gall and gumption

Monday, January 17, 2005

Mythical Beasts

I came across this article in City Journal, about the reading habits of the English working classes in the 19th century and the early 20th century. Some of the testimonials are quite moving and just what you would expect if you yourself are a person who ever opened a book and found the world.

The writer of the article, Jonathan Rose, has actually written a book on the subject. I wrote a response to the article (there was the comments button and what could I do) and he wrote me back a pleasant reply.

Here's his reply:

Thanks so much for your note, which is as inspirational as it is
depressing. How did the study of literature become such a disaster
area? -- as it certainly is at my university, where the last real English
professor retired 15 years ago. It's a bloody shame that you had to
leave academia, though I can hardly blame you. If you love literature as
much as you do, I'm surprised they let you take your doctorate.

Well, if you want to read about more ludic readers, there's my
book "The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes," from which
the article was excerpted. I guess it's a good sign that Greenblatt &
Co. are now tripping over each other to publish popular bios of
Shakespeare: evidently there's still an audience for literature, in spite of all
their efforts to kill it.

Here's what he replied to. I dunno, maybe I should switch these around.

In 1988 or 1989 I dropped into a weekend academic conference of English
professors that was held at UC Santa Barbara, where I was finishing up a Doctorate in English. Katharine Stimpson, who went on to become president of the MLA, spoke. She said she had heard rumors of a creature called the "ludic reader," a person who read works of "classic literature," the sort of thing this article discusses, for pleasure. She had never met such a person and was not quite prepared to state positively that they existed.

I raised my hand and said that I was such a reader. In that same year, during an external review of the academic department, one of the external reviewers took great offense at my attitude to literature which he characterized as "quasi-religious".

Oh and at the same conference Stanley Fish got up and reminded everyone that the profession of English Professing was about -- itself.

The voices of working class people that you cite in this article are touching in the extreme. The profound experiences which they speak of are of no interest to most academics in the humanities, I regret to say.

The humanities are about how to be a human being. There really isn't anything else of very great importance for English professors to do other than to explore that with their students who are in the process of becoming human beings and who, like all of us, need all the help we can get to be decent ones.

People who persist, as I have, in preferring what I can learn from Pushkin or Sophocles or Primo Levi or James Baldwin or Jane Austen or Montaigne to whatever Frederic Jameson's latest emission is, well, we don't find a warm home in academic life. I gave up being an academic seven years ago. It still happens to me that I am walking down the street in some city or other and a former student (from years before I quit) will recognize me and give me a hug of gratitude. I taught them that literature was theirs to own without intermediaries and that it would yield as much as the quality of their attention would allow, and I tried, in the classroom, to show by such nonrevolutionary methods as 1)nagging and 2) the example of my own
excitement and 3)respect for their position on the REAL frontier of literary study, that their literary experience actually meant something to me. I wanted to give students enough excitement about literature for them to be able to turn to it for pleasure and wisdom over a lifetime. I suppose if they come and hug me in the
street I must have done it at least partly right.

What made it worse for me as an academic was that I was a minority and a woman and therefore wasn't supposed to be excited about things like Tristram Shandy, which I still read once a year just for pure pleasure and inspiration. All these people who were so concerned about diversity, who got up in meetings and defended unreadable postcolonial novels or at best didn't distinguish between the bad stuff and the good stuff, were utter reactionaries when it came to the class dynamics of the academic
system. If you were a minority you were supposed to quietly beaver away at the
works of Ngugi but you were not supposed to grab hold of the poetry of Donne. Much of literary theory defended this position, a sort of sanctimonious unaware racism.

It was a liberal academic who said to me one day, "Surely you don't mean to suggest that there are universal human values?"

I go at least as far as committing myself to the Geneva Convention and the
fundamentals of human rights, which a large part of the academic profession
now finds itself unable, in the terms of its own theoretical pronouncements of the past 20 years and its total abdication of the simple task of teaching the humanities, to defend.

So today because I wanted to blog this I needed to find the link to the article on City Journal's web page. And I found their home page and was appalled by most of the content. Look at the current issue but don't read it if you've just eaten. But his article was interesting. He lives in England and I think it's a quite different situation over there, academywise.

So in his letter he asks how literary study got itself into such a bad state. I don't know if he wants me to actually write him back and tell him. So I won't. But I will make a small beginning here. Bertrand Russell told this story about giving a talk to some people who were interested in philosophy but were not professional philsophers. I guess you could call them "ludic philosophers" heheh. It was on cosmology. And this one woman at the end said that there was a theory somewhere that the Universe was sitting on the back of a big turtle. Russell said something polite and then said the theory didn't work because what was the turtle sitting on. "It's turtles all the way down!" said the woman. I can't remember which of his books it's in. I can't read Russell's writing any more, haven't been able to for years. It just seems wrong that a person who can write such perfect English prose should be so silly.

Anyway the City Journal is apparently celebrating the faltering of the academic left. To them I simply say, it's not about the left: "It's appallingness all the way down!" It has nothing to do with their politics. It has to do with their boringness which is the anterior cause of their politics, of probably everybody's politics come to think of it. It wasn't the politics of the whole class of people that Marvin called "small rodents" that irritated me -- it was their unreflecting flatheaded heartlessness and ignorance. You can take that and go left or right and it doesn't make any difference, except at election time. It doesn't make any difference as far as literature is concerned. If you're a bore literature has nothing to say to you. Right or left. And people who imagine that the issue is academic politics (right or left) can be fairly counted on not to have one useful word to say about literature. So let them all get drowned together, is my feeling about it.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Supreme Fiction

I remember the last time I had dinner with Marvin, at Max and Elaine's house. He was writing a review of a book on Schubert, and in the course of his research (his technique for writing a review of a book on an author was to read every single word by that author -- for a start -- taking detailed notes. The entire project would be done in three months. He just did it.

Anyhow, at the dinner he told this story, which he told on a few other occasions because he loved it so much. You can look it up in old Hudson Reviews for 1985 maybe 1984 and you will find it told much better there by him than it will be told by me. It wa the basis for his theory of the "anti-genius" -- that the way you could identify a genious was from the howl of horror that went up from the anti-genius whenever it encountered genius.

So Schubert had finished his song Die Erlkoenig (scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page to the Lieder section), which you should really listen to because it is so spooky and wild and sudden and pitiless and true, all at the same time. It is just a little song, really short and now merely considered one of the greatest examples of lieder of all time, from the guy who wrote most of the great lieder of all time. He sent it off to this music publisher, who read it and being merely a mediocrity, took no interest in it.

Well, incredible as it may seem, there was another Franz Schubert in Germany at the time, a music critic and composer, and to our knowledge he is only remembered for the fact that the publisher accidentally sent him our Franz Schubert's manuscript for the Erlkoenig. The anti-Franz, as I like to call him, was a made man, a big respected figure in the music business and when he received the manuscript, with what appeared to his name attached to it, he sent off a letter full of vituperation, in the highest style of offended academic dignity (see letters to the NYRB) that is his only immortal work.

Marvin told Al Stephens and a bunch of us this story over at Max and Elaine's one night not long before he died. I never saw Al, who had always seemed so extremely reserved, laugh so hard. When he got his breath he pointed to the ceiling and said, "There is a god! There is a god!"

And I will confess that this is the sort of person I speak to when I address the Supreme Fiction. I am that low, yes.

I did not ask myself "Why does God allow these things to happen?" when the tsunami occurred. I am more the sort of person who wonders why they haven't happened more often. (Wondering why they haven't happened more often is not the same as wishing that they would, you know.)

I think I am really lucky to have been born into a time when the earth was not a great ball of boiling lava and boiling all sorts of things where only bacteria that liked to be boiled stayed alive. It would have been unpleasant. Or on another planet, let's say, where it's freezing cold and constant winds blow dust all over the surface. Cold and dusty places remind me of New York in winter. I imagine that if you emptied all the people out of New York, leveled all the buildings as far as the eye could see, no trees, no river, no ocean, no nothing but just the cold and the dust and the wind blowing it into chinks in your outer layers and that lonely feeling you can get in some neighborhoods, it would be like one of those planets.

Did you ever read those space exploration books, about the different layers of earth's atmosphere and how at certain distances blood would boil just from the low pressure? I remember reading some such fact, seems to me that the book included a beaker of boiling blood to make the point, and at the time I distinctly remember feeling that it was a good thing I wasn't up there in that thin air right now.

I don't know why I should have taken every single scary fact in the universe so personally. After frightening myself reading about the giant prehistoric sharks that were as big as semi trucks it was an enormous comfort to know that they had all been dead for millions of years. Good and dead. Of course if they were still alive now I'd be all for protecting them and would feel, as I do with most of the animal kingdom, that they are entitled to as much of us as they can get. But I would not go in the water. I probably would not go on the beach.

Come to think of it, I don't go on the beach now either. I mean these Northern California life-threatening beaches. They are beautiful but they seem to be sending the message, "Do not get out of your car."

Being is good. You put the thought like that and it sounds so stupid. But it isn't stupid when you get all your attention and your judgment and feeling lined up right and you are actually conscious for a few minutes. But that said, you have to say that being is not personally good to you. Or not in the way that you personally expect. So these people who thank god for helping them win a football game or for giving them their precious triplets Brittany, Chelsea and Connecticut after a year of fertility treatments, they just seem like cretins to me. I don't see any basis for thinking yourself entitled in that way, it is nothing but a brainfart of a vulgar mind. But this obese sense of entitlement persists.

There is a god, I think these days, because otherwise we'd have to invent Muriel Gray. If we'd invented her -- we humans I mean -- we would have done as crap a job of it as we have with inventing God.