The Myth of Relevance and the Relevance of Myth

In a famous scene from the 1993 film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning 1989 novel The Remains of the Day, Miss Kenton (played by Emma Thompson) corners Mr. Stevens the butler (played by Anthony Hopkins) thinking he is reading a racy book, which turns out to be “not scandalous at all,” but “just a sentimental old love story.”  Mr. Stevens explains, “I read, these books, any books, to develop my knowledge and command of the English language. I read to further my education, Miss Kenton.”  I would love to take issue with the statement that  “books, any books” are only to be used this way, but my proposal today is far less ambitious, yet in today’s world seemingly revolutionary. I want to argue for the simple proposition that books read in middle and high school English classes should have the primary purpose of “developing [a student’s] knowledge and command of the English language.” They should, in fact, be chosen first and foremost on that basis.

I will also argue that if a secondary purpose is to be sought in such classrooms, it is to put students in touch with what William Faulker called in his 1950 Nobel Prize speech “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.”

It is a symptom of what Chesterton called topsy-turvydom that these ideas are revolutionary. Nobody would argue that any activity during soccer practice should have any other purpose than to improve the players’ knowledge and command of the game of soccer, or, secondarily, their general physical fitness. And yet for at least a generation and a half, maybe two, we have heard a mantra that students in literature classes need to read things that are relevant to them.  On the altar of relevance much has been sacrificed. You will find many more children who have read Black Like Me but who have not read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  You will find more teens who have read, in their English classes, the latest teen dystopian series, perhaps, but who have not read more Shakespeare than “Romeo and Juliet” (it’s relevant to their raging hormones) and who have read Homer only in crude plot summaries.

I have no problem with students reading books like the ones mentioned. I have no problem with them engaging with the issues of the day and enjoying reading for pleasure.  But what an English class is for, its primary purpose, is not awareness of social ills or political activism on any side of an issue.  It is, in the butler’s phrase,  “to develop [one’s] knowledge and command of the English language.”  This, I believe, has been forgotten.  As a university professor of classical languages and Great Books, I have seen students over the years, even highly performing students, come into my classroom less and less prepared in their knowledge of grammar, in vocabulary, and in their ability to read a work of literature, make a claim, and develop an argument.  Almost no students have even one poem memorized, and their appreciation of the classics has been reduced to general knowledge of some plots.  It is the equivalent of teaching someone to love football based on studying, for a test, the final scores of the last ten Superbowls.

Nobody would ever enter a high school varsity gym and say, “What are you doing lifting weights? That is irrelevant to your future endeavors.  You should be lifting haybales and the opposing team’s defense linemen.” Everybody understands that weights are a somewhat artificial exercise aimed at targeted muscle groups. The immediate purpose is to build strength that will be useful on the field of play in various ways, and, in the long term, that will be useful in life as a habit of physical fitness.  When those longer-term goals are forgotten, sports get infected with cheats, such as steroids.

But English classes have been routinely redesigned on the haybale principle.  Students must read things relevant to their daily life or to their future lives, interpreted as the political or social issues that the nation is facing and will face. By this criterion, rather than a well-written essay on anything, a hastily written news article is better. Why read dead white men when one can analyze current events?

Allow me to give two reasons why a cogent essay about anything, preferably something the child knows little about, is better than ripped-from-the-headlines hot button current events. The first reason is that they are current. The second, that they are events.  I shall explain.

The word “current” derives from the participle from the Latin word curro, currere: to run. Something that is current is running, it is in fact running by us right now.  Running into the past and into obscurity.  Of course, some occurrences (same root) are important and stand against the tide of oblivion.  But we don’t tend to know which ones they will be until the verdict of history falls on them. It takes time to know which current things will have long-lasting importance.  For teenagers especially, I feel it is a devastating error to teach them that they should pay most attention to the here and now. The over-intensity of the present is the prison they already dwell in. Giving them a higher, more objective perspective on reality would do them a world of good. We simply have no idea what precise issues will be “relevant” to our students in 10 or 20 years.  It’s a lie to say otherwise.

As for events… The main character in TS Eliot’s not-read-enough play “The Family Reunion,” Harry has returned home to England. His wife has drowned, (was it an accident, we don’t know?) and his mother, Amy, Dowager Lady Monchensey has been preparing for him to assume control of the family estate as Lord Monchensey, which of course he is by inherited title. But Harry doesn’t want to. He wants something else for his life. (That sounds dangerously current!) Something has happened to him. His uncles, Gerald and Charles, who have rarely ever left the estate, ask him what has happened, as does his more understanding aunt Agatha. He replies:

But  how  can  I  explain,  how  can  I  explain  to  you?
You  will  understand  less  after  I  have  explained  it.
All  that  I  could  hope  to  make  you  understand
Is  only  events:  not  what  has  happened.
And  people  to  whom  nothing  has  ever  happened
Cannot  understand  the  unimportance  of  events.

A few lines later, answering the objection of his uncles who say that things have indeed happened to them, (“I started as a youngster on the North West frontier…”) Harry explains further:

I  am  not  speaking
Of  my  own  experience,  but  trying  to  give  you
Comparisons  in  a  more  familiar  medium.  I  am  the  old house
With  the  noxious  smell  and  the  sorrow  before  morning,
In  which  all  past  is  present,  all  degradation
Is  unredeemable.  As  for  what  happens—
Of  the  past  you  can  only  see  what  is  past,
Not  what  is  always  present.  That  is  what  matters.

In the many high school literature classes I have taught, I always told my students that knowing the events of a novel is the first level of reading, but they need to go much further. Not because of Bloom’s or anyone else’s taxonomy, but because of the nature of reality itself. Flannery O’Connor, speaking of her own stories, tells her reader to pay attention to the actions of grace within the characters, not the surface events. We must push beyond the present to what is always present. Let’s let Faulkner continue and explain:

…the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until [a writer rediscovers these], he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

The reason literature selected on the basis of relevance fails is firstly because it doesn’t fulfill the primary purpose of improving the students’ command of English.  The second reason is because it fails to see “what matters.”  In a desperate scramble to help students take a stand, it has forgotten to give them a foundation.

Such a foundation can only come from “what is always present,” or what Faulkner elsewhere in his short speech calls “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” These truths, these stories, whether or not they come from mythology, are what I want to term the realm of “myth.”  A myth is a story that teaches a deep truth about reality.  Using Eliot’s distinction, myth goes beyond events to what is happening.  Students need to learn to see the deeper reality beneath the events of a plot. This will help them to connect with that same level in their own lives. Flannery O’Connor says that a great writer doesn’t about character, but rather with character.  As I tell my students, the Odyssey is not about Odysseus and Penelope, it is about you and me.  But it can only speak to us if we learn to read under the plot, at a mythic level.

A story with a mythical dimension lightens our burden by showing that we are part of something universal.  Mark Twain puts Huck and Jim on a raft, on their own Odyssey, on a journey. But the important journey is always the interior one. Huck begins using the vocabulary he has learned, he refers to Jim using the N-word, yes, a word for property. For that is what Jim is in the current events of the day.  But Huck says,

I went to sleep, and Jim didn’t call me when it was my turn. He often done that. When I waked up just at daybreak he was sitting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. I didn’t take notice nor let on. I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.

We are accompanying Huck on an interior journey of discovery. What he has been taught, that black people aren’t people but property is wrong.  He’s been taught, even in church, that if he helps a runway slave he’s going to hell.  He is holding a letter that tells Miss Watson where Jim is to bring him back to slavery when he makes a decision of mythical proportions:

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.

Now, the irony here is thick. When you decide to embrace the reality you have witnessed with your own eyes rather than the lie you’ve been brought up in, Huck calls that not reforming. But Twain is telling us that this young man has decided to give his life for another, whom he knowns in his soul not to be property but a man. It is arguably the central insight of all American literature.  Huck and Jim on the river are the mythic confirmation of the Declaration’s “All men are created equal,” a truth we all must strive to see and live up to everyday.

Students need to be lifted up and out of the present to the universal. They need to the burden of the day-to-day lightened by the eternal. “To lift up” and “to lighten” are the meaning of the root of the word “relevant.”  There is nothing more relevant than the eternal truths revealed by a story of mythic proportions.

Our students deserve better than hack political activism, especially when this comes at the expense of their knowledge and command of English. Such “relevance” is a myth. They need the arts of language again, and a commitment to developing their memory and vocabulary and knowledge and use of complex grammatical structures.  And when they are given things to read, they need to be chosen because they are exemplary English, firstly, and secondly because they teach the old verities. They must help students read and view reality — that of the stories and that of their own lives — on a mythic level, deeper and higher than the events of day-today existence. Such stories are the myths that tells us deep and universal truths which lighten our burden and raise us to see the world in reference to eternity. There is nothing more relevant than that.

Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is the Sheridan Chair of Classics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he co-directs the program: Great Books: The True, the Good and the Beautiful. Born in the Bronx, New York, he earned his master’s degree in classics from the University of London, England, and received both a licentiate and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1996-1998 he served as the head of the Humanities Department and the dean of the Journalism School at the Centro Universitario Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain. From 1998-2005, he was Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood Education and Training Center in Thornwood, New York and Professor of Classical Languages at the Center of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. From 2005-2011 he headed the Departments of Catholic Formation and Classical Languages at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.