Thursday, September 18, 2014

Milton the ABD

The UChicago library during finals week is a sorry place. Dozens of sleepy undergrads sit hunched in their chairs in front of their laptops, surrounded by nests of books. Among them are the grad students, who get more sleep, but are so weary of the world that they can barely muster the willpower to drag their hands across their keyboards. The fluorescent lights make it impossible to to tell that it's 4:00 AM. One econ major has a sign propped up at his desk advertising $1 caffeine shots, which are solutions of NoDoz® in paper cups. One table over, a senior sobs into her cellphone.

This is awful. But what's so awful about it? Not that these people are working too hard: ask any medical resident what she thinks of an undergraduate's workload and she'll scoff.

What's so galling is that they're working at all. Because reading, thinking, and writing can be a delight. In fact, it can be more than that: it can bring new worlds before our eyes. But I'm going to focus now on pleasure, because academic work stands condemned on the sole grounds that it ruins our fun.

The most efficient humanities factory in America.
There's nothing like a walk in the woods. Specifically, with a friend to talk to about Melville as you wander up an alpine valley to a rocky mountaintop. That's the real home of literature—embedded in a friendship, and as a delight to the mind. In that context, literature is the sweetest, most intoxicating thing on earth. But even when you're alone, a book can be human company in itself. G. K. Chesterton has kept me company through many a sleepless night. Letters, says Cicero, "feed our youth, sweeten our old age, crown our good fortune, give comfort and refuge in our trouble, and delight us at home and outside. They lie awake with us, they wander with us, and dwell with us in the countryside."

They are the crown, meanwhile, of a life that's already awake to the world. Moby Dick makes the Ocean an unsettling symbol of lurking evil. Thoreau turns a Massachusetts forest into a temple of a free American religion. Euripides' Bacchae gives a divine meaning to the exhilarating abyss of wine. But the average Chicago undergrad hasn't seen the ocean in months. He hasn't been in a forest since he was ten, and he certainly hasn't had any wine this week. He spends his days and nights buried in JSTOR pdfs that correspond to nothing remotely like his uncomfortable existence in the library.

He doesn't get to walk in the mountains, and he doesn't have too many close friends. He sits down in the silent B-level, and pretends to write until three in the morning on Objects and Crowds in Dickens' Little Dorrit. Faust turned to Mephistopheles when he had a white beard, after exhausting all the pleasures of life and literature. A modern reader could be excused for summoning him at age twenty.

The product of Ephesus University's supervised writing workshop.

Whose fault? Whose but his own? A standard undergraduate program is a particularly bad place to live the life of the mind, but so is a parking garage, and you don't see young people willingly spending four years breathing car exhaust. There's no moral requirement to do work in the humanities, and no one is keeping us where we are.

And given the academy's treatment of letters, it's far better, though maybe not good, to throw off the yoke of work and find a cabin in the woods with nothing but a library and a blank notebook. Above all, letters should have nothing to do with work. Thoreau is the first man who comes to mind when we think of a life lived this way, but that's only because he was the last to do it. It's in fact a very recent development that our poets write poetry to forge their way in the world. George Eliot never had a humiliating interview with a creative-writing department's career advisor. (She never went to college, for that matter, putting her in such uneducated company as Goethe, Sophocles, and Chaucer.)

A caveat: I don't mean that we should stop doing scholarship; that we should stop spending time in libraries and writing articles. I am submitting, though, that we should write those articles if we have something to say; or, failing that, if we enjoy it. Lorenzo Valla used careful philology to condemn the Donation of Constantine, because he thought it was a forgery. And the modern scholar sits for seven years in front of his dissertation, because without writing something he won't get the lectureship he wants in Wichita.

Nor am I saying that there's anything morally wrong with not enjoying yourself as a scholar. But there's also nothing morally wrong with drinking tortoise urine.

And finally, I'm not saying either that there's anything morally wrong with work, or with a scholar doing it. To the contrary! There's no reason why a flight attendant can't read Milton, or a nurse teach himself Akkadian. The problem only emerges when Akkadian itself becomes work rather than serious play. The concept of amateur scholarship is utterly foreign to our sensibilities, but it's all scholarship was until the last couple centuries. It's a strikingly narrow view, and historically very strange, that the only people metaphysically allowed to do serious work in the humanities spend their entire existences in a brutalist university library.

The point is that countless men and women, throughout history and regardless of their income, have lived lives that were rendered at once meaningful and incredibly pleasurable by the literature that they were immersed in. And that the modern university, simply by being an enormous corporate institution, tends to have priorities other than pure enjoyment. You object: a university program is nothing like the intellectual life of the past, but it's the form that modern intellectualism has, take it or leave it. And I say: lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

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