In this analysis Hamlet’s last soliloquy slows down the action, makes Hamlet too “dark and existential,” as Shapiro disparagingly notes. Wouldn’t want that! That Shapiro’s theory has been taken seriously by academics is not merely an intellectual scandal but makes it the perfect metaphor for the way most graduate study of literature in America diminishes it—and has become something to be avoided like the plague. I’ve tangled with Shapiro before and I will never cease condemning his grad school-bred disembowelment of Hamlet ’til the day I die and hopefully, like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, return to haunt those who advance this meretricious attempt to pour poison into the ears of grad students, to besmirch one of the high points of English literature.
Yes, I guess I do have strong feelings.
But, I told the Should I Go to Grad School? editor, I couldn’t speak about graduate school education in general for two reasons. First, it seems intuitively true that for subjects such as history, philosophy, the hard sciences, and even some of the softer ones, it would be hard for me to make a case against graduate study.
But grad school for literature, I can’t advocate. I escaped Yale before it became the center of the frenzied fad for French literary theorists, as a result of which students read more about arcane metaphysics of language, semiotics and the like than the actual literature itself. But, even though many of the most sophisticated contemporary intellectuals who once bought into this sophistry (such as Terry Eagleton) have abandoned it, the tenured relics who imposed this intellectual regime are still there, still espousing their view that literature itself is only to be understood through their diminishing deconstructing lens. I can testify to it, having sat through enough seminars at the Shakespeare Association of America conferences to last a life time. Please don’t waste your life this way.
Rosenbaum goes on to talk about how he had a series of lucky breaks that led him to a great career in journalism. (Note that he didn’t get a graduate degree in journalism either). Rosenbaum seems aware that his career, which has played out amid the last heyday of newspaper journalism, is essentially unrepeatable today, and for that matter very, very difficult to pull off even under the more favorable conditions of the previous generation. When I talk to young people about whether or not they should study journalism in college, I try to scare them out of it with the facts on job insecurity. If they’re still interested after I get finished with them, therefore indicating that they might really have the bug, I tell them that networking — making connections and using them — is a much bigger deal than they think, or want to think. True, I’ve earned what modest success I’ve had as a journalist, but I owe everything to a handful of editors over the years who gave me the chance to work for them.
I loved this graf from Rosenbaum’s essay:
And as it happened, the Voice’s last counter-culture reporter, the legendary Don McNeill, had walked into a lake at a commune in Massachusetts allegedly with a headful of acid and died the year before. And so I was thrown into the breach.
It was heavy duty covering the Weather Underground types and the heavy acid heads, but I survived it in part, I think, because of the skepticism and distance I had developed from reading my beloved 17th-century metaphysical poets and the crazy quilt of visionary sects who surfaced during Cromwell’s Interregnum—the Diggers, the Levellers, the Ranters, and the “Family of Love,” (for more on all of these see the great scholar Christopher Hill’s wonderful book The World Turned Upside Down)—all of whom anticipated in their dreams and sad fate the ’60s and ’70s types I was covering and left me less vulnerable to being carried away by their seductions.
Ah, so graduate education did help Rosenbaum! Or did it? As he avers, there’s no law saying one has to go to graduate school to read. Anyway, this bit reminded me that though I’d love to become wealthy enough to take time off and earn a graduate degree in history, the truth is that there’s nothing preventing me from reading history on my own. I don’t want to be an academic historian, so I don’t need specialized training. Besides, there’s a part of me that worries about grad school destroying my love for and interest in history in the same way Rosenbaum says literature grad school destroys love for great writing:
That fall, I was pleased that I’d been accepted into a Yeats seminar taught by none other than Richard Ellmann, known as the Yeats scholar of our time whose biographies of the poet and of James Joyce are still monuments.
What a disappointment! Everything about it. Ellmann was sedulously, reductively, droningly biographical in his approach to Yeats. Every luminous poetic line was dragged down to its mundane source in Yeats’ life, just the opposite of what Joyce did with his Dublin which was to raise the mundane to the sublime.
Which explains the most acid line in Rosenbaum’s essay:
But it is a sad fact that it is the people too timid to taste life without the prospect of tenure who stay behind and ruin literature for the students in graduate school who have any life left in them.
Over to you, Master Jacobs…