OR, YES, I’M SURE I WANT TO DO THIS
Not everyone can be a Literature major. I don’t say that easily. I say that with the utmost resignation, as the bags under my eyes get pulled down by another 50-odd pages of Moby-Dick, my designated pleasure read for the semester.
When I tell people that I study literature, I’m faced with one of two responses: a) “Oh, that’s so cool, I wish I could pursue a major that I am passionate about,” which makes me feel like a neoliberal hippie, or b) “Wow, that’s super tough. Literature is tough.” I also get the occasional Starbucks-homeless jibe as one of those quasi-insults that get passed off as gestures of close friendship. I lump these kinds of Starbucks comments into the same category as response b), for the sole reason that being a barista is difficult. I myself couldn’t do it: there’s only so many custom orders I can take before wanting to throw a cup of custom, vegan, non-GMO, family-grown, baby-proof caffeine with a shot of water that is actually composed of baby’s tears and the saliva of a newborn puppy on someone’s expensive tie.
Being a Literature major is hard. And it’s not because of the reading. One of the first things that people assume about literature majors is that we like to read and we must read a lot and reading must be the only thing we like to do — all of which is true. But it’s not the reading that makes it difficult. Anyone can read Ulysses in a day, probably, if you shut yourself in your room for 24 hours and gain sustenance from some kind of IV drip. The act of reading isn’t difficult; you read something everyday. You’re reading this right now. If reading were the only prerequisite to getting a literature degree, then we’d all be Literature majors, and I’ve been wasting my time for the past year and a half.
Literature is hard because of how vulnerable you become. When you’re a barista and it’s rush hour and you’re getting yelled at for putting in two pumps of syrup instead of the standard one and three-point-five pumps that Terry from the Starbucks down the street uses, you’re vulnerable. You’re vulnerable to your coworkers, the person yelling at you, and everyone else in the store. And despite all that yelling and that one guy in the corner secretly videotaping this in the hopes of putting up another Facebook rant on dismantling the throes of capitalism, you don’t bat an eyelash. I mean sure you feel bad, but look, Barista Man – you chose to do this. You signed up for it.
One of the founding ideals of the liberal arts curriculum is that each student, after having sampled every starter in the buffet of Intro 101s, will hopefully decide what they like the best. So, yes, I chose literature (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this article). But the problem with that is when I read books, I become vulnerable. I would go so far as to argue that even the author isn’t as vulnerable as I am, because at least the author has made peace with what is on the page. When I hold a book, however, am suddenly holding the author, like they’re right there with me. I recently read Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal for a class, and I quickly realized that I was reading “Jean Genet.” Whether autobiographical or not, a novel becomes part of its author’s life force. A lot of people say that they like to read because reading lets them lead different lives; I myself don’t get to live a different life when I read per se, but do I get another life handed to me. Every book I’ve read so far has given me a piece of its writer along with it, and God forbid I keep that soul anywhere else but inside the deepest, safest recesses of my mind. You’d think that it’s hard enough to make sense of your own thoughts, but all of a sudden you have someone else’s jumbled up with yours and you have to begin to sort through the mess.
I haven’t even talked about what happens when a book makes me uncomfortable. If a book makes me uneasy, then the issue for me becomes more complicated. Not only do I need to be able to digest what I’ve just read, to chew it slowly and wait for my intestines to absorb its nutrients, but I also have to deal with how it makes me feel afterwards. Sometimes it leaves me with a dull ache in the bottom of my stomach, my lower right side to be precise. It is in those moments of unease that I take a scalpel and examine the root cause, attempt to find out which proteins in my body are refusing to digest the food. It’s not an easy task; sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes when sleep becomes too elusive I get tempted to forego the operation completely.
It is important to see the operation through, however. Only when I get to interact with all the insides of me do I learn what makes me tick. Again I am vulnerable; but this time, I am vulnerable with myself. Being vulnerable in front of other people is easy, because at the end of the day no one remembers that you put in low-fat milk instead of skim. Being vulnerable with yourself, though, is hard: I’ve tried it, and I’ve quickly realized that I don’t accept any bullshit. You see, the author is better off because she has already undergone that process of vulnerability, otherwise there would be no book to begin with. I, however, go through it again and again and again every time I read a book. Because, at the end of the day, every author writes the world differently to how I see it. I can’t do anything about that, since its their words on the page. I have to be able to sit in this position of conflict between these two opinions and choose to resolve it on my own, because the words do as they please.
English classes in high school are well-known for the idea that you can write anything you want, as long as you justify it. That may be true, but there’s always another level to it. Justifying something well is difficult. Any sort of university student with enough desperation and 3 cans of Red Bull can write a quick essay about the subjectification of women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but to sit down with a text and really be able to see what it’s saying is difficult. The text doesn’t help me at all. It doesn’t say anything, because it’s an inanimate object. Of course the texts say something, but books aren’t very good conversationalists. They’re kind of selfish, actually. Some of them think that what they’re saying is so blatant, so obvious, that to slave overnight to figure out what the elusive “it” is seems trivial. And sometimes even the best of us can’t get that message right away. Of course a text matters, but to figure out the whys and the hows and the whatevers entails a lot of reading, yes, but also a lot of thinking about how and why you’re reading the text the way that you are.
So no, you can’t just “say anything you want”. Life (and literature) isn’t that easy, and No Fear Shakespeare can only get you so far. I’d like to think that if someone has exposed her soul to you and has let you into the inner workings of her mind, it’s only decent to sit with those thoughts and really flesh them out rather than type any random mumbly-jumbly-hoo-ha on the page and think that you’ve fully understood the book under discussion. Maybe literature is about courtesy. You wouldn’t just walk away from a conversation, so why would you do that to a book?
The classic way to end this sort of article is to give a grand, sweeping soliloquy on why I choose to study literature despite these difficulties. A cop-out answer is to say, “I don’t know.”
I think I do know why I study literature, though, and in an odd way it’s because I don’t know: I don’t know who I am yet. I thought I knew who I was two years ago, but thinking back, I realize that I’m now a completely different person. I choose to study literature because I know that if I don’t get a handle on who I am versus who everyone else is, I’ll just keep swimming like a tiny little guppy. And the only way to really get a good handle on who I am is to allow myself to exist in this state of vulnerability, day in and day out for as long as I’ve got time. Maybe that makes me selfish, but it’s the only way that’s made any sense to me so far. Maybe the farthest I can get with my education is a manager at my local Starbucks, but while I’m serving you your regular IV drip of caffeine at least I’ll know that every add-on you ask for means something. It’ll be obvious to you, of course – only barbarians drink their coffee without a splash of rose water and the faint hint of a baby’s first laugh – but I won’t get it at first. But maybe after your fourth, fifth, sixth drink, I will.
Life is such a mystery. Never in my wildest imagination did I envision that someday I might be teaching in the Middle East, after two decades of teaching in law schools and religious studies programs in the United States and Europe. Yet here I am in the UAE, as a member of the faculty of NYU Abu Dhabi. While the fields of law and religious studies may seem to be unlikely consorts, they coalesce in religious systems of law such as Talmudic law, Hindu law, sharia law, and canon law. Moreover, the roots of secular Western legal systems may be traced to the medieval canon law and its unity with theology. The comparative and cross-disciplinary focus of my scholarship describes religion and law as social institutions that play a major role in setting the conditions for either a static, punitive, and repressive social order or a merciful, enlightened, and transformative one in which individuals and communities may flourish. This focus seems to me to be a good fit with the aims of global education embraced by NYU Abu Dhabi.
One of the courses that I teach, Ideas of the Sacred, introduces the students to the world’s major religious traditions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism. These religious traditions are great rivers of humanity, and I think that every broadly educated person ought to have knowledge of them. One’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are often intimate and located deep within the inner sanctum of one’s consciousness, and for some human beings, these beliefs contribute to the core of personal and communal identity. Students familiar with each of the world’s religious traditions that are discussed have participated in the course. Our classroom discussions have consistently been characterized by zeal for learning, respect for others, and openness to various ideas about what might be considered sacred. I said the course “introduces the students,” but all of us in the course learn from each other. I could not ask for a better place to teach a course in comparative religion. In a world where religion is sometimes depicted primarily as a cause of intolerance and violence, I think that this counter-example, created by the idea of global education, offers a glimpse of hope.
Another course that I teach is called What is Law? At the start of the course, I tell the students not to expect a catharsis: law is fundamentally a human activity, and the sundry essentialist, sociological, and ideological responses to the course’s central question are inevitably limited. Again, the diversity of our student body brings so many varied perspectives about the meaning and purpose of law, which serves as a poignant reminder that law is pluralistic and not just the hegemonic domain of a given predominant culture, nation, or linguistic experience. At the same, there often emerges in our discussion a desire for a common humanity that might serve as the moral justification for fundamental human rights. That desire reminds me of when I served as a member of the treaty conference which established the International Criminal Court. I was privilege to be one among hundreds of representatives of the various nations of the world gathered together at the United Nations to create an international legal institution whose basis is rooted in a common humanity. Some of my students will likely become lawyers, maybe even judges or other kinds of government officials. I hope that we are offering the academic and social context in which they mature as fair, just, compassionate, and socially responsible human persons. Forgive me if I sound overly idealistic, but I am a person who believes in the power of the aspirational.
From the very first time that I visited Abu Dhabi three years ago, NYU’s aspirations about global education were readily apparent to me. Located at the crossroads of the world, NYUAD brings together a talented student body drawn from the four corners of the earth. The university’s financial aid policy is such that no student is excluded because of an inability to pay. NYUAD also attracts top quality faculty who are committed to teaching and engaged in fascinating research; from the start of my tenure here, I have been intellectually and personally enriched by the opportunity to interact with colleagues from all parts of the NYU Global University as well as from other institutions of higher education. In an academically rigorous environment, students and faculty transcend the parameters of discrete disciplines in order to develop new understandings of complex problems. At their core, the fields of law and religious studies are about human persons. The multidisciplinary approach seeks to deepen our understanding of the identities, values, cultures, languages, behaviors, histories, and social contexts of individuals and communities that comprise the human situation. The mystery of life continues to unfold for me, and two years into my service at NYUAD, I feel grateful and humbled to be a small part of this great venture in global education.
John Coughlin is Professor of Religious Studies and Law at NYU Abu Dhabi. He holds a Th.M. from Princeton Seminary, a J.D. from Harvard University Law School, and the J.C.L. and J.C.D. from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
[Image: Detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509-11), Stanze di Raffaello, Apostolic Palace, Vatican), depicting Plato and Aristotle.]