More on the Death of the Spirit: Why English Majors Can’t Read Literature

I wrote last time about the truly spiritual life—a life of forcing one’s principles to engage a hostile world and one’s preferred order to negotiate inconvenient necessities. In opposition to this stands the spirit-stifling life of embedding oneself in fantasy and demanding that everything and everyone around one flatter the assembly of illusions.  As in all human truths, there’s great irony here.  People who stifle the spirit will insist that they are “engaged”. Yet manipulation, intimidation, distortion, suppression, and prevarication don’t get at the kind of engagement I have in mind.  I suppose they could work, for a verbal contortionist; I suppose plowing a house under and leaving a rubble with an entry point to crawl through could be called “redesign”.

Certainly the people who declare the mud hole where they nestle to be holy ground and then rail against passers-by might be said to expend a kind of energy in their endeavor.  They never seem to know a moment’s peace, for practically everyone is moving in relation to them and thus needs a good dressing down.  When you declare your entire life a safe space, denounce all that you see beyond your narrow borders as offensive, and charge every intruder who doesn’t utter the password with failing to give a trigger alert, you probably won’t get much rest.

But that’s perfectly okay; because, as I wrote earlier, the ultimate objective of the exercise is precisely to keep one busy denouncing morally inferior people—to prove over and over again, every day, that one belongs to a unique group of higher beings.

I know this subject well.  I’ve passed virtually my entire adult life in Academe, as a formal college student and a teacher employed in some capacity: six or seven years as the former, and about thirty-five as the latter.  From either side of the lectern, I have observed “professionals” mutilate classic literature by insisting that no such qualities as “the classic” or “the literary” ever existed, but that—instead—only some specific socio-political dialectic or other is for real: only the struggle of women, or Hispanics, or blacks, or gays, to rise above white male patriarchal oppression.  All else is smokescreen.  All else is the established power structure conditioning you to revere a value system that locates its elite members on top of the heap; and by “mystifying” your conditioning so that its parameters appear holy and questioning them becomes strictly tabu, your masters spellbind you into mistaking your chains for artistic worth—for “beauty”.

If this sounds exactly like the hoodwinking our educational gurus are trying to work upon the upcoming generation, we shouldn’t be surprised.  An integral part of the mud-dweller’s m.o. is to project the ugliest impulses of his own soul upon that surrounding world which he strives constantly to condemn as inferior.  The snobby elitism, the abuse of power, the intolerance of open exchanges, and the magnification of a self-serving design to the authenticity of religious revelation all belong to the Playbook of Dead Souls.  There can be no more classic case of the Pot calling the Kettle black.

As a result, I have for several years now taught senior-level English majors—within months of receiving their degree—who cannot read a classical text like the Iliad without inveighing against how women are carried off as chattels, or one like the Odyssey without harping on the hero’s detainment by Circe and Calypso as if he were whoring in Las Vegas.  To them, Euripides’ Medea slays her two sons because of post-partum depression, or because male-dominated society has left her no other options.  As a teacher, I should say that I fail more than half the time ever to convince them that the mythic backdrop of such narratives puts them closer to symbolic commentaries about the human psyche than to social histories.  Our latest graduates don’t understand how there may be a “Medea side” in all of us: too tribal, too passionate, too irrational.  This ancient text and every other are all about men versus women: that’s as far as most of them can go.

Or else they instantly, almost reflexively (thanks again to their academic conditioning) see a Marxist class struggle unfolding.  I was at considerable pains last month to sell a class on the notion that clannish cultures do NOT have an autocratic ruler atop a steep pyramid and masses of slaving peasants beneath—that such stratification occurs only with the rise of complex settlements, as certain people abandon herding or tilling to learn martial arts and protect the community.  And while class struggles are by no means invisible in, say, the Odyssey (whose hero spends much of the epic disguised as an abused beggar), I’m uncomfortable with a student of literature’s retreating immediately to that level of interpretation as the right and only one.  Odysseus is not leading some kind of Marxist revolution.  If anything, he’s showing us that humility and awareness of others are increasingly esteemed virtues in a society where lions and floods are no longer the only kind of existential threat.

Where do students learn to apply such hermeneutical hacksaws to great books?  Why, from their “mentors”, of course!  Only look at the “cutting-edge” publications in a literary database: this same level of severely reductive thought is on display in all the “best” journals.

In my view, we need to know much about a distant work’s cultural environment precisely so that we may filter out those practices that keep us from the common humanity of its creators.  I’m not sure that I will ever quite understand what induced the Aztecs to cut the pumping hearts out of young girls in hideous human sacrifice… but I’m willing to keep trying.  And, yes, it’s grotesque that Achilles should have bestowed his love upon a woman whom he carried off as plunder after murdering her husband and family; but not only was this an unfortunate custom of the times—it is very likely intended by Homer as an ironic indication of how tragically cut off from normal human exchange the shamanic superhero is.  Can we really not get beyond the wounded feelings of the twenty-first century coed who has “sexual harassment” ringing through her head like a persistent migraine?

The squirrels in my back yard have destroyed my apricot harvest for years.  They start when the fruits are green and bitter, taking one bite and then throwing the rest away.  It continues until the tree is bare, usually before a single apricot has actually turned golden.  That’s the Ivory Tower: that’s the “engaged” mud-dweller who sits deeply where he is and slings grime at anyone who won’t stop and jump in.  It’s a world without beauty—a world without spiritual fruition: a mere hall of mirrors whose occupants can see nothing but themselves.