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‘Studying English as Transformational’

Catherine Brown | April 16, 2018

What is ‘transformational’ about studying, specifically, English literature? English by its nature concerns itself with as much as literature itself does, and there are therefore overlaps at the level of subject matter between literature and all of the humanities subjects. Literary critics borrow from/practice amateur versions of many of them. They benefit from knowing something of the matter and methods of historiography, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, art, music, and so on, and the transformational benefits of these subjects are to some degree to be had from the study of English. For example from studying literature you gain a sense of historical alterity, the sense of the past as another country, where they do things differently. By the same token, historians themselves use the literature of the past in order to access history in a different way to that permitted by other sources.


But these semi-incidental benefits of studying literature are not as great, I would argue, as are those that are obtained from the core disciplines of literary criticism, which are themselves determined by their subject matter: literature. This is where critics stand on their home ground rather than visiting neighbouring disciplines’ home ground – the ability to describe literary uses of language.


Literature is verbal art, and art has the capacity to hold issues, ideas, and affects, as it were, in suspension. Art can contradict itself, be undecided, have divided sympathies, and succeed at some things that it sets itself up to do whilst failing at others.

It is also verbal art, so its medium is language, and one of the ways in which I would argue that those who study it are permanently transformed is in their heightened sensitivity to uses of language that they come across anywhere.


Strikingly, this is not generally perceived. Whereas it is a cliché of socialising that if one is introduced to a psychologist at a cocktail party, one immediately becomes self-conscious about whatever that person might be perceiving about one’s psyche, nobody, when introduced to a literary critic, thinks to become self-conscious about their accent, variant of English, diction, syntax, idiom, rhetoric, and verbal felicities, infelicities and tics (for example the fact that they say ‘incredible’ an incredible amount, often adverbially; such usage has, in fact, declined since David Cameron, its prime exponent, left office). But people should be self-conscious, in this way.


Admittedly, literary critics are not linguists; we are not Professor Higgins in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; we cannot place you within a few streets of Lisson Grove by the length of your Cockney vowels – but we do notice oddities, beauties, and uglinesses in your choices of words and manner of delivery of them. And once we become sensitive in these ways, through being educated in literature, the world becomes considerably more interesting. Language that had before been inert comes to life. And there is beauty everywhere.


Once in London’s Senate House Library a little while ago I saw a poster from some distance, and could read just this slogan: ‘WORDS THAT BURN’. I thought about this. The ‘burn’ could be transitive. The slogan could denote words that destroy or wound. The poster might be advertising a lecture about hate speech. Or it could denote words that are burned – as copies of DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow were burned by the UK public hangman after it was condemned in 1915, as works of numerous authors were burned at the behest of the Nazi state from 1933 onwards, as Bulgakov burned an early draft of The Master and Margerita, and as his character the Master burned his own novel about Christ and Pontius Pilate only to have the manuscript returned to him by Satan with the words ‘рукописи не горят’ – ‘manuscripts don’t burn’. So perhaps the poster was advertising a conference about book- and manuscript-burning in the age that preceded word processing and e-books. Or perhaps it was advertising a poetry festival which celebrated words that burn in the sense of giving warmth and heat, durably, and without themselves being consumed; words that burn in the mind by virtue of their powerful or ambiguous contents or aural felicities such as rhyme; words such as ‘WORDS THAT BURN’. Thus a chance glance at a poster was transformed by the skills that are developed by the study of literature.


The flipside of such a heightened sensitivity to advertently or inadvertently beautiful, playful, intricate or ambiguous uses of language is a lowered toleration for uses that lack these qualities, especially when found in places where what Roman Jacobson called the ‘poetic function’ can be assumed to be dominant – that is, works that we place in the genre of literature rather than non-fiction. Literary critics become unfitted to read pulp fiction, just as gourmets are unfitted to eat food from fast food outlets; it turns the stomach. But this does not only apply to what presents itself as literature. It applies to jargonistic, loose, leaden or mendaciously manipulative uses of language wherever they may be found.


It is with reference to the last that I believe that literary courses should involve the study of rhetoric – one of the Medieval seven liberal arts, the study of which has unfortunately been dropped from most literary courses of which I am aware, but which forms part of the English BA at New College of the Humanities. What the study of rhetoric should do is teach you to recognise (and along the way to name) persuasive, emotive, and manipulative uses of languages wherever they occur – in Henry V, a Guardian article, or a speech by Donald Trump or by Bernie Sanders. Students of rhetoric will learn tips for deploying it, but will also become cannier in their response to it when it is directed at them. They become more street-wise, and more responsible as well as more persuasive citizens.


More generally, people who pay precise attention to every word, as the study of poetry in particular encourages them to do, are less likely to be caught out by the wording of a contract, or by creating unfavourable publicity for their cause. Language is the medium of all disciples and lines of work, and it is as well to be proficient in it.

Catherine Brown

Head of Faculty & Senior Lecturer in English