July 20, 2010

Litany Against Fear

Last week, in a monumental coup against the Common Reading Exam List, I finished not one but two books.  You’ve already heard what I have to say about Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  Book number two was the vastly different Mrs. Dalloway.

This may make me a horrible human being (and moreover a horrible woman literati), but I had never before read anything by Virginia Woolf.  In fact, the only reason I have a passing acquaintance with her is due to my close acquaintanceship with a Woolf scholar whom I met during my sojourn in Dublin.  She loved Virginia Woolf.  She ate Virginia Woolf for breakfast, lunch, comps and dinner.  I have always respected said friend, so I knew there must be something to dear Ginny… just not anything that I had ever chosen to delve for before.  It was a classic case of “Meh, I’ll read it later”.

When “later” finally caught up to me and I had finished succumbing to Woolf’s siren song, I must say I am left aswirl with half-formed notions which even now as I try to articulate them elude my grasp.  Nebulous thoughts and concepts, amorphous ideas, nothing concrete or solid.

I attribute this partially to the style of Woolf’s writing.  The best impression I have of Mrs. Dalloway’s writing can be summarized by the infamous first words of Finnegan’s Wake, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”.  Woolf’s writing flows, perhaps not as freely as Joyce’s notoriously contemptuous bane of English majors everywhere, but still meandering itself down the progression of human thought.  Since the events of Mrs. Dalloway happen entirely inside the characters’ heads, one way or another, they are written to reflect this.  This freely flowing thoughtful writing, rather than capturing and holding my attention, encouraged it to wander as well.  There were several re-readings involved in the completion of this book.

I enjoyed it.  Immensely.  Let me start by saying that.  But that being said, I’m left with the age-old adage.  You know, the thing that academics are never supposed to say.  Those baneful words that expose one’s intellectual underbelly to the hungry dogs of snobbish competition and arrogance. 

I don’t get it.

No really, I don’t get it.  Why is this book a classic?  Why is it on my reading list?  What was I supposed to take from this book over anything else that Woolf wrote (or really anything else written in the history of literature)?  Like I have already said, it was a delightful little read, but if you asked me to write a paper on it I feel as though I have nothing new or interesting to add to the Burkean Parlor of intellectual thought surrounding this book.

So I did what any self-respecting scholar would do in my situation: I googled it.  I read the wikipedia article.  I even stooped so low as to peruse the cliff notes in hopes that a succinct summary of what I had read would help me to see some gem of scholarly thought that I had previously missed.

And I am just as stumped as I was twenty minutes ago.  I see the major themes; Woolf’s points about mental illness and its treatment, feminism and homosexuality; but I really (still) have nothing to say about them in relation to this book that wasn’t said in aforementioned wikipedia article.

So naturally what comes to my mind now is a question about scholarship in general.  I am certain that, at some point in their scholarly careers, everyone has felt this way about something.  But articulating that in any form is so strictly taboo that most intellects would rather pretend they have something to say than admit that they would much prefer to listen to other peoples’ incites.  My question is this: is there one work of literature, some book somewhere, a classic of the English language, that everyone feels this way about but is too embarrassed to admit?

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why is the playground of intellectual thinking so riddled with bullies that any sign of weakness makes one ready to tear apart one’s fellows rather than help to mend their brokenness?  Are we all so afraid that our brains don’t measure up to whatever standard we have silently communally agreed upon that human weakness makes us dithering idiots rather than human?  Yes, our job as scholars is to challenge each other in pursuit of some greater understanding, but does that mean we have to step on heads to advance our own careers?

Forgive me for being pessimistic, and perhaps this is all a reaction to my own feelings as an outsider in any English department.  I’m an actor/scholar.  That’s who I am, that’s what I’m trained to do.  I feel lucky to be considered a peer here in my English program because frankly I don’t consider myself one.  My knowledge of classics, theory and literature in general pales in comparison to most of my fellows.  However, I do know several peripheral areas of the field very very well.  That knowledge has served me in more ways than I can tell, but most importantly has given me the ability to make my way through English literature classes as an outsider welcomed into the inner ring.  As I look around me, I see friends, I see intellectual equals, but I do not see peers.  Our fields, though similar, diverge at several important junctures.  This divergence allows me to walk with my classmates along their paths for a time, but will inevitably send us to opposite ends of a great body of intellectual knowledge.

So as an inside outsider, let me say this: the fear of being wrong in a Graduate classroom is so stifling that it cuts off conversation before anyone has a chance to speak.  This shared fear is thus the mind-killer and we would all do well to recite Frank Herbert’s infamous passage to ourselves a few times before class.  Maybe then we could dispense with the trappings and posing of intellect and get to what really matters.

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