To be an English major is to live not only by questioning, but by being questioned. It is to live with a question mark placed squarely on your forehead. It is to live, at least some of the time, in a state of "existential dread."
Here I thought English Majors were to read. Gee, maybe I am not as sensitive as Mr. Danner and the parolees at UC Berkeley but I never gained a state of existential dread from reading Chaucer or Langston Hughes.
To be a humanist, that is, means not only to see clearly the surface of things and to see beyond those surfaces, but to place oneself in opposition, however subtle, an opposition that society seldom lets you forget: What are you going to do with that?
So if you appreciate literature and self realization through reason, if you can see the multi-layered nature of life, you reject practicality? High minded thoughts rarely put food on the table unless you have a patron.
To the recent graduate, American society -- in all its vulgar, grotesque power -- reverberates with that question.
It's not easy to be an English major these days, or any student of the humanities. It requires a certain kind of determination, and a refusal -- an annoying refusal, for some of our friends and families, and for a good many employers -- to make decisions, or at least to make the kind of "practical decisions" that much of society demands of us. It represents a determination, that is, not only to do certain things -- to read certain books and learn certain poems, to acquire or refine a certain cast of mind -- but not to do other things: principally, not to decide, right now, quickly, how you will earn your living; which is to say, not to decide how you will justify your existence. For in the view of a large part of American society, the existential question is at the bottom an economic one: Who are you and what is your economic justification for being?
English majors, and other determined humanists, distinguish themselves not only by reading Shakespeare or Chaucer or Joyce or Woolf or Zora Neale Hurston but by refusing, in the face of overwhelming pressure, to answer that question. Whether they acknowledge it or not -- whether they know it or not -- and whatever they eventually decide to do with "that," they see developing the moral imagination as more important than securing economic self-justification.
Oh vulgar America! Vulgar nation that emphasises the need to not be on the public dole! Oh silly man that thinks that you must be an English Major to develop a moral imagination. Woeful indeed are the English Majors not realizing they had to make a choice between love of books and marketable skills. I never realized I had to make that choice and now I know. I must give up the Bard before I continue my plebian path of earning a living.
I found myself lying on my back in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reading the New York Times and the New York Review -- very thoroughly: essentially spending all day, every day, lying on my back, reading, living on graduation-present money and subsisting on deliveries of fried rice from the Hong Kong restaurant (which happened to be two doors away -- though I felt I was unable to spare the time to leave the apartment, or the bed, to pick it up). The Chinese food deliveryman looked at me dispassionately and then, as one month stretched into two, a bit knowingly. If I knew then what I know now I would say I was depressed. At the time, however, I was under the impression that I was resting.
Ya know Mr. Danner, this kind of anecdote infuses new life into those worn English major jokes. Very few people I know would exist on grad-present money, they have to pay back school loans and flip burgers while looking for jobs in thier field. Maybe you wouldn't have had to deal with so much existential dread if you put down the Times and worked as the Chinese food deliveryman.
remember: whether you know it yet or not, you have doomed yourselves by learning how to read, learning how to question, learning how to doubt. And this is a most difficult time -- the most difficult I remember -- to have those skills. Once you have them, however, they are not easy to discard.
Because remember graduates, as soon as you get a job, Corporate America will turn you into a mindless drone; if you manage to resist Dronehood, unhappiness is what awaits you. The literature you love will never exalt your spirits. Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter. What mindless dribble! The Doom of endless teen angst be yours! May you never become establishment! Be right back.
Later. I was about to overload. This kind of self pitying spew gets my goat. This kind of thinking is made possible by a nation and a people that have needs met and nothing better to do. Not that a poor man or nation can not think Big Thoughts but rather focuses on immediacy of need and doesn't have alot of time to drivel about the soullessness of labor or the hypocracy of kings rather he just gets to living life. Or in the words of the Swan of Avon:
|Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night|
|Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,|
|Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,|
|And follows so the ever-running year,|
|With profitable labour, to his grave|