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Culturally Sanctioned Shaman

July 1, 2008

“Literature professors are salaried, middle-class shamans.”
-Stephen Greenblatt

In the introduction to his book, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Greenblatt discusses the notion that the primary purpose of a literature professor is to communicate with the dead. (He, being one of the foremost Shakespeare scholars of our time, discounts those that focus on still living authors; but I won’t quibble with his assumptions at this time.)

Not only, Greenblatt argues, must the professor commune with the dead authors but he or she must also find meaning from the author’s societal culture. It is not surprising that Greenblatt would place great emphasis on the impact of culture–he is, after all, the man who coined the phrase ‘New Historicism.’ Though explorations of cultural influence and social energy is fascinating, I was struck by the thought of being a culturally sanctioned shaman.

I, for the time being, want to devote my scholarship to contemporary American literature. The bulk of the authors I will encounter are still alive or have been living during my life but I will still be working to converse with people whose audible voice I may never have the chance to hear. At the same time, even if I could sit and interview the great authors of our age, they are not the same people they were when they penned their works. As Foucault argues, the author is not even the same person as the person who owns the physical body that produced the text, he or she is, in fact, a social construction.

That being said, there is always a great distance between the author and his or text–indeed, between the author and his/her self. Here’s the fun part: the professor/scholar/reader gets to play in that gap between author and text. Along with the aforementioned gap, there, too, is a gap between the culture that influenced the author and therefore the creation of the text and the culture in which that text is consumed–that is more room for play.

In the last few months, I have been working to develop exactly why I want to be the scholar that I am striving to be. I’ve always enjoyed doing literary scholarship and have considered the concept of getting paid to do what I thoroughly enjoy enough to justify my choice of profession; but that has recently not been satisfying.

In an answer to my quest, I’ve rediscovered the importance of literature. Literature–yes–can be aesthetically pleasing all on its own. Without the aid of a professor or literary scholar, one can enjoy a work of literature purely through its aesthetic merit. I am quite content that texts are enjoyed for this reason, but they can be so much more: that is where my passion comes in.

Through effort with guidance, the reader can not only get better at interpreting a written text but better at interpreting the world around him or her as a text. This ability to produce thinkers is the vital element of literature and it is, ultimately, the final goal of education–not just English classes. When thinking about being a professor/teacher/crazy guy on the street corner yelling about the great American novel, I’ve long considered it enough to share with students my passion and joy that is found in literature but I am slowly realizing that if I do only that, I will have failed as an educator. Literature can do more than just be fun or relaxing and my goal is help others see this.

As Paulo Freire says, we must teach our students to read the word and the world.

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