Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The End of an English Major; or, I Don’t Wanna Talk About Sex Anymore

Here I am, four years older, at the end of my English major. This is, like, a big deal for me. I knew I was an English major when I was, like, fourteen. After reading The Lord of the Rings (Go on. Laugh, laugh, laugh). Then I realized, like kindred spirit, Julie, sometimes says, "You can do this? You can read books for four years? That's a major?"

Imagine my shock & surprise. Imagine my glee. After tearing through Little House on the Prairie, any and all Nancy Drews, the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss, coffee-table books, appliance manuals, how-to pamphlets, anything with words— after devouring all this throughout my awkward youth and adolescence, I could hardly believe I could continue such fantastic (read: useless) exploits as a college student. I was on-board since the 9th grade.

Also imagine my shock & surprise upon finding out what an English major really is. Because an English major, it turns out, is actually not a reading major. Nope. An English major is actually a history major. And a psychology major. And a rhetoric major. You'd be surprised how very little reading of actual literature goes on across four years filled to the brimmest brim with writing and reading of theory and criticism. Yummy, no? Not what I signed up for. Not what I expected as I zealously (and with great relish) checked off the little box next to 'English' on my Villanova online Common App (the very phrase which, by the way, still brings a tremble to my feeble heart). Trading in my Dickens for Derrida? Horrifying. Limerick poetry for Foucault's Pendulum? Slay me. Book reports for analytical criticism? Seriously? Does anyone like this crap?

The answer is no.

Okay, maybe not no. Of course there are people who eat it up. Like professors, for instance. I can think of a certain few who foam at the mouth when it comes time for this kind of thing on the syllabus. But come now. Friends? Who really sits on the beach and reads through a Philippa Gregory thinking about (nay, listing?) the possible New Historicist critiques? Does any casual Austen reader observe the romance of Darcy and Lizzie Bennett with a feminist eye? Or am I the only one who sits down to read a good Graham Greene without pulling out my notes on post-colonial critique? Forgive me.

And how about the lingo? You can fill a whole class period with words so obtuse as to be almost meaningless. Be real, how often do you drop the phrase double-bind in standard conversation? 'Hey, Pete, would you mind passing the rolls when you extricate yourself from that double-bind there?' Haw haw haw. I can hear the roars now. Or 'the subject' and 'the object'? Maybe you should try referring to your BFFs in such intimate terms.

Being an English major made me forget what it means to read. Do you know that feeling? That feeling when you finish a chapter or a whole book, like you've just been pulled out of water, like you've been so taken in by the movements between characters that you forgot to breathe? Being an English major has effectively beaten out of me the wonderment at a well-written book, or a finely-crafted sentence. It has taught me that, in the classroom, your feelings or reactions to a medium that was invented for instruction and entertainment absolutely do not matter.

But of everything my English major has taught me, the most important is this:

Sex is everywhere. Every author in every era consciously decided in every book that every theme should somehow be tied, in some way, to sex.

Sex.

Sex, sex, sex.

SEX.

Oh, what was that, British survey class? There's sex in Beowulf?

What is T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land about? Sex. What motivates Agamemnon to try to kill Achilles? Sex. Why does Edna walk into the ocean at the end of The Awakening? Sex. Why does King Arthur lead a conquest on the continent of Europe? Sex. What is Janie's big revelation about in Their Eyes Were Watching God? Sex. Really, it should be titled Their Eyes Were Watching Sex. I have written about it, I have thought critically about it, and I have participated in class discussions of literature about it. And here, at the end of my beloved major, the truth is this:

I don't wanna talk about sex anymore.

Seriously, keep it to yourself. Hamlet, button your drawers. Sylvia Plath, keep your shirt on (or…your head out of the oven? Too far?). Kids in my "Writing the Novel" workshop class, do not write about it, I don't want to read your juvenile attempts at illustrating the dirty. Get thee away from me with that, crazies.

Perhaps I am overreacting.

It's not that this isn't true about literature. Humans, for all their sophistication, have a pretty predictable fascination with the Full Monty. Now, granted, it's not always The Act itself. Sometimes, we term it "gender" or "queer theory" or "feminism." But whatever you call it, I'm ready for a break from it.

Don't get me wrong. Sex is great. And being an English major in general has been an incredible, perspective-shifting, affirming experience. There have been very few things more fulfilling than my intense, extravagant study of literature. But here is the problem. I honestly cannot remember the last time I read a book and did not, in any form, think about the social/political/historical/spiritual origins and implications, and whether or not authorial intent is valid in this or that instance, or the significance of how many times a certain word is used, or, my favorite, the "project" of the work itself. Like, what the hell? Like I said, I starting doing this because of the way books stilled a hunger in me, the way reading filled the holes in me, the way authors spoke to me across pages and cultures and centuries. Through reading, I learned how to be a human. There is a reason why God speaks to us through a text. Because this is a medium that is unique and mysterious, and even as I write this, I will never be able, ironically, to express in written language the feeling which written language itself elicits in me.

But I can tell you I am ready to once again to fully experience, entirely at my leisure, this feeling again. The summer reading list grows daily. So, at the risk of a terrible pun, this turned out not to be the end of an English major, but merely another chapter.

Anyone? Yeah? Anyone?

I deserve the cyber-silence, I suppose.

But let it be known, this Roaming Librarian has turned in her final essay. The thesis is done, the library books have been returned, the last Writing Center shift has been logged on my payroll. It is all over, and it has been incredible. I know who I am now because of this intense four years of study. And I'm so excited and ready to move forth.

Graduation in T-Minus 11 days. Will we have lift-off?

I'll be back with more soon!

Yours loyally,

R.L.