers who can rest without some attempt at an explanation, whether this is due to Original Sin or the Oedipus complex, as a survey of the critical literature on the poem will show. Is the governess in James's Turn of the Screw to be praised for her heroism in confronting the ghosts at Bly, or should she be locked up for gross hallucinations? These texts provide only rather dramatic examples of a process that seems likely to occur in response to most literary texts: their structure or style calls for the reader's input if they are to be understood, but how the reader contributes is particularly dependent on her existing beliefs, memories, feelings, or dispositions. The act of reading, in turn, may work to reshape some aspects of the reader's input by qualifying feelings, placing memories within a new perspective, calling beliefs into question. Literary texts matter to us in part because they invite us to reflect on what is most distinctive about our concept or image of ourselves: they speak to what is most personal in us.

21

Having retraced Wordsworth's Swiss travels on the ground, it also strikes me that reading poetry is in this respect similar to reading landscape. If I would learn what Wordsworth saw and understand his response, the landscape of the Simplon Pass now is as resistant to being "read" as the lines in The Prelude. In Wordsworth's time in 1790 the way was no more than a mule path into Italy. Today it is a major road crossing with bridges, tunnels, and galleries. The stream that Wordsworth crossed, the Laggina, is diminished by a hydroelectric scheme at the head of the valley. The walk through the Ravine that took Wordsworth and Jones three hours now takes ten minutes in a car. Thus the traveller who follows the road will see almost nothing of what Wordsworth saw. To follow Wordsworth means leaving the road to walk, climb, and explore, and then exercising the imagination somewhat like an archaeologist. As I do this, climbing above the road, then pausing to reflect on what I might have seen before the modern road was built, the attentional process also seems to alternate phases of receptivity and self-awareness.

22

Wordsworth's lines on the Simplon Pass offer a particular challenge to understanding. At the same time, the processes involved in attempting to understand it seem typical of those required by much literary reading. How is such reading to be facilitated by the new electronic environment? The specific issue that confronted me was designing a hypertext that offers not just Wordsworth's Prelude but a representative selection of Romantic writing.

Designing a literary hypertext

23

The Romanticism CD contains a number of texts and graphics that potentially cast light on Wordsworth's poem, and the crossing of the Simplon Pass in particular. This is one of the significant advantages of the electronic medium, which is practically unlimited in terms of space (and large colour graphics take up a good deal of space), bringing benefits impossible to achieve with a printed text. But the availability of other texts and colour graphics also threatens to displace the kind of literary reading I have been describing, and substitute links to further texts and pictures for the sustained attention that yields literary understanding. Unlike Landow's Milton account, I suggest that following links to contextualize Milton's poem is not the same as reading it. The other materials are important for research and study of the poem, but they are relevant to rereading it, not to the primary task of reading. [20]

24

These were among the considerations that shaped the design of the Romanticism CD. In the overall structure of the CD texts are located in genre-specific tables of contents: the anthology texts, edited by Wu, are accessed through a text button, which brings up a list of authors; geographical texts and maps are available from the geography contents. Other buttons give access to tables of contents for historical texts, and a collection of materials for studying Gothic fiction. The hypertext is thus a hierarchical one, which makes it easy to learn to use (unlike non-hierarchical, multiply-interlinked hypertexts). It is also easy for a reader to return from anywhere in the hypertext to the starting point or home screen, so that readers are rarely disorientated while reading or searching.

25

Among the principles for screen design, perhaps the most important is that the authoring software I chose emphasizes a single-window layout. Except for pop-up comment boxes, useful for short editorial comments or annotations, texts can only be read in full screen mode. The overlapping screens permitted by most commercial hypertext applications are not possible here, and in this respect the environment fosters the integrity of the single text and the sustained attention it requires from readers. In designing the screen for poetry (most of which was adapted from the printed text edited by Duncan Wu), I eliminated footnotes and other editorial intrusions in the text and shifted all editorial matter and link anchors to the right-hand side of the screen. This makes it possible to read a poem while ignoring the invitation to follow links or activate pop-up boxes. The same process was, unfortunately, not possible for prose, where links had to be embedded in the text (HyperWriter! did not support columns). In addition, linking from primary to secondary texts was generally kept one-way: links pointed from the secondary into the primary texts but not the reverse; the text of The Prelude, for instance, was kept largely clear of links. [21]

26

Another important principle in designing the CD was to obtain multiple representations, whether this was of landscape encounters (such as the Simplon Pass), of a historical phenomenon such as the slave-trade, or of intellectual history such as theories of the picturesque. The same principle was carried through with graphics: for example, in the collection of views of the Chamonix area I was able to offer four views of the Mer de Glace by painters from the Romantic period, as well as two photographs of my own; or three Romantic period views of the ice cave at the foot of this glacier known as the Source of the Arveron, which with the retreat of the glacier has now disappeared (it plays an important part in Shelley's poem "Mont Blanc"). [22] Thus, while each representation is given space in its own right, it can also participate in a dialogue about the modes of representation and their implications, literary, historical, or ideological.

 

Figure

The Source of the Arveron

Carl Hackert

27

Finally, the authoring software permitted the inclusion of reader's utilities. While reading a particular text it is possible to make a bookmark so that the reader can return to the same point in the text from anywhere in the hypertext. In this way a reader can build up an individual list of references. Readers can also annotate a text, calling up a small window in which to enter their own comments (these can be edited subsequently, exported to disk, or copied to a word processor). [23] In this way readers can personalize the software, leaving traces of their reading to orientate themselves during subsequent reading. For a teacher the software also enables tours to be designed that systematically take a reader through a selected set of texts, without relying on the hierarchical or lateral links built into the system.

The Mont Blanc Project

28

Some of the benefits of these design principles can be seen in a project carried out in 1998 in a course I taught on Romantic poetry and prose that lasted two terms (26 weeks). The class consisted of 18 students, and was held partly in a conventional classroom in the English Department and partly in a computer lab in an adjacent building: here students had access both to the CD on Windows-based computers and a web site that I created for the course, together with the internet resources for which I provided links. A resource such as the CD offers many potential benefits to students, such as ready access to rare texts and a rich array of graphics normally only visible in archives in Europe, but it is important to create a classroom context that facilitates students' independent work with it. For this purpose I require students to carry out projects, of the kind I will describe.

29

Students were first taken through the CD in the computer lab early in the course, so that they became familiar with the resources it offered. I also introduced some of the skills needed for effective project work during the first part of the term: the use of graphic forms of representation such as poster displays, techniques for discussing and recording ideas, the use of resources, including the CD and the internet, and methods of presentation. Some of these skills and methods are described in detail in a section of the CD called projects, which students report finding helpful; this section also includes an example project evaluation and several pictures of project displays mounted by previous students. To carry out a project, students are invited to form small groups (usually three or four) and choose their own research topic; some class time is allowed for group work, but groups are also expected to meet outside class time. In the 1998 course, students were required to present their projects during weeks 10 and 11 of the second term of the course.

 

Figure

Students view project displays

30

The first project to be reported, entitled "Reading Mont Blanc," was presented by three students, Scott, Markus, and Kalyn. [24] From the six projects presented in the course, I choose this one to discuss because it provides a particularly interesting example of both the multiple forms of representation that is a principle of the design of the CD, and of the transforming response that I have argued is a principle of literary reading. On this occasion the students dramatized a transforming response to a mountain, rather than simply report on the writing of other travellers about it—such as Wordsworth or the Shelleys. [25] At the same time, their work is informed by a careful reading of travellers' texts on Chamonix and Mont Blanc.

 

Figure

Presenting the project in class

31

The presentation itself was built on the responses of three travellers to Mont Blanc, an American tourist, a climber, and a second-rate poet. In the first part, set on "the upper station of a cable car from Chamonix," we hear from each in turn about their reasons for making this visit and what they expect from it. While they speak, an impressive picture of Mont Blanc (an exaggeratedly picturesque view by W. H. Bartlett) is displayed through an overhead projector. The tourist, played by Markus, is simply there to snap a photo: "You see," he tells us, "I've got this list of the ten things you have to see when you're in Europe—and I've gotta get pictures of all of 'em . . . otherwise, what's the point of being here?" He is exasperated by the steep price of everything and by his fellow travellers. The climber is exasperated by the American, but looking forward to a climb (Kalyn brought a rucksack and climbing gear into class for her role): "Mont Blanc's slopes aren't that steep, and the ice will be easy enough to tread across." She tells us a little about the early history of ascents of Mont Blanc and the many deaths that have occurred, which she attributes to carelessness. The poet, played by Scott, has read the poets on Mont Blanc and has come prepared for a literary experience: "I, like Lord Byron, am a poet—and rather than coming to gawk mindlessly at some 'rural' quaintness, I have come to hear the mountain speak to my soul." He points to some of the responses of earlier poets, including Byron, Coleridge, and Shelley. He is dismissive of his fellow travellers: the soul of man here, he remarks, "can achieve a far greater revelation than any one can get through climbing or snapping photographs."

 

Figure

Mont Blanc

W. H. Bartlett

32

After hearing from the three travellers a pause of about two minutes ensued, during which music played. The travellers then return from their encounter with Mont Blanc. Each has been changed in some critical way by the experience. The poet is riven with disappointment: he has seen nothing. "It really is soulless! What a horrendous disappointment! I think I may have to give up poetry forever!" He has found nothing on which to fix the eye: "I kept expecting to hear the mountain speak to me, but it kept slipping by me, as if it was trying to deny all the things I'd read about it, without giving me anything substantial in exchange." The tourist, on the other hand, reports being left behind on his walk: he realizes how silent it is; then suddenly he sees the sun breaking out behind the summit of the mountain and clouds drifting past it. He is transfixed by the scene, and comes back having forgotten to snap any pictures. The climber had unawares fallen into a shallow crevice: "my whole life flashed in front of my eyes just like it does in the movies, and I realized just how insignificant my life is." She is resolved to live her life differently in future: "from now on, I'm going to cherish every moment of my life and the lives of those close to me."

33

In each case the shallow certainties with which the travellers approached the mountain have been destroyed; each traveller changes in some significant way as a result of the encounter with the mountain, but each change is quite different. As Scott put it in his evaluative report: "This was the sense that our group most wanted to convey: that Mont Blanc does possess a transformational power, but that it does not affect people in any objectively measurable fashion." The germ of this idea was gained while the students browsed the CD, as Markus's report describes:

The project entitled "Reading Mont Blanc" began as a faint wisp of an idea while Scott, Kalyn and I were browsing the hypertext in search of other topics. Happening upon the wonderful maps and illustrations of Wordsworth's travels through France and Switzerland, Scott remarked that perhaps we could make use of these in some manner. Then, as the various images of Mont Blanc passed before our eyes—some picturesque and others clearly sublime—we wondered if these could not somehow frame an exploration of how nature was conceived and presented by the various travel writers, 'grand tourists,' and (of course) poets of the Romantic era.

Markus goes on to report that they considered using a diagram of Mont Blanc for a poster presentation, or the use of pictures of the mountain, but deciding that these strategies would fall far short of conveying the scale of the mountain and its challenge to comprehension. "Thus we decided to climb into the skins of those who had beheld the 'monarch of mountains' and to speak, as it were, with their tongues."

34

In addition to reading the well-known poems on Mont Blanc, the students had also clearly benefited from the descriptions of other lesser known travellers from the Romantic period available on the CD, such as Thomas Martyn, John Moore, Henri de Saussure, and Mariana Starke, as well as finding further writing in the university library by later nineteenth and twentieth century travellers and mountain climbers. Kalyn in particular made a point of studying recent books about climbing Mont Blanc, and she concludes her report by mentioning that the project has "awakened a desire and interest in myself to rock climb," and that she hoped to enrol in the training in rock climbing offered at the university (not one of the predicted benefits of a course in Romanticism).

35

In conclusion, the hypertext for these students has provided a fruitful environment for reading and studying Romantic literature and the response to landscape. Their project provides an example (a particularly clear one) of the students' own voices in constructive response to what they found: their project is distinctive, thoughtful, engaged, and creative. They have read Wordsworth, Shelley, and other poets and travel writers on the CD attentively and questioningly; they are alert to differences in the historical dialogue about the meaning of the mountain. They provide multiple interpretations of the same scene, which makes dramatic use of the landscape and its impressive spatial qualities; at the same time their responses clearly transcend the "writing space" of the hypertext in order to enact a transforming experience. Their project in this way reflects the modifying power of literature which challenges the way we think and feel, discussed by Coleridge, Shelley, and other writers of the period in their theoretical accounts.

36

Whether the design of the Romanticism CD provides a model that will be useful for future products is too early to tell. It represents an alternative to the model of hypertext that recent theorists have been proposing, as I have tried to show, and one that appears to be productive for use in the literature classroom. It does so by respecting the distinction between reading literary texts and studying them, and by facilitating the realization of multiple perspectives through a more generous array of texts and graphics than would be feasible in any single print publication. Whatever the fate of the printed book, the literary tradition that it fostered seems alive and well in this new electronic form.


 

Notes

[*]

The photograph of "Vue de la Source de L'Arveron" by Carl Hackert is reproduced by kind permission of the Centre d'iconographie genevoise. Other photographs are by David S. Miall.

[1]

In an era of reduced costs more university administrators also seem likely to agree with Miller that "institutions of higher education should use new telecommunications and computer technologies to multiply the teaching power of faculty" (Margaret A. Miller, "Technoliteracy and the New Professor," New Literary History 26 [Summer 1995] 601). But several worrying controversies have now arisen over the expectation of university managers that faculty should invest their resources and intellectual property in computer-based teaching, producing what David F. Noble in a recent article has called "digital diploma mills". For Noble ("Digital Diploma Mills," First Monday 3:1 [1998] <http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue3_1/noble/index.html>) and other documents, see Palinurus, Leave Our Classrooms Alone: Faculty Against IT: http://humanitas.ucsb.edu/liu/palinurus/CONTROVERSIES-4-faculty.html.

[2]

George P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); hereafter abbreviated as Landow. Stuart Moulthrop and Nancy Kaplan, "They Became What They Beheld: The Futility of Resistance in the Space of Electronic Writing," in Literacy and Computers: The Complications of Teaching and Learning with Technology, ed. Cynthia L. Selfe and Susan Hilligoss (New York: Modern Language Association, 1994).

[3]

Andrew Dillon, "Myths, Misconceptions, and an Alternative Perspective on Information Usage and the Electronic Medium," in Hypertext and Cognition, ed. Jean-François Rouet, Jarmo J. Levonen, Andrew Dillon, and Rand J. Spiro (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996) pp. 25-42.

[4]

Paul Duguid, "Material Matters: The Past and Futurology of the Book," in The Future of the Book, ed. Geoffrey Nunberg (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996) pp. 63-101.

[5]

David Jay Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992) p. 130; here abbreviated as Bolter.

[6]

Stuart Moulthrop and Nancy Kaplan, "They Became What They Beheld," pp. 227, 222.

[7]

J. Hillis Miller, "The Ethics of Hypertext," Diacritics 25 (Fall 1995), 27-39.

[8]

L. M. Dryden, "Literature, Student-Centered Classrooms, and Hypermedia Environments," in Literacy and Computers: The Complications of Teaching and Learning with Technology, ed. Cynthia L. Selfe and Susan Hilligoss (New York: Modern Language Association, 1994) p. 285.

[9]

Stuart Moulthrop, "Traveling in the Breakdown Lane: A Principle of Resistance for Hypertext," Mosaic 28 (December 1995) 59.

[10]

Stuart Moulthrop, "Rhizome and Resistance: Hypertext and the Dreams of a New Culture," in Hyper / Text / Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994) p. 308.

[11]

Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975) pp. 5-6.

[12]

Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author." Image - Music - Text, ed. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana/Collins, 1977), pp. 146-7.

[13]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) vol. I, p. 107.

[14]

This is not a new claim: cf. Victor Nell's claim for "ludic" reading and his dismissal of "serious" literary reading in Lost in a Book (New Haven: Yale UP, 1988).

[15]

Stuart Moulthrop is one of a number of authors experimenting with hypertext fiction: for further information see the indispensable bibliography of Michael Shumate at http://www.duke.edu/~mshumate/theory.html. I offer a more extended discussion of the issues raised by Moulthrop and similar theorists in "The Hypertextual Moment" (English Studies in Canada, 24 [1998] 157-174) and "Trivializing or Liberating? The Limitations of Hypertext Theorizing" (Mosaic, 32 [1999]: 157-172. http://www.umanitoba.ca/publications/mosaic/miall1.htm ).

[16]

For further information on Romanticism: The CD-ROM see this document on my web site: http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/romcdinf.htm. The hypertext includes the complete text of Duncan Wu (Ed.), Romanticism: An Anthology (Blackwell, 1994). See also my essay "Electronic Romanticism: The CD," Romanticism on the Net 1 (February 1996) <http://www-sul.stanford.edu/mirrors/romnet/rom_cd.html>

[17]

A fuller account can be found in my essay, "The Alps Deferred: Wordsworth at the Simplon Pass," European Romantic Review 9 (1998) 87-102.

[18]

Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994) p. 99.

[19]

For some empirical examination of this issue, see David S. Miall and Don Kuiken, "Feeling and the three phases of literary response," in Empirical approaches to Literature: Proceedings of the Fourth Biannual Conference of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature—IGEL, Budapest, August 1994, ed. Gebhard Rusch (Siegen: Siegen University, LUMIS-Publications, 1995) pp. 282-290.

[20]

This is in line with arguments I presented for the responsible use of electronic tools in "Rethinking English Studies: the Role of the Computer," in Humanities and the Computer: New Directions, ed. David S. Miall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) pp. 49-59.

[21]

It could be argued that this privileges the canonical literary texts and marginalizes the other texts included on the CD. Although the quantity of non-canonical text on the CD more than doubles the amount of canonical text from the Wu Anthology, the maps and graphics focus in particular on the locations important to major writers such as Wordsworth. In this latter respect only the CD follows the practice in current anthologies of Romanticism which, while making space for much writing hitherto considered outside the canon, nevertheless continue to give the bulk of the space to the "big six" male poets traditionally considered to exemplify romantic writing. See Alan Richardson's recent survey of this question, "British Romanticism as a Cognitive Category," Romanticism On the Net 8 (November 1997) <http://www-sul.stanford.edu/mirrors/romnet/cognitive.html>.

[22]

"Thy caverns echoing to the Arve's commotion, " "Mont Blanc," l. 30.

[23]

These additional functions require installation of the run-time browser program on the reader's own computer to be genuinely useful. At the time of writing, the publisher is making the CD available only for institutional use such as a library or computer lab.

[24]

I am most grateful to these students for permission to reproduce their work in this paper. A complete transcript of their project and evaluative reports can be found on my web site at: http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/montblnc.htm. The course web site (on which this report is located) was used to enable students to communicate with other students through their projects and to continue a dialogue begun in the classroom. Other projects can be seen on this web site, as well as on the web page for a course on the Shelleys at http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/shell450.htm. For a more detailed discussion of the project approach, see my article "The Project Method in the Literature Classroom," in Reflective Activities: Helping Students Connect with Texts, ed. Louann Reid and Jeff Golub (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999) pp. 149-155.

[25]

The best known examples are: William Wordsworth: The Prelude (1805), VI, 452-68 ; P. B. Shelley's "Mont Blanc" (1816); Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Vol. II, Chapters I and II; and S. T. Coleridge, who although he never visited Chamonix, wrote "Chamouny; the Hour Before Sunrise. A Hymn" (1802). The Shelleys' History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817) is also a key document, containing P. B. Shelley's extended letter about the visit to Chamonix in July 1816 during which "Mont Blanc" was conceived.

Auteur : David S. Miall
Titre : The Resistance of Reading: Romantic Hypertexts and Pedagogy
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 16, novembre 1999
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005886ar
DOI : 10.7202/005886ar

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