Saturday, 20 October 2012

Ways an English Literature Degree Will Ruin Your Life

As I’m sure most of you reading will know, I am the proud ‘owner’ (if that is the right word) of a BA in English Literature. Now, I know what you’re thinking: My GOD, Katt, how are you unemployed*? I know, I know, shocking.
            Anyway, even though my degree did morph me into a walking cliché, being that I am now a qualified English teacher, I loved it. I don’t even care how nerdy I sound when I say I really love reading and want ALL the words in my face as fast as humanly possible. However, there are certain ways I have noticed my perceptions of the world being changed by studying literature.
            Technically this blog should be entitled ‘Ways reading will ruin your life’, but a. I don’t want to make reading sound like a bad thing; and b. I want my £10,000 piece of paper to have SOME practical use – i.e. this blog dedicated to it.
            Here is a list of the most prominent dangers to look out for should you study/ plan on studying literature at any point in your life. If anyone has any more to add, I would thoroughly enjoy reading them too!

*I’m not actually unemployed. I stand around wearing an oversized yellow uniform, attempting to look fierce for a security company. But it’s only part-time and casual so I think I’m OK to claim otherwise for comic effect.

Unrealistic expectations of relationships:

One of the more obvious reasons a literature degree can ruin your life is by creating an unrealistic slant on relationships you may become involved in. I’m sure here I should probably be writing about Heathcliffe and Cathy and that kind of thing, but I’ll be honest and say I have never got through Wuthering Heights ever. I’m sure I should like it considering the level of weirdness and necrophilia involved (SERIOUSLY!!!) but no.
            I know this point is totally hypocritical coming from me given my pathological hatred of romcoms for this precise reason (don’t even get me STARTED on Bridesmaids... actually, I may write a blog dedicated to the rage that film invokes in me). But this is my blog and I can be as big of a hypocrite as I like so there.
            ANYWAY, I defy anyone to have read a book and not thought ‘ohh if only’ when reading about a wonderful romantic encounter. In novels, particularly the ones I used to fawn over from Medieval times, you’ll always find true love conquering and being a motivation for a whole range of different conquests. However, it is not from the expecting wonderful romance forever stance that I make this point...
            Think of the last book you read that involved a relationship. DID ONE OF THEM DIE?! DID ONE OF THEM LEAVE?! All of the most perfect relationships in literature end HORRIBLY. I really wanted to put in some examples here, but then I figured I might ruin several novels for you. The point I am trying to make is that if you’re lucky enough to be in love, perhaps it would be wise to invest in people-sized bubble wrap, and watch the skies for falling pianos and suchlike. And that sniffle he/ she has developed? SEND THEM TO THE DOCTOR. NOW.

Never look at violence the same

SWORD FIGHTING. How crazy manly is that? Nothing can show your hatred of another person better than thrusting a sword straight into them. Oh wait, no... a degree in literature will teach you that ANYTHING involving swords/ arrows/ needles/ stabby things/ basically anything that goes into another person for the purpose of hurting them is sexual. Taking some examples from some of my best scoring essays:

On Dracula: Sorry, I am going to ruin Dracula for you here if you haven’t read it. Incidentally, if you haven’t read it, you are not missing out on anything. Every time something exciting starts to happen, they have a meeting about it and suck all the fun out of it. It’s like foreplay followed by a running commentary and evaluation of the situation at hand rather than just finishing the job. In short, an unsatisfying read.
            Where was I... Oh yes, at the end of ‘Dracula’, the ‘gang’ manage to successfully stab Dracula in the heart and he dies and the world is safe again (may be slightly paraphrased). That sounds alright doesn’t it? My essay concluded that Dracula was the real winner because, even though he died, he was penetrated by the man whom he loved all along.
            Given the heavily sexual subtext running below the surface of ‘Dracula’, I don’t think this was entirely unreasonable to argue, and if you do read it, then you will probably notice a certain degree of effeminacy to the antagonist, which could well be indicative of homosexual tendencies.

On WW1: This is my literary baby. If it’s a novel about WW1, guaranteed I have either read it, or will devour it as soon as I hear of its existence. But even WW1 is not free from the clutches of violent sexual imagery. Frequently soldiers in WW1 novels (just as they would have in real life) noted how they were virgins and, should they die, then they would never know the touch of a woman (or man, or horse, or whatever should take their fancy).
            As you can probably imagine, these characters often find themselves torn apart by shrapnel. Which is death by penetration. Which is obviously them being violently raped by war. Boom. (Excuse the pun).

Do you think I enjoy this inability to read ANYTHING serious and not be weighing up the innuendo and sexual imagery?! Stupid question... I do most of the time. But still, as is the case with the previous example, it can be HEAVILY inappropriate! And don’t even get me STARTED on Arthurian battles.

Unhealthy obsessions with past events

This is something I have already touched on, but literature can leave you feeling in some way connected to past and/ or fictionalised events, in a way you really have no business being connected to. In my case, this falls into two major areas: WW1 and King Arthur.
            I am sure historians feel the same way about whichever period they feel most interested in, but the method by which you learn as a literature student differs. Almost everything I learned about WW1 came from novels. Now, even the most thoroughly researched, accurate novel cannot escape the inevitable emotional ties to characters readers may feel. If you’re reading about WW1 in a text book, you’re going to be faced with facts such as how 60,000 people died on the first day of the Somme, and you might say “oh no, that’s a big number” because 60,000 is, essentially, just a number and the concept of that representing an amount of lives lost is incomprehensible. Though you can appreciate fully that it was a horrific event in an abstract way, you’re not necessarily emotionally invested.
            When you learn about these things through the medium of literature, YOU WERE THERE, MAN. Characters you have grown close to over a period of maybe hundreds of pages are dying horribly in front of your eyes. Tears are streaming down your face as you’ve found yourself in a shell hole filled with dying and decaying bodies, moaning for the end to come or so disfigured you cannot tell even which side they were fighting for. To make it worse, the book is written in third person, over the shoulder narration, which means there is a strong likelihood that the character you are sharing thoughts with is going to die too in the end. And to make it EVEN worse, you know that everything you’re reading is based on FACT so you can’t even tell yourself it’s only a story.
            While studying for A Levels, I became so intensely engrossed in WW1 that I would frequently argue about how much of a travesty it was that it was not commonly taught in schools. It got so bad that I lost my faith in everything: humanity, the country, religion. I was having nightly nightmares from The Front and bursting into tears every time I read ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. (It got so bad that my mum banned me from reading any more WW1 texts for fear I was going insane, and bought me some timid novels about dogs and autographs).
            Anyway, my point here is that if you’re studying literature, you never know when an obsession may strike and then, before you know it, you’re full on living in a past dreamt up from the pages of a novel.

Empathy for the clinically insane

I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase “an unreliable narrator”. I spent a long while explaining the concept to my A Level classes during my five months as a teacher. Often this is fairly harmless and occurs most frequently in first-person narration. It can merely be the case that your opinion of another character is entirely based upon the character you’re following’s observations, and these may well turn out to be not all they seem. Or you may start to realise that thoughts don’t quite add up and make sense. Take ‘Hamlet’ for example. At first, the eponymous character’s father died a few months back; by Act 4, he is claiming it was a matter of days before!
            Anyway, some of the greatest novels (in my sick and twisted opinion) are those that make you uncomfortable. I’m not necessarily talking about unreliable narrators; I’m talking about protagonists who are most definitely not quite right. The most obvious example that springs to mind is ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Once you’ve managed to unpick Burgess’ web of prose, you’re at one with Alex’s psyche. Given Alex’s lust for ‘rape and ultraviolence’, it seems bizarre that you may grow attached to someone who is so abhorable. But in spite of yourself, you will almost certainly find yourself rooting for him.
            More disturbingly is the effect of ‘American Psycho’. The film adaptation sees Christian Bale rather fabulously hacking his peers to bits in quite a tongue-in-cheek manner. Come on, who hasn’t laughed at the bit where the naked chick runs down the stairs as Bale chases after her, crazed and wielding a chainsaw. The book is absolutely not funny in any way, shape or form, and it is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. The most horrific murders are left out of the film adaptation, but on a number of occasions, I had to stop reading for a while lest my eyes widen to the point of falling out of their sockets.
            The part that is not different from the film though, and that is the most disturbing about the novel, is that you don’t hate Patrick Bateman. Not even when he’s wandering around a dead guy’s flat with a dead woman’s head stuck on his still-erect penis do you think ‘this guy is awful’. Or perhaps that was just me and my questionable taste in men.

There are many more reasons a literature degree can ruin your life. For example, I was going to write a section on how it makes you sound like a pretentious dick-hole by accident, but I feel this speaks for itself in my casual referral to famous texts. Also in my passionate hatred of ‘King Lear’ even though it’s, like, ohmygod, totally famous and Shakespearian. BUT I decided that the angles I have covered were enough to get my general point across and I hope you have enjoyed ploughing through this – belated – blog post.