“The Record” is a bi-weekly segment dedicated to featuring the many people and traditions that make the University of Texas such a unique place. For our third issue, we talk to Dr. Elizabeth Richmond-Garza and Dr. Thomas Jesus Garza about Oscar Wilde, vampires and bad book endings.
1) Dr. Garza and Dr. Richmond-Garza, tell us about your specific field of study.
RG: My field is comparative literature, where scholars and students work in three or more languages and use juxtapositions across linguistic and cultural lines to address aesthetic, cultural and ideological concerns. My specific interests are Orientalism, Cleopatra, Oscar Wilde, European drama, the Gothic and literary theory. I teach theater, aesthetics and the fine arts and work actively in eight foreign languages.
G: My area is Russian language and culture. I work on ways and materials to teach Russian as effectively and efficiently as possible, and I work a great deal in cultural studies, mostly Russian, and that research is directly reflected in the courses I teach.
2) How does that fit into your life in Austin? Have you found a community that shares these interests with you?
RG: Austin has a quite accomplished regional theater scene and is itself multilingual and multicultural. Working with local theater groups and with colleagues and groups across the UT campus has been very rewarding indeed.
G: There’s actually a fairly robust Russian community in Austin and a much larger one in Houston.
3) What has been the topic within your field of study that you have found most fascinating? Why?
RG: I am especially interested in resonances between English, French, Russian and Austrian culture around the year 1900 and our present day. The anxieties about gender and sexuality, immigration and identity, etc., that haunted the late 19th century seem to recur today. Oscar Wilde’s works and life are at the center of my work.
G: The work on vampires has been the most interesting, as it allowed me to work comparatively — something my wife, Elizabeth, inspired — and in a number of different media and contribute to some interesting projects, like “30 Days of Night,” “True Blood“ and “Vampire Secrets” on the History Channel.
4) What made you decide to look into these topics?
RG: I am interested in what attracts us to things that are frightening or disturbing but at the same time appealing. These works blur fixed categories and produce the effect of the uncanny. Analyzing what frightens but also attracts us offers important insights into our cultural moment and into past moments that share our concerns.
G: My interest in Russian/Russia goes back to my freshman year at Haverford College, when I chose the language on a whim and wound up majoring in it. Vampires grew out of a childhood fascination that became an avocation when I visited Dracula’s domain in Transylvania in 1988.
5) If you were to tell your students what your life as an academic is like in three words, what would they be?
RG: Cosmopolitan, intellectual, high-energy.
G: No dull days.
6) Speaking of your students, do you find it easy to inspire them?
RG: The materials I teach tend to spark a strong response from students. Their striking impact is one of the reasons I select them. Only students can inspire themselves, but instructors can model enthusiasm, respect and intellectual curiosity. I am constantly impressed by how infectious enthusiasm is, especially when students challenge themselves to do their own best work on projects that they tailor to their personal interests.
G: To teach them, yes; to inspire them, no, that is not so easy. Inspiration doesn’t simply well up and become passion. There’s a lot of groundwork to lay out in order to inspire, and sometimes one or even two semesters is not enough time. But it does happen from time to time, and those are some of the best experiences I’ve had as a faculty member.
7) What has been the most memorable moment you have had as a professor at UT?
RG: Among the many remarkable moments I have had was meeting a freshman seminar less than two hours after the 9/11 attack. I decided to come to campus to meet the class. Every student showed up that day, and all had heard about the events. The humane and mature way in which a group of first-year students responded to that horror without judging or conjecturing epitomized what is best about our students.
G: Personally, that would be when I met Elizabeth in the basement of Calhoun in 1991. Professionally, it was when my chairperson told me that I had received tenure.
8) Students tend to see only the academic side of their professors. Is there any part of your personality that your students would be surprised by?
RG: Of course if you teach things like “Dracula” and “Inception,” then there is quite an overlap between the personal and the professional. I imagine that they know I go to the theater and to musical performances all the time. I do not know whether my students would be surprised by quite how noisy my taste in music is, or quite how much I like to cook for friends, family and students.
G: There’s not too much of my personality that students don’t see in most of my classes. But some students might be surprised to know that I played Dr. Frank-N-Furter in a 1975 high school production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
9) And speaking of hobbies, what do you like to do in your spare time?
RG: Maybe see above, and also, which would not surprise my students, playing with my cats.
G: Travel, watch movies, explore new places to eat and drink.
10) If you could rewrite any one scene and/or chapter in any book already written, would you? If so, what would that be?
RG: Oscar Wilde wrote a letter to his friend, Lord Alfred Douglas, over the course of his time in prison serving a harsh sentence for “gross indecency.” “De Profundis” is a poignant, self-indulgent and beautiful letter about sorrow and suffering. I wish that Wilde had taken the advice of friends and left London for France. Had he done that, we would still have “De Profundis,” I think, but in a different form. He would have lived to see the first World War, and I have always wanted to know what he would have said about that moment of global suffering.
G: I can’t imagine tampering with someone else’s finished literary work. If I thought I could do better or different, then I would write my own.
11) Is there an ending to a book that you absolutely disapprove of? How would you fix it?
RG: There are not endings of which I disapprove, but there are some that are unbearable. Shakespeare’s “King Lear” ends with all the characters who survive to the finale recognizing their errors and even learning the need to care for one another. They are never given the chance to act upon that insight. It is an ending that opens the abyss of postmodernism for me and for so many great writers.
G: I couldn’t imagine changing what [an author] had already created. I do admit, though, that Dostoevsky’s epilogue to “Crime and Punishment,” which results in Raskolnikov finding religion, smacks of capitulation to a government editor/censor.
12) Do you feel like you live a life similar to an already-existent literary character?
RG: I would like to live like one of Oscar Wilde’s dandies, like Lord Henry or, even more, Lord Goring from his play, “An Ideal Husband”: witty and ultimately forgiving of their failings and those of others. I sometimes fear that I am more like Josef, who is caught in a maze-like world in Kafka’s “The Trial.” This may just be the midterm-timing of your question speaking!
G: I certainly feel as though I have a number of moments like Arthur Dent from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” when I have no control of the chaos around me, but mostly I prefer to think that I’m writing my own character.
13) Who are your literary alter egos?
RG: Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Boris Akunin.
G: I’d have to say that I’m partial to Woland, the devil figure in Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.”
14) Dr. Richmond-Garza and Dr. Garza, if you were to have tea with Oscar Wilde and Vladimir Vysotsky, respectively, what is the very first thing you would say to them?
RG: I wish that the wallpaper had gone instead.
G: Volodya, have some “tea,” and then sing something!
15) What would be your parting words to them?
RG: What is your Twitter name?
G: Volodya, before you go, sing one more.
16) If you could choose to live the life of a literary character, who would that be?
RG: Lord Goring.
G: He’s not quite a literary character, but I would love to be Dr. Who, maybe just for a while.
17) What research/projects are you currently working on?
RG: I am currently finishing a study of decadent culture at the end of the 19th century. I have a smaller essay on the queer translation theory, which will appear in the spring, and another essay on dandyism and detective stories I am working on for next summer.
G: I’m finishing a book on the similar ways that masculinity is portrayed in popular culture in Russia and Mexico from the 1990s to the 2000s.
18) Lastly, if you had an alternate profession, what would that be?
RG: I served for nine years as the CAO/CFO of the learned society in my field, the American Comparative Literature Association. If I were not able to be part of the academy as a professor, I would want to work for a not-for-profit humanities advocacy group.
G: If I hadn’t wanted to be able to eat and live in place with walls, I would have tried to become a stage actor.
Gaffer: Aaron Berecka
Make-Up Artist: Thumper Gosney