Authenticity is Everything: Poul Houe Discusses Two Fairy Tales for our Modern World
This academic year, Professor Poul Houe retires after 39 years of teaching Scandinavian literature and culture at the University of Minnesota.
“In the beginning, I actually studied mathematics,” he says. “However, I found myself spending more and more time reading fiction and literature, compelled by the totality and complexity of language.”
Houe has been a leader in Scandinavian studies at UMN since coming here in December 1978. While most of his research and courses have focused on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and culture, he has also taught freshman seminars, humanities courses, and major project seminars. “Overall, it has been a very diverse teaching career,” says Houe.
Fairy Tales for a Modern World
Houe has ensured that his students learn the importance of developing a broad cultural understanding. One way that he demonstrates that concept is through fairy tales, and he points to two stories by Hans Christian Andersen as examples.
"The Shadow" focuses on a learned man who is on vacation. While resting on a sunny balcony, his body casts a shadow near a door. He can hear music coming from the doorway, but because he is comfortable where he is, he sends his shadow to go and investigate the situation on his behalf. The shadow returns to say that the music is poetry itself. Eventually, the shadow uses its insight to bargain and trade positions with the man, thus becoming the story’s primary character—while the learned man becomes a shadow.
"Aunty Toothache" tells of a young man whose aunt tells him that he is a fantastic poet. He doesn't really believe her, but sometimes he gives in to the idea and tries his hand at writing verse. However, he learns that the way he has been writing poetry is of little substance, like sugar; it may taste good at first, but is harmful in the future.
“Both stories bring home the point that the humanities and language studies are not here to protect us from toothaches and shadows of this world, but rather to take ownership of toothaches and shadows, [and] not let us get a free ride, but to be called to task for our authenticity,” says Houe. “If we think that we can just sit in our comfortable, safe position and send an ambassador to do the job for us, then we are ill-advised.”
The Need for Humanities
It is undeniable that we face a cultural discourse that has become increasingly polarized. However, as Houe observes, the language and humanities disciplines have an outstanding tradition of facilitating these tough conversations, and they are well-positioned to be an important resource for the culture as a whole.
“The humanities are still a perfect place to negotiate where the progressive train leaves the station and what shadowy wagons it drags behind it,” says Houe. “Although people prefer to see what they prefer to see, we can still serve as a public good by calling attention to those less-visible, shedding light on things that may taste sugary at first but may be bad for you in the future.”
Houe adds that “disrupting our comfort zone, and making us comfortable with leaving our comfort zone, also plays an important role in the cultural discourse that we are a part of today. Language and humanities courses can make it easier for us to talk from different angles about the same things.”
Ironically, becoming well-versed in other languages and ways of thinking could allow us to delegate our authenticity, like the learned man or the young poet. However, we would do so at our own peril. “Talking about the beautiful and having the ‘right ideas,’ if you don’t articulate them with authenticity, will cast a shadow and they will undermine your credibility,” says Houe. “Our ideas must be founded in credibility and substance; they must be something we can vouch for.”
In the end, Houe stresses the importance of the fact that the shadow side and the learned man need each other. “The humanities and language [studies] are having the full picture, both the visible and the invisible. We need the conflicted full picture.”