Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Conversion to the Zeitgeist

“Why read old books?” That was the title of Victor Davis Hanson’s essay at his Works and Days blog yesterday. Turns out Hanson doesn’t mean just any old books. He means the classics—Homer, Sophocles, Hesiod. You know the ones. But there’s another kind of old book—the book that is not a classic, has not withstood the “test of time,” and is (in fact) so very much a product of its times that to read it is to be transported to an earlier day. Something like an episode of Mad Men without the recherche and ironical self-awareness.

Fifty years ago this April one of the most useful American Jewish novels ever written—a lavish 341-page archive of information about American Jewish attitudes in the early ’sixties—was published by a Reform rabbi who had just quit the pulpit for the life of a bestselling author. “I have a sneaking suspicion that people appreciate what they have to pay for,” Herbert Tarr told the New York Times. “Sermons are free, and half of what you say from the pulpit is discounted as pious sentiments that just go with the robe.” The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen (New York: Bernard Geis, 1963), the first of his five novels, alternated the sermons with humor and social criticism (as it used to be called), and all for the price of $4.95. The novel went through five printings, selling more than 30,000 copies in hardback—not bad for a first novel in 1963.

But it’s not at all clear that Tarr had any clue what he was writing. The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen is not only one of the first American novels about a rabbi, but it is also the first about an American military chaplain of any denomination. True enough, Joseph Heller had included a chaplain in the joke with which he began Catch-22, published only eighteen months earlier:

       It was love at first sight.
       The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
Not because either man is gay or anything like that; no, no, no: because the chaplain is “sweet.” Yossarian wants him to have three votes. Yossarian wants “more votes for decent folk.” That, he says, is what the U.S. Army Air Corps should be fighting for.

So Tarr’s Chaplain David Cohen is the second air force chaplain in American fiction, but he is the first who is something more than “sweet” and “decent.” He is also the first to get a book of his own. The novel opens in July 1955, during the Geneva Summit, at a moment when the Cold War was suspended between Korea and Vietnam and it looked as if there might be, as David reflects, a “lessening of friction between East and West.” He has chosen this moment to enlist in the Armed Services. Like his author, he has only recently concluded his rabbinical studies and received semikhah.

Now twenty-four, David is standing in line, buck naked except for a 3 x 5 card with which he can occasionally conceal the sign of the covenant, waiting for his physical examination in the old Army Building at the Battery in New York. In front of him, a doctor is examining a young Puerto Rican recruit. The young man has small English, and when he fails repeatedly to understand his instructions, the doctor yells at him: “Don’t they teach you anything in that stupid country you come from?” Without thinking, David calls out: “You’re certainly no advertisement for America, Doctor.” “Who said that?” the doctor demands. Tentatively, David identifies himself as the one who spoke:       “And what was it that you said? Do you perhaps remember?”
       David faltered. “Not exactly.”
       A smile of triumph darkened [the doctor’s] face. “I was sure you wouldn’t.” He turned back to the terrorized Puerto Rican and dismissed him contemptuously. “All right, you can go now, you ignoramus. Do you understand that much English?”
       Impulsively, David blurted out: “Horshoim kayom nigrosh ki hashkeit lo yuchol, vayigr’shu meimov refesh vovit.”
       [The doctor] turned on David. “What was that again?”
       David swallowed. “Hebrew.”
       “Hebrew!” [the doctor] snorted. “Doesn’t anyone here speak English?
David has been quoting the prophet Isaiah to the effect that the doctor is like a troubled sea that casts up muck and garbage. For his troubles, he gets himself declared 1-A.

And so Tarr’s narrative plan is established. As Brendan Behan said in his New York Times review, Rabbi Cohen has the “idiotic notion that he should speak out against injustice wherever he sees it.” Assigned to a base in Mississippi, for example (it is obviously modeled upon Columbus Air Force Base, although its name is changed to Fairfield in the novel), he brings a Negro to a Passover seder at the synagogue in town, despite orders from his commanding officer not to interfere in “off-base discrimination.” Later he delivers an unauthorized political talk in enthusiastic support of Israel (“David was one Jew to whom Exodus automatically meant the second book of the Bible and not the novel”). Even later he publicly dresses down an officer’s wife, who is humiliating her partner at bridge. He calls her a “bitch” only to discover afterwards that she is the wife of the commanding officer.

Tarr means for Rabbi Cohen to come across as an angry and unfortunate prophet, but that’s not how he comes across at all. From a distance of fifty years, he seems little more than a mouthpiece for liberal pieties. Even his opposition to racial discrimination is more of a formality, an abstract maxim rather than a warm-blooded response to a human dilemma, since the black Jewish airman he drags to the seder is leaving Mississippi in less than a week, is not especially religious, and mainly wants to go in order to show off his singing voice in chanting kiddush.

David’s talk on Israel angers the president of the local congregation, whose son is becoming bar mitsvah at the service. Also the owner of the major department store in town, the man is appalled that the rabbi intends to say “how terrible it was for the U.N. and the United States to censure Israel for retaliating against Syria’s machine-gunning of Israeli fishermen.” The president tries to bully David into switching topics, reminding him that “you will be speaking to people who can’t be expected to view the Middle East through Jew-colored glasses.” David stands firm. “If he were to start running his ministry on the platform of No Offense to Anyone Ever,” he reflects, “he might as well have studied for four years to be a writer of deodorant ads.”

Comes the day, however, and what David says is anodyne. He blames the United Nations for the “current state of cold war between Israel and the Arab nations”—they failed “to insure Israel’s survival” and “neglected to develop practical plans for aiding the Arab refugees on a permanent basis.” Given these failures, Israel cannot be expected “to submit to annihilation.” Still, the rabbi allows, war is not the answer:[O]nly a moral delinquent would deny that warfare, even when self-defensive and justified, is at best only tenth-rate justice. First-rate justice requires discussions of problems, negotiation of common concerns, a willingness to sit down at conference tables to iron out differences with words instead of trying to stamp them out in blood.Even before the Six-Day War, “advanced” liberal thinking defended Israel merely as a prelude to a call for negotiations.

The best parts of The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen are the least timely. A bachelor in self-acknowledged search for a Jewish wife, David tries out two different candidates over the course of the novel, and both are surprising choices (if not particularly successful characters). The first, Dena Gordon, is a morbidly obese young woman who lives with her parents. She is good company, though, with a sharp tongue and a cutting wit, which she is quick to turn on herself. Dena accuses him of wanting only to counsel her (“A person who wants to enjoy a good old-fashioned neurosis doesn’t stand a chance any more,” she complains), and not even David is sure whether she is right. To prove her wrong, he consents to sleep with her, and only the deus ex machina of a coffee table, which trips him up with a smash and wakes the whole household, saves him from admitting Dena is right after all.

The other candidate to become Mrs. Cohen is a Holocaust survivor with the symbolic name of Ilona Lazarus. At a time when the only Holocaust novels written for American audiences were Meyer Levin’s Eva (1959) and Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker (1961), Tarr compresses the horrors into three pages. He even anticipates Sophie’s Choice:Of all the Nazi methods of torture, Ilona dwelt on only one, the one which had been employed upon her mother. Mrs. Lazarus had been forced to tell the authorities which of her twin daughters she wanted buried alive. She has refused the make the choice, until she had been informed that in that case both her daughters would be buried alive, and she had randomly chosen to save Ilona. Mrs. Lazarus had then been forced to watch her other daughter, Eva, being buried alive in a huge pit with some forty other children.Ilona refuses David’s marriage proposal for reasons that will become commonplace for Holocaust survivors (“You, David, look at the world and see order and purpose and the handiwork of God,” she explains. “I look at the world and see chaos and madness. . .”). She returns six chapters later to outfit Tarr’s book with an unconvincing happy ending, but by then Rabbi Cohen has undergone a conversion under her influence. He does not convert to Christianity nor to unbelief. After two years in the U.S. Air Force, he has been converted to the warm undemanding dereligionized religion of universalism:[W]hatever change he had undergone was in the direction of his becoming more Jewish, truly religious. For the Sh’ma directed Jews to be universal in their concern. This declaration of the oneness of God forced Jews to affirm the oneness of man.Or, as he tells his aunt, “The more people a person can bring into his ‘we,’ the more human he himself becomes.” And so the concern to be human slowly squeezes out the need to be Jewish; the desire to be inclusive overrides the exclusive demands of the Jewish God, and “his ‘we’ ” impose their ethics on a man instead. These are the ideas that would lead many thousands of Jews to abandon Judaism over the next fifty years, while continuing to speak in its name. Along with Chaplain Cohen, they would believe themselves to be doing something brave and noble, while they were merely converting to the Zeitgeist.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Anonymity, terrible anonymity

When I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I was the fine arts editor of City on a Hill Press, the student newspaper. As if eager to confirm what I wrote just yesterday (“The secret to understanding literature—any literature—is wide reading and long experience, which leaves the beginner practically worthless as a critic”), I was also the paper’s book critic. As a senior sophomore, I reviewed Another Shore, the only novel by the late George Hitchcock, the editor of the one-man magazine kayak who did so much to make Santa Cruz something like Black Mountain West. At Santa Cruz there was a passionate attachment to art which was strictly non-discursive. I’m not sure I was the best person, given my literary loyalties, to be the fine arts editor of the student newspaper there. At all events, my old friend Rand Careaga—we were at Santa Cruz together, he also studied under Hitchcock—sends along a clipping of the review I wrote at 22 20 of the novel I described in my obituary of Hitchcock as “utter nonsense,” but a “merry read.” Here it is. For the historical record or something.

Another Shore, by George Hitchcock, Kayak, $2.00

The novels of poets are a curious lot. Ideally the poet brings to the form that, in America, has been suckled on the peculiar notion of escape into realism a linguistic sense of illusion. Having worked a lifetime with the limitations of language, the poet seems to be in a position to overcome or surpass realism. The fact of his art allows him to differentiate between the limits of reality and the limits of illusion. His linguistic sensibility is the perfect literary foil.

The distinction between illusion and reality is central to poet George Hitchcock’s novel, Another Shore. But as in Ellison’s Invisible Man, here the sense of illusion becomes a question of identity.

The nameless narrator of the book is sent to “potentially hostile territory” as a spy whose mission is to identify the enemy. His superior, Colonel Negundo, says, “What has become decisive in all branches of warfare is the question of identity. . . . The central problem, the existential problem if you like, without which nothing else makes sense, is the question of identity.” Thus the narrator of Another Shore becomes another Invisible Man who, in tabbing the illusion about him, comes to grips with his own non-identity: “. . . that what began as an artifice has become my master: anonymity, terrible anonymity.” It is a paradox that he must become anonymous (and yet seek the identity of “the enemy”). In having no identity himself, nothing else about him does make sense. It is as the Invisible Man put it, “HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE FREE OF ILLUSION. . . . And now I answered, ‘Painful and empty’ . . .”

Appropriately, the title of Another Shore comes from the lament of the Mock Turtle in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

“What matters is how far we go?” his scaly friend replied.
“There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?”
Like Alice, the nameless narrator has come to a one-dimensional land of surface actions and interactions. It is not even the form of the land that is dreamlike, but that, in coming from that “other side,” the narrator brings with him an inherent dualism. It is the dualism between illusion and reality. This “another shore” cannot appear but as illusory.

Given this context, Hitchcock allows his wit and imagination to develop freely. The narrator’s experiences range fully between the hilarious and the horrific.

There are, of course, no characters in the novel. Soon after parachuting into “hostile territory,” the nameless narrator is wed to a local girl named Flavia. But he leaves Flavia quickly; and she appears and reappears throughout the rest of the book in different roles and modes, climaxing in a scene of sacrificial terror.

It is not that Hitchcock is unable to create characters. It is that the realm of illusion is uninhabited. The nameless narrator come to term himself “a witness to God’s changing identity.” He is a voyeur of the changing nature of illusion about him, of his own ever-changing anonymity.

As a novelist, George Hitchcock becomes not a metaphysician, but a metarealist. All of the illusions of Another Shore are eninently real, to the reader as well as to the nameless narrator of the book. There is something above realm, fictional or otherwise. Like Alice in Wonderland, its genesis is perhaps dreamlike; but its playing out is immediately and charmingly lifelike.

This is a tribute to Hitchcock’s language. The prose of Another Shore never slops into didacticism, or slips into surreal vacuity. While the nature of the novel demands an absence of character, the fiction of George Hitchcock never requires characterization to give it vitality. Mr. Hitchcock has written a fine novel in which the portrayal of and obsession with illusion is achieved in a remarkable tension. It is more than just fun to read.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What became of literary history?

So ends another semester, and the losing effort to teach books outside a literary vacuum. “I don't need a library to do what I do,” Stanley Fish told Jerome McGann, showing him around the Johns Hopkins campus. All of my students are Stanley Fish. There are no libraries behind their study of literature. Seven decades after John Crowe Ransom named the movement, the New Critics have achieved what they were after. “[T]hough one may consider a poem as an instance of historical and ethical documentation,” Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren had said in Understanding Poetry, “the poem in itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object of study.” The syllabus of nearly every English course is little more than a series of discrete texts which can’t be read historically because no one has any literary history. English departments might as well be renamed departments of close reading, because that is all they do—all that is possible for them to do.

Few understand that the doctrine of close reading emerges out of a logical paradox. Prior to a close reading of a literary text, the New Critics asked, how can you possibly know anything of its subject-matter? Only a close reading of it will establish what background knowledge, if any, is relevant. And if you supply the background in advance for students who are coming to the text for the first time, you rob their reading experience of its innocence and predetermine its outcome. For seven decades now, the object of study in literature classrooms has contracted to the text-in-itself. Even deconstructive critics (and those they have influenced) are primarily concerned with a text’s internal self-contradictions.

It’s not merely that undergraduates arrive at American universities notoriously ignorant of their cultural heritage—in my freshman honors seminar this term, only three students had ever heard of William Faulkner and none had read him—but also that no other conception of literature, if it is to be studied as literature, has any standing. William James believed that “You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically.” By teaching it without its history, have the English departments nullified the humanistic value of literature?

There is an amusing passage in Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (2000), the last book I taught this semester. Delphine Roux, the young French professor who does everything in her power to destroy the novel’s protagonist, is trying to write a personals ad for the New York Review of Books. Most of the academics she knows—the “diapers,” as she secretly calls the male feminists, and the “hats,” the pretentious creative writers—repel her. Even the young theorists like herself, dripping with French sophistication and dressed from head to toe in black, are oddly unacceptable—“for despite her publications and a growing scholarly reputation, it was always difficult for her to deal with literature through literary theory. There could be such a gigantic gap between what she liked and what she was supposed to admire—between how she was supposed to speak about what she was supposed to admire and how she spoke to herself about the writers she treasured”—and she cannot tolerate the academic men for whom theory seems to roll off the tongue like a well-practiced speech.

Then there are “the older types, who are uncool and tweedy, ‘The Humanists’ ”:

Well, obliging as she must be at conferences and in publications to write and speak as the profession requires, the humanist is the very part of her own self that she sometimes feeels herself betraying, and so she is attracted to them: because they are what they are and always have been and because she knows they think of her as a traitor. . . . These older men, the Humanists, the old-fashioned traditionalist humanists who have read everything, the born-again teachers (as she thinks of them), make her sometimes feel shallow. . . . At faculty meetings they’re not afraid to say what they say, and you would think they should be; in class they’re not afraid to say what they feel, and, again, you would think they should be; and, as a result, in front of them she crumbles. Since she doesn’t herself have that much conviction about all the so-called discourse she picked up in Paris and New Haven, inwardly she crumbles. Only she needs that language to succeed.Whether literature needs the language is a question she doesn’t ask herself. I don’t have a quick-and-easy reform to propose. The earliest students of English, when the first departments were founded in the nineteenth century, complained that they were tired of lectures about literature: they wanted to read the literature itself. I suspect that my undergraduate students would be happy to sit through a series of lectures about literature—just as long as they didn’t have to read any of it!

There is another paradox involved in the study of literature, which the New Critics did not fully appreciate. The secret to understanding literature—any literature—is wide reading and long experience, which leaves the beginner practically worthless as a critic. Yet the only method for understanding literature is to read it as a critc—closely, that is, without any preconceptions. Perhaps the only exit from this paradox is to read literary history, which almost no one does anymore. Which is a tragedy and a surprise, since we live in a happy era for literary history—if Philip F. Gura’s provocative and manageable new history of the early American novel, Truth’s Ragged Edge (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is any indication. Yesterday on Twitter, the critic Michael Schaub (a former student of mine) asked where to start in reading literary history. Here’s a short syllabus:

• E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. The title is deceptive: this is the study of how literature began, and where most of the literary concepts still in use derive from. A monument of German scholarship.

• Erich Auerbach, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Every student of literature reads his Mimesis, which is oddly less historical, and Scenes from the Drama of European Literature lightens the load by taking the form of essays. This is the heavy-duty stuff. If you can make it through this, you can make it through anything.

• J. V. Cunningham, Collected Essays. Criminally out of print, but in classic essays like “Ripeness Is All,” “Logic and Lyric,” and “Plots and Errors,” Cunningham demonstrates that literature is incapable of being understood without the historical sense.

• C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis despised writing this volume in the Oxford History of English Literature, but the result is a model of how a comprehensive history of a literary period should be written.

• Morris Dickstein, Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945–1970. The mirror image of Lewis’s book: a model of compression in the writing of history. Dickstein is one of those old-fashioned tradtionalist humanists who has read everything, by the way.

• W. K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History. The “standard” work is Rene Wellek’s History of Modern Criticism in six volumes, although (as someone who was originally trained in the field) the title I most admire is Bernard Weinberg’s two-volume History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance. If pressed, I would reply that my own Elephants Teach is a contribution to the history of criticism.

• Leslie Stephen, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (2 vols.). Originally published in 1876, it still holds up remarkably well. The very sparseness of schoarly apparatus, the appeal to a common reader, makes it a good example of the kind.

• Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism (3 vols.). I’ve been called a red-baiter for even mentioning the title, but Kolakowski’s is an exhaustive study of every branch and twig of Marxism, displaying great disinterested scholarship and insistently clear prose. (Maybe those are what the reds object to?) Really intellectual history instead of literary history, but this is how the encyclopaedic study of a subliterature is done.

There are many more, and every scholar has his personal favorites—ten more titles will occur to me the moment I hit the Publish button—and then there are the titles that don’t fit anywhere, like Clive James’s quirky and judgmental Cultural Amnesia, which is a history of twentieth-century literature in several langauges without offering itself in those terms. It is, at all events, a truth rarely acknowledged that there have been great books written in literary history, although they have attracted few readers—even among serious students of literature, who might begin to fill their own “gigantic gaps” by studying them.

Update: John Wilson recommends Czeslaw Milosz’s History of Polish Literature. Darin Strauss recommends V. S. Pritchett’s Myth Makers or The Tale Bearers. Evan Hughes, the author of Literary Brooklyn, recommends Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds, a classic of American criticism.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The hope of digital humanities

Next week I return to Texas A&M University, where I started my academic career and spent twenty indifferent years of it, to deliver a lecture on the digital humanities. The subject is an appropriate one for me, I guess, since I was a pioneer of the digital humanities a good decade before they were even called that. Along with the late Denis Dutton, I founded the listserve discussion group PHIL-LIT in the summer of 1994, just a few weeks after L-Soft launched its first version of listserv software. I moderated PHIL-LIT for nine years until, sick unto death of the partisan politics that had crowded out any discussion of philosophy and literature, I pulled the plug on it.

All talk about the digital humanities is pretty evenly divided between those who are skeptical that computers will ever do anything more than lighten the drudgery of humanistic scholarship by speeding up its more mechanical tasks and those, like Alan Liu of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who are excited by the prospect of a “uniquely contemporary kind of discourse”:

Seen one way, such projects make the transmission of academic knowledge more efficient and flexible. . . . But, viewed differently, they also prepare the academy to refract such technologic through its own values, which are not always on the same page with the business master plan.[1]Just as long as the computer-ready humanities are not on the same page as business!

Number me among the skeptics. My suspicion is that what Liu calls the “structured encoding of knowledge” is really only another way—a newer way, I grant you, and for now a stranger way—of preparing copy for the printer. The printer has been replaced by a machine; our copy must now be machine readable. But the copy itself remains unchanged fundamentally (I apologize for the swear word). The encoding is a superaddition to it.

One reason for my skepticism is that the digital humanities have been around for nearly half a century now, and the hoped-for breakthrough has yet to occur. Jerome McGann, a well-known scholar of romanticism, expresses the hope succinctly when he predicts that computers will be able to “expose textual features that lie outside the usual purview of human readers.”[2] But even the most successful work in the digital humanities (like the four-author paper “The Expression of Emotion in 20th Century Books,” with its impressive equations and graphs) has produced what scientists call results of low statistical power—small sample sizes, small effects being studied.

In 1965, IBM awarded a grant to Yale University to investigate the promise of computers in humanistic research. At the inevitable conference that ensued, the late Jacques Barzun was optimistic about the promise of computers for indexing, collating, verifying, drawing up concordances, and similar attention-to-detail work, but he warned that humanists who hope to rely upon the computer for more far-reaching results will only “reduce wholes to discrete parts that are disconnected from the value or nature of the whole.”[3]

Barzun’s warning is even more timely now that digitalization has opened up archives and library collections that were once closed to everyone outside a small elite. By means of topic modeling, a humanistic scholar can now search more text in an afternoon than he previously could in a lifetime. But the problem—the problem as defined by Barzun—remains. The excited advocates of the digital humanities, which they familiarly call DH (they don’t mean Lawrence), are worried about a different problem altogether, which they are confident the new computer-backed methods and conventions will solve:What galvanizes many of us working in cultural heritage is how DH tools and practices will enable us to move beyond the traditional methodologies of description of, and access to, archival or cultural collections. These traditional practices, holdovers from a world of physical materials and all the attendant requirements of arrangement, bulk, and storage, have also been fundamentally subjective. Catalogs, finding aids, L[ibrary of] C[ongress] S[ubject] H[eadings]—all are products of interpretive biases.So too, for that matter, are topic models. There is no escaping the undertow of subjectivity, which is simply another way of saying that data are not self-interpreting: a mind must interpose between machine and meaning. And this is the scandal of the digital humanities. They have been unsuccessful at their fondest hope—eliminating the mind from humanistic scholarship.

Barzun’s warning is a reminder that mind, the moisture in the robot, is forever indispensable to human knowledge, including the humanities. The connection of discrete parts to the value and nature of the whole is an operation that can only be performed by a human being who is capable of judgment in addition to designing search protocols.

Let me brag for a moment. Perhaps my only substantive contribution to humanistic learning is the discovery that Ralph Waldo Emerson coined the term creative writing, which he first used in “The American Scholar” (a discovery that has been incorporated, without attribution, into the third edition of the OED, by the way, thus giving the lie to Cassio’s claim that his reputation is a man’s immortal part). Without question, the selection of archival materials that I plowed through to study the history of the idea of creative writing was a product of my interpretive bias. But the mistake is to assume that my bias illegitimately skewed the search results somehow. You are not permitted to ignore the fact that I was right about the origin of the term. My bias (namely, that creative writing reeks of American romanticism) led me to the right materials.

The confidence that they “will enable us to move beyond the traditional methodologies” might be called the Great White Hope of the digital humanities. It is overweight, overhyped, an expression of superstition and prejudice.

The real promise of the digital humanities is at once less exciting and more liberating. What the digital humanities promise is the death of the credential. Anyone at all can now undertake an inquiry into the human heritage, and anyone at all can now publish her findings. No one need any longer submit her research for prior approval to a figure in a position of institutional power. She is free to follow her inclinations and talents—free to follow them as far as they will carry her. This is what political conservatives, who complain incessantly about the “liberal bias” in academe, fail to understand. No one is in control of humanistic scholarship any longer, no party, no league of prestigious institutions, no system of acceptance and rejection. When credentials have lost their cultural influence, the only influence in the humanities will be the influence of brilliant undeterred minds. And that is the final hope of the digital humanities.

[1] Alan Liu, “Transcendental Data: Toward a Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse,” Critical Inquiry 31 (Autumn 2004).

[2] Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (New York: Palgrave, 2001), p. 190.

[3] Jacob Leed, Review of Computers for the Humanities? A Record of the Confederence Sponsored by Yale University on a Grant from IBM, January 22–23, 1965, Computers and the Humanities 1 (September 1966): 13.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Masters of Atlantis

Masters of Atlantis was the fourth novel by Charles Portis, who is customarily identified as the author of True Grit. Familiar to American readers from the two movie versions of it (1969, 2010), True Grit is perfect of its kind, and its kind is not very hard to name. It is a first-person “adventure” novel, like Huckleberry Finn or Lolita, in which stop-and-go travel through an American landscape along with the narrator’s voice and moral intelligence—what is commonly and mistakenly called an unreliable narrator—are at least as significant as the “adventures.” Portis’s other four novels (Masters of Atlantis was followed six years later by Gringos, his last novel so far) are more resistant to classification.

None more so than Masters of Atlantis (1985). I was drawn to it for the same reason I suspect Portis might have been drawn to the subject—he has been called a “cult novelist” so often, with such mind-numbing banality, that an inside look at a real cult was badly needed to break the habit (not that it has). The 24-chapter novel recounts the history of the Gnomon Society, a cross between a secret order and a New Age religion based on “the secret wisdom of Atlantis,” from its first appearance in France in 1917 until its investigation by the Texas state senate and final consolidation some five decades later in the south Texas town of La Coma, “a town notable for its blowing paper.” The best reaction I’ve had so far was from my physical therapist, who asked excitedly what I was reading. I showed her the cover of the Overlook Press reprint edition, and her smile froze on her face as she assumed I was reading a credulous zealot’s account, an esoteric book full of esoteric knowledge, like Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis, which would have numbered me among the “Odd Birds,” a list of whom Lamar Jimmerson, the Master of the Society, culls for men who might be interested in Gnomonism, men

who ordered strange merchandise through the mail, went to court often, wrote letters to the editor, wore unusual headgear, kept rooms that were filled with rocks or old newspapers. In short, independent thinkers, who might be more receptive to the Atlantean lore than the general run of men.Much of what Portis is trying to do in his fiction is contained in this short passage. The difference between “independent thinkers” and full-out crackpots is thin, not always easy to see, possibly as much an accident of history as anything else.

Portis has succeeded Wright Morris as the American novelist who is known for being unknown. There are some suggestive parallels between him and Roger Miller, the singer-songwriter whose name keeps coming up in Portis’s wonderful Saturday Evening Post report on “The New Sound from Nashville,” reprinted in Jay Jennings’s indispensable new “Portis miscellany” Escape Velocity. “He’s a genius,” the songwriter Jan Crutchfield said of Miller. “[H]e was knocking around here for years and couldn’t get anywhere. They didn’t even know what he was trying to do.” Portis advances Miller’s career asa good measure of what the Grand Ole Opry is all about. In the bad old rock-’n’-roll days, the Opry stood firm when other hillbilly shows around the South were giving way. The Opry came through it and the others only managed to lose both audiences. But this same conservatism led it to overlook Miller.Almost exactly the same can be said about the literary establishment and Portis’s literary career. Perhaps the most famous critical remark about him is what gave Ed Park the title for his 2003 article in the Believer: “Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to,” the humorist Roy Blount Jr. once said, “but he’d rather be funny.” Except that Portis has nothing in common with McCarthy, not even geography. It would be more accurate to say that Portis could have been the second coming of Flannery O’Connor (“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one”), except that he is not Catholic, his corner of Arkansas appears to be the one part of the South that is not particularly Christ-haunted, his conception of man is not theological, and his freaks are not freaks but ordinary men and women.

With all that, Masters of Atlantis reads like Wise Blood in ecstatic and sinful union with The Blithedale Romance. Gnomonism has its popularizer and traveling salesman in the figure of Austin Popper, who has “the vulgar inclination to make everything clear” and reduces the demands of becoming an Adept in the Society:The two nights of initiation were reduced to a token twenty minutes, with no insistence on figs, and the Pledge was no longer eight densely printed pages of Hermetical mystery lore and bloody vows of faith to the Ten Pillars of Atlantis—all to be recited without stumbling once—but rather one short paragraph that was little more than a bland affirmation of humility before the unseen powers of the universe.But the mystery lore and the Ten Pillars also have their credulous zealots who, just like Hollingsworth and Coverdale on their utopian farm, believe with utter sincerity that it is “wiser, if not more sagacious, to follow out one’s daydream to its natural consummation, although, if the vision have been worth the having, it is certain never to be consummated otherwise than by a failure.”

It is a tribute to Portis’s genius to have understood that, while only the popularly successful versions of esoteric spirituality—Edgar Cayce, James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy, the Church of Scientology, the Kabbalah Center—ever win much attention in America, there are failures in esoteric spirituality too. And failure gives the lie to the American skepticism that all of these storefront churches and secret orders dedicated to the rediscovery of ancient wisdom are rackets—that they are, in Mr. Jimmerson’s own words, “running a stupendous bluff.” Americans have just as strong a talent for credulity as skepticism.

During the ’thirties, the Gnomon Society enjoys a brief period of success. The Depression leaves some men “so desperate as to seek answers in books.” The Codex Pappus, the Society’s sacred text, which Mr. Jimmerson received from the hands of Pletho Pappus himself in Europe after World War I, goes into a second printing of 5,000 copies. Mr. Jimmerson writes 101 Gnomon Facts, Why I Am a Gnomon, and Tracking the Telluric Currents. The Gnomon Temple is opened in Burnette, Indiana, “the most fashionable suburb of Gary.” But then comes the inevitable schism with the English branch of Gnomonism, and the Society enters into a long period of decline. Mr. Jimmerson is undisturbed. He prefers to think of it as “the right pitch, this drowsy afternoon air of not much going on, a state very close to that of sleep.” At the age of forty-six, he looks forward to his senescence.

Reviewing the novel for the Chicago Tribune, L. J. Davis was irked by Portis’s vagueness about the conceptual content of Gnomonism. “When Kurt Vonnegut set out to invent a religion, bokononism, in his novel Cat’s Cradle, we soon learned exactly what it was, how it worked and what its doctrines were,” Davis said; “Portis vouchsafes us no such insight.” But that was the point. At the height of its popularity, Portis writes (in a passage Davis must have overlooked), Gnomonism was attacked by bishops, “academic rationalists,” Masons, “political engineers,” and newspaper writers:None of these gentlemen could say just what Gnomonism was—the Archbishop of Chicago had it confused with Gnosticism—but they all agreed it was something to stay clear of. Why the secrecy? Who are these people? Whatever it is they are concealing must be evil. What are their long-range plans? Do they claim magical powers? What are they up to with their triangles? [Italics in original]“That fog,” as Portis says elsewhere in the book, “was there for a purpose.” New Age spirituality, of which Gnomonism is an example avant la lettre, places less emphasis on exactly what it is, on doctrines and how the new thinking works, than on its source. As a scholar of New Age religion explains, “[T]he idea is that an inner core of true spirituality lies hidden behind the outer surface of all religious traditions, and the knowledge of it has been kept alive by secret traditions throughout the ages.”[1] Even toward the end of the novel, as the Gnomon Society has dwindled to a single chapter in Texas, as the Gnomon Temple is stranded between “two parts of a divided highway” with a “maintenance yard for the city’s dump trucks and garbage trucks” in its backyard, new seekers after wisdom find their way to Gnomonism. A court stenographer from Chicago, a man in his fifties named Maurice Babcock, stumbles upon a copy of 101 Gnomon Facts, takes it home and reads it throughwith wonder, lost in triangles for the weekend. This is the stuff for me. He knew it at once. This is what I’ve been looking for. My search for certitudes is over. He hastened to Burnette and called on Mr. Jimmerson, hopeful of getting an autograph, a word or two from the Master’s lips, more and thicker books, with footnotes longer than the text proper, perhaps even a signed photograph.These secret orders and born-in-the-U.S.A. religions are real institutions of American life, perhaps even important institutions of American life, almost entirely dismissed by the literary intelligentsia. For Portis, the Gnomon Society (like any New Age religion) is only partly cause for satire, although it is most definitely cause for satire. But it is also a distinct and autonomous culture, with its central figures and hangers-on and sworn enemies, its manners and special language and idiosyncrasies of mind, which shape the lives of some people as much as love and work and politics. Without exactly taking it seriously, Portis finds it remarkable—remarkable perhaps that anyone at all finds it believable—but not grotesque or freakish so much as distinctively American, a home-made institution of independence and self-reliance.

Compare his treatment of the Gnomon Society to another literary account of uneducated white truth-seekers (because it is they who populate New Age cults). In Scott Spencer’s Men in Black (1995), a serious writer, a writer of autobiographical fiction (the only kind of writing that passes as serious in some quarters), gives up on literary failure and strikes it rich with Visitors from Above, a book about UFO’s. Sam Holland wrote the book to strike it rich, and he is contemptuous of the men and women who have made him successful:My readers had casts on their feet, Ace bandages on their ankles, patches on their eyes; they received radio signals through the fillings in their teeth; they needed to lose weight, gargle; they had lost their meager inheritances in pyramid schemes; they wouldn't mind selling you mail-order shoes or Amway kitchen cleansers; they rattled around the country on secondary roads where the gas and food were cheaper; they tested their cellars for radon; they called the Culligan Man; they watched the Christian Broadcasting System; they looked for stores that still sold eight-track tapes; they lived near electric-power-line towers the size of the Washington Monument; they had guns.Portis does not share this sense of superiority. His inside account of the Gnomon Society is hysterical, but not because it is an invitation to condescension. Portis’s many admirers like to describe his comic delivery as “deadpan,” but even this expression implies an attitude that is being suppressed, although winked at. And that’s not quite right, doesn’t quite capture Portis’s tone or stance. A clue appears when the Gnomon Society hires a journalist named Huggins to serve as editorial advisor. Huggins doesn’t last very long. He refuses to become a Gnomon, perhaps out of “a newspaperman’s terror of being duped.”

Portis himself was a newspaperman of the old style. Although he worked at the New York Herald Tribune during its glory days—he had the desk behind Tom Wolfe with a full view of the birth of the New Journalism, or at least its backside—Portis recalled that he did “more or less straight newspaper reporting,” the “old, dreary journalism.”

Along with a terror of being duped, the old dreary journalist had a terror of being wrong. In an interview, he told about being on the same story, once, with Jimmy Breslin:I had to cover a story opposite him one time in Haneyville, Alabama, one of those Ku Klux trials down there, and Claude Sitton, my national editor, was on me because Breslin, you know, was a colorful writer, and Sitton wanted more of that in my copy. I treasure the day when I was able to call Sitton and say, “Did you see that long quote in Breslin’s column today? Leroy Motten saying so and so?” I said, “It’s all made up.” Son of a bitch didn’t say it. Even had it wrong. [Ed.: See correction in comments section below.]Portis’s secret in Masters of Atlantis is to tell the story of an obscure luckless religious cult, a den of nutcases, as if it were straight reporting, factually correct, without exaggeration for comic effect. The result is so funny you can’t read it safely in a public place. Masters of Atlantis is a great joy to read—it is the very novel for which the phrase “curl up with” seems to have been invented—but it leaves a curious aftertaste. You begin to worry if the intellectual independence of which you are so proud, the principled shunning of America’s consumer culture, the patient acquisition of rare and unpopular knowledge over the course of a lifetime, doesn’t make you just as nutty as the Gnomons. Who knows but that the literary life is nothing more than another esoteric New Age religious cult?

[1] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “New Age Religion and Secularization,” Numen 47, Fasc. 3, Religions in the Disenchanted World (2000): 292.