Dr. van Dijkhuizen, Milton, and New Year’s
Who is Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen?
I am a lecturer in English literature in this department. My teaching focuses mainly on the period between 1500 and 1800, with a particular focus on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I teach the first-year course on Renaissance literature, a third-year course on Shakespeare, the MA course on John Milton, and I co-teach the second year course on the eighteenth century. This course focuses mainly on prose fiction; the real expert on that is not me but Evert van Leeuwen. I like the eighteenth century; I’ve grown to love it and it’s now one of the courses I enjoy most. That has partly to do with the fact I’m not a specialist on the era, and in some ways that can be good, because it can make you more open towards what students have to say. It contributes to a more interactive form of teaching, which is of course what we are striving for. Teaching – certainly at the university level – should be interactive. It’s a two-way traffic and both parties do their bit.
I do research as well. My PhD was on representations of exorcism rituals and demonic possession in English Renaissance drama. It later became a book that came out in 2007. It may sound like a really weird topic for first-year students. It’s not a book about horror – it’s not exorcism as in The Exorcist – but what I look at in the book is a big controversy in England around 1600 about whether there is such a thing as demonic possession and if exorcism is a legitimate healing ritual. The controversy over those issues touched upon all kind of topics that were fundamental to the Protestant Reformation. I won’t go into details on this, but it is one reason why it is a fascinating topic. It’s a really useful way into the core religious struggles and conflicts of the period.
After this, I applied for a research grant at the NWO. I received a so-called VENI grant from them. This is a relatively small grant designed for junior scholars who completed their PhD less than 3 years ago. This enabled me to write a second book, which is about a topic that may sound equally bizarre: pain. It’s called Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture and it came out in the end of 2012. It starts with the idea that the way we experience pain is very much culturally conditioned. Pain is not an unchanging, purely physical thing that doesn’t vary per culture or era and so on; our experience of pain is powerfully conditioned by the belief systems we grow up in. What the book looks at is the kind of stories that early modern English people told themselves about suffering. It’s about what they think suffering meant, what it meant to suffer physical pain. I look at a range of literary works and religious texts that look at what it means to suffer. I argue that religious texts give a sort of framework for attaching meaning to suffering. It’s a book that looks at all kinds of texts; poems, devotional literature, philosophical and literary works and so on. It looks specifically at correlations between pain and compassion. For early moderns, pain is something that elicits compassion in other people. They were very interested in what pain does to other people, and to those who watch other people suffer.
I’m now sort of in between projects, I guess, or at least that’s the way I like to think about it. I’m now toying with a number of possible topics for a new book, or research project.
Okay, this answered a couple of my questions... so, is there any Renaissance literature you find underappreciated nowadays?
Let me think about that (moment of silence); well... I don’t think you can call John Milton underappreciated, but I guess he is in some ways, in the sense that he doesn’t nearly have a kind of presence in the culture at large that, say Shakespeare, has, and I do wish that were different. With Milton, part of the problem is that his politics and his religion are quite outspoken and not exactly mainstream, so that’s one important reason why he doesn’t have this kind of popularity, or the kind of presence that Shakespeare has. To call him underappreciated would be an overstatement, but the appreciation is very much confined to universities. There was an interesting documentary on the BBC a few years ago, it was on Milton, presented by a really great English comedian: Armando Iannucci, who actually wrote his PhD on Milton (although he never finished it). Iannucci started out by walking around London and asking people if they’d heard of John Milton, and virtually nobody had (chuckles). That was a good reason to do a documentary on him on Friday night prime time TV. I guess that it partly has to do with the fact that Shakespeare’s plays are, well, plays, and for some reason that makes it easier to attain the popularity that they have. A narrative poem is so much more alien to modern society. Not many people still turn to epic poetry to explore the big questions of our day, right? And you can’t really make Paradise Lost into a movie, unlike a Shakespeare play. So, I guess you could see John Milton as a relatively underappreciated author.
I’m also fascinated by Shakespeare’s contemporaries – other playwrights who, like Milton, have much less cultural presence nowadays. Ben Jonson’s plays are performed but much more rarely. The Devil is an Ass was performed in 1996 but I don’t think it’s been performed since then. Volpone isn’t performed very often, though it’s a great play. Similarly, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe has nowhere near the kind of popularity that Shakespeare has, although it’s performed fairly regularly. We do look, of course, at Marlowe and Jonson in the first year course. Generally, I’m very interested in early modern textual genres we may not think of as literature. I’ve read a lot of devotional literature, for example; that may sound tedious, superficially, but if you ask the right questions then they can really come to life. Sermons too, certainly in Shakespeare’s time, were magnificent rhetorical performances.
You mentioned the first-year Renaissance course. What can the Freshers expect and look forward to in their second semester literary course?
Everything! Everything about that course is wonderful and educational and it is going to change your life. We’re going to look at love sonnets from the period, especially Shakespeare’s sonnets, but students will also get a sense of the larger, Renaissance sonnet tradition. We are also going to look at a number of really wonderful plays: Othello and The Tempest, for example, explore issues that still have enormous relevance and that still speak to us, partly because our time is in some ways a product of Shakespeare’s time. We’re going to look at John Milton’s Paradise Lost –yay– which is an astonishing narrative poem and absolutely unique in the language. In my experience, students can relate to it. It’s not an easy thing to read, but in my experience, students do see what a wonderful and interesting and lively poem it is, even funny at times and incredibly dramatic as well. We’ll also look at political controversies over kingship and the regicide in 1649, i.e. the question of whether the king’s head should be chopped off. If that isn’t an interesting question, I don’t know what is. And, we will look at Milton’s Areopagitica which is one of the earliest works on the question of why there should be something like a free press. Well, if that isn’t an urgent issue and an exciting issue to discuss, I don’t know what is.
What else do we have? Marlowe, yes, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, this great play, deeply funny... as funny as it is tragic, and as tragic as it is ironic. It’s an incredibly lively play and I hope students will get a sense of how these plays are able to speak to us across the centuries. It’s an amazing thing if you think about it. We are in the year 2013, reading a play that was performed in, say, 1590, and it makes us laugh, or it makes us feel for the protagonist. There’s an amazing power built into the language that these writers use. There’s something very special about the way in which they use language and that’s one thing we will look at.
And we will look at other amorous poetry, including erotic poetry. We will even look at a poem about erotic love between women, written by a man (John Donne) – perhaps that is something to look forward to as well. It’s a fascinating poem. We’ll look at George Herbert’s religious poetry, and how he uses the medium of lyric poetry to investigate all kinds of aspects of religion and of what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to have a religious experience. In my experience, although that may seem initially like an alien topic to many modern-day students, with a bit of help they can see how cool Herbert is and they can see how interesting these religious issues are. The course is partly an exercise in historical empathy; in historical imagination. We are going to place ourselves in the perspective of the people writing four centuries ago about the issues that mattered to them. Writing about the issues that matter to you is a very human thing to do, so why not study that? It’s a basic human activity. Don’t be fooled into thinking that writing poems or plays is somehow a superfluous activity. Storytelling is one of the most basic things we do. So this is one thing to look forward to in the new year.
Yes, and in the theme of the new year: What New Year Resolutions should the students have in their academic life?
Their biggest resolution should be: apply bum to seat. You can quote me on that. What I mean by that is that they should cultivate an ability to sit still for hours on end to read and study and preferably not do anything else; make sure there is no distraction. You can build in little rewards: if I read Shakespeare for 2 hours, I can go and update my Facebook page for 15 minutes, or go online and do whatever it is that students do when they’re online. It’s a really simple thing, but I sometimes feel that students do forget that. It’s really a matter of putting in the required hours. You’ll be amazed by what you can do if you invest time in something, if you put in hours. It’s not a mysterious kind of skill to do well in your studies; it’s a matter of making an effort: putting the necessary time into it.
Fair enough, do you then have any academic wishes for yourself in the new year?
Academic wishes for the new year... I wish that I’ll teach well and I’ll have interesting exchanges with students from which I, too, learn something. I wish that I’ll be able to make students enthusiastic about the stuff that I’m enthusiastic about. Without enthusiasm we won’t get anywhere; it’s the basis of everything. It’d be nice if I could get some more research time, maybe not this year but in the near-ish future. To see if I could obtain some kind of research grant. That would be great.
As a looking back question: what was your biggest academic achievement of the past year?
My most substantial academic achievement was my book on pain, which came out a year ago in two days time, so it just counts. It’s the thing I am most pleased with, professionally.
That was it for my questions, though I did get a sent in question wondering where your obsession with Milton comes from?
Was that a second-year student?
Where does my obsession with John Milton come from? I’m not sure that I’m obsessed with John Milton. Where does it come from? It’s the fact that I enjoy reading Milton so much, that’s one thing. The beauty of the language is an important thing that draws me to Milton. If you read Milton out aloud, you’re swept along by the sounds and the cadences and the rhythms. He had an amazing ear for the sounds and rhythms of language and I think that’s very important in poetry. Poetry is very much a performance art, an oral thing; it’s meant to be heard. Milton was very much aware of that, even if it’s a poem perhaps most often read in the privacy of somebody’s home. It really pays off to read it out aloud. In Paradise Lost Milton also talks about so many issues that continued to be relevant in the eighteenth century but also later. Milton was interested in all kinds of political issues that continue to be sources of debate that are still unresolved and controversial. Milton also had a huge poetic influence on later poets. That becomes clear in a number of the eighteenth-century poems that we look at in the eighteenth-century course. Take for instance Barbauld’s “A Summer Evening’s Meditation” which owes its form to Paradise Lost. Think of “The Deserted Village” that has some sneaky, almost casual allusions to Paradise Lost. It’s really worth looking at and analysing them in some detail. I hope that answers, at least partially, where my obsession with Milton comes from. How can you not be obsessed with Milton?
By Rena Bood