Monday, July 21, 2008

Career Day

Every year, there is a day when various members of faculty and others gather together to discuss things with prospective and present English majors. I'm not sure why we talk to the present English majors, except as reassurance, but we have some version of the classic "What can you do with an English degree" talk.
What can you do with an English major? Aw, heck, who knows? That's not really an appropriate question to ask professors, after all. They have a number of answers, perhaps, but they all revolve around one quality: "something boring, and then you can teach, and that's not boring."

". . . it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet -- no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who though he pleaded in armor should be an advocate and no soldier." -- Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry.

There are a lot of ways of looking at the subject of "career." We use that word for "progress" and "path" alike -- the career of the Fool and the career of the rowing team -- and it's the idea of progress that makes us all miserable. I'm a Christian, as my long time readers have puzzled out for themselves, and I'm from the South, and so I've grown up with a particular trope that was so often repeated that its clutch on the mind was tighter than a tick's: The Call. Have you heard The Call? Are you following God's Plan for your life?

This concept is now fat with my blood, and I have tried my best to shake it off. I read aKempis and his argument that God's will for your life simply is done without your intervention, if you do not disobey. That conditional, though, has left me just as terrified as before.

The other day, as I was driving my car, I had an ill vision, one that scared me like the She-Wolf of Incontinence (yes, she's really called that; an English major wouldn't giggle), but instead of writing the Divine Comedy, I'm writing this. I imagined my afterlife. There I was, being accepted into the limbo of suicides (an English major would already know Paradise Lost, of course) or the outer fringes (obfuscatory link, there) of heaven, and I saw that I had missed the point. Divine omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and free will had intersected such that God had intended a good path for me, and I had taken another (not evil, just not blessed). There had been a point, you see, when I could have chosen Law School, Divinity School, or aimless stumbling like a moon with too little mass through various graduate studies in English, and I chose the option that didn't require knowing what I was doing (the last).

I saw, in my vision, a lovely, if not stunning, young woman with a wry sense of humor, a quick wit, and great devotion who was sitting in the library of the Theology school. She sat at a table by herself, having not been perfectly pleased with her company. I was to be there. Had I been, we would have met, married, and gone to have a combined life of eventfulness and purpose. However, I wasn't there. I was working at an insurance company out of fear of making a bad decision, and I was about to go to graduate school, trying to steer my life and only crashing on the rocks.

It was shocking, this vision, but, after I guided my car back off the side walk, I tried to compose myself in the present. My career.... Careering? Careening?

These questions all impose what I call "naive teleology." "Naive teleology" is the historical impulse. It is the attempt to answer "How did I get to this place?" My father works diligently at genealogy. I have never understood why. I suppose that it is important, if you want to know why these people over here are coming to visit, and those people over there, with the same name, aren't. Then again, genealogy is a popular sport. Is it that the past is a component of the present, and not merely an explanation of it? At any rate, I have been more American than that. I have insisted more that the past is past, that history is not "bunk," but quaint and other. For me, the past has been an object to be dissolved, precipitated, weighed, recombined, and otherwise analyzed, and when I have realized that I was trying to explain the present, I have turned the telescope around and tried to use the traces of the present to explain the past.

As an English major, you can work at... Well, you can work at nearly anything, but nothing will be a use specifically of your skills or desires. At best, you can forget yourself. At most common, what you will do is serve two masters: the poem and the post, the novel and the job, the romance and the love. You will work as an actuarial, as I did, and read heavy stuff on your lunch, or you will read memos with the searing attention of literature. If you do the latter, you will go far. If you do the former, you will find your studies growing numb with time and the days of reading Sidney taking on increasingly peppermint and naphtha aromas, increasingly golden and pink hues, and a magical time in your memory -- one you mean to get back to soon.

The truth is that English majors are the Bondo of the employment world. We are not designed for any existing job, but we fit in as well as a custom made part and soon become so much a part of the body that no one can tell what we are. English majors can work nearly any job, from landscaping (as my friend on TV does) to art design to book keeping to wharehouse supply management. The other workers will note the analytical skills, fear the withering articulateness, and never think to ask, "Did you get a business degree?"

English majors can do whatever.

Think about that joyfully, in your hearts, you liberal artists, and celebrate, and then stop a moment and let the darkness of that statement sink in. An English major is an existential major. Because you are ill suited to everything and well suited to everything in the same measure, whatever it is that you do will be your repsonsibility and your fault.

You, friend, will sit in this chair, soon. You, my reader, will have to answer to the tick in your mind. You will have to ask about your purpose and admit that, whatever it is is whatever you've done, and you'll have to find a way to live with yourself after that.

Please let me know how.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Lost and Found

Normally, death is nothing to speak about. No, not for dread, but because it is the one thing about which there is absolutely nothing to say. It is the veil, and we all know a veil. Because we cannot speak of it, through it, or around it, we pull feints of language, and we say that "we lost" a person. Death rings his dampened bell, and we come out swigging.

You can lose your mind, lose your soul, or lose your life, but it is always "we" who lose somebody. Then there is finding, which we can do also of souls and peace of mind and living, but which "we" can never do of a person. I remember some of our losses in the public sphere, and I do feel sometimes that we found a new spirit in the form of Barrack Obama.

Today, though, we have "lost" Jesse Helms. Jesse Helms, the man whose hand Paul Wellstone would not shake, and with good reason. Jesse Helms, the man who favored extraterritorial laws. Jesse Helms, the man who said that AIDS was God's vengeance on gays. Jesse Helms, the man who poured money into lung cancer research to hope for the day when cigarettes would be safe. Jesse Helms, the man who reportedly whistled "Dixie" when a Black senator got on the elevator. As the BBC says, "His death was reported" today.

Today is the 4th of July.

If he died today, there is something wrong, or right. First, it means that we probably will have our first Black president (according to the "one drop rule") over his dead body, and we will have a president who is the product of "miscegenation." When Bobby Kennedy was shot, Jesse Helms, then a right wing blowhard on television, said that that's what comes of "mixing the races."

Perhaps there is a fitting note, in that a particular type of fear and self-righteousness is quite American, quite as American as enlightenment and progressivism. If it dies this July 4th, then perhaps there is short term hope. Jesse Helms was personally amiable, personally gracious, personally charitable, personally friendly with gay, Black, and all others, but he ran and acted as an agent of intolerance. When he retired from the senate, it was good riddance, but his death offers nothing, symbolically or substantially, except the passing of the last of the Dixiecrats.