Friday, December 31, 2010

Bye, bye, literature

As the year coughs to a stop, I find myself thinking more and more about the disappearance of a literary culture in America where books are valued, if only by a minority, for their intrinsic qualities—their intelligence, their depth and breadth, the care they take with sentences. Even if it has begun to pick up speed recently, the decline has been going on for long decades. I realize that. “A literary craftsman in America,” Mencken said ninety some years ago, “is never judged by his work alone.” Now, however, he is rarely judged by his work at all.

“The universal reaction to book lists,” I wrote a few days ago, “is annoyance over what has been left out.” I should have added: followed immediately by an accusation of bias. If you don’t happen to think very highly of a writer—and if, because space limitations make explanation impossible, you are silent about the writer—you will be said to hold a grudge against the class to which the writer belongs. Worse yet, if you fail to mention a sufficient number of members of the writer’s class, although the required proportion remains vague and undefined, you will be dismissed as irredeemably intolerant if not bigoted toward the entire class.

I don’t know why it took so long for me to figure out what was going on. The accusation of bias has been leveled against me so often that I no longer take it seriously. Only recently, though, did it strike me that the accusation is more than simply a moral fashion. It is a learned response, an intellectual commonplace, picked up in school and college like mono or herpes. It is the voice of the academic literary guild, stripped of any theoretical sophistication, coming from the mouths of latter-day undergraduates who still hope for their professors’ approval.

Race, class, and gender (and their substitutes and equivalents, adopted by outsiders eager to get in on the game) have finally completed the tendency that Mencken observed so long ago. Their invocation no longer makes it hard to talk about a book’s intrinsic qualities. They have made it so that such talk, when it occasionally occurs, sounds like a dead language. Nobody understands what is being said, and assumes the worse. For any critical discussion that refuses to cloth itself in the vocabulary of race, class, and gender is nothing else—can be nothing else—than an expression of naked bias.

So much for literature.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Denis Dutton, 1944–2010

My old friend, mentor, and collaborator Denis Dutton has died in Christchurch, New Zealand, of prostate cancer. He was sixty-six.

Dutton, a Southern California native who earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, founded the journal Philosophy and Literature, the listserve discussion group PHIL-LIT (which I moderated for him from its inception in 1994 until its demise in 2003), and the first of the great “web aggregators” Arts & Letters Daily. Perhaps he was better known, though, as the animating spirit behind the annual Bad Writing Contest. (My own account of the contest is here.) He also took great delight in publishing Alan Sokal’s postscript to the famous hoax. As he saw it, the two events were deeply related.

Denis was a lifelong opponent of fashionable gibberish served up in the name of postmodern profundity. Philosophy and Literature, one of the few academic literary journals to hold the line against “theory,” became the warm refuge of those who believed that the philosophical tradition offered a better framework and vocabulary for literary reflection. Dutton actively sought out articles to knock down the modish concepts of “theory,” one by one, as they rose to graduate students’ cheers. The best Festschrift that could possibly be published in his honor is a complete run of Philosophy and Literature under his editorship from 1977 until today.

Despite his abiding skepticism (“Skepticism is a good policy for any editor,” he said, “because it’s generally a good idea for any scholar”), Denis in person was good-humored, always smiling and finding reasons to smile. Generous and self-effacing, he was quick to give credit to someone else for his own ideas. We shared a short week together several years ago in College Station and Houston. He taught me how to “see” Van Gogh, and how to detect fraudulent “primitive art.” (He was a great collector of native art from New Guinea.)

Denis was first diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer two years ago. Since I had been diagnosed with the same disease a year earlier, we exchanged notes and phone calls on the subject, although he was “super-insistent,” as he put it, about keeping his own cancer secret. He reacted badly to hormone treatments, with a high fever for several days, and was not encouraged by his prognosis. The news of breakthroughs in treatment, though, gave him some hope. “[W]e may live long enough for some of these new treatments to start working for us,” he said. Alas, it was not to be.

Perhaps more of an academic entrepreneur than an original philosopher, he was nevertheless an unfailingly provocative writer. He influenced the academic culture with his irreverence, his impatience for trendy posturing, his commitment to argument and plain language, his love of beauty, and his encouragement of younger writers who shared his crochets. Denis liked to say that he “discovered” me as a writer. If that is true then I owe him an apology for not being a better one and bringing to him even more of the honor that he deserved.

I will miss him.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Deliberate omissions

The universal reaction to book lists is annoyance over what has been left out. Everyone remembers the uproar at this time last year when Publishers Weekly named the Top Ten Books of 2009, and not one by a woman. It was assumed that women had been intentionally excluded, even though the list’s compilers said their intention was to “ignore[] gender and genre and who had the buzz.” If someone has offended you, though, you are entitled to dismiss his explanations. “[W]hen PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ ” said the poet Erin Belieu, “that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ ”

Naturally, then, my roster of the year’s best Jewish books provoked two local variations of the universal reaction. One commentator, noting the absence of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land (a novel that was originally published in 2008), assumed the only possible explanation is that I am an American Jew who doesn’t like Israeli books. Another commentator, noting the absence of “Jewish books that are marketed to the Orthodox Jewish community,” asked why the Orthodox are “always omitted by the non-Orthodox.”

Since I myself am an Orthodox Jew, that could hardly have been my intention. And in fact, my list contained at least two volumes by Orthodox Jews—Shaul Stampfer’s Families, Rabbis, and Education and Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies. But neither of these belong to the special class of books that, as my commentator put it, are “marketed to the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Jeremy Stolow’s scholarly study Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution examines this market. Published in April by the University of California Press, Stolow’s book might easily have been included in my list of the year’s best Jewish books, except that I am suspicious of its subtle hostility to Orthodox publishing. (Here is a deliberate omission that correctly fingers my ideology!) But it is also true that I don’t exactly read the titles published by ArtScroll, the imprint of Mesorah Publications in Brooklyn.

All of my liturgical editions—my prayerbooks, my mahzorim, my Passover haggadot—are ArtScroll books. But novels like Yael Mermelstein’s Second Chances, published by the Shaar Press in November, about “an ‘older single’ who longs to be married yet can hardly remember the name of her latest shidduch date,” or memoirs like Abraham Twerski’s Gevurah: My Life, Our World, and the Adventure of Reaching 80, which is “[m]ore than an autobiography” and “offers Rabbi Dr. Twerski’s wide-ranging perspective on our own concerns,” frankly do not occur to me.

But then neither do Jewish mysteries nor Jewish science fiction. I couldn’t name two figures in those publishing markets. Now, I am ready to admit that these are blindspots, huge omissions in my literary education and experience. The reason for the omission, however, is not that I disdain niche markets, but that I am not particularly interested in them as markets. My only concern is literature, by which I mean good writing. The simple fact that a book is written by a women or an Israeli or an Orthodox Jew is insufficient reason to recommend it. Nor is it enough to demand books by women or Israelis or Orthodox Jews if none is any good.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Year’s best American novel

’Tis the season, as Christopher Benson says, for best-book lists. At First Things, Benson compiles his own list, which has a distinctly Christian flavor. Marilynne Robinson’s zinging Absence of Mind did not nose into his top twelve, but earned a mention as a “notable book.” It was, I think, better than that. Outside this disagreement, though, I am grateful to Benson for recommending books that I mostly had not heard of.

Tomorrow on Jewish Ideas Daily I give an accounting of the year in Jewish books, which aims to achieve much the same effect. Yesterday Juliet Linderman of Jewcy beat me out of the gate, reeling off the titles of Jewish hipsters’ favorite novels of 2010. Not one title makes both of our lists, although Linderman describes Joshua Cohen’s Witz as “also of note” while I enroll it among the year’s best.

The best American novel of the year, Jewish or otherwise, was Steve Stern’s gut-busting and surprisingly truthful fourth novel The Frozen Rabbi. I was unable to review it when it first came out, although Mark Athitakis had time before his wife gave birth to their first child to praise it.

As so often the case with contemporary novels, The Frozen Rabbi is told in alternating chapters. In one set of chapters, starting in 1889, the Hasidic tsaddik Eliezer ben Zephyr tumbles into a pond, where he is suspended in a state of frozen animation while he is bundled, in a series of plausibly improbable adventures, across Europe and into the New World. In the second set of chapters, set at the present time, a teenager named Bernie Karp, “[o]verweight and unadventurous,” finds Rabbi Eliezer in the basement freezer of his Memphis home, where an electrical storm knocks out the power and thaws the Boibiczer Prodigy, jarring him out of his ice-cold time machine and into a spiritually hungry age, sputtering Yiddish. Before long, Rabbi Eliezer learns English, after a fashion, and proves more than happy to feed the local hunger. He sets up as a shopping mall kabbalist, a more authentic Michael Berg. The patter is more authentic too, and twice as funny as anything Madonna thinks she believes.

When Bernie, who is startled into Jewish seriousness by Rabbi Eliezer’s defrosting, confesses that he has begun to experience mystical visions, the rabbi replies:

     “Sweetheart . . . visions I dispense here [at the kabbalah center] like shalachmones at Purim; it ain’t so special, the visions.” Then sotto voce, “But I don’t tell to my congregation this.”
     The note of confidentiality heartened the boy enough to ask the first of his laundry list of questions: Did the rabbi’s “congregants” ever bring back any, um, like gifts from their meditative flights?
     “What are you kidding?” The rabbi was incredulous, or anyway pretended to be. “What you think, dveykuss, which you call conscious, is a cruise ship to the Bahama? Conscious . . . ness? is the end of the line; you get yours and you’re a satisfy customer, end of shtory.”
And so it goes. Bernie’s faith deepens along with his Jewish literacy, while Rabbi Eliezer becomes alienated from the Orthodox Judaism of his first, fresh life. “If this ain’t Gan Eydn”—if postmodern America is not Paradise, he asks—“what is?”

The rabbi is the most unforgettable evangelist ever drawn up in American literature. (I want to hear no more references to Elmer Gantry.) But what is so surprising about The Frozen Rabbi is that, while Stern plays the part for laughs, he also has something arresting to say about the Jewish religious experience in the abundant consumer culture of the American present. Although not himself (apparently) a religious Jew, Stern understands just how countercultural, just what a dissent from the “Gan Eydn” of the shopping mall, religious Judaism is. He also notices what is happening in the actual world around him, where a younger generation returns to the Jewish seriousness discarded so carelessly by an older generation.

Bernie is a genuine mystic, trapped (as the rabbi puts it) “between this side and the other.” Naturally, then, things end badly for both of them, although not tragically. No one grieves over their ends. The family is embarrassed, while Bernie’s girlfriend feels only a lingering fatigue. “When’s the tragedy begin?” she asks herself, speaking perhaps for the reader. The tsaddik tries to explain: “There ain’t no world but this one and it’s already half in the crapper.” Neither of the two available options—being too much in the world and not in it enough—will redeem the soul that is restless for liberty.

The Frozen Rabbi is funny and pointed from first to last, because Stern is such an accomplished mimic. He knows the languages of Hasidism and hucksterism like a native speaker, but he also recognizes the phrases of the struggling mystic, who cannot fully credit his own experiences: he is able to write straightforwardly in a religious language, without parody or excess. The war between those languages, which I have argued elsewhere is perhaps the natural form of modern Jewish fiction, is what raises The Frozen Rabbi above any other American novel of the past year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Against “net neutrality”

In a comment to an earlier post, Shelley Shaver warns that today the Federal Communications Commission will begin the long process of regulating the internet through the badly misnamed principle of “net neutrality.” As my friend and editor John Podhoretz said earlier in the month, net neutrality is an “anti-sticky” idea. “No matter what you do,” he said, “you can’t remember what the hell it is.”

Nevertheless, everyone who depends upon the internet—which is, basically, every American with an active social, intellectual, or commercial life—should care about the principle. Under its name, the federal government is joining forces with companies that provide web content to control the ebb and flow of information and services on the internet. Net neutrality hides behind the abstract (and entirely relativistic) conception of fairness, but in truth it is a classic example of rent seeking. The web companies behind it want the aid of government power to obtain a share of net usage that they might not otherwise be able to obtain in an open and unregulated marketplace.

The first beneficiary of the new regulatory régime will be trial lawyers, which explains the Obama administration’s support of net neutrality. As FCC commissioner Robert M. McDowell wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, “The FCC’s action will spark a billable-hours bonanza as lawyers litigate the meaning of ‘reasonable’ network management for years to come.” [NOTE: Broken link fixed.]

And once the legal decisions begin to be handed down, the internet may start looking suspiciously like a contemporary American university campus, where “underrepresented voices” demand inclusion, where some phrases and ideas must not be uttered, and where certain voices are shut out altogether so that the “underrepresented” might be heard. The last thing the federal government should be regulating, because the thing it is least qualified to regulate, is intellectual content. On a university campus, the limited number of classrooms and classroom hours lends a glossy sheen of plausibility to the claim that content must be meted out according to some exalted notion of “fairness.”

But the internet is an infinity of human discourse. There is no end to the ways in which voices can make themselves heard. “Fairness” here is another word for privilege, which the internet exists to undermine and call into question.

Update: The best account of “net neutrality” that I have found belongs to the pseudonymous IT consultant who blogs for ZDNet under the name of Paul Murphy. He writes: “Net neutrality is not, of course, about neutrality—it’s about having government control and monitor what carriers are allowed to transmit, to whom, and at what rates with specific and immediate benefits to bandwidth hogs like [Y]outube and specific and immediate limitations on premium services contracts like those Apple put in place with AT&T to give their iPhone a performance advantage.” Read the whole thing.

Update, II: Meredith Attwell Baker is the other FCC commissioner (along with Robert M. McDowell) to cast her vote in a losing cause against net neutrality. In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, she explains her opposition, saying that the regulations adopted today are already outdated. They aim to regulate the internet as it was constituted ten to fifteen minutes ago, not the internet that must now struggle against the new regulations to develop and evolve.

Update, III: In the Denver Post, David Harsanyi goes beyond opposing net neutrality to call for abolition of the FCC, which has an “almost irresistible urge to protect the powerful instead” of consumers and innovative startups. In the Wall Street Journal, John Fund reveals who is behind the push for net neutrality.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Shark-Infested Custard

After registering my dissent on Kurt Vonnegut’s canonization by the Library of America, I guess that I have to come up with a better novelist—especially for those, like one commentator, who are “looking for wit, charm, and invention.”

They can do no better than Vonnegut’s four-years-older contemporary Charles Willeford (1919–1988). The two had much in common. Willeford too wrote paperback originals and he too found himself held captive in a “genre” (more accurately, a niche market). In Willeford’s case, the niche was detective and crime fiction. Late in his career, Willeford finally landed a multi-volume contract with a publisher of hardcover books. St. Martin’s Press released three of his four “Hoke Moseley” mysteries, the books for which he is best known, between 1984 and 1987. (The fourth title in the series was published posthumously by Random House.)

Unlike Vonnegut, though, there is little “naive” or sentimental and less that is moralistic about Willeford. His tendency, in fact, is in the opposite direction. Where Vonnegut’s mock resignation barely covers a conventional liberal outrage over man’s capacity for evil (“So it goes,” he says repeatedly in Slaughterhouse-Five), Willeford’s attitude is a derisive despair. “Oh, shit,” laughs a character in The Shark-Infested Custard, his best novel. “Here we go again!”

Originally written in 1975, The Shark-Infested Custard was considered “too depressing” by publishers at the time. It was finally published—by a small Bay Area house specializing in science fiction—in 1993, five years after the author’s death at sixty-nine. To call the novel “depressing” is to miss the joke, although it is true that “one needs to be a member of the family to appreciate the joke,” as Willeford once said in a critical essay.

The book’s title is the answer to an “old Miami riddle,” which doubles as the epigraph: “What is very sweet, bright yellow, and extremely dangerous?” A newspaper reviewer speculates that the riddle’s answer is an obvious metaphor for Miami, but Willeford sets his sights higher (or lower, depending on your anthropology). The Shark-Infested Custard is his image of man.

Not that I want to dismiss the novel’s detailed and fascinating portrait of Miami. Willeford is the best writer the city has ever produced—at least the Anglo half of the Miami model. He is one of the few postwar American novelists who is attentive to the fine and subtle distinctions that make one part of the country different from another.

About two-thirds of the way through The Shark-Infested Custard, however, much of the action shifts to Chicago, “cold freezing, miserable Chicago.” And yet nothing changes in the characters’ behavior. Their amorality does not belong to a city, but to them.

Four unattached men in their early thirties become friends when they settle in a “singles only” apartment complex, where all of the units are one bedroom, the “rents are on the high side,” and a man “could get all of the women he wanted simply by hanging around the pool.” Larry (an ex-cop who works for a security agency), Hank (a drug salesman), Eddie (an airline pilot), and Don (the Florida rep for a British silverware firm) are “charter members” of Dade Towers, the “first four tenants” to take possession. After a year there, they are close.

One night, on a bet, Hank picks up a girl at a drive-in movie:

She was about thirteen or fourteen, barefooted, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, and tight raggedy-cuffed blue jeans with a dozen or more different patches sewn onto them. On her crotch, right over the pudenda, there was a patch with a comic rooster flexing muscled wings. The embroidered letters, in white, below the chicken read: I’M A MEAN FIGHTING COCK. Her brownish hair fell down her back, well past her shoulders, straight but slightly tangled, and her pale face was smudged with dirt. She gave us a tentative smile, and tried to take us all in at once, but she had trouble focusing her eyes. She closed her eyes, and her head bobbled on her skinny neck.Within a few minutes, she has died of a drug overdose in Hank’s front seat. Her death is the error that determines the rest of the tragedy. For the four buddies, the girl ceases to exist, ceases to be a person, the moment she dies. From then on, she becomes a mere body (“The girl had voided, and the smell of ammonia and feces was strong”), and a practical problem (how to dispose of her without attracting suspicion). Not once do any of the men express remorse or grief or dread at early death. The closest they come is wondering whether to call the cops. Larry brings them up short:     “What’s your flying schedule?” [he asked Eddie].
     “I go to New York Saturday. Why?”
     “How’d you like to be grounded, on suspension without pay for about three months? Pending an investigation into the dope fiend death of a teenaged girl?”
     “We didn’t do anything,” Eddie said.
     “That’s right,” [Larry] said. “But that wouldn’t keep your name out of the papers, or some pretty nasty interrogations at the station. And Hank’s in a more sensitive position than you are with the airline, what with his access to drug samples and all. If—or when—he’s investigated, and his company’s name gets into the papers, as soon as he’s cleared, the best he can hope for is a transfer to Yuma, Arizona.”
The men are exquisitely sensitive to their positions throughout the rest of the novel. They are given neither to introspection nor confession nor moral calculus. When Larry invites his friends to “talk about it now” and then “forget about it forever,” another of men says that he is “sorry about getting you guys into this mess.” “We’re all sorry,” Larry replies. “But what’s done is done.”

They are sorry about the “mess,” the complication and the plotting and the stains that are left behind, but they are not sorry for what they have done, because they do not see themselves as the agents of their actions. Indeed, they are not. “What’s done,” and cannot be undone, is the inevitable and tragic result of their amorality—their innocence of their own capacity for evil—which substitutes for any other code to live by. Two murders follow, and then grand theft, and then another inadvertent violent death, leaving the friends with the problem, once again, of carrying away a corpse. It’s at this point that one of the friends laughs, “Here we go again!”

But the joke is not on them. Larry, who narrates the first and last part of the four-part novel, thinks of himself as a good man, who is willing to do what it takes to protect his friends: “A man who is willing to accept responsibility is always loaded down with more and more of it,” he says, trying to account for the series of misfortunes in which his friends become entangled, “because there aren’t that many men around who will accept responsibility.” The joke is that his responsibility is not moored to anything. Larry and his three friends drift on the warm sunny breezes of moral fashion, congratulating themselves on the lives they have made for themselves.

Perhaps no more terrifying vision of the human experience, an inviting dish of happiness and self-fulfillment infested by the amoral predator called man, has ever been written, in a more bizarrely charming and witty prose.

Update: In a defense of the liberal arts, the classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson warns that business and finance can never be the “core elements in general-education requirements,” no matter how popular they become as undergraduate majors. “[T]he liberal arts train students to write, think, and argue inductively, while drawing upon evidence from a shared body of knowledge,” Hanson writes. “Without that foundation, it is harder to make—or demand from others—logical, informed decisions about managing our supercharged society as it speeds on by.”

As much as I admire Hanson, I do not find this defense particularly persuasive. It adopts the instrumentalist reasoning of business and finance, at which the liberal arts will always prove to be mediocre. The Shark-Infested Custard offers a far more forceful defense. Without the liberal arts, which lead homo sapiens to become human beings, men become the amoral drifters of Willeford’s novel, sensitive to their position—their needs, their careers, their comforts—but to little else. Without that foundation, they are perfectly capable of making informed management decisions; Willeford’s men are skilled and successful. They are not capable of moral agency, however.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

No on Vonnegut

The Library of America has made the weird and unpardonable decision to release an omnibus volume of fiction by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The volume covers ten years of writing from 1963 to 1973, the period during which the novels Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions and the story collection Welcome to the Monkey House were published. Although I have been unable to confirm the exact contents, Vonnegut’s books are short enough that the Library of America volume is likely to include all five.

There is no possible justification for Vonnegut’s enshrinement in the Library of America, which exists “to preserve the nation's cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions. . . .” Even one of his champions—James Lundquist, in a 1977 single-author study—classifies his fiction as “ ‘naive’ literature because [Vonnegut] makes so much use of expected associations and conventions for the purpose of rapid communication with its readers.”

Which is simply the academic acknowledgment that Vonnegut was a purveyor of “midcult.” At least two other members of the league, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, have already been canonized by the Library of America. Perhaps I should not have been knocked off balance by news of his inclusion, then, especially since all three engaged in what another Vonnegut fan describes as a “career-long critique of America.” “I’m paranoid as an act of good citizenship,” Vonnegut explained, “concerned about what the powerful people are up to.” A midcultist whose psychological reaction to this country was healthier—Herman Wouk, for example, or John P. Marquand—would never be considered for the Library of America.

What sets Vonnegut apart from other writers whose fiction “critiques” the U.S. is his good nature and a sense of broad popular humor that never stoops to rancor and is as likely to deprecate the author as the country’s power elite. “I can’t stand to read what I write,” Vonnegut said. “I make my wife do that, then ask her to keep her opinions to herself.” These qualities are not nearly enough to establish Vonnegut’s “significance” as an American novelist, though. Nor are his self-consciously midwestern values nor his parasitical attachment to science fiction. (It is writers like Vonnegut, who try to introduce it into the mainstream by poaching it for writing that is little more than social realism in disguise, who give science fiction a bad name.) What is worse, the disguise is adopted to conceal Vonnegut’s sentimental moralism. Christ is replaced by pacifism and being nice, but the message is finally very little different from that of E. D. E. N. Southworth or Susan Warner. It is a message of spiritual uplift.

Until 1969, his most famous book was Cat’s Cradle, a silly fable that college students all over the country seemed to be reading in unison. Then came Slaughterhouse-Five, his novel about the Allied firebombing of Dresden during the last year of the Second World War. As in all his books, Vonnegut was careful to spell out the Message: “I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.” It is difficult to understand how anyone could experience the rush of moral knowledge while reading that sentence, but perhaps a certain kind of young reader feels something like personal unification—a delirious sense that his rebellion against the adult world is finally taking the firm shape of settled conviction—when swallowing Vonnegut’s books.

A recent critic calls Vonnegut, who lived through the firebombing of Dresden as a POW, “the war’s second most famous survivor,” after Elie Wiesel. (Francine Prose based an entire novel on the empty posturing behind such a claim.) Perhaps, though, this remark provides the key to his fiction, if not a reason to reprint it in an authoritative edition. The survivors of massacres and holocausts are indemnified against ordinary criticism, but also against the ordinary expectations—of subtlety, memorable characterization, layered prose—that readers bring to a work of literature.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Anthony Powell

This month the University of Chicago Press is republishing, in ebook format, a landmark of twentieth-century English fiction—Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time. As a teaser, Chicago is offering the first book in the series, A Question of Upbringing, for free. (The remaining volumes sell for eight bucks a throw.) One of the great custodians of neglected fiction, Chicago has kept Powell’s large canvas of English society, inspired by Nicolas Poussin’s 1640 painting (see right), in print for several years in the four large volumes originally published in this country by Little, Brown. However, Powell patiently released his novel in twelve separate books about every other year, and that is how Chicago is marketing the ebooks.

Born in December 1905, the son of an army officer, Powell was educated at Eton, where he ran with the self-conscious aesthetes Harold Acton and Henry Green, and then at Balliol College, Oxford, where his older classmates included Cyril Connolly and Graham Greene. He began his literary career in the ’thirties with five satirical novels. They were duly praised, but next to the two-years-older Evelyn Waugh, who had already satirized the generation of the “bright young things” in two brilliant novels before he had got off his first shot, Powell was a slight figure. After publishing What Became of Waring? in 1939, he did not write another novel for a dozen years.

During the long silence between his last prewar novel and A Question of Upbringing (1951), Powell devised and perfected the unique narrative style of A Dance to the Music of Time. The clue to that style lies in the one book that he published during this period. John Aubrey and His Friends (1948) is a biography of the man who invented the art of biography in English. The Aubrey book prepared him to write in the voice of the biographer, which Powell uses to great effect (and with unbelievable consistency) in his long masterpiece. Although told in the first person by a character named Nick Jenkins, the narrative is remarkably impersonal. Jenkins never tells stories to settle scores.

Although he later wrote a four-volume autobiography and two late-in-life novels that showed enduring keenness of mind and observation, Powell is best known for A Dance to the Music of Time. The novel, which took him nearly two-and-a-half decades to finish, concluded with Hearing Secret Harmonies in 1975. The last installment of the long Dance ends with the death of Kenneth Widmerpool, one of the great villains in English fiction. Although the novel’s ending echoes its beginning so many years earlier, Powell did not spend much time tying up loose ends. “I found I didn’t want an ‘end’ of that sort,” he said. “I was very anxious that one should not be absolutely washed out at the end. It was very important that the reader should not feel there was not a single other word to be said”—an odd statement about a twelve-volume novel of a million words, but one that reveals a great deal about his philosophy of literature and life. Powell was remarkably curious about human personality in all its forms, and did not believe that a comprehensive portrait could ever be drawn. “You can form the basis of perhaps half a dozen people from one human model,” he once said, explaining his methods, but also the degree of his success at illuminating the mysteries of character.

Powell conceived of himself as a satirical novelist first and foremost. Asked by the New York Times Book Review in 1981 to name the book he wished that he had written, Powell replied memorably:

Books you would like to have written are not the same as favorite books. In the second category comes Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, not quite neatly enough put together for the first. I paused long over Dostoyevsky’s The Devils . . . finally settling for the Satyricon of Petronius, although written 2,000 years ago and only half the length of a detective story, remains of what was probably a third as long as Proust. . . . Petronius had the first version of the modern novel, but my version would have emphasized girls more than boys.Citing In Search of Lost Time instead of A Dance to the Music of Time is characteristic of Powell, who was never grandiose despite the grand scale of his great novel. For most American readers, in fact—especially those who associate English satire with Evelyn Waugh—Powell is likely to seem too gentle and generous to qualify for the satirist’s mantle. If Waugh overplays the absurd, as V. S. Pritchett once said, Powell underplays it: he is “moved by sense rather than by outraged sensibility.”

What is more, Powell does not seem nearly so anomalous, wacky, and inimitable as Waugh. While there are no “sons of Evelyn,” Powell has several distinguished literary descendants. Without A Dance to the Music of Time, it is impossible to conceive of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels or George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series. Indeed, Fraser was quite open about the influence, writing a masters thesis on Powell which was one of the first scholarly studies of the great novelist.

Powell died in March 2000 at the age of ninety-four, having lived long enough to see A Dance to the Music of Time turned into a four-part television movie. (Oddly, it was not directed by his son Tristram Powell, who directed TV versions of Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer and Kingsley Amis’s Old Devils.) “Writing a book,” Powell said, “is a question of instinct balanced against contrivance.” Few twentieth-century novelists have shown more exquisite balance for so long.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


Among my pet peeves is the common American greeting, “Happy holidays!” The intent is to offend no one—which, at this season of the year, means the Jews. But the expression reveals an abysmal stupidity about those who are to be spared any offense.

For the Jews, the “holidays” occur in the fall, at the beginning of the Jewish year: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. During that season, religious Jews greet one another by saying “Hag sameyah!”—that is, “Happy holiday.”

Hanukkah, which began last night, is not a hag, it is not a holiday, in the same sense of the word. It certainly does not measure up to Christmas. It might be described as a second-rate Sukkot, an eight-day celebration inserted into the calendar by Jews who were not always permitted to observe their highest holidays at the proper time of year.

The word hanukkah means “rededication,” and the holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple upon the retaking of Jerusalem by Judah the Maccabee in 165 BCE. Yesterday, during the Hanukkah program at my son’s preschool, a teacher tried to explain the significance of the rededication by comparing it to the rebuilding of a synagogue. Perhaps the comparison serves to instruct preschoolers, but it is all wrong.

In Jewish life today, the Temple has been moved to the home. The Sabbath dinner table is explicitly compared to the altar, and the Sabbath bread, the hallah, is treated as if it were a Temple sacrifice. Hanukkah, then, might more appropriately lead to a rededication of the home, although no one I know celebrates it in this fashion.

In Israel, the military aspects of the holiday are emphasized. Hanukkah represents the underdog’s triumph over a hostile alien force that would desecrate the Temple site, looting it for alien worship and seeking to obliterate all traces of Jewish history there. At this season, Israelis rededicate themselves to a defense of Jerusalem at all costs. This is a meaning that I can enter into as eagerly as any other Zionist, but it is not the American meaning of the holiday.

In America, Hanukkah has become the Jewish answer to Christmas. Among religious Jews, this is harmless enough. The secular practice of gift-giving has enough to recommend it without an additional religious dimension. Among non-religious Jews, though, Hanukkah becomes one of the few remaining Jewish rites. And then its secular qualities are redolent of the abandonment of the Jewish religion.

But the holiday has another spiritual dimension, among religious and secular Jews alike, which lifts Hanukkah above its relatively ordinary status in Judaism. Precisely because it is the Jewish Christmas, it is the holiday that enables American Jews to participate in the American civic religion. It is, from this angle, a celebration of American Jews’ extraordinary religious freedom.

Not just “Happy Hanukkah,” then, but “Happy holidays” indeed—the glittering American holiday that stretches from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. During this season, Jews are greeted warmly with the reminder that they are home in America. Only a self-important prig could be peeved at such a greeting.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Let Franzen ring

“Let Franzen Ring,” my sour review of Freedom, appears in the December issue of Commentary. In it, I try to assign Franzen a place in the ranks to which he belongs, among maestros of “midcult” like John Steinbeck, John Hersey, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, MacKinlay Kantor, Allen Drury, Harper Lee, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Irving, Elizabeth Kostova, and David Wroblewski.

Yesterday I happened to be reading Alfred Chester’s bloodcurdling critique of J. D. Salinger (also published in Commentary), and I stumbled upon a passage that makes the point that I was trying to make against Franzen, and does so far more sharply:

[T]he intense charm of [Salinger’s first two] books came from the fact that his characters were responding to our world which also happened to be theirs. Their world will go as soon as our world goes . . . because it was never trasmuted; it were merely depicted. What once was the most moving scene in The Catcher—when Holden tries to explain his anguish over American civilization to the absurd girl he’s with at Rockefeller Center—has now become flat and insufficient. The time for disgust over Cadillacs has passed and Holden’s suffering does not seem interesting or real enough itself, to make us separate it from its object, thereby turning the object into symbol and the suffering into our own. All his lament makes us want to do is to prod him gently, wake him up, and say: nobody cares about Cadillacs any more.[1]Nobody cares about the Bushes any more, Franzen; or not enough, at least, to blame them for his suffering. Wake up! It takes something more than encouraging readers to share your disgusts to make great literature.

[1] Alfred Chester, “J. D. Salinger,” in Looking for Genet: Literary Essays and Reviews, ed. Edward Field (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow, 1992), p. 79. Originally published as “Salinger: How to Love without Love” in Commentary (June 1963).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Foreign Bodies

My review of Cynthia Ozick’s new novel Foreign Bodies is on the front page of Jewish Ideas Daily this morning. In her latest book, Ozick rewrites The Ambassadors, the novel that is by most accounts Henry James’s masterpiece. Ozick does not agree. She thinks that James is at his best in some of the short stories.

James is a touchstone for Ozick. Not only has she written about him repeatedly in her literary essays (the kind of writing, for my money, she is best at). What is more, she made him a character in Dictation (2008). Nevertheless, she is of two minds about him. On the one hand, from an early age she was a member of his “cult.” He embodied the life of fiction for her, as for so many other young writers. In “The Lesson of the Master,” an essay originally published in the New York Review of Books and reprinted the next year in Art and Ardor (1983), she testifies to the danger of his influence. “I thought it was necessary—it was imperative, there was no other path!” she wrote—“to be, all at once, with no progression or evolution, the author of the equivalent of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove,” as if James himself had never served an apprenticeship, turning out lesser works.

On the other hand, a short while later she became a baalat teshuvah, a “returnee” to Judaism, a born-again Jew. She began to read widely in classic Jewish texts, and set about to reconceive literature in Jewish terms. The central text here is her long essay on Harold Bloom. He is a worthy adversary, because in his voluminous criticism, she wrote, Bloom is “engaged in the erection of what can fairly be called an artistic anti-Judaism.”

Bloom’s most famous critical idea is his literary adaptation of Freud’s Oedipus complex: according to Bloom, every writer seeks to liberate himself from a powerful literary influence by the “revisionary act” of “emptying” and “undoing” the great precursor, then taking his place. Ozick responds that no one can stand by this idea and be a Jew:

The notion of “ ‘undoing’ the precursor’s strength” has no validity in normative Judaism. Jewish liturgy, for instance, posits just the opposite: it posits recapturing without revision the precursor’s stance and strength when it iterates “our God, and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Nearly every congeries of Jewish thought is utterly set against the idea of displacing the precursor. “Torah” includes the meanings of tradition and transmittal together.[1]What Ozick seeks in Foreign Bodies, then, is a Jewish “recapturing” of James’s Ambassadors. She reverses his meaning, but does not hope to displace him. The two books are meant to be read in tandem, as source and commentary. (Jewish tradition discourages the reading of the Torah without interpretive aids.) But though she explicitly reverses James’s meaning in Foreign Bodies, the book is not a “revisionary act” in Harold Bloom’s sense. In Jewish literature, what is prized above everything else is a hiddush, an innovative reinterpretation of a classic text. Among religious Jews, this is what it means to write a “novel.”

[1] Cynthia Ozick, “Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom,” in Art and Ardor (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 194. Originally published as “Judaism and Harold Bloom” in Commentary (January 1979).

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bellow’s letters

Saul Bellow, Letters, ed. Benjamin Taylor (New York: Viking, 2010). 571 pp. $35.00.

Not many more collections of letters written by American masters are likely to appear, although readers half a century from now might look forward to Michael Chabon’s Collected Text Messages or Jonathan Franzen’s Tweets. Saul Bellow is one of the last great novelists for whom letters were not really a convenient way to stay in touch, but a literary genre with unique opportunities for expression and equally unique demands. For him, personal letters were only rarely personal (and then they were not unique in any respect), but might be best described as a kind of informal literary reflection.

Rather late in life, Bellow wrote to Cynthia Ozick, wondering how it happened that “Jewish Writers in America”—a category that he calls “repulsive”—should have overlooked “the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry.” He can speak only for himself: “I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties,” he tells Ozick. “I was involved with ‘literature’ and given over to preoccupations with art, with language, with my struggle on the American scene, with claims for recognition of my talent or, like my pals of the Partisan Review, with modernism, Marxism, New Criticim, with Eliot, Yeats, Proust, etc.—with anything except the terrible events in Poland.”

But not only the events in Poland, and not only in the ’forties. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 is not mentioned even once, and the revolutionary events two years later are occasion merely to observe that “one still meets people from Harvard with a hear-no-evil fixation on the essential benevolence of the Soviet Union from first to last.” From first to last, Bellow is preoccupied with “literature”—that is, the high claims for the artistic status of certain modern masterpieces—and more regularly with the day-to-day business of writing.

Bellow’s first surviving letter, written a few days short of his seventeenth birthday to “sever relations” with a high-school flame, is a half-serious catalogue of a young writer’s values. Although the girl, with her “Young Communist League mind,” may dismiss him as a “[p]hrase-monger,” Bellow declares that he is in his element as long as he has his pen. Indeed he is. He resorts to letters for the rest of his life to commit himself to paper, to praise other writers, to carp behind their backs, to refine his literary thinking, and to perfect his phrasing. What is astonishing, in fact, is how much Bellow in his letters sounds like Bellow in his novels, darting unpredictably from topic to topic, plumbing philosophical depths with the lightness of a water strider, braiding his ideas into memorable sentences. How many other writers can write first drafts with such distinction and distinctiveness?

Apologizing for not writing sooner to tell Stanley Elkin that he was “the real thing,” for example, Bellow shrugs, “But that’s how lives are lived—one aimless good intention after another, impulses buried and occasions missed or frittered away.” Despite its semblance of generality, this is a comment on the writer’s life, a subject that was never far from his mind. Bellow was jealous of the writer’s prerogatives, and unwilling to claim more for novelists than they were equipped to provide. He writes to the critic Granville Hicks: “[T]here is only one way to defeat the enemy”—the enemy of literature, he means—“and that is to write as well as one can.” Argument is for philosophers, he says elsewhere. “Writers can only try to demonstrate in close detail without opinion,” he says to Louis Gallo while working on Herzog.

Not everything in this thick volume edited by the novelist and creative writing professor Benjamin Taylor is preoccupied with literature. I only wish it were. Am I the only one in the literary commonwealth who is embarrassed by Bellow’s marital gambols? In April 1962, after marrying Susan Glassman, he writes to his old friend Richard Stern, “One wife is becoming enough for me (O Bellowius senex!).” To Ralph Ross, in November, he says that he is “extremely lucky in [his] new wife Susan.” His third son is born two years later, an event that he notices in an aside (“Susie and Daniel will come home”—from the hospital—“on Sunday”). And a year after that he tells David Bazelon that he is “not in a position to tease [him] about multiple marriages, for perfectly obvious reasons. . . . I think we were both meant to set records,” he adds. And sure enough, in March 1966, he meets a 24-year-old girl, a typist at the New Yorker, and soon he is writing that he misses her so much “it’s like sickness, or hunger.” His “whole soul” goes out to her. With her he has a feeling he’s never had before, “that of being infinitely satisfied with another. . . .” Meeting her has made “humankind and the world look different.” True, he has been with many women, but “don’t you think I know how different from those women you are?”

Get back to literature—please. And luckily, Bellow does. Again and again. Thank God or the muse or whoever deserves thanks. There is just enough scandal here to arouse the secret gossip in every reader of great literature (Bellow detests Malamud’s New Life, as he repeats to several correspondents, finds “so many of the Southern writers gratuitously violent,” and has a famous falling-out with University of Chicago colleague Edward Shils, whom he describes as an “unlanced boil”), but more usual for him is the praise and encouragement of peers (Ralph Ellison, Wright Morris, John Cheever) and his inconsolable grief over lost friends (Isaac Rosenfeld, Oscar Tarcov, John Berryman). In one of his last letters, he thanks the novelist William Kennedy for “bringing together” in his 2002 novel Roscoe “your singular and wonderful view of things with the idea of a large fiction. . . .” But this is something that Saul Bellow managed to do in nearly everything he wrote, especially if fiction means, at its best, what he describes to Martin Amis: here and there, “a single page containing what is absolutely essential to expansion or survival.” The Letters contain many such pages, establishing it immediately as a true masterpiece of American literature.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans’ Day

Today is Veterans’ Day, a day of gratitude and remembrance that should not go unremarked. Last year I examined veterans’ novels; no need to add further titles to the list. Although most of them aren’t very good, except for The Great Gatsby—your opinion of it changes forever when you read it as a veteran’s novel—I am increasingly struck by the disappearance of military service from the experience of most educated Americans, including most writers.

The case is different in Israel, where everyone but the haredim serves in the IDF. The result is an unaffected patriotism, and a sense of national unity, that is entirely missing in the elite precincts of American culture. (Watch this video of weightlifter Sergio Britva struggling to control his emotions as Hatikvah is played to mark his victory at the World Masters Weightlifting competition in Poland in September.) The loss of the martial virtues weakens an entire culture. Whole generations begin to rate themselves too special, “with a special kind of hide to be saved,” as Gen. Savage puts it in Twelve O’Clock High, to risk their careers, let alone their lives, for their country. (I’m a good one to talk. Even though my grandfather was a U.S. Marine who came under fire in the Dominican Republic, I dishonored his memory by becoming a draft-card burner—a coward who trembled behind the shrubbery of towering anti-war principle.)

In an essay that I have praised elsewhere, Lisa Schiffren shows how military values have been corrupted in American discourse:

Discipline was reduced to authoritarianism; duty interfered with the higher calling of self-fulfillment; obedience was slavish submission to authority, which should be questioned at every juncture; the quest for glory was mere adventurism. Honor was found to be entirely a charade, unwinnable in any forum that involved defending the morally indefensible principles on which our culture rests.Although Schiffren goes on to lament the cultural invisibility of American war heroes (quick: name the first living soldier from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars to receive the Medal of Honor), I am concerned about the loss of something more ordinary—that is, unexceptional enlisted service, which demands nothing less of a man than determination and responsibility. While the country pauses today to respect genuine heroes like Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, it is important to honor too the ordinary serviceman, who is pretty much all that stands between American culture and an around-the-clock chattiness that tries to hold at bay the blank terror of death.

Cancer reading

In a comment to my reflections on cancer etiquette, Don asks what reading I found helpful in going through the experience of life-threatening cancer.

One of the best things, which I have mentioned before, is the late Richard John Neuhaus’s As I Lay Dying, perhaps the only gift-book from a friend that helped in any way. Neuhaus is unsparing, but not despairing—hopeful without falling into the voice of uplift. (I am allergic to inspirational writing. And tapes are even worse. No one really ought to listen to me on this subject, then.)

In a similar vein, Martin Marty’s Cry of Absence (1983), a meditation on some of the Psalms after the cancer death of his wife Elsa, was oddly consoling. It will not be so for everyone, however. Building upon a distinction first advanced by Karl Rahner, Marty addresses those whose religious faith is “wintry,” who are intimately familiar with God’s absence and silence. That’s why the book, although deeply Christian, is marvellously appropriate for a post-Holocaust Jew. And of course Marty has the bonus effect of sending the grateful reader back to the Psalms themselves.

I have also recommended Intoxicated by My Illness by the New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, who died from the same kind of cancer that afflicted me. The best thing in the book remains his early story “What the Cystoscope Said,” based on his father’s death from cancer.

Encouraged by these books, I supposed that I was ready to stare directly into the abyss. Both Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die (1995) and Peter de Vries’s novel The Blood of the Lamb (1961), were nevertheless too much for me. In fact, almost none of the cancer titles on the exhaustive Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database, compiled by the faculty of the New York University School of Medicine, was particularly welcome when I was at my worst. Only the poet L. E. Sissman, whom I have already praised for just this, spoke a language that sounded the right note of defiance and clarity.

Otherwise I recall with pleasure the novels that I read in the hospital, which plunged me away from myself into other people’s woes or wonders: J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban (a very different kind of death than what I was contemplating), Bellow’s second book The Victim (about a very different kind of victim), and perhaps best of all, John Williams’s Stoner, which taught me all that I needed to learn about the quiet moral dignity of endurance.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Cancer etiquette

In the December issue of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens takes up the difficult and perplexing question of what to say to someone who has cancer. Hitchens, who has Stage Four metastatic esophageal cancer, makes some sharp observations, as usual for him. He urges you not to confide the anecdotes of those who survived (or succumbed). If you ask how he is, be prepared for candor. At the same time, though, don’t make the mistake of assuming that he is ready for bluntness in return.

In his best passage, Hitchens lights into the late Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture (“so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it”). In fact, I would add a piece of advice that it doesn’t occur to him to pass along. Don’t recommend The Last Lecture to someone with cancer. Pausch’s giddiness has nothing to do with real hope, nor with preparing oneself for death. If you recommend it, your friend will conclude—correctly, as it turns out—that you are not serious about what he is going through.

Hitchens is entirely serious, of course. When people ask how he is, “I get straight to the point and say what the odds are,” he writes. “The swiftest way of doing this is to note that the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.” Astutely, he notes that such a melancholy reflection may lead the cancer patient to become “self-centered and even solipsistic.” So the patient has responsibilities too.

I was diagnosed with Stage Four metastatic prostate cancer (Gleason score, nine) three years ago last month. So perhaps I am qualified to weigh in. While Hitchens is right that “there is no such thing as Stage Five,” it does not follow that Stage Five is inevitable. At least it has not been for me—so far.

Even so, hope is a dicey thing. And as far as I can tell, no one else can raise your hopes for you. There is no standardized method for achieving it, no universally valid argument for its reality. Despair may be a sin, as my Catholic friends told me in the first weeks after my diagnosis, but their telling me so did nothing whatever to lift me out of it. I had to find my own way out. Every man’s capacity for hope is as unique as his taste buds.

Don’t try to make hopeful sounds, then. What I found consoling was the consolation that was offered to my wife. It helped enormously to know that she and the children would not be left alone, even if I were to leave them. Similarly, I guess, it gave me steel to understand that I was important and dear to some people. Three or four of my friends were particularly good at this, dropping into my hospital room to say, “I read something today that reminded me of you,” or, “I listened to something and wondered what your reaction would be.” Only two people thought to send me books—no one sent me any movies—and even though the books they sent weren’t really to my liking, they meant a lot to me.

Then there were those who never even contacted me, including my own sister. Nothing quite makes you more aware of the nothingness that awaits you on the other side of Stage Four cancer. My advice: say anything, keep it light and trivial if need be—better lightness and triviality, in fact, than the awkward groping for profundity—but say something. If you say nothing, because you are afraid that you will not know what to say, then you are abandoning the cancer patient to his worst fears, and indulging your own self-centeredness and even solipsism at his expense.

But silence is not the worst breach of cancer etiquette. The worst, in my experience, is to suggest alternative treatments, to announce that you’ve heard, vaguely and fourth-hand, of amazing breakthroughs in treatment. For then you put the cancer patient in a terrible predicament. He longs desperately to tell you to perform an anatomically impossible sexual act upon yourself, but he must remain polite—he must think of how to protect your feelings, while you have given no thought at all to protecting his.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My net worth

In a comment that I deleted because of its vitriolic irrelevance, a reader suggests that my proposal to take away the university faculty’s power of self-governance is not at all ironic, as Rand Careaga offers, but “deadly serious” and motivated by my “net worth.” “Apparently Dr. Myers thinks corporate profits and such,” the reader added, “are more important than people.” (Say what? You can see what I mean by vitriolic irrelevance. Acres of vagueness are covered by that shrug phrase “and such.”)

I plead guilty to believing unreservedly in the social good (or at least utility) of the profit motive, but the truth is that nothing I have done in my life has ever turned a profit. I don’t know about my net worth, but my 2009-’10 salary at Texas A&M University, which is a matter of public record, is closer to the median U.S. income than to the median university professor’s.

On this much the reader is correct. My proposal to end the faculty’s exclusive power to determine curriculum, set hiring priorities, and fill job openings is deadly serious. But my argument, although frankly sharing a nostalgia for the old discredited idea that the university is an institution created for the unique social purpose of seeking truth, is far more ruthlessly materialistic than my critic’s.

My argument is that a university faculty, once it redefines the university as a political system for the dissemination of radical thinking, will act to consolidate its interests and to exclude those who would sabotage its goals. For the campus Left, as Jeff Goldstein observes, “Being on the ‘right’ . . . is not considered being ‘political’ at all,” and is in fact to be “outside politics proper. . . .” Thus the exclusion of conservatives (or traditional humanists, for that matter) is entirely fair and just.

The problem, then, is the faculty’s power to redefine the university in its own image—through curriculum and hiring. When the faculty was still committed to the original idea of the university, its power posed no difficulties. That is, the unwisdom of placing exclusive power of self-governance in its hands did not become apparent until the faculty abused its power by departing from the university idea to pursue its own interests. Now that the abuse has exposed the threat from the power, the time has come to end it.

Not my net worth, but the faculty’s, is what motivates my critique.

Update: In the Wall Street Journal, an official at a “conservative think tank” that has proposed to measure faculty cost-effectiveness, is quoted as saying: “Taxpayers of the state of Texas” should get to decide whether “they should be spending two years paying the salary of an English professor so he can write a book of poetry simply to add to the prestige of the university or the body of literature out there.” I hate to say I told you so, but a decade and a half ago, I warned that redefining the professor’s role as one of political oppositionality would “creat[e] an opening for state reprisal.” If my proposal is not taken seriously—if the faculty does not find a way to share power with other interests—my prediction will rather quickly become a reality.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I can’t read it if I don’t notice it

Over at A Memory Theater, Adlai Jurek admits to himself that there are books he will never read. Not because he has made the conscious decision not to—he is not talking about books by Stieg Larsson or Jodi Picoult—but because his experience, training, and preconceptions (the “roles he occupies,” as he puts it, and “his general circumstance”) incline him to prefer certain books. Others never even rise to the level of notice.

For all I know, there may be literary masterpieces on the shelves of Christian inspirational fiction, but it would never occur to me to seek them out. The Jewish mentalité gives me this much of a resemblance to the strict church-state separatist: inspirational happy talk makes me want to call in the ACLU. What is not to one’s taste can be easily confused with what is offensive to decency.

There are “possible universes inherent in your choices,” Jurek says, which “result from the interpretative schemes” to which you subscribe. Your intellectual habits restrict the horizon of the possible, that is, but plenty of worlds remain open to you. I enjoy the language of modal realism, but not so much Jurek’s allusion to Stanley Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities.”

On the one hand, interpretive schemes or interpretive communities are entirely consonant with possible worlds. The philosopher David Lewis, in discussing how fiction tells truth, speaks of “the collective belief worlds of the community of [a fiction’s] origin. . . .” An interpretive community, from this angle, might be a body of people who share “belief worlds.” The Jews who share a belief that inspirationalism is fundamentally lame, for example. Worlds that are created by uplifting, go-get-’em perorations are not possible worlds among those who share such a belief.

On the other hand, Lewis and Fish conceive of belief at vastly different levels. Lewis means collective beliefs that are so deeply assumed they become tautological when reduced to speech: blue is blue and not green. The horizons of such a collective world are not amenable to change. The world is experienced as actuality.

What Fish has in mind (and Jurek too, I think) are second-order propositions about a world whose actuality is assumed and needs no defense: states that vote Republican should be called “blue states,” because blue has always been the color of conservatism. Many times these are the sorts of beliefs that serve as cultural markers; that is, they are advanced to announce one’s place within a community of the like-minded.

Despite the cognitive riches of such “interpretive schemes”—such ways of sorting opinions about the world—they are relatively trivial when compared to the collective belief world that constitutes a people’s conception of actuality. And unlike the latter, they can be dropped, exchanged, altered, ignored, forgotten, twisted, contradicted, and punted at will. A strong argument might even persuade me to pick up this title or that of Christian inspirational fiction. I’d go even farther and suggest that among the prime duties of literary criticism is to challenge the “interpretive schemes” that award some books auto-response praise and treat others as beneath notice. Especially if the interpretive community whose thinking has gone stale is one’s own.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Two years old today

A Commonplace Blog is two years old. On October 20, 2008, at 11:09 in the morning, I posted a review of Philip Roth’s Indignation to spank the blog into life. Since then I have continued to write about Roth—he is the author most frequently mentioned on the blog—and have said far too much, I am afraid, about my fondness for Jewish things and my dislike for large swatches of contemporary literature and the literary life. The other day I heard secondhand what someone had said about me. Nothing I have ever done, he said, seems calculated to advance my career. A Commonplace Blog fits that description, but if it has done little to improve my reputation, it has at least given me the chance to further my education in public. A million thanks to the readers who have stuck with me so far.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Do not miss

Miriam Burstein’s provocative reconsideration of Stanley Crawford’s brilliant 1978 novel Some Instructions to my Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage, and to my Son and Daughter, Concerning the Conduct of their Childhood. My only objection: Burstein never firmly answers the question of what, exactly, Crawford is parodying. She raises some fascinating possibilities, however, without fully exploring them.

Patrick Kurp’s meditation on a poem by the matchless Helen Pinkerton, a post written on the occasion of her teacher Yvor Winters’s one hundred and tenth birthday. My only objection: Kurp has been corresponding directly with Pinkerton, which makes me jealous.

Jonathan Franzen’s favorite fiction, which Andrew Seal conveniently lists without comment. My objection: the most interesting titles are the least known (Tom Drury’s End of Vandalism, James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works, George Saunders’s In Persuasion Nation), and it would have been welcome to hear a little more about them. Also: why four books by Jane Smiley are on the list.

Restoring academic balance

Over at the National Review’s academic blog Phi Beta Cons, the political scientist Robert Weissberg offers a solution to the problem of the American university’s ominous and increasing Leftward tilt. The solution is not, he says, to institute “ideological affirmative action,” recruiting and hiring and promoting more conservative scholars “so students encounter intellectual diversity.” Aside from its other drawbacks, such a solution “mimics the Left’s subordination of truth to ideology.”

Instead, the solution could not be more simple: “hire truth-seekers,” regardless of their ideology. Over time the ideological proportions of the university will even out. And whatever imbalance remains will be unimportant, because the faculty will share a commitment that transcends ideology—what F. R. Leavis called “the common pursuit,” of truth.

While I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments, Weissberg’s proposal is shockingly naïve. And for the very reason he noticed earlier: “the Left’s subordination of truth to ideology.” The falsification and suppression of anomalous data by climate scientists who wished to sustain the case for global warming suggests that even the sciences have begun to be infected by the virus that spreads throughout the university when it is organized and run by the Left. But if the Left subordinates truth to ideology, and if the Left dominates the university (which means that it controls hiring and promotion), how will the hiring of truth-seekers ever come about, except in the fond dreams of conservatives?

The truth is that the academic system has been corrupted from top to bottom by Leftist ideology. Imagine a smart and well-read young conservative with a passion, say, for George Eliot and her contemporaries, who enrolls in a good university with the intention of majoring in English and eventually becoming a literary scholar. At first, mistakenly assuming that the university encourages intellectual diversity and dissent from consensus and the correction of error, he tries to raise objections when his professors reduce his favorite books to the hunt for red ideology. After a string of B’s, he tries to swallow his doubts and master his professors’ methodology, while nevertheless remaining true to the spirit of his favorite books. He continues to get B’s.

He is undeterred, however, especially when he scores exceptionally high on the Graduate Record Examination. So he approaches a few of his professors to ask for letters of recommendation. They gladly agree to write on his behalf, but their letters are lukewarm at best, full of subtle warnings about him at worst. Because he has cheerfully signed away his right ever to view the letters, he never learns that his professors have betrayed his trust and their profession.

Somehow, though, he is accepted by a first-rate graduate program at an elite university. The same thing that happened on the undergraduate level happens in his graduate courses. He watches with rising disgust as sycophancy is rewarded with A’s, while skepticism is regularly marked with a B. Still, he presses on. He approaches a highly regarded specialist in the nineteenth-century novel. She flatly refuses to direct his dissertation. She just has too many students right now, and even though every single one of her students is a woman, she sees no reason to make room for a man—especially one who got a B in her seminar on Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot’s Early Fiction.

Eventually the graduate director convinces a brilliant young assistant professor—the only man hired in the department in the past three years—to take on the young conservative’s dissertation. Proposal after proposal is turned down, until finally, wearily, the young conservative agrees to write on a subject suggested by the brilliant young assistant professor: Fraternal Intimacy, White Homoeroticism, and Imagined Homogeneity in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century English Novel.

Do I need to go on? By the time he finishes his dissertation and goes on the job market—he applies for jobs in queer theory and sexuality studies—the young conservative has learned either to camouflage his true convictions or to abandon them. Either way, assuming the extreme unlikelihood that he is hired and promoted, he must spend the rest of his life at odds with himself and his greatest strengths.

Weissberg’s proposal to “hire truth-seekers” is broken-backed from the outset, because it fails to account for the corruption of the system. The Left has succeeded in its long march through the institutions. There is no longer any way, I am afraid, to reform academe from within. It must be fundamentally transformed.

And to descend to practical realities. The transformation of the university must begin with the destruction of the principle that makes its corruption possible: namely, the principle of faculty governance. The only way to restore ideological balance and intellectual diversity to the American university—the only practical way to insinuate more truth-seekers into academe—is to take away the faculty’s power to determine curriculum, set hiring priorities, and fill job openings.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Philip Roth, Nemesis (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). 280 pp. $26.00.

In the front matter to his latest novel, Philip Roth groups together the four short novels that he has written since 2006—Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now this latest one—under the subsuming title “Nemeses.” Whether the novel called Nemesis is intended to be the key to the whole project, or its final addition, Roth does not say. Its publication invites a backward glance over the tetralogy, however.

The name of the mythological divinity, the goddess of vengeance, derives from the ancient Greek word for “righteous indignation,” which was Marcus Messner’s downfall. The very title of The Humbling describes what the goddess delights in doing to the proud and overbearing. The classical historian Victor Davis Hanson explains the process: “[O]verweening success and surfeit (koris) lead to hubris (gratuitous arrogance), which in turn promotes destructive behavior (atê), that at last calls you to the attention of divine Nemesis—who ensures your ruin.”

The novel called Nemesis may be the most disturbing of the series. In both Indignation and The Humbling, the protagonists invite their reversals. They themselves plant the seeds of their own destruction, even if it is the goddess in the disguise of a North Korean solider or a lesbian lover who delivers the promised end. The main character of Nemesis, by contrast, does not engage in any destructive behavior until his happiness has already been destroyed. After that, his life is stalled in the acceptance of responsibility for something over which he had no control. The proximate cause of his ruin is a baffling amoral virus.

Bucky Cantor is the playground director at Chancellor Avenue School during the summer of 1944 when a polio epidemic sweeps over the city of Newark, killing several of the boys under his supervision in the Jewish section of Weequahic. Twenty three at the time, Bucky is a powerful and athletic young man—he threw the javelin at Panzer College—although bad eyesight has kept him out of the Army and the war.

When the disease known at the time as “infantile paralysis” begins to attack Newark children, Weequahic is passed over. The first cases appear in June in the Italian section of the city. One day in July two cars pull up to the playground and a gang of teenaged Italian boys piles out. Bucky runs across to ask what they want. “We’re spreading polio,” the gang’s leader says. “We don’t want to leave you people out.” Bucky crosses his arms and plants himself between the Italians and the younger boys on the playground—one against ten. By the time the police arrive, the teenagers have amscrayed. His courage makes him a hero to the Jewish boys:

His confident, decisive manner, his weightlifter’s strength, his joining in every day to enthusiastically play ball right alongside the rest of us—all this made him a favorite of the playground regulars from the day he’d arrived as director; but after the incident with the Italians he became an outright hero, an idolized, protective, heroic older brother, particularly to those whose own older brothers were off in the war.At twenty-three, as he says later, Bucky is “stunned by so much happiness”—a job he loves, taking care of boys he inspires, engaged to a first-grade teacher at Chancellor Avenue School, who adores him. Too much happiness, as it turns out. Two boys from the playground are rapidly stricken with polio and die within days. Weequahic is ready to blame the Italian teenagers, but Bucky knows better. “Polio is polio,” he tells his fiancée tautologically—“nobody knows how it spreads. Summer comes and there it is, and there’s nothing much you can do.”

As the disease spreads its net over Weequahic, Bucky tries to offer comfort and strength to the families whose children have fallen ill, although he has no answer to their question, “Why does tragedy always strike down the people who least deserve it?” He finds himself turning against God, increasingly unable to “truckle before a cold-blooded murderer of children.” But when he phones one mother with condolences, she turns on Bucky. She accuses him of endangering her two sick boys. When he tells her that he is careful with all of the boys, she shrieks:So why do I have two paralyzed children? Both my boys! All that I’ve got! Explain that to me! You let them run around like animals up there—and you wonder why they get polio! Because of you! Because of a reckless, irresponsible idiot like you!She is hysterical, of course. “Running around like animals” has nothing to do with the transmission of polio. Bucky is distraught at the accusation; he is incapable of shrugging off a charge of irresponsibility; and so he flees to the Poconos, where he joins his fiancée at a Jewish youth camp. Within days of his arrival, an athletic young counselor with whom he had been working out contracts polio and is rushed to the local hospital. “[A]m I the one who gave it him?” Bucky asks the doctor. “Am I going to give it to others?” He is tested to determine whether he is a “healthy infected carrier,” and his spinal tap comes back positive. Within forty-eight hours he too is stricken.

Polio leaves him with a “withered left arm and useless left hand,” and damage to his left calf that “caused a dip in his gait.” He quits teaching, breaks off his engagement (“She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one”), takes a job at the post office, and lives the remainder of his life alone. Many years later, the novel’s narrator, one of the Weequahic boys who was partially paralyzed by polio but survived, asks Bucky why he has withdrawn from life. “I was the Typhoid Mary of the Chancellor playground,” he says. “I was the playground polio carrier.” When the narrator protests that the sentence is much too harsh, Bucky shrugs. “Whatever I did, I did,” he says. “What I don’t have, I live without.” When the narrator asks about his fiancée, Bucky says that he hopes that she and “whoever she married” enjoy happiness and good health. “Let’s hope their merciful God will have blessed them with all that,” he says, “before He sticks His shiv in their back.”

Bucky blames himself for carrying the polio epidemic to Weequahic and the Poconos, but for his own defeat he blames God, “the source, the creator . . . who made the virus.” In the end, though, the question is open whether the source of his ruin is really the creator of polio, or the unrelenting self-blame from which Bucky cannot free himself. As he nears eighty, does Roth find himself turning against God? Aghast at the reckless idiotic tragedy that is human life? Or does he remain endlessly fascinated by the infinite number of ways in which man can act as his own nemesis?