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Snakes In The Grass
July/August 2015

"Apollo and Daphne", c.1775, by Antonio del Pollaiolo

I once met someone who had a phobia of snakes. He faced a daily battle with it, despite the fact that he lived in Milton Keynes — never renowned for its snake population. While he knew deep down that he was more likely to see a concrete cow than anything reptilian when he left his house each morning, the same was not necessarily true of when he reached the library.

Snakes, he told me, turn up in the unlikeliest books — dystopian novels, biographies, exotic cookbooks. However prepared he thought he was, the word “snake” would jump off pages at him, triggering the same pulse-racing fear he would have felt had a real snake slithered out of the book’s spine, like a suitably vertebrate bookmark.

I was thinking about Snake Man (I forget his real name) when I saw a recent inflammatory op-ed in the Columbia University student newspaper. Four female undergraduates consider the ways in which texts and other material studied in literature classes make some students uncomfortable.

They put forward a case for “trigger warnings” — advance alerts to potentially “offensive” material such as rape scenes or racial violence (the term has been hanging around US campuses for more than a year now), and caution against marginalisation. They write:

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a fixture of Lit Hum [Literature Humanities], but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

Sadly, these ill-conceived views are not confined to Columbia. Although trigger warnings are yet to catch on in the UK, students at a number of US universities, including Santa Barbara in California and the University of Michigan, have also requested them. Some professors are already supplying trigger warnings for their courses.

It makes you wonder how students sensitive enough to require a trigger warning would cope with reading the warning itself, where there is little to soften the impact of the description of the very thing they’re trying to avoid. This is prime territory, after all, for encountering a “snake” in the grass.

Beyond that, however, and more disconcerting, is the emphasis here on the offensiveness of the “Western canon”. The term crops up three times in the Columbia Spectator article, a piece of writing no longer than this page, alongside other references to “Western society” and the “Western world”. For this isn’t just about student welfare. What begins as a cry for sensitivity in teaching difficult topics descends quickly into what is in fact a complaint about the dominance of Western thought. Trigger warnings are here revealed for what they really are: tools not merely for censoring febrile material for the few, but for redressing the balance of canonical literature.

Students are kicking back against what they perceive as “a set of universal, venerated, incontestable principles and texts that have founded Western society”. These are texts, they seem to say, which cannot speak to them, at least not without causing offence in the process. What is wanted is something to counterbalance the weight of tradition.  

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the founding texts of Western literature, is an easy target. One student, they report, a survivor of sexual assault, felt “triggered” when studying Ovid’s descriptions of Daphne and Persephone, who are abducted by the gods Apollo and Hades respectively. In the case of the former, Apollo, stung by Cupid’s arrow, pursues the young Daphne because he wants to marry her. As she flees he prays she will not trip and harm herself. He is inspired by divine Love to grab her, but as he does so she changes into a laurel tree. Apollo ravages the tree.

Leaving aside the point that many Western texts have Indo-European roots, the kind of culturally and socially representative approach to literature that the Columbia students seem to desire could never address the problem of sensitivity. It’s not as though rape, war, and racism are any less endemic to life than they are to world literature. The canonical 18th-century Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, contains scenes of pillage. There are violent episodes in Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic not unlike Homer’s Odyssey. It is impossible to create a blanket warning to protect against every anxiety. Not that the problem lies with literature, or even, as the Columbia students seem to believe, with the methods of teaching it. It lies, rather, with the readiness with which some of these young people are imposing themselves upon the material they are given to study.

It is one of the great joys of reading to imagine yourself in another person’s shoes, but when doing so triggers intrusive thoughts the book needs to be read in a different way, rather than not read at all.

Snake Man required hypnosis and cognitive behavioural therapy to recover from his phobia. As part of his therapy, he was encouraged to confront his fear, which entailed reading about snakes and eventually touching one at a children’s petting zoo.

While the same approach would not work for all anxieties, there is something to be said for reading as a means of desensitisation. Given time, studying Ovid’s rape scenes in the context of a mythical world populated by gods and hybrid creatures could have a distancing rather than a triggering effect. What this wouldn’t do, however, is diminish the more damaging idea that rumbles beneath some requests for trigger warnings — the idea that it’s the Western canon, rather than its readers, that is out of touch.

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