October 29, 2007

This Week in My Classes (October 29, 2007)

It's all Middlemarch, all the time this week (and next week, and the week after that). And even so, I know I will end up worrying about all the things we didn't talk about. In my undergraduate lecture class, we'll focus today on the novel's structure and how it reinforces important ideas and themes. In particular, we will examine the complex chronology of some key sections, looking at the way the narrative goes back in time in order to bring us to an event from a different perspective. One of my favourite examples is at the end of Chapter 27 (the chapter which, appropriately, begins with the famous pier glass passage). It's a chapter mostly chronicling the developing relationship between Lydgate and Rosamond; it concludes with Sir James Chettam's servant stopping Lydgate as he walks with Rosamond, to take him to Lowick. As we learn, he is needed there because Casaubon has had some kind of heart attack. In Chapter 27, the incident is important, not as part of Casaubon's story, but as part of Rosamond's (more evidence for her satisfied theory that Lydgate is a cut above her other Middlemarch suitors) and part of Lydgate's (a sign that his practice is beginning to flourish, despite his having alienated some of Peacock's former patients by his innovative methods). The incident (we figure out later) takes place in March. But Chapter 28 begins in January, taking us back to Dorothea and Casaubon's return from their dismal honeymoon and then following the stories of her growing disillusionment, his creeping jealousy about Will Ladislaw, and his diminishing health--bringing us up to the attack in Chapter 29. "But why always Dorothea?" asks the narrator as Chapter 29 opens--and of course the novel models the morally necessary movement of our attention and sympathy among different points of view. I often invite the class to come up with some kind of graphic representation of many people arriving at the same event (our class meeting, say), but coming from many different perspectives and all having slightly different experiences. The results, usefully, tend to look either like a tangled web or a giant hairball (the latter once they realize the advantages of working in 3-D for showing simultaneous but different strands). How can a narrative recreate these effects? I usually end up quoting Carlyle's remark that "narrative is linear, but action is solid." The formal challenge for the novelist is substantial, as are the mental demands on the reader. Later (probably next week) we will look at another pattern of repetition in which a place (such as Dorothea's blue-green boudoir) or an event (such as the first time Dorothea sees Will and Rosamond together) is revisited in light of new information. In these cases we have internal or mental movement working to the same ends as the chronological and other disruptions in today's examples.

In my graduate seminar, the discussion will be less choreographed, which means I can look forward to some surprises--always refreshing with a novel you teach often. I know we will begin with a presentation on Dorothea and women's education, which is a promising lead in to many key issues in the novel. Our secondary readings for this week are primarily contextual: George Levine on George Eliot's determinism, and Bernard Paris on her 'religion of humanity.' We are certainly getting a third distinct model of authorship: we have worked with Charlotte Bronte, who (at least as quoted in Gaskell's biography) emphatically demanded freedom for her imagination and refused to write except as the spirit moved her; then with Elizabeth Gaskell, whose strongest motivation is social reform and reconciliation; and now with a writer whose vision of fiction is highly philosophical. In her commitment to the novel's capacity to cause change, even improvement, GE is closer to Gaskell than to Bronte. Levine argues that to GE "a belief in the possibility of some kind of occurence not usually produced by the normal workings of the laws of nature became to her one of the positive signs of moral weakness. . . . [she] believed it morally reprehensible to rely on the unlikely or unusual, even if there is a remote chance that it might happen" (272). I don't recall any specific comments from GE herself about this aspect of Jane Eyre, including Bronte's own defence of the mysterious communication between Jane and Rochester (about which Gaskell quotes Bronte saying, "But it is a true thing; it really happened"). (In an 1848 letter, young Mary Ann, having just read Jane Eyre, sounds a critical note: "I have read Jane Eyre, mon ami, and shall be glad to know what you admire in it. All self-sacrifice is good--but one would like it to be in a somewhat nobler cause than that of a diabolical law which chains a man soul and body to a putrefying carcase." We might want to discuss how far her concept of the nobility of self-sacrifice has shifted by the time she gives us Dorothea's "submission" to Casaubon's needs, characterized in Chapter 43 as the reassertion of a "noble habit of the soul.") The Levine and Paris articles are both from the early 1960s: given my recent fretting about the pressure to turn our critical attention to ourselves, or to a text's unconscious aspects (the things it says without knowing or meaning to) rather than to the conversation it is overtly trying to have with us, these are interesting examples of rather different priorities. I certainly think that they are more broadly valuable than some of the more esoteric readings of Middlemarch: any responsible reader of the novel needs, or would benefit from, some grasp of its philosophical underpinnings. But we'll be looking at some samples of other readings that work against the grain as well, including another "classic" with J. Hillis Miller's "Narrative and History," and we'll 'go meta' ourselves when we consider the vexed status of the novel among feminist critics.

October 28, 2007

George Eliot and Prayer

Further to my earlier post on George Eliot as the 'friendly face of unbelief,' here's a passage that stood out to me as I was rereading Middlemarch this weekend for my classes:
Lydgate rose, and Dorothea mechanically rose at the same time, unclasping her cloak and throwing it off as if it stifled her. He was bowing and quitting her, when an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer, made her say with a sob in her voice --

"Oh, you are a wise man, are you not? You know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do. He has been laboring all his life and looking forward. He minds about nothing else. -- And I mind about nothing else -- "

For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal -- this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully illuminated life. (Chapter 30)
It's a charged moment in the novel for several reasons, not least because it sets us (and Lydgate) up for the painful contrast between Dorothea's desire to do something if at all possible, and Rosamond's later indifference to her role in Lydgate's financial crises ("What can I do, Tertius?"). But it also nicely, and subtly, illustrates George Eliot's appreciation for religion (as distinct from theology, we might say) as a yearning to have and receive help and guidance in our "fitfully illuminated" lives--and her commitment to redefining it in secular terms. Dorothea is deeply religious, and George Eliot never belittles her for seeking understanding and connection beyond what she can readily see in the world around her. But, as this example implies, prayer (appealing to supernatural forces) is the resort of those who are "alone," or who fail to understand the primacy of the human connections and resources available in their "embroiled medium." Her impulse to prayer is rightly channeled here into an appeal to a "kindred nature," one with the secular wisdom to advise her, at least in this medical crisis. The "cry from soul to soul" repeatedly proves more valuable in the novel than any appeal to doctrine or to supernatural authority: Rosamond, for instance, is famously brought to a sort of 'confession' and even 'salvation' (though limited in scope) by Dorothea's climactic visit in Chapter 81:
Her voice had sunk very low: there was a dread upon her of presuming too far, and of speaking as if she herself were perfection addressing error. She was too much preoccupied with her own anxiety, to be aware that Rosamond was trembling too; and filled with the need to express pitying fellowship rather than rebuke, she put her hands on Rosamond's, and said with more agitated rapidity, -- " I know, I know that the feeling may be very dear -- it has taken hold of us unawares -- it is so hard, it may seem like death to part with it -- and we are weak -- I am weak -- "

The waves of her own sorrow, from out of which she was struggling to save another, rushed over Dorothea with conquering force. She stopped in speechless agitation. not crying, but feeling as if she were being inwardly grappled. Her face had become of a deathlier paleness, her lips trembled, and she pressed her hands helplessly on the hands that lay under them.

Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own -- hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect -- could find no words, but involuntarily she put her lips to Dorothea's forehead which was very near her, and then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck.

"You are thinking what is not true," said Rosamond, in an eager half-whisper, while she was still feeling Dorothea's arms round her...

To do better--to act morally--they need each other, a sufficiently strong sense of human fellowship and need, and a sufficiently strong sense of responsibility for the outcome of their actions. There's no need in this scenario for the supernatural. In fact, as George Eliot argues in several essays and reviews (and implicitly in all of her novels) religious doctrines such as belief in an afterlife actively work against "genuine feelings of justice and benevolence." To go back to my first example, the impulse to prayer is simply the form taken by a natural longing for help and connection, validated and given form by historical tradition but, as our society and our moral philosophy matures, properly redirected to each other.

October 27, 2007

Ian Rankin, Exit Music

Not long ago I observed that I would be sorry to see the last of Ian Rankin's surly Scotch-soaked detective, John Rebus. Having now read Exit Music, my anticipated regrets are confirmed; Exit Music shows both Rankin and Rebus in characteristically good form. I don't have much to add to what has been said about it already in reviews and other blogs (Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor, for instance, has a nice post on it), except to remark that this series exemplifies the challenge writers in this genre face with characterization--most of the characters, for plot and suspense reasons, need to be a degree opaque--as well as the best way they find out of it, namely the series characters, whose characterization can be enriched across many volumes even as, as characters, they change and develop. In this series, of course, it's not just Rebus (who doesn't really change much, actually, though we know him better and better), but Siobhan Clarke who offers the human interest and complexity that move the books beyond the superficiality to which 'puzzle' mysteries are vulnerable. At the same time, Rankin keeps a careful balance between personal and procedural developments. The close engagement between Rebus and Edinburgh's history and politics, a thematic preoccupation since Knots and Crosses, is in full play here as well; in fact, Rebus's brooding here about the city's "overworld," which he finds as threatening and corrupt as its "underworld," reminded me very much of that first novel. Because we end up having relationships with series characters across long swathes of our own lives, Rebus's brooding on the way his work has dominated his life and identity, and therefore on what and who he will be after retirement, couldn't help but make me reflect on my own choices--and my own aging...in this respect at least, I appreciate Sue Grafton's decision to keep Kinsey Millhone back in the 1980s (no cell phone, never mind an iPod), though probably that is also one reason, among others, why that series seems to me rather to have stagnated.

October 25, 2007

A Critic's Library

ReadySteadyBook points us to this interesting series at Critical Mass: "Each week, the NBCC will post a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries." Writers surveyed so far include John Updike, Morris Dickstein, Cynthia Ozick, Colm Toibin and Katha Politt; Eric Auerbach's Mimesis is an unexpected crowd favourite, while some point to works of fiction or poetry rather than criticism or theory. If the question really is which books would be most useful to a practising critic, I think I'd incline towards reference books as much as exemplary scholarship or criticism. How about these five?
  1. The Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms.
  3. Joseph Williams, Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
  4. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction.
  5. Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.
On the other hand, if the real question is not which five books would be most useful for the broadest range of critical work but which five books exemplify your critical ideals, or which five books most provoked you to think about critical issues, or which five critical books you felt taught you the most about how to read (whether or not, in the end, you agree with them all the way), the list would look quite different, maybe something like this:
  1. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (or Natural Supernaturalism).
  2. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic.
  3. Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction.
  4. Martha Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature.
  5. David Lodge, The Art of Fiction.
But of course five is really not enough: I'd want to get in at least some of James's critical prefaces, and some of Woolf's Common Reader, and George Eliot's essays, and probably The Great Tradition, because what it does, it does well, and maybe Lukacs's The Historical Novel...So what would your top five be (and how would you choose to understand the question)?

October 22, 2007

If a blog falls in the forest and nobody hears it...

Some assorted and preliminary follow-up thoughts to my previous post on blogging as a spectator sport:
  1. While I certainly find some value in blogging for myself, in sorting out my thoughts more carefully than I sometimes do in a notebook, for instance, because of the chance that someone else will read them, and in the practice it gives me in writing often, and in the excuse to write about books and topics not strictly work-related and in a relatively informal way--while I like these and some other aspects of blogging, I am disappointed in it at this point as a medium for dialogue and exchange. To be sure, the format readily allows for plenty of back-and-forth, through comments and replies or through linking, cross-posting, and cross-referencing. I certainly don't get much of that here, myself. It's true that as far as I know I have very few readers, and I don't post much that's edgy or controversial--but I do sometimes ask questions of my (imagined) audience, and sometimes it would just be nice to know what someone else thinks, whether of something I've read or of an issue I'm puzzling over--to have some constructive but casual conversation. I can think of two factors that militate against me in particular, in this regard: in the first place, there are over 75 million blogs now, so it's no wonder that things are quite quiet over here; and in the second place, the kind of conversation I imagine is hard to come by in the 'real' world because the people I'd like to talk to are very busy, and I'm sure the same is true in the 'blogosphere.' But my question about the possibilities of dialogue-through-blogging is only partly about my own case, because (sensibly) my expectations remain about as low as my profile. The thing is, as I mention in the post I've linked to above, even the busy discussions on some of the most established 'academic' blogs are dominated by a small number of avid participants, while the rest of us basically eavesdrop or 'lurk.' The more political the topic, the more likely it seems to be to engage people. (Though there are always surprises: I think the longest comment thread I've come across anywhere is still this one , with 210 comments on the first round and 53 more on the next...)
  2. One aspect of this situation that I've been thinking about is the tension between generalization and specialization that academic blogs perhaps illustrate. It's difficult to provoke comments on a specialized topic, except from other specialists. Non-specialists may be interested in reading or using your material, but they are unlikely to add to it. (I'm thinking, for instance, of the posts on The Little Professor about Victorian anti-Catholic texts: this is just not a topic on which many people can, or would, chime in, though now I know where to go if I want to learn something about them.) But if your offerings are general enough to interest a lot of people, they may lose their value in establishing a community of expertise, or in contributing to the development of your professional work. And if, as in some of the cases I linked to in my earlier post, they tend towards current events and political controversies, they may not be the kinds of conversations you are keen to participate in, especially publicly, or especially if you're not American and don't follow all the latest headlines.
  3. Further to that last point, I'm starting to notice a divide in blogging between two kinds of literary sites, which I would roughly divide into 'bookish' and 'academic'--and the academic ones really don't seem that literary, in the sense of talking about, well, literature, as opposed to politics, philosophy, theory, and criticism. (I know, I know: talking about literature always involves politics, philosophy, and theory, etc....) I 'm thinking especially at this point of The Valve, subtitled 'A Literary Organ,' after all. The bookish ones seem quite contemporary in their focus, so for those of us who spend most of our time reading loose baggy monsters from the 19th century, well, once again but for different reasons, we aren't really equipped to jump in--and there too, I don't see that much discussion, to return to my first point. A third category would be the 'academic specialty' site, like Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog or The Long Eighteenth, or Blogging the Renaissance, all of which do seem to represent a virtual community offering its members fellowship and mental stimulation--but within established boundaries (that is, I don't see them as trying to bridge any gaps between specialists and generalists--which is not to say that I think they should, just to observe that their aims seem rather different than the aims of The Valve).
I realize these remarks are rather rambling (it's been a long day) but I wanted to get some of them down, not least because I volunteered to give a short talk in my department next month, sort of a 'show and tell' about academic blogging and I'm trying to pin down my impressions. I'd be curious to know what others (especially but not exclusively other bloggers) think about how well blogs do or can work for fostering dialogue, or about how much (or whether) commenting matters to the value of blogging. I'd also be happy to learn of other models of academic or literary blogs.

This Week in My Classes (October 22, 2007)

1. 19th-Century Novel. Today we begin three weeks on Middlemarch. To me, this is what going to university should be about: this novel challenges us intellectually and philosophically, and it is aesthetically and formally brilliant. As if that's not enough, it's also very funny ("'He has got no good red blood in his body,' said Sir James. 'No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses,' said Mrs Cadwallader"). I'll open today with a lecture on George Eliot's very interesting life as well as an overview of some key ideas governing her fiction (realism, determinism, sympathy). Then we'll get started on the particulars of Middlemarch itself next time, probably with a focus on Dorothea's marriage and the ways it (and, of course, its treatment by the narrator and in the narrative) highlights the central issue of (mis)interpretation.

2. Victorian Women Writers. It's week two on North and South. Last week we ended up talking quite a lot about the obviously crucial scene in which Margaret confronts the striking workers on the steps of Thornton's mill. One of the key interpretive questions about the novel is the relationship between the private or romance plot and the social or political plot. We read some interesting articles on this last week and no doubt our discussion of it will continue, now that everyone has read to the end of the book. I hope we will also focus on what the novel says about the problem of women's vocation: one of this week's critical articles puts the novel in the context of the Crimean War and makes a number of connections with Florence Nightingale, which is interesting. As we begin Middlemarch in our seminar next week (yes, I get to work on it in two classes at once, which I call luxurious!), we will also be able to put Margaret's efforts to find meaningful occupation up against Dorothea's. Does Margaret perhaps fare better than Dorothea in the end, at least in this respect? Is that a problem, in the end, for Gaskell's social analysis?

October 18, 2007

"Proud Atheists" Pinker and Goldstein Interviewed

There's an extremely interesting interview with Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein at Salon.Com:

Would you say your common interests are partly what brought you together?

GOLDSTEIN: Oh yes, completely. Actually, we met through each other's work. I was a great fan of Steve's work. And then I discovered that he had cited me in one of his books. It was my unusual use of an irregular verb. So it was completely through our work and my tremendous interest in Steve's work that we first came to know each other. I don't know if I should say this, but when I first met Steve in the flesh, I said that the way he thinks had so completely changed the way I think -- particularly what I had learned from him about cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology -- that I said, "I don't think I've had my mind so shaken up by any thinker since [18th-century philosopher] David Hume." And he very modestly said, "That can't be the case." But it was the case. So I can certainly say that Steve has profoundly influenced the way I think.

PINKER: I've certainly been influenced by Rebecca as well. Our connection isn't just that we met through an irregular verb, which sounds like the ultimate literary romance of two nerds finding each other. [Goldstein laughs.] Rebecca as a philosopher is a strong defender of realism -- the idea that there is a real world that we can come to know --which emboldened me to press that theme in my own writings, even though people often say that we just construct reality through language. And the topic of consciousness -- how the mind emerges from the body, and what makes the three-pound organ that we call the brain actually experience things subjectively -- is a theme that runs through both my nonfiction and Rebecca's fiction and her philosophical writings.

Read the rest here. I am keen to read Goldstein's book on Spinoza, not least because of his influence on George Eliot.

"An Actual Literary Critic"?

Thanks to Dan Green for pointing us to this thoughtful piece on James Wood. Though I have read only some of Wood's extensive critical output, I have certainly been impressed at both his compelling close reading and his commitment to taking literature and its forms and effects seriously; as I mostly share his apparent prejudices in favour of realism, character, and moral seriousness, I don't really mind what DG calls his 'aesthetic conservatism' (frankly, in these "everything's a text" days, I find it refreshing) and I'm certainly in sympathy with the idea that whatever his prejudices, the 'evangelical zeal' he brings to his criticism raises the level of the debate for all of us. As usual, I find myself fretting when I read comments like this:
In a world in which it seems that every year there are fewer and fewer readers, perhaps any serious dialogue about what makes good literature good and bad literature bad is, after all, good. In an interview, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist of The Hours (and director of the program where I am pursuing an MFA in fiction) Michael Cunningham said that “in the scattershot climate of contemporary literary criticism,” he is thankful for “an actual literary critic.”
I guess that makes a lot of us 'virtual' literary critics? But I think I understand the standard Cunningham is invoking here. If you conceive of a critic as someone with a public role, a kind of intellectual and literary intermediary between writers and their broadest audience, there's no doubt that most academic critics do not fit this model. Most histories of criticism acknowledge that 'once upon a time' the situation was different; here's Brian McRae, for instance, from Addison and Steele are Dead:
For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter.
Of course, writers of this history vary in their attitudes, some celebrating, some accepting, and some deploring the development of today's highly specialized, professionalized 'discipline' of literary criticism. But there's no doubt that one result of it is that academic criticism has become largely uninteresting and irrelevant to a lot of readers. Most of the time we do write for a kind of 'virtual' world, hoping that some day someone will happen across our small contribution to some sub-field and find it valuable. I've been challenged before to explain why our scholarly work should be expected to appeal to non-specialists when the research of academics in other fields is not. I'm still thinking about this question, which I still believe is not adequately answered by pointing to current disciplinary norms or professional demands.

October 17, 2007

October Fatigue Syndrome

It all seems so easy and exciting and then the assignments start coming in and it's almost SSHRC season and students need letters and things pile up....I have several topics in mind that I'd like to write up proper posts on if I had more time and energy, but I'll have to settle for the thumbnail versions for now.
  1. Blogging as a spectator sport. I remain enthusiastic about the potential blogs show for generating scholarly conversation, but now that I follow some blogs fairly regularly I am noticing that those that actually get much discussion going in the comments section are heavily dominated by a fairly small handful of contributors, most of whom seem to know each other very well and thus to be engaged in their own special game of point-counterpoint. I'm not saying that nothing of interest or value goes on, and I'm sure there's no intent to be exclusive and that what I'm seeing is partly the result of the particular blogs I've taken to watching. But it's all a bit claustrophobic in its own way, and off-putting for newcomers, or at least for me. It's kind of clubby, which seems ironic given the medium. Others offer a pretty steady stream of mildly to very interesting comments, reviews, or opinions, but again, not much goes on in the comments sections, although apparently they have hundreds of readers. (I'm not taking into account in these observations blogs that proffer primarily personal anecdote or that mostly collate links from elsewhere, or those that define themselves as literary or bookish, rather than academic, several of which I also now keep an eye on and enjoy. I'm thinking here about blogs that try to realize the idea of academic community idealized in some of the meta-discussions I've read.) All of these blogs are also American, and they reflect a particularly intense interest in relationships between academic work and the American political scene which is, of course, perfectly legitimate but not as compelling a context for people on the outside (following some of these threads has brought back unpleasant flashbacks of some of my own graduate school experiences at Cornell, back when 'culture wars' was not a historical reference...and in my imaginary longer version of this post, I meditate a bit on the differences between Canadian and American universities and wonder why there seem to be so few Canadian academics who blog).
  2. Undergraduate relativism, as discussed, for instance, in this little Chronicle piece. It is true that undergraduates are uneasy having evaluative conversations about art. I challenged my class today to argue for or against the inclusion of Lady Audley's Secret on our syllabus and though there were several remarks about books that are good to read vs. books that are good to study, nobody seemed to have much stomach for saying it just isn't very well written. In the longer (imaginary) version of this post I add a bunch of qualifications about defining "well written" and acknowledge reasons for including things in courses beyond aesthetic or formal ones (historical ones, for instance).
  3. Mark Kingwell's off-hand proposal for a grade-free university at the end of this Globe and Mail article. It's true that plagiarism is in the air (I know of three cases already being pursued in my department alone this term, and no doubt there are more), and for sure he's right that if papers weren't worth marks, there would not be much point in cheating on them, but how exactly he envisions the system working, especially given how fixated students are on credentials, rather than on the substance of their education, I have no idea. He mentions offering exams at the end of term for those who can't do without evaluation. Does he imagine something like a British-style tutorial system the rest of the time? Assignments that we comment on but don't put grades on?

October 15, 2007

This Week in My Classes (October 15, 2007)

1. 19th-Century Fiction. This week is our second and last on Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret. I closed out last week with an overview of Pre-Raphaelitism, to help us think about the significance of Lady Audley's portrait, which we are told must have been painted by a member of that movement:
No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait. . . . my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend. (Ch. VIII)
There are many PRB paintings that capture the quality Braddon evokes here; this is one of my favourites. This week we will focus on the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between Lady Audley and Robert Audley, the investigator-hero of the novel (or is he?). Issues likely to come up include just what the stakes are for both of these characters in the batttle to reveal or conceal Lady Audley's real identity and (presumed) crimes, and the displacement of Robert's affection for his lost buddy George Talboys onto George's eerily similar sister, Clara. When we get to the end of the novel, we will debate whether Lady Audley is ultimately offered to us as evidence of the danger dissatisfied women pose to social and sexual hierarchies or as a clever woman who uses her beauty as capital in a society that otherwise inhibits her access to capital and thus to social advancement. I've yet to be convinced that Braddon herself offers a coherent position on whether Lady Audley is more to be feared or pitied; the late chapter title "Buried Alive" seems to urge us towards the latter, but there's only so much sympathy or feminist ire I can muster on behalf of a homicidal bigamist.... It is always a bit discouraging to me how popular this novel is with my students, full as it is of cheap tricks and thoughtless language. But I wouldn't assign it if I didn't think we would all learn from talking about it. The transition to Middlemarch next week may be hard on them, though: that is a novel that will ask them to think much harder about issues presented with much more complexity and subtlety.

2. Victorian Women Writers. My graduate seminar is taking up Gaskell's North and South this week. It's interesting coming to this novel right after two weeks on Jane Eyre: though both novels take up issues of rights, Gaskell places an equivalently high value on duties, including social duties, something Jane Eyre subordinates to a more individualistic standard of duty to self (equally principled, for sure, but different principles: "'Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?' Still indomitable came the reply--'I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.'") Also, though much criticism in the past 20 years has helped us understand Jane Eyre as a text inextricably part of its historical moment, there are still many elements in that novel that invite us to consider it in abstract or symbolic ways (the fairy-tale structure, the appeals to myth and legend, the gothic features, the allegorical character of sections such as Jane's lonely wanderings, etc.). North and South does not seem to me to accomodate such interpretive moves. Even its preoccupation with right relations between master and men, though appealing to abstract concepts and theories, really makes sense only as an analysis of conditions at that particular time; the same seems to me true about its interest in "that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working." Formally, North and South seems to me as well structured and balanced as Jane Eyre, and as well suited to its themes--perhaps a little too pat in places, but also avoiding the sentimental and melodramatic extremes of Mary Barton. As we read several works focusing on the role and experience of women writers, I expect we will start with some questions about how Gaskell seems to be inhabiting that role in this case, but we'll move on to the usual discussions of the relation between the novel's industrial plot and its central courtship plot.

October 13, 2007

Alberto Manguel, The Massey Lectures (I)

On Friday night I attended the first in the series of 5 Massey Lectures being given this year by Alberto Manguel. It was an erudite and occasionally eloquent performance, but by the end I was feeling distinctly underwhelmed. For one thing, for all the wide-ranging literary allusions and anecdotes, his points were wholly predictable, even banal, and certainly preaching to the choir on occasions such as this: books nourish our humanity, fictions of all kind offer us stories about how we do or could or should live our lives, language shapes as well as reflects our experience, and so forth. Perhaps he considered it necessary for the occasion and for his intended audience to speak in extreme generalizations, especially as this was the first in his series, but strip away the allusions to Plato and Doblin and I think there's a pretty fine line between much of his talk and platitudes. Further, though, and more problematic (there's nothing wrong, after all, with asserting general claims for the beauty and value of literature from time to time in prominent venues), I became troubled by two aspects of his characterization of literature.

First, he repeatedly invoked the difference between political language and literary language, without, I thought, sufficiently acknowledging the highly political dimension of much literature (or literary language). I don't think he meant to imply that literature operates in an apolitical realm (indeed, his talk about the role of literature in imagining society and shaping identity, including national identity, at least implicitly pointed towards its political dimensions, which can of course be reflected in its form and language as well as in its content). But he did persistently point to political discourse as the opposite of literary.

Second, he repeatedly described literature as posing, rather than answering, questions, as allowing for ambiguity, confusion, and profundity rather than insisting on clarity, definition, or systems. I have found that people working on the relationship between literature and moral philosophy (such as Martha Nussbaum, Cora Diamond, or Jane Adamson) also typically characterize literature in this way, thus opposing it to what they consider the reductive tendencies of analytic philosophy. But as Adamson's essay "Against Tidiness" clearly shows (but does not seem self-conscious about itself), this is not a universal or historically constant view of literature, and applying its standards strictly could mean ruling out some pretty important writers (such as Alexander Pope, say, or George Eliot) as not truly literary precisely because they do offer some strong prescriptions. As I have written about elsewhere, I think this is why Nussbaum starts off her theory of literature as moral philosophy with Henry James, explicitly setting George Eliot aside. (Actually, as I discuss in that article, she really works in the other direction, starting from her favourite novel, James's The Golden Bowl, and looking for a way to find or explain its philosophical significance.) Although typically these people (including Manguel) mean to be boosting literature by emphasizing its difference from dogma, by insisting on its irrational or unphilosophical or subjective or mystifying aspects, they risk limiting its relevance (or its perceived value) in today's world in just the ways their supposed opponents (Plato, utilitarians, scientists, politicians, analytic philosophers, etc.) do. Though I'm sure most readers share George Eliot's view that it is not desirably for fiction to lapse "from picture to diagram," it does seem important that we not restrict our thinking about the role of literature in society (or philosophy) according to an essentially Romantic notion of it.

October 12, 2007

Cure for Parental Grumpiness

I've mostly avoided personal posts here, but this little recent episode warmed my heart so much I thought I'd pass it along, especially since it's a grey, gloomy sort of day out here and we can all use a little mental sunshine.
Tired grumpy parent: "How's your day going?"

Lovely daughter: "Pretty good now."

TGP: "Your parents must be doing something right, then."

LD: "Everybody in the world is doing something right, Mommy, because they're all loving someone."
Who could stay grumpy after that? Hugs all 'round!

Harris and Rushdie on Ayaan Hirsi Ali

From this week's LA Times, a good op-ed piece by Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie, both of whom know something themselves about living with threats from religious fanatics:
Hirsi Ali may be the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust. As such, she is a unique and indispensable witness to both the strength and weakness of the West: to the splendor of open society and to the boundless energy of its antagonists. She knows the challenges we face in our struggle to contain the misogyny and religious fanaticism of the Muslim world, and she lives with the consequences of our failure each day. There is no one in a better position to remind us that tolerance of intolerance is cowardice. (read the rest here)
I was somewhat disappointed in the arguments of The Caged Virgin, which I thought relied too heavily on personal experience and anecdote to draw large conclusions (sometimes, to say "I saw such a thing happen" or "I was a Muslim, so I know" is not enough to go on, however compelling it may be as individual testimony)--this despite, of course, my strong sympathy for and general agreement with those conclusions. I haven't had a chance to read Infidel yet. But Hirsi Ali's story is truly both remarkable and horrifying, and everything I've seen and read about her, including her interview with my former UBC classmate Irshad Manji in her documentary Faith without Fear, has increased my respect for her dignity, forthrightness and courage.

October 10, 2007

The Rape of the Lock: The Novel

Well, I suppose it had to happen sometime. OK, it didn't, but it does sound sort of amusing:
Arabella is renowned as a great beauty, the prize of London. Meanwhile, her childhood friend, Robert Petre, is plotting against Queen Anne, although the revelation of his Jacobite affiliations could ruin his family and end his life. Reunited as adults, the two begin a torrid affair that could destroy her reputation and thus her chances of marriage. Despite being a Catholic, the charismatic Lord Petre can have his pick of London's women and so the affair is particularly ill-advised for Arabella; even for a catch like Miss Fermor, a proposal from Lord Petre would be a foolish thing to hope for, as his family would never permit the match.

Meanwhile, Arabella's cousins, the Blount sisters, come to London for the season, along with their great friend and admirer Alexander Pope. On the periphery of this glamorous and decadent set, successful but not yet celebrated, he watches the affair from its inception to its dramatic finale, events that ultimately inspired the poem that made his fortune. From the ashes of Miss Fermor's reputation rose the making of Alexander Pope's. (read the rest at The Guardian)

We're told that the author has "a PhD from Harvard in 'pollution, filth and satire in 18th-century London'"...

October 9, 2007

This Week in My Classes

We have a short week because of the Thanksgiving holiday yesterday, but that doesn't mean we won't be busy (that little bit of extra time to catch up on reading is probably what most of my students were thankful for--well, maybe).

1. 19th-Century Novel. The students are completing their letters on Great Expectations. I got the idea for this assignment from Art Young's Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum, in which (on pages 30-34) he discusses using letters for an assignment on Heart of Darkness What intrigued me the most was his description of the improvement in clarity and liveliness in the students' work in this form, compared to their attempts at more overtly 'academic' essay-writing. He accounts for this partly as follows:
I think the social nature of the assignment was important. The students had interpreted my "critical essay" assignment as the familiar school assignment, what Susan called “busy work”--show the teacher that you read The Importance of Being Earnest and can think of some things to say about it. You are not really helping the teacher understand the play any better because the teacher has read and taught the play several times, read many professional books and essays about it, and you
have spent a week reading this play while taking four or five other classes at the same time. The advantage of the letters is that they are written for a specific individual, a peer, who is asking real questions, asking for help, and for whom you can play the role of colleague or teacher as mentor. The letters demonstrate students communicating to a real audience rather than practicing at communicating to the pretend audience of professional scholars who read and write essays about literature. In addition, the letters are contextualized within the classroom community.
In my version of this assignment, I try to emphasize these features: I urge them to set questions they would genuinely like to get answers to; I bring the partners face to face with each other and encourage them to discuss what interests, attracts, repels, or confuses them in the novel; I remind them that they are writing to someone they know has also read the novel (so, among other things, they should know not to include excessive plot summary); I urge them to draw on and to cite lectures and class discussions, to listen for and create connections between their writing assignment and our other work. When I first tried this system out, it was because I had tired of the Perfunctory Paper, written to meet requirements rather than out of any genuine intellectual curiosity and often taking students' attention away from our shared class work as they focused on their individual topics. This way everyone writes something on every novel, with (in general) a much higher level of engagement. Students who really want to write a longer paper get the opportunity to do so late in the course. I certainly like this system better than what I used to do, and the feedback from students has been quite positive.

They turn their papers in tomorrow, at which point I get the ball rolling for our next book, Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret. This is a fun teaching text, with lots of suspense and thus helpful momentum for the students and lots of interesting features for analysis and interpretation. In the end, I don't think LAS is a very good novel, mostly because I don't think Braddon has really worked out what her idea is about the problems she highlights, or even the characters she develops. The plot is fairly well constructed, but the language is pretty uninspired, especially right after Great Expectations. But I'm sure we'll have some good discussions (Lady Audley: Victim or Villain? Robert Audley: Hero?). We'll get to talk about sensationalism in relation to realism, which will set us up to move to our next book, which is Middlemarch--not, as critics have noted, free of sensational elements, including a suspicious death, some near-adultery, and a convenient thunder storm.

2. Victorian Women Writers. Jane Eyre, week two. I've assigned a cluster of readings on JE and colonialism (Spivak, Meyer, O'Connor), but I leave it mostly up to the students to take up issues from the criticism (or n0t), so I don't know how much the issues raised in those articles will dominate our discussion. We also read some interesting essays focusing mainly on narration last week, and some of the problems they focus on (such as Jane's reliability) will need reconsidering now that we've all read to the end of the novel.

October 5, 2007

About Academic Blogging

As a relative newcomer to blogging, I've been especially interested in thinking and learning about reasons for academics to blog, so I've been collecting links to articles and posts on this topic (or ones that would stimulate thought about it, one way or another). I thought I'd put the list up here, as it takes time to prowl around and find them in blog archives and so on. I'd be happy to be pointed to others (I'm sure there are many). All of these, of course, include links to other related posts or sites.
  1. "Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine" (John Holbo, The Valve, March 31, 2005)
  2. "Academic Blogging and Literary Studies" (John Holbo, Crooked Timber, April 18, 2004)
  3. "Why Blog?" (Miriam Jones, Scribbling Woman, November 3, 2005)
  4. "The Blogosphere as Carnival of Ideas" (Henry Farrell, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 7, 2005)
  5. "Against Phalloblogocentrism" (Scott McLemee, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 3, 2007)
  6. Scott Eric Kaufman's Blogging Panel Paper (presented at the 2006 MLA Convention)
  7. "Bloggers Need Not Apply" ('Ivan Tribble,' Chronicle of Higher Education, July 8, 2005)
  8. "They Shoot Messengers, Don't They?" ('Ivan Tribble,' Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2, 2005)
  9. "Can Blogging Derail Your Career?" (Chronicle of Higher Education, July 28, 2006)
  10. "Blogging!" (Michael Berube, July 25, 2006)
  11. Workbook (April 3, 2006)
  12. "Why I Blog Under My Own Name (and a Modest Proposal)" (Matthew Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland, College Park)
  13. "Historical Scholarship and the New Media" (Panel featuring Tedra Osell, Scott Eric Kaufman, Brad DeLong, Ari Kelman)
  14. "I'm Nobody, Who Are You?" (Tedra Osell discusses pseudonymous blogging in the context of 18thC periodicals; posted at The Long Eighteenth)
  15. Discussion on "In the Middle" of Michael Berube's Midwest MLA Address (November 13, 2006)
  16. "Theorizing Blogging, Theorizing Theory" (Amardeep Singh, The Valve, April 19, 2006)
  17. Tim Burke, Easily Distracted ("The Trouble with Tribble," "Publishing Presentation on Academic Blogging," "Berube Stops Blogging")
I would also be interested in hearing from any academic bloggers who happen across this post what level of interest or awareness there is in blogging in among their colleagues in their home departments. Are blogs and blogging seen as fringe activities, in relation to conventional modes of scholarly research and communication, or are they moving towards the mainstream? Are your colleagues skeptical, curious, enthusiastic, uninterested?

October 3, 2007

Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her

What Came Before He Shot Her is a good idea: a "whydunnit," as one of the reviewers' blurbs calls it, the backstory of the 12-year-old boy arrested near the end of With No One as Witness for the shooting of Inspector Lynley's pregnant wife Helen. However, it is not, in the end, a very good novel. Its story is moderately compelling: knowing, as we do, more or less how it ends (or thinking we do--note the tell-tale "apparently" on the back cover), there's still some interest in seeing how we get there, George's characters are varied and carefully individualized, and many of the situations she imagines for them are full of pathos. But the book is primarily a treatise in criminology or sociology--a dramatization of George's understanding of what forces would compel a young kid to commit a horrible, and horribly random, murder. In her concern to cover the many failings in "the system," she seems to have let her literary sensibilities lapse almost completely. Particularly jarring to me was the dissociation between the narrating voice and the characters' perspectives. Of course, it is legitimate to incorporate commentary that comes from outside "story space" and offers insights not available to those acting out the drama. But too often here the comments have no bearing on the unfolding catastrophe, belonging to nobody in particular, as when one character gets a cell-phone, described intrusively as "the late-twentieth-century's most irritating electronic device" (183). Too often, as well, the narration sounds like it is excerpted from a textbook: Ness has "fallen through the cracks" at her school, for instance (62), or a counsellor does not realize that to her clients, she appears as "an adversary incapable of relating to a single element of their lives" (604). To Ness, the overheard sounds of her aunt having sex "comprised auditory torture, a blatant statement about love, desire, and acceptance, a form of imprimatur upon her aunt's desirability and worthiness" (330); later Kendra's emotional turmoil is summed up as "an amalgamation of the physical and emotional in a pitched battle with the psychological" (349). "In a society in which handguns had once been virtually nonexistent among the thieving and murdering clsses, they were now becoming disturbingly prevalent. That this was a direct result of the easing of borders that came along with European unification--which was, to some, just another term for opening one's arms to smuggling into the country everything from cigarettes to explosives--could have been mooted forever, and Sergeant Starr had not time for such mooting" (367)--we get it, here and everywhere--the author has been doing homework. But for me, at least, there's too much evidence of it here, too much the tone and attitude of a case study. The story of Joel's descent into crime is superficially plausible, but evaluating it requires someone with social science, not literary training. And don't even get me started on the fact that really, we are given 707 pages of "whydunnit" for the wrong "whodunnit" anyway...

October 1, 2007

This Week in My Classes

1. 19th-Century Novel. We're still on Great Expectations this week, moving through the phase that I lecture on as "Great Revelations." While I tend to emphasize the moral pressures of the novel in class, while re-reading it this weekend I found myself pleasurably reminded of what an emotionally powerful and intensely literary book it is. Here's Pip confronting Estella and, indirectly, Miss Havisham, after he has learned the truth about his benefactor and been forced to reconsider the kind of 'gentleman' he has become:
'You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since--on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!'
In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got those broken words out of myself, I don't know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from a wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered--and soon afterwards with stronger reason--that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse. (Vol. 3 Chapter V)
Of the many things that could be said about this passage, I'll just point to the way Pip's impassioned speech associates Estella with the evocative landscape he describes to us much earlier in the novel, the horizontal lines broken only by the beacon and the gibbet--symbols that seemed to oppose hope and death, beauty and despair, love and crime, Estella and Magwitch--oppositions that by Volume 3 have proved not just illusory but dangerously so, as Pip now sees. Contemporary novelists are often described as "Dickensian," usually for writing long, diffuse novels with lots of plots and characters and a bit more emotional exhibitionism than is the norm in 'serious' fiction. I rarely think they deserve the label, because to me it's moments such as this one, combining dense symbolic allusiveness, rhythmic and evocative language, high sentiment, and urgent moral appeal--all bordering on the excessive, even ridiculous, but, at their best, not collapsing into it--that distinguish Dickens from other novelists. I'm not sure any modern novelist takes such risks.

2. Victorian Women Writers. Here it's week 1 of Jane Eyre. Perhaps the greatest challenge here is trying to approach the novel in any fresh way, given not just how familiar it is to me after many readings, but also how dense is the accretion of criticism around it. Just selecting a handful of critical articles to assign was an incredibly fraught process: at this point, what are the most important things to be known or said about it? So much of the discussion, too, is ultimately all about us, the critics, and how what we have seen in this novel, how we have read it, reflects our own assumptions or desires about literature, feminism, romance, realism, narration. And how to find something new to say? Find something that others have neglected or misunderstood, point out what this tells us about those other readings, and posit your own, corrective analysis. You thought it was a happy ending? Think again! Rochester's still a patriarch, Ferndean is unhealthy, Adele is exiled, it's really a revenge story, Jane's narrative strategies undermine what she appears to be saying about living 'happily ever after.' The key to the novel's themes or politics is not Jane but Bertha, or Grace Poole, or Bessie. Miss Temple is barely an improvement on Brocklehurst. Bertha is Jane's repressed double, or is she the oppressed Other? You thought the novel was a woman's (or a woman writer's) declaration of independence--look how you failed to see that version of feminism as complicit with racist exclusion, or reliant on imperialism. Or, look how you have subjugated the novel to your own theory about race or empire. And on and on it goes. It's not that I don't find some of these readings interest or compelling, but after a while, it starts to seem odd that one book should attract such a weight of other people's ideas, should stand for so many things. While recognizing that there can be no such thing as "just" reading the novel (any more than what I've said above is "just" about Great Expectations "itself" in some transparent way), I do find myself thinking that, especially in some of the more 'suspicious' readings, those that go most determinedly against the grain, we have left the novel behind, refusing, as Denis Donoghue says about another text, to let it have its theme.