Why Indeed Must Anything Be Left of English Studies?
Joseph, Clara A. B., English Studies in Canada
What's Left of English Studies? Right!
We whisper about English Studies in Canada, as in fast-disappearing Ontario hospital emergency rooms--"Will she make it?" While Higher Education in Canada vies for funding with Canada's defense system and health care system, anemic cousins in the Social Sciences, first cousins in the faculties of Humanities, the Fine Arts, and Culture and Communications, ask with some glimmer of hope, "She won't make it. Will she? Shhhh!"
For our purposes, English Studies means the study of English Literature and Literary Criticism, the stuff that goes on in departments of English. But the history of that stuff has not remained the same. Sir Ifor Evans's A Short History of English Literature is in tatters. No self-respecting university library holds a history of literature too far beyond the sweet seventies.
New Criticism may have helped to bury the book of literary history. When New Critics took to pedagogy, strange things happened: poets flourished. Students loved poetry. Professors even more. To be able to walk into a classroom and to begin close reading a poem from no-man's land, just like that, sans history, sans biography, sans sans, was simply something else! My department (and probably yours) still has a required course in the close reading of poems. It is good for you.
But that was not why poets in Canada multiplied. In the thirties and the forties, while our universities were mostly oblivious to their existence, English Canadian poets were encouraged by the Canadian Council of Authors through the Alberta Poetry Contest and by the Nova Scotia Centre of the Poetry Society of England through the Nova Scotia Poetry Contest. Our close reading of poems often had no use for anything Canadian in such circumstances, although, from across the border, a William Carlos Williams's red wheelbarrow against white chickens was obviously too poetic to be ignored. Why "so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow" particularly when it is "glazed with rain /water" only the class (and the poem of course) itself knew. If the pediatrician-poet from New Jersey knew as he waited for a child to die, good for him!
That the piece of art is an autonomous entity may sound like 19th-century aesthetic rhetoric. But we still practice our French. L'art pour l'art. One reason we can still say this is because we embrace one thing: "?" A question. A question is an autonomous entity. Unanswered questions are in themselves the answers. There is wisdom in that, dummy! If WWI led to a questioning of tradition, our English department canonized James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Shantih sans Om. Some more questioning after WWII almost spoilt the question-game for us, for we began to get some answers. But at least the answers revealed meaninglessness, nothingness, and postmodernism. It could have been worse, you know?
Meanwhile we came of age. The practice of literary criticism found a new bed-fellow, theory. The name felt heavy on our tongues at first. Like modest Hindu wives in Madras movies, we refused to utter that name. But then we tried it softly, first in whispers, then louder, louder. We gave lit crit a hasty burial and to our heart's content ogled at theory's king-size sprawl.
Philosophers wooed us all over again. In the bitter end, the postman slid the kid-cut diamond ring. Post-structuralism.
Let's get serious.
A) That there is nothing outside the text.
B) That truth is relative.
C) That everything is constructed.
I do. I do. I do.
The department of English eyed the postman. If the chap were text we could have tried shredding. We've handled texts before. They quivered under our touch. And we trembled at that very possibility. Instead, the department flexed its knee before the absolute truth of relativism. We touched each other to confirm our constructedness and learnt to relish the space in-between--the groove, sweat and all. …