Why is Linguistics such a big deal for so many of us? What is it that makes it such a struggle for so many of us, a subject we all love to hate? It’s not as if it’s difficult in itself; or, at least, that which we in this university are taught at this level – simple and to the point, it’s easy to master if the effort’s put into it.
If the effort’s put into it. If. That’s operative: if. Come to think of it, almost everything and anything can be mastered if the effort’s put into it. What prevents, happily perhaps, all of us from turning into uomo universale is precisely that, if. Indeed, for whether effort is put into something or not depends on what that effort should be and who has to put it. Linguistics per se is not difficult, but given the evidence it seems to be for many literature students in this university. Of course, it’s primarily because a lot of people don’t feel like doing it, but the why of that don’t can’t just be good old laziness – for if it were, that would extend in a semblance of measure to other subjects, and that it does not. There has to be another reason.
Or reasons? One wonders. Can it have anything to do with the ways in which literature is taught, literary criticism conceived and literature and literary criticism received, i.e. the roles they are seen to occupy in the larger, so-called social context? One wonders...
What does it mean to be a student of literature today – and particularly this university, Delhi University? First of all, and without a doubt, it means to be somewhere near the rarefied heights of a given hierarchy of disciplines, to share with the other chosen few the status and privileges natural to the topmost in the pecking order. Yet, assuming the rationale of this order, literature is perhaps the only within this cosmos to be at the top and yet strangely sans the basis to be so, this self same basis being little more than the historical incidence of it being the coloniser’s favourite subject. Other luminaries – Economics, Political Science, Commerce, History – have all reasons which more or less make sense within the overarching logic of social relevance, factuality and marketability that informs this rationale while Literature, or English as the misnomer goes here, has little to put it where it seems to be.
Yet, it firmly remains there, gaining, as admission trends both in this university and others show, only more and more popularity with a cross-section of the so-called youth, so much so that whole new institutes are opened and seats increased to somehow absorb the rapidly growing percentage of aspirants. For a discipline which has little actual reasons to be a discipline, this is surprising to say the least.
But why do I say it has little actual reason to be so? Here’s why.
First, going back to that rationale, social relevance. How is Literature, English Literature as its structured and taught at all levels in this university, relevant to – again, so-called – society? The easiest, and the one common to all literary disciplines, is that it makes one a better human being, that by providing insights into human nature and behaviour in a variety of situations and circumstances, literature gives one the opportunity to develop sensibilities keener and more humane than the rest of ordinary humanity. This, in spite of being clichéd and exaggerated, is somewhat true; yet, even as it is, it is only for itself, only as much as it amounts to reading and not, not in any way, the discipline: after all, one may read and improve the mind, but one may do so without being a student of literature. Being within the profession gives one more time than others to do so – it is, no matter how much we hate it when others supposedly simplify it so, mostly about reading the novel – and in that facile, incidental sense one may argue for the ethico-moral superiority of literature in inculcating a humanness and liberality which other disciplines per se do not, but it will remain just that: facile and incidental, without any sound reason which would make this moralising and bettering process exclusively the domain of literature as a discipline.
Moving on, and still within the ambit of social relevance, the more theoretical – and by reigning idiom more professional – of us insist than instead of being about being better humans in some grand, bardic way, literature today is more about being incisive and inclusive critics and commentators. This, again, is true, but, yet again, incidental, if not a bit facile. By the virtue of increasingly being a discipline that self-consciously and actively orients itself to inclusive criticism and commentary, the literary academia does contribute towards making it a better world for all, but in spite of this and its contributions, it is but one of the many disciplines today engaged in and oriented to this same goal of equity and inclusivity and so, no matter what many amateurs feel, has no exclusive rights on the bettering mission.
Social relevance, then, goes out of the box, for in whatever indirect way it is so, it still does not compare to other disciplines that are so. To teach and study literature as a discipline solely on the basis that it makes the world a better place is, effectively, to assert values without having the prerequisite value-system in place for doing so.
Which is what brings us to point two, factuality. I take factuality as implying a certain adherence to the verities of daily existence, a certain connection to the needs and demands of life as it’s lived by people in all walks of life. First, literature has nothing to do with any bodily function, nor with any of those activities with which we fulfil these needs and functions. Second, even if we were to argue that it does, that it does in that cathartic and company in woe and joy sense that’s usually associated with it, that too applies to literature per se, to reading as an activity that has nothing to do with a critical understanding of the text being read, an understanding which, again, is not necessarily concomitant upon literary training as a discipline. Further, the very matter of English, the misnomer of a subject that concerns us here, is that which affects but peripherally, only in the inner realm of emotion and subjectivity, all that goes outside the classroom. A Masters in Commerce will make one a better manager, financier and businessperson; a Masters in English provide, amongst other such like matter, greater knowledge about the sundry ways the heart is lost and betrayed.
Still, it rises. English remains one of the most sought after courses in the University of Delhi, carrying the charm and status more of the language than the literature in it. Many take it because of that, as a stepping stone to other status symbols, the civil services for example; many others take it to learn how to write, become writers; yet others take it to learn how to speak. A large number opt for it as a secondary option; I myself took it because I could not be an environmental engineer and preferred next to that a discipline in which I would at least get to read without any sense of wasting time in doing so. Very, very few who take up English at the undergraduate level really understand the course is about criticism and not creative writing, research and not reading. People take it and come to rue it, but year after year the demand only goes up. If nothing else, literature, as a discipline, sells.
Which, ultimately, is my larger point here: in spite of everything, in spite of no sound reason for it selling, literature does sell, is marketable and commercially viable as a discipline. Founded on a plenitude of myths and fuelled by a healthy dosage of delusions, English literature as a discipline easily manages to be one of the most elite courses that any non-professional university can offer. This, putting aside for now the dialectic of professional and non-professional, is what makes literature unique and its position well nigh unassailable: in being popularly sought after for the wrong reasons and incorrectly attributed with general powers, literature is one of the few remaining academic centres of irrationality.
To me, that is the most charming thing about the discipline. It makes no sense its being so, yet it thrives and supports all sorts, the only place where contraries of all kinds – ambition and sloth, brilliance and dullness, creativity and criticism, and so on – can find refuge simultaneously and contemporaneously. Of course, the discipline has its own professional codes of conduct and behaviour, codes created more as justification to oneself and others for its relevance and seriousness within the overall global competitive atmosphere of teaching and training than in response to any inherent need itself, but neither do these take away from its appeal and nor do they affect the general conception of it as a quaintly rarefied domain of high inner knowledge, grand, reformative passions and creativity. Which, simply put, is that literature, in spite of the way it is being structured as a professional discipline, is still the only subject in which one can be whatever one wants to be, be as eclectic and eccentric as one can and still manage to score and get along. In spite of internal competition and the overall global thrust to make it keener, more professional in the way aim-driven, professional subjects like medicine, law and engineering are, literature remains the only discipline where ambition and competition can be bypassed.
Is it this, then, that makes Linguistics difficult for so many students of literature? Not singly the fact that literature as a discipline allows for some mediocrity, nor that the way it’s taught, combined with the inclinations of most who take it, inculcates a certain disrespect for objective, empirical, inviolate truths but both of these together, both as one making Linguistics the holy cow it is. Indeed, for Linguistics is self-confessedly infinitely more the science than the art and no matter how hard critics try to make literary training and criticism resemble that, the irrational, eccentric and interrogative core of the discipline makes any association with a discipline that is based on givens slightly – and I quote a favourite here – problematic, problematic in the sense of being both a cause for concern, an insight into the redundancy of institutionalised literary studies as a discipline as well as a matter for celebration, a reflection of the power which allows the discipline to be, with certain inevitable, if somewhat unfortunate, modifications in pedagogy, the only one that can still afford to exist without a reason, to just be and exult in the simple joy of being so without necessarily needing to bother with justifications. It’s not an ideal situation, least of all one which resolves most concerns satisfactorily; yet, it continues and thrives and informs much of the charm and beauty which, for many adherents, makes literature more engaging than anything else imaginable.