Friday, September 20, 2013

For the Love of Humanities

Back in the day in AP Euro (was that really two years ago?) something that amused me was how the art styles and philosophies oscillated - how there really did seem to be a dialectic, with everyone being reactionary to something and incapable of not defining themselves by what they weren't. (Too many negatives in that sentence, I know.) I scoffed.

Now I realize I'm just the same and that I'd better do some word-swallowing to stay honest.

Okay. In junior year I had wonderful, fascinating STEM classes: calculus and physics. Furthermore I didn't respect my English teacher, who believes in shapeshifting and whose response to my question of how conservation of mass applies said, "Oh, you'd just turn into a really big snake." Also, I spent that summer reading Feynman, who disses poets and views the pursuit of being "cultured" as self-serving and conceited.

No wonder junior year I looked down on the humanities. I said, blithely, that "I have a horrible attitude toward English," but I never thought that perhaps I might want to correct it. I want to be a civil engineer and build systems and infrastructure that will serve the world - and I used that goal as a reason to dismiss the work of people who spend their lives conducting research in the social sciences and literature.

I remember sitting at the information session for AP Lit wondering if on the index card I'd been given if I should write down the question "Do we have to care about symbolism?"

In short, I really did have a horrible attitude toward the humanities, and English/literature in particular. What subject could hold less importance to the advancement of standards of living?

Never mind that I have always read books for comfort and inspiration; never mind that I know the inscription over the library at Thebes: "Medicine for the soul." Never mind that I reread the Goss archives in which she was working on her dissertation - her doctorate in English - whenever I feel unsure about my direction in life. Never mind all that.

For a year I've been increasingly distancing myself from the part of me that, as late as third grade, wanted to major in English and become a professional writer and make my living from words. It was easy. I really do think I can make a bigger contribution to the world as an engineer; I get a sense of joy and pleasure from physics and math that only the rarest writing session can match; I was surrounded by friends who enabled me in my semi-self-deception.

Well. You know how springs work: F = -kx. Restoring force pointing in the opposite direction of your displacement.

This year, I have a fantastic English teacher, a teacher for whom I can tell this is his life's work, for whom teaching is the thing that motivates him - teaching and teaching better. My teacher this year has written books for other English teachers on how to teach AP Literature; he's got a book coming out soon that distills the state standards into a comprehensible form or something; he's corresponding with Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein on the high school edition of the book They Say I Say, which we use in class.

The thing about great teachers is that they make it downright impossible to hate on their subject. Maybe it's a weakness on my part, to conform to people with strong opinions - but I have sat through a Roman Catholic funeral and still not seen the point of faith*, so I don't think I'm just being influenced by the teacher's clear passion about English.

(*A note to the religious: I respect your right to believe what you believe in, but for myself I see religion as inherently irrational and I can't accept such a large margin of error into my thinking, which is already imprecise enough.)

Conclusion: maybe the study of literature really is valuable, somehow.

Our first essay of the year had the following prompt: "What is literature and what does it do for us? Why does it matter?" When I saw the prompt first, I was in full blown humanities-suck-and-are-pointless mode, and I snarked to a friend (whose relentless devil's-advocacy and intellectual elitism is rapidly driving a wedge between us - sorry, am I oversharing?) that maybe I should say the second half of the essay was impossible to write because literature isn't valuable.

When I showed that same friend my thesis and he said, "Spoken like a true humanities major" with the usual supercilious smirk, I immediately became defensive. "Protective coloration," I think I said.

But I cannot place too much blame on my friend. It was me, it was my prejudices and my insecurities that contributed most to my exaggerated views. I mean, I haven't aligned myself with STEM for very long; as late as freshman year I thought I'd be going into finance. And then in physics last year I felt (like always) that I had something to prove as one of only three juniors in the class...I really only rediscovered my undying love of math last year too, since precalc sophomore year was taught in the most useless modular way possible when math should be integrated, everything connects in such beautiful intricate ways...

I digress. My point is that to my surprise I found myself pouring hours of effort into my "What is Literature?" essay and that I felt as though I was getting legitimate epiphanies as I revised and restructured and rewrote. I discovered that I believed in what I was saying, whereas in AP Language last year I kept distant from the writing and argued things from arm's-length away.

When I got to the part about why literature matters, I realized I did have something to say. Here it is: as Kafka said, "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us." Literature is a tool to excavate your identity. Literature can exhume parts of yourself you didn't know existed, or that might exist and lay fluttering their damp wings in the dark loam of your soul...I don't know where that image came from but I am going to leave it in because why not. Why the hell not?

I am a poet, all right? I write to get my feelings out. Our next paper, which I just finished the n-1 draft of half an hour ago, is analyzing two Shakespeare sonnets. What value lies in scrutinizing twenty-eight lines of archaic verse? I'll tell you that on Wednesday, I spent only forty-five minutes working on the two poems but I generated about 250 words of text and I again felt that sense of epiphany, of discovery, as I found out new parallels and connections and cool things that made me realize - okay, this is why people go on and on about Shakespeare.

There's just so much contained in each sonnet. Meaning comes exploding out like a chain reaction in a fission bomb. My college counselor talks about how she thinks I can write "rich" essays and I think rich like a cake that is not homogenous, like something substantial and nourishing because there is a lot of different stuff in there - Shakespeare sonnets are like that, dense pastries that seem one thing on the outside but have surprises within, and when I read one as closely as I did those two that I'm writing about I feel as though I am, truly, devouring it, and as though it will feed me.

(Another quote I used in my literature essay, by Sir Francis Bacon: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.")

Layers upon layers. This is the complexity, the value of literature - as my Lit teacher says, the "high thread count". You dig into something that seems small, and then you get all sorts of wonderful discoveries in return. I felt so inspired that Wednesday night, I wrote a sonnet of my own - Petrarchan and somewhat facile - and felt for myself the way a rigid form can inspire greater substance than the free-flowing verse that I favored when I was younger. Structure. Everything is structure.

I am still applying to colleges under civil engineering. I am still shunning liberal arts schools. I am still deeply in love with the beauty of the universe as expressed through elegant equations and models. But I love the humanities too (the release as I typed that - like sneezing). I love literature, I find inspiration in poetry, and I am sorry for having forsaken such a large part of myself for so long through my pride and prejudice. Which, by the way, I am long overdue to reread.

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Irish Tune from County Derry - Percy Aldridge Grainger

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