13 January 2014

On English

On D G Myers' A Commonplace Blog the other day;
'More than two decades ago Alvin Kernan complained that English study “fail[s] to meet the academic requirement that true knowledge define the object it studies and systematize its analytic method to at least some modest degree,” but by then the failure itself was already two decades old. About the only thing English professors have agreed upon since the early ’seventies is that they agree on nothing, and besides, agreement is beside the question. Teaching the disagreement: that’s about as close as anyone has come to restoring a sense of order to English.

In 1976, in his early eighties, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essays The Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously any more, but nor does anyone ask the obvious followup. If English literature is not a common pursuit—not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title—then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
Indeed. I'm sure this is highly contestable, but it can be argued that English Literature as a field of study only dates from the beginning of the last century. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ("Q"), the first King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge was not appointed until 1912, and the Faculty of English itself was only founded in 1919. It was almost immediately riven with dispute and disagreement about its task. Q was a curator of literature, who made his name with the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250–1900 published in 1900; his approach was that of "appreciative criticism". But it was not long before the discipline set out in different, irreconcilable, directions. In the late '20s;
[There were] rival forces within the School of English. I A Richards, the guru of the Cambridge English School, had just published (with C K Ogden) The Meaning of Meaning and Principles of Literary Criticism. His radical approach to the subject, rooted in science and psychology, seized [Alistair] Cooke's imagination.
Cooke's time at Cambridge was just before the real rise to prominence of Richard's alter ego, the lowering figure of F R Leavis; but the seeds of the Deconstruction movement were already being sown—not least by the work of [...] William Empson.
Clarke N (1999) Alistair Cooke: the Biography London; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp 28-29

Of course, Cambridge was probably not typical, but Cooke's experience certainly anticipates my own and that of countless later students:
"Once he'd left the University Cooke's enthusiasm waned. [...] In fact he'd reached the conclusion that English Literature as a field of study was essentially worthless. 'The curse to me of the whole literary school is that it's so hopelessly subjective. There's no way of testing anything, and ultimately it's a waste of time. You will read what you want to read, not what you're told to read, and you will develop your own tastes.'
Although I thoroughly enjoyed my undergraduate years, studying English literature was a mistake on my part—although also a consequence of very unimaginative guidance on the part of the teachers at my grammar school. That strand of my study (since I was at Sussex in its early days, it was only one strand) felt mostly like a penance to be undergone to pay for all the other dishes in the academic buffet, despite some brilliant teachers such as Stephen Medcalf and Tony Nuttall. When I left, I bought a couple of science-fiction books to read on the train home. I thought they were probably rubbish, but I was free at last! In fact, one of them was by someone called Asimov... I never touched anything approximating to the "canon" for 20 years, until a friend persuaded me Jane Austen was funny. How had I missed that?

Back to Myers' point—experience over the years suggests that literary criticism is principally a way of legitimising academic competition and feuding.

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