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Whether Wit or Wisdom: Resisting the Decline of the Humanities from Within

I.

“Where does it end?” asks Susie Monahan, a registered nurse, near the end of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Wit. She’s discussing the study of literature with Jason Posner, a clinical fellow at University Hospital, by the bedside of the play’s protagonist, Vivian Bearing, a distinguished John Donne scholar, who, presently asleep with a morphine drip, will shortly die of cancer. When Susie wonders aloud what it’s like to study literature, Jason, who took Vivian’s poetry course several years earlier, explains what he took away from the experience: the idea of literature as an intractable puzzle. Susie ostensibly means to ask, “Don’t you get to solve the puzzle?” (60), but her question echoes beyond its immediate sense in this scene, with the two meanings of end (terminus and purpose), rendering Susie’s question a statement of the play’s central concern. In narrating the life and death of a literature professor, Wit asks what literature—particularly the study of literature in college—might offer in life and in death. Susie’s question gestures broadly: What is the end, or purpose, of literature? What significance does literature offer readers’ lives? How might teaching enable or hinder that significance?

For those who teach literature and other humanities, such questions about the ends of our work are as pressing as ever. We hear the humanities are declining, that students are no longer majoring in English and other liberal arts (e.g., Chace; “Bachelor’s Degrees”), that folks aren’t reading anymore (e.g., Reading at Risk; To Read or Not to Read). Whether narratives of decline tell the whole story (see, e.g., Bérubé; Reading on the Rise), we work in their shadow. These narratives—sometimes lamenting the decline, other times endorsing it—pop up in popular culture, op-eds, conversations between college students and their parents about majors (Pearlstein), and political speech, such as when Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, declared having “more anthropologists” not “a vital interest of the state” (qtd. in Anderson) or when Barack Obama insisted that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” While some of these narratives actively vilify the humanities, most (as in Obama’s backpedaling “I love art history”) simply place the humanities on the losing side of a binary between education for a career and education for “love.”

What can we do about these narratives? We can push back (e.g., Zakaria; Jaschik; Weinstein) and offer alternatives, affirming the worth of the humanities broadly (e.g., Hutner and Mohamed; Nussbaum; Bérubé and Ruth) and literature specifically (e.g., Felski; Bruns; Jacobs; Roche). But we also ought to reflect on and learn from them. For instance, even from politicians hostile or indifferent to our work, we may learn to address economic concerns (Fontaine and Mexal). I propose, however, that we begin with our friends—writers of literature who seek not to trip us but to show us where we’ve already stumbled. In What Our Stories Teach Us, Linda K. Shadiow argues that reflecting on stories of teaching can help us improve our teaching. We should extend this insight from the personal narratives she has in mind to literary texts dealing with the teaching of the humanities. Many literary texts—from Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” to Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons—offer parables of teaching: rich, rough, perceptive accounts of what it means to teach and how to teach more effectively. We might learn a lot from these texts, especially when they offer their own narratives of decline through probing problems in the teaching of the humanities. Wit presents a profoundly unflattering but profoundly sympathetic picture of the teaching of literature. The play invites us to ask ourselves tough questions and change the way we teach.

II.

Why read literature? Whenever we teach, we implicitly perform for students our working answers to this question. Through the characters of Vivian and Jason, Wit dramatizes several competing philosophies and practices of literature. The bulk of the text depicts these characters’ shared intellectualist approach to literature, where detailed literary analysis becomes in and of itself the purpose of reading and studying literature. But in the course of the play, this approach is tried in the furnace of cancer and found wanting—offering Vivian no meaning or solace in suffering, leaving Jason no better as a doctor or person. At the same time, in certain moments, Wit also hints at another answer, a fuller approach to literature that offers more significance for readers’ lives. In this, Wit becomes a morality play about forgetting, then returning to, the purpose of literature.

Early in the play, Vivian provides her own answer to the question of why to study literature. She values studying literature for the exercise it provides for the intellect, epitomized by the act of analyzing the wit of Donne’s poetry. Vivian opines, “To the common reader—that is to say, the undergraduate with a B-plus or better average—wit provides an invaluable exercise for sharpening the mental faculties, for stimulating the flash of comprehension that can only follow hours of exacting and seemingly pointless scrutiny” (18). However dubious it may be to think undergraduates of any grade point average will readily put in hours of seemingly pointless scrutiny of anything, Vivian’s statement reveals her intellectualist priorities for reading literature. When she turns from students to scholars, these priorities amplify: “To the scholar, to the mind comprehensively trained in the subtleties of seventeenth-century vocabulary, versification, and theological, historical, geographical, political, and mythological allusions, Donne is . . . a way to see how good you are” (18; ellipsis in orig.). Here, a disturbing understanding of literature emerges—extreme in method, narrow in purpose. In Vivian’s account, both literature and readers derive worth first and foremost from the sharpness of the intellect.

Cancer, however, shows Vivian the limits of this approach. By noting that her doctors “read me like a book” (32), she implicitly instructs the audience of the play to attend to parallels between medicine and literature, particularly regarding the intellectualist approach and what it misses. In making “[r]ounds,” her doctors are “darting around the main issue . . . which I suppose would be the struggle for life . . . my life . . . with heated discussions of side effects, other complaints, additional treatments” (31; ellipses in orig.). She seems to realize that she likewise has spent a great deal of time darting around the main issue of literature—also the struggle for life—by focusing on secondary concerns, such as vocabulary, versification, and paradox. Indeed, she recalls how, when her students “would flounder” in the face of paradox in Donne’s poetry, she would instruct them to “[t]hink of it as a puzzle” (39). Yes, she would tell them, Donne deals with “the larger aspects of human experience: life, death, and God” (40). But, she would insist, Donne makes of these “an intellectual game” (41). However, when Vivian ponders her own condition (hospitalized and weakened not from cancer but from treatment) as a paradox worthy of a Donne poem, she realizes “it is not” a game after all (39). With the antecedent for the word “it” ambiguous, this statement may cover poetry, paradox, cancer, or all of the above. The point is that Vivian finds her intellectualist approach—darting around matters of life and death—inadequate for living and dying.

Moreover, what’s inadequate for the teacher also proves inadequate for her students. Jason brings her intellectualist approach to literature into his practice of medicine with similarly disastrous consequences. Talking to Susie, Jason explains that Vivian’s literature course “felt more like boot camp than English class. The guy John Donne was incredibly intense. Like your whole brain had to be in knots before you could get it” (59). Jason, however, does not consider this a downside. He continues, “The puzzle takes over. You’re not even trying to solve it anymore. Fascinating, really. Great training for lab research. Looking at things in increasing levels of complexity.” This explanation leads Susie to ask, “Where does it end?” (60). Her question has further resonances about the end, or purpose, of literature. Significantly, Jason’s reply does as well. “Nah,” he says. Like medical research, studying literature is simply about “trying to quantify the complications of the puzzle” (61). Most scholars and teachers of literature would not find this explanation satisfactory. Yes, literature is less about solving difficulties of interpretation than tracing contours of problems, considering the possibilities. At the same time, literature offers more. But, on the basis of Vivian’s teaching, Jason overtly rejects the more: “Listen, if there’s one thing we learned in Seventeenth-Century Poetry, it’s that you can forget about that sentimental stuff. Enzyme Kinetics was more poetic than Bearing’s class. Besides, you can’t think about that meaning-of-life garbage all the time or you’d go nuts” (61). These damning comments carry a poetics. For Jason, the “poetic” has something to do with “sentimental stuff” and “that meaning-of-life garbage.” It involves feeling, meaning, and life. In contrast, the study of poetry has nothing to do with any of that.

Subsequently, neither does medicine. That Jason is not yet dying may explain why he does not see the limitations to this approach. But its limitations end up costing Vivian a good deal of suffering. Jason lacks “[b]edside manner,” his rudeness rooted in a lack of concern about his patients as people (44). While showing awe and curiosity toward cancer itself, he makes no connection between what cancer is and does on the scientific level (cells reproducing and reproducing) and on the human level (those cells devastating and ending human lives) (46). When Vivian wants Jason to “take more interest in personal contact,” she recognizes that—just like herself—he “prefers research to humanity” (48, 47). Indeed, Jason views his work at the hospital— “[t]he part with the human beings”—merely as a precursor to getting his own research lab (46). His intellectualist priorities even spill into medical and ethical violations, first when he resists putting on a gown, mask, and gloves when Vivian goes under quarantine with an “eradicated” immune system (huffing, “I really have not got time for this”) and again when he violates Vivian’s do-not-resuscitate order in an attempt to protect and continue his research (shouting, “She’s Research!”) (39, 39, 64). Jason’s concern for scientific analysis continually trumps any potential concern for human meaning or human beings. Although we cannot say that Jason is this way because of Vivian’s class, Vivian herself notices parallels between her teaching practice and his medical practice, acknowledging having “ruthlessly denied her simpering students the touch of human kindness she now seeks” (48). In one flashback, Vivian reprimands a student (“Sharply”) for not knowing “the principle poetic device” of a particular sonnet (48); in another, Vivian coldly informs a student whose grandmother has died that a paper for the course will remain “due when it is due” (51). While her approach to literature does not necessarily demand this harshness, it doesn’t contradict it. In turn, while her course does not necessarily cause Jason to become an uncaring doctor, it certainly doesn’t push him in a different direction.

While Wit repeatedly holds up the intellectualist approach for critique, Edson doesn’t stop with critique. She also holds up and affirms other, fuller approaches to literature. In one scene, while waiting for an examination, Vivian, ever the astute commentator, begins quoting passages of Donne aloud to herself without commentary (26). Perhaps she hopes hearing the familiar words out loud will offer her some comfort or meaning in her anxiety and pain. While the intellectualist approach does not have any particular use for reciting poems simply for the sake of hearing the words out loud, this more reflective, meditative reading practice may serve a deeper, more sustaining purpose than endless analysis does. Eventually, Vivian addresses the contrast between two such ways of reading. Attending finally to “life and death . . . my life and death,” she tells the audience:

(Quickly.) Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceits, for wit.

And nothing could be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication.

(Slowly.) Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness. (55)

While she does not quite repudiate her entire life’s work here, she names its limits in no uncertain terms. In the hour of her death, the cornerstones of the intellectualist approach hurt more than help. Other elements—simplicity, kindness—are needed. The play shows next that these are also reading practices.

Vivian’s life does not include many meaningful relationships; she is alone throughout most of the play. She admits that when she dies, rather than grieving, her students and colleagues will feel “relieved” and “scramble madly for my position” (28). As her mind begins its final descent, her speech slowing to just a few words, someone does finally visit her in the hospital—her own college professor. E. M. Ashford had been the very one to teach Vivian to be “uncompromising” in her study, to begin not with “feeling” but with “the text,” and to never use “an edition of the text that is inauthentically punctuated” (15, 13, 13). While E. M. had also taught Vivian how attending to accurate punctuation reveals the meaning of a particular Donne poem—“Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting” (14)—E. M.’s method overshadows her meaning. In the intervening years, E. M.’s “instruction and example” shape Vivian into a certain kind of scholar (17). Now in old age, however, E. M. finds her way back to what matters. In one of the play’s few moments of true human connection and compassion, in an act of simplicity and kindness, she “slips off her shoes and swings up onto the bed. She puts her arm around Vivian” (62). She offers to recite for Vivian something from Donne. In her last actual word in the play, Vivian turns down Donne with an emphatic “Nooooooo” (62). At this point, it appears Donne remains for Vivian too closely associated with the mental games she has always played with his poems. At the end, the poet she has dedicated her life to offers her no comfort. It is not the poetry but the nature of her relationship to it that has proved so fruitless.

E. M. proceeds to read an entirely different kind of text to which Vivian has an entirely different sort of relationship. Mirroring a flashback where five-year-old Vivian reads Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, experiences the “magic” of language, and realizes “words would be my life’s work” (37, 35), E. M. reads Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. In this tale, with each threat the child bunny makes to run away, the mother bunny promises to pursue the child. E. M. comments, “Look at that. A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian?” (63). This act of reading and interpretation stands in sharp contrast to the readings and interpretations of Donne earlier in the play. The interpretation speaks to Vivian’s life, her years of running from compromise and compassion. More important, the very act of reading itself embodies simplicity and kindness. Vivian’s response likewise contrasts with her earlier response to Donne. No longer able to form words, Vivian simply moans, “Uhhhhhh” (63). Shortly afterward, she falls asleep and dies. Given her clear no moments before, this last moan represents a final affirmation, an embrace of fuller, deeper, more human ways of reading. We may see some small redemption here, a moment of kindness after a lifetime of analysis. But more than that, this final scene of reading in the play represents a return—a return to childhood and innocence, yes, but, more significant, a return to a different way of reading that is open to engaging with life and death, hope and fear, joy and sorrow, meaning and feeling. That this way of reading had been Vivian’s as a child does not mean it is a childish way to read; it means she lost her way far too soon after beginning a literary life. That this way of reading becomes hers again at the end points the audience in the way we should go.

Wit contrasts the intellectualist approach to literature with larger, fuller, deeper reading practices. Intellectualist reading fetishizes the intellect. Larger, fuller, deeper ways of reading make room for intellect and for affect, for complex analysis and for simplicity, kindness, and other human dimensions. The problem Wit takes on, then, is not the intellect, analysis, or wit in and of itself, nor the use of the mind, nor historical, philological, or New Critical methods. The problem is not even merely that Vivian treats her students without compassion. The play takes on the problem of reducing the reading and studying of literature to analyzing for the sake of analyzing without speaking meaningfully to the lives (and deaths) of readers. The play takes on the problem of pedagogical purpose. The central question of the play (Susie’s “Where does it end?”) asks us whether wit or wisdom is our central purpose for reading or teaching literature. We might answer that we mean to develop and deploy wit—or, put in another register, “critical thinking.” Or we might answer that we mean to collect and create wisdom—insight and understanding for living more deeply, fully, compassionately.

III.

Wit offers a narrative of decline for the humanities in that Edson probes how literature may be taught in a way that removes it from any human significance, which, we can easily realize, hastens and justifies its decline. In “On Not Betraying Poetry,” Jerry Farber laments poetry’s “diminished” role in our society, how fewer people read poetry outside school, how students feel “wary and unenthusiastic,” if not “fear and dislike,” toward poetry (215, 214). While acknowledging that cultural factors outside our control contribute to this decline, Farber nonetheless also wonders, “What if the way poetry is taught has actually contributed to this decline?” (215). In particular, what if teaching poetry—or literature—in ways that disconnect the texts from readers’ lives contributes to the decline of the humanities? Too often, Farber proposes, we teach poetry “as a problem to be solved—a sort of brainteaser” or else “to accomplish something else: to teach critical thinking, perhaps, or communication skills, or cultural history—or even merely cultural literacy: recognizing allusions to ‘The Second Coming’ and knowing how to pronounce the poet’s name” (216, 215). Even if these are “laudable” purposes, Farber urges attending more deeply to “the role that poetry will . . . play in [the] lives” of our students as readers (215). And he’s not alone (e.g., Webb; Morgan; Scholes).

A disconnect between literature and lives in literary pedagogy both does and does not parallel what, according to a rhetorical analysis of recent articles in literary journals, happens in literary scholarship. On one hand, Laura Wilder documents that literary scholars widely share the “assumption . . . that literature and life are connected—that literature, regardless of when it was written, speaks to our present condition” (40). If we do not bring this assumption into our teaching, then we are teaching out of alignment with the scholarship of our discipline. On the other hand, Wilder also finds that “the leap from literary text to life is a largely suggestive gesture” in scholarship (41). It is possible, then, that we bring this assumption into our teaching so much that it remains an assumption, taken for granted. In this case, we may suggestively gesture toward the connection between life and literature while leaving students to work out the rest on their own or miss it altogether. As Cristina V. Bruns indicates, it’s easier to pay lip service to broader purposes of literature than to actually teach toward them (87). We might, then, take our teaching a step further than we likely do in our scholarship, attending in a more sustained manner to how literature speaks to readers’ lives. We might teach precisely how Vivian does not.

Edson’s narrative of decline is no more flattering than the narratives of decline we may hear from politicians, parents, or the op-ed pages of the New York Times. In some ways, hers is painfully less flattering in proportion to how it is more intimate. But Edson writes as a friend, as one who loves and believes in good literature and good teaching (McGrath). Moreover, as a literary text, Wit offers a good deal of complexity. In turn, teachers of literature ought not simply rebut Wit, succumbing to the easy deflection, dismissing Vivian as a caricature, protesting that we do not teach like that. If we take that route, we miss an opportunity to learn something from the play. However different from Vivian we may be, we may ask ourselves whether our teaching contributes to or resists those less friendly narratives of decline or to the actual decline that those narratives may or may not accurately describe. We may ask ourselves whether wit or wisdom takes precedence as the purpose of our teaching.

Along with Hughes, Wolfe, and other literary writers depicting problems in the humanities, Edson invites us to think deeply about why we teach literature and why and how students ought to read literature and to work what answers we come to into the content and structure of our teaching. We resist narratives of decline most powerfully not by critiquing the weaknesses of these attacks nor by offering alternative, affirmative visions of the humanities but by changing our teaching. Even as we write letters, talk to parents, pen apologias, we should find more—and more effective—ways to help students encounter the larger, fuller, deeper purposes of reading and studying literature. Though there are many places where we can make the case that literature matters, only in our teaching can we make literature matter to our students. In our teaching, not only can we defend the humanities; we can keep the humanities worth defending.

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Paul T. Corrigan teaches writing and literature at Southeastern University, in Lakeland, FL. He writes about poetry, pedagogy, and spirituality. He lives in the Peace River watershed, where he walks to work. More information is available at paultcorrigan.com.

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