Bookish Thoughts: Studying English, or what it is to be human

I didn’t mean to abandon this young blog so early after its inception, but as anyone who has undertaken postgrad study will know, the final weeks of writing a dissertation/thesis are quite intense (I also moved house in the past few weeks bc the timing just seemed so perfect). I’ve had this little blog in the back of my mind all month, looking forward to a time in the near future when I will be able to devote my readerly efforts to The Wreck. But alas, that time is still a little ways off. Every ounce of my intellectual capacity is focused on my dissertation at the moment with barely enough brain space left for normal human functioning. Yet while taking a break from living and breathing my Masters thesis, I found this article. Obviously the author is a person of my own heart and so I thought it merited a short break from cognitive literary theory and early modern chastity.

I often say that the study literature is really an act of learning what it means to be a human being (and by ‘often’ I mean I have maybe said that once, but it sounds pretty good so I think it to myself fairly frequently). To be a reader of literature means to undertake the endeavour of understanding some aspect of the human experience as yet unknown to us. Or in some instances a certain aspect of the human experience may be known to us very intimately and so we readers return to the subject to interact with the subtleties and intricacies of emotion often overlooked in the immediacy of our daily lives. To read great literature – well, it’s nothing short of enriching the soul. But there’s something more here. It’s not just reading passively to receive transcendence through a great writer’s power. For a good student of literature, reading is active – it’s achieving transcendence through interacting with a text. In fact, once you reach the postgraduate level you will find yourself reading and appreciating ‘theory’, that menace you most likely denounced in your sophomore year survey course required for the undergraduate major (the one that made you read The Great Gatsby half a dozen times from the perspectives all of the important modes of literary theory from the last century). Because to be an active reader means to love language for its power to creat many varied and nuanced meanings. Appreciating theory is really to take that next step from loving literature as a reader to engaging with a text in order to explore how it makes meaning that resonates with its readers.

Recently the value of a humanities degree has been debated in the news and I never meant to engage in that discussion directly, mainly because I find it completely idiotic that anyone would even consider denying the usefulness of the humanities. But as a student of English literature poised to devote my life to academia in my beloved subject, the usefulness of English specifically is of particular interest to me. Of course I’ve experienced the confused relatives, the pained looks on their faces when you tell them you are going into academia. Defences for the humanities, including this article, are often sentimental. But for me studying literature isn’t just sentimental. It’s not because I’m a sensitive soul that craves spiritual fulfilment through emotional experiences with works of art. Of course I love literature and there is that emotional side to my reading. But I find the study of literature to be useful for two reasons: 1, it explores how the human mind can interact with a culture, harness language, invoke imagination, and make meaning that has a powerful effect on readers; and 2, the various meanings produced by great literature can reveal truths just as profound as those of philosophers and scientists.

I’m writing a 40 page dissertation on The Duchess of Malfi and The Tragedy of Mariam, but really all that means is that I’m endeavouring to explore how and what these two specific dramatic works can tell us about human beings and life in this strange world. Specifically I am looking at how people understand each other and value each other, as well as how one makes sense of one’s own self. These are valuable questions, ones which every person grapples with, and so I’m often quite bemused when people write off my research as useless, too niche, etc.

Is this work as useful to society as that of bankers, businessmen, doctors, engineers, etc.? Of course. We aren’t building roads or keeping the capitalist market functioning, but it’s still useful work. On a grand scale, a society that does not strive to understand the truths of human experience could not function effectively and would not move forward successfully. That’s why we have philosophers and psychologists and theoretical physicists. That’s why we have writers and artists creating, experimenting in expressions of human consciousness. And it’s also why a study of that human art is useful work.

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