“—My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”— Joseph Conrad
Additional Faculty Information for Dwight Lindley
Ph.D. in Literature, Institute of Philosophic Studies, University of Dallas
M.A. in Literature, University of Dallas
B.A. in English and History, Hillsdale College
North American Victorian Studies Association
Newman Association of America
Conference on Christianity and Literature
Midwest Victorian Studies Association
Works in Progress
Probability and Practical Reasoning in Nineteenth-Century Literature: Austen, Newman, and Eliot
Taking Literature Personally: The Place of Poetry in Human Life
“Woolf and Hopkins on the Revelatory Particular,” in Religion, Secularism, and the Spiritual Paths of Virginia Woolf, ed. Kristina K. Groover (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, December 2019), 87-107.
“Gift and Mediation at the Heart of Poetry,” Communio: International Catholic Review (Fall 2018).
“A Likely Story: Character and Probability in Jane Austen and John Henry Newman,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 49.2 (Fall 2016) 101-124.
“The Way George Eliot Read Paradise Lost,” Christianity and Literature 62.3 (Spring 2013) 355-67.
“Newman’s Romantic Meta-Rhetoric in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent,” Renascence 61.1 (2008).
When I teach, I am trying to get my students to think about a subject causally. That is to say, I am trying to get them always to think about why a phenomenon, a person, a text, is the way it is. The first step is to realize that we are always already doing this, to one degree or another. As soon as a new person walks into the room, we make small judgments about that person: she looks different from what I expected; she is in a hurry; she has probably been hurrying from her previous class; she is stressed because it’s that time of the semester. These kinds of micro-conclusions, about other people, about the outside world, about ourselves, populate our waking hours, and often run just above the surface of our consciousness. In my experience, good or clear thinking is often simply trying to make these judgments more explicitly and carefully, and that is a big part of what I try to model and teach in class.
In particular, I teach careful causal thinking about literature: novels, plays, lyrics, epics. As soon as we begin reading something, we begin to make judgments, just as we do with other people: we start to try to understand the work before us, to see into its mode of life. But how do we do that? We are struck by the form—the moving, energetic design of the work—and begin trying to explain it in terms of its parts. Why did the author do it this way? What was his goal in setting up the experience as he did? How does it all fit together? To ask those questions is to think causally about the work, and, as Aristotle said, “we do not think we know a thing until we have taken hold of its causes”—the why of its existence (Physics 194b19-20). In my literature classes, therefore, we work systematically at explaining literary art in terms of its shape, its parts, its authors, and its purpose(s): its formal, material, efficient, and final causes.
While this may sound rather rarified, in class and in writing assignments, it has turned out to be quite helpful and concrete. If we are looking at a section of Book One of Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, my first question is usually about the general form: after reading a number of lines aloud, we try to put into words what the experience of the work of art was like—its overall rhythm, speed, emotional quality; the kinds of images or associations it produces; the main focus or point it revolves around. From there, we begin to think of the material causes: how was that form created? How did Milton manage to pull off a feeling of stateliness combined with great speed? What words or sounds produced the sense of emotional, moral urgency? What metaphors or allusions led us to think of Homer at the beginning, then Dante later on? What light did those connections shed on the passage? At this point, once the relation between form and matter is standing out nicely, we can begin to think about Milton’s intentions: about what he was trying to accomplish by making the scene this way, rather than any other way. In other words, we are ready to think about the efficient and final causes: what does he get out of doing it the way he did, fitting these particular parts together into just such a whole? At that point, we are bringing our reading of the section to a close, and making a causal judgment (or two, or three) about how and why Milton fit the parts together into the whole.
In my experience, this is a clear, challenging, but illuminating way of thinking about literature, but also about life. Literature, after all, is an imitation of life, so it makes sense that our way of thinking about each would be related. It is my hope that the teaching I do here will inform not just my students’ subsequent reading of texts, but their thought about the most important things in life itself.