If a man wishes to be literary, he should not aspire to be literary. If a man wishes to be a writer or a critic, he should do anything and everything but dash out into the world to become a writer or to criticize. The man who sets out to be such a thing will only be like many of the common English majors today, who walk about and look very literary but have nothing to say. There was the horrid movement known as aestheticism. “Art for art’s sake,” they cried. “Art needs no moral!” “Down with Didacticism!” and so forth. I wonder now if we are not in the age of “artist for artist sake.” For man a modern artists will amble around and look artsy, so as to be thought an artist, but few modern artists create art. That is, few modern artists create works that attempt to point to a higher truth or reality. Few modern artists do this because few are moved by the world. And one might say that a dead man is a man not moved by the world. But even a man without a pulse spins around with the globe. The unmoved man is not dead; he is the opposite of dead; he is perpetually running backwards against a world that would propel him forwards. The modern English graduate student is this man.
And the truth of all this is evident in those literary circles where groups of men and women gather around. They’re assumed to be witty, to read, to love words, and they all probably give lip-service to those things. But few actually read, few actually write with any wit, few are moved by poetry with cunning wordplay. What the English graduate student is moved by today is the social issue. Bring up Shakespeare, imagery, and iambic pentameter, and a yawn emits from most of these literary bookworms. But it isn’t really a yawn, or, if it is, it quickly becomes a scowl. Why waste time with Shakespeare’s meter when we could be discussing his supposed sister? Why laugh with Pickwick when we could be examining how Pip exists in a liminal space? Around and around go the bookworms until everyone is firmly convinced that J.M. Barrie is a Pedophile, Dickens an anti-semite, Stevenson a raging misogynist, and Toni Morrison and optimist. The bookworms will spend fifty minutes on Macbeth’s masculinity and fifty seconds on his declaration that “life is a poor player strutting his way across the stage.” And all the while the bookworms want the world to think that they love literature and words and that they’re witty writers when there is more love and wit in a seven year old in his backyard, acting out the adventures of Grahame’s Mole and Rat.
And what I’ve learned about myself as an English master’s graduate is that the last literary group I’d be associated with is the academic group. For the truth is that the true literary man finds adventures in every nook and cranny of life. Then, he can’t help but write about it. He cannot help but notice the variety of life. He writes poetry not because he wants to be considered a poet; he throws half of it in a safe-box for none to read. He writes poetry because for him life is poetical. For him, birds do sing in meter and squirrels screech in Alexandrine couplets. The true literary man sees life as it is — not some dull, morbid social issue, but as a tragicomedy. Every man he meets is a comedy; every man he meets is a tragedy. The literary man recognizes that the world began as a comedy with the marriage of two true minds; and it began in tragedy with the fortunate fall. And if life is but a stage for the literary man, if he is but a player playing his part, it is not because of the vanity of life; it is because of the vanity of the self. The literary man does not self-identify or self-construct, for to do either is to self-destruct. The literary man does not have time to think about his gender because he is too busy taking in the wonder of the created world.
What an English master’s degree taught me is that if you want to sit around with a bunch of bros and discuss literature, the last place to go is an English department. If you want to figure out your gender or find out how racist you are, the English department is the place for you. But if you want to discuss literature and everything that comes with it — which may include gender and race — then you find a few men who know nothing about theory but who love books. You might even seek out conversation with the mailman who has never read a book. For the mailman, more often than not, still believes in truth and can have an intelligent conversation. A professor denies truth and then talks as if everything he is saying is true. I say, a conversation with a gardner about geography is more literary than any conversation about the geo-political structure of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. There is more literature, true literature, in the soul of the sailor, for he may believe he has a soul. And I would seek to sail with him.
Broom Snow, theficklefarce.com
Written on the eve of graduation,
May 14, 2015
Painting: “The Bibliophilist’s Haunt (Creech’s Bookshop)”
William Fettes Douglas,
Oil on canvas, 1864