Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bibliography and book blogging

Andrew Seal has returned to the fight. This time he dislikes my introductory list of fifty-some titles on the history and theory of the novel. It seems that I “threw” my list at poor Mark Thwaite, who’d confided that he had been “thinking more and more about the history of the novel,” and asked explicitly: “What should be on my reading list, then?”

Seal is not impressed. I just can’t draw up a list to satisfy him! At least this time around he didn’t complain that there are more Frederick Karl books (3) on it than books by men of color. This time my list is “too cumbersome to be of much use except maybe for someone preparing for orals in grad school.” I regret to inform him that an orals list would have to be several times longer—for anyone who expected to learn the impervious facts so well he could dispense with them. If a fifty-title list is too “cumbersome,” may I suggest a less physically taxing line of work? But then Seal turns on his heel and offers, as an alternative to mine, the UCLA English department’s reading list on the novel, which contains forty-six titles in criticism. I would be tempted to conclude that Seal is hopelessly muddled if it weren’t obvious that almost his entire purpose is to take shots at me, no matter how weirdly aimed.

The rest of his criticisms can safely be ignored, then. Where he does not contradict himself (my list is both “cumbersome” and “redundant,” although the duplication might seem to lighten the load), he blames me for not providing something different from what was asked. “[I]nstead of bald lists which give the reader lots of options which she must sort out,” he scolds, “an actual attempt to create something which will help a reader understand how to go about ordering a set of names or titles, how to turn a reading list into knowledge.” Thwaite asked for a reading list; I replied with a reading list. My bad.

Things get comical, though, when Seal tries to provide some “context” for studying the English novel, which had been so sorely lacking in my list. You should first, you see, strike off down a “formalist path which would track the development and diffusion of novelistic forms. . . .” But there is also another path, and you should not be sorry that you cannot travel both. You can! Read “a lot of Marxists”! On the first path you “you would be reading things like D. A. Miller and Nancy Armstrong and Franco Moretti, Bakhtin, some narratologists like Todorov and Peter Brooks.” On the second: Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, György Lukács, Lucien Goldmann, Cathy Davidson, Homi K. Bhabha, Edward Said, Robert Stepto, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. The latter “things,” as I guess Seal would call them, “focus on the communities that create/receive these [novelistic] forms.”

An entire context for studying the novel. In just one paragraph and fifteen names. And nearly all from the last ten minutes of the history of criticism. (Bakhtin was first translated into English in 1968.) Only two concepts you need to get straight too—form and community. True, he’s tossed a Russian together with a Hungarian, an Italian, an Indian, and a Romanian-born French theorist, but he’s got his African Americans, a counterfeit Palestinian, and at least two women. If coherence is not his long suit, or even a concern, Seal at least holds out something lightweight and frothy, whatever is the opposite of cumbersome. You have to admire how easily he can dispense with those impervious facts about the novel!

I don’t mind overmuch that Seal thinks that my reading list on the novel, “not very concerned about context or redundancy or even error or irrelevance,” is indicative of everything that is wrong with most “lit-blogs.” He doesn’t like me or my Commonplace Blog. I get it. I really do. I will lose sleep tonight, but I will recover. I do wish he understood that bibliography is indispensable to literary knowledge; that I am not alone in thinking so; and that, unlike context, a book list can, to use Derrida’s term for it, be “saturated.” When he arrogates to himself, though, the role of deciding what book blogs ought or ought not to do (“Instead of just aggregating choice, we can aggregate real knowledge,” whatever that means), I can only giggle. All such attempts to dictate from above, especially by someone with such slim qualifications for the role, are doomed to pathetic failure. I’ll keep doing what I have been doing, even if Andrew Seal keeps disliking it.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Terrorism by other means

A particularly grime-caked corner of the academic left, whose bias Marc Bousquet snickers is a “problem” that has been “manufactured,” has called for a cultural and scholarly boycott of Israel. Its spokesman, unsurprisingly, is an English professor by the name of David Lloyd. “The initiative was in the first place impelled by Israel’s latest brutal assault on Gaza,” Lloyd says, “and by our determination to say enough is enough.”

Congratulating themselves upon being “educators of conscience,” the organizers of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel argue that they are justified in calling for an academic boycott, because Israel is engaging in “scholasticide.” (The Double-Tongued Dictionary traces the concoction to an article earlier this month in the Guardian.) Lloyd and his collaborators explain:

Since December 27, Israel has deliberately bombed the Islamic University of Gaza, the Ministry of Education, the American International School, at least ten UNRWA schools, one of which was sheltering displaced Palestinian civilians, and tens of other schools and educational facilities.The fact that even Reuters, no friend to Israel, calls the Islamic University a “significant Hamas cultural symbol,” or that, during the three-week war in Gaza alone, Hamas rockets hit nine educational facilities in Israel, including high schools, kindergartens, and elementary schools, goes entirely unremarked by the boycotters. Because Israel is killing scholarship in Gaza (who knew that it existed?), they naturally seek to interfere with Israeli scholars’ efforts to do their work. Specifically, they call upon American scholars to freeze out Israelis who “do not vocally oppose Israeli state policies against Palestine,” and advocate a “comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions . . . including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions.”

Although consumer boycotts are increasingly common in America—economic researchers have found that they quadrupled in the period from the mid-1980’s to mid-1990’s—an academic boycott is a relatively new and untried thing. Two and a half years ago, a British boycott of Israeli scholars and universities lasted all of three weeks. It is, however, a familiar class weapon, or pastime. Most participants in consumer boycotts are high-income college graduates. The Scholars for Peace in the Middle East have started a petition drive to oppose and denounce the boycott, observing that “singling out Israeli academics and institutions for boycott is discriminatory. No other nation’s academics or institutions are being subjected to such action, whether or not their governments are in a state of war.”

While this is true, it misses the target. Victor Davis Hanson points out that those, like the academic boycotters, who complain about the deaths of many Palestinian Arabs at Israeli hands were strangely silent when “Russians blew apart 40,000 plus Muslims from the center of Grozny.” But though it will never happen, they could break their silence. They could protest what Hanson calls the Turkish Muslim occupation of Cyprus now in its fourth decade just as loudly as they protest that the “unilateral ceasefire declared by Israel . . . inaugurates a new phase of occupation of Gaza.” It is theoretically possible, even if it is completely implausible. The real problem is not that Israel is singled out, but that the academic boycott of Israel is one more turn of the screw in the abuse and corruption of American scholarship. The boycott is a nakedly political act, devised to influence Israeli policy, by using scholarly exchange as a coercive force.

In addition to its spokesman David Lloyd, the boycott’s organizing committee includes: Mohammed Abed, a philosopher at Cal State Los Angeles; Rabab Abdulhadi, an ethnic studies professor at San Francisco State; Lara Deeb, a women’s studies professor at Irvine and open advocate on behalf of Hezbollah; Manzar Foorohar, a historian at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Jess Ghannam, a psychiatrist at the University of California’s medical college in San Francisco and a longtime PLO flack who is president of the local chapter of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee; Sherna Berger Gluck, a women’s studies professor at Cal State Long Beach and author of An American Feminist in Palestine; Sondra Hale, an anthropologist at UCLA; David Klein, a mathematician at Cal State Northridge; Dennis Kortheuer, a professor of education at Cal State Long Beach; Sunaina Maira, an Asian American studies professor at Davis; Marcy Newman, an English professor at An Najah National University in Nablus; Edie Pistolesi, a professor of art education at Cal State Northridge who gave her students the assignment of contributing to an anti-war display; and Magid Shihade, a visiting professor of Middle Eastern studies at Davis who also participates in something called resistance studies.

Lloyd himself is a self-identified Marxist (“the failure of the emancipatory promise of Marxism . . . does not necessarily entail the judgement that [its] analytical and theoretical insights have nothing more of value to tell us”) who teaches at the University of Southern California. The group was wise to choose someone with a fine Welsh name to speak for it, since the last thing it wants is to be understood as merely an American propaganda arm of the Arab boycott.

That’s what it is, however. The Arab League organized its boycott of Palestinian Jews in 1946 when it established a Permanent Boycott Committee and declared: “Products of Palestinian Jews are to be considered undesirable in Arab countries. They should be prohibited and refused as long as their production in Palestine might lead to the realization of Zionist political aims.” The academic boycott seeks what Hamas calls for in its charter and has failed to achieve so far—the destruction of the Jewish State. Thus it is terrorism by other means.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

History and theory of the novel

Mark Thwaite has been thinking about the history of the novel, and asks what should be on his reading list. Here is an introductory (not a comprehensive) list of fifty some titles.

• Allen, Walter. The English Novel: A Short Critical History. London: Phoenix House, 1954.
• Allott, Miriam, ed. Novelists on the Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.
• Bell, Michael Davitt. The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
• Bewley, Marius. The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.
• Bissell, Frederick O., Jr. Fielding’s Theory of the Novel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1933.
• Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
• Bridgman, Richard. The Colloquial Style in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
• Brown, Herbert R. The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789–1860. Durham, N.Car.: Duke University Press, 1940.
• Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
• Cecil, Lord David. Early Victorian Novelists: Essays in Revaluation. London: Constable, 1934.
• Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. New York: Doubleday, 1957.
• Cross, Wilbur L. The Development of the English Novel. New York: Macmillan, 1933.
• Davis, Lennard J. Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
• Day, Geoffrey. From Fiction to the Novel. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.
• Dillard, Annie. Living by Fiction. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
• Dryden, Edgar A. The Form of American Romance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
• Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion, 1960.
• Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927.
• Halperin, John, ed. The Theory of the Novel: New Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
• James, Henry. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. Ed. R. P. Blackmur. New York: Scribner’s, 1934.
• ———. Theory of Fiction. Ed. James E. Miller. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972.
• Jefferson, Ann. The Nouveau Roman and the Poetics of Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
• Karl, Frederick R. The Adversary Literature: The English Novel in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1974.
• ———. An Age of Fiction: The Nineteenth-Century British Novel. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1964.
• ———. American Fictions, 1940–1980: A Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
• Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942.
• Kermode, Frank. The Art of Telling: Essays on Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.
• Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition. London: Chatto & Windus, 1948.
• Leavis, Q. D. Fiction and the Reading Public. London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.
• Liddell, Robert. On the Novel. Ed. Wayne C. Booth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
• Lodge, David. Language of Fiction: Essays in Criticism and Verbal Analysis of the English Novel. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.
• Martin, H. C. Style in Prose Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.
• Maxwell, D. E. S. American Fiction: The Intellectual Background. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
• McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
• Minter, David L. A Cultural History of the American Novel: Henry James to William Faulkner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
• Mizener, Arthur. The Sense of Life in the Modern Novel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.
• Muir, Edwin. The Structure of the Novel. London: Woolf, 1928.
• Perosa, Sergio. American Theories of the Novel, 1793–1903. New York: New York University Press, 1983.
• Phelan, James. Worlds from Words: A Theory of Language in Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
• Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966.
• Roberts, Thomas J. When Is Something Fiction? Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.
• Sacks, Sheldon. Fiction and the Shape of Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
• Seidel, Michael. Exile and the Narrative Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
• Smith, Henry Nash. Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
• Stang, Richard. The Theory of the Novel in England, 1850–1870. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.
• Tuttleton, James W. The Novel of Manners in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.
• Van Doren, Carl. The American Novel, 1789–1939. Rev.ed. New York: Macmillan, 1940.
• Van Ghent, Dorothy. The English Novel: Form and Function. New York: Rinehart, 1953.
• Vernon, John. Money and Fiction: Literary Realism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.
• Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.
• Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2008.

Reconsidering Updike

Many stirring and provocative reactions to John Updike’s death yesterday at seventy-six. The best, of course, belongs to Patrick Kurp, who adopts a wise autobiographical strategy, laying out the course of his Updike reading. Kurp finally prefers Updike as a critic, describing him as an “indefatigable teacher.” He quotes from essays on Nabokov, Henry Green, Daniel Fuchs, and William Maxwell. One of my favorite passages is when Updike opens an essay on two avant-garde satirists by commenting on the way their books are printed:

Sans-serif type belongs to one of those futures that never occurred. Elegantly simple, jauntily functional, it was everything the Bauhaus thought modernity should be, yet except in posters and telephone books it never really caught on. As with so many oddities a revolution would sweep away, serifs exist for a purpose: they help the eye pick up the shape of the letter. Piquant in little amounts, sans-serif in page-size sheets repels readership as wax paper repels water; it has a sleazy, cloudy look.Updike could not have foreseen another revolution, which swept sans serif back in as the primary typeface of the internet. How many critics, though, would open a review with such a passage? Updike was that old-fashioned creature—a bookman.

Others are equally sober and on point, and not merely because the news of death chastens a prose style. Levi Asher turns out to be an unexpected Updike fan. After a young man’s easy contempt, viewing him as the “smirking epitome of the American literary establishment” and “claim[ing] to dislike him”—such honesty is rare in any critic—Asher came to realize that Updike was among his “very favorite living writers.” He calls Couples the masterpiece, but also singles out for praise Too Far To Go, Marry Me, Gertrude and Claudius, “and his great volumes of generous, gorgeously composed literary criticism.”

The number of critics who expressed reservations about him on the occasion of Updike’s death is striking. Clark DeLeon found him too “suburban,” picturing him as Rob Petrie living in New Rochelle, working at the New Yorker, and “instead of tripping over the ottoman on his way in the door, stumbled into bed with a neighbor’s wife.” Terry Teachout never succeeded in liking Updike’s writing, but friends whose taste he trusted kept telling him he was wrong. In the end he abandoned the effort to correct his own taste, deciding that “Updike was one of those undeniably important artists, like Wagner or Dreiser, to whose virtues [he] would always be deaf.”

Was Updike an undeniably important artist? As Kurp says, he had a “Jamesian fecundity.” (I am reminded of the old joke about Jacob Neusner, who at last count had written or edited over nine hundred and fifty books. A friend calls Neusner on the phone. His wife answers. “Can you hold on a minute?” she asks. “Jake is finishing a book.”) Such fecundity mars a living (or recently dead) writer’s reputation, making it difficult to sort good from mediocre, leading to the temptation, as Teachout found himself doing when it came time to prune back his library, of discarding everything. The shoulder-to-shoulder phalanx of books, published from the beginning by Alfred A. Knopf in a uniform edition, has a sleazy, cloudy look. Perhaps, though, what J. V. Cunningham said of Edwin Arlington Robinson is equally true of Updike: “Though he wrote too much, he wrote much that was distinctive and good, and even in the dull wastes there are fragments.”

Last night, determined to give Updike another try, I picked up a novel that I recalled enjoying when it was first published—The Coup. It was Updike’s attempt to do postcolonial Africa, to be named with Naipaul. I made it as far as a passage that I had scored back in 1978, scribbling in the margin: “This is the kind of thing Updike doesn’t do enough of. His usual shimmering effects are no longer than a phrase, sometimes no more than a word.” The dictator of Kush, Hakim Félix Ellelloû, is reflecting back on the Soviet military advisers who have been posted to his country for the past two years. An analogy occurs to him which is “clarifying”:[W]ith their taut pallor, bristling hair devoid of a trace of a curl, oval eyes, short limbs, and tightly packed bodies whose muscular energy seemed drawn into a knot at the back of their necks, these Russians reminded me of nothing so much as the reckless, distasteful packs of wild swine that when I was a child would come north from the bogs by the river to despoil the vegetable plantings of our village. They had a bristling power and toughness, to be sure, but lacked both the weighty magic of the lion and the hippo and the weightless magic of the gazelle and the shrike, so that the slaughter of one with spears and stones, as he squealed and dodged—the boars were not easy to kill—took place in an incongruous hubbub of laughter. Even in death their eyes kept that rheumy glint whereby the hunted betray the pressures under which they live.Upon rereading it, I could no longer understand what had first impressed me about the passage. I realized that I would have to leave the reconsideration of Updike to others, or to the “test of time.” I rolled over, put out the light, and went to sleep.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In memoriam: Douglas A. Brooks

Douglas A. Brooks, associate professor of English at Texas A&M University, editor of the Shakespeare Yearbook, and author of From Playhouse to Printing House: Drama and Authorship in Early Modern England, described by one of his students as “Best professor on the planet,” died this afternoon of the lung cancer that he had battled for eight months. He was fifty-two, and a fairly new father (his son Judah was born in December 2005). He can never be replaced.

Update. The official university obituary:

Douglas A. Brooks, 52, associate professor of English at Texas A&M University, died on Tuesday afternoon (Jan. 27). He was in treatment for cancer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and was hospitalized at the time of his death.

The Department of English is planning a local memorial for Dr. Brooks, tentatively on Friday, Feb. 20.

Dr. Brooks came to Texas A&M in September 1997 [from Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D.], and had been an English faculty member for 11 years. [Before earning his Ph.D., he had been a rabbinical student at Jewish Theological Seminary. Brooks was the grandson of the Yiddish writer Abraham Buchshteyn.] His area of concentration is early modern literature in English with focuses on drama, book history, and gender studies. A popular and engaging teacher, Dr. Brooks’s passion for the classroom had been recognized with two university teaching awards. He coordinated the Liberal Arts Honors Program for several years. In addition, Dr. Brooks spent countless hours mentoring students at Texas A&M.

A respected scholar, Dr. Brooks served as editor of the Shakespeare Yearbook, an international journal of Shakespeare scholarship. He had edited four books, authored 10 journal articles and 10 book chapters. He was working on a new manuscript at the time of his passing.

Dr. Brooks especially loved Shakespeare, and took great strides to introduce students to the English author. He was selected to deliver the very first Freshman Academic Convocation at Texas A&M in August 2003. The title of his presentation was “A Tale of Two Shakespeares.” He served as faculty advisor for the Texas A&M Shakespeare Festival during his 11 years at the university.

In an email to English majors, Dr. Jimmie Killingsworth, professor of English and head of the department said: “Like you, I was honored to know Douglas Brooks, to spend time in the glow of his brilliance, to hear his zany laugh, and have him as a close friend and colleague. We will all miss him.”

Update, II: M. Jimmie Killingsworth, head of the English department at Texas A&M University, has distributed a notice, asking anyone who wishes to write a note of condolence to address it to Douglas’s son, Judah Rosner, in care of him [killingsworth at tamu dot edu]. The notes will be gathered together and preserved with other memorabilia until Judah is old enough to read them for himself.

Updike dead at 76

The novelist and critic John Updike has died at seventy-six of lung cancer in a hospice outside Boston.

I have never been an Updike fan, and have criticized him repeatedly on this Commonplace Blog. See here and here and here and here. He stood for a conception of literature, an approach to both the novel and criticism, that has exercised a corrupting influence. More perhaps than anyone since the Second World War, Updike championed a highly “literary” fiction, precious, breathy, self-congratulatorily “beautiful,” that was largely an effort to dress up and give a good name to the novel of moral uplift. He was E. D. E. N. Southworth or Susan Warner with a fancy prose style. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times obituary writer, quotes James Wood’s opinion: “He is a prose writer of great beauty, but that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey.” But I am unwilling to grant Wood’s premise.

Here is the famous scene at the beginning of Rabbit, Run in which the former high-school basketball star, now twenty-six, joins a boys’ pickup game. He is watching from the sidelines when the ball clanks off the rim and lands at his feet.

He catches it on the short bounce with a quickness that startles them. As they stare hushed he sights squinting through blue clouds of weed smoke, a suddenly dark silhouette like a smokestack against the afternoon spring sky, setting his feet with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest, one widespread white hand on top of the ball and the other underneath, jiggling it patiently to get some adjustment in air itself. The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulders as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper. “Hey!” he shouts in pride.If he is a dark silhouette how is it possible to see his big cuticles? The sentences are unrelated to each other, entirely self-involved. What is “air itself”? Or perhaps more to the point, when would air not be itself? When he shoots the ball, from an angle, Rabbit is its agent—he is the shooter—but when the ball is in the air, it becomes the passive object of an unseen force (“It was not aimed there”). In the next sentence, though, the ball transforms itself into a subject, and it drops. Three it’s in a row—each with a different grammatical function, making a muddle.

And this doesn’t even glance at the creep of the passage. Reading it, you say under your breath, “Shoot the damn thing already.” You expect one of the boys to dart over and swat the ball out of Rabbit’s hands. (Rabbit? He makes Shaquille O’Neal seem quick.)

But I ought to speak with respect of the dead. Updike was a helpful and sometimes even penetrating critic, given the limitations of his own conception of literature. His best novel, for my money, remains Rabbit Redux (1971). Updike had the unique ability to write with understanding about those of a different and lower social class. He may have written too much, but the fact that he kept writing suggests that he did not look upon perfection of the work as the writer’s purpose. His purpose was simply to live with words—with thoughts turned into words, as he somewhat imprecisely put it. Even if his own writing did not appeal to you, you had to wish for more such men with such an unshakable commitment to literature.

Yitgadal v'yitkadash. . . .

Monday, January 26, 2009

The only permitted kind

Texas A&M University has formed a committee to explore institutional procedures “to foster greater respect on campus and to strengthen a culture that encourages civil dialogue.” Who can possibly hold out against civil dialogue? You might worry a little about the narrowing of civility’s meaning to R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You might be haunted by the loss of an older meaning, where civility denoted, not a relationship founded upon deferential regard or esteem, but a common observance of common decencies, including common mistakes. You might even think that the best procedure for encouraging civil dialogue would be to foster a respect, not for persons, but for the fallacy of the argumentum ad personem.

You would be wrong, of course. The dean of liberal arts explains:

The overarching purpose for the Advisory Committee on Civil Dialogue is to foster the ability of Texas A&M University faculty, staff, and students to engage difference in today’s multicultural globalized society through civil dialogue. By “difference” we mean any distinction that people draw between themselves and others as reflected in their values, beliefs, and attitudes that is informed by ideology, religion, cultural heritage, race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. By “civil dialogue” we mean a form of communication that allows people to express vigorously their opinions and points of view, but in a way that contributes to rigorous and constructive deliberation on significant issues and empowers personal and professional relationships. The ability to engage difference productively, particularly those differences we find difficult and challenging, is crucial for sustaining democratic practice within society, generating collaboration among people and institutions, and creating innovation in business, governmental, nonprofit, and community enterprises.Again, you were wrong to suppose that in dialogue you engage, not “difference,” but disagreement. As you ought to have understood long before now, the most important human question at present is how people draw distinctions between themselves and others—how they demand to be respected, or at least not to be offended.

I need to distinguish myself from you in order to be personally “empowered.” That distinction might reside, not in me, but in what I have done or made—not a chance. So much for the older concept of dialogue in which I surrendered to a common pursuit of truth; and if I were personally disempowered by being proved mistaken, all to the good. What was encouraged was the common pursuit, not personal empowerment. Our relationship, yours and mine, was substantive. We may have pursued different conclusions, but we pursued them to the same end—the end of truth. To borrow from C. S. Lewis, we were not lovers, who gaze into each other’s eyes, but friends who turn and look off in the same direction.

For some time now, the university—not just in College Station—has been transforming itself from an institution that is distinguished by substantive relationships (a common allegiance to truth) into a social institution where a respect for persons, overbalancing into an obsession with personal difference, is the dominant note. In such an institution, the pressure to avoid substantive disagreements, to treat a difference of opinion as just another distinction that people draw between themselves and others, can be overwhelming. But since civility can decline into a merely formal relationship, a polite lack of interest, the countervailing pressure builds up to consider “difference” itself as substantive. We become absorbed in each other’s race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Albeit with respect rather than love, we gaze unprotestingly into each other’s eyes.

The last time I advanced this claim, I was accused of pushing aside history and yearning for a Golden Age that never existed. But I am talking about the idea of the university. I am holding out for civil dialogue, not as a social practice by which various members of a community are affirmed in their distinctiveness, but as an ideal by which the university is distinguished from other human institutions. Under such an ideal, arguments from personal difference are axiomatically false. In the new social university, where personal differences are elevated to the status of non-negotiable demands, argumentum ad personem may be the only permitted kind.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

More recommendations

The National Book Critics’ Circle has announced its five finalists for the best work of fiction published last year. They are:

• Roberto Bolaño, 2666
• Marilynne Robinson, Home
• Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project
• M. Glenn Taylor, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart
• Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge

If Bolaño does not win the award, I will never make another literary-award prediction. In the mean time, here are a few more recommendations from around the web.

Jane Urquhart, whose own novel The Underpainter would qualify, opens a new series in the Globe and Mail dedicated to “books that have been unjustly overlooked, under-praised or just ignored.” Her choice is Penelope Fitzgerald’s Blue Flower. A “sensual feast,” she calls it, set in the “physical and intellectual world of 18th-century Germany.”

Peter Stothard, who is owed a hat tip for the above, offers his own suggestions, starting with David Storey’s Flight into Camden. Stothard calls it “magnificent,” although he is not sure he wants to reread it.

Critic and Brooklyn College professor Jonathan Baumbach says that if he had to choose a single book to recommend by Robert Coover it would be “the playful, mock-pornographic” Spanking the Maid.

After admitting that he was underwhelmed with the “self-consuming scrutiny” of John Haskell’s Out of My Skin, Mark Sarvas is offering a giveaway copy of The Siege, an early book by the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare.

Patrick Kurp is taken with Chekhov: Scenes from a Life, in which Rosamund Bartlett “looks at the writer through the lens of geography.” Reading about Chekhov’s childhood on the steppes, Kurp is reminded of “Willa Cather’s Nebraska novels [O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and A Lost Lady], Conrad Richter’s The Sea of Grass and of Melville’s little-known “John Marr”—thereby offering five more recommendations.

John Foley, a teacher at Ridgefield High School in Washington, wants Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird dropped from the English curriculum. Don’t misunderstand him. He loves the novels; they are “American classics.” But in the age of Obama, “novels that use the ‘N-word’ repeatedly need to go.” Foley nominates David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove as replacements. Now I am beginning to understand my students’ woeful lack of literary preparation for college-level work.

The Wife of Martin Guerre

The incredible odyssey of Martin Guerre, as an early French version of the story called it, has proved endlessly alluring. It served as the basis of two films, Daniel Vigne’s Retour de Martin Guerre (1983) and Jon Amiel’s Sommersby a decade later, and a musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil in 1996. The Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis wrote a detailed account, under a translation of Vigne’s title (she was credited as the film’s historical adviser), which was published the same year as a kind of appendix.

Publicly at least no one connected with any of these projects singled out Janet Lewis’s novel The Wife of Martin Guerre (San Francisco: Colt Press, 1941) as the obvious forerunner of their efforts. Davis mentions the book in a footnote, dismissing it as “charming,” an epithet reserved for trifles. Lewis’s compact 100-page novel, the first full-length treatment in English of the sixteenth-century French legal case, may be many things, but it is neither charming nor a trifle. On the occasion of Lewis’s death in 1998 at the age of ninety-nine, the New York Times ventured that “there are many who will assure you that when the literary history of the second millennium is written . . . in the category of dazzling American short fiction her Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century’s Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville.” The strangeness of the comparison ought not be allowed to weaken the judgment. The Wife of Martin Guerre is one the last century’s great novels.

In 1539 in the French Pyrenees village of Artigues, two children—a girl of eleven and a boy no older—are wed in a Roman Catholic ceremony, joining two ancient landowning families. The marriage of Bertrande de Rols to Martin Guerre gets off to a rocky start as the young husband seems standoffish, even hostile to his bride. But in time the two become loyal lovers. Or, as Lewis writes, “gradually Bertrande’s affection for her husband became a deep and joyous passion, growing slowly and naturally as her body grew.” Then the peace of their young lives is shattered and the couple is exposed to “the vagaries of a malicious fate.” Martin steals a planting field of grain from his harsh retributive father, and fearing the old man’s anger, flees his native village. He swears to Bertrande that he will be gone but a short time—eight days at most. He is gone for eight years.

The man who returns to Bertrande is much changed. He is now thickset, “broader in the shoulder, developed, mature.” More than that, he is kinder and has acquired wisdom and charm. As the curé at Artigues says later, “His selfishness has become generosity, his impatience has become energy well-directed.” Since the elder Guerre has died in his absence, Martin takes over authority for the family farm. Peace seems to have been restored. By degrees, however, the suspicion grows that this Martin Guerre is not the same as the man who fled eight years before. At length he is accused of being an impostor and clapped in irons. The first trial, at Rieux, the nearest bishopric, ends in a verdict of guilt and a sentence of death. The case is appealed to the parliament at Toulouse, and there the accused man is on the verge of being declared innocent when a peglegged soldier clomps into the courtroom and announces himself as the true Martin Guerre. Martin’s sisters, long supporters of the man who returned to the farm, gasp and switch their allegiance to the newcomer. Bertrande falls weeping before the man and begs his pardon. Seeing how the case has turned against him, the impostor confesses himself to be a wandering rogue by the name of Arnaud du Tilh. He is convicted of “the several crimes of imposture, falsehood, substitution of name and person, adultery, rape, sacrilege, plagiat, which is the detention of a person who properly belongs to another, and of larceny,” and is hanged in front of Martin Guerre’s house in Artigues.

Such is the story. But Janet Lewis tells it very differently from the later filmmakers and musical producers. The most striking difference is the identity of Arnaud du Tilh’s accuser. In the more recent dramatized versions, Martin’s uncle Pierre, angered by his nephew’s demand for a share of the profits earned by the farm during his absence, sets upon the man and has him arrested. In The Wife of Martin Guerre, however, Bertrande is the accuser. Although she has “rejoiced in the presence of this new Martin even more than in that of the old,” she becomes convinced that he is not her true husband. She confronts him, demanding proof of his identity:

“When I was in Brittany,” [replies] her husband, “I heard a strange story of a man who was also a wolf, and there may also have been times when the soul of one man inhabited the body of another. But it is also notorious that men who have been great sinners have become saints. What would become of us all if we had no power to turn from evil toward good?”Thus a central doctrine of the Church reinforces Arnaud du Tilh’s false claim to be the husband of Bertrande de Rols. In this way the rogue quiets his lover’s suspicions, for she is a strict Catholic. The suspicions horrify her. If they are true, she is an adulteress and has committed a mortal sin. But Bertrande allows herself to be temporarily convinced by the man sharing her bed. “For,” as she tells him, “God knows I do not wish you to be otherwise than my true husband.” She loves him passionately, and as Lewis gently hints, it is a sexual passion as well as the ardor of the heart.

Suspicion will not be silenced. The man is not her true husband, and Bertrande comes to know it. Knowing it, how can she do else than to accuse him? She is ruled by beliefs, and furthermore she knows what she believes, for she has been told. To modern readers this is apt to make Bertrande seem like a fool. In an interview in the Southern Review, Lewis acknowledged that “contemporary reactions” to Bertrande “are very amusing.” Most readers “are impatient with her. They say, ‘Why didn’t she take what she had,’ and so forth.” Most readers are disappointed with Bertrande for betraying their own beliefs.

They would seem to be the ideal audience for the films and musical. In these Bertrande is ruled, not by Catholic doctrine, but by the modern conviction of the absolute value of sexual passion. Despite threats and coercion by her uncle, she never turns against the man she knows is not Martin. Even after she has fallen to her knees before her true husband, Bertrande remains faithful in her heart to her false lover. She gives a start and a cry when he is hanged. All very touching—but not particularly true to the values of Renaissance France. Bertrande was not a modern woman, and it is a mistake to assign her modern beliefs.

Lewis does not make this mistake. She is not interested in adding to the literature of passionate love. The Wife of Martin Guerre is a tragedy in which passion is sacrificed to the legal demands of marriage, even if happiness is the victim. As in any tragedy, the incidents in the novel are first astonishing, then fearful in the extreme. The man who claims to be Martin Guerre bears such a close resemblance to the real Martin Guerre—the same two broken teeth, a scar on the same eyebrow, a drop of blood in the same place in the same eye—that it is uncanny. This astonishment raises the fear that the remarkable poseur will be unmasked and put to death. When that in fact happens, fear is converted to pity. The pity is made all the keener by the recognition that it could not have been different. History that is the original of the plot demands du Tilh’s death, regardless of how appealing the rogue is.

A commonplace of modern literary thought is that “the tragic mode is not available,” Lionel Trilling says, “even to the gravest and noblest of our writers.” Perhaps it is not surprising that Lewis, the wife of the reactionary critic Yvor Winters, would have ignored the commonplaces of modern literary thought. But her novel goes further. Published at the end of Auden’s “low dishonest decade,” it has the effect of calling into question the literary values of the age—the self-important difficulty, the grandiose incoherence, the rage at all costs to be New, even if that ends in the pursuit of evil. The Wife of Martin Guerre commits none of these. It is an austere and renunciatory work. It has no clever and yackety “voice.” It is written in a plain, expository style—a style of great suppleness and beauty, but nevertheless a chill style—which does not belong to Lewis but to an older tradition. Although she also wrote other novels of distinction—in particular The Trial of Søren Quist—none rivals The Wife of Martin Guerre. As do few other novels of the twentieth century.

The Wife of Martin Guerre remains in print from Swallow Press, an imprint of Ohio University Press.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Working definition of literature

Jim H., author of Wisdom of the West, says in a comment to an earlier post: “ ‘Literature’ is simply too vague and amorphous a concept to nail down in a couple [of] blog posts.” If I agreed with that, I’d give up blogging.

Here then is my working definition. It consists of two disjunctive claims, the second of which was copyrighted by E. D. Hirsch. Literature is either everything written or only some of it. If it is the former, and if it is to be studied, then it must be reduced to manageable proportions by means of some arbitrary category—arbitrary to avoid the introduction of value—such as a language, a country, or a historical period (these examples do not exhaust the possible categories). If it is the latter then either it is what someone stipulates, in which case it can be whatever one pleases, or it is what authorities have called “literature” (that is, it has a historical definition).

The former is literature according to philology; the latter, according to criticism.

Speaking as a critic, then—conceiving of literature as only some of what has been written—I stipulate that “Literature is simply good writing—where ‘good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition.” But this definition is not the same as my saying elsewhere that “Literature just is a selection of masterpieces.” This later statement is another way of observing that, when literature is no longer everything that has ever been written, it is what pleases one to dignify with the name and status of literature. It is a selection of masterpieces.

Right now, late on a Friday afternoon, with my sons clamoring for me to play with them, I cannot think of an exception. For modesty’ sake, though, I shall continue to speak of it as a working definition.

Reduction versus expansion

Here is a test. How you answer will clarify whether your view of literature is reductive or expansive. On November 13, 1913, the New York Times ran an article listing the “Hundred Best Books of the Year.” To make the test easier, I shall confine the list to the fiction titles:

( 1.) Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country
( 2.) Arnold Bennett, The Old Adam
( 3.) Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
( 4.) Winston Churchill, The Inside of the Cup
( 5.) Frank Danby, Concert Pitch
( 6.) Conigsby Dawson, The Garden without Walls
( 7.) John Galsworthy, The Dark Flower
( 8.) Ellen Glasgow, Virginia
( 9.) Thomas Hardy, A Changed Man and Other Tales
(10.) William Dean Howells, New Leaf Mills
(11.) Henry Sydnor Harrison, V. V.’s Eyes
(12.) William J. Locke, Stella Maris
(13.) Jack London, John Barleycorn
(14.) Charles Marriott, The Catfish
(15.) Meredith Nicholson, Otherwise Phyllis
(16.) Mary S. Watts, Van Cleve

These sixteen were chosen from among a larger lot of novels published in 1913, including:

• Eleanor Hallowell Abbott, White Linen Nurse
• Miriam Alexander, Ripple
• Mary Austin, Green Bough: A Tale of the Resurrection
• Rex Beach, Iron Trail: An Alaskan Romance
• E. C. Bentley, Woman in Black
• Joseph Conrad, Chance
• Frank Barkley Copley, The Impeachment of President Israels
• Mary Stewart Cutting, Refractory Husbands
• Richard Harding Davis, Soldiers of Fortune
• Ellen Douglas Deland, Country Cousins
• Thomas Dixon, The Southerner: A Romance of the Real Lincoln
• Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt
• Jeffrey Farnol, The Amateur Gentleman
• Edna Ferber, Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney
• Justus Miles Forman, The Opening Door: A Story of the Woman’s Movement
• L. P. Gratacap, Benjamin the Jew
• David Hennessey, The Outlaw (“Second prize in Hodder & Stoughton’s £1,000 Novel Competition”)
• D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
• Jack London, The Valley of the Moon
• Ivan Morgan Merlinjones, The Reclamation of Wales: A Patriotic Romance Founded on Facts
• Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer
• L. M. Montgomery, The Golden Road
• George Moore, Elizabeth Cooper
• Samuel W. Odell, The Princess Athura: A Romance of Iran
• Thomas Nelson Page, The Land of the Spirit
• Albert Bigelow Paine, “Peanut”: The Story of a Boy
• Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna
• Sax Rohmer, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu
• Hugh Walpole, Fortitude: Being a True and Faithful Account of the Education of an Explorer
• Hawley Williams, Five Yards to Go!
• P. G. Wodehouse, The Little Nugget
• Leonard Woolf, The Village in the Jungle
• Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth

I will not hide from you that I enjoy book lists. The Guardian’s music blogger may be right when he says that “List-makers mummify their subject matter. Everything they touch calcifies and turns to dust.” Or lists may be a necessary prelude to judgment, organizing the materials for closer examination. Or they may only be a harmless waste of time.

At all events, the above is a fairly thorough list of the fiction published in English in 1913. What on it is literature, and what is not?

I would suggest, again, that there are only two possible answers. Some of it is literature, or all of it is. If the former then “literature” is an award for prestige and belongs to criticism; if the latter then it is “Everything written in c” where c is a category that more or less arbitrarily reduces everything written to manageable proportions (even “fiction published in English in 1913” is such a category), and then literature belongs to philology. Literature is a vacuous term unless its meaning is narrowly—reductively—specified.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Literature and status

Daniel Green has harsh words for my assertion that “Literature is just a selection of masterpieces.” (If I had it to write over again, I’d start the proposition with an indefinite article, but otherwise, upon reflection, I’d change nothing. Literature is created by critics in the activity of selecting works to prize, preserve, and pass on. It is what remains of everything that is written.) “There is no getting around this obstacle,” I had said. “The problem is what criteria of selection you are going to use.”

Without pausing to consider what I mean by the word literature, Green is contemptuous of my view:

I really can’t imagine a more reductive and, especially for a literary scholar who professes to love literature, a more implicitly dismissive view of the value of literature and literary study. It’s all about choosing up sides and announcing that your “criteria” are better than the other side’s?A selection is a reduction; so I suppose my view is reductive. Green assumes that he and I mean the same thing when we say “literature,” but we don’t. He believes in literariness, the Loch Ness Monster of criticism, a mythical creature who lives beneath the surface of literary texts, endowing them with special significance. The idea derives from Roman Jakobson, who introduced the term in an essay written in 1933 to describe (and reinforce) “the autonomy of the aesthetic function.” “Literariness,” he explained years later, is “the transformation of a verbal act into a poetic work and the system of devices that bring about such a transformation. . . .”[1]

What is poetry on this definition, however, but a selection of verbal acts? Try to specify the system of devices that bring about the transformation of mere words into poetry. Here is the single best attempt that I know. “How shall the poem be written?” J. V. Cunningham asked. “I answer, In metrical language.” But any such specification will exclude many works that some people consider poetry and include other works that they do not. (Elizabeth Alexander is out, Ella Wheeler Wilcox is in.) Cunningham is aware of the problem: “[I]t is clear from what is being published as poetry, approved of and commented on, that there is not only uncertainty with respect to the old tradition but also a widely felt need for some system of meter other than the traditional, and that none has been agreed on and established.”[2] The only thing that has changed in the four decades since Cunningham first wrote these words is that the felt need for a non-traditional prosody has disappeared. Contemporary poets are happy, by and large, to write without system. The old tradition no longer provides an exhaustive store of devices to bring about a transformation of a verbal act into poetry, but nothing has emerged to replace it. Literariness will not do.

Green is shocked—shocked—to read such views from a “literary scholar who professes to love literature.” But I am afraid that I must shock him even more deeply, because I cannot remember professing to “love literature” (not at least since I have grown up), and cannot imagine what it would mean to do so. I love some books and cannot abide others. I cannot abide many of the books that Green professes to love, and some of the books that I love he would not even acknowledge as literature. I love Democracy in America, for example, and Haim Kaplan’s Holocaust diary; Michael Wyschogrod’s Body of Faith, a theology of Judaism, and Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down; A. J. Liebling’s boxing reports and Karen Horney’s studies of neurosis; Michael Oakeshott’s philosophical essays and Ronald Knox’s history of Enthusiasm. Each of these is a literary masterpiece, I would argue. And I should very much like to hear Green’s argument to the contrary.

My view was stated with admirable definitiveness by E. D. Hirsch Jr., who similarly held that Darwin’s Origin of Species was a literary masterpiece. Although a scornful critic had said that he was “clearly capable of distinguishing” The Origin of Species from literature, Hirsch said he was not at all capable—and neither were writers like Stanley Edgar Hyman, who classified Darwin as literature in The Tangled Bank, or editors who included Darwin in anthologies of Victorian literature:Either literature is defined by traits that someone stipulates, in which case literature can be defined as one pleases; or literature is what the authorities call “literature,” in which case The Origin of Species is literature.[3]Green stipulates that literature must be art. In his Reading Experience, he flogs the same merchandise again and again, and still it refuses to move. Thus on May 5, 2008, he wrote: “The important distinction to be made is . . . between those works whose authors think of fiction as primarily an aesthetic form and those who think of it as a form of commentary. . . .” Or on April 24: “One loves Paradise Lost precisely because it is such an aesthetically powerful work despite its rather repellent ‘idea’ of Christianity. It’s the first work I think of when challenged to provide an example of a work of literature in which art trumps content.” Literature is simply Green’s word for written art.

This pleases him, but it does not please me. And it need please no one else. Much that other people accept as literature is not art, and many written works are “artistic” without being literature. By coincidence, while preparing to teach Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country earlier today, while searching for the clearest definition of Society, I came upon the following passage from Tom Wolfe’s 2006 Jefferson Lecture:Within the ranks of the rich . . . there inevitably developed an inner circle known as Society. Such groups always believed themselves to be graced with “status honor,” as [Max] Weber called it. Status honor existed quite apart from such gross matters as raw wealth and power. Family background, education, manners, dress, cultivation, style of life—these, the ineffable things, were what granted you your exalted place in Society.My claim is that literature (or, rather, Literature) is the writing that has been graced, by critics and scholars and editors, with “status honor.” What grants it its exalted place may be called literariness or art (or any number of other names), but whatever these are, they are, finally, ineffable things.

Update [January 23]: Daniel Green has clarified himself: “[E]verything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama is literature, if the author intends it to be taken as literature. Many writers of popular fiction, for one, don’t.”

But if everything written as fiction is literature, except for that which isn’t, then literature refers to something in addition to its fiction, although Green has still not said what that thing might be. It remains ineffable.

[1] Roman Jakobson, “A Postscript to the Discussion on Grammar of Poetry,” Diacritics 10 (1980): 22–35.

[2] J. V. Cunningham, “How Shall the Poem be Written?” (1967), in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), pp. 256, 258. Emphasis added.

[3] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “Response to Richard M. Coe,” College English 37 (October 1975): 205–06.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Adventures of Douglas Bragg

Madison Jones, The Adventures of Douglas Bragg (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008). 216 pp. $29.95.

At the beginning of the month, I advanced the name of “the now forgotten Madison Jones” as a shining example of “old-fashioned novelists [who] once stood in the background, unmoved by exhortations to dissent from the proven methods for writing fiction, and more interested in writing unpretentious sense than in making a fast name for themselves.” Well-satisfied with my point, I delivered my parting shot: “Are there still writers like that around?”

As it turns out, Madison Jones himself is still around. And at the age of eighty-three he has written his twelfth novel—a southern picaresque entitled The Adventures of Douglas Bragg. That Jones would have been forgotten, even by those who sometime did him seek, is not without explanation. He has not been published by a New York house in a quarter century; his last five novels have appeared under the imprints of university presses and regional publishers in Nashville and Atlanta. While his work has not entirely escaped the notice of literary scholars, their reflections have hardly found prominent venues. A special number of the Chattahoochie Review (Fall 1996) was devoted to Jones, and a book of essays by diverse hands came out four years ago—from the University Press of Southern Denmark.

In his latest, Jones remains much the same as he has been since publishing his first novel The Innocent at the age of thirty-two. He is unpretentious; he is not interested in showing off his literary gifts; he respects the tradition of the novel. If he doesn’t write sentences that melt in the mouth, he continues to display what Charles Poore called, in reviewing his first novel for the New York Times, “a remarkable capacity to see clearly and deeply into the dramatic conflicts of human character caught in the dilemmas of a violently changing time.” He takes seriously the notion of a literary career, which used to involve the self-assigned task of mastering different genres. Jones has written a buckskin epic (Forest of the Night), a protest novel (A Buried Land), an unromantic pastoral (An Exile), a tragedy according to classical rules (A Cry of Absence), an allegory of good and evil (Passage through Gehenna), a historical novel of the Civil War (Nashville 1864). In his latest he contributes to what E. M. Forster calls the “literature of Rogues.”

Forster goes on to call this kind of fiction “dreariest of all, though the Open Road runs it pretty close. . . .” Yet two of the greatest American novels are picaresques; Jones pays homage to them in his very title. And ordinary readers, who don’t have to ask themselves what they are going to write next, have been eager to get their hands on such books at least since 1554 when Lazarillo de Tormes was first published in Spain. All the world loves a lover, but it will abandon its principles for a rogue. Just look at Bill Clinton’s approval ratings. The reckless cunning, hopscotch logic, and narrow-eyed attitude toward life make him as fascinating as an undiscovered tribe.

Jones’s rogue is a twenty-four-year-old college graduate who for the past two years has been, by his own admission, “going nowhere.” He most likely owes his name to Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, although there was also a Texas hillbilly singer in the fifties named Douglas Bragg. It is, in any case, a recognizably southern name. The year is 1960. His parents are divorced, and Douglas Bragg lives with his mother in “well-off” circumstances in Birmingham, Alabama. Because they are well-off, they are selected by the family to take in Uncle Jack, elderly, impoverished, and a non-stop talker. “No end to his memories,” Douglas says:

He told me about horse races and cockfights and revival meetings and town bullies and coon hunts and outrageous practical jokes, and on and on in a voice only a little coarsened by phlegm in his throat. But of all the subjects in his repertoire, the one he most talked about was, as he called it, the War between the States. He had a lot of books about the War, but it was like he had got his knowledge not from books but from being on hand at the time, which was impossible. He was better than any book.His mother blames Douglas’s aimlessness and inability to hold a job on Uncle Jack’s voluble storytelling. As if to prove her right, Douglas leaves home the same day that she installs Uncle Jack in a “home for old folks.” He hitchhikes out of town.

What follows is, on one level, the usual stuff of a picaresque. In this kind of novel, plot is thrown out—plot, as I put it earlier, in the old sense of a scheme to achieve some end—and what takes its place is a series of unrelated situations which, as the word adventure implies, the rogue comes upon. Again and again he finds himself in what Huck calls a “tight place.” Douglas is picked up outside of Birmingham by a health-elixir salesman who, rounding a corner too fast in his dented Studebaker, sideswipes a police car. He manages to outrun the law, making it back to his mother’s house in a small town not far away. He is worried that he will be tracked down. “The problem had begun to interest me,” Douglas says, “especially since it could not cost me anything.” He cooks up a plan to abandon the car somewhere and report it stolen. “It had become a little like a game,” he reflects, and his plan is offered “in the gaming spirit.”

Douglas is wrong, though, about its not costing him anything. The salesman and his mother adopt his plan, but then accuse him of stealing the car. Douglas is tossed in jail—until he cooks up another plan to get himself sprung. The pattern of the novel is set. Douglas finds himself trapped in the service of a pig farmer who nurses him back to health after he is mugged, but when Douglas tries to run away, the farmer reports him to a friendly sheriff as a thief, and he is borne back to servitude. Until he cooks up a plan, etc. The fun lies in the contest between Douglas’s roguish wits and the doggedness of those who would put him under restraint.

While the pattern is unbroken, the fun turns to shame when Douglas meets another rogue like himself. After getting busted on a drug charge while trying to escape a dealer who fronts as an undertaker, Douglas is given a suspended sentence of six months—as long as he remains under the supervision of a “preacher and upright man” with a little farm in addition to his church. After his farm chores, he must endure “daily sessions with the Reverend” in which they study the Bible together. Douglas soon infers that he is not the first young man whom the Reverend had got hold of to serve both as “a farmhand and a helpless victim to instruct about Salvation.” On a Friday night in town—he is permitted to go to a movie approved by the Reverend—he meets a light-hearted predecessor to whom Douglas takes an immediate liking:He had a dry way of putting things and, as I soon learned, a readiness to talk about himself and his experiences even when his narrations didn’t exactly cast the best light on him. . . . He even touched on minor criminal acts of his: peccadilloes, as he saw them, like one I had never known anybody to actually do: yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. And when I asked why he had been arrested, he described, dramatically and with obvious pleasure, just how it felt to punch a cop in the nose. I didn’t know how much truth there was in the things he told me, but as he told them, they made good stories.A plan to take revenge on the Reverend succeeds in ruining him, and Douglas begins to repent of his roguishness. And here the novel turns out to be contrary to expectation. If the traditional picaresque is written with the satirical intent of holding up to ridicule an “upright” and hypocritical society, if the rogue’s clash with what is right and legal makes him the hero, the standard-bearer of social freedom in a world of blank servitude, then The Adventures of Douglas Bragg is a picaresque that means to revolve the genre against itself.

Madison Jones has been characterized as “a bedrock Calvinist whose characters remain flawed and whose submission to sin requires punishment.” If that is the case, his Calvinism must be read between the lines of his twelfth novel. But something not unlike a literary Calvinism remains on view. In the end, the good man is not the outlaw, but the flawed creature who, knowing that freedom is not the ultimate truth of human experience, struggles within the iron confines of the law, even if his struggles make him slightly ridiculous, even if his desires lay outside. As Douglas’s mother says in the closing line of the novel, “Let this be a lesson for you.”

Jones’s previous novels:

The Innocent (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1957).

Forest of the Night (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960).

A Buried Land (New York: Viking, 1963).

An Exile (New York: Viking, 1967).

A Cry of Absence (New York: Crown, 1971).

Passage through Gehenna (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).

Season of the Strangler (New York: Doubleday, 1982).

Last Things (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).

To the Winds (Atlanta: Longstreet, 1996).

Nashville 1864: The Dying of the Light (Nashville: Sanders, 1997).

Herod’s Wife (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Creatures of the interlude

Tomorrow morning, after a year or more on leave, I must return to the classroom. The teacher’s job, says Michael Oakeshott, is “to get his pupil to make the most of himself by teaching him to recognize himself in the mirror of the human achievements which compose his inheritance.”1 This is not what Charlotte Allen describes as “the educational philosophy of ‘constructivism,’ which holds that teachers don’t teach things but rather, that students ‘construct’ their own knowledge out of what they already know.” By recognizing himself in the mirror of human achievements, Oakeshott does not mean that a student sees something familiar. He means recognition in the Aristotelian sense. Anagnorisis. The shift from ignorance to awareness. A person is brought to the sudden uncomfortable realization that he must rethink who he is from top to bottom, and that his best self is contained, not in his own limited achievements to date, nor in his interests nor even his talents, least of all in his self-esteem, but in a world of meanings and understandings to which, until now, he has largely been a stranger.

Such a concept of education is not very popular at the moment. It will be immediately seen as the system that used to pass by the name of humanism. When Jonson asked himself what sort of education was needed by a poet, he concluded, “[T]hat which we especially require in him is an exactness of study and multiplicity of reading, which maketh a full man.”2 Now poets study creative writing, which maketh less than full men and women. It’s not their fault. No course of study is designed to crank out human beings, and it would be demonized by the familiar vulgar epithets if it were. The products of a university are graduates, those who are advancing by degrees.

Why, then, do I bother? For this reason. Many students—perhaps not a majority, but a hefty portion—have not received the message that they are to fill the four-year interlude between childhood’s dependence and adult responsibility in gaining a livelihood. Some even want to make the most of themselves, and if they do not believe in advance that the study of literature will contribute to that end, they are willing to give it a shot. Don’t get me wrong. There are almost no self-starters among them. None takes my syllabus as the entry to a world of learning. To a man or woman, they assume that it is exhaustive. Once they have read the books on my reading list, they have finished with the subject. They are concerned with credits, not lights. But to adapt a line from Yvor Winters, their deficiencies but gauge their own weakness and the age. Their strengths are those of childhood. Because life is still an adventure for them, they remain open to surprise. Because they are still trying to make something of themselves, they are interested in what sorts of things might be made. Because they have yet to memorize the answers, they can be snapped awake by the questions. Although some have, most have not undertaken practical obligations—car payments, children, a mortgage—and so they are, as much as anyone ever can be, creatures of the interlude. The weakest among them are anxious to get to the main act. The best leave their seats and join the players.

My job, to return to Winters, as deeply as I otherwise admire him, is not to teach Corrosion and distrust, Exacting what I must. My job instead is to catch them at the right moment, to divert their attention with a flash of the mirror, and to coax them back from the brink of responsibility for just a few more weeks. I have not tried to do so in over a year. Tomorrow I shall see if I still have what it takes.

1. Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 48.

2. Ben Jonson, Discoveries, in The Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 448.

Update: Rats. I see that Stanley Fish has beaten me to the punch in quoting Oakeshott. According to him, Oakeshott’s idea is that education must “not [be] regarded as instrumental–valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.” This is not entirely wrong. Oakeshott would have used the word practical rather than “instrumental,” and he would have pointed out that practical life is just one “mode of human experience.” The problem, for Oakeshott, was not with an instrumental education, but one that reduced human experience to just one of its modes.

At all events, an interpretation of Oakeshott is not really what Fish is about in his latest New York Times blog entry. He examines The Last Professors, by his former student Frank Donoghue, and argues that the humanistic philosophy of education, or what he calls the “ethos of the liberal arts,” is dead beyond resuscitation. “Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums),” Fish writes, “the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past.” The exemplary institution for the new model of education is the “for-profit university,” especially the University of Phoenix. (Coincidentally, the same day that Fish was posting his analysis of the shift from liberal to instrumental education, the University of Phoenix, which has no football team of its own, hosted the National Football Conference championship game. The symbolism was neat—a university that makes no pretense of fielding amateur athletes, and prefers to be associated with the openly professional and aggressively commercial kind.)

Fish supplies a delicious quotation from John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix: “Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’ bullshit.” (Fish softened the last word.) Phoenix is balanced, Sperling says, upon “the ideas of the marketplace–transparency, efficiency, productivity and accountability.” Who cannot applaud such plain language, such blessed freedom from the stale pieties, such clarity as opposed to the scented candles of humanism (see above)? Who indeed? Until he becomes a parent, or falls ill, or grows old, or becomes distracted by a problem that is not so breezily solved?

Given time, all universities will become the University of Phoenix, Fish clearly believes, while expressing gratitude that his own academic career will be over before that happens. But I am not so sure. There is at least one tradition that holds out for the belief that there is something more important than the marketplace. It is the Christian tradition. The religious college (predominately but not exclusively Christian schools, because Yeshiva University fits this definition) are probably the last best hope, ironically enough, for the humanistic ideal.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fiction in the service of truth

The philosopher David Lewis was best known for his theory of possible worlds. There are, according to him, a plurality of worlds, each one as actual to its inhabitants as this world. Moreover, these worlds really exist. They hum and buzz with implication. Their vile blows and buffets incense the reckless to spite them too. They aren’t the actual world; only this world is the actual world. On the other hand, it is the actual world only to us. For those inhabiting a possible world, their world is actual to them. The word actual merely indexes the inhabitants’ relationship to their own world; it points to nothing absolute or necessary about it. Actuality ought not to be confused with reality. Possibilities are also real; they just aren’t actual.

Lewis used to say that his theory of possible worlds was met with a standard response—the incredulous stare. But he was entirely serious. Any time a hypothetical or conditional (or as Lewis liked to call it, a counterfactual) is spoken, a real possibility—a possible world—is created:

If I were a rich man,
Daidle deedle daidle
Daidle daidle deedle daidle dum
All day long I’d biddy-biddy-bum
If I were a wealthy man.
According to Lewis, it is perfectly possible that there exists a world in which Tevye is rich and biddy-biddy-bums all day long. Somewhere, that is, biddy-biddy-bumming actually goes on, although how common an activity it is among the rich can’t be known for sure.

Stare incredulously if you must. The advantage of the theory is that it provides another method to assess the truth of statements without having to submit them to “proof.” Its usefulness in talking about fiction should be clear, although Lewis denied that fictional worlds were possible worlds in any simple sense.

In his 1978 essay “Truth in Fiction,” Lewis analyzes the value of such fictional statements as “Sherlock Holmes lived in Baker Street” and “Holmes lived nearer to Paddington Station than to Waterloo Station.”[1] His basic solution is to prefix the intensional operator “In such-and-such a fiction” to a fictional statement to form a new sentence, which is no longer self-evidently false. In fiction, the prefix is dropped; to recover its truth, however, the prefix must be reattached.

The operation of the prefix is universally understood by readers of fiction, if the words that I quoted on Friday afternoon from Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie are true: “What child is there that, coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes?” Inside the old door, however, sentences have a different kind of truth. They are true inside the door, and remain true outside if and only if the prefix “In such-and-such a fiction” is made explicit.

Lewis works through several consequences of this view before arriving at the following analysis:A sentence of the form “In the fiction f, [the statement] Ø” is . . . true iff [if and only if], whenever w is one of the collective belief worlds of the community of origin of f, then some world where f is told as known fact and Ø is true differs less from the world w, on balance, than does any world where f is told as known fact and Ø is not true.Lewis’s analysis is not as difficult as it looks. The key concept is the community of a fiction’s origin. A story is told, Lewis points out, on a particular occasion, in a particular setting: “Different acts of storytelling, different fictions.” (He cites Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” to establish the view that a shift in cultural origins produces a shift in a fiction’s meaning.) At the same time, storytelling is a pretense. Although he may have no intention to deceive, the storyteller “plays a false part”; he pretends to be “telling known fact when he is not doing so.” As Elizabeth Bowen puts it, fiction “lies in saying something happened that did not.”

What follows is that storytelling occurs in at least two worlds—our own actual world, where it is a pretense of relating fact, but also the possible world where the fiction is related as fact rather than fiction. In short, fictions have what Lewis calls a “trans-world identity.” They are the same, word for word, in at least two worlds where they are treated very differently.

The more these two worlds resemble each other—the more that the “collective beliefs” in them overlap—the closer the fictional statements approach truth, at least when compared to another possible world where the fiction is attested to be known fact but nevertheless its assertions are patently untrue.

Truth in fiction is a product of the fictional world’s resemblance to the actual world in which the pretense of fiction was originally carried out—our own world, perhaps, or more likely a different cultural milieu, at a different time, in a different place. Forster’s assertion that “Even when we love people, we desire to keep some corner secret from them, however small: it is a human right: it is personality” is less immediately true in a fictional world where there are no human persons, but only cyborgs, say, for whom “love” is, I don’t know, a maintenance function. (Bill Benzon has speculated about “artificial love” over at the Valve.) Not only must the fiction have a trans-world identity; so must certain beliefs. If and only if these beliefs are held in every possible world of the fiction’s origin can its assertions be true.

The consequence? Fiction cannot secure the truthfulness of its statements intrinsically. The second half of Bowen’s famous aphorism (fiction “must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie”) is half-right. The uncontradictable truth must also be contained in the community where the fiction was originally written. Fiction’s truth may only be secured extrinsically. More than the fictional world alone must exist for fiction to enter the service of truth.

What else? Realism can now be seen as the genre of fiction that increases its resemblance to the actual world in its concrete details, its buzzing and humming, its biddy-biddy-bumming, for the sake of improving its chances to shame the devil. Fantasy dispenses with surface resemblances to pursue truth, as Ellison’s Invisible Man phrases it, “on the lower frequencies” (or the higher).

And while Lewis’s analysis contradicts my earlier hypothesis that fictional truth-assertions are validated by authority, it doesn’t entirely demolish it. John Churton Collins once said that “The writer of a single good book is soon forgotten by his contemporaries; but the writer of a series of bad books is sure of reputation and emolument.”[2] As sympathetic as I am to such writers of one good book as Henry Roth, Ralph Ellison, or Michael Shaara, it strikes me that a series of books, no matter how bad, is more likely to bolster a writer’s authority. For there may also be a trans-world identity between the writer’s different books; they create different worlds in which the same beliefs are held. Or a writer may derive authority from different books not her own. What Julia Kristeva called “intertextuality” is better understood as a trans-world identity between fictions by different authors. Francine Prose establishes the truth of a girl’s grief and first experience of love by showing that her world differs less from The Mill on the Floss than does any world where girls grieve and love, but not like they do in fiction.

[1] Originally published in the American Philosophical Quarterly 15 (1978): 37–46. Reprinted with replies to critics in Lewis’s Philosophical Papers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1: 261–80.

[2] John Churton Collins, “The Present Functions of Criticism,” in Ephemera Critica: Or Plain Truths about Current Literature (New York: Dutton, 1902), p. 16.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Once I was a happy Pinkerite

Once I was a happy Pinkerite. A native speaker can no more write ungrammatically than a bird can fly “incorrectly,” I told my classes. Only Miss Thistlebottom was exercised by sins against prescriptive grammar—she and tightly clenched old fogies like William Safire and John Simon. I found the knotting of the problem in The End of the Road screamingly funny. Jacob Horner is undergoing therapy for an unnamed malady in June 1953 (shell shock from the Korean War?) when his doctor tells him that he needs a “more meaningful job” (“A career, you know. A calling. A lifework”). He directs Jacob to apply for a post at the local teachers college:

     “And what will you teach? Iconography? Automotive mechanics?”
     “English literature, I guess.”
     “No. There must be a rigid discipline, or else it will be merely an occupation, not an occupational therapy. There must be a body of laws. You mean you can’t teach plane geometry?”
     “Oh, I suppose—” . . .
     “Nonsense. Of course you can’t. Tell them you will teach grammar. English grammar.”
     “But you know, Doctor,” I ventured, “there is descriptive as well as prescriptive grammar. I mean, you mentioned a fixed body of rules.”
     “You will teach prescriptive grammar.”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “No description at all. No optional situations. Teach the rules. Teach the truth about grammar.”
The rigid discipline, the fixed body of rules, the avoidance of optional situations—here you had the effort to solve the postmodern quandary, that devaluation of all values, by an arbitrary and artificial method. I laughed and laughed.

Then I became a father. “I runned across the playground,” my son says. “Ran,” I interject. “Huh?” “Ran. ‘I ran across the playground.’ ” Later my other son says, “Daddy, I brang the thermos home.” “Brought. ‘I brought the thermos home.’ ” If they weren’t five years old they would roll their eyes and sigh heavily, “Whatever.”

Verb tenses blunt the teeth even of native speakers when they are young, but I have never heard one of my sons misuse the reflexive. In a local radio ad for the Houston Aeros, the announcer urges his listeners to tune in for the next game: “Listen to myself, M——— G———,” he says. “Listen to yourself, you maroon,” I shout at the radio. Even my two-year-old doesn’t make that mistake. “I hurt myself,” he explains when I ask why he is crying. He doesn’t say, “Myself hurt myself.”

Which suggests to me that some errors must be learned just as some verb tenses must be. If I never corrected them, I wonder, would my boys grow up saying runned and brang? Are culture and the “language instinct” really binary opposites, or does the opposition of culture to nature, as Longinus argues, belong to culture?

Jacob Horner asks his students at Wicomico State Teachers College a slightly different question. “Who’s more free in America? . . . The man who rebels against all the laws or the man who follows them so automatically that he never even has to think about them?” So Jacob (and behind him, waving shyly, John Barth) is a cultural conservative, then, “out to rescue prescriptive grammar from the clutches” of radicals? Not exactly. “[T]he greatest radical in any society,” he goes on, ”is the man who sees all the arbitrariness of the rules and social conventions, but who has such a great scorn or disregard for the society he lives in that he embraces the whole wagonload of nonsense with a smile.”

But cultural values, including the rules of grammar, only appear arbitrary, and only to grownup intellectuals. For children the case is otherwise, and those who must raise them within this society, and not just any society, discover that they must take responsibility for that fact. “The child cannot learn from scratch what took millennia to learn,” says the psychiatrist Theodore Lidz in The Origin and Treatment of Schizophrenic Disorders, “but must learn his culture’s system in order to think and communicate coherently.” A system of arbitrary values could not even be described coherently, which is why Jacob Horner’s great radical confines himself to the cultural system he has already learned.