Benson: English vs. French
Edgar Allan Poe first saw in print his poem “The Raven” on Jan. 29, 1845. You might recall from high school literature that the raven visited the poet on a cold December night and would say only one word, “Nevermore,” a word that rhymed with the poet’s deceased lover, the lost Lenore.
The poet shouted at the raven, wanted to know why the bird tormented him, and called it a “Prophet, a thing of evil!” The raven replied, “Nevermore.”
On Jan. 3 this year, Heather MacDonald, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, lamented on an English department’s recent decision to abandon the requirement that English majors read the works of great literature, poems such as Poe’s “The Raven,” as well as Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and plays such as Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”
Instead, the deans in the English department at the University of California at Los Angeles, like other universities, have ruled that students should study issues of gender, race, ethnicity, disability or sexuality, and ignore the written works of dead white men who, they claim, were part of the “Empire.”
In other words, UCLA’s students will nevermore read of the raven who said “Nevermore.”
MacDonald writes that this decision reflects “an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics.” Now the English student will only “study oppression, preferably his or her own.”
Why read the literature of dead white men? By doing so, a student will learn how to identify the nuances of meaning in a passage, how to tease out an idea from a tangle of words, how to express a fleeting thought, and how to think in an independent way, without undue influence from others. It is not the dictatorships but the republics who need the independent thinkers.
MacDonald writes that “humanistic learning is also an end in itself. It is simply better to have escaped one’s narrow, petty self and entered minds far more subtle and vast than one’s own than never to have done so.”
“The Raven.” A poem, a thing of beauty, an object that all who know English should admire.
The French may have fought the English for centuries, but the French love Poe, especially the French symbolists, who admire this American author and his deft style with the English language.
But now the French have troubles. Newsweek’s Jan. 3 edition reported that “ever since Socialist President François Hollande was elected in 2012, income tax and social security contributions in France have skyrocketed. The top tax rate is 75 percent, and a great many pay in excess of 70 percent.” Unofficially, unemployment is “more like 5 million,” and “the cost of everyday living is astronomical.” But if a citizen wants anything, “fill out a form,” and the government will pay.
Two weeks ago, the French newspaper Closer printed photos of Hollande riding his motor scooter away from the Elysée Palace to rendezvous with actress Julie Gayet and a media scandal erupted. One writer said Hollande is “the most unpopular president in French history.” The previous president, Nicolas Sarkozy, married the supermodel Carla Bruni and so flaunted her that he “paid a price at the polls,” and lost the election. French men have interests other than political, economic or literary.
French is a Romance language, derived from the ancient Romans’ Latin. Old English was a Germanic language, but after William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel in 1066 and conquered England, he introduced the French language into the English court. Modern English now offers dual vocabularies: one is Anglo-Saxon and the other is French. We can say either lake or reservoir, box or cache, bucket or pail.
The French battled the English for centuries, but the English language has won the war. Today, English and not French is the world’s “lingua franca.” A channel separates the two countries, but now a Chunnel connects London with Paris in 2 hours, 15 minutes.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," a detective story set in Paris, he mentions the game of chess and then observes that “what is only complex is mistaken for what is profound.” Games and sports can be complex but not so profound. What is profound? I would say that medicine, government, the law and technology are all profound. Medicine saves people’s lives, people rule themselves in a Republican government, the law brings order to human society’s chaos and technology provides people with an amazing array of tools.
Literature is the sum of “the stunning complexity of the past,” but is it profound? I would agree that it is because literature is the summit of the English language, the greatest construction for human communication ever devised, and so may it live evermore.
Benson is a columnist and historian from sterling, Colo. He writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.