This post was written by Gabbie Schwartz, a Humanities Center student fellow and the BYU Humanities Center Intern.
“They are secretly ashamed of their ignorance of literature, in the same way as they would be ashamed of their ignorance of etiquette at a high entertainment, or of their inability to ride a horse if suddenly called upon to do so,” writes Arnold Bennett in his essay, “Literary Taste and How to Form It.” I first encountered the essay during a class last winter semester, and I can still remember the discussion it sparked.
“I feel like he’s calling me out, or something,” my classmate remarked. “Like he’s whispering, ‘You’re a fraud!’”
All of us laughed knowingly, having felt the sting of Bennett’s words perhaps a bit more sharply given our position as students of literature. When I reiterated the story to my friend, she chuckled not out of a shared empathy, but out of a mild confusion. She pointed out that if anyone should feel equipped with appropriate literary knowledge, it should be us. We were the ones studying it, after all.
Contrarily, I often find that students of literature (including myself) are more than aware of our literary-related deficits. Perhaps it has something to do with the oft-quoted line from Socrates: “The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing.” It rings true enough and seems an acceptable response, but I also can’t help but ask an additional question: when do we stop feeling like literary frauds?
In my own experience—and, on more than one occasion—I’ve found myself paired with a work of literature only to finish reading it with a softly uttered and confused, “What?” So rises the ghost of Arnold Bennett over my shoulder, wailing, “She’s a fraud, she’s a fraud! She doesn’t know what to do with the enjambment and can’t make sense of the metaphor!” Following this is my inevitable shuffling into class and the tensest ten seconds of my life as the professor begins our discussion with either, “What did you think of the poem?” or “What do you think the poem might be trying to do?” all while I desperately hope someone else has an insight.
This happened as recently as this semester, where I tackled the poetry of John Ashbery. I can sum up the experience in one word. Bewildering. I wasn’t entirely sure where to begin or how to pick his poems apart because I wasn’t even entirely sure I had read the thing. Sure, the words had entered my brain, but there had been minimal processing that took place within it. Cue the ghost of Bennett, etc., etc.
I became a bit obsessed with Ashbery’s poems—obsessively confused, that is. I read additional articles, books, biographies, and more to try and make sense of its pieces, which somehow allowed my confusion to alchemize into fascination, and fascination then equipped me with some opinions. I had things to say, but I had only received these insights when I thought to wrestle with what I did not know.
Part of the marvel of literary studies for me is the very aspect of being face-to-face, or rather face-to-page, with a difficult text, especially the confusing ones. There is a certain level of play available in that space of unknowing where thoughts and realizations begin to open up. Bennett actually summarizes my thoughts quite well. The project of literary studies is “to be alive, to intensify one’s capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. It is not to affect one hour but twenty-four hours.” In short, “it is to change utterly one’s relations with the world.”
Part of that seemingly transcendent project, I believe, comes from the pursuit itself. Students of literature (and dare I say Professors) are well aware of that fact—even committed to it. When the ghost of Arnold Bennett peeks knowingly over my shoulder, I can rest assured that it means the potential start of a beautifully productive confusion. Either that, or I should really get in touch with an exorcist.