As an undergrad focused on my English degree, before I took up my second major in cultural anthropology, two figures stand out to me and will until the day I die.
One was Matt Potolsky, who I understand is still at Utah. He wouldn’t recognize either myself or my name today; I was one of the countless horde of mid-degree students that have no doubt shuffled through his curricular classes, if he still teaches such classes (and I hope he does). I doubt he’d recognize himself or his scholarship in what I’m about to say, but in his classes I came to understand, finally, the relationship between art and history, between ethics and creativity—a relationship that other courses in literature and art, as well as courses in philosophy—had failed to illuminate for me.
Under his instruction, sitting in the back of his classrooms largely unobserved and unremarkable, I finally came to see the arts as one of the many methods by which humans have collectively sought to address the great questions in human existence in the interest of sacralizing, making meaningful, and attempting to construct and pursue a productive hope about, life and its inevitable suffering. This was surely not his fundamental aim in the courses that I took from him, given the topics at hand, but it was the result of his approach and sensitivity to the material, and to the ways in which he illuminated their address of common and ageless threads in human inquiry and experience.
The other figure I won’t mention because I’m about to be unkind. In fact, the one and only unabashedly critical letter I’ve ever written to a faculty member was written in her course. It was meant to be a survey of great contemporary works of fiction, but it was in fact a survey of works that bore on a particular, and very small, politics. The work that I remember best was what I’ll call a work of second-wave-feminist science fiction. Amusing enough in its own right, thought not quite rising to the level of a page-turner—but largely ethically facile and opaque, yet seen to be worth day after day of in-class debate, in which the battle lines were largely (and under her guidance) constructed as “this is not great literature and tells me little” vs. “your belief in great literature as such betrays your latent sexism and patriarchal idealism.”
In my letter, I told her in so many words that while the debates had been intense, they seemed to be in some sense debates about a point that the very existence of the course seemed to concede: whether there ought to be a canon at all. Even the debate on sexism and patriarchy didn’t tackle the issue head-on, but instead allowed it to be hazily mediated through what I felt was a bludgeon-like novel, lacking in greater vision, that itself seemed to prefer to dance around the issue. In-class positions generally lacked social or historical context—a mode of discourse of which she approved, as (once again) the very notion of social and historical contexts was patriarchal on its face, and so on.
Both of these figures and their courses stand out to me so clearly because of the contrast between the two. Potolsky’s courses left me with a new appreciation for the human experience in all its complexity, and the unending desire, seen throughout history, to understand and grapple with it in any number of ways. Even if the task itself is Sisyphean, I found myself believing that the effort itself was tremendously important for the well-lived life.
The other’s courses I now realize were largely nihilistic—their fundamental argument was that none of it matters—indeed, that nothing matters, and that nothing must be allowed to matter, and to suggest otherwise is ideological indoctrination in the service of oppression—because making things matter is precisely how tyrants of all stripes come to rule. Thus we read nothing works and had nothing discussions about them in a grand performance of nothingness that displayed our imperviousness to being the subjects of rule of any kind, interior or exterior. When nothing at all matters to anyone, the course ultimately seemed to argue, no one can compel anyone to do anything, and pure freedom (though to what end was never really discussed) is the inevitable result.
I write this entry after these two have come to mind in juxtaposition again and again over the course of the two decades since I finished my time as an undergraduate at the University of Utah. The memory now takes on a new urgency for me, given the state of my life and the age that I now am. Which view of the world do I prefer to adopt as a guide to the second half of my life?
Potolsky’s implicit view and method, surely.