I was brushing my teeth the other night, not thinking about anything in particular, when between spitting and rinsing I found myself muttering, "Thus does the whirlygig of time bring in his revenges."
For a second I had no idea where that line had come from. Uh. . . Shakespeare, right? And. . . Twelfth Night? Yes. Duh. I was teaching Twelfth Night that week. But what was that particular line doing rattling around in my subconsciousness?
I shrugged and went to bed, but the next morning I found myself thinking about that line some more, as well as some of the play's many other references to time ("Time, thou must unravel this, not I/It is too hard a knot for me t'untie"), and I realized how consonant they are with a lot of the thinking I've been doing lately. "Man," I said aloud at one point, "I should totally re-read Twelfth Night again!"
And then I laughed, embarrassed at myself.
Re-read it, why? For its fortune-cookie wisdom? Its secret messages to me alone? Isn't this exactly what I want my students not to do--to believe that a work of literature has value only insofar as it relates to their lives. . . and that as soon as it doesn't, it's pointless?
Of course, I don't believe that about Twelfth Night or anything else I read or teach, but sometimes I do think I have a tendency to relate too intensely and too personally to the things I work on. I worry that this is naive and unprofessional of me. But I also wonder how one can help it.
There are scholars, I'm sure, who do what they do for the sheer intellectual challenge of it all, and who derive immense satisfaction from that. But even though the "personal" element of my work isn't at all obvious--it has nothing, for example, to do with gender- or religious- or class-based identification, or with events in my personal or family history--I can't pretend that my scholarship is somehow perfectly objective or that it doesn't reflect, in a deep and fundamental way, my own personality and my understanding of human nature and institutions.
I guess there's value to this awareness, and I know that discovering aspects of oneself in the intellectual and cultural productions of another age isn't the same thing as imposing oneself or one's beliefs upon those works (in the former case, one is hopefully expanding and challenging oneself and one's preconceptions; in the latter, one is finding only what one is prepared to find).
Nevertheless, I still feel vaguely ashamed and Billy Phelpsian when I admit to such things.