This was once said of me when I was forced to live for three years in some god-forsaken dustbowl with my then husband, who worked (for more daily hours than seemed totally necessary, to be honest) on many and various gold mines. Why are gold mines always in god-forsaken dustbowls? Anyway, the wives of the permanent miner-type people were very much the moral, social and everything else yardsticks by which all newcomers were measured and then categorised. I was merely the live accessory attached to a random itinerant, as engineers tended to be, because once a job was done they moved on to bigger and better things – supposedly. At my “Welcome Tea Party” – I had one because my husband’s position warranted various people on the lower rungs of the mining ladder to be obsequious up to point (oh lord, I can’t believe I’m telling you all this), I was asked what I “did”. Now that USUALLY meant like baking or knitting or sewing or gardening -“wimmins'” pursuits basically – pottery and flower arranging could be included. But foolishly, I admitted that I was reading for a degree in English Literature. That was, to all intents and purposes, me committing social suicide. I was branded “odd” and banished from all wimmins’ gatherings forthwith. I wasn’t terribly bothered – err – no, I wasn’t bothered at all. But it did get me thinking about reading and English Literature, generally. Why DID I do it?
Well because of the language, you see.
I remember this:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
— Ezra Pound
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.(5 words of such strength, I can’t hold them all at the same time)
If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.
And it seems to me that language – English, in this case because it is the langauge I know – has many functions. And writing beautiful things that move people – often to tears – is just one of them. And it isn’t that function that I need to be teaching. I am not teaching linguists, or writers, or poets or lovers of great literature. The language I teach is not an end in itself: it’s a means to some other end. And what that end is dictates what I teach – which tools I use and pass on and which I keep to myself.
I’m not teaching people who are pursuing this course of action because they love the language and its interplay with emotions and images and memory and dreams. I’m teaching people who need to take the language and use it quickly to effect some other end – not to mould it and challenge it and wrestle with it and savour it and love it.
And perhaps the changes that are being wrought upon the language for business and global communication, to lubricate social networking and to work towards another end of most interactions, are all well and good and the tools of the teachers’ trade. But for us lovers, us for whom literature is a balm and refuge, the LOLs and GR8s, the ASAPs and the OMGs, the blurring of meaning and the diminshing of the power of the word is neither here nor there. The words and works remain and we will still read…….