Monday, September 12, 2011

Rather arty, you know

Art English Majors love:

The Lady Lilith - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

1 from Little Red Riding Hood, by Charles Perrault and Sarah Moon

2 from Little Red Riding Hood, by Charles Perrault and Sarah Moon

Joseph Cornell - Sand Fountain.  Who doesn't love the miniature?*

"Jim who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion" - Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales for Children

The lion, eating Jim

Edward Gorey

Becky Sharp entangling Jos Sedley in her web of  green silk.
From Vanity Fair - written & illustrated by W.M. Thackeray

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Sentimental Education

 So early in September Amory, provided with "six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc." set out for New England, the land of schools. There were Andover and Exeter with their memories of New England - dead, large, college-like democracies; St. Mark's, Groton, St. Regis' - recruited from Boston and the Knickerbocker families of New York; St. Paul's, with its great rinks; Pomfret and St. George's, prosperous and well dressed; Taft and Hotchkiss, which prepared the wealth of the Middle West for social success at Yale, Pawling, Westminster, Choate, Kent, and a hundred others all milling out their well-set-up, conventional, impressive type, year after year; their mental stimulus the college entrance exams; their vague purpose set forth in a hundred circulars as "To impart a Thorough Mental, Moral, and Physical Training as a Christian Gentleman, to fit the boy for meeting the problems of his day and generation, and to give a solid foundation in the Arts and Sciences."
 - F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

It's funny.  I never liked school before college.  High school was such a drag.  Getting up before dawn, scrambling to finish homework before 7:30 am classes, eating the same kind of sandwich day after day. Ugh.  No thank you.  Plus, ISFPs and baby English Majors HATE being herded, which is what you can expect for four years in high school.  Continual herding and mass (yet minute) migration through a single sprawling concrete building.  Lack of air and sunlight, except when we're favored with the eight-minute-mile in gym class on some snowy day in early February.

When English Majors come into their own, however, something strange happens.  They actually become attracted to the idea of Education Before University.  This is due to the wonderful Bildungsromans they now can enjoy (mainly because a 20-year-old English Major thinks he's safely grown - morally and psychologically - and feels pretty relaxed).

The coming-of-age novel is often set in boarding schools.  In America, in England, in Switzerland; often Catholic or High Church or Atheistic, the boarding school novel paints a fascinating portrait of the effects of education on the half-grown.  A few general markers of the boarding school novel are:

1.  A classical education where Latin and French are as important as math and science.

2.  Headmasters and Teachers as Opponents.  Except for the very kindly younger nun that the other nuns hate.

3.  Quidditch.

4.  Making friends who eventually become super-allies due to close quarters, a common hatred of Authority, and love for poetry/painting/reading/Latin/adventure.

5.  Getting into mischief.  This consists of: midnight visits to bombed-out cottages near school grounds; getting yelled at for praying alone in a forgotten chapel; calling a priest "Father" instead of "sir"; going from being really rich to being really poor; and getting way too involved with someone you oughtn't.*

6.  Education itself.  Education is NOT the sole product of curriculum and formal instruction.  Else why would we read the book?  The protagonist is educated from a thousand angles and interactions.  The bully, the Head Girl, the Intellectual Introvert (Thomas Parke D'Invilliers, anyone?), the Paedophile Priest, the Groundskeeper, the Best Friend Turned Worst Enemy, and the Brutal Prefect all together or singly educate  our hero/heroine.

7.  Courage and resourcefulness.  When you're faced with the general antagonism of the above Educators,  these qualities tend to grow and expand.  Or else, you end up being one of the herd.

For the main character to outsmart these noxious characters while having midnight dormitory adventures and learning Latin, ah yes, this is why English Majors have a softening toward Education.  It's about going it alone and emerging victorious.**

This clip is from Back Home, a TV movie of Michelle Magorian's book of the same name.  This is quite possibly the best (worst?) book about grownups attempting to foil childrens' growth, happiness and ambition all in the context of an English boarding school. 

* List of books in order:
Back Home - Michelle Magorian
And Both Were Young - Madeleine L'Engle
Seminary Boy - John Cornwell
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - Joan Aiken
A Separate Peace - John Knowles

Other boarding school novels:
A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett (sweetly sentimental but has the necessary evil to make it interesting)
Prep - Curtis Sittenfeld (baffling book; does it make me love or hate the idea of boarding school?  I certainly hate Cross Sugarman)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - J. K. Rowling (the first book, for the obvious reason that it's Harry's first time at Hogwarts)
The Small Rain - Madeleine L'Engle (gawd, let the girl play her piano, already!)
The Silver Chair - C.S. Lewis (not technically about boarding school but retains a lot of the above elements - courage, adventure, steadfast friendship, etc.)

**Victory is writing and publishing a best-selling book about one's harrowing experiences while being Educated.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!

When Business and Finance Majors belittle and patronize their English Major colleagues (and believe me, this happens a lot), the latter are prepared.  They allow themselves a small smile and begin at once to recall various choice insults and slights from the annals of Literature.  Particularly creative are insults of the Renaissance Period.  Shakespearean plays in particular boast a vast arsenal of curses from which the English Major can  choose.  These insults are often embedded in full sentences or even full paragraphs.  Salty and descriptive, they're generally more effective and evocative than today's standard university insults which usually involve the word "dick" being attached to some noun or another.

For example:

Business Major: "What do you do, besides read books all day?"

English Major: "I write about them."

Business Major: (Sniggers vulgarly)  "That's not gonna pay the bills, son."

English Major:  "Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat."

Business Major: "What the... No, I'm serious.  You're gonna have to retire that book-reading shit when you get out of here.  Get rid of that stuff.  Read Forbes Global or CNN if you have to read something.

English Major:  (Warming to the point) "I had rather be a toad, and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than keep a corner in the thing I love for others uses!"

Business Major: "Whatever dude.  I'm out."


English Major:  (Whispers) "You Banbury cheese."

Note Honorary English Major David Tennant's expression; no-one better get in his way.

My own personal favorite literary insult is found in the last quarter of the immortal Watership Down This is a fantastic book for many reasons, one of which is the rabbit language, Lapine, sprinkled throughout.  There's even a glossary so you can look up what they're saying.  Many of us still geek out over this.

At the end of the book there's a war between two rabbit warrens and one of the good rabbits tells the evil rabbit warlord "Silflay hraka, u embleer rah!"  Awesome, awesome, awesome.

Find great insults here at the Shakespeare Insults Dictionary.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Introversion and the Art of the Personality Test

 It seems that a certain sector of the population loves to take personality tests.  A large portion of this sector is made up of English Majors.  While job recruiters and career counselors don't come right out and say it, there are no jobs in existence for which the top requirement is a major in English.  This produces a mild sense of anxiety during the fall semester of senior year and full blown panic attacks toward the end of spring.  The time in between is spent losing one's self in the heady, spiritual luxuriance of Paradise Lost while an occasional return to reality consists of downing gallons of coffee late at night and clicking endlessly through job placement websites for humanities majors.  To quell the mounting panic, an English Major begins half-seriously to consider careers in office administration, insurance sales or missionary work.

She will then chuck these ideas, ascend to her berth and resolve to visit the campus career center next day. 

At the career center, the counselor will assign to her a battery of different sorts of personality tests.  The English Major finds herself perversely enjoying this kind of test-taking.  English Majors are naturally introspective and love that there are ten-page-long analyses of their most unique and sensitive personality.  What they do not love is that these tests merely serve to confirm that introversion is the strongest strength they have to offer a potential boss.  They'd be so much happier not having to deal with actual people, who are blustery and obtuse and overly concerned about money and run rough-shod over the English Major's sensitive spirit.  And, worst of all, don't get literary references.

Unfortunately, the outcome of these personality tests yield a strange assortment of results that are really weird and discouraging to the young English Major.  Mainly because of strange groupings that seem to emanate from the fact that a major in English may as well be a major in Alienology or Basket-Weaving.  Here are a few suggested career possibilities from a test I recently took:  Teacher, Union Plumber, Astronaut, Bus Driver, Governess, Editor, Furrier, Claims Adjuster, Jongleur, Entrepreneur, and Mortician.

The English Major dreams of someone approaching her at graduation, noting the keenness and intelligence radiating from her face, to offer her a position as Chief Reader of Books in his huge library which is housed in a remote castle on the French countryside.  He needn't be an enchanted prince, just someone who recognizes the conundrums that Jobs/Real Life/Credit Scores/Health Benefits/Saving Money/Career Advancement (barf)/Retirement and Eventual Death, etc. pose for the English Major.

English Majors may take the Myers-Briggs Test every couple of weeks.   Just to make sure they still fit the Jungian definition of an English Major, which many of us believe is either an ISFP or an INFP

Here are several tests which may provide you with a) better understanding of who you are and why you can't entertain the thought of being a claims adjuster and b) a handy respite from Remembrance of Things Past.  After all, this is important job-search prep work.

Myers-Briggs Test

The Enneagram

Emotional Intelligence Quiz

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Young Fogey Envy

Any English Major worth his or her salt feels that life, or at least fashion, was so much better Between the Wars.  That is, WWI and WWII.  That's why watching Poirot and Marple eats up so much of an English Major's study time.  Murder plots be damned.  Impeccably cut suits, motoring caps, scarlet nails, Marceled peroxide hair and stockings are the reasons we watch.

 Edward VIII - more Sloane Ranger than Fogey, but still looks great

The clothing style in question, for men at least, is the Young Fogey style.  This is a very buttoned-down look with waistcoats, tweed, argyle-patterned socks, and three-piece suits.  Virginia Woolf famously described T.S. Eliot as someone who'd wear a four-piece suit.  The English Major loves this look because it is a) associated with literary greatness and b) worn with careless confidence.  A Young Fogey will walk around campus, hands in pockets, smoking a pipe and peering up at the foliage in an extremely casual manner.  He may be composing a new poem.  He may be mentally calculating how many places he needs at table for a dinner he's throwing for chums later.  They'll all take turns reciting poems backwards, for all we know.  He literally does not care what anyone thinks of him.  A Young Fogey makes life and majoring in English cool.

The young T.S.  

 The Young Fogey was resurrected and solidified as a Look in Oxbridge among the bright young things of the 1980s.  Check out the young A.N. Wilson.  I get a little swoony when I see this picture because he reminds me of yet another man in similar Young Fogey style, Anthony Howell as Detective Inspector Paul Milner.
Basket on a bicycle - only a Fogey could get away with it

Fogey-ish scarf and tie but given to unfogey-ish pursuits like investigating murders

The reason Young Fogeys get away with their look is because they are utterly and unshakably confident, a quality the English Major admires and envies.  Especially the American English Major.  What may fly in Britain will only be laughed at here, unless you have the confidence of a Sebastian Flyte and especially an Anthony Blanche.  All the upper-class characters in Brideshead are true badass mothers.

Also, we love the fact that Young Fogeys must have a very, very posh accent.  As Stephen Fry noted in The Liar, a public school accent pronunciation would render "toast" as "taste."  All vowels become close-mid front unrounded vowels.  "I seh, Chehles, do mehnd where you're gehing", and similar.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

And the mome raths outgrabe

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

 - Lewis Carroll

Of course an English Major's first favorite poem is Jabberwocky.  No other poem in the English language is so fun, other than perhaps Ogden Nash's:

Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker.
A few years ago, my brother decided he'd get a little luckier with the ladies if he could recite poetry to them.  He spent quite a few days memorizing some choice literary treasures.  Then he took a blind date out for drinks and proudly recited the first few lines of Jabberwocky.  She sat there sipping her drink, smile frozen onto face.  He believes (and I do, too) that she thought he was drunk. 
And honestly, what sounds more like sentimental drunk-speak than saying something like: "O frabjous day!  Callooh!  Callay!" while downing a pint? 

If you want to sober up fast, watch this video of Kate Burton recite Jabberwocky without blinking once.

Grammar or Die

If an English Major is in conversation with others, she will want to correct bad or careless grammatical errors.  Secretly, she'd like to use the David Mitchell method to annihilate grammar problems once and for all.

But, if she values her life, she'll check herself and merely correct grammar in the manner of Sally Phillips on Smack the Pony.