The Girl with the Kafka Tattoo

The email from a former student arrived last fall when I was in Princeton for the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers conference. I smiled remembering Cara, the lovely, gentle, bright young woman who went on from community college to graduate from Berkeley. She reminisced for a few lines, then wrote:

On a slightly different note . . . I got Kafka’s quote, the whole paragraph . . . tattooed across my ribcage, in white, backwards (to read it in the mirror), in my handwriting. It’s pretty intense, and has been so tattooed on my mind, I got it committed in ink as well. It’s a quote I believe in and reference with every piece of art I encounter, written and otherwise.

Astonished, I recalled that Cara had wept on the final day of the Introduction to Literature course—whose motto was the Kafka quote. Here it is:

I think that we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us . . . We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

Cara wrote that “time spent in this class has been my most valuable time spent in school since I was first learning how to read. You have taught me how to read again.”  Now, what she experienced had taken on even more personal significance. Kafka, the poet of torment and inscription, would approve.

I kept thinking of Cara’s profound decision while half listening to a panel on the seismic shifts in higher education, particularly the perilous state of the humanities. Russell Berman, president of the Modern Language Association, predicted that the academy will continue to turn away from our “treasured ambiguity of words,” away from deep reading in favor of  “reading for information, the competency in reading a college psychology textbook.” The audience heaved a collective sigh of grief and resignation.

Deep reading differs fundamentally from “reading for information.” Deep reading produces an experience from the interaction between the author’s words and the reader’s imagination. In the theater of the mind, the reader can have powerful experiences without being exposed to physical harm, experiences so powerful that George Steiner even warned that they may “come to possess you more than any other order of experience.”  In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag called deep reading “something like an excitation, a phenomenon of commitment, judgment in a state of thralldom or captivation.” But the crumbling of the humanities suggests that we are entering a “No Thralldom” zone. Pausing, reflecting, contemplating, and being enthralled are relics of the pre-accelerated past. 

Today, all is haste, all the time. We suffer for this urgency. A current student of mine, Youjin, writes that she fears that universities treat students as if they “were online articles to skim through” and that students, as a result, “will cease to ponder . . . rushed by some unseen power . . . .” 

At dinner in a Princeton dining hall, I sat with Professor Berman, following up on his morning comments.  I suggested that “student learning outcomes” further erode the humanities because their benefits are neither measurable nor immediate. As in Cara’s case, literature merges with the developing self and propagates internal changes that only later, in some cases, become visible. Professor Berman diplomatically sidestepped the controversy, as had University of Colorado’s then-president Hank Brown when I asked him about student learning outcomes. Both of them consider student learning outcomes a necessary evil to restore public confidence in higher education.

Sadly, that confidence (if it even appears) will extract a heavy price. The humanities are being driven to extinction by a ruthless pragmatism, by the academy’s marriage of the corporate business model with advocacy teaching, and by a denial of the literary experience altogether.  Professor John Ellis recently wrote:

There was a time when “save the humanities” would have been an appropriate cry, but that was years ago, when they were being dismantled in one department after another and replaced with the intellectual triviality and sheer boredom of endlessly repetitive Marxist identity politics, as cowardly administrators looked on and did nothing. The poverty of intellectual content was masked by an elaborate jargon, but that only made things worse: the remade programs became the laughing stock of their campuses. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Enrollments have collapsed, to the point where the smaller departments face extinction. Those enrollments are sinking not because students don’t value the humanities, but because they do.

Ellis nails it. Many students do still want what literature does—enchantment, beauty, refuge, enlargement, thralldom—but they can’t find it anymore in most college literature classes. Yet given the chance, Cara had been so exalted by reading literature as literature that she made a profound commitment to it by inscribing Kafka’s beguiling ambiguity, in her own hand, on her own flesh. 

We hear talk of a higher education “bubble,” student loans, and worthless degrees, but the loss of the formative encounter with vital texts may be the biggest rip-off of all. The poet John Haines wrote that “the world is dominated by machines and their products, things which looked at objectively are incapable of self-sustained life and of passion. In any valid sense, the world most modern people live in is dead.” 

I don’t believe students want to live in the dead world of screens, apps, and Facebook. Given the chance, they are drawn to the life of the mind. Running a Great Books program at a community college, I have again and again encountered students (including some who already have their BA degrees) angry at not having had the opportunity to experience deep reading of great books in their previous education.

Walking across the dark, deserted Princeton campus, I realized that the humanities will survive only if the students themselves demand it. It will take an army of Caras and Youjins, defying conventional wisdom and the academy’s bleak, inhuman instrumentalism.  Given the chance, they will choose The Word because The Word gives life. 

As Kafka said, “Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf.  If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.”