Reflections of an English major.
By Vikram Nijhawan, Staff Writer
I’ll always remember the first time I read Sylvia Plath’s poetry collection Ariel, because it was right after I’d finished watching The Legend of Korra.
In hindsight, one could pinpoint more than a few textual similarities between these vastly different art works – or at least, an English major with a passion for popular media would. But none of this occurred to me then. All I knew was the bitter-sweet, soul-deep feeling the show’s finale left in me. It persisted while I was sitting within the cozy wooden walls of Graham Library, struggling to punch out an end-of-term essay because of that residual poignancy.
If I were to search for a single flash of validation for becoming an English major, it’d be that feeling. The thing all great authors wish to inspire with their works: shattering the audience’s heart, but still making it feel warmer than ever. And it was from a cartoon first, not a canonical book.
That was the winter of 2018, during my first year of undergrad. Back when I still teetered on the edge of diving into formal literary studies. Like many would-be writers who’ve considered pursuing an English degree, there was a time when I hesitated to share said program decision with my friends, relatives, or even just strangers in general. The reactions would range from that quizzical eyebrow raise, followed by some remark along the lines of “I’m sure you’ll make a great teacher” (that usually came from strangers), to “Well as long as you go to law school afterwards, that sounds great!” (this was usually from concerned family members), to “What the hell are you thinking?” (which could come from either group).
Attending the opening lecture of ENG140 back in September of 2018 ignited that kindling of passion. It was something akin to a rare astronomical event. Something you know others have witnessed before or will witness after you, but still wholly intimate. And if there was ever any doubt that I’d stepped into the wrong auditorium, Nick Mount dispelled those with the very first words to come out of his mouth that semester:
“If you’re here, I assume it’s only for one reason: you want to know the truth.”
A version of this axiom, of literature containing truth, had been espoused by countless popular fiction authors, from Stephen King to Alan Moore. But hearing it come from the mouth of my prof was an entirely new kind of soul-nourishment.
Throughout this course and beyond, I would experience an odd mixture of isolation and encouragement. The foolishness I felt when my classmate and fellow collegiate at Trinity proceeded to give me his hot-takes on various subjects, while dining together in Strachan. One week, Don Quixote. The next, Derrida and Deconstruction. These moments made me feel completely out of my depth, like I was the least knowledgeable person in the room – which, frankly, was true. It made me wonder whether my decision to pursue an English degree was merely the whim of a young boy who lived out his vicarious power fantasies through legends like Luke Skywalker and Legolas – studying the products of others’ imaginations in attempt to fool the world, that I was indeed making valuable use of my oncoming four years of higher education.
But these interactions also provoked another feeling, one that I soon learned that literature was perfectly poised to capture – that of possibility. The gaping desire that only truly arises when you acknowledge your ignorance, and seek to understand.
That feeling that I sought to replicate while confined to my home, separated from campus, strolling to local parks. Looking far too old to go on the swings, but doing so regardless, with not a care in the world who was watching. Waiting for that feeling. That feeling that came from sitting in a library during an early December snowstorm, contemplating my connection to a work of art.
That’s the thing about our syllabuses. They’re portals which transport us to distant lands, both foreign and familiar. Reading great stories has allowed me to travel a thousand miles without moving an inch, with a worn Indigo bookmark as my passport.
I’ve ridden out from Camelot alongside Sir Gawain to face the Green Knight. I’ve traversed through The Wasteland, between those dead lilacs. I’ve sat with Didi and Gogo in some unknown French countryside, waiting for that illusory Godot to finally make his appearance.
When I discovered Hedwig’s Angry Inch, I felt the same shock as Tommy Gnosis did. I meditated on my own mortality with Beowulf’s squad of Geats, and then did so again with Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad. I’ve re-Oriented my views with Edward Said, recited the Satanic Verses aloud without fear of fatwa, and learnt the age-old alliterative axiom, that “the medium is the message (or is it massage?)”, from that renowned UofT prof whose alliterative name escapes me at the moment.
Our current transformative time has forced me to grapple with my choice of faculty even more than usual. It’s no longer the meagre employability prospects which may lead peers to cast suspicious glances at my ongoing degree. With artificial intelligence encroaching on our analytical domain, classics on the curriculum being ‘cancelled’ by the day, and a society increasingly concerned with the superficial and the sensational – I’d argue that the skills that the English department instills in us are more important now than ever. Cherishing nuanced reading, concentration, critical engagement, and above all, the unshakeable conviction that, in spite of what skeptics may say, your imagination can make the world just a little more magical.
Are those by-products worth a practically useless degree? For me, resoundingly so.
For the rest of my days, I’ll never be able to take a stray word or sentence for granted ever again, without pondering the potential greater significance. If literature holds truths within fabrications, then it’s an English degree which allowed me to gaze upon those truths. To feel that bitter-deep, soul-sweet feeling in a library during a snowstorm. Warmth and serenity that can only be achieved through connecting with art. Whether lyric poetry, or The Legend of Korra.