Daily Archives: November 17, 2010

Video of the Day: “I am going to grad school in English”


There is not much to add to this wry and wintry little video.  It expresses a truth that can just barely be rendered as satire, and a lot of people may find themselves squirming uncomfortably.  The Humanities are under siege like never before.  Not “relevant,” certainly not career stream, and, frankly, priced out the market.  Who is going to run up a debt of tens of thousands of dollars to get a degree in a subject few people care about, and, it needs to be said, is taught in a way that hardly recognizes the subject is in fact literature?

But it wasn’t always so and certainly does not need to be so now.  Here is Frye in a 1979 interview talking about the enduring imaginative value of literature in its social context.  In the background you can unmistakably hear the post-modernist tide rising and beginning to flow under the door:

My own interests have always been centred upon literature itself, upon what might be call the social context of literature, its real function in society.  I was educated in the authentic philistine tradition: literature was something you only concerned yourself with after the day’s work, that is, after you’d earned your living and had success.  Literature was a luxury article, a thing one could easily do without, an amusement to be cultivated only after the real problems had been resolved.  However, when I started to study a truly primitive culture, for example, the culture of the Inuit, a culture in which their problems of survival of food, and of shelter, are very serious and direct, I noted that both poetry and the poetic tradition were for them of vital importance.  The more primitive the society, the more important poetry is for its survival.  In more contemporary societies, complex and sophisticated as they are, literature and life are suffocated under a vast weight of false priorities.

So I decided to study the original functions of literature in order to discover what literature can still do for us today.  In fact, I think an individual participates in society principally through his or her imagination.  In the last hundred years there has been a fracture between appearance and reality, between language and reality.  In the Middle Ages, this division — or fracture — did not exist: symbol and reality, language and reality, were one and the same.  You just have to think of the “realism” of Thomas Aquinas.  However, from Rousseau, Marx, and Freud, we have learned not to trust appearances: we’ve learned to look for the reality which is hidden behind the facade of society and of language.  We have learned to refuse to believe the myths imposed by the authorities because they are patently false and absurd.  The collapse of the myths which make society and authority cohesive has, in turn, provoked a collapse of commitment and faith.  Now it seems to me that literature can help us to disover, behind and beyond the various facades offered by society, the real sources and structures of our personal and collective imagination, and thus of commitment and faith.

So literature itself has always been at the centre of my interests, and that makes me somewhat rare among contemporary literary critics.  Much interesting progress in recent literary criticism, in fact, has come from nonliterary fields, from sectors such as linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and so on.  Critics such as Roland Barthes, who adopt the conceptual instruments from these sectors, often stray from literature and from criticism — in the narrow sense of the word — towards those other parallel fields.  But I have remained centred on literature–on its role in the creation and transmission of our personal and collective imagination.  (CW 24, 455-6)

(Thanks to the superlative Amanda Etches-Johnson for the tip on the video.)