In Praise of the “And” in an “Or” Culture

I was struck recently by A New York Times column by Frank Bruni, anChaucer's Pilgrim Color individual of a kind of rhetoric that’s become a species unto itself in recent years: laments about the state of the “humanities” in contemporary universities.

I found myself agreeing with many of Bruni’s broadest points but questioning most of the particulars he used to make them. Like Bruni, I agree that university education broadly, and particularly in the humanities, is not simply about gaining what might be termed “job skills.” Rather, it’s about training that most important of human muscles–the mind–to be a sharper, nimbler, more creative, more adaptable instrument. It might, too, even be about helping students to create what Aristotle might call “flourishing” lives. Part of college can and should be about “getting a job.” Only part. The rest is about something bigger: building a life that honors and enhances every aspect of students’ existence: mind, body, and spirit. A humanist might call this training in becoming a whole person; a Buddhist might call it training in becoming one with the universe; a Christian or Jewish person, training in the love of one’s neighbor as one’s self.

What perplexed me about Bruni’s column, however, was the repetition of what I suspect has become a too-easy refrain in such laments about the humanities: the idea that the “problem” is the professors themselves, who have allowed their noble profession be become infected by the nefarious influences of an Ugly Thing called “Theory” or “Cultural Studies.” An often-used corollary to this is a concurrent accusation that humanities faculty have “dumbed down” their subjects in order to pander to popular cultural fads, playing to their students as “customers” rather than learners. It’s always seemed a little strange to me that these accusations are paired as though they’re not contradictory–professors in the humanites apparently manage to be too smart and too dumb, to complex and too simple, too theoretical and not theoretical enough, all at the same time.

Bruni recounts the lament of a former professor of his, an expert in Renaissance Poetry (who I’m sure is a wonderful person and accomplished scholar from whom I could learn much; I’m critiquing an idea here, not this individual), that “Chaucer has become Chaucer and …Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

That is one loaded “and.”

It’s used, in that sentence, seemingly, to encompass everything that’s gone wrong with teaching in the humanities. It’s those pesky “ands.” Why can’t we just teach “Shakespeare” and not “Shakespeare and..” Why not just pure Chaucer rather than “Chaucer and…”? Is the “and” what’s keeping us, as the same professor notes, from affirming college as an experience that “develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles…”?

I’d like to offer an alternative view, namely, that the “and” might be the most important thing for those of us who want to teach in the humanities toward the ends that Bruni himself values. The “and” muscle is likely the weakest one in our culture, and as such the most important muscle teaching in the humanities must train.

I might start by pointing out that Shakespeare himself was a particular fan of that correlative: Shakespeare loved “and” so much that many of his most famous lines use it with great intention and effect, as when Hamlet speaks of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or when he tells Horatio that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It is this figure of speech that also allows Iago, in Othello, to talk about the danger of expressing the “native act and figure” of his heart, or Prospero, in The Tempest to ask about his daughter’s memory of the “dark backward and abysm” of time. The techy rhetorical term for this particular use of “and” is hendiadys.

The effect of a hendiadys is to slow us down, derail our preconceptions about an idea, and lead us to consider more possibilities in richer and more complex relationships. Take Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” line: the phrase is in some ways so commonly known that we nearly gloss over it, but, as Simon Palfrey notes, a moment’s thought disrupts any knee-jerk impression: why slings and arrows? After all, one doesn’t shoot arrows with slings, and “bows and arrows,” which actually makes a lot more immediate sense, still fits the rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse. So the figure gives us some pause: why slings and not bows? That pause leads us to reflect on both words. Slings make a circular movement, whipping around and around until practically invisible, and, when released, hurl a stone that can fell a Goliath. “Slings” functions grammatically as a noun here, but can also be a verb: “to sling.” On this end of Shakespeare’s “and,” fortune is something that whips us around, throws us willy-nilly into the unexpected with irresistible, destructive centrifugal force. The plural is also significant: there are lots of those things whipping us around. “Arrows,” on the other side of the “and,” are something else: arrows are about linearity; they point, fly in precisely directed rays. They pierce with precision. The discontinuity of the two terms on either side of the “and,” then, is what causes us to pause long enough to take Hamlet’s full meaning of the nature of “outrageous fortune:” it’s all the connotations of both of those terms, plus the disruption that happens in our own minds when we try to reconcile them. Hamlet’s fortune is never something we can turn into the easy equivalents we’d like the “and” to represent. That single hendiadys, too, is only one part of a famous speech that only becomes more full of substance and possibility the more one slows down to consider its words.

I might call Chaucer another big fan of the “and,” in the sense that he tends to add rather than subtract concepts. In the Canterbury Tales, we’re confronted by a whole series of implied “ands” in the portraits of the many characters, who, “by aventure yfalle in felaweshipe,” are about to set out on a pilgrimage toward the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. There’s always another one: a knight, and a squire, and a yeoman, and (a Miller and a Prioress and a Wyf of Bath and a Summoner and a Parson and…) always one more. When they begin their storytelling, one can never only consider that story in isolation, because their stories speak to one another, operating, at the level of structure, in a similar fashion to the way in which hendiadys operate at the level of words in Shakespeare: The Knight tells the first story, and almost everyone seems satisfied, until the Miller jumps in and insists on telling his story, which is in many ways a response to and critique of the knight’s. The next teller is the Reeve, who, incensed by the Miller’s insulting tale, tells a story about a corrupt Miller who gets his comeuppence (in a way that makes us question whether the outcomes of any of the tales has really been just). All three stories discuss similar themes: power, what constitutes “legitimate” authority, sex, what orders the universe. And each story adds a new dimension that both tears down and adds to the perspectives that have come before. The Knight’s Tale never stands as such. When it ends, we consider the Miller’s tale, which is both entirely the Miller’s and a response to the Knight’s, critiquing it and adding to it. The Reeve adds his own elements and responds to both Knight and Miller, such that the whole sequence can only happen as a sequence of ands. Each story must be taken in relation to the others (both the other stories, and the other pilgrims). It’s never the Knight or the Miller, the Miller or the Reeve. As if to emphasize this point, the next take–the Cook’s–is one that Chaucer famously left unfinished. The conversation the Knight starts has literally never ended: it only trailed off into another imaginary “and” that continues to resonate. And, one might say, that’s part of the point: Chaucer points out that the “and” is everything: as different as they are, the pilgrims keep adding, supplementing, but never completely succeed in creating real differentiation or division. They poke fun at each other, squabble, snark, and even come to fisticuffs–but they never part company, and the whole crew continues toward Canterbury together. The whole sequence of the tales is a rejection of “either/or” logic and an affirmation of and.

The last time I taught an undergraduate Chaucer course, my students started a discussion about how experiencing something like the Canterbury Tales might be helpful in their daily lives. There were a number of interesting takes on this, but the overarching idea the students generated (and not at my prompting, but, I think, at Chaucer’s) was the importance, in dealing with difference, to “hear the other’s story.” They discussed how helpful that kind of orientation toward difference might help in forums as mundane as difficult political confrontations on Facebook: what if, they posited, one’s response to an objectionable perspective from a Facebook acquaintance was not to immediately counter-assert, but to ask for a storytelling game, to ask “how did you come to believe that?,” and then to offer one’s own narrative of the same. Wouldn’t that allow for better, more productive, more affirmative communication? What if we all did what we could to turn our own Facebook feeds into Chaucerian storytelling games rather than tawdry political smear campaigns? What could we create? And, if we succeeded, what, in turn, might that help us understand about the Canterbury Tales in its own milieu? What if we brought Chaucer’s and to our own culture (which loves the or a lot more, wanting to separate us into Democrats or Republicans, us or them).

I might also point out that there has never been a time in which the study of Shakespeare and Chaucer has not been the study of Shakespeare and or Chaucer and. The only real difference, in what we might call “traditional” studies of both writers, is that the “ands” were simply unstated. The study of Shakespeare was really Shakespeare and formalism, or Shakespeare and traditional aesthetics, historicism, or textual studies, or Shakespeare and humanism. The same terms go for Chaucer. So it’s possible, at least, that the proliferation of “ands” in current course titles is simply the overt acknowledgement of the “and-ing” that’s always been happening in Chaucer and Shakespeare studies, as well as an affirmation, very much in the spirit of both Chaucer and Shakespeare’s own works, that there are always more “ands.”

The enterprise of the humanities–at least, the part of it that we want to encourage students’ senses of connection to the world and to themselves–is about those “ands.” So we help students train the “and” muscle by showing them the potential ands out there: Shakespeare and film, Chaucer and Psychoanalysis, Shakespeare and Pop Culture, Chaucer and How to I Handle My Crazy conservative/liberal/atheist/religious/tory/libertarian Friend on Facebook without Driving Us Both Brazy? The Winter’s Tale and Why Do I Keep Sabotaging My Own Relationships? The Reeve’s Tale and Rape Culture on Campus. Othello and How to Teach in a Diverse High School. Shakespeare and I Know What I Want to Do, but How am I Supposed to Live?

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