The English Department is sick unto death. The signs are all there: an aging tenured professoriate; a generation of young PhDs unable to land workable academic jobs; an even younger generation of undergraduates increasingly ignoring the literary path altogether. The organism seems to be reaching the end of its life-cycle.
That is certainly the prognosis of Andrew Kay, who returned to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association this year after a few years away. One of those disappointed young PhDs, Kay failed to find a position at the right time and had to leave academia altogether. Upon returning to the disciplinary hub of academic literary study, like a jilted lover come back to the site of an old romance, what he finds is “Academe’s Extinction Event”: a gathering of the literary elite that displays the symptoms of the institution’s mortal illness, yet also reminds Kay of why he came to love literature in the first place.
Two symptoms of the discipline’s decline, painfully visible in the people Kay meets at the 2019 MLA, are especially noteworthy. The first is that the literary scholars seem readier to talk about theories of literature, and those theories’ political uses, than the works of art themselves. Kay finds modish theorists discoursing on the evils of life in the “Capitalocene,” or “the now-ness of Foucault’s Archaeology,” but precious little about poems, plays, or novels themselves. While attending a panel discussion on Romantic poetry, Kay finds himself wondering:
how strange it was that this was the endpoint of falling in love with, and dedicating your life to, poems about people striding through the Alps and glimpsing sublimity: you wound up in a hotel room far below the ground, where the air was awful and people talked at you in a weird, creepy language — a language that had somehow attached itself to poetry the way the titular creature clings to John Hurt’s face in Alien and won’t let go.
The violent image captures the truth of the situation: Much literary theory and practice today is more about dominating and using art than delighting in it.
The second symptom is the comfy bureaucratic mentality of the tenured old guard. Kay catches leaders of the field and MLA officers in moments of lurid smugness, insulated from the steep decline of their discipline:
All around them, the humanities burned. The number of jobs in English advertised on the annual MLA job list; adjuncts . Whole departments are being extirpated by administrators with utilitarian visions; from 2013 to 2016, . Meanwhile the number of English majors at most universities continues to swoon.
Kay asks the sitting president of the association, “Do you feel a bit like the captain of the Titanic?” (Her answer, in brief: not really.) The dwindling few ride to the end in glitzy, jargon-encrusted cabins while the multitudes floating in the frigid water outside struggle to stay alive, and swim they know not where.
Kay’s jaundiced eye sees the justice in this extinction: Literary academia has forgotten its raison d’etre, and a costly institution can only last so long without a clear justification for its existence. Yet Kay also expresses real sadness at what is being lost, and it is that sadness that points the way to literature’s justification. He is sad because literary study provided him with beauty, with an apparently noble path in life, and with a real community engaged in a common purpose. For Kay, these goods now seem incidental to the practice of literary study, but what if his heart sees further than his mind, and they are not? What if the contemporary English Department is dying precisely because it has failed to take these goods seriously?
Old-fashioned as it may sound, the truth, goodness, and beauty of literary art are the only real grounds of its justification. Kay senses these interrelated characteristics in the literature he loves, though he does not know how to talk about them. Take beauty first: It is the shining loveliness of the work of art that draws us in, as Kay describes being drawn in by a lyric of Hopkins or Hart Crane. The draw is beauty, and Kay cannot deny it—though he ironizes his attraction, unsure that it means anything. But these poems are good, which means they are worthy of our time and commitment: Their beauty pulls us in, and their goodness makes us want to treasure them—to give ourselves over to them, as a lover does. Kay, like the rest of our metaphysically unconfident generation, feels shy about affirming this goodness into which beauty has led him, in part because he is not sure it is true.
And here is the heart of the issue: If a work of literary art tells a unique and critical truth, then it is good—worth giving oneself to—and its beauty has not misled us. The truth of literature is peculiar and complex: It does not give us the things it represents themselves, but partial images of those things, as experienced by particular persons. It provides an analogy of reality from a never-to-be-repeated point of view, adding a unique angle of insight to what it depicts. So the poems Kay loves—the poems we all love—augment reality for the better, telling truths that would not otherwise be told, and which cannot be told in any other way. As such, they are good—worthy of his love—and their beauty has not been for nothing.
Indeed, as others encourage him to believe, Kay’s years of graduate study were not for nothing, and neither was the birth of the English Department a century ago. If we can return once more to the truth, goodness, and beauty of literature, then the discipline will live again as it once did, and as it still does in hidden pockets of higher education.
Dwight A. Lindley III is associate professor of English at Hillsdale College.