‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
This story can be read as a case study about the bewilderment of a ‘curious’ Iranian student who wanted to know about the current state of English literature and theory in contemporary Britain in the course of getting her PhD. Far from being a straightforward journey, my academic (mis)adventure was shaped by my confusion as well as a series of coincidences which sometimes appeared as bizarre as Alice’s encounters in Wonderland.
The story begins with my first enquiry about ‘the state of English literature’ in Britain in an informal chat in my first meeting with my first supervisor at XXXXX University. I had a strange and paradoxical feeling as though I was ‘touching’ something abstract. I was nervous and excited—like Judy Abbott in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, about to meet for the first time the patron/father/friend whom she has only glimpsed as a shadow on the wall. The situation of the orphan who is suddenly offered the chance to acquire an education, to forge a different cultural identity, resonates with that of students from the so-called ‘Third World’ who come to the West. Most Iranian students who are inspired to study English literature feel a strange affinity with it, and this sense of belonging in turn gives them a particular ‘identity’ which ties them not only to each other but to an unavailable and unknowable ‘daddy’ whom they simultaneously adore and are afraid of. Our limited access to English language, literature and culture encourages us to find relationship with the larger/paternal body of knowledge in different ways. And as my personal experience shows, we embrace what native students may discard, neglect, or take for granted, whether it is more sophisticated reading or exposure to trivial popular culture. Judy’s struggle to gain the basic literary and cultural knowledge by intensive reading in the deprived environment of an old-fashioned orphanage resembled our desperate attempts to embrace Daddy-English-Literature in our poor libraries in Iran. It is not surprising, since I come from a deeply patriarchal society, that I should have begun by personifying English literature as a Daddy whom I had not met in person but had felt a strange affinity with.
My first meeting with Professor S. epitomizes for me the mixed emotions that accompany the realisation of a long-held wish. He was (as it seemed to me then) a ‘typical’ English gentleman with a white pale face, a pair of small penetrating eyes and, of course, polite manners. After our brief introduction to each other, Professor S. gave me some general advice and instructions which he believed were vital for a newly arrived overseas student to know. He also gave me some brief background about himself including, somewhat disconcertingly, his long term illness. He seemed to have no intention to turn our introductory conversation into a supervision meeting, which was, I now see, very thoughtful of him, but my passion for my study impelled me to direct our discussion towards my research subject. So I briefly summarized the main questions of my proposal which included my long-term wish to find out about the way literature, especially poetry, is studied in Britain after the theoretical upheaval of post-1960s. What had happened to teaching methodology in the course of the theoretical ferment of the past decades, with its shift away from ‘metaphysical’ critical premises? If we accept the deficiencies of a ‘monologic’ New Criticism, how—particularly in non-English contexts—can we define and theorize an alternative pedagogy? Could such a pedagogy be founded, for example, on ‘Poststructuralism’, and what would that term mean in a Middle-Eastern country such as Iran, with all its huge cultural, social and religious differences?
This was only one of many questions I had about the compatibility of our reading methodologies with those practiced in the ‘home country’ of English literature. I had no ready-made answers, though I did start from the assumption that we needed to upgrade our reading strategies in an era dominated (in the West) by competing theoretical approaches. Such questions had always haunted me (and a few colleagues I knew) whenever I started a class during my teaching in the past few years. We were taught to distinguish ‘good’ ‘interpretive’ writing from ‘bad’ sentimental or escapist literature. The motto of our MA classes was a sacred key sentence: ‘Form is content, content is form.’ Good literary work was therefore described as fresh milk in contrast with ‘bad’ literature which resembled rotten milk when you boil it. The separation of form and content which was assumed to be the problem of ‘non-serious’ works was an important criterion to shape a value-judgment on not only literature but our society, culture, people and life as a whole. As graduate students our commitment to ‘serious’ literature had formed an enlightening repertoire which had shaped our identity as opponents of mass culture, sentimentality, self-indulgence, and cliché. Very soon after my graduation in 1997, theory anthologies and ‘readers’ entered the book markets in Iran which introduced critical approaches in a standard sequence: Formalism, Structuralism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Queer theory (to be continued until the next fashion would come up), one after another like fancy dresses one could wear to disguise different and completely odd appearances. How are we going to read literature from now on? How are ‘they’ doing literary studies over there? There were no answers to the questions inside Iran because those leading scholars who had shaped the minds of my generation about studying literature during graduate courses (1995-1997) had died, left Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979 or had not involved themselves with these questions. Now I had arrived to find out about the basic tenets of Poststructuralism (no absolute truths, no stable meanings, and no innocent text) and their effect on pedagogical strategies especially in dealing with poetry.
I remember that Professor S. listened to me with a sympathetic look and a puzzled (and puzzling) smile. ‘People do not read much poetry anymore in Britain,’ he said with a nostalgic voice. ‘The age of reading has passed.’ And to my astonishment, he disapproved of my concentration on ‘Theory’ by asking an uneasy question: ‘How much do you think you know about Poststructuralism?’ The effect of the question was very similar to the Caterpillar’s shattering question: ‘Who are YOU?’ He explained how he had read some poststructuralist materials written in their original language (French) and had regretted that life was too short to understand everything. Like the Caterpillar rebuking Alice for her recitation of ‘You are old, Father William’, he was in effect telling me: ‘It is wrong from beginning to end’. Yet he was surely closer to the truth about the state of ‘English’ in Britain than I was. This first meeting had turned, unexpectedly, into a challenge and confrontation, and it made me uncertain about what I wanted to do.
In our very next meeting Professor S. advised me to change the direction of my research because he found it a bit ‘ambitious’. He suggested that I should spend a few months thinking about a new subject. An Iranian colleague who had just finished his PhD at XXXXX University confirmed that I could not base my thesis on ‘theory’ there. I should either change my subject or my university. It would end in a deadlock at XXXXX as he himself had come with a theory-based proposal but had ended with Oscar Wilde. (It was some time before I realized that these might not be incompatible, but that is another story.) I began to understand that ‘Daddy-English-literature’ had not gone theoretical altogether. My study at XXXXX did not last long, however. As it happens my sponsors encountered some problems in their dealings with the English Department, as a result of which they required students located at XXXXX to move elsewhere. That put an end to my short academic relation with Professor S. But I can still visualize our last meeting. Facing the window of his office which opened to the central area of the university, he expressed his hatred for ‘this University,’ and ‘this office.’ With his fragile and vulnerable figure, his penetrating eyes, and his sense of alienation from his surrounding environment he looked like a character from one of Kafka’s novels. It was a change from my first impression of him which I am not likely to forget.
Shirin taught undergraduate courses in English literature in Iran before coming to the UK to complete her PhD. Her research investigates the differences between the current state of English literature in Britain and Iran.