"What are we gonna do?!"Posted: May 29, 2009
I’m starting grad school in a few months: six years of reading, discussing, thinking, writing, and trying to keep my head from exploding, at the end of which (God willing) I’ll have a PhD in English Literature. I have, consequently, been thinking a lot lately about what the hell I’m going to specialize in. When I was applying to graduate programs (both times), I listed my probable area of study as 18th-century literature, mostly because I’d written an honor’s thesis on Robinson Crusoe, and partly because the prospect of grad school was distant and unsure enough (especially during the second round of applications) that it didn’t really seem like an important question.
Now that working toward a PhD has become a real and rapidly approaching fact, however, it’s become a very important question. It’s a question that will determine not only most of what I do over the next six years, but also the shape of the early years of my post-doc career (assuming, of course, that I’m able to land a job in academia).
The 18th century – especially the “long” 18th century – still looks appealing, for a variety of reasons. The novel was still a new thing, and there was a fair amount of experimentation with the form going on at the time. It was an incredibly turbulent time politically, which culminated in the American and French Revolutions. Significant shifts in British imperial policy occurred toward the end of the 1700s, the initial signs of which can be seen as far back as Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe, and which continue to have an impact today. Lately, though, it hasn’t seemed interesting enough; it’s seemed too much like work, though that may only be because Tristram Shandy took so long to slog through.
Charles Williams, who is one of my favorite authors, has recently started to look really appealing as a subject for study, largely because I just read a critical reading of his work in (sort of) Kierkegaardian terms that I found fascinating, as much for the questions it raised and the lines of inquiry it suggested as anything else. Of course, specializing in someone as obscure as Williams might not be a wise move, and reading as much of his work in as short a time as I’d have to might melt my brain.
What looks most interesting, though, is a set of narratives – not only novels and travel narratives, but also graphic novels and films – that are connected (at least in my mind) but lacking, so far as I can tell, a designation. This group includes, for example: Robinson Crusoe; Gulliver’s Travels; The Road; probably The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and certainly Dr. Bloodmoney; George Romero’s zombie flicks, especially Dawn of the Dead (and Zach Synder’s remake, despite it not being that good); Deep Impact (but not Armageddon); almost certainly Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Max Brooks’ World War Z, and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, none of which I’ve read, to my great shame. The group would also include 1984 and We, and probably Brave New World and V for Vendetta (another one I haven’t read); Lord of the Flies; possibly Lost, depending on what the final season holds; Heart of Darkness, Friday, and “By the Waters of Babylon.” The Happening. Maybe the Foundation Trilogy, and maybe Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth, but I don’t know. I could go on, but I won’t.
Several of them are apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, but not all of them; a few are dystopian; some are “unrealistic” (like Gulliver’s Travels or anything with zombies), but more than a few depict events or situations that are actually possible. I’m toying with the idea of calling this thematic group “Kobayashi Maru fiction,” as most of them contain no-win scenarios, or at least catastrophic upheavals requiring a new way of thinking and living. They explore human existence and human society in situations where what we consider “normal life” has totally ceased to exist. They attempt to discover the essence of ‘humanity’ by putting their characters in the hottest, most brutal furnace they can find, and burning off anything and everything they can.
This is where I want to work, in the crucible of the no-win scenario.