By Tom Ribitzky
The word that inaugurates one of the foundational texts of Western civilization is “Rage.” In The Iliad, Homer invokes the Muse not to sing about Achilles’ rage, but to sing the rage itself —perhaps the hardest challenge for literature. Rage is that thing that always verges on the illiterate, threatening to dissolve language into a primal scream.
It’s no coincidence that Dante the pilgrim, descending farther and farther into the depths of hell, becomes increasingly dumbstruck, hearing the language around him gradually distort into clichés, then garbled speech, and eventually the silence of Satan, a creature so full of rage that he can’t say a word, each of his three mouths gorging eternally on the bodies of Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius. Billy Budd, unable to read, stutters on his way to discharging a rage he isn’t even aware of. Oskar Matzerath “sing-shatters” his way through Nazi Germany in The Tin Drum. In cases like these, I often teach the literary treatment of rage as a paradox of ineffability and eloquence. The more Dante the pilgrim falls into speechlessness at the rage he witnesses, the more Dante the poet exhibits his finest poetry.
In our first class after the election, daunted by the task of teaching literature when I felt that rage had induced my own language to fail, I began by asking students to commit to paper their reactions to what had just happened. It was an exercise not to be turned in — I wanted them to be the only audience of their own thought, and share it only if they felt the need to. I shared my own response, confessing to my loss for words, and then explored the example of Dante’s own speechlessness when confronted with the lower circles of his inferno. Trump’s “unpresidented” violence on language, symptomatic of a broader Republican pride in folksy anti-intellectualism and aggressive ignorance, only seemed to foreshadow the violence of future atrocities. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I pointed out that the rhetoric of ethnic bans and mass deportations has its precedents in the most horrific chapters in history. Language has dislodged the past into a threat of the future. It is from the level of language, then, that any meaningful resistance can arise.
I told my students that Dante couldn’t have made the journey through the inferno on his own. He needed a guide, and that guide could only have been Virgil — a poet, someone able to put a language to the language-less. Virgil is the virga, the “wand,” leading Dante to safety. The word “education” is also etymologically predicated on leading, on conducting, on identifying a path that needs to be crossed for our own good and for the common good.
The lesson for that day wasn’t even supposed to be about Dante, though. I had assigned close readings of Langston Hughes. But in his poems — especially the line, “I, too, sing America” — I felt what Dante must have felt when Virgil showed up at the gates of hell. In this class, there were tears and there was warmth as we punctuated the close readings with our own stories of moving to this country or growing up here and feeling different — of being rejected by communities and accepted by others. Some were taunted for not speaking English properly as children; others had been bullied for their religious beliefs.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that, “Many educators, worried about maintaining both objectivity and order,” avoid the affect, specifically the rage, that I brought — and still bring — to the classroom. Even a federal judge, back in 2008, maintained that school officials must avoid “the entanglement of their public educational mission with partisan politics.” As university instructors, there is an expectation for us to be calm and controlled, “balanced” and “measured.” But as Gettysburg College professor Kathleen P. Ianello recently argued in The Chronicle, “It is a disservice to students to attempt to provide balance when I know that balance is an offense to the truth.”
Thomas Mann argued something similar in The Magic Mountain when he wrote, just under a decade before Hitler’s democratic rise to power, that “tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.” So what kind of commitment do we have to our students and to our material under these intolerant and intolerable circumstances? Is tolerance itself just a neo-liberal cop-out for those of us who don’t feel comfortable addressing politics in the classroom? Why else are we teaching the humanities if not to identify the limits and threats to humanity itself?
Perhaps the most political statement any teacher can make, then, is that they don’t want to “get political”. This pretense to a neutral stance only upholds the ideology of the hegemonic order, one that is now threatening the livelihood of many of our students and colleagues, some of whom may feel too uncomfortable in the current political climate to speak out for fear of their lives. While one can argue that this explicitly anti-Trump approach may alienate Trump supporters, the implied logic there is the fallacy of false equivalence. A Trump supporter risks less in having their privilege checked than someone else in the classroom who may be living in fear of deportation or walking down 5th Ave. wondering whether someone will threaten to set her hijab on fire.
Rage, like Achilles himself, has no allegiance to any political side over another. Trump exploited the rage of much of the country, and in response he provoked the rage of everyone like myself who is mortified at what he represents. Instead of downplaying my reaction, I’m recognizing the extent to which the classroom has always been a political space, and fulfilling what I see as my responsibility to educate the next generation of well-informed, critical citizens — the bedrock of any democracy. As much as rage on both sides may erode our language, I want to hold on to the other part of that paradox and use my rage as a pedagogical tool to defend the language of sophisticated thought in the literary works I teach. This rage may fork no lightning, but there is an ethical commitment to humanity and the humanities in not shying away from it.
Tom Ribitzky is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and a Contributing Writer for Visible Pedagogy.