Thursday, July 22, 2004

What It Means to be an English Student, or, Roswitha’s Revenge

Written for Shloka, who is currently finding all English students very annoying because, quote, “I have had it upto HERE with hair-brained English students. Just because they read Dickens for a term paper doesnt mean no one else does. Or that no one else understands Christina Rossetti.”


Roswitha was a nun in a convent in medieval Gandersheim, Germany. She was one of the earliest people to note that life got boring if all you had to read was the Bible over and over again. Being so full of inconsistencies, shifts in style and glaring lacunae, it wasn’t very easy on the critical eye that lacked a good education in postmodernism, either. Yes, there were critical eyes in the Germany of the Dark Ages. In the words of T S Eliot, “Every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind.” (see “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism 1922.) So Roswitha noted, in her journal, incidents of herself and like-minded nuns sitting in the dark cavernous belly of their little abbey, tummies all “with good capon lined” (Shakesepeare, "As You Like It", 'All the world's a stage' l.17) thanks to the tremendous wealth that medieval German widows donated to the convent when they came there fleeing lecherous male relatives, and they all drank beer and conducted readings of the early 2nd cent. A.D. Latin plays of Terence. She went on to write a bunch herself. Anyway, that’s all you need to know about the re-introduction of literary study in the Western World.

On the poetry front, the Anglo-Saxons were doing fantastic things with their limited consonants and frankly unpleasant-sounding language in alliterative verse that consisted mostly of ridiculous riddles, which posed a real problem only to very drunk dragonslayers like Beowulf. He went on to have a fine poem about him altered and written down to conform to Christian ideology. As for prose, of course, the Revd. Bede and Alfred the Great did what they could to preserve memories of the history and culture of the island people in between the incessant wars and ritual disembowelments.

But we digress. This happens all the time in an English class. Still, one must understand the history of a monster to comprehend it in entirety, or so would say the Leavisite critics. To separate a student of English from English itself could result in a potential misunderstanding of both creatures, besides earning the student of English low grades in an exam. So without further ado, let us blow the cover off the mystique of the English student’s identity.

1. Unoriginality.

The English idiom is a gluttonous mix of a number of languages including but not limited to Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon and other Northern compounds and French. That’s not even counting the other foreign languages it milks shamelessly whenever someone happens to plant a toe out of Isle soil in search of a good bargain for silk and spices or vice-versa. It has a character of its own; unfortunately this has been buried under all the mega-tonnes of picking off other tongues since time immemorial. It’s all very well to say that English has “resources”; it has an embarassing history of filching is what it has. [Cf. AS. feolan to stick to, OHG. felhan, felahan, to hide, Icel. fela, Goth. filhan to hide, bury, Prov. E. feal to hide slyly, OE. felen.]

The English student, I am sorry to announce, is also a magpie. These term papers that you always see them in a flurry about, these critical appreciations, and, above all, those horribly esoteric ideas that they inject into the most normal of conversations? You might be led to believe they have a spark of original thought behind them. The English students might be led to believe they have a spark of original thought behind them. They can bite Originality’s arse.

Not to discredit term-paper-people: everyone wants to start out believing that they will illuminate this next essay or conversation with something no one else in the world has ever done. Not happening. Let’s face it, Jung pretty much discredited the idea of originality a long time back with the idea the unconscious mind contains memories and behavioral predispositions that all humans share because of our common ancestry, thus making sure that he was pretty much the last person in the world to have thought of something for the first time. So of course all English students reconcile themselves with a sour smile and a quote from Pope. This gives rise to yet another characteristic of Discipulus Anglicus -

2. Dilettantism.

Even the word gives it away. French, naturellement. Dilettantism is all about dabbling in a little bit of everything because it’s fun and easy, just like the secret life of Oscar Wilde. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have the greatest respect for dilettantism. As Shakespeare, un dilettant extraordinaire, famously said, ‘Dabble, babble, toil and trouble…’ Dabble enough in continental literature, Platonism and the medieval worldview - you could write all his plays. English literature has never done a day’s honest work in its life.

To be very honest, the English student, too, believes that there are better things to do with a day. Shloka insists that “I know more Eco students who read for fun than English students who do.” It’s true! Not only do English students not read for fun, they’re hardly allowed to read for work. Too much to assimiliate. The way of the English student is not to read. It is to read about, or pertaining to. Take the student who will be able to recite the main themes and mythical allusions in a single work of James Joyce pat without ever having opened Ulysses to read beyond the flyleaf. Actually that’s a lot of students. This has a direct bearing on –

3. Bravura.

This is a very, very good Italian word for pretentiousness.

Now, now, I can hear all the screaming and shouting from the gallery, my pets. Half of you are saying “THAT’S the right of it!” You are the half who has been told at some point or other, “Don’t talk to me unless you’ve read William Empson.” The other half of you are quoting Eliot’s passage about the need for difficulty and intellectual dislocation to infuse meaning into language in modern times back at me. Well, I’ve read that passage, boys and girls. A good one it is, too. Which brings me to point four of What It Is To Be An English Student.

4. T.S. Eliot.

Anal-retentiveness abounds.

To be completely obsessive/truthful, there used to be a (very brief) time when Byron and his less flashy contemporaries formed the focal point of literary studies. That was the opposite of anal-retentive. No one in modern memory has liked to talk about Byron. No, its all TS Eliot. Rumour has it that a former student of Literature is writing a potboiler (only not really) novel based on the conspiracy theory that T S Eliot had unlocked the secrets of the universe and was known by certain circles in inter-War Europe to be the Messiah Himself. Unfortunately for the fledgling novelist, he buried himself in The Annotated Waste Land looking for clues and has not resurfaced in the last twenty-four years. *

5. Cultural Imperialism.

In “Culture and Imperialism,” Edward Said defines imperialism as "the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory" (1993: p. 8). Cultural imperialism is the pervasive spread of the dominant (and sometimes geographically distant) culture through the production, trade and use of goods, language and ideas.

Up until about fifty years ago, the sun never set on the British Empire. And so it is with the ego of the EngLit student. With minds as dense as the African landscape of Joseph Conrad and as broad as the scope of Dante’s Divine Comedy, we will always seek to convince whoever lies in our path that Literature is the binding discipline of all the liberal arts – why study 18th-century Irish economy when you can read Swift’s essays instead? Why study the Russian Revolution when you can read Bulgakov’s work instead? In fact, why even bother with quantum physics when its principles are so clearly delineated in the features of Modernism? The mind of the literature student impinges upon every field of study and sows it with the seeds of its own obsession. If you’re not convinced, you only have to look up the reading material for any course in Renaissance Literature worth its salt. In the fine print you will see, relegated to background reading, the King James Bible.

So, this is what Roswitha sparked off, more or less. No one knows why the silly bint kept a record of play-readings when she might very well have been caught and tonsured for a) reading aloud b) Latin comedy, even. Boy, were those Romans not moral. And c) being a woman and bride of Christ and not knowing better. Maybe she was, and the later ages of the world are having her spirit-hosts visited upon them as punishment. Maybe she was just like the silly bint who threatens you in library corridors with her copy of The Joyce Carol Oates Casebook. Maybe you can carry around one of those anti-geist symbols and flash it at her, like a wooden cross or something. Also tape, because you will need to shut her mouth when she notices the underlying neo-Gothicism of the gesture, even if your mascara isn’t all that heavy.

*It’s interesting, really; Eliot was twenty-four when he published The Waste Land.