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Why Major in Literature—–What Do We Tell Our Students?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


It is precisely because of the elusive character of real life that we need the help of fiction to organize life retrospectively, after the fact, prepared to take as provisional and open to revision any figure of emplotment borrowed from fiction or from history.

–Paul Ricoeur

In the aftermath of what has come to be known as Nine One One, literary texts became the last resort of consolation in a vast desert of mindless media commentary and aggressive but ultimately futile political rhetoric. The Philadelphia Inquirer promptly published email messages exchanged by four University of Pennsylvania students trying to grapple with the tragic enormity of the historical moment. For these students “[t]he old world died on Tuesday [11 Sept. 2001],” and they had to learn to live in a new reality. To make sense of this not-so-brave new world, they sought for answers in “books and literature” (“Facing”). Mass-circulated email carried messages of consolation in literary format across the cyber globe. W. H. Auden's “September 1, 1939” was reprinted in all the major newspapers and forwarded to countless e-mail accounts. The conservative columnist George F. Will quoted liberally from the closing lines of Albert Camus's The Plague. “Today's president, his rhetorical rheostat turned way up, vows that the current military campaign 'will rid the world of evil,'” observed Will with undisguised sarcasm. He countered the president's naiveté by citing Camus's allegory of the plague as the permanence of evil in the world. In the final paragraph of the novel, Camus's narrator, Dr. Rieux, muses that the plague bacillus never dies but lies dormant until its time comes to unleash its terror on an unsuspecting world once again. By invoking The Plague, Will wanted to remind his fellow Americans “who are mild in temperament and amnesiac in tendency” that for America “there are only two kinds of years, the war years and the interwar years.” The banality of this conclusion contrasts sharply with the profundity of Camus's final lines.

The Changing Profession
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2002

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Works Cited

Berman, Morris. The Twilight of American Culture. New York: Norton, 2000.Google Scholar
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