Sunday, November 18, 2018
Columns

Death of an English major

I did not anticipate this death. No one warned me that being chair of an English Department meant that I would have to “manage” the grief, despair and rage caused by the political murder of one of our students.

The longer you teach, the more inevitable it becomes that you will have to deal, at some point, with the death of a student — especially if you teach, as I do, in a university with almost 1,200 English majors. Young people drink too much, and drive too fast; they experiment, sometimes dangerously. In Florida, they can be killed by a hurricane; everywhere in America, they are exceptionally prone to depression, anxiety and suicide (and becoming more so all the time).

But Maura Binkley, who died early this month in a Tallahassee yoga studio, was the target of premeditated political violence. The white straight American male who is accused of killing her went to that yoga studio intending to kill women.

Maura was not the only woman he is alleged to have killed, or the only woman who was shot. But Maura, unlike the others, was an English major. She was many other things, too; she was a treasury of particulars and potentials. But her death intersected with my life because she majored in English. I majored in English, too, many years ago, and now I chair the English department at Florida State where she was, until last Friday, taking classes in the history of the English language, American literature and rhetoric.

I suspect that Maura Binkley was asked, at some point, as almost every English major is asked nowadays, “What can you do with a major like that? What good does it do?” Perhaps that’s why the New York Times misreported that she was a journalism major: Journalism is practical and useful; English, not so obviously. And in the whirlpool of grief and rage after Maura’s death, I have asked myself the same question: What good can I do? And it is not just a personal question. After all, Maura chose this, too. Maura’s classmates chose this.

Other Shakespeare scholars might be able to stand in front of a room full of traumatized students and quote Horatio’s response to the death of a young student named Hamlet: “Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Other Shakespeare scholars might point out that, 400 years ago, the word “prince” was gender-neutral, and would therefore be perfectly appropriate for Maura Binkley. Other Shakespeare scholars might explain the traditional literary metaphor that equates death and sleep.

But although Shakespeare probably believed in angels, I do not. The Shakespeare quotation that first came to me, when I learned of Maura’s death, was something much more brutal: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.” King Lear speaks these words to his young murdered daughter, half-pretending to himself that she can still hear him. These are not words that any parent wants to speak, or to hear at a moment like this.

Father Lear also says, to his dead daughter Cordelia, “I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.” Shakespeare does not name the murderer, and unlike the press I will not dignify or memorialize the man who murdered Maura by repeating his name, or rehearsing his pathetic biography.

But Shakespeare does tell us something useful about the kind of man capable of murdering Cordelia, or Maura. In Shakespeare the unnamed “captain” explains, in an earlier scene, “I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats; if it be man’s work, I’ll do’t.” Killing an innocent and defenseless young woman is, for that nameless captain, what distinguishes him from a mere domesticated animal. It is what defines his manhood.

Unfortunately, anybody who is paying attention knows men like this, men whose identity and self-importance depends on their capacity for violence. The man who is accused of killing Maura was one of them. The man accused of killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue was one of them. The man accused of killing a random black man and a random black woman in a Kentucky supermarket, the week before, was one of them. The man who killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando was one of them.

These men were all trying to kill generalities. The man who stands accused of murdering Maura was not seeing a luminous living individual; he was seeing a specimen of the category “woman,” a category he hated. From his perspective, the category “woman” owed him something, something he as a “man” was entitled to have. The category “woman” had no right to choose to refuse him. Before the gun killed Maura, the generalization did.

What we do, in English, and in the humanities more broadly, what we teach, what we celebrate and investigate, is human particularity. That is why we become obsessed with individual authors, why we savor specificities of phrasing, why we pounce upon and explore a single word. It’s why we value, above all, writers capable of telling many different stories, populated by many varieties of being, articulated in a kaleidoscope of styles. It’s why I, personally, have always been most fascinated by playwrights, from Aeschylus to August Wilson: Dialogue releases us from the monologues of one mind, clan, tradition.

We grieve, now, the loss of all the “brave, bold and kind” particularities of Maura Binkley: the sound of her voice, explaining the relationship between Old English and modern German; her cute cat backpack; her idealistic ambition to get accepted into the Teach For America program; her protesting gun violence earlier this year at the Florida capital. “There was a daily beauty in her life,” we can say, quoting Shakespeare but changing the pronouns, “that made his ugly.”

What we can do, as English majors, is write about the particulars of her beautiful promise. What we can do, as Americans, is dedicate ourselves to erasing the ugliness that erased her.

Gary Taylor is general editor of the New Oxford Shakespeare and the Dahl and Lottie Pryor Professor of Shakespearean Literature at Florida State, where he chairs the Department of English.

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