Down here below the clouds

As is clear from the masthead of this blog, I teach at a small liberal arts college. We are a fine institution, but in all honesty we are well below those lofty summits of academia around which gust the latest ideas and theories. I spend no time teaching the most recent critical interpretations of Baroque era art and literature. It's all I can do to teach students that there was a Baroque era.

And it's not always bad to be down in the valley or off in the hinterlands. A lot of the academic trends and fads that swirl about prestigious institutions just blow over us entirely. It takes years for a hot button idee du jour to trickle down from on high. So it was a surprise to receive a paper from a student recently employing all the slick theory-mongering arguments that I had to endure when I was in graduate school. He was holding forth on the need for students to be empowered with "multiple critical heuristics" that would allow them to test the "solvency of identity in an anti-foundational paradigm."  That's just not the kind of student writing I usually see at this place. So in Wildean imitation, here is the response I would love to give:
Oh my dear boy! What dreary claptrap has someone inflicted upon you? One doesn’t need training in literary critical analysis to be moved by the plight of well-drawn characters experiencing the beauty, tragedy, wonder and fragility of human life; nor does one need to be “empowered” with a dozen of the latest interpretive approaches.
People read long before they understood heuristics and Derrida (and with every sign of keen enjoyment). Yes, that's right, my boy. You've finally encountered a professor whose aesthetic stance is despised by the hip kids over in the English Department. I’m the fuddiest of fuddy-duddies.
Literature, my dear, is useless. That’s its value. Reading is by its very nature selfish, elitist, probably anti-social, and politically a waste of time. That's what recommends it! It is the reminder that if the world were perfect, if war were ended, universal harmony achieved and every disenfranchised minority treated with justice and equality, someone somewhere would still feel the urge to write a poem.
To put it bluntly, politics befouls the poetry. I like to keep the two as far away from each other as possible. Art for art's sake and all that. I affirm the heretically delicious notion that the primary intelligibility of a work of art is as a work of art. Of course, clever people can interrogate a poem away from this primary intelligibility, but they haven’t really proven that literature is about politics; they’ve just changed the subject.
This is not to say that literature doesn’t contain its share of political content, or that it can’t be read through some tedious socio-political lens. Yes, yes, my boy, we can always go on a prosecutorial mouse-hunt for misogyny in King Lear, but who is the poorer for that? The play in all its spectacular grandeur will be here long after our politics are moldy footnotes in dull, unread books.

You wouldn't think this is a point that needs to be made, but you would be amazed at what blasphemy it is to speak these ideas aloud in graduate programs and most literature departments. It marks me as a reactionary. Well, so be it. I can carry a protest sign in one hand and a book of verse in the other. The two have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Indeed, it may suprise you that I am usually in political agreement with those who inhabit contemporary English departments. It's not their politics I object to. It’s their taste.


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