What are you going to do with that?
I was recently asked by one of my professors to defend my English major. This is what I wrote. (Note that I also have a Philosophy major that I love and appreciate very much. But, that wasn’t the assignment. Although I’m pretty sure most of my main points would translate.)
I do not remember the moment I chose to be an English major. It wasn’t a dream I was desperate to accomplish, nor was it a single moment or book or person that inspired me to do so. If anything, when the time came to decide what major to claim, English Literature is the only one that seemed to make sense—although, at the time, I was not even aware of the reasons. With every class, professor, summer reading list, and paper, I discovered more reasons.
By choosing to be an English major, you also choose to subject yourself to the constant curiosity of friends and family that usually comes in the form of questions such as:
“What are you going to do with that?”
“So you are spending four years reading books?”
or “Have fun working at a coffee shop for the rest of your life.”
There is an assumed lack of connection between the humanities and vocation, and it is this assumption that has threatened my major into a place of question. So, in defense of my education and dedication to the study of English Literature, I say that I am an English major because I am dedicated to an art form that illuminates some of the essential qualities of what it means to be human. In my pursuit of literature and its function, I have some to realize its role as a sort of bridge between us and this accessible but misunderstood “otherness.” or “middle” place. In his book The Singularity of Literature, Derek Attridge uses a term called “otherness,” which is similar to this idea of a middle place. Attridge writes, “Otherness is not something the would-be creator can simply take hold of, as an idea, a formal possibility, a mathematical equation, lying outside familiar framework.” It’s as if Attridge is suggesting that without literature, we would have no access to this “other” or “middle” place.
In his essay “The Study of Poetry,” Matthew Arnold writes:
“Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world, it would still be abundantly worthwhile to continue to enjoy it by oneself. But it never will lose currency with the world, in spite of momentary appearances; it will never lose supremacy. Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,– by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity.”
Arnold presents literature as essential to humanity. It is part of the currency of life because it speaks into a place that we all recognize as humans, and its relevance will remain because of the connections it provides between beauty and us.
I have come to see an understanding of beauty as one of the most important and necessary passions in which to dedicate my life. The Victorian writer Walter Pater calls art a sort of necessary companion to lived experience; he writes:
“For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”
Our lives are made up of passing moments in which we feel different variations of unexplainable emotions. When you choose to study literature with Pater’s understanding of art’s relationship to the quality of our moments, you begin to understand literature as essential and unavoidable.
More than ever, because of this overly symbolic transition in my life, I am answering questions about my future. Somedays I answer confidently, and somedays I crack a joke in order to steer the conversation in another direction. In a sea of all these unknowns surrounding the future of my relationships, location, vocation, etc. I am still trying to only live within the time that belongs to me.
So, when asked the question, “What are you going to with an English major?”
I will quietly and confidently reply,
“I hope to live well.”