Non-humanities concentrators—or “philistines” as I like to slander them—have a galling habit of demanding students of literature to justify their scholarly metier. My blockmate nicely encapsulated the problem: “Why study Shakespeare?” In response, some of us choose to storm off in a pique of rage; others offer lofty bromides, fully aware of their inanity. All of us, however, are confounded, and perhaps vaguely offended. How dare this bourgeois challenge me to justify the humanities by vulgar utilitarian criteria? We pursue beauty, and to quote the French poet Theophile Gautier, “The most useful place in the house is the latrine.”
Still, the question is worth consideration, at the very least because our silence concedes the point. Since Plato exiled poets from his mythical Republic, humanists have exerted themselves to defend and expound the merits of poetry. Until the 19th century, the consensus was that literature was proper for its moral utility and its ability to impart ethical lessons through delightful language. This line of thought has gone out of vogue, both for aesthetic reasons and because it has become abundantly clear that there is nothing particularly ennobling about high culture itself. After all, Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” raped and murdered to Beethoven’s Ninth, and the Nazis were known to listen to Wagner with rapture after a good day’s genocide. Harvard English professors themselves—who have spent a lifetime immersed in literary scholarship—are hardly moral paragons, although I will refrain from scrounging up the sordid details of their personal lives.
The modern apologia for literature seems to center around the idea that while science makes life possible, the arts make life worth living. By creating, preserving, and studying literature, we keep our culture from descending into a nihilistic, materialistic abyss, reminding man of his higher spiritual yearnings and his endless possibilities. This is especially important in an age in which the world seems to be splintering into factions of secularists and religious fundamentalists; literature must fill the void that the death of God has created.
But thanks to the democratization and coarsening of culture, hardly anyone reads the classics of the Western canon anymore (the pragmatist will object that at least they can read, as well as feed their families). A familiarity with canonical texts is no longer considered an essential prerequisite of citizenship in our society. More and more, humanities departments are resembling Swift’s fanciful flying island of Laputa, in which abstracted philosophers hover over the common people, lost in sterile speculative dreaming. Indeed, the Harvard Task Force on General Education has ratified this irrelevance by subjugating the study of literature to insipid notions of cultural inquiry in their recent October 2006 report.
Of course, English concentrators are eminently prepared to play a role in society because the discipline teaches them how to write and think. These two invaluable assets make them very appealing to law schools and employers. But I am interested in justifying the study of literature as an end in itself, not just as useful primer for more worldly endeavors. Is it after all a perennially elitist pursuit, the perquisite of an ivory-tower class, an ecstatic act of mental masturbation? And if it is the last, who cares? Am I disturbed by possibly devoting my life to something so solipsistic? Or does the persistence of a literary public give the study of literature some genuine import?
At the very least, it seems that being an English concentrator can allow you to sound clever when you really don’t have a clue.
David L. Golding ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is an English and American literature and language and classics joint concentrator in Dunster House.