Confession: I am a pathetic English major

The thing is, in one very particular way, I’m kind of bad at the whole “English major” thing.

I’ve always liked reading, of course. Jane Austen will always have a special place in my heart and I do quite enjoy the modern classics, but I’m not so great with those older classics.

I never thought I’d be shooting myself in the foot for not reading all of Shakespeare at the age of 12 – until I took a second-year course on the Bard himself. And it wasn’t until I was past the point of no return that I realized not being raised with an encyclopedic understanding of Greek mythology would put me at a disadvantage.

The problem with an English degree is you learn fairly quickly that you can consume literature at the speed of light, churn out essays in a few days and forget everything as soon as you hand that paper in. And the further I got into my degree, the more jaded I became. I realized that you didn’t necessarily have to read the whole book, but scan through the opening and closing paragraphs of each chapter – that’s what those paragraphs are for, after all.

All of this laziness came to a head in my last university class, English 364: Literary Criticism and History of Rhetoric or Another Pedantic Title That No One Remembers. This was the kind of class that would’ve been beneficial at an earlier stage, but at that point taking this 300-level class in my fifth year just made me realize how little I actually knew about anything. The professor would rattle on about Nietzsche as I tried to remember the vague question I had prepared about pre-Apollonian, non-Apollonian and extra-Apollonian (still have no idea what any of that means).

After I made my inquiry, she spent about twenty minutes answering me with examples from the Greek mythological period of the Titans which, of course, I nodded along to as bravely as I could, hoping she wouldn’t expect me to fill in the blanks of: “And that is why Oedipus Rex is the perfect example of ____ taking over from the mythological tradition of ___.”

A dear friend once stared at me aghast when I didn’t know the mythological origin of Professor Lupin‘s name. I experienced a rather humiliating moment when I mispronounced “Antigone” in front of a collection of theatre students. And when my professor mentioned Hercules, all I could think of was the Disney cartoon – something that would not have been helpful in group discussion.

Likewise, when she mentions Plato and Socrates, it would have been wrong to bring up the conversation between 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy:

Jack: Our relationship is purely platonic, if Plato had an elderly shut-in aunt.

Liz: You know, Plato did have a gay relationship with Socrates.

Jack: Lemon, the only way you’re like Socrates is you have the body hair of a Greek man.

So when I recently saw Only Lovers Left Alive for reasons that are fairly obvious when you see the cast list, I found myself laughing along heartily and fraudulently when Adam said his name was “Dr. Faust.”

Shamefully, I had no idea who Dr. Faust was.

My friend, a fellow English major who had the advantage of actually studying Christopher Marlowe in uni, explained it to me after the fact.

It never really bothered me before to be ignorant of so many literary references – not until I was sitting in the theatre watching a brilliant little vampire film allude to dozens of things that went over my head as more knowledgeable people around me chuckled to themselves. I felt cheated out of the experience somehow. As if I should have known. My immersion in pop culture helps me enjoy shows like Gilmore Girls that are littered with references I get, but my ignorance of classic literature left me out of the loop while watching Only Lovers Left Alive.

I suppose the only solution is to buy an anthology of Marlowe and watch it again. And then again. And then maybe one more time because it was actually a wonderful film that’s gone on my list of favourites.

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3 thoughts on “Confession: I am a pathetic English major

  1. What you needed was more video games in your childhood. Then you would have known that Thanatos was the Greek god of death (as in his incarnation in Secret of Mana) or that Ratatosk is the squirrel who travels up and down Yggdrasil (gleaned from the characters in Tales of Symphonia). You’d know what the Ginnungagap was; who Beltheshazaar, Melchior, and Gaspar; and who Kid Icarus is.

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