Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

In my previous post, The English major makes sense, I was silent about one of the points I tried to bring out this semester, for fear of seeming to contradict myself. But I've changed my mind and resolved to make the point as best I can, because that post, if left to stand by itself, is really misleading. In addition, to overlook this point is to overlook an important reason that the English major is valuable — indeed, invaluable.

This point is that much of our vocabulary for examining "literature" and other aspects of "culture" is also, and inevitably, necessary for understanding everything about our lives that isn't strictly a matter of biological necessity. If, as we saw Barbara Hardy and Alasdair MacIntyre maintain, we actually experience our lives as narratives; if symbol and metaphor pervade our ordinary speech and structure our cognition; if, as Alva Noë argues, to be alive and aware is to have a world "show up" for you that is meaningful only because of stories, symbols, metaphors, and other kinds of "background" knowledge you've been acquiring since you first became conscious; then no bright line can be drawn between the "works" or "texts" on a syllabus like ours, and "life" itself.

But, I hear you ask (sensing, as I predicted, a contradiction between this point and a theme of the list in the previous post, of some of my comments on your essay draft, and of many of the things I said in class), "Didn't you insist that English majors don't study 'life' or 'human experience'? Haven't you just gotten through explaining that English majors study 'made' things — artifacts — representations — in short, a particular, restricted domain of human activity that only mirrors or models 'life'"?

Well, yes, that's indeed what I've been saying, but when saying these things, I've meant something very particular by "life" and "experience." If I explain that particular meaning, the contradiction that you sense will, I hope, drop away.

My point in drawing a contrast between "life" and "culture" was to push back against the widely held (you might even say, "common sense") notion that there is anything we might call "just life" or "just experience." According to this "common sense" notion, life is full of experiences that we call by names such as "love," "ambition," "jealousy," "hate," "disappointment," "happiness," etc. Literature (more common sense) is a body of writing about these experiences: experience put into words. Reading literature (yet more common sense) is a way to engage with these experiences, to "live" them vicariously and to learn about them directly. I read Shakespeare's sonnets, common sense tells me, to learn about something called "love" that has an existence prior to and outside of narrative, metaphor, and symbol: something "universal," "enduring," and "real." There is love, there is what Shakespeare writes about love, there is what I learn about love by reading Shakespeare. If common sense is right in this regard, the English major, in reading Shakespeare, studies love.

But common sense is wrong. When it comes to love, ambition, jealousy, hate, disappointment, happiness, and everything else in life that we experience as meaningful (which is just about everything other than raw sensations: itches and hunger pangs), the experience itself (if Hardy is right) is in most cases already narrative; and from our earliest years, that experience is shaped by the particular plots, symbols, metaphors, images, and so on that pervade the stories told to us, read to us, and watched by us at home, in school, in theaters, and elsewhere.

One reason I put Carroll's Alice books and Dickens' A Christmas Carol on the syllabus is that they've played such an outsized role in contributing to the stock of characters, plots, symbols, metaphors, and images through which people in English-speaking — and other — societies experience "life."

Another reason is that they represent, themselves, a determined effort to expose as artifice that which their readers took to be simple, naked "reality." What Scrooge (following Thomas Malthus) regarded as an ordinary numerical fact — "surplus population" — Dickens shows to be an artifact of a particular story about the relationship between individuals and society, a story in which "Want" and "Ignorance" are merely "natural" and unavoidable byproducts of letting individuals pursue, undisturbed, their "natural" propensity to seek their own interest. But Want and Ignorance are not at all natural, the Ghost of Christmas Present instructs Scrooge. "They are Man's." They are made.

And so with many of the other works on the syllabus. Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll" is such a powerful poem because it dramatizes, through one invented character's brief life-story, the tragic (note the word) consequences of having your "experience" of "life," as a woman, mediated by the narratives, images, metaphors, etc. that circulate through our commercial culture (drawing, in part, from that "other culture" which includes Shakespeare) to constitute a still prevalent notion of what it means to be a "woman."

Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" tells the story of a man who discovers, too late, that the narrative he's been living as a minor bureaucrat isn't the one he should have been living, that he has authored himself as the shallowest kind of character imaginable. He's been reading a script that someone else wrote, unthinkingly playing the part defined by an ideal called "decorum."

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest invites us to consider the ways in which experience is always already not only narrative but dramatic. There is no scene in "life" in which you don't perform a role, inhabit a character, constitute yourself for yourself, and for others, through speech. Alert to what a modern-day literary critic might call the "performative" nature of selfhood, no doubt in large measure because "gay man" was not a role he could openly play in 19th-century England, Wilde queers our sense of what it is to have an identity. It was important (within the confines of his play) to be Ernest, but perhaps not so important, perhaps not possible, to be earnest, if what the latter means is to "just be yourself." You can no more "just be yourself" than you can learn, through literature, about those non-existent entities "just life" and "just experience."

So as it turns out, the English major does study "life" and "human experience" in some sense — just not the common sense. Again, according to common sense, life just "is," whereas culture is "made." But if life itself is "made" — if experience itself is inseparable from models and representations, stories and symbols — then the English major, in making sense of culture, makes sense of life.

  • No labels