Classes began last week. I began the world literature class with several short fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, a writer on whom I’ve never spent a lot of time. After Friday’s class discussion on “The Library of Babel,” in which we determined that knowledge is seemingly without boundary and the library of the world is so vast that its shelves seem to spread to infinity, I found myself thinking about my academic career.
One of the great pleasures of teaching “world” literature has been a branching out in reading and pedagogy. I had no special training to prepare me to teach the class, when I started it twelve years ago, but it’s been a gratifying and intellectually challenging adventure. I like to change the reading every year, which has helped me discover new writers and many new literary landscapes. Which brings me back to Borges: in the end, there is simply too much to read, too much to know, a condition at once exhilarating and frustrating. The desire to learn, obviously great for me, is keen and driving; yet, I’ve always understood that the mastery of knowledge is finally a fiction, a reality sometimes vexing. Too little time, too many things to read and study.
Focus is imperative, of course, and affords one the rewards of depth—yet, the more one focuses, the more one must curtail the pleasures of branching out. As a scholar, I increasingly find myself floating amid the tension of these two poles. Even if I could stick primarily to studying the Victorian novel, a delightful and time-consuming pastime, the Victorian novel as a genre is a Library of Babel unto itself. And the truth is that I don’t stick to the Victorian novel, even though it’s a literary form that I adore, because I have many different classes to teach, and frankly, I need more intellectual variety.
So, I continue to branch out, not only with international writers (particularly those French, a discussion that I’ll save for another day), but I’m also discovering tremendous new pleasures in early modern English drama. Right now, I have a particular obsession with revenge tragedy and domestic tragedy. World literature class, aside, one of the happiest developments in my career at Silver Lake College was inheriting the Shakespeare class, which has been an intellectual delight over the past ten years. Although, I continue to feel myself an interloper in the field of Shakespeare studies and early modern drama, I’m finding an intense drive to keep studying the early modern stage. Several months ago, I decided I would finally branch out and read some non-Shakespearean plays, ones that I had been wanting to look at for a while. So, I began with the domestic tragedy Arden of Faversham, from around 1592, which is sometimes attributed to or shows the collaborative hand of Shakespeare. What a delight to read! Especially for someone who has spent so much time on the Victorian sensation novel; Arden of Faversham is filled with domestic drama, murder, and intrigue. That led me to Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness from around 1603. Again, the sensational aspects are the obvious appeal to me; Heywood’s domestic tragedy is kind of an early modern East Lynne—a little sensational witha dose of piety. And I’ve just kept reading, onto other tragedies that I’ve never found time for: The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. I should acknowledge here, too, that podcasts from the phenomenal Emma Smith, at Oxford University, have provided me many fruitful avenues for new thinking in this period. And now the Shakespeare class has begun, again; the terrain appears different to me. There is so much more to know and experience in early modern drama, and I’m eager to do more once summer arrives; yet, I deeply understand that it will finally be too much. Nevertheless, the truth is that I will never long for something new to read or discover.