By the time Friday rolled around last week there was a veritable anthology of jokes to which “David Gilmour” was the punch line. The paper-bag jowls and complacent half-smile of his face pasted on News Feeds and blogs like an advert for a public flogging. Everywhere that CanLit went, so too went the name David Gilmour, followed by some expletives or exasperated eye-rolling. The Canadian author had detractors aplenty; but he had defenders a-one.
In case you missed the original rant, here it is. For people, like myself, who care a good deal about Canadian literature, it was big news. Far from being incensed, many of us saw it as an opportunity to laugh at the curmudgeonly prattling of a man who should’ve lived a hundred years ago. But backlash opportunism reared its head—as it does when anything seems too one-sided—and its head was in a national newspaper.
Coming to Gilmour’s defense, Margaret Wente, a Globe and Mail columnist, steered the conversation towards academic feminism and its pesky reputation of late for sneaking into all nooks of the humanities faculty. “Frankly, I was surprised and glad to learn that there remains one small testosterone-safe zone at U of T”, she said. “As anyone who’s set foot on campus in the past 30 years ought to know, courses in guy-guy writers are vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers, and various sub- and sub-subsets of the above. But if you’re interested in Hemingway, good luck. No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities.”
Well, I went through a humanities faculty—an English department more specifically—and I can confirm that quite a few courses privileged “sub-sets” of writers, but I can also say that I took a whole course devoted to T.S Eliot, and that, in literature classes that teach a period before our current one, male writers still make up the bulk of the syllabus. I mean, I didn’t go to U of T, but I can only guess that—Wait, what? They post their course list online? And the first three courses are exclusively male? Oh…
Here’s the kicker, Margaret Wente: I didn’t go to university to have my masculinity stroked. I didn’t go so that I could grow a great bushy beard like Hemingway and shoot belts of whiskey off a buck’s carcass—I could’ve done that without higher education, I’m pretty sure. I went to school to learn. And a big part of learning in the humanities is empathizing, divesting oneself of the performance of gender, or class, or race, and digging an antenna into what it is to be human.
In her last paragraph, Wente attempts to dissolve the whole discussion by saying that only in academia would this be a controversy. Her last sentence, directed at academic feminists is, “Please get a life”. This is classic, children’s rhetoric. Offer a viewpoint then erase the issue’s importance to ensure that yours is the last viewpoint.
It’s a shame. The argument shouldn’t have been jilted that easily, because it’s one that still crops up in literature studies, most notably from the luminary American critic Harold Bloom, in what he terms “The School of Resentment”. Wente’s done no one a favour by stifling the discussion around this topic. Is academic feminism ruining the aesthetic aspects of literature studies by politicizing them? In this age when girls outnumber boys in all but the engineering department, is education becoming feminized, and is that feminization built around opposition rather than inclusion? Is women’s studies, as University of Ottawa English professor, Janice Fiamengo is quoted as saying, “actually preventing learning by substituting a smug sense of oppositionality, woundedness and bitterness for the intellectual curiosity, openness to ideas and eagerness to pursue truth that university education in the humanities is supposed to produce”?
Or might it be that viewpoints can co-exist. Art can be for art’s sake, and it can also be a social bellwether and political tool. Humanities education can be a hulking chimera of feminism, masculinism, normalization, destabilization, aesthetics, politics, etc. and we can trust students to understand that the large tapestry of viewpoints, only when understood holistically, may indicate a deep sense of what it is to be human. There exists in this world oppositionality and woundedness, and, far from these things being substitutions for truth, they are part of the truth. Young men and women interested in literature would do well to read voraciously—in, as well as out, of their comfort zone. Authors (ahem, David) would do well to do the same. Professors would do well to attempt to teach the vast, variegate human experience. Reporters for national newspapers would also do well not to feed into this petty cycle of boys vs. girls, girls vs. boys and all the balderdash that goes along with that. And I think we’d all do well just to listen to each other.