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.
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.