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The humanities in Trump’s Gotham City

On 8 November 2016 the American political system threw up from its depths a creature wholly unrecognizable to those of us born in the West since 1945. Most of us who teach the humanities at any level have felt, since 8 November, that we have been reduced to the level of bit players in a Batman movie – we are out on the streets of Gotham City, with the leering Joker on the loose; we’re passively waiting, with trepidation, as to what on earth the Joker’s next lurid stunt will be. The only difference between us and the movies is that Batman is nowhere to be seen. Neither can we see any other speaker that will command the attention of Joker or his Penguin-like henchmen. When we most need to speak, we find ourselves instead trying to get the hang of the Joker’s strange, previously unheard, lingo of indecency and mockery. The entire operation of the humanities, with its ideals of depth, meaning, evidence, expertise, and passionate, life enhancing connection, has been stymied by The Joker. We’re tongue tied.

Or are we? Two days after the election, I found myself in front of 16 undergraduates, ready to discuss Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, written in the 1390s. As I started, the mood of the class gave me some inkling of what it was like to be in one of outer space’s black holes. It was glacial, silent, and somber beyond experience. The discussion that followed was, however, unforgettable and inspiring. It persuaded me that humanists not only have a voice; nay, more, much more: the Humanities have suddenly become the central focus of a counter culture.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale is about two intimately related phenomena: misogyny and control of the media. The Wife’s fifth husband takes pleasure in reading from a huge, expensive volume of anti-feminist writing every night before bed. The Wife, Alyson, is understandably irked by her husband’s complacent, misogynistic reading. So one evening, she just can’t put up with the spectacle anymore; she jumps up and tears a great chunk of material out from the book of wicked wives.

Before she recounts the tearing episode, the Wife targets the media issues at stake, by delivering a sharp-eyed critique of media control by men. How come, she asks, there’s so much narrative devoted to portrayal of wicked wives? Is it because women are no good? Not at all, Alyson continues; it’s because men produced the narratives in the first place. She cites the fable of the lion who finds himself in a royal palace looking at frescoes of the king hunting a lion. In every painted scene, the king lords it over a cowering lion, about to become the king’s victim. The tourist lion is a sharp art critic: “Who,” he skeptically asks, “peyntede the leon, tel me who?” Whoever controls the means of cultural production, imply both lion and Alyson, controls the culture. You might lose fights with lions, but that’s irrelevant if you control the representation of lion hunts. Losers can win if they know how to manipulate media.

Opening page of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Tale, from the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by unknown. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The biggest issue of the recent presidential election for my undergraduates, both men and women, was the President-elect’s unequivocal indecency, particularly his gross indecency towards women. His triumphant election was a threat for every young woman in my class, since they knew that national tone and practice towards women was about to change for the very much worse. It was also deeply depressing for every young man, since the Joker and his surrogate henchmen had cast the charges of gross indecency aside by declaring that talk of that kind (the-published-video-on-the-bus kind) was the way all men talked “in the locker room.” The Joker and his henchmen cast a shadow of suspicion on every man.

So the Wife of Bath’s Tale was in fact strikingly pertinent to the issues pressing in upon my class from outside the classroom, in the wake of the election.

The discussion began by denying that pertinence. Of course I avoided any explicit reference to the election, or any indication of my own views about it. No explicit politics, and no T-word, but it was impossible not to acknowledge the mood in the room.

So I turn to an African-American student to get the ball rolling. “How are you feeling?,” I ask (instead of my usual starter of “What’s most interesting to you about this text?”). “I can’t take this text seriously,” is the reply; “it just hasn’t got any traction on what’s going on.” “Ok,” say I, and turn to another student to get us going. This student focuses immediately on the fact that the Wife of Bath’s Tale might pretend to promote women, and might pretend to focus on issues of media control, but hey, this text was written by a man; and a woman whose literary criticism consists of tearing pages from a book might in fact confirm those anti-feminist stereotypes. What looks like a pro-feminist text is instead a more subtly insidious anti-feminist text. Not so, says another student.

So we’re away, with a superb, focused, high-level, three-cornered discussion of feminist and media issues in the late fourteenth-century text. Twenty minutes in, and the African-American student puts up her hand to speak. She delivers a passionately felt, beautifully targeted case for reading the Wife as voicing what she can, how she can, with the materials available. Now everyone in the class understands that maybe the African-American student knows of what she speaks; the level of conversation rises a notch from its already Olympian height.

With my student’s brilliant intervention, I suddenly understand something, too: that my class is modelling the work of the humanities, repurposing texts from the thesaurus of the past to give voice and direction in the present. My own mental tongue is untied: this, I say to myself, is how the humanities have always worked, but now it means something different. Now we’re a counter culture. Now we offer a crystal clear alternative to the know-nothing, evidence-dismissive, derisive, indecent culture of the Joker. Our way of meditating, our mode of dialogue, our way of projecting into the future (respectively, immersive, respectful, reparative) offers an alternative to what’s being thrust from Washington.

I always devote the last class of my course to recitation. Each of us, myself  included, stands up and recites a poem from the course that we’ve learned by heart. The African American student recited some lines from a very beautiful ninth-century elegy, The Wanderer. Her performance stilled the class; one could have heard a pin drop. I’ll never forget the confluence of ninth- and twenty-first-century exile. These are the lines my gifted student cited:

Often alone,   always at daybreak

I must lament my cares;   not one remains alive

to whom I could utter   the thoughts in my heart,

tell him my sorrows.  In truth, I know that

for any eorl   an excellent virtue

is to lock tight   the treasure chest

within one’s heart,    howsoever he may think.

A downcast heart  won’t defy destiny,

nor the sad spirit   give sustenance.

And therefore those   who thirst for fame

often bind fast   their breast chamber.

So I must hold in   the thoughts of my heart—

though often wretched,   bereft of my homeland,

far from kinfolk—   bind them with fetters.

It is the worst of times; for the Humanities, it may be the best of times.

Featured Image credit: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2015 by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Giselle Gos

    This is appalling. Do not appropriate the experiences of your black students. Do not put them on the spot, asking about their feelings and then dismiss their words and patronize in your head. Do not tokenize them. Do not pretend that your struggle as a while male professor of the humanities and her struggle as young black woman in Trump’s America is the SAME or even in any way equivalent. Her oppression is real. Did you even ask her permission before publishing this? Or did you feel entitled to use her voice, her body, her experience and her analysis to aggrandize your own sense of your own goodness, allyship and importance? How dare you. This is shameful.

  2. Seeta Chaganti

    My aim in this comment is to point something out constructively — I take up the opportunity this thoughtful piece provides to consider the difficult questions our current climate raises. I appreciate the point Simpson makes here about the potential of the humanities to do important work at this moment. I worry, however, that the Wanderer’s feeling of alienation, and his keeping silent the contents of his heart-coffer, might reflect the experiences of students of color within the humanities and possibly even within their classrooms. Whatever the well-meaning intention of calling an African American student “gifted” and “brilliant” might be, the impact of marking someone racially in making such statements can be to cause those described to feel that the world expects something less of them. I do not accuse here; of course, I see that the appreciation of this student’s contribution is sincere. I would simply suggest that we examine all the aspects of this scene with care, understanding that while we continue to gain ground and do good work in Simpson’s and other classrooms, we can also always try harder to understand the complex impacts of our actions.

  3. Jonathan Hsy

    As a Chaucerian who was mentored (and encouraged to pursue medieval studies) by Professor Simpson, I am glad to see this defense of the humanities putting Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon poetry at the center of the discussion. Nonetheless, the anecdote about the African-American woman in this class and the discourse surrounding her performance and reception in classroom left me unsettled and uneasy… As someone who is both a Chaucerian and a racial minority in this field, I’m deeply committed to making medieval studies (and the humanities) an inclusive and diverse area of study. I’m often fighting against implicit biases and assumptions that colleagues as well as students share: medieval studies is too alien, difficult, rigorous, or challenging for minority students to grasp — or that the presence of a nonwhite person in a medievalist space is a inconceivable, spectacular marvel. I don’t think it’s at all intentional in Prof. Simpson’s piece here, but there is a clear othering of the woman in this anecdote (none of the other students in class are identified by race) and stories like this, told in this manner, risk alienating precisely the marginalized (future and present) medievalists and humanists we all seek to support.

    For what it’s worth, I’d like to contribute to this comment thread by noting that there is an array of women of African ancestry in the US (and worldwide) who have found Chaucer’s Wife of Bath a central figure: Patience Agbabi, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Gloria Naylor, Marilyn Nelson, Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo — to name a few). In this global context, it’s perhaps not so inconceivable that an African-American female student would find her own ways to connect to a seemingly alien or distant text. (And for those who are interested: check out scholarship by Candace Barrington, Kathleen Forni, David Wallace, and Michelle Warren and others who have explored facets of Chaucerian reception across African diaspora cultures.)

  4. Karl Steel

    I’m commenting here to endorse Chaganti and Hsy’s comments, and to offer a further proposal: I’ve found that drawing on the work of Black activist scholars, particularly Black feminist scholars, in my own teaching, whether or Chaucer or other works, has really helped ‘move’ my teaching, and classrooms, in fascinating, new, and exciting ways.

    I’m fortunate enough to teach at an institution [CUNY] that isn’t majority White, and that has a lot of Black students; that alone has inspired me to change the way I might otherwise teach Chaucer. But those of us who aren’t so fortunately situated can still teach *as if* we were at such institutions, with such students.

    I have found, for example, that teaching with ‘respectability politics’ in mind has been enormously useful for framing the Nun’s Priest’s attitudes towards women. Forms of rethinking of the state and state violence, likewise drawn from Black writers, could almost automatically help us think through the Knight’s Tale in new ways. That is, it’s incumbent upon us, particularly those of us who are white, to do the reading ourselves to make our teaching newly relevant to this present crisis.

  5. Lucy Allen

    I’ve just seen this and admit I am coming to it through the filter of one of the other commentators (and sharing his unease). But … it does strike me that when you start out by writing about the Wife of Bath as if she were an autonomous speaker rather than the fiction of a male author, you’re acting as if male ventriloquism of female voices is irrelevant. I’m not in a position to comment on race here, but I can’t help feeling the second part of this piece, and the appropriations of voice others are seeing there, could have been anticipated in the first part, and avoided.

  6. Mita Choudhury

    I am coming to this conversation a month after it began. Professor Simpson’s essay is thought-provoking in the following sense: It allows us to interrogate and to think about our own teaching strategies. May I suggest that we consider in this context the historiography of literary criticism and the full-blown manifestations of theory in critiques of literature and culture? When I was doing my PhD (if one can “do” a degree!), the vocabulary we used was markedly different from what it was to become toward the end of the last century and at the beginning of this one. Recall that in the 1980s Orientalism, to use one example of theoretical change agent, had not been absorbed fully into graduate curricula across the US; our vocabulary, therefore, had to change very quickly through the ‘80s and ‘90s. And this shift was very difficult for some of my professors and mentors, who continued to ask in the 1990s what I was talking about when I started to write about acts and words of resistance or when I introduced in studies of British culture geographies beyond the British Isles.

    The time has come for all of us to ask how we can make the humanities relevant to both minorities and immigrants, two categories of students who tend to go into fields where there are jobs (or the mirage of jobs). These students were never really integral to the humanities wing of the academy in the twentieth century; they pretty much had to fall in line with traditional approaches which pledged allegiance to the western cultural heritage and its spectacular trajectory beginning with Chaucer and Shakespeare (that is, till the very end of the twentieth century). Now we “do” Chaucer and Shakespeare differently. This discussion—and also disagreement—I see as great progress.

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