The most damaging mistake made in terms of literature is thinking that only English students should and can examine it. Being an English Literature student myself, my bias is obvious, but even I couldn’t bear to recommend Chaucer or Homer to any non-literature student, especially when they are most likely crumbling underneath their own workload. Still, I really do believe that within some modern literature (even – and don’t think I can’t sense the raised eyebrows – poetry), issues very relevant to common student life can be found, learnt from and used. If you’ll take past enlightenments, lessons and advice from your friends, parents and teachers then you can definitely learn something from writers fifty years in the making. To be honest, ten years of Shakespeare down the line, I’m yet to learn any life lessons from the guy except making sure your fiancé is dead before you hit the arsenic. He joins Milton, Defoe, Wilde et al in the ranks of being brilliant, but he is simply not relevant to student life; nowhere in Paradise Lost do Adam and Eve take a ‘tactical chunder’.
The vast majority of students are caught in an awkward position: after the military organization of school, and before the do-as-you-like liberty of the ‘real world’, we are faced with a confusing coalescence of freedom and restraint. Suddenly, meals are optional, curfews are abolished, classes are mere suggestions and there are three bars in the Student Union. Rather unfairly, we start to feel (generally after a few drinks), the responsibility starts piling up: meals won’t cook themselves, the year won’t pass itself, and I can speak from experience when I say that should cleaning fall by the wayside mould definitely grows itself.
We’re confused and of course we are; we’re barely out of our teens, given sudden responsibility for ourselves and most likely wake up hungover. We socialize manically, we dance in clubs like apes exhibiting mating dances, we drink, and, for the first time, we truly search for meaning in our lives and for our futures. Here is where I’d like to bring in a poet called Charles Buwowski, who died in 1994 and once wrote:
“I am my own God….we are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us”.
His works, spanning nearly a half-century, are not limited to the inspirational:
“Sometimes, you just have to pee in the sink”.
Bukowski is notorious for his relentless drinking and womanizing, which may tip you off towards the link I’m about to make between his life searching for meaning and contemporary student life. Let’s face it: “relentless drinking” and “womanizing”, or the opposite, is no great stranger to any student.
The man is crass in places:
“Great art is horseshit; buy tacos”,
depressed in others:
“There is a loneliness in the world so great that you can see it in the slow movement of the hands of a clock”,
“I wanted the whole world or nothing…”,
yet held back by his demons:
“… My ambition is handicapped by laziness”.
Above all, he is as flawed and common as any other human being and his admittance to this (“I suppose, like others, I have come through fire and sword, love gone wrong….”) makes him relatable, even endearing, to students throughout the spectrum. Agnostic and prone to vices like gambling and prostitution, Bukowski refuses to believe in love, hope or happiness without rigid proof. His largest anthologyThe Pleasures of the Damned (1951-1993) traces in brutal prose the path of a man consistently attempting over fifty years to create his own ideals and reasons for existence. He veers from extremes: near-nihilism (“Anything is a waste of time unless you are f*****g well or creating well or getting well or looming toward a kind of phantom-love-happiness”) to the very ecstasy of being (“Nights like this run up my wrists and up into my head and back down into the gut… some men never die, and some men never live, but we’re all alive tonight”).
His is a doctrine that does not play by hard-and-fast aphorisms, but is one that asks questions, that allows the breaking of rules and making of mistakes, and is open to whatever opportunities life may bring: love, lost and found; other people, good or bad; understandings, right or wrong. If these elements are not key to student life, I honestly can’t tell you what is. If people emerging from adolescence and taking tentative steps into “the real world” can’t learn from a man who traced his journey of fighting to carve an individualized path, questioning long-accepted values and ever-allowing room for mistakes (“It seems I make a lot of mistakes”) with a no-holds-barred reflection, then I don’t know who could. At any rate, it’s terribly difficult to not warm to a man whose poetry includes lines such as:
“I don’t like jail, they’ve got the wrong kind of bars in there”.