When we are young, if we are lucky, we meet a person who opens our minds to the infinite possibilities of life in this wondrous world. Such a person, he or she is often a teacher, suddenly reveals what mysteries we might want to try unravelling, what gifts we have we did not know we had, what we might be capable of achieving if only we were prepared to stretch ourselves beyond the ordinary run of our lives. Such people make us subtly aware that the questions which can be easily formulated, or easily answered, are rarely the most important questions in our lives.
In my case the person was an English Literature teacher called John Hodge in the Fifth form at Queens Royal College in Port-of-Spain. I have written about him quite often. He was untidy, thin and scraggly-necked with bits of sticking plaster fixed on his lower cheeks and chin where he must have nicked himself shaving. He peered owlishly through thick glasses. And he was the most marvellous of teachers. He allowed me to see what intellect really is – what sparks can fly from a passion for learning and ideas and beauty.
In particular, he did not simply teach poetry, he revealed its wonders. I looked forward to his classes in poetry as much as I looked forward to a Carnival fête or a cricket match. He talked about poets well beyond those set in the syllabus and through them showed how various beyond our present imaginings could be the experiences and explorations of a lifetime and how one must never be content with mediocrity and shallowness.
The day he read us the “terrible sonnets” of Gerard Manley Hopkins and spoke to us of that extraordinary priest-poet I walked out of the class afterwards in a daze of wonder and determination not to let life slip by aimlessly and superficially. Dishevelled John Hodge, he only taught me for one year. He made a difference in my life. He left and I never even thanked him. That is what happens.
I may be wrong, but I do not think schools and universities teach literature like that any more. Literary appreciation and the teaching of literature seem stuck in a morass of complex interpretation based on ‘deconstructing’ works of art and imagination and on often absurdly abstruse ‘post-modernist’ explications.
Specialist literary magazines are full of articles and reviews of excruciating boredom dominated by jargon and the latest critical ‘ism.’ The critic, working within a clique-indulgent and suffocatingly closed circle, elevates himself in importance far above the author whose art and craft he takes to pieces.
Andrew Delbanco, then Professor of Humanities at Columbia University and a Fellow of the New York Public Library Centre for Scholars and Writers, in an article written some years ago entitled ‘The Decline and Fall Of Literature,’ claimed that everyone in American academia knew that “if you want to locate the laughingstock on your local campus, your best bet is to stop by the English department.” The President of the Modern English Association, Edward Said, had lamented “the disappearance of literature itself from the curriculum” and denounced the “fragmented, jargonized subjects” that had replaced it.
Andrew Delbanco analysed what happened in his article. The process of changing the nature of literary studies began in the late 1950s under the name ‘structuralism’ – a technique by which culture was analysed as a collection of codes and rituals denoting tribal boundaries that protect against transgression by a threatening ‘other.’ Words like ‘high’ and ‘low’ (along with other evaluative terms such as ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced,’ or ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’) acquired obligatory quotation marks, and literature, in effect, became a branch of anthropology.
Under these ‘postmodern’ conditions, what was left for English professors to believe and do? The point of writing and teaching was now less to illuminate literary works than to mount a performance in which the critic, not the work itself, was the main player. The idea of rightness or wrongness in any reading (“there is no room,” de Man wrote, “for… notions of accuracy and identity in the shifting world of interpretation”) was rendered incoherent.
Much of the theory was tendentious or obscure, and the imperative to make one’s mark as a theoretical innovator created what John Guillory called a “feedback loop”: “The more time devoted… to… graduate teaching or research, the more competition for the rewards of promotion and tenure… [and] the more pressure to withdraw from labor-intensive lower-division teaching.” The prestige of graduate teaching rose at the expense of undergraduate teaching, and English departments thereby cut themselves off from the best reason for their continued existence: eager undergraduate readers prepared to be inspired.
Delbanco ended his article by regretting its harsh tone about a profession, the teaching of literature, which he loved. He saw signs of change for the better. There was more talk of “defending the literary” and talk also of the return of beauty as a legitimate subject for analysis and appreciation. The best graduate students were becoming increasingly restless with tired formulas and jargon.
But he concluded that “full-scale revival will come only when English professors recommit themselves to slaking the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one’s own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself. This is among the indispensable experiences of the fulfilled life, and the English department will survive – if on a smaller scale than before – only if it continues to coax and prod students toward it.”
That was some time ago. It would be interesting to know what has happened over the years. For instance, what is now going on in the English Department of the University of Guyana? I have a very high regard for the persons in that department whom I know well – Al Creighton, Alim Hosein, Joyce Jonas. What, I wonder, do they, and their colleagues in the West Indies, think of the state of literary studies and the teaching of literature these days?
I mourn David de Caires. We had a fifty-year friendship. He was one of the great men of my life − setting an example and giving a lead in all he did through his personal integrity, his civility and understanding of people amounting to a sort of genius, his absolute commitment to excellence and his extraordinarily valuable and important role in establishing and sustaining the standards by which his nation’s, and any nation’s, public life should be conducted. Images of him through the years keep coming in my mind. I cannot easily express how much I will miss him. He taught us beyond the ordinary run of our lives.