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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Who Spoiled The Humanities?

I was an English major in college, and according to Lee Siegel, writing in The Wall Street Journal (7.13.13) I was one of 14 percent of my Yale Class (1964) who did.  Now the percentage is down to 7 percent and falling.  Siegel says that he is a lover and student of literature, but that his passion was consummated not in the classroom but in the real world.  Academics almost ruined literature for him, and he feels lucky that he survived.

In the current alarming view, large numbers of people are devoting four years mostly to studying novels, poems, and plays are all that stand between us and sociocultural nightfall.

We are told that the lack of a formal education, mostly in literature, leads to numerous pernicious personal conditions, such as the inability to think critically, to write clearly, to empathize with other people, to be curious about other people and places, to engage with great literature after graduation, to recognize truth, beauty, and goodness.

These solemn anxieties are grand, lofty…[and] admirably virtuous.  They are also a sentimental fantasy.

In other words, good riddance to the likes of Harold Bloom of the Age of New Criticism or Stanley Fish of  the Post-Modernist era; and if I can read between the lines, over the side with all feminist, gay, Marxist, nitpicking, get-a-life dweebs who deconstruct every line of Shakespeare to find some hidden, maliciously anti-progressive sentiment. Siegel illustrates the dark maze in which today’s literature majors are caught:

Compare Homer’s prolepsis to Shakespeare’s ghosts and to Dante’s premonitions, then contrast these with Ibsen’s reversals, Chekhov’s irresolution, and Kafka’s absurdity, in the light of omniscient narrators in Jane Austen, narrative delay in Henry James, and free indirect speech in Joyce.

I suffered through my English major at Yale, probably because I didn’t want to be there in the first place; and because I had no particular or compelling academic or intellectual interest, English was mon refuge.  “You will always have to read and write, no matter what career you choose”, said the Dean, “So take English”.  I cut most of my courses, hated Harold Bloom for sucking the very juices out of Romantic Poetry and making each poem a tangled affair of Biblical and philosophical and philological references and each phrase a nightmare of disambiguation and deconstruction.  I hated it. Who on earth would ever willingly trudge through 10,000 lines of Paradise Lost? It was like being stretched on the rack:

 

Every class was a thudding bore. It got so bad that we students rigged up a lottery.  The winner would be the one who could correctly predict when the first reference to Christ imagery would come. Some of us got to be pretty good and were able to suss out the habits and timing of each professor.  Most of us ended up with Gentlemen’s C’s.

Siegel writes that he was a Natural.  He read great books long before he got to college, and was already experiencing the joys and epiphanies of literature on his own.  The perversely academic courses of higher education almost snuffed out the spirit he had so nurtured in his younger years.

Novels, poems, and plays that had been fonts of empathy and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.

In contrast to subjects like math or engineering, the humanities need no such specialization, Siegel writes.  “Literature only requires that you be human.” Critical exegesis was an academic construct meant for professors without a life and desperate to publish before perishing.  Unless they were turgid, impossibly abstruse, and at times incomprehensible, they would never make it up the ladder, and we students were simply collateral damage.

To make matters worse, students of literature have had to wade through equally turgid and incomprehensible texts – who ever read Ulysses all the way through?  There are some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets that make no sense whatsoever.  When academic counselors advised us to study literature because it would make us think and write clearly, they were just feeding us a line of hokum.  If the authors themselves wrote in a tangle, how could we expect to do any better?

Here is where I part company with Siegel.  Although I suffered like he did, my academic instruction was not lost on me.  The lessons I learned from Alvin Kernan, Maynard Mack, and especially Harold Bloom went into some deep repository only to be pulled out decades later. It took me 40 years to realize that it wasn’t academic to parse every line of Paradise Lost for Biblical meaning, historical references, and philosophical insights.  Milton wrote that way. There is no way to flip through his epic poem with a bag of popcorn and American Idol on TV.  It take work, and that work is rewarded.

The same is true of William Blake.  Every line of the elegant The Tiger has multiple layers of meaning.  It is not a nursery rhyme, but a profound meditation on life and mortality:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Shakespeare’s verse is complex, allusive, metaphorical, and a linguistic tour de force.  It, too, cannot be read with the television on.  I have read each of his 37 plays many times, and each time I discover some new shading, reference, and insight.  It is not necessary to have a book of textual references when reading Shakespeare, but it helps – not as a ‘trot’, a quick and easy way to figure out what he is saying, but as a guide to his mind and his times.

Books like Absalom, Absalom by Faulkner are not the referential works of Shakespeare or Blake, but they require patience and diligence.  In one page Faulkner can sum up the antebellum experience of the South.  It wasn’t just history, but a saga of racial intercourse, family struggles, paternity, and destiny.  You have to work a bit to get at it all.

Siegel unfortunately has – by his own admission – the literary appreciation of an adolescent. I was not unlike him in my first class with Bloom on Romantic poetry.  I wanted Wordsworth to stay simple, elegiac, and full of passion and humanity as he crossed Mont Blanc.  I didn’t want Bloom to go meddling, deconstructing, and squeezing the life out of the poetry.

I learned much later, however, that Bloom and his Yale colleagues were right, and I was just a young neophyte.  There was more to this thing called poetry than meets the eye.

In the rather myopic (that is being generous) view of Siegel, no academic analysis or criticism can do anything but degrade and destroy literature:

Literary art’s sudden, startling truth and beauty make us feel…that we are not alone, and there are meanings that cannot be bought, sold, or traded; that do not decay and die. This…experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, a grade, or an academic rank on that…

Siegel is somewhat of a mystic – there is something so transcendent about the texts of the great works of literature that one only has to be exposed to them to see their beauty and wisdom.  This may be true of Hemingway (who, by the way, was never taught at Yale because “You will read him anyway, at your leisure”), but not more serious authors.

Siegel goes on to say that we can assimilate The Odyssey, and there is no need to understand its mythic context.  The same with that most academic of American classics, Moby Dick. It’s a story about a whale hunt and a batty captain, after all. What’s the big deal?.

I, like Siegel, suffered through more academically-taught literature courses than I care to remember, and looked forward to the day when I could walk out of class and start living.

I have lived for many years since leaving those ivied walls, and never more than now have I appreciated what Bloom and his colleagues were trying to do.  They were trying to teach and get us to learn.  They were trying – without much luck – to get adolescents to peel back the surface layers of art and to see the depth of the artist behind.  Better late than never, however, and I owe a big vote of thanks to Harold Bloom.

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