From time to time I like to summarize the student senior projects I am mentoring, both to give you a sense of what English majors are up to these days and to show them what their ideas look like from the outside. Already this year I have shared three projects, on the female bildungsroman, the dark double in 19th century fiction, and Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction.
The fourth project I am mentoring is the most difficult to describe. That’s because Nick Brown, a double major in English and philosophy, is very ambitious. To write about how literature can help us live a happy and worthwhile life (not necessarily synonymous, as Nick explains) he has turned to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Keats, Joseph Heller, Camus, Kirkegaard, Marx, the Tao, several members of the Frankfurt School (especially Marcuse and Adorno), and Amherst philosopher Fred Feldman, who has written on happiness. We’ll see if he ultimately tackles them all since, after 34 pages, he’s only gotten to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Feldman, but so far his essay is first rate. I’ll focus mostly on those three and write a sequel when more comes in.
Nick believes that philosophy shouldn’t only help us examine what constitutes a good life but should also help us live one. To an extent, he sees philosophy as helping us do the examining and literature as helping us do the living. Duke Senior in As You Like It functions as his central model. Nick is taken with the speech Senior gives in the Forest of Arden where he rejoices in his forced exile:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
As You Like It also has, of course, Jaques’ famous monologue—“All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players…”— and Nick plays the two speeches off against each other. Against Jaques’ pessimism that we are stuck in assigned roles from which we cannot escape, Nick embraces Duke Senor’s belief that, though we are indeed players, we can choose the narratives by which we live our lives.
Nick contrasts Senior with Tolstoy, who at one time experienced an existential crisis over the fact that his life, while prosperous, appeared meaningless to him. Tolstoy ultimately found meaning to reside in the Christian faith of the peasants on his estate, but for Nick such an external cannot determine either meaning or happiness. Rather, he looks to the world of art as the means through which we find a way to live.
I’ll report on this in more detail later in the semester as Nick elaborates on his ideas. I’ll just mention here that he will be looking at Camus’s Sisyphus and Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith to explore how individuals grapple with the world; at Marx’s notions of human freedom and creativity and how they are pitted against the world of necessity; at Keats’ ideas on negative capability and how art helps us move outside our own perspective; and at Yossarian in Catch 22 on how to live a meaningful life in a Catch 22 universe.
As Nick sees it, abstract philosophy can get us only so far. Literature, which engages both our mind and our emotions, pushes us into full contact with life.