Me and Job

One of the great ironies of my life is that one of the few things I am proficient at--teaching--(and could actually get paid to do) puts me in an environment to which I am viscerally at odds.

It is easy to blame this on professors or liberalism but while I'm far from fond of certain deconstructionalist attitudes (and consider Marxist theory a ready-to-go, moral outrage included, cookie cutter formula which gives the proponent intellectual kudos without actually being intellectually satisying), I cannot blame the Establishment entirely.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I never took High School particularly seriously. And if you had asked me, at the age of 18, if I planned on taking college seriously, I would have rolled my eyes and said, "Nooo" in the particularly disparging tone used by 18 year olds when they want to appear cynical.

Despite my surface cynicism, however, I found college a shock. I had to face the fact that not all people who go into the humanities, love to read. I don't mean that they despise books or that they never read or that they don't take the subject of literature to heart. I mean . . . they don't love to read, they don't read all the time, they don't take books with them on car rides, they don't haul thirty books home from the library just for the fun of having a selection.

Okay, I don't know very many people outside my family who do the last. The problem here is that if I continue to rhapsodize about reading I'll end up sounding either like a pretentious intellectual fart or one of those pro-reading posters in the library. The love of reading is rather like Tom Wolfe's description of the right stuff (from The Right Stuff): you know it's there but try to explain it, and it will just sound trite.

Suffice it to say that I have found myself at odds with academic institutions ever since.

As anyone who has attended book clubs knows, it is very difficult to talk about books unless you read a lot of books and unless you enjoy talking about books in the same way that people enjoying talking about tennis. Or chess. Or the weather. Just for its own sake.

Since finding people who will talk about books in this way is about as difficult as finding people who will talk exclusively about chess, most book clubs end up being learning experience seminars. This is why Oprah (wisely) always chooses books about people who have DIFFICULT LIVES and TRIALS that they OVERCOME. Ask a crowd of people, "So, do you think Elizabeth is attracted to Darcy before she visits Pemberley?" and you'll get a few half-hearted answers. Ask, "Have you ever felt like the mother in this novel whose five children died but who still managed to make a new life for herself with her one arm and an alcoholic husband?" and watch the floodgates open.

(On the other hand, it isn't difficult at all to get people to talk about the weather--I think sci-fi movies get it wrong here; when aliens meet, the common denominator isn't math or colors or whatever wacky thing Spielberg thought of today; it's the weather. "How's the weather?" Earthman says to Vulcan. "Dry and windy," says the Vulcan. "And you?")

In college, the learning experience seminar takes a twist. Learning experiences are a little too mass culturish for academe. The solution is not to ask personal Oprahish questions: "How does this make you FEEL?" but to ask instead, "What is the author really trying to say?" followed by "What construction/theory/political mindset does the author support?" and later, "How do you position yourself on the spectrum of theories about what this author supports?"

My undergrad experience focused mostly on the first question "What is the author really trying to say?" but I foresaw and resented the implications (i.e. the latter two questions) contained within that first question.

The best way to explain this resentment (which was entirely visceral, not intellectual, which is why it took me ten years and entrée into another academic environment to figure it out) is to use an image from a book. In The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, there's a short passage in which the narrator describes the library at the monastery: inside the library, books converse with each other, conversations that have carried down through the ages as every book is written in response to the books written before.

This is entirely in line with the view of history (written history) as a series of narrative contructs but where I differ from my professors is that I want to listen to the conversations without interference. With a guide perhaps. A discerning listener. But not a spy or an insurrectionist whose aim is to dismantle the library, thumb the books for hidden maps and tap the wainscotting for secret passages. I have no desire to consign some books to the dump heap and others to the "Approved" section (for later review). And I especially don't want to get pissed about it. Actually, obviously, I am pissed about it. It might be better to say, I don't want to get competitive over it.

Because colleges are immensely competitive. One must position oneself for or against everything. Forget Eco's conversing books. Forget Tolkien's evocation of ancient myths or C.S. Lewis' rather curmudgeonly insistence that the Middle Ages had it right. This isn't about the books. It's about what a bunch of people say about the books. It's as if someone kicked you out of the library, and you had to go sit in the foyer with conspiracists who insist--insist!--that they understand everything there is to know about the library. It's like going to a restaurant and having to listen to the food critic instead of tasting the menu. It's like hanging out with Job's friends instead of Job.

And it all seems to stem from fear. The books might be lying. Job could be lying. He's a bitter guy, after all. You might end up *gasp* believing the books, "taken in" by them. Positioning oneself keeps the dangerous books at bay, replaces literary and historical knowledge with theories of theories of theories. You stand at the cocktail party of the mind and discuss food with people who claim they've been to the buffet table or at least know someone who has. If you're lucky, you'll get an appetizer.

And eventually, simply to sustain the party atmosphere, you adopt the language of the people around you. The food (or to return to my earlier image, the library) exists simply as an excuse for small talk which, in this case, consists of philosophical bludgeoning. Literature has become a utilitarian object. One of the second great ironies of my life is that I am being taught English and History by people who sneer at the commodification of goods and yet have turned the things that I love into commodities.

I know the answer to my objections, so I will make it here. The answer is that authors, when they write, are always writing within a historical context and often (usually) are writing out of a literary tradition or a political/religious/national construct. Which is one reason I like history and even the history of literature or the history of a genre (like Mystery). After all, you might as well know how the library was built and who built it and when and how many floors it has. You might as well meet the cook.

But commodification of literature (and history) doesn't let you get even that close. Remember, books are dangerous stuff. Learning becomes less and less about about access--a pathway to understanding and loving a book/history more than you already do--and more and more about safety: creating a language that keeps the book carefully distant, wrapped up, explained, unable to break out and stun people with its scary call for admirers. It's okay to discuss Taming of the Shrew; it's not okay to love it, to admire its god-almighty beautiful verse, to cheer at the final scene for its pure artistic power, not matter how misogynistic. It's okay to admire the lion, just don't invite him in.

Which brings us to Job's friends who go on and on and on and on about the nature of God and miss (as Job never does) that life would be a whole lot more interesting if God just showed up. Which He does. But you get the impression that the friends weren't too thrilled. They weren't arguing about the nature of God because they wanted to love God, they were arguing about the nature of God because they liked arguing about the nature of God.

And I will say this--in a grubby, navel-staring, Kerry universe kind of way, this incessant arguing over the meaning of things can be enjoyable. I do it myself. But I never confuse the discussion about the book with the book itself.

Or maybe I do, but I don't ask other people to pay for it.

(This post contains some repetition from earlier posts. I'm using the blog posts to (slowly) formulate my problem with the current academic approach to the humanities. I might even write a book someday, if didn't suspect that it would run counter to my argument.)

CATEGORY: HISTORY & LEARNING

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2/18/2005

    Joe wrote:

    The problem with teaching liberal arts is that it is based on an entirely phony premise; that art, or even craft, is an intellectual process. The notion that, above all, art must entertain, in the broadest definition of the word, is anathema to the pseudo intellectuals that make up the bulk of liberal arts departments.

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