Reweaving the Rainbow

Reweaving the Rainbow: Using Literature to Teach Critical Thinking

By Santi Tafarella
Spring 2013

Critical thinking—the attempt to arrive, as nearly and objectively as possible, at the truth of matters—might appear to have as little to do with literature as science does with religion. Procedures are different; concerns are different. But maybe such a dismissal is rash. I wish to argue that we, as English teachers, needn’t be ashamed to bring our love of literature to bear upon the subject of critical thinking. George Orwell certainly wasn’t (think Nineteen Eighty-Four). He’s a good model.

Orwell’s Nose and Oedipus’s Eyes

In 1946, Orwell wrote an essay for London’s Tribune titled, “In Front of Your Nose,” in which he lays out a theory for why critical thinking is so hard: “In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality” (1044). It’s a funny observation, and it rests on a powerful syllogism: our deepest hopes and fears lead our reason; they rarely match reality; therefore, our conclusions rarely match reality. In the same essay, Orwell also writes the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” (1043). In these two sentences, Orwell provocatively suggests that the difficult part of critical thinking is not the act of concentrated attention to a problem, but that of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. The struggle is to never look away; to face the truth without, Oedipus-like, plucking out one’s eyes.

And this is where literature’s power to inform critical thinking comes in, for what are Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Sophocles’s Oedipus the King but dramatizations of the agon of introspection and decision making in the presence of tumultuous desires and fears?
This is Hamlet’s Mind on God

Take, for instance, the ongoing post-9-11 debate between “new atheists” (Richard Dawkins, et. al.) and theists (William Lane Craig, et. al.) as to whether—as Christopher Hitchens so tartly put it—“Religion poisons everything” (13). How might literature inform this high-level exercise in critical thinking?

In an August 26, 2011 essay for the Guardian, Harvard English professor and literary critic for the New Yorker, James Wood, identifies four ways that literature complexifies the atheist-theist debate (and critical debate generally). As Wood sees it, literary writers tend to do the following: explore fluctuations in the human psyche; track messy admixtures of truth and error; imaginatively walk in the shoes of others; and follow characters in their struggles with unwanted situations, thoughts, and compulsions. And so, of the psyche’s fluctuations, Wood writes the following: “Part of the weakness of current theological warfare is that it is premised on stable, lifelong belief – each side congealed into its rival (but weirdly symmetrical) creeds. Likewise, in contemporary politics, the worst crime you can apparently commit is to change your mind. Yet people’s beliefs are often not stable, and are fluctuating.” And of life’s messy admixture of truth and error, Wood writes that “An essay or work of polemic finds it hard to describe the texture of such fluctuation, whereas the novelist understands that to tell a story is to novelise an idea, to dramatise it.”

In this manner, according to Wood, the literary writer keeps complication and imaginative sympathy for dilemma in play, understanding that life—wherever it is intelligent, interesting, and honest—must necessarily be subject to what Adrienne Miller and Andrew Goldblatt call the “Hamlet syndrome”—vacillations concerning whether to be or not to be; to think or not to think; to believe or not to believe; to do or not to do. As long as a complicated character lives, there is irony, including the irony of unwanted thoughts. These are among the things that literary writers notice. As Wood puts it, “Contemporary atheistic and theological polemic tends to assume that we all simply choose our beliefs—and can thus choose not to have any belief. That may be true of privileged intellectuals, but there are surely many millions who don’t feel they have the freedom to choose belief or unbelief; instead, their beliefs choose them.” In short, the idea that individuals are fully responsible for their choices becomes an excuse for substituting human complication and compassion with polemic and shame. The fiction writer taps the brake on these over-simplifying intellectual moves.

Solitude and Fog

Wood’s claim that critical thinking can be informed by insights from fiction is nicely illustrated by Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894). In Chopin’s story, the protagonist, Mrs. Mallard, having just been told that her husband has died in a train accident (or so she is told, but how does she know for sure?), flees from the news to an upstairs bedroom and locks herself in. There she settles into a big comfy chair and stares silently out an open window. Expecting grief to visit her, her solitude nevertheless delivers a surprise: “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air [from her open window]” (267). With effort, she stays in her solitude and doesn’t flee the room. As a result, she has an epiphany: “When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’ ”(268).

This taboo revelation illustrates the danger and the promise of solitude: you’ll get visitations at your inner window, but you can’t guarantee who (or what) will come in. And this, of course, is the first step in critical thinking: exposing yourself to inner and outer data. Solitude is one place where data can be absorbed—where you can think. It’s one reason Virginia Woolf famously wrote of the need for a room of one’s own.

Another critical thinking issue readily raised by Chopin’s story is that of rushing to judgment. The story begins with Richards, a friend of Mrs. Mallard, trying to think clearly and make difficult decisions in a stressful and fast evolving situation: “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (267). But this news is acquired hastily. How does Richards know it’s true? Here’s Chopin: “It was he [Richards] who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard’s name leading the list of ‘killed.’ He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message” (267). Three red flags leap out here: knowledge of Mrs. Mallard’s heart condition is placing stress on Richards’s thought; his critical thinking is under time pressure; and the evidence of Brently Mallard’s death is far from definitive. Still, Richards must make a decision on whether or not to act on his information. Talk of a recipe for trouble! And fiction writers (and readers) live for such recipes.

Here are some of the other ingredients that one tends to find baked into stories, and which can then be used to initiate class discussion on the ways in which thought is rendered difficult: the constraints of decorum on open discussion, lack of sleep, a tap on the shoulder, a knock on a door, envy, guilt, children crying in a kitchen, strong-willed influencers in a room (such as emotional blackmailers or authority figures), pessimism, optimism, electronic devices, becoming conscious of the eyes of a stranger on one’s body. Fiction writers are in the habit of noticing such things, and how they intersect with a character’s thoughts.

In Chopin’s story, there’s also the issue of Richards’s inductive failure: in his haste to be the first to reach Mrs. Mallard with the news of her husband’s death, we learn later in the story that he, in fact, drew a wrong conclusion based on insufficient and faulty evidence. Her husband was not killed in the train wreck after all. He was not even on the train (268). Such is the fog of situations. Toward the opening of Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, another vivid example of life’s fog is on display: “When leaving his surgery on the morning of April 16, Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment he kicked it to one side and, without giving it a further thought, continued on his way downstairs” (7). Given the title of Camus’s book, we know as readers that this is ominous, but the protagonist—Dr. Rieux—does not. Is his induction reasonable? Yes. Most of the time, a dead rat is just a dead rat, and can be brushed aside. But sometimes it portends a plague. It’s only ominous in obituary—in the narrator’s backward glance. But how does a critical thinker proceed in the presence of such uncertainties? These are certainly open questions that can be discussed in classes, and that fiction can inform.

The Metaphors We Carry

In addition to fiction and drama, poetry is also useful for reflecting on critical thinking with students. Shelley, after all, famously described poets as “the unacknowledged Legislators of the world” (613). One way to interpret this is that Shelley was suffering from ego-inflation: poets actually have little impact on how the world goes. But if you define a poet as one with a gift for metaphorical framing, then Shelley’s claim is more than plausible, for metaphor is dramatically intrusive on all areas of human life—including our attempts to think critically.

Take Iran, for example. Is Iran Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union? Or is it something else? It’s hard to think of a contemporary foreign policy topic more important to reason clearly about than Iran. But, when we attempt to do so, we’re plunged immediately into a realm associated with poetry—associative thinking. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, for example, frames Iran as Nazi Germany with nuclear ambitions. Here’s Haaretz from 2008: “Netanyahu said Iran differed from the Nazis in one vital respect, explaining that ‘where that [Nazi] regime embarked on a global conflict before it developed nuclear weapons,’ he said, ‘this regime [Iran] is developing nuclear weapons before it embarks on a global conflict’” (“Report: Netanyahu Says”). And below is Eric Edelman et al., writing at the Foreign Affairs website in November 2011, thinking about Iran in a Cold War frame. Iran is compared to the Soviet Union, but with ambitions that are not containable:

During the Cold War, of course, the United States managed to prevent nuclear use and discourage proliferation by containing the Soviet Union and providing security commitments to U.S. allies. According to the conventional wisdom, a similar approach would work in the Middle East today. Yet there are a number of important differences between the two cases, the biggest being that the United States had formal security commitments with partners across Europe and Asia and deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to their territories.

We might also think of the American standoff with Iran from the vantage of a different Cold War frame: the Cuban missile crisis. Is Iran Cuba? Yet another way to metaphorically frame Iran is to think of it as the United States in the 18th century seeking to secure and protect its revolution and sovereignty against an imperial power (that would be us).

So how might we decide? Like Alice in Wonderland, we’re all groping for some familiar ground on which to reason about Iran. And, depending on our framing metaphor concerning it, other metaphors, like rabbits, multiply. If you take Iran to be Nazi Germany, for example, Bibi Netanyahu is suddenly Winston Churchill, Barack Obama is Neville Chamberlain, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Hitler. If you take Iran to be Cuba in 1962, Bibi Netanyahu is akin to the hotheaded American General Curtis LeMay, Barack Obama is JFK, and Ahmadinejad is Castro. If you take Iran to be America in the 18th century, then you might try to liken Ahmadinejad to Thomas Jefferson.

Change your metaphor, change your mind. Maybe Shelley is right. If you’ve got the poet’s gift for synthetic associations, you’re valuable or dangerous to the State, mapping out the grooves by which thoughts travel, thereby “legislating” them. Metaphors are groovy. Or, to switch the metaphor again, if thinking is akin to seeing, then you can’t think what you don’t frame.

Keats’s Rainbow and a Subaltern Horror

Literature can also deepen reflection on the tensions between imaginative synthesis and empirical analysis, as in these lines from John Keats’s Lamia:

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-personed Lamia melt into a shade. (231-38)

Keats’s lines raise interesting questions for classroom discussion: Are the insights that Keats achieves through his poetry knowledge? Or are they just imaginative interpretations swirling around empirical facts (rainbows, Grecian urns, nightingales)? Why do we call the discoveries and theories of scientists knowledge, but not the discoveries and syntheses of poets? And does empiricism, in ultimately reducing phenomena to atoms and void, narrow and deaden interpretation (as Keats seems to suggest above), or does it blow interpretation open?

On that last question, Jorge Luis Borges had an opinion. He thought a universe of atoms and void—being indefinite—blew interpretation infinitely open, making all things possible and thinkable. But he took this to be a nightmare subversive of reason. If atoms, after all, can infinitely arrange themselves to no purpose, then why can’t words? Likening infinite atoms to infinite letters and punctuation, arranging and rearranging, is the premise behind his Kafkaesque short story, “The Library of Babel” (1941), which begins with this sentence: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries” (112). And of his idea for a comprehensive library where every combination of letters and punctuation is realized in an indefinite series of books, Borges writes, in his 1939 essay, “The Total Library,” the following:

One of the habits of the mind is the invention of horrible imaginings. The mind has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, abnormal transformite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratalogical Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, articulated into a single organism. . . . I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wilderness of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god. (216)

If Borges has correctly diagnosed our existential situation, how does one cope with being condemned to this hell-realm—this Library? The cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek, in his essay, “Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing” (1994), identifies one strategy: substitution. He suggests that the logical possibilities for literature and interpretation, being infinite, expose in us a perversity: like Oedipus, we find we don’t really want the truth; instead, we prefer to chase objects that stand in for the truth—so long as we don’t actually catch them! Discussing psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Zizek writes the following: “What Lacan means by sublimation, . . . is shifting the libido from the void of the ‘unserviceable’ Thing to some concrete, material object of need that assumes a sublime quality the moment it occupies the place of the Thing” (2414). Zizek then applies this principle to the literature of courtly love, in which the Lady stands in for the truth (that is, what Lacan calls “the Real” or “the Thing”):

What the paradox of the Lady in courtly love ultimately amounts to is thus the paradox of the detour: our ‘official’ desire is that we want to sleep with the Lady; whereas in truth, there is nothing we fear more than a Lady who might generously yield to this wish of ours—what we truly expect and want from the Lady is simply yet another new ordeal, yet one more postponement. (2414)

This certainly renders problematic the idea that, when we attempt to think critically, we really want to get at the objective truth of a matter (“the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”). Were Christopher Hitchens still alive and reading the above quotes from Borges and Zizek, maybe he wouldn’t say, “Religion poisons everything,” but rather, “Literature poisons everything.” And maybe that’s the point.

Santi Tafarella teaches English at Antelope Valley College and can be reached by email at or He blogs at Prometheus Unbound and is writing a textbook for humanities courses with the working title Ask an Interesting Question, Get an Interesting Answer.

Works Cited

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