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THE COMMON READER
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From the Editor

walrusFirst, it was the death of God, then the death of Paul, then the death of the author, then death of the book, now it's death of the profession, but, as far as I can tell, every one of 'em is still alive and kicking.  "You can't keep good language down" like my mama used to say.  She still says it, though some people call her senile, doing the "half-heimers" thing.  I guess we could put all this death and dying on postmodernism being too hip for its own good, with the movement fragmenting the fragments and questioning authority until we ran out of questions and diminished all authority; that is, until our gleaming moment of intellectual triumph became a nightmare of doubt and spiritual angst, and we started right back at the beginning -- "Is there a God?" "What is this thing called light?" "What is our purpose?" and then the god-awful pearl that pierces all belly buttons -- "Who am I?"  Samey-same, you number one, or is it number 10?

TimeJust think of it as one big long Q & A until everybody gets bored, or gets tired of asking, and leaves the auditorium.  The phenomenon of the English language and literature profession, I mean, the self-doubt and henny penny worry part, the frightening image of "irrelevancy" -- the face in the mirror that runs away from the "cold hard truth" that "literature is irrelevant" ergo "I am irrelevant."  Pitifully, we ask: "Am I the tire that's never needed, the dog that gets left behind?"  No worries mate, a fateful diagnosis at the Doc's puts everything on the same plane.  Brain surgery and John Donne back to back and face to face.

I find it reassuring that in a sober sub-subconscious way Contemporary Literature addresses those doubts in a very forthright in your face can't-run-away way.  See Margaret Edson's Wit and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or Anne Enright's The Gathering, for example.

The profession doesn't look anything like it was in 1960, mulling the pros and cons of New Criticism, and fretting about the demise of art, and whether there really is a great American novel; nor does it resemble the raised-fist 70s -- "Right on, tell the truth like never before told, but tell it baby like it is" -- or the 80s -- "Was that really the way it was?  For you?  For me?  Who's us anyway?" -- and then the sudden realization in the 1990s that the world is round and not flat, like global man, other dudes living in other places and have been for some time now.  Though what to do with "English" in English Departments was a small bother, a preponderance -- "Is truth more truthful in its original tongue, the first utterance?" (we can't seem to give up on Plato, now can we?), but here it is 2008, the most exciting time to be in the academy.  Why?  Because, to paraphrase Tom McGuane, "life is like nothing I've never seen before."

WitAt the graduation ceremony at Duke University on May 10, the environmentalist David Orr came to speak to the graduates about the challenges that lay ahead and the failures of his generation; that is, those same frightening images in the mirror -- the failure and irrelevancy of higher education, the fragmentation of study to the point of nose-to-the-ground myopic stupidity.  It was a beautiful day and windy, with everyone in their straw hats and the khaki and the navy.  Resolutely, Orr set forth upon the open sea.  That the current global crisis threatens the human future, and it is not just a technical problem that needs solving, but a cultural one -- because we resist a multicultural world, because politics and violence deepen the ecological crisis, because economic systems and social ones still hold onto their dinosaur dreams that will guarantee extinction, and because parsing the disciplines in the academy merely makes professors and the job of professing comfortable, and what professors teach, dangerous.

Orr insisted: "In the modern curriculum we have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines.  As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad integrated sense of the unity of things.  The consequences for their personhood and for the planet are large. " Then Orr tried to explain: "What went wrong with contemporary culture and with education?  There is some insight in literature: Christopher Marlowe's Faust, who trades his soul for knowledge and power; Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, who refuses to take responsibility for his creation; Herman Melville's Captain Ahab, who says 'All my means are sane, my motive and object mad.'  In these characters we encounter the essence of the modern drive to dominate nature."

OrrbookThinking in my wingtips, tapping them one by one, in the grassy back row -- what does language and literature do, or should be doing?

Orr sounded on, like the nailing thunks of nails through wood: "Our culture does not nourish that which is best or noblest in the human spirit.  It does not cultivate vision, imagination, or aesthetic or spiritual sensitivity.  It does not encourage gentleness, generosity, caring, or compassion.  Increasingly in the late 20th Century, the economic-technocratic-statist worldview has become a monstrous destroyer of what is loving and life-affirming in the human soul."

In my comfortable slacks, safely behind sunglasses, I crossed my khaki legs above the green -- does it matter whether you call it the Department of English, Spanglish, or Department of the Whirling Dervish?  "Don't make me no never mind. Don't make me no never care," a voice then said (one of the many).  But, assuredly, there needs to be some serious treading where the bravest of Angels have been ... wont to go.  At this point in the ceremony, the wind was picking up, the sun was dappling furiously, the tent flapped against the rigging.

Orr concluded somewhat in this vain-vein-vane: "The world does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form."  These words came to me through the breeze, and I remarked to no one, "the stuff of language and literature."


 
--Tom Douglass

Editor:Tom Douglass

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