A Memory

When I was a literature graduate student, I was constantly astonished by the fact that we conducted our seminars without reference to the massive changes and shocks that our cognitive lives were undergoing; as if the experience of reading and discussing literature had not changed for a hundred years; as if the second we broke for coffee, phones did not come out, letting social media and email and texts flood into our brains, plucking down the tentative structures of our thought. My graduate seminars were conducted in a state of total denial: as if the participants were magically free from any of the crises present in general American culture. What mattered was not that we internalized, savored, felt, and believed in the literature and criticism we read; what mattered was that we acted as if we did; we adopted the mannerisms of intellectual dignity, not the thing-itself. As a graduate student, I felt the same way I do now, as an itinerant poet (or anti-poet) on the subway: troubled at the homogeneity of the people around me; the utter lack of inner-rebellion; the overall contentedness and passivity at the flow of corporatized life. My graduate student peers were so afraid to be called elitist, so afraid of the elitist associations that have been tacked onto the cultural conception of literature, that they were afraid to simply live differently, to rebel in small, but profound ways — to admit that what is wrong with the world is not just what is wrong at a political level, an outer level, the level of ‘out there,’ but that what is wrong with the world is also what is wrong within us (the world described, not incidentally, by literary texts). Reading in the graduate seminar meant skimming a text just long enough to pretend to have read it with care.