gall and gumption

Friday, February 09, 2007


In my last post but one I promised there would be a sort of punchline later. Well, you'll get it in this post, yes. I wrote this rather long and impassioned defence of Marvin Mudrick against some critics who had been rather dismissive of his criticisms of Shakespeare.

In what I wrote there I was pretty much concentrated on a couple of things that had nothing to do with the merit or lack of merit in Mudrick's argument about Shakespeare. They tried to suggest a standard, and some considerations that should enter the setting of a standard, for fair play in judging the unpopular opinions of a writer who you otherwise trust. I only wanted to look at it in the light of those considerations in that post.

That is, I think they should be persuasive on their own before you even begin to judge.

I didn't introduce a discussion of the merits of Mudrick's arguments against Shakespeare.

I didn't introduce any of the context for Mudrick's style and critical methods.

I made this choice deilberately. There are two other things I didn't do. I didn't mention that for seven intense years Marvin Mudrick was my teacher, my mentor, my friend, confidante, example, and hero. The people for whom I began writing this blog were also students of Marvin Mudrick, not all of them, but a few of the ones who were closest to him in the later part of his life. We all loved him. If this has any bearing on my defense of what he says, if it compromises me in relation to him in some way, I'd be very interested to know. I don't happen to think so myself, but of course that is not my judgment alone to make.

Last of all, I didn't get to what is to me the most important thing. I'll agree with paul k that these longer excerpts do more justice to Marvin than the short clips, and I apologize to him for thinking that he thought the short bits were the whole story. Having watched him for a while over at the other place I should know better. But there's something these writers didn't get, and to be fair to them I didn't get it either until after Marvin died. That is, when his last book came out I also was struck by the emotional intensity of it, and, like a lot of students, I was bewildered by the preface, particularly by this passage:

I write about the people in this book from the angle (with the bias) of certain at least theoretical choices of my own: either over neither, both over either/or, live-and-let-live over stand-or-die, high spirits over low, energy over apathy, wit over dullness, jokes over homilies, good humor over jokes, good nature over bad, feeling over sentiment, truth over poetry, consciousness over explanations, tragedy over pathos, comedy over tragedy, entertainment over art, private over public, generosity over meanness, charity over murder, love over charity, irreplaceable over interchangeable, divergence over concurrence, principle over interes, people over principle.

It was 1981, the year I graduated from the College of Creative Studies which Marvin founded and presided over as Provost until about a year before he died. Coming to California on the tail end of the 1970s, I entered a culture in which it was sort of unfashionable to make positive abstract value affirmations. It was so -- sixties. We would all be very cool and ironic in the next year or two. And here was Marvin laying down his weapons to make this strange statement.

The content of the statement was not strange to us; we had sat in his classes and talked about these things in the context of the whole range of literary subjects that interested him. It was the form of the thing that was baffling. Why wasn't he just swinging the axe and being a fun guy?

As I said, it wasn't till after he died. At a special meeting of the College, Alan Stephens, the other great pillar of Creative Studies literature, read that statement and said that it was Marvin's summary of an ethical approach to literature, a hierarchy of moral values that he had worked out of his experience of reading and life.

I would now summarize the summary this way. Marvin believed that the highest joy of life was the love of the good, and he had come up with a really rich view of the good. All his work, these disparate pieces, were tending to this statement. It wasn't the last word, it was a pause, to sort of say, OK, here's how far I have come. And the articles in the book were really, put all together, an inquiry and an exploration into values, and a justification of his theory of the good, of his hierarchy of values. This is what he had been doing all his intellectual life. And in 1981 he was just getting warmed up. "Energy is eternal delight," said William Blake, but if you don't recognize it for what it is it makes you nervous.
The exuberance that so grated on his critics was an urgency of feeling about the richness of this idea as he experienced it, and an impatience with all the phony or less satisfactory notions of the good that just got in the way. Yeah, there are people who laugh at their own jokes because they're nervous and don't know how to be cool. Marvin laughed at his own jokes because he was jubilant, full of high spirits, of energy, of rejoicing in goodness and beauty, in what was out there. It's all in those pieces, spelled out, it wasn't like he had it somewhere but didn't manage to get it in writing.

If you assume that his main function as a critic was to be a sort of hatchet man, then you can see that it would be perfectly reasonable to think that the hatchet man should not step out of his place and embarrass everybody. But he certainly didn't think of himself as merely a hatchet man, and it irritated him that people thought so. Because as I say he was very much in pursuit of something. He was a very good at whacking away at pretentiousness and shallowness and phoniness, but he didn't attack crap because it was crap; he attacked crap because it got in the way of something that was worth seeing, that was superior. It wasn't his philosophy or theory of literature he was pushing in Nobody Here But Us Chickens; it was the things that that theory enabled him to see. He was excited about them, and exasperated when he encountered confusion between these goods and what he would consider lesser goods. I don't think a lot of people got this about him, for whatever reasons.


At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The exuberance that so grated on his critics was an urgency of feeling about the richness of this idea as he experienced it. . .

Mudrick was obviously one of those rare teachers---someone who could not simply talk about but actually show this kind of “richness” in an academic setting. This is a rarer gift that most people realize. I have read that Kenneth Burke had it, bad boy Leslie (“I long for the raised voice, the howl of rage or love”) Fiedler had it, and several teachers that I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life have had it.

But as often as not, they and their kind tended to run afoul of what Richard Poirier called the “death-dealing rites of Anglophilic gentility” that used to prevail in academia, where Talleyrand’s cautionary dictum---“Above all, not too much zeal”---governed most discussions of literature. Lionel Trilling embodied that mandarin ideal. (Harold Rosenberg, whom Mudrick admired, wrote that when he met the oh-so-ruh-feened Trilling, he tried to figure out what the joke was until he realized that there was no joke---or if there was, Trilling wasn’t in on it.)

Now the sherry-sipping shamsters have been largely supplanted by hipper-than-thou trendoids whoring after the Zeitgeist. As a result, instead of the Kabuki-rigid explications de texts of yore, today’s students have to suffer through the ossified pomo/New Historicist fetishisms about epistemes and taxonomies of discourse or whatever, exemplified by Fiedler’s complaint: “This [English] department has gone the [deconstructionist] way-not that all colleges have gone, but they don’t talk any human language. They talk Derrida-style, Lacan or Foucault.”

Camille Paglia, whose career has suffered because she spurned the new-style academic orthodoxy, agrees: “What I’m trying to do in my work is to open up the reader to the artwork. I want the artwork to retain its mystery. These are really my aims. I have a really 60’s feeling for the magic of art, a magic [that is] hair-raising. . . I feel that post-structuralism has deadened not only the students, but the professors themselves, to literature. There’s been over 30 years of it now. . . It’s just a bunch of gobbledygook, all reflecting each other.”

This kind of deadening is one of the hazards of the professionalization of literary studies: the loss of an actual human being (as opposed to time-serving functionary) in all of her or his rude, unpredictable, and living fullness. So, yeah, I guess what I’m saying is you’re right: if good teachers can communicate the kind of vital engagement (not just with “texts” but with life itself) that you spoke about, then let them laugh at their own jokes. It’s a small price to pay, and the laughter may even prove infectious---in these grim times, not a bad trade-off.

At 10:19 PM, Blogger Duncan Mitchel said...

Hello, Kia. I happened on this blog while searching for Mudrick's essay on Jesus from Nobody Here But Us Chickens, saw your name, and recognized you from Roy's blog.

I'm a longtime reader of Mudrick, maybe a fan, have read all his books except Transcribed, and I envy your having been his student. So I'm very interested in what you have to say about him. For better or worse, he had a big influence on my approach to reading and writing, including book reviewing. (But I'd add Gore Vidal to your list of great book reviewers, in this or another post.)

The attacks on Mudrick you discuss remind me of attacks I see on Noam Chomsky, which say that he used to be all right, but because he's been so shut out of the mainstream, he's become like totally bitter. It's much easier to say such things than to address his (Chomsky's or Mudrick's) arguments, as you suggest. Anyway, I usually enjoy reading your comments at alicublog, and was pleased to see the Mudrick connection.

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