Hillis Miller

By Diana Lyuber

The Nickel Arts Museum hosted a big name in literary theory last Thu., Oct 14 when internationally acclaimed scholar J. Hillis Miller gave his autobiographical lecture entitled Why Literature?

Presented by the Paget/Hoy Speakers Series, Miller was introduced as “one of the giants of the late 20th century” by Dean of Humanities Rowland Smith, who added that Miller must be referred to in any discussion on critical theory.

His lecture focused primarily on the wonderful oddities of literature responsible for making him chose literary criticism as his life’s work.

“I had a vocational experience, a calling,” explained Miller. “I realised that what I wanted to do was spend the rest of my life studying and teaching [literature].”

Miller abandoned his initial plans of becoming a physicist graduating Summa Cum Laude from Oberlin College in 1948 and receiving a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1952. He went on to become one of the world’s top literary critics and deconstructionists, publishing several influential essays on 19th and 20th century literature. Today, he is the Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California.

So what has Miller learned from his successful 180-degree twist from physicist to literary savvy?

“Above all, try to choose a career that is something you want to do,” he said. “Don’t choose [a career] because you are going to make a lot of money in it.”

Miller wound up his lecture by touching on the relevance of literature in today’s high-tech world.

“Literature clearly has a smaller role in the lives of modern culture,” he stated. “You learn to read by reading… you learn to play baseball by playing it, it’s the same thing.”

Couch Potatoes can’t watch television and read at the same time.

“Even though some students claim they can,” he added with a chuckle.

Nevertheless, Miller is not one to worry about literature’s declining role in society. He firmly believes that, even while its function may change over time, literature will always serve a fundamental purpose.

“Literature is its own end,” he concluded. “It may be a mistake to worry too much about it’s social and psychological utility…it has a function without any ‘why’.”

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