The End Is Near
Carolyn F. Segal considers why so many pundits predict the demise of so many things.
It’s been a hard season, marked by a preponderance of headlines announcing the end of a great many things. One of the most instructive entries appeared in the January 4 edition of The New York Times: an op-ed titled “The End of the Financial World As We Know It,” by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn. There’s a longstanding tradition in the humanities of such pronouncements. In November, we heard that irony is dead. Just one week after the Times reported on Joan Didion’s announcement in a talk at the New York Public Library, however, the Sunday “Arts & Leisure” section of the paper ran a story on page 1 announcing that Liza (Minnelli) is back (again), so we can only conclude that, while Didion is inarguably one of the leading expert lights of irony, the reports of its demise were widely exaggerated.
The novel has been pronounced dead so many times (in more than 50 percent of the cases, the actual wording was “Le roman est mort”) that the phrase “the death of the novel” has its own entry on Wikipedia.
Now while I would be the first to agree that irony is, if not dead, certainly sleeping in my literature classes, the novel is in fact undead: 11 out of 12 students in Honors Creative Writing confessed, when questioned closely, that they had in fact read Twilight. Eleven out of 11 blamed this reading choice on their roommates, the student excuse being the one genre that no one has ever pronounced even remotely near death.
It was only a matter of time before the topic of literary studies itself became caught up in the contagion of pronouncements of the demise of one thing or another, and thus The Chronicle of Higher Education of December 19 featured not one but three essays under the general heading of “What Ails Literary Studies.” At least they’re not dead, although ails is somewhat disturbing, with its connotations of some obscure 19th century illness involving headaches and quarantine.
Stanley Fish offered a much deadlier view in "The Last Professor," an entry on Frank Donoghue’s new book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. According to Donoghue -- a former student of Fish -- we are beyond even “crisis” mode, for any “vision of restored stability is a delusion.” This has, in fact, been evident to many English faculty for quite a while; we are, after all, quite good at analysis. It turns out that Fish is the last Humanities professor, which is a bit of a disappointment, since I just received a promotion at my college, a situation that has moved me to reflect long and hard on the theories of the Marx Brothers (Groucho and Karl).
And so back to the business of business. Alongside another article on Wall Street by Michael Lewis, this one with the Arthur-Miller-like title of “After the Fall,” in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Conde Nast Portfolio: Investing Survival Guide 2009, I found “The End of Hubris.” And it doesn’t matter which definition the author, Leslie Bennetts, was thinking of — the commonly assumed prideful “attitude” or Aristotle’s act of violence — this is one declaration that we can all raise our glasses in a toast to. And it’s surely heartening that while the success of The Twilight Saga has suggested the death of literary style, current reflections on business assure us that, at least, metaphor and allusion — like irony and, alas, hubris -- are alive and nowhere near ending.
Of course, while reading all of these prognostications, it’s impossible not to think of another ending: that of the Cheney/Bush regime. The end of the damages that pair inflicted will be much longer in coming, but it’s a start. And then who knows: perhaps, in our lifetime, we’ll even see the end of the vampire novel. In the meantime, let’s declare moratoriums on jargon-laden college mission statements and the instant-comment feature of online news sites; let’s keep alive summer reading programs for high school and college students — and the meditative model of the life of the mind. If change is coming (and it must), there is still the important — essential — work to be done in Humanities service courses. Without the reminder of the life of the mind, we are truly dead.
Carolyn F. Segal is professor of English at Cedar Crest College.
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