Come, let me read the oft-read tale again!The story of the Oxford scholar poor,Of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain,Who, tired of knocking at preferment's door,One summer-morn forsookHis friends, and went to learn the gipsy-lore.....—Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) "The Scholar-Gipsy"
When Matthew Arnold's wandering scholar-gipsy encounters former colleagues in a country lane who "of his way of life enquired," he replies that
... the gypsy crew,His mates, had arts to rule as they desiredThe workings of men's brains,And they can bind them to what thoughts they will."And I," he said, "the secret of their art,When fully learn'd will to the world impart;But it needs heaven-sent moments for this skill."
He spends the rest of his days in this lonely pursuit, "waiting for the spark from heaven to fall." If literature is compared to the scholar gipsy, what would be the politics and dynamics of the "spark"? Both have their presences, but in trying to understand their character—via the normative, aesthetic and cultural ways of understanding how they both matter —have we forgotten the absences that circumscribe their existences? Is knowing the scholar-gipsy and literature as significant as knowing that both are also elusive? How can they be known outside their established and well-identified presences? It is disquieting to see literature losing its ability to disappear, to escape and to be elusive before our will to understand and comprehend. The scholar-gipsy mattered to the Victorians within a strict set of values and codes of expectations. He symbolized culture, hope and redemption. Yet Matthew Arnold exhorted him to "fly" from contact with the strife-torn Victorians, lest the contagion of their distraction overtake him:
But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!For strong the infection of our mental strife,Which, though it gives no bliss, yet spoils for rest;And we should win thee from thy own fair life,Like us distracted, and like us unblest.1 [End Page 3]
What if the scholar-gipsy had decided to meet the Victorians, forswearing his physical elusiveness? How would that rendezvous be— would it continue to be feverish, unblest and distracted? What crisis would it bring? What flowering, dehiscence and bargain might ensue? Can we explore a scenario in which the Victorians infect the scholar-gipsy as much as they are infected by him? This changes the nature, the prospects and the direction of the contagion. Literature's ability to matter—beyond its current and established ways of mattering—has brought back a delectable contagion. How then does the "infection" of literature matter?
The culture of reading has changed, and with it certain values that literature has always tried zealously to guard (with mixed success) from the marauding invasion of the social sciences and the neo-materialism of the non-humanities. How much money can the reading of a poem bring? How saleable is Shakespeare? How can our rendezvous with literature be made materially productive, so that it pushes up the GDP on the nation's economic index? How important is it, then, to see the scholar-gipsy as unwaveringly redemptive, rescuing the Victorians from their state of feverishness and distraction? Is all "contact" with him and with literature about securing decisive results? Beside the sharp binaries that differentiate the states of bliss and anguish, of blessed and unblessed, of clarity and distraction, of pure and infected, the categories of "inexperience," "counterfeiting" (fiction) and "secret"—i.e the absences—are considered meaningless and irrelevant. The reading of a poem can make one stay awake the whole night under a spell that is difficult to describe. This is not like the insomnia caused by caffeine. Likewise, revisiting a poem many times is not like a drug addiction that may be cured at a rehabilitation center. Contact with literature can be feverish but fruitful, distracted yet meaningful; this "unblest" aspect fosters its contagion. The line of demarcation between the scholar-gipsy and the Victorians has to do with differing values, moralities and emotions, which color their interaction and communication. The line of demarcation between literature and its...