In Defense of Difficulty

By Adam Reece

Steve Wasserman ends his editorial In Defense of Difficulty not with a judgment but with an appeal: “more than ever,” he says, “we need a defense of the Eros of difficulty.” Isolated from the whole of his argument, it may seem a contradictory phrase; difficulty is generally thought of as unpleasant; to desire it is to be deviant. But difficulty does not have to be so, perhaps we can learn to love the chase that difficulty promises.

Ending her own discussion of Eros, Anne Carson, speaking of Socrates, says: “It is a high-risk proposition… to reach for the difference between known and unknown. He thought the risk worthwhile, because he was in love with the wooing itself. And who is not?” In my experience, Carson is right. As an English major, much of my time is spent writing essays—trying to grasp truths that are always just escaping me. It can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening when you are stuck on a sentence, a paragraph, or an idea. But writing can also be incredibly rewarding. At times, you experience effervescent moments of revelation that assure you that your work is not in vain. Writing is an attempt to take the reader on the same journey you have just taken—a journey towards an idea and, perhaps, beyond.

It is not easy though, and the value of such work is not always intuitively obvious. In his recent book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria delineates the value of the liberal arts. In an increasingly technological work environment, he argues, the liberal arts skills of critical thinking, creativity, and innovation are crucial to remaining relevant. I think he is right, but it pains me that such a defense is necessary. Shouldn’t our work speak for itself?

With the advent of theory (which I admit has its uses) and the influx of inaccessible journals and university presses, we have moved farther and farther away from the common reader—into the realm of jargon and cultural buzzwords. Perhaps our work might be taken more seriously if we considered a broader audience. Reflecting on his own career, William H. Pritchard notes that as he began to take more seriously his job as reviewer, the gap between him and his academic colleagues widened. He began to emphasize informality both in his own work and that of his students. A risky venture, he admits, but “the risk seemed worth taking.” This style placed “a high premium on literary performance as something to admire both in works of art and in the critic’s sentences about those works.” In other words, it respected the demands of art as well as those of the reader.

Even my fellow classmates have difficulty working from the text outward. It’s as if the primary text cannot say anything on its own or, at the very least, nothing we can understand. One day, due to unfortunate circumstances, my class met without our teacher. Forced to discuss on our own, everyone seemed lost. “I wish we had the theory we were supposed to read” or “I wish the professor was here to give us historical perspective,” a couple people complained. No one seemed able to go to the primary source for ideas. No one seemed versed in close reading. When did we stop beginning with the primary text first and foremost?

Like Pritchard, I still believe in “the romance of texts, or rather books; the belief that they can speak for themselves in such a way as to lift us into a new, absorbing world. And it’s that new world that is of supreme importance as a promise of happiness.” I would take a step further though, and say that the desired world also promises an exciting kind of learning—of reaching out for what lies beyond the known, of what is there on the page calling forth an unknown that we can sense, just barely, on our perceptual horizons. And, perhaps, by writing, we can grasp it.

But that grasp requires more than just passing interest. Tim Cassedy reminds us that while “texts are about communication,” they “are also about ambiguity and the unknowable,” and, as much as texts are “for drawing conclusions and making arguments, they are also for hazarding guesses, telling stories, peering into possibilities, playing with what might be.”  I’m partial to the idea of possibility. It bothers me when people present a single reading as an absolute truth, bending the primary source to match an interpretation that they are inclined to (either willfully or under the power of self-hypnosis). I’m also partial to the idea of play that Cassedy leaves us with. Our work, as readers and writers, might be difficult, but it does not always feel difficult. Perhaps we should call not for an Eros of difficulty but for an Eros of possibility. That might mean putting aside our preconceptions and our theories, putting aside the narratives we are predisposed to telling, and letting the voice of the text merge with our own voices. As these disparate voices coalesce, new ideas might emerge. The possibilities are there if we know how to reach out for them… All we need to know is how to read and, when an idea ignites our minds, the writing will follow.

Adam Reece is a junior at Hendrix College majoring in English Literary Studies. Hendrix College is home to the Beta of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.