“Masters” by Ruth Hung

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On Sunday 15 November 2020, the Department of English organised a virtual graduation ceremony for MALCS students from the Class of 2019 and the Class of 2020. Here’s Dr Ruth Hung’s speech. Dr Hung was the MALCS Programme Director of 2019-2020.

Congratulations! Graduation is a time to mark and celebrate your achievements. While this [the online mode] is certainly not how any of us would have wished to celebrate such a momentous occasion, we will do our best to mark it, given the prolonged period of difficulties and challenges you have all been through. The entire MALCS Programme and the English Department are proud of you. We are proud of your hard work and perseverance. Most of all, we are proud of the resilience and fortitude you demonstrated over the last 12 months.

The word “master” derives from the Latin “magister”, which is also cognate with the words “magisterial” and “magic”; it signifies a notable degree of knowledge and accomplishment. Indeed, today, we are celebrating your becoming a Graduate Master in this field of study called Arts, and within Arts, a further specialized and professionalized area of Comparative Literary practice. To hold an MA degree means not only that you have finished the first level of your graduate study, but also that from now on you’ll be held accountable for a significantly different, and thus new, level of knowledge.

We send our congratulations not merely because you’ve studied more, read more, written more, paid more tuition fees, or earned more credits. These “mores,” quantitative in kind, are accumulative in process and purpose. In terms of more, you had already done plenty in your undergraduate years. At that time, you stepped up, year by year, from Year 1 to Year 4. By the end of the process, you gained a Major; for some, a Double Major. You got a Bachelor’s Degree. NOT a Master’s Degree.

A Master’s Degree is not the final undergraduate year plus 1, just as the undergraduate Year 1 is not the final-high school year plus 1. This past year is not a Year 5. It is one version of the “afterlife” of your Bachelor’s degree. As the great German intellectual Walter Benjamin once said, “after” is NOT “meta-”, not “along with”; for “meta” as in “metaphrase”/“metaphor” assumes total translatability.

As between languages there exist radical incompatibilities and non-transferability—untranslatable elements—between your Bachelor’s Degree and your Master’s Degree in terms of the level of difficulty, the extent of consciousness, and the degree of honours. These untranslatable elements denote a qualitative change in your ability or power to relate yourself to knowledge, to relate yourself to personal development, and to relate yourself to yourself.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “Master” as a person with the ability or power to dispose. The quintessence of being a Master, I think, lies in exactly the double action of dis (to set apart from) and poser (to place). When you were an undergraduate, you had little from which to set apart. Your immediate task was not to set in order or arrange knowledge but to acquire and control it. Meanwhile, recall those September days of your MALCS cohort: you stepped into the lecture theatres at Baptist in your original position as a Bachelor. You were already full of knowledge; being so, your task should have been to incline the mind toward a new level of learning. You were learning to unlearn, to be an exile of your formative education and culture.

The Bachelor needs to survive—in every single sense; you could only succeed, however, if you come out from MALCS in a form unrelated to your old, and now older, self. Once a Master is born, it lives off the Bachelor and has a life independent of your formative education. The Bachelor would die, just as the Master of today, this afternoon, newly born, lives on. Or the Bachelor could and would only live on through and in the Master. If the translation of the past is an act of survival – survival of texts, words, ideas, memories, and humanity, so is one’s decision to give up the Bachelor for the Master.

The great modernist poet T. S. Eliot once said, “the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”. So, it should be with today’s freshly minted Masters of Literature and Criticism. You’ve learned to strive constantly to transcend your present so that the historical past could be more generously imagined, to suppress your presentism and personality so that the best form of moral sympathy for forgotten dreams and aspirations could be exercised. This self-sacrifice is all the greater because you, who have come out of the pandemic intact, understand this effort will never entirely succeed. The most ambitious dream of all, the strongest imagination of all imaginations, will always outlive us and our own lives.

Upon your new self, I, on behalf of MALCS, send our respects.

:::::

Ruth

Ruth Y.Y. Hung is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature.

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