I always tell such people that yeah, I tend to analyze a lot (I wouldn't say over-analyze, because to me the amount of analysis I engage in feels just right, like Goldilocks discovering a perfectly heated bowl of porridge). But my penchant for analysis doesn't "ruin" anything. To the contrary, thinking more deeply about what I'm reading or watching leads me to enjoy whatever I'm doing even more. Here I'm not defining "enjoyment" as laughing my head off, though sometimes it might mean that; I mean it more in the sense of feeling deeply gratified. And for all the various theoretical and critical schools I was exposed to in grad school, sometimes I enjoy going back to the old basic literary devices, to think about how they function and why they should matter.
Just the other day, for instance, I was contemplating dramatic irony--what happens when we, the audience, know more than the characters in the story do. (Yes, I really do sit around thinking about things like that.) Sometimes the results are hilarious (“No, no, he’s not having an affair with the chambermaid—you just happened to drop in at the wrong time”), sometimes scary (“She’s really going to go back outside alone in the dark after she’s heard that noise?--DON’T DO IT!”), sometimes maddening ("Romeo, you idiot, she's not really dead!" "No, Oedipus, NOT HER!")--and sometimes mildly amusing, such as when we knew all along that Harry and Sally were never destined to be “best friends.”
Whatever the effect, dramatic irony reminds us that if we could view situations on a larger canvas—from the bird’s eye perspective, complete with back-story, character motivations, and other elements that those within a situation can't see—we'd probably draw different conclusions and make different decisions than we do from inside a situation. On one hand, those going through something "know" it best; they're the ones experiencing the physical, psychological, and emotional sensations and consequences. Yet on the other hand, they cannot grasp—or even see—the broader canvas on which their situation is unfolding. This isn't because they are particularly flawed, selfish or evil people (though that sometimes may be true). It's simply because they are people.
And as people, we are all limited—sometimes even trapped—by the same subjective limitations that, paradoxically, make our lives and perspectives possible. It is our individuality that both makes us “us,” and prevents us from seeing the grand sweep of things that, if it were possible for us to see, might well lead us to make different decisions. And yet we are, all of us, stuck here, inside our small, limited, individual selves. We can’t escape our own skins long enough to see, and we can't see broadly enough to understand. We're all operating in the blind.
But we can read, or watch plays, or view movies. And through the literary device of dramatic irony, we can watch other people—sometimes invented, sometimes not—live out the comical, horrific, tragic, or romantic implications of the decisions that they, like all of us, are forced to make with constricted vision and limited knowledge (because foreshadowing can only be written in retrospect). And if we think deeply about what we encounter in stories, we still can't transcend our limitations or crawl out of our own skins--but we can imagine what it might be like to try.
Through imagination, we might begin to realize that we exist as part of a more expansive cinescape that isn't really "all about us" after all. We might become aware that we’re not writing our stories entirely, that much of what happens in our lives is "writing us" (though sometimes we'd rather not know that). We might grasp that ours is only one perspective among many--even if we do not fully understand those perspectives, let alone agree with them. We might realize that we don't ever see the full picture because nobody ever does, and we might grow more cognizant of the folly of passing quick judgments on situations that we are neither qualified nor required to judge.
And in the process of recognizing complexity, imagining possibilities of multiple viewpoints, hidden information, obscured motives and unpredictable futures, we might begin imagining our way out of the subjective trap. Best case scenario: we become capable of asking more compelling questions, withholding or suspending judgment, staying open to new perspectives and the possibility of changing our minds.
As we consider additional possibilities beyond our narrow individual limitations, we may be able to grow larger—less self-absorbed. We might come to realize that the others in our lives don't exist only as minor characters in our personal dramas, but are the central protagonists in their own stories. We may begin to view those who are “other than ourselves” with a small rather than a large “O”—fellow human beings, in some ways different from us yet in other ways, maybe not so much. We might begin to realize that other people are human beings with intrinsic value, not objects to be manipulated or resources to be commodified. That realization might change the way we treat people.
Maybe this is what can happen when we study the humanities. In one stock definition, the humanities are explained as "the study of what it means to be human," and lots of people laugh snidely at that. Contemplate our human-ness?--why would we need to do that? Let's just get on with the business of making money, and when we're done with that we'll find ways to escape the drudgery, and who needs anything more? Do cats sit around contemplating their feline-ness? (Actually, I suspect my cats probably do.) Stop over-analyzing and ruining my favorite movie, you stupid English teachers.
Perhaps the more compelling definition is that the humanities explore what it means to be humane. And at this moment in history, when too many people fail to recognize others as fellow humans, when too many of those with wealth and power view people as human "resources" rather than as human beings, when too many see violence as some kind of answer, when so much of the human touch has been replaced by the cold, mechanistic logic of the unfeeling machine--and, not least of all, when the formal study of the humanities is under threat--right now we need the humanities more than ever.