Sunday, August 18, 2013

Picking a few bones with Edmundson's English Major

This morning I found myself thinking about Edmundson’s article:

“The English major is, first of all, a reader. She's got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?”

When I first read his article I wanted to agree with him, but as of this morning, I can’t quite.  He says “there are readers and there are readers.”  Does he mean to break all readers into two categories, those who read to anesthetize themselves and those who read to become other people?  I do a lot of reading but don’t identify with either of these categories.   To ‘read to become someone else’ is his preferred category but doesn’t this smack of schizophrenia?  

I wonder if Edmundson has read Collingwood.  Collingwood says that the historian (and presumably the reader) should take stock of himself and strive to set his preconceptions aside as he studies his subject, but Collingwood doesn’t mention the self-gratification; which I gather Edmundson assumes when he describes the blessings of living multiple lives through reading.  Surely most good historians are going to enjoy their work, but do any of them “become other people”?

My wife has always loved to read biographies but I never saw any indication that she had become any of the people she read about.  In my recent study project, the American Civil War, I read a lot of biographies but never had the slightest inclination to become any of the military figures I read about – not even the generals I admired.  I admired Sheridan, Longstreet, and John Hood for example, but each one had flaws, and in a history forum when my admiration for these generals became clear, I was pounced upon (figuratively) because of those flaws.  I would argue that their virtues overshadowed their vices, but this was not something someone who read about these generals but didn’t like them as much as I did could agree with.

But maybe Edmundson has only literary  figures in mind.  However, in looking at the three figures Edmundson mentions, I wonder how one would set about becoming Jane Austen.  One of her biographers, Jan Fergus, wrote that information about Jane Austen is “famously scarce.”   Typically, her biographers provide the sketchy information available and then draw conclusions from the characters in her novels.  So shall Edmundson’s reader live Austen’s life through the sketchy biographical information or through her novels? 

Edmundson elaborates: “English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.” 

I don’t agree with this either.  Harold Bloom wrote a couple of books that touch upon this, The Map of Misreading comes to mind.  The reader, but perhaps only the creative reader, reads critically and thinks he can do better if he chooses to.  Bloom someplace sites artistic works that were demonstrations of a creative reader choosing to “do better.”  Perhaps not every English Major would do this, but those in Edmundson’s “ideal” category would at least feel this to the extent that they are not intimidated by what they read, and this is a long shot from wanting to live it. 

I have more appreciation for some of the other things Edmundson says, for example his response to Heidegger’s “language speaks man”:   “. . . Not all men, not all women: not by a long shot. Did language speak Shakespeare? Did language speak Spenser? Milton, Chaucer, Woolf, Emerson? No, not even close.”  I’m not sure where this Heidegger quote came from, but Heidegger didn’t believe language spoke for all men either – especially not himself.  He made up words to convey what he believed was his unique “speech,” i.e., philosophy.  But in general I take Edmundson’s meaning.  Most people, most likely, have no reason to be dissatisfied with the limits of language.  Creative people like those he mentions (including Heidegger) never feel constrained by the limits of language.  They get out of it more than the common reader thought was there – a bit more, perhaps, than Wordsworth’s ‘often thought but ne’er so well expressed.”

Further down Edmundson wrote, “The English major wants to use what he knows about language and what he's learning from books as a way to confront the hardest of questions. He uses these things to try to figure out how to live. His life is an open-ended work in progress, and it's never quite done, at least until he is. For to the English major, the questions of life are never closed. There's always another book to read; there's always another perspective to add.”   My most recent example of this is the American Civil War.  I believed it was the single-most formative event in U.S. history but I had never seriously studied it – until recently.  This was a “hard question” for me, that is, the war itself was extremely complicated.  One must study the major battles, read biographies of the important military and political figures, struggle through the important issues still being debated and then draw, or at least I drew only tentative conclusions.  But none of this pertained to how I lived my life.

Edmundson concludes with, “What we're talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you've passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you're ready to take up something else.” 

My stepfather, a truck driver, advised me to major in Engineering.  I rejected his “prudent advice” and majored in English.  Ironically I abandoned the course being urged upon me by college advisors, i.e., to get my PhD and teach, and instead became an engineer.  But would Edmundson say that my step-father was not a human being?  No one else in my family was an English Major or any other kind of a major – except one cousin who majored in nursing.  Were none of these human beings?   I don’t think Edmundson intends to be an elitist, but it is possibile to see a hint of that: the best thing one can achieve in college is to become an English Major.  Those who do not become English Majors let language speak through them and have only “one life to live.”  I’ve never watched the soap by that name but actors seem to be better examples of living other people’s lives.  Some actors devote major portions of their lives to being someone else.  I think of David Suchet being Hercule Poirot for example.  Did Suchet consider it a waste of time to spend so many years being Poirot?  I don’t have that impression.  He seems to have been happy doing being him. 

I wonder if Tom Selleck is happy being Jesse Stone.  Stone suffers from depression but manages to solve crimes in spite of it, but perhaps Selleck finds it appropriate to end his acting career on this depressed note.  Perhaps he realizes that acting, becoming another person, isn’t a very admirable thing to be.

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