Interlude: Some thoughts on finishing a MFA and on the idea of a literary education

At the University of Cincinnati I wrote my senior thesis for the English Department on the work of the 17th century poet Katherine Philips. Her poetry is strictly disciplined, and her thought is mystical but carefully balanced, poised, not an access of vague and visionary wonder. As to Philips’ craft, her style you might say, it was neither like Donne’s nor like Herbert’s, whom I’d been studying and admiring when I first discovered Philips, nor, despite her friendship with the man, in the vein of Henry Vaughan. Rather, Katherine Philips was among the inheritors of Ben Jonson. Hermeticism combined with intellectual rigor and strict classicism of prosody is not something you often find. It is a combination I appreciate, and I heartily recommend Philips to fans of 17th century poetry. One phrase from Philips’ poetry has stuck with me for fifteen years — in fact, if I remember correctly, it is the phrase around which I constructed my entire thesis:

Passion hath violent extremes, and thus  
All oppositions are contiguous.

I’ll tell you this right now: if you want to win my heart, rhyme on a logical connector and then use that connector to turn what should be a simple statement of self-evident truth into one of mysterious causation. I bring up Philips’ phrase because I find that it’s knocking around in my mind once more as I reflect on the course of my literary education, or formation as I would prefer to call it, which is now concluding. The oppositions, or opposite poles, of my formal education in literary and linguistic matters are contiguous. I once thought of these poles as antagonistic, but now I see they are complementary and kin. It is what lies in the middle that is incommensurable and, I have come to think, something that I could have done without.

My institutional literary formation beyond high school came about in three stages: a BA in English and Classics; a PhD in English which I abandoned after five years, taking only a MA; and the MFA in creative writing (fiction). These degrees represent three distinct types of formation, respectively in philology, criticism, and practice. If there is another type of literary formation (apart from simply acquiring life experience), I do not know what it would be. There is the stuff with which one makes (philology), the meaning that is supposed to inhere in the thing made (criticism), and the making itself (practice). As I say, it is the middle portion about which I would here express strong reservation, and even repudiate. The common-sense notion would hold that criticism is the most important aspect of an education in letters, that philological learning is valuable only as a means to developing a critical acumen, and that practice is unnecessary except for those who would like to be writers. At this point in my own experience, I do not agree with any of that. Now I will see if I can explain why, but please don’t take any of this as argument. Really, all I am attempting is a distillation of and reflection upon my experience of these three types of literary formation.

I sometimes like to tell myself that I read widely, but I know this is untrue, at least in comparison with the way I read between the ages of about sixteen and twenty-two. It was the most adventurous and exciting time, intellectually, in my life. (And maybe more than just intellectually — but then, excitement isn’t all there is to life.) All forms of literary art appealed equally to me in those days — realism, fantasy, verse, prose. I also had a strong sense that there was a canon, a certain civilizational “deposit” (as David Jones would call it), which I had to master. The University of Cincinnati was at that time still a fairly traditional place, and the curriculum was set up in such a way that one could proceed methodically through the tradition at least of English literature from the early medieval or Anglo-Saxon epoch to the present. That is more or less what I did, I started with such Old English literature as remains and I went up to about, say, David Foster Wallace, who was then still living and at the height of his fame.

But there was another aspect to that phase that was equally important, and that was the study of foreign languages. I already knew French pretty well upon arriving at the University, so I was able to pursue a minor in French literature. But the much more important language study occurred with Greek and Latin. I was also able to look into Old English, Irish and Welsh (I can’t say I learned these languages, but I studied their basic structures and vocabularies and phonetics — tasted them, as Tolkien said in a lecture on Welsh), and I began to study German (modern standard) and Italian (medieval Tuscan, to be more accurate). I don’t mean for any of this to sound impressive, though I recognize it may sound like boasting. But an important point I want to make is that it really isn’t all that impressive. If it seems that way it’s only because the nature of our educational system in the US is such that the acquisition of foreign languages is treated as a supplementary activity and not as the foundation of learning to think in the first place. Throughout most of the history of quasi-formal education, the acquisition of at least one foreign tongue from an early age has been standard. It is only by dint of speaking the lingua franca as one’s native language, and living in the most powerful country in the world isolated by two oceans, that most Americans have come to think of acquiring foreign languages as a somehow specialized or exotic education.

So why did I want to make the literary, historical and linguistic study of languages — philology — the basis of my own education? I think it was because I perceived that the writers who made the greatest impression on me had been formed philologically. I am talking about Tolkien, Joyce, T S Eliot… and then if you go back to the earlier periods, Chaucer and Spenser and Milton were multilingual and interested in the history of the languages they knew, and this in such a way that it served as a basis for their literary art. I had the opportunity to attempt to fashion myself in their image, so that is what I set about to do. Such a self-fashioning (to steal and repurpose Greenblatt’s term) just seemed to me the only literary education there was. You read widely and you read in the original languages where possible. You also read deep in history, and the upshot would be that the world would be an immense and ancient and poetic place for you, because it would be layered in three thousand years of one’s civilizational inheritance. And to some extent, I did manage to realize this vision.

But I would later perceive that there is a problem with the vision. I’ll address the problem at greater length when I discuss David Jones’ work, but in brief it is this: that civilization, the fruition of the Axial Age in the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian world of the Mediterranean basin and the European subcontinent (or in other words what we call, somewhat absurdly, Western) — that civilization is, to anyone who has studied it in any depth, very clearly coming to an end now. Even as Western technology and social structures spread over the entire planet, the actual roots and essence of that Western culture are deteriorating and disappearing at breakneck speed. If the world feels like it’s flying apart, that’s because it is. The most basic assumptions about human nature, about moral and epistemological authority, about the existence of a transcendent origin of reality and a cosmic order in line with that origin — all of the assumptions that have prevailed for two or three millenia are being extinguished. (Nobody really doubts this. We call the condition “postmodern,” and it seems to be lasting longer than we thought it would, all post- and not pre- anything, at least not yet.) Another paradoxical development is that, again, even as the superficial aspects of contemporary Western culture and Western technology spread over the world more ineluctably than ever they did in the Colonial Era, the large-scale power dynamics of that Colonial Era are being undermined. This transformation is altogether just and right, but it carries with it the consequence that the canon I learned so passionately in my youth has been provincialized. The provincializaton of the canonical literary deposit is not in itself a problem, it is in fact a more truthful perspective, though an undeniable fact is that it entails a devaluation of credentials for those of us who have staked our education on it. It is the lapsing, even among those who are its historical heirs, of belief in the truths of the deeper Western tradition, with its sources in the philosophical systems originating in Greco-Roman antiquity and the social and cosmological vision that came from the Jewish and Christian religions, that more drastically devalues the literary deposit, and can even evacuate it of meaning. In other words, the traditional philology in which I’m steeped is rapidly dwindling in relevance. So it seems to me, and so it has seemed to plenty of others before me — to the T S Eliot of The Waste Land, for instance, or a generation later to the great critic George Steiner.

I am mostly going to skip over the second phase of my literary formation, the PhD school. To be blunt and quick about it, I think the interpretation of literature, or what we now call criticism, is almost totally useless and phantasmagorical. It is all too easily made the thrall of ephemeral ideological programs. That’s one problem with it, but not actually the bigger problem. The bigger problem is that a work of art doesn’t mean anything other than itself. Art isn’t mean to lie around inert, interpreted by experts, it’s meant to function dynamically within a living symbolic structure, a culture. I think Ananda Coomaraswamy was very right about this. Whatever can be paraphrased in a work of art is either not of its essence, or else it is ineffectual, the ghost of a meaning that was once not known about but believed and lived. The present hypertrophy of our collective critical faculty is not like the birth of Western philosophy in Ionia 500 years before Christ, nor like the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century; it is instead entirely deconstructive and knows nothing of wonder. Rather than awakening its disciples to the beauty and truth and goodness of the literary artifact, our criticism teaches them to see in it little more than a record of power struggle, an eternal return of repression and oppression and subversion. Paul Ricoeur famously called this way of thinking a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Not all literary scholarship is worthless. Whatever scholarship still aspires to philological goals is certainly valuable. But scholarship that takes one or another form of so-called critical theory as its point of departure or espouses the hermeneutics of suspicion is the clumsy tool of a displaced brahmin class, evidently self-serving and hopelessly abstract. The ideal is real, and so is the concrete, the particular. What lies in between — the ghostly abstractions and paranoias of the self-appointed moral guardians and technocrats of contemporary Western culture — is unreal. So I believe. As far as literary formation is concerned, because I believe what I do, I find the intermediary stage of my own formation to have been largely a waste intellectually. It was not a waste practically, since it gave me another five years in which to read, to study languages, and above all to teach undergraduates. I value what there is to be valued, and I remain grateful for all the privileges I have been accorded, hoping to use them well. But one does have to come sometimes to certain negative conclusions. There is no young person I know, no matter how intelligent or literarily inclined, to whom I would today recommend the study of literature at the doctoral level. Not, at any rate, if such a person wished to cultivate in herself an ever more nuanced and potent sense of wonder and joy in the literary artifact.

But the MFA is another matter. It’s true, creative writing has long since become an institution in the US, and taken as a whole it does indeed suffer all the hyper-professionalization, intramural squabbling, and self-absorption at the cost of scope of vision that any institution inevitably suffers. However, that said, the Master of Fine Arts is still — or at least it has been for me — true to form. That is to say that it is not plagued by the sort of illusive intellectuality that vitiates literary criticism. The MFA is mainly the dispassionate, guild-like study of a craft. I cannot overstate how much I have valued such study. What I mean when I say the MFA is contiguous with a philological formation is that it deals with particulars, it gets into the real, visible structures and techniques of an art form, which happen to be very hard for moralists to colonize. When you study literature the way you do for a MFA, you learn something undeniably real and tangible and immediate about the world. I have found that the MFA therefore builds well on a philological foundation, though of course one can do it without that and still profit from it. In fact, studying creative writing could go a long way to making up for what one misses out on philologically. I hope it has done this for me. But really the two approaches to literary discipleship are, as I said above, complementary. They might be undertaken in tandem for non-utilitarian purposes, i.e. not so that one might work as a translator (you know, all those high-paying jobs at the UN translating Old English…) or become a published author, but so as to learn about the world as it appears to us and precedes all more practical considerations: the world as language, that in which we live and move and have our being.

So, to recapitulate: Language, in all its concreteness and historical particularity and individuality, is real. Ideas are also real. Abstract programs of interpretation are not to be confused with ideas and are significantly less real than language and ideas. The best literary formation is a preparation for reality in all its presence and all its transcendence. So I would eschew the descent into ungrounded abstraction that is “critical thinking” and advocate for the immersion in real knowledge, the knowledge of forms, that is philological and compositional training. In philology and in the study of literature as an art form that one may learn to imitate, even if as an amateur or as an exercise, the world takes on a granular and complex texture, but at the same time one learns to perceive how idea inheres in form. And one develops a comparatist and practical instinct. You learn to see how different languages approach the same problems of articulation, and likewise you learn alternative approaches for problems in composition. I’m not advocating everyone with literary inclinations get a MFA. There should still be an institutional distinction between people who want to be professional about writing — who want to enter the guild — and those who are pursuing the craft only for non-utilitarian reasons. But if I could reconfigure how literature is taught, so that it might come again to feel like a vital thing, not only a deposit but a heritage, I would slash all the crap about critical this and critical that, and I would replace it with traditional philology and training in literary composition. This is how things seem to me after two decades of sustained study, in three modes, of language as an art, and of thinking as I go about what allows one to appreciate the most intimate textures and attune oneself to the subtlest and deepest resonances of the literary artifact, whatever it still retains of the Western civilizational legacy. I am for the earthy and particular, the real locution and the living metaphor that is the idea; and against moralism and abstraction.

Let me admit again that I have not argued anything here. Perhaps someone reading has done a PhD in literature more or less recently and got more out of the experience than I did. I’m well aware that plenty of people — they used to be my colleagues — would find a rejection of critical thought such as I have expressed here to be morally reprehensible. Looking ahead, I will say, apropos of some of the notions articulated here, that I am interested in David Jones’ thought largely because he was preoccupied by how one makes art in the midst of the lapse of a civilizational order. For Jones, such an order is a system of living signs, efficacious signs, signs that are believed in and not merely known about. The artist, according to Jones, works with signs. What happens, then, if the artist’s material is no longer valid, if in other words he no longer shares a language with the bulk of his peers? One of the reasons I am interested in various kinds of literature that can be called fantasy is that I believe these genres contain the remnants of the civilizational deposit, the arsenal of signs, symbols, images, archetypes et cetera which used to be real to the mass of people of whatever educational level. What I suppose I’m trying to do here is to practice a different sort of literary criticism, not theoretical in motivation but philological — that is, to appreciate and contemplate for love of the word.

p.s. And I promise no further rants about cultural politics.