Blog Post

On sadness

All right, pathetic title, but that is the word on my mind even as I gaze out over my astoundingly idyllic garden space that affords a view to the Santa Cruz mountains in a temperate, balmy, sun-filled California noon. The start of the school year is once again on the horizon, but the usual excitement, energy, anticipation, has progressively been, for me, dampened by the knowledge that yet once again committee meetings will be dominated by class size, WASC criteria, endless debates about legitimizing the humanities either via a set of quantitative metrics (how many students did the class enroll; how much did you learn to do this?) or uplifting but vague values. But do these resonate with our students at all, in the face of the historical moment?

Students are rightfully stressed about their future.  We have utterly failed them.  If I were a young person I would be outraged, incensed, and profoundly sad if not depressed.  The proven limitlessness of the greed, avarice, arrogance of the 1% and all their enablers in the neoliberal hegemonic formation we call "globalization" has robbed generations to come of the dreams we so blithely took for granted.  And we have failed to hold that greed in check, even when all the warning signs were there.  At least we older types had some chances for fulfillment in un-purposeful moments of life.  Yet our students indulge in such only if they can set aside their tremendous anxieties about finding a way to make a living.  Never mind own a house. Why waste their time and go into debt if the "investment" cannot be shown to have clear results?  This is a real question, and the humanities, frankly, are not clear on this.  Yet while students usefully invest their time and energy in gaining practical, income-enhancing skills, which they pursue rather than the feel-good, uplifting rewards of "great books," something is lost that I think we haven't spent enough time on.  Mostly because it's a downer.

Students have been given the message that to stop and think and reflect on sadness, disappointment, grief, is either an indulgence, or, worse yet, a sign of weakness.  Of course there is a sizable cottage industry that proposes all sorts of remedies, assurances, etc, in the form of self-help books and audiobooks and God knows, probably an iPhone app (I have not checked yet, but I offer the idea for one to anyone with the gumption for such a venture).  There have been many great books about the obsession with being positive (Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided for instance), but the note I want to hit is somewhat different.  Positive thinking not only blunts the critical edge, the activist rage, the right to complain, it also takes away an important moment of introspection into something real, if painful and discomfiting.

The arts, humanities, give us the space and freedom and consolation to share our sadness, as well as joy, puzzlement, imaginings of different worlds.  Anyone who has listened to Robert Johnson, really listened to the man, knows this.  Or Billie Holiday.

Now a very good argument is—why do we need to "learn" about this, why can't we just learn it for ourselves?  Well, two things.  Of course one can.  But first of all, great artists did not work in a vacuum—besides the significance of their personal lives, their historical time, there is the artistic legacy they inherited and reshaped.  These are topics that can not only be "learned," they can also be interpreted variously in terms of our own lives, discussed, and debated.  In the classroom we open up a space and a responsibility for the exchange of ideas, sentiments, passions, the indecidable, and feel that these issues are not ours alone, nor just of those in the room--they belong to a line of thinkers, human beings, who have pondered these things and took it into their hearts and minds to share their ideas with other human beings.

Second, it's often the case that younger students simply do not have the life experience to "relate."  And this is another thing teachers can explain, illustrate.  I was talking a while back with my dissertation advisor Stephen Owen, the pre-eminent critic of classical Chinese poetry. We were comparing our different understandings of a poem on getting old. He said to me, "It's like the blues, you don't get it unless you've lived something like it."  I still find it impossible to truly teach Disgrace to twenty-somethings.  The intellectual capacity is there.  But the affective? Forget it. And this makes David Lurie a decidedly one-dimensional character to them, and a solely despicable one as well. Teaching the novel, I try to present them with the possibility that what is both tragic and redemptive is Lurie's attempt to somehow continue a vision of the world past its time, and I ask them to judge him on the basis of a wider set of "data." A multi-directional, dialectical conversation is engendered in the classroom.  And no, it cannot be done online.  Because so much "information" is conveyed through discontinuities, interruptions, body language, and silence, gaps, laughter that resonates in a deeply affective way in that real space.

And I hasten to add that just as much as older faculty can present specific kinds of personal and academic knowledge, so too do students always teach me from their youth (which is both very similar and very different to mine).  There is at the best moments a wonderful check-and-balance.  I see where my anecdotes, illustrations (and most especially attempts at humor) are met with dazed or bemused faces, and I expect they see some similar disconnects when they think they have said something just so clearly, and I need them to re-articulate it in another way.

Life is a puzzle.  It is not a problem set.  Being happy is wonderfully easy because why waste that precious moment thinking about it?  But sadness stalls us, makes us wonder, frightens us.  Most of the time we repress it because we have to get on with the business of life.  And dwelling on sadness excessively is harmful too.  But my point is that the humanities can help us puzzle out those things--how have others stopped and thought, and expressed their possible analyses and ways out?  Sadness can be one of the best things to happen to us, because it shows we still feel and want to strive for a better life.

The humanities classroom experience can add to our ability to see just how much part of being human it is to be sad, puzzled, unsure, in ways that are not to be discounted as they are in this age of skills delivery and outcome-based education.  Suppressing our feelings of sadness just drives them underground, and deprives us of a moment to reflect on our values, expectations, dreams, and their deferment, displacement, reinvention.

This is a post I composed at the moment, obviously, so any responses, criticisms, etc., would be interesting to me.

David Palumbo-Liu's picture
David Palumbo-Liu is professor of comparative literature at Stanford.  His most recent publications include a volume on world-systems analysis co-edited with Bruce Robbins and Nirvana Tanoukhi entitled Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World" System, Scale, Culture (Duke University Press, 2011), and The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (also from Duke).  He is the founding editor of Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, which is housed here on Arcade.