Disappearance is one of the great and enduring motifs of literature, though in narrative it rarely does what it says. Typically, it motivates something new to happen. Helen’s disappearance (in the form of her abduction by Paris) incited the Trojan War and inspired The Iliad. Moby Dick’s attack on Captain Ahab and subsequent disappearance beneath the waves drove a later crew of The Pequod, Ahab’s ship, on a quest of epic proportions. The disappearance of an epistle containing compromising information – a “Purloined Letter” – formed the basis of a story by Edgar Allan Poe that helped launch the genre of detective fiction.
But does the same hold true of disappearing languages? Does attenuation or even extinction at that foundational level inspire anything new? The work of the BYU Humanities Center’s Annual Lecturer this year, K. David Harrison of Swarthmore College, suggests that the answer may be yes, even if in some cases that is only a heightened consciousness of loss and a greater understanding of language as a vital, and mortal, organism. When we lose a language, Harrison argues, we lose ways of conceptualizing the world – we lose a part of our history, a part of ourselves.
Of course, literature and history also teach us that sometimes we desire loss and the power to forget. Indeed, some things haunt us because they will not disappear. It was King Hamlet’s return that inspired such famously agonizing soul-searching in his grieving, but emotionally paralyzed, son. It was the refusal of Bartleby, the scrivener first to work and then to vacate his work premises (informing his boss that he “would prefer not to”) that prompted its story’s narrator to reflect on the pathetic nature of the human condition. (“Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”) And it was the compulsive recurrence of harrowing symptoms in soldiers returning from the front lines of World War One that enabled Freud to formulate one of his most powerful ideas, the theory of trauma.
Today, the humanities are facing their own traumas of disappearance, and in some cases of things that refuse to disappear. Most everybody has heard of the “crisis in the humanities,” defined most simply as the partial disappearance of university funding from humanities budgets and of students from humanities classrooms. While the extent of these disappearances is easily exaggerated in some corners of the academic world, it is poignantly felt in others, and it is inciting widespread reflection on humanities practices.
The distinguished guest at another of our Center’s general events, the Annual Symposium, has become an important figure in this conversation surrounding reform. Eric Hayot, Professor of Comparative Literature at Penn State, is in many ways an expert thinker about novelty. His 2012 book On Literary Worlds analyzes aesthetic objects as world-creating (and -destroying) artifacts that compel us to rethink the ways we believe we know history. Elsewhere, Hayot has written critically about literary scholars’ ongoing allegiance to old ways of imagining literary periods and of academic publishing’s failure to provide a sufficient variety of formats for the exposition of idea. How might we rethink the humanities and adapt to the needs of our evolving society? Should universities rethink themselves?
Disappearance is a complex but fascinating subject. Eventually it too will disappear as our annual theme, but hopefully not without making us wiser about the traditions we in the humanities generate as well as those we study.