Missionaries and Hedonists

by | Sep 6, 2016

deskscape 9.6.16

(my desk at school today)

My graduate school professor, Brian Wilkie, was a Romantic scholar. Each fall, he threw a big party at his house, for over a hundred of us — all of the graduate students, the faculty, and their families. He had a Steinway grand piano, which he would let us play. He often broke into song in his popular class, Literature and Opera. His passion for literature, and for us, was evident. Even the word “enthusiasm,” used here, sounds tepid and false, compared to the way it really was.

Dr. Wilkie could be eccentric. Occasionally in class, he would do something loud and outrageous, like reciting Milton’s “Lycidas” in a Brooklyn accent (Dr. Wilkie had grown up in Brooklyn, long before Brooklyn was hip). Or, he would shout, in an exaggerated Southern drawl, this line from Wordsworth: “Great God! I’d rather be / A pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”

Dr. Wilkie had edited the two-volume anthology Literature of the Western World, and one of the best moves I ever made as a graduate student in creative writing was to apply to teach world literature survey. When I started teaching world literature, I wasn’t especially well-read; as an undergraduate, I’d studied French. But I taught the second half of the survey, 1650-present, three semesters running, and I learned a ton, not just about literature, but history, religion, and art. Best of all, I had Dr. Wilkie’s teaching guides, which were full of ridiculous and brilliant either-or questions that never failed to sneak up on the students, stimulating far deeper discussions than they thought they were capable of having.

In those pre-Internet days, in that Research I institution, it was difficult for administrators to plan ahead, and graduate students were expected to teach on the fly anyway. So we received our course assignments on the Saturday morning before the semester started. We had 48 hours to come up with a syllabus and a plan. My first semester I taught world literature, I read that giant volume intensely, often a day or sometimes hours ahead of my students.

Don’t worry, Dr. Wilkie said. He gave us a copy of his own syllabus, along with about ten minutes of advice, which included this: Some teachers are missionaries; others are hedonists. I recommend that you be a hedonist.

I’ve thought about that advice, on and off, for the last twenty years. Is that even true? Is it true for everyone — does everyone have that luxury? What does it mean, to teach like a hedonist? At that time, I thought I was sure of what it meant: love literature, love inquiry, love my students — and I gave myself over to it. To this day, some of those classroom discussions remain the most electrifying of my career.

Really, I’m not thinking about literature, or even teaching. I bring this up because yesterday, in my head, I accidentally rewrote what he said. What does it mean to be a writer who’s a missionary, versus a writer who’s a hedonist? Because I have both a hedonist-writer and a missionary-writer in me, and I need them both.

Sure, the hedonist is important: she’s the one who goes for broke, risks, imagines, breaks rules, revels in language. She penetrates to what’s dark and scary and not-nice. But she’s also self-indulgent and doesn’t care about audience. Finally, mine is crap on making deadlines. At the times my hedonist-writer gets out of control, I need my missionary-writer to step in and impose structure and technique.

My missionary-writer is patient. She’s dutiful about all the things I have a tendency to weasel out of, like submitting work, or looking up facts. I don’t like her around all the time, though, because she’s also kind of a drag — too predictable, worries too much about what people will say.

I need them both, in the way that Mary Oliver says that a poem must be both a technical and an emotional document. A poem that is only a technical document is bloodless, but a poem that is only an emotional document is self-indulgent. However, as a poet-friend recently said, if I had to read a poem that was only a technical document, or only an emotional document? I’d pick the emotional one.

And the world needs missionary- and hedonist-professors both. A professor can certainly be both at the same time — I have! — but if I had to choose one, I’d still choose to be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.

Happy first day of school, Dr. Wilkie, wherever you are.


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