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Come Rain or Shine
Lui: So, Mr. Scholar-Critic, you say you've lost interest in the usual questions of your discipline? Bravo, I'm all for being undisciplined—but tell me then, what are the questions that fascinate you?
Moi: Oh, so many, I'll never get through them all.
Lui: Then get rid of some! What a way to ruin the rest of your life.
Moi: OK, here's one I should probably drop, since it's quite beyond me: how should we take into account whatever biological basis there is for human behavior? Evolution didn't make us so many blank slates for culture to write on. But when "nature" gets brought into matters that are social and cultural as well, the result is usually a mess, often a crude justification for not changing things that might well be changed. So the question is: how to acknowledge constraints without turning them into shackles?
Lui: Yes, I'd say your chances, as a humanities professor, of getting anywhere with that one are about zero. So what else?
Moi: How should reading and writing, and the kinds of understanding gained from them, fit into the life of either the individual or the collective? You accuse us of perching up on the epicycle of Mercury, judging things down here as if we'd been dead a thousand years. And you're right to remind us that we're of this world, here and now. But we do learn by stepping back from the give and take of the marketplace, the pressure of right now. We spot things that wouldn't be noticed, we see our culture in ways nobody would see it if we all just rushed along with the torrent. But how should we bring our knowledge back into the common stream? How can the lessons gained from stepping back, from tarrying over some ancient work or fragile new theory, be injected into the agora, or just into the one-way flow of a person's life? How can we better fit our students' minds for the world by helping them to read and think in ways that are connected to the living they have to do in the world?... [End Page 50]
Lui: No wonder you get discouraged. Not only you're interested in hard questions, I'd say most of them unanswerable, but the questions are about you, so they can't help but paralyze you even as you go about asking them.
Moi: Well, you've described my last decade pretty well! But this time it's going to be different or I'll just dump the questions, as you say. So I guess the next question is how do you reflect on things that involve you without tying yourself in knots?
Lui: You say it'll be different but it sounds worse and worse.
Moi: I take your point, but I have a new rule for myself that may help: I refuse to write with 30,000 MLA members looking over my shoulder. As soon as I find myself asking what they'll think, whenever I find my prose bloated with answers to their possible questions, bonsoir! I'll change tack or be off to something else.
Lui: I'll believe it when I read it. So, you want to question the nature of literary education while ignoring all your colleagues in literature. Brilliant. Any other big questions eating at you?
Moi: Wouldn't you know. What kinds of human relations and activities depend on language and which ones don't? We in the humanities have flattered ourselves by saying that language and culture and meaning are all that really matter—all that "mean anything," to make a tautology out of it. But that seems an awfully narrow (and probably elitist) view of human existence. We ought to be more modest and specific: where and how does language do its work, and what things get done almost without it? Another way of putting this, or maybe a related question: How much of human...