Meditations in a Time of Delusions and Lies 21: Honor the English Department at Virginia Tech
April 22, 2007
While people are puzzling over the grotesque slaughter at Virginia Tech, I’d like to note one aspect of the horror. Lucinda Roy and Nikki Giovanni, his creative writing teachers, and others in the English department comprehended Seung-hui Cho’s words and observed his strange behavior, and they responded. In the end, Cho engineered a vast, multifaceted performance: theatrically committing the murders, inscribing a lengthy rant or manifesto, performing video testimony, mugging for photographs, and writing two scripts and probably other pieces before the murders. Even his unnerving silence as described by his roommates and fellow students constituted a kind of performance. All together, it constituted a creative project of sorts – albeit a twisted, demented, diabolical one.
Some may blame the English department at Virginia Tech for allowing Cho’s imagination to flourish. There have been those suspicious of poetry and the creative arts because of their purported corrupting influence since at least Plato. In the early nineteenth century, American preachers inveighed against women reading sentimental novels because the romances depicted may lead to their seduction; later in the century, protectors of civic virtue raised alarms against young men reading dime novels and “bad boy” books (like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Peck’s Bad Boy) because their irreverence and violence may cause boys to commit crimes or violate the norms of proper middle-class behavior. Worry about the influence of violence on TV, film, music, and video games is not new. There’s a lot to discuss about the nature of popular culture, in particular. Truly, the workings of our imaginations can be vile and can be shaped by the crude imaginations of others – but we’ve known this for centuries. I’m worried that if we put a lid on our thoughts, we may miss too much that is good, and the lid may blow off anyway.
Some people may slight the fact that Cho’s English teachers did detect his anguish, anger, and derangement precisely because of his attempts at imaginative production. But these teachers could tell that, for this strange kid, the boundaries of imagination and reality were dangerously close to being crossed. And they acted upon what they saw and read. Nikki Giovanni ejected him from her classroom – noting his anger and the negative effect on other students – and Lucinda Roy took him out of her classroom in order to tutor him individually. Teachers in the English department consulted with each other over his writings and his behavior. They advised him to seek counseling, and they alerted everyone they should have, including campus security, to the danger he posed.
The fact that the university’s responses were not as effective as anyone would have wished is another matter: there are a lot of questions of how colleges are supposed to intervene in such situations, and of how to manage the relationship between individual autonomy and communal safety. Many will seek someone to blame, when there may be no one, except perhaps the bizarre intoxication with violence our society seems to enjoy.
But one thing needs to be pointed out: the English department should be honored, as well as the role of reading and writing literature in our schools and the cultivation of culture more generally.
I teach literature and writing at a university, so I’m biased – but I do hear things. I hear from students and those beyond the university that there’s something “fuzzy” or unnecessary or even silly about studying literature when someone could study palpable things like engineering or biology or international relations. Novels and poems and other imaginative works are not utilitarian, most of the time, but they serve our souls nonetheless. We can enter the minds of Raskolnikov and Ahab, we can experience the power of language to create realities, we can wonder how people are the way they are, and we can be moved and awaken and change, and even societies can change in response. Writing is not necessarily confessional or cathartic, but it does allow a way to reveal ourselves, even to become ourselves more fully, and to engage the world through our thoughts and dreams, and it does demand responses from readers, even if the writer is sullen and withdrawn.
Consider all the people who could have gone off the deep end except that they read a novel or wrote a poem instead, and as a result they found a path to life instead. So I’d like to salute the Virginia Tech English department. They perceived the danger, they reached out to a tortured young man with courage, they rejected his evil, and they alerted all that they could.
All colleges should have English teachers who can do so much.