Reflections of a senior English major
Sometimes when I jumble my words in conversation, my noble-hearted and sharp-witted friends in the politics department will comment that I don’t know much about English, despite my studies in the area.
To this I usually respond: I’m an English major because I’m learning English, not because I know it!
While this answer was originally formed as a knee-jerk response to common flows in conversation, I have been recently considering how much truth it holds. With graduation approaching and comprehensive exams recently completed, one wonders — somewhat belatedly — what the purpose of being an English major is.
This consideration reminded me of a conversation I had a year and a half ago with two good friends — Tommy Thompson and Margaret Hamilton, who were both senior English majors at the time and have since graduated.
Our four hour dialogue on the porch of an Old Mill apartment was — unlike the porch — wide and long; it spanned horizontally from Irish poet Seamus Heaney to the purpose of academic study, and vertically from our personal experiences with Heaney’s poetry to the purpose of human life in general.
The foundational question of the conversation, posed by Thompson, was the following: why do we honor those that enter into an impossible task, knowing they will not fully succeed? It appears that they have failed, and yet we honor them above all others. Some examples Thompson provided were as follows:
A good soldier obeys his king, even if he knows he is charging into a losing battle.
A good poet writes, even if he knows he will never be able to perfectly capture — with the poverty of language and the nakedness of the page — the consistently contradictory thing that is human experience.
A good lover loves, even if he knows that there are no amount of days spent or conversations had with the beloved that will allow him to grasp even a thread of their inherently valuable, incommunicable personhood.
So why do we honor these people, who seem to have objectively failed, for example, a soldier failed to be victorious, a poet failed to fully express, a person failed to fully understand the other?
Hamilton responded: perhaps it is because there is something honorable about attempting the impossible.
My elaboration on Hamilton’s response is this: we honor these people because there is something incredibly brave, and exquisitely human, in attempting something beyond ourselves. Blameless fidelity, perfected clarity, and deepest understanding are examples of something beyond ourselves. Something impossibly and inextricably in the veil between ourselves and another world — a world that we are utterly unsuited for in our fallen animality and yet utterly called to in the deepest desires of our beating, breathing soul.
It appears to me that this longing of the beating, breathing soul is a great gift. It provides the opportunity to strive, to desire, to change and to extend. Without it we are stagnant, idle and potentially destructive.
To choose to live in an attempt of the impossible is to choose to live in gift. Choosing to live in gift is choosing to view the unsatisfiable craving of human existence not as a hindrance, but rather as a reason to charge further into the veil hanging between myself and where One is waiting for me, Arms outstretched waiting to fill every crack and crevice of my jumbled person, allowing me the immortality that my breathing soul demands and my animality forbids.
Going back to what any of this has to do with English majoring: these veil-encroaching, soul-breathing reasons are my inspiration for choosing this area of study. I have found the materials offered by the University of Dallas’ English department particularly suited to putting one in an impossible intellectual position where the only options are to give up or choose to live in gift.
Poetry in particular advertises the occasional density of the human mind like a neon sign. As a wise professor once told me: if you fully understand a poem on your first read, you either have a bad poem or too large an ego!
Poetry actively beckons one into the veil, into the crossroads where one must choose — give up, or choose to attempt the impossible — the impossible being, in this case, a full and complete understanding of a poem. Attempting the impossible requires the humility to admit that our attempt is just that — an attempt.
There are many noble studies offered at UD. Analyzing the political regimes of the developing world, considering what in them are for or against human flourishing; exploring the biological framework that life hinges on; investigating Who God Is through revealed Truths in Theology, and Why We Are through her handmaiden Philosophy; all these are different species of an attempt of the impossible.
In my opinion, critical reading — with the intention of critical understanding — is an attempt at the impossible that best reflects the attempt at the impossible that is my soul-body composite surging toward Heaven, without the right or ability to do so on my own. Both attempts require humility; both attempts require a charge on the veil; both attempts require the choice to live ever-presently in the gift of not-being-capable.
When we choose to live in this gift, suddenly the veil becomes transparent; a vision of the blameless fidelity, perfect clarity and deepest understanding, that which we desire and is ahead of us, becomes clear. Since, for me, it is more difficult to live without this hope than with it, I do my darnedest to live in gift.