Humanities, Anyone?

Jascha Kessler

Communication and Knowledge, two terms commonly attributed to the finest of benefits bestowed by the Internet, do not of themselves suggest what today troubles professors of the humanities. Speaking of whom reminds me of a cartoon I saw in 1954, showing the usual nondescripts at a cocktail party.  One brisk, bow-tied fellow asks another, “Read any good books lately?”  The shabby, grizzled, tieless, round-shouldered other replies, “Wrote one.” Further to that, when in the summer of 1947 my 10 year-old kid brother paid me a visit at a resort hotel where I was a waiter, I asked him what he had been reading.  “The Iliad,“ he answered,  and recited a passage.  “Good for you!” I exclaimed.  That honest child, abashed, giggled, “Well, no. Classics Comics, actually.” 

 Which digression at the outset leads me to the following observations. It’s loudly lamented [by whom, aside from those who teach the Humanities?] that our colleges are losing faith in, and (funding) support for, the humanities. At the same time, people seem universally excited and entranced, deliriously engrossed by instant electronic communication and what they think is knowledge, enhanced and ubiquitously available on their portable screens.  The scene today is almost like Caliban’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, wherein he wonderingly tells of music and voices heard around him everywhere on that desert isle — Ariel’s and kindred angelic beings — unfortunately almost none of them superb or sublime, as networked for us. 

I remind college students that what the Internet provides besides diversions is mainly information.  Which is well and good.  I am immensely grateful for the resources that can be called down with a click or two.  When I am at work writing or studying, I need but a “keyword” to summon information I don’t clearly or exactly recall. Marvelous!  Wonderful! However, I actually read through many books — paper books — during the several decades that formed my education. 

The students I greet in my UCLA classes, bright, willing, and eager though they are, haven’t the foggiest.  I find that they, like my grandchildren, mostly have not read and digested too many books, or even stories let alone poems, or the narratives of history. They seem to have been informed on the fly.  The world they live in affords downloads of millions and more "songs" that are as difficult to distinguish from one from another as it would be to distinguish oranges piled high at the supermarket.  Whereas at 82, I find that the music, for instance, of a Schubert song I’ve heard now and then since my teens, offers notes and phrases I’d not heard before.  This is even truer with the newfound sense of a line or two in a sonnet of Shakespeare!  I see for instance in my seminar titled “What a Poem Says,” that our 18-20 year olds cannot hear or grasp a simple word, let alone a phrase, though they try to guess.  They suppose the sound and spelling constitutes the word. They speak, sweetly and modestly themselves, yet seem not to know what the speech of poetry is.  They understand what they hear as merely familiar, like TV chatter; they can apprehend the announcements of politicians and statesmen; yet au fond they do not or cannot comprehend them as anything more or less than communication or information.  For them words are mere, merely, and merest, well … words. 

Personally, I am perpetually astonished by the simplest phrase, say in a poem such as I have gone over with them line by line: what it imports, what it contains of the writer's experience of the world in which it was uttered, and the history of that language's aura, so to say.  It is no wonder clerics have always given out homiletics, expounding a sentence or phrase ancient and familiar, yet essentially mysterious albeit it containing a well of feelings and thoughts and facts of daily life as it is lived. 

That is what teaching "Humanities" means for me.  True, a college major in Humanities is but the first step into the possible and potential recognition of one's own being — or having been — in life itself.  I remind students that we do in fact see darkly, as in a mirror. That mirror is what Matthew Arnold once held up to show us what was the best thought and said ... and written by larger lives and souls than youth, being youth, can recognize and comprehend.  Nor many with age, for that matter.  History may be tales of sound and fury, narratives written by victors and their historians, as the cynic says.  Nevertheless the records of thoughts in the subjects labeled Humanities are not labile or friable, or passing; whereas the discoveries of scientific research are, necessarily, always altering, superseding, or abandoning what has been thought to be the case yesterday.  For Science, anything found  and theorized can be tested as to its falsifiability.

It is so difficult to convey what a sentence of poetry — not a poetical sentence — says.  The kids seemed to think the other week, for instance, that they understood what Emily Dickinson said in the first lines of her poem, which run “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul .... “  Just to get at what hope might, may, or can be, what the word as spoken says, not “means,” took an hour.  As for the poem’s 12-lines, they gradually constitute themselves as an extraordinary artifact, uttered as it were sotto voce if uttered at all, not immediately to be comprehended; indeed, in reflection it suggests itself as anti-Gospel. 

At the other end of life: I have an acquaintance who travels frequently to international conferences, is a molecular biologist at UCLA commanding a top-flight lab maintained by today’s rich funding for a red-hot field.  A modest man entered into his 70s, he has taken to asking what there is to do in those exotic venues where he does the panelist’s tango, having days of free time before, during and after sessions of science congress.  Lately, he has become curious to learn something of the arts and architecture of those cultural capitals.  In short, he has not a clue regarding the Arts, let alone Humanities. Surprised, he finds himself suddenly old enough — and eager — to begin to see and hear, perhaps to "experience" what the old poet Yeats called "monuments of unaging intellect."  Better late than never?  Rather, late, or too late! 

Those “things” are what we who have been students of the Humanities profess; and what we wish to maintain.  Digitization of texts and images notwithstanding, though stored  —safely?  — and downloaded on request from the Great Cloud to be “experienced” virtually, are not events that are melded promptly or easily into in our very marrow, so to say.  Education requires their absorption over time.  For example, another cartoon I recall from 1954 may illustrate what is supposed our profession.   A young fellow picks up a heavy valise labeled, say, HUMANITIES.  He carries it ten years; appears older in the next frame; in another 10 years older still, et cetera.  In the final panel, he is shown bearded, bent, a broken-winded geezer sitting on that never-opened, lifelong luggage.   Caption: “The Professor as intellectual porter.”  Sardonic?  Yes.  Nevertheless it also describes the vast repository now filling with the 0s and 1s that represent whatever remains of the past, nowadays called Knowledge, though more accurately termed Information. 

Most of our university and college disciplines, larded with pelf and power, carry on their backs what might be called The Old Man of the Sea — whole buildings stuffed with suites of administrative officials. They, with their hugely-funded professional schools, Engineering, Medicine, Law, and Social Sciences like Psychology, tend to regard HUMANITIES as the leaden burden of a portmanteau not worth the effort to schlep along, or if schlepped, not worth unpacking, sorting, and to demonstrate its content offering the concentrated residue of millennia-old lives to ignorant youth.  They would prefer our wide-eyed, wondering kids deafened by ear-buds to try to hum one or two of the millions of downloadable “songs” — how many of those tunes are electronically potted?  — than to try to THINK! - as that IBM office poster once had it.  To welter, drowning in noise seems preferable to those who haven’t the wispiest notion of what any one “thing” might be, let alone the cost of learning what it is. 

I suppose it comes down to this: There is a growing consensus by our budget masters that contrasts the HUMANITIES, whatever they may be, were, or could be, to vocational training, necessary though that is to earning a living.   Professional schools are essentially vocational.  The proper term for them is Technology, the origins of which begin with the first flaked knife or arrowhead, the spark that was struck from a flint to make the fire that cooked our raw foods.  Like Science, like Theology, the Humanities are no mere luxury to be discarded or trimmed away to nothing simply because they cost too many discretionary bucks.   

As for Technology, what engineering students learn is that after 10 years’ work at their speciality, they are usually obsoleted, the grant funds and investors’ cash having been directed elsewhere. For some, the reward is being kicked upstairs to a manager’s job.  Necessary, but not what they put their best years into.  And even a manager’s slot is itself soon obsoleted.  Discarded, they come to resemble the broken ones whom Mr. O'Brien in 1984 sent off to a dingy cafe to play chess and drink Victory gin while awaiting the hour when a bullet would be blasted into their heads from behind one ear. 

 

Jascha Kessler is a Professor Emeritus of English & Modern Literature at UCLA. He has published seven books of his poetry and fiction as well as six volumes of translations of poetry and fiction from Hungarian, Persian, Serbian and Bulgarian.

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