Why lead by describing what we’re losing? Because this is a great collective human loss, brought about by “sulphurous and thought-executing fires”. I argue that “covert enmity/Under the smile of safety wounds the world”. But what do I mean? I mean the general loss of the humanities, yes, but in particular of our awareness of, and our familiarity with, our literary heritage and what it tells us.
No secret that English departments, for example, are being scaled back or shuttered, especially in the United States. Newly minted English Literature PhDs might be more readily employable if they specialized in composition. Those are the available jobs. Teaching composition. And most of these “jobs” tend to be adjunct posts–not secure, not tenure track, not really steps on a career path as much as they are jobs that might help a candidate “get by” until something more secure presents itself.
Where there is an English Literature post, the tendency is to seek out candidates who specialize in some aspect of literature from a particular cultural milieu, or literature that somehow focuses on gendered issues. Shakespeare, of course, addresses a number of these issues, sometimes in ways that even after 400 years can be uncomfortable for his readers and his audiences. The Me Too movement is very current, but the idea of sexual consent as a commodity that might (when clothed in monstrous thinking) somehow define or delineate a given woman’s worth in some terrible and misguided way, this was discussed long ago. Don’t take my word for it. Instead, read the opening of All’s Well That Ends Well, especially that part of the text that begins at the point in 1.1 (around line 115, depending on the edition) where the braggart soldier, Parolles, asks the young maiden, Helena, “Are you meditating on virginity?”
The ensuing discussion focuses on virginity, but that idea also appears to encompass the broader context of women’s sexuality. Parolles’ conclusion about “virginity” seems case in point:
There’s little can be said in ‘t; ’tis against the
rule of nature. To speak on the part of virginity,
is to accuse your mothers; which is most infallible
disobedience. He that hangs himself is a virgin:
virginity murders itself and should be buried in
highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate
offendress against nature. Virginity breeds mites,
much like a cheese; consumes itself to the very
paring, and so dies with feeding his own stomach.
Besides, virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of
self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the
canon. Keep it not; you cannot choose but lose
by’t: out with ‘t!
Reading this, four hundred and two years after Shakespeare’s death, the words seem to conjure the terrible reasoning of a Harvey Weinstein, pounding on a hotel door, seeking to equate silence with consent, seeking indecent access that flies in the face of considerations of dignity, propriety, or human good.
The reasoning begins with a premise which is largely (but not exclusively) correct; the idea that the world–or at least the human world–has always been built on trade. Much of human interaction exchanges need for need, or gives service to others for what we need from them. Let us, for the present, set aside ideas that Nature sometimes exercises examples of this as well–symbiosis and mutual advantage–the clown fish and the anemone.
Yet, our human version differs by how it has evolved, building societies where human interaction becomes predicated not on service or mutual interdependence, but on profit. Too often, we seek not to do our best to obtain the best in return, but rather to obtain the most, to enrich ourselves while providing less to others.
Greed is no new idea either, of course. But the problem seems to be that, in spite of Gordon Gecko’s speech (again misguided) about “Greed is good” in terms of capitalistic marketplaces, greed tends to behave like a lead based paint or cigarette smoke. It slowly leeches into the things around it. It pollutes the placid waters of our being, incrementally perverts our moral compass, and gradually yellows the walls in the houses of the soul. Once greed takes hold within us, we soon find on some level that we have
sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs, which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
Once we find ourselves dissatisfied with what we have, we tend to reach for more, which can become a self perpetuating habit, growing into the very texture of the forest trees. Reaching for more encourages us to reach for more in increasingly multitudinous ways. We gradually lose our ability to distinguish, but we cannot see that we are losing it. We forget that gold and food are not like people. We become willow trees who, if we do not happen to grow aslant a brook, suck water away from others, all the while wrongly regarding it as our very own.
But how do we distinguish the margents, banks, and continents within us? How do we come to know the natural orders that strive against wild growth within ourselves?
Winston Churchill rightly said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.”
But what of our human past? Our individual struggles as opposed to those carried out in some broader national theatre?
These past struggles, and the guidelines that help us to again avoid such pitfalls, tend to be encompassed in the literature. Yes. In the writings of Shakespeare among others. Descriptions of a myriad of human challenges accompanied by guidance and enough space to let us work further on them within ourselves.
Why then would we dispense with the greater body of literature, and with Shakespeare, in schools today?
The answer is money. Greed. These subjects seem, on the surface, to be less and less useful in a life, and in social interactions, that are predicated on profit. We live in a country where people must make enough to pay for their health care and their retirement, where costs, for the common human, seem to spiral endlessly upward, where the cost of affording shelter, food, necessities, and medical care in retirements seem staggeringly high. As the American Association of Retired Persons puts it:
[H]ow much do you need to retire comfortably? By now, you’ve likely heard the conventional wisdom: that you should aim to have a nest egg of $1 millionto $1.5 million. Or that your savings should amount to 10 to 12 times your current income.
So many of us won’t get close to this.
But the prevailing idea seems to be that we will get closer by not wasting time on Literature. These subjects, especially in the shrinking number of universities that still offer more traditional majors, are not typically regarded as providing a stable and lucrative future path–not when compared with the money making degrees like business, health care, or IT. “Don’t waste your time with useless degrees like those in the humanities and the fine arts. You can’t make money with them.” Or, my personal favorite, “If you’re going to go into theatre, make sure you get an accounting degree or something you can have as a backup plan.”
True, we all want our children to do well, and doing well in this United States has come to mean doing well financially, almost to the exclusion of everything else.
If you doubt that, have a look at the current president and his cabinet. They are all billionaires. If you really doubt what kind of collective concerns these folks might have, no matter how much lip service they pay to being devout members of a particular faith, or being on the side of the working man, then pardon me, but you aren’t thinking right. Of course they want the working class to do well, because the rich have always made money from the bended backs of other people. They want the working class to do well as long as they stay right where they are–serving as wage slaves–and then they want them to die early to decrease the potential financial burden on the state. Doubt that? Why else did certain Congresspeople spearhead movements to get rid of Medicare and Medicaid (programs that underpay for the sick and elderly anyway, but at least they are something).
Having money has become so prioritized that it has edged out almost all other concerns. In almost the whole of the corporate dominated world (oh, did I write that out loud?0, but certainly in the United States. I don’t pretend to know the figures, especially in other countries, but being homeless in the United States apparently tends to lower one’s lifespan significantly. How significantly?
“Without health care, many homeless people simply cannot pay. … The average life expectancy in the homeless population is estimated between 42 and 52 years, compared to 78 years in the general population.” (from 2012, www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/health.html)
But certainly we don’t have to lose our homes or our healthcare. We simply need to be smart about studying not what will make us money, but what is likely to make us rich. And we need to behave in ways that will promote the acquisition of wealth. Unfortunately, educating others about what humanity has already learned, whether through philosophy, literature, art, drama, or anything too abstract to be less applicable than metallurgy or painting houses, is not. It pays those at the top of the economic pyramid to keep the greater number nearer the bottom.
Yet, when we dispense with Shakespeare (and the attendant understanding that the study of literature and the arts teaches us), we dispense with the tremendous beauty that sometimes makes life worth living. Subtlety, graciousness, reserve, and all the attendant graces of looking for a time through a great lens of human experience. Love and despair. “O brave new world that has such people in it.” “‘Tis new to thee.”
Be not afeard. I do not need to go with Titania to the fairy bower.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.
“Look at that beautiful flower!” “Lovely! Is it a peony or a rose?” “Who cares?!? It’s just amazing!”
Who cares indeed? We continue to wallow in the increasing apathy of ignorance. Opinions and facts smell the same in the bread line, or waiting for our daily soup. Of course, that won’t happen. We won’t be in a bread line because we didn’t bother to study that silly literature and art crap. Can’t understand that weird Shakespeare talk anyway. Besides, who has time or money for a play? That’s ancient history. I’d rather watch the new season of Bed Me Down.
Not fair? Zombies and rogue computers? Docs and cops as someone once summed up the wasteland of television. I’m not really certain what’s on tonight, but it smells like soup to me.
Doing away with Literature and the Arts serves our masters too. It serves them better soup and bread than we will ever be able to afford. It loses us understanding, perspective, breadth, and depth. It loses us shades of burgundy, replacing them with “red”. It loses us the ability, in many ways, to exercise compassion towards ourselves, to see ourselves with the understanding that the arts and humanities offer. Yet, arguably, the abandonment might gain us an incremental advantage in the pursuit of wealth without compassion.
Thanks, I’ll take the soup.
Next time: how to fix this loss, prepare soup, and fix other problems, including your (yes, I’m writing to you) life and everything.