May 9, 2010

Novel Readings has moved...

Just a reminder to anyone who used to read or subscribe to Novel Readings and hasn't seen any activity over here recently: new posts are going up at the new address:

Don't forget to update your blogrolls, subscriptions, or RSS feeds.

March 21, 2010

A New Home--Who'll Follow?

Yes, that's the title of a story of American settler life, by Caroline Kirkland. But it's also the state of affairs at Novel Readings, which as of today is relocating to its new address and becoming part of the family of blogs hosted by the online literary magazine Open Letters Monthly. Aside from the new address, it will be the same Novel Readings as always. I hope you'll update your RSS feeds, bookmarks, blogrolls, and so on, and keep reading and commenting. Here's a link to the new site:

Novel Readings at Open Letters

And here's the new URL:

This site will stay where it is, but new posts will go up only at the new one. Hope to see you there!

March 19, 2010

This Afternoon in My Class (March 19, 2010): Seamus Heaney

As a brief follow-up to my previous post, which discussed a certain flagging of enthusiasm for one of my classes, I'll just report that I thoroughly enjoyed this afternoon's tutorial meeting on Seamus Heaney. The best thing about it was that it was the first time I can remember this term that a significant number of students were genuinely enthusiastic about a poem: that is, often students will contribute, thoughtfully, to discussion, but today even the body language was different, with people leaning forward into the discussion and smiling and nodding at each other as they talked. The poem that got this reaction was Seamus Heaney's "Digging":
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awakens in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
I opened by asking about the pen as a gun: why make that particular comparison? What is the risk or the threat of his pen? Pretty quickly we were talking about the difficulty of the poet son, who has broken from the tradition of his father and grandfather, writing about them and their work without condescending to them or, at the other extreme, sentimentalizing them. It turned out (and I think that this is why the discussion became so animated) that many of them understood the anxiety, or perhaps just self-consciousness, of that kind of break from tradition because they have been through it themselves, coming from mining or farming or military backgrounds, sometimes themselves among the first in their families to go to university, or to study something like English, or to want to be writers. One student also pointed to the "sloppily" corked milk bottle, a sign, he suggested (and many agreed) that it speaks to an anxiety also about the manliness or practical value of choosing poetry: there's an ideal of the "man of the house," good with his hands, tough, physical, that the speaker can't reach ("I've no spade to follow men like them"). Though he looks down on his father from his window, he isn't looking down on him otherwise, we thought, but rather seeing him clearly, seeing the dignity of his skill and hard work. He puts his pen to work, in turn, digging up memories (which "awaken in [his] head") and making something himself that (as another student suggested) his father would understand--it's not difficult poetry, there are no unusual words in it, it's hardly "poetic" at all, but direct, colloquial, even (sorry) earthy. And yet for all its seeming simplicity, as we dug into it, we found more and more of interest, even before we moved into the more abstract idea of poetry and/as archeology (another of our poems was "The Grauballe Man").

Though we all hate the reduction of literary value to what is " relatable" (a coinage many students seem unable to resist), and though I'm a big believer in stretching ourselves and our students into what is unfamiliar, there was a great energy today that came from this poem having meaning for them--meaning of its own, that they could appreciate, but also meaning for their own lives.

March 18, 2010

This Week in My Classs (March 18, 2010)

This week is nearly over already! Whew. It hasn't been a particularly intense week in my classes (relatively "light" reading, for instance, in both of my undergraduate classes, plus the final books of Middlemarch for my graduate seminar, which I know well enough by now not to have to reread every word--though, as a matter of fact, I did reread almost all of it anyway, because who wouldn't, given the excuse?). But it's March Break, which means some schedule juggling, and then my poor daughter came down with a violent stomach flu, which derailed her camp plans. We are fortunate to have a lot of flexibility in our working hours, but I find that as I get older I find it harder to make up in the evenings for reading or marking that I couldn't get done during the day. Happily, anyway, she's on the mend, if sipping a little ginger ale means anything, and by Monday we'll all be back to our usual routine.

So, what have I been doing, when I could? In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we're on to our unit on 'the contemporary police procedural, with short stories by Ed McBain, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin. I haven't actually read any of McBain's 87th Precinct series, only a few short stories in the various anthologies I've used over the years, which have felt to me a bit too much like reading episodes of Law & Order. It's just not my favourite style, though maybe I just haven't read the best examples. I generally enjoy Robinson's Inspector Banks series, but our story was actually a one-off, a historical mystery that is not really (as my students quickly discerned) a police procedural proper, as its detective is only a "special constable" and has the usual run-ins with the official officers of the law that we expect of the amateur detective or private eye. Set in September 1939, the story ("Missing in Action") evokes a feeling of civilization spiraling out of control; vigilante justice, justified in hard-boiled detection as the only way for Our Hero, however morally questionable, to fight for The Right in a corrupt world, is shown in a darker light here, reminding us of why we need to rely on formal systems of law and evidence, even if the outcomes are not always satisfactory. Tomorrow, it's Rankin's "The Dean Curse," which sets us up well for Knots and Crosses next week, not only by introducing Rebus, but by making similar connections between military training and police work, and asking difficult questions about the moral responsibility of a military organization that (of necessity) trains men away from their humanity only to loose them on the world at the end of their service. Rankin is the best stylist of this group, for sure.

Having said that, I confess to feeling some impatience in the last week or so with the preponderance of mediocre-to-fine writers on that reading list. Though I wouldn't accept any argument that genre fiction is inherently or inevitably less "literary," it's striking that the prose is so rarely excellent, even among the most popular or innovative mystery writers. "Workmanlike" is how I would describe, for instance, the writing in Paretsky's Indemnity Only: important as her work is, for its contributions to breaking open the feminist potential of crime fiction, there's no temptation to linger over the language at any point. In fact, only Chandler and Hammett much tempt me that way, this term, which may be one reason I'm missing P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, removed from the syllabus because of its unpopularity with students over the years--James cares about language as well as story and character. When I go looking for new writers to include in this course, I usually tire of the exercise quite soon because however interesting the angle or scenario may be, so many are badly, even dreadfully, written (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, anyone?).

It's only fair to say that bad or mediocre writing occurs in all forms, including self-consciously aspiring "literary" novels (The Mistress of Nothing, anyone?). But much of the time there's no reason to teach a mediocre work. For a course on the contemporary novel, I don't think Tracy Chevalier, for instance, would even be a contender for the syllabus. But when your criteria is not literary excellence but something else, then you do teach material that is "interesting" for other reasons, and I think what happens is that once you've gone through it a few times, it isn't really that interesting to you anymore and you're just reiterating stuff about its relationship to conventions and social / political issues and so on, reading it symptomatically, for what it is, rather than (dare I say) lovingly, for what it specifically says, or, as important, how it says it. I know, I know: "literary excellence"--what does it mean? But surely one defensible measure of excellence is "bearing up well under repeated, attentive readings." It might be intellectual qualities or aesthetic qualities that achieve this quality of endurance, and there are certainly many, many ways of being excellent, but a book that eventually lies flat before me like a deflated balloon because there's really nothing else to discover in it is not excellent, I feel pretty sure about that. I routinely teach some pretty bad books (Aurora Floyd, anyone?)--but so far, some of them do continue to bear up, maybe because they are so odd and unfamiliar that they resist deflation despite everything. But I think I'm going to start purging my teaching life of the ones that have become perfunctory. That may mean giving up the mystery and detective course, at least for a while. I know I still make the books interesting for students coming to them for the first time, but I'd really rather those same students were getting excited and interested in better books, books that will survive to become real literary friends of theirs and/or that will encourage them to set their sights higher. In spending a lot of time explaining what's interesting about not-very-good books, it sometimes seems I am implicitly allowing that it's OK to settle for them.

I wonder if I'm fretting over this problem this term because of the contrast with the readings for the Brit Lit survey: because there I have had to be so selective, I often feel overwhelmed with the fabulousness of our readings. This week, for instance, we've done Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Seamus Heaney, all writers who seem to me to offer the whole package.

And having said all that, I started rereading Daniel Deronda last night and I'm very excited about going through it again, with all of its challenges and rewards.

March 16, 2010

Reading Tolstoy

I'm not, but these posts really make me wish I were. It was Early Tolstoy Week recently at Wuthering Expectations, beginning with Chldhood, Boyhood, Youth:
It's Tolstoy's first novel, yet is so Tolstoyan. The obsession with death, for example, the way death mingles with life. In Chapter 23 of Boyhood the children are all sent on a surprise sleigh-ride. What a lark!:

As we drew up to the house on the way back I open my mouth to make a fine face at [my sister] when my eyes are startled by a black coffin-lid leaning against one panel of our front door, and my mouth remains fixed in its distorted grimace.

'Votre grand'mère est morte!' says St-Jérome with a pale face, coming out to meet us.

Yes, the novel has a healthy sprinkling of the untranslated French that we all loved in War and Peace. The Sevastopol Sketches, written at the same time, contain untranslated Polish, so count your blessings, I say.

The single great touch, though, the art of that passage, is the boy's frozen mouth.
The series continues here, here ("He makes peers like Balzac or Dickens, whatever their strengths, seem so convention-bound. Tolstoy wrote in the service of Truth. His integrity is bracing. Thank goodness, though, not everyone writes like him"), and here (with "Sevastopol Sketches"--"Many passages...would not seem out of place in War and Peace. It all sounds like Tolstoy. What a powerful writer").

And at The Millions, Kevin Hartnett writes beautifully about reading War and Peace:
In the end, though, the reason I read novels is not because I can talk about them with other people, or because I’m looking for ideas to explain the world. I read them for the pure aesthetic moment that comes from seeing life perfectly distilled into words. In this respect, I don’t think there is a more able book than War and Peace. Tolstoy’s singular genius is to be able to take the torrent of conscious experience and master it. There are countless moments in the book where this happens, but the one that left me reeling was Tolstoy’s long, exquisite depiction of the Battle of Borodino, which was the deciding battle in the war and one of the bloodiest in history.

The night I finished reading about Borodino, it was plainly obvious that I had just read something great. Yet here I was sitting in a corner of my couch, just the same as I had been an hour before. I thought about the question with which I opened—what is it that greatness does? An encounter with greatness, I would say, is like a bright light fixed in time, a marker that defines memory and makes it clearer than it otherwise might have been, that we were here.

I've been feeling dissatisfied with much of my recent reading, much of which has been second-rate, but under the pressure of a term with lots of assigned books I'm wary about picking up something that deserves my full attention and probably can't get it. I think I'll put my copy of War and Peace out where I can see it, as a promise to myself that there are better things ahead.

March 15, 2010

How happy the lot of the mathematician!

From W. H. Auden's essay "Writing":
How happy the lot of the mathematician! He is judged solely by his peers, and the standard is so high that no colleague or rival can ever win a reputation he does not deserve. No cashier writes a letter to the press complaining about the incomprehensibility of Modern Mathematics and comparing it unfavorably with the good old days when mathematicians were content to paper irregularly shaped rooms and fill bathtubs without closing the waste pipe.

I bet that Great Achievements in Math are debated by mathematicians, too, and not, say, by former Olympians, doctors, or journalists.

March 11, 2010

Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas

The Marketplace of Ideas is not as interesting as I thought it would be. One reason may be that it is part of a series intended, as series editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains, to "invite the reader to reexamine hand-me-down assumptions and to grapple with powerful trends"--that is, the books are not rigorous analyses aimed at specialists but accessible and deliberately provocative commentaries meant to bring a wider public quickly up to speed on debates about (Gates again) "ideas that matter in the new millenium." At just over 150 small-scale, large-type pages, The Marketplace of Ideas is not anything like a comprehensive examination of the many issues it addresses, whether the rise of the modern university, the vexed history of the "liberal arts" curriculum, the changing aspect of humanities research, or the causes and consequences of the current appalling academic job market. Rather, it offers a briskly coherent account of some historical contexts of particular relevance to certain elite universities (he shows this narrowness of focus throughout, which, as other reviewers have pointed out, eventually undermines a number of his more general claims and complaints). Then he transitions quite abruptly to consider political homogeneity as a feature of the academy, and then, with another awkward transition, to offer some interesting but often idiosyncratic or, worse, facile suggestions about what ails graduate education in the humanities today and how to fix it.

Of the contextual section of Menand's book, Anthony Grafton at The New Republic writes, fairly, I think,
Menand’s account is consistently even-tempered, and he resists all temptations to succumb to nostalgia or to launch jeremiads, even when both might be appropriate. He does not portray the university in the age of New Criticism as a paradise of Serious Reading, or denounce the new forms of scholarship that have grown up more recently as one great betrayal of truth and high standards. Instead he sings a song of sclerosis. Through all these changes, he writes, the basic system of disciplines and departments remained intact--a hard and confining carapace that proved impossible to break, however humanists squirmed and pushed.
I appreciated his discussion of the mixed blessing that is professionalism, something addressed from a more discipline-specific angle in Brian McRae's Addison and Steele are Dead (a book I discussed here at some length). I also found his comments on the unsatisfactory realities of "interdisciplinarity" very interesting: "interdisciplinarity" is a buzzword often invoked as if it represents a panacea to whatever ails our individual, disciplinary, or institutional limitations, but Menand suggests, persuasively, that our obsession with it is a symptom of anxiety about "the formalism and methodological fetishism of the disciplines and about the danger of sliding into an aimless subjectivism or eclecticism."

Overall, though, this "structural explanation," as Grafton calls it, wasn't really what I went to the book for; rather, I was hoping for an elaboration on the provocative excerpt published last fall in the Harvard Magazine, focusing on "the PhD problem." There, he talked about the dramatic rise in the number of doctoral students even as the number of available tenure track positions (relative to the number of candidates) fell off drastically, the long time to degree for doctoral students in the humanities, and some ideas for unclogging the system by, for instance, making an article the standard for the Ph.D. rather than the book-length thesis. It turns out he gave most of the milk away for free here, and my thoughts on reading that material over in the book version were the same as what I said at the time (if he can make his writing do double-duty, I figure I can do the same with mine):
. . . I was struck by Menand's passing suggestion that "If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship," but this seems to me another of those ideas about changing "the system" (not unlike the MLA's call to "decenter the monograph" as the gold standard for evaluating tenure and promotion files) that can never be addressed on a local level and so may never be addressed at all. Which department wants to be the first to say that they will award a Ph.D. without requiring a thesis? For that matter, which department could make such a change in policy without losing their accreditation or funding? Which department could independently assert its ability to evaluate the work of its members without the sacred stamp of "peer reviewed publications," or at least giving equal weight to less conventional modes of knowledge dissemination? . . .

I was also struck by Menand's remark that "Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark." This certainly echoes my strong feeling for the last several years that English, for one, has become a field so inchoate that it is unable to declare and defend itself in any compelling way that all of its members can agree on--at least, not without resorting to unbelievably bland formulations (all the world's a text!). How can we sustain a sense of ourselves as a functioning discipline under these circumstances? Though I don't want to fall into conservative lamentation about the good old days when everybody knew what books were valuable and why (when were those days, exactly, and how long did they last?), anyone who has worked on curriculum reform (and probably everyone working in an English department anywhere has done so at least once) knows that the lack of an identifiable core is a practical as well as an intellectual problem. It's a problem for us, as we try to define priorities in hiring as well as teaching, and it's a problem for students, whose programs include so much variety it is possible to meet a 4th-year honours student and be more struck, somehow, by what they don't know or haven't read than by what they do and have, and certainly impossible to predict what experience or knowledge they bring to your class . . . . But what, if anything, to do about that? Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menand points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.
That last point about skills is something I have returned to recently, as I feel as if the pressure is mounting for humanities graduate programs to retool themselves as all-purpose training grounds for a (rarely specified) set of non-academic jobs. Here's what Menand actually says on that issue:
The effort to reinvent the PhD as a degree qualifying people for non-academic as well as academic employment, to make the degree more practical, was an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation when it was headed by Robert Weisbuch. These efforts are a worthy form of humanitarianism; but there is no obvious efficiency in requiring people to devote ten or more years to the mastery of a specialized area of scholarship on the theory that they are developing skills in research, or critical thinking, or communication. . . . The ability to analyze Finnegan's Wake does not translate into an ability to analyze a stock offering. If a person wanted to analyze stock offerings, he should not waste his time with Joyce. He should go to business school. Or get a job analyzing stock offerings.
As I've recently argued in response to just that kind of administrative "humanitarianism" (some might call it "pragmatism," as well), I think there is indeed something fundamentally misguided about this trend to play up the skills set acquired during Ph.D. training, as if the content of the degree (and its specific constituent requirements, such as specialized comprehensive exams and a thesis) are somehow tangential. This "solution" to "the Ph.D. problem" sounds exactly like something an outside (non-specialist) administrator who doesn't in fact care much about the content of individual disciplinary programs would propose, and our rapidity to embrace it, well-meaning though we certainly are (we really like our graduate students, in my experience, and want to help them), is in itself a kind of capitulation on the larger issue of the value of the work we specifically do (about which collapse of principle, see more here).

And here's where Menand really turns out to disappoint, because with his throw-away line about the prospective stock analyst who should not "waste his time with Joyce" he (perhaps strategically) distances himself from one of his key audiences--not the skeptics or outsiders who already think that reading Finnegan's Wake is at best a harmless (if bizarrely difficult) form of self-indulgence and at worst, yes, just a waste of time (and certainly not something that should be supported by public funding), but his fellow scholars and academics, the ones making decisions about curriculum and program requirement and advising undergraduate students to go on (or not) to Ph.D. programs, or Ph.D. students to complete (or not) their dissertations. How can they look for leadership to someone who doesn't sound as if he thinks their work is important, whose suggestions for reform effectively trivialize it? He may well be right about Joyce as a means to that particular end, but why does he so blithly pass up the opportunity to explain why that work on Joyce might be vitally important to some other end not currently lauded or rewarded in the public culture he claims, in his closing peroration, must in fact be questioned and resisted by "the culture of the university"? He does spend a little time acknowledging what we have all gained: "the humanities," he says
helped to make the rest of the academic world alive to issues surrounding objectivity and interpretation, and to the significance of racial and gender difference. Scholars in the humanities were complicating social science models of human motivation and behavior for years before social scientists began doing the same thing via research in cognitive science. That political and economic behavior is often non-rational is not news to literature professors. And humanists can hope that someday more social scientists and psychologists will consider the mediating role of culture in their accounts of belief and behavior. . . [Scholarship in the humanities] is pursuing an ongoing inquiry into the limits of inquiry. And it is not just asking questions about knowledge; it is creating knowledge by asking the questions. Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge.
That's something, though that's about all I could find, and it strikes me as pretty tepid and unconvincing, all very abstract and general and vague about how exactly those literary scholars achieved the insight (?) that "political and economic behavior is often non-rational," and promising nothing more than that humanities scholars will keep on keepin' on, being skeptical and questioning about, well, everything. What's Joyce to them, then, exactly, anyway? But I wouldn't be so annoyed at these moments if it weren't for this one:
It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. . . . students who spend eight or nine years in graduate schools are being seriously overtrained for the jobs that are available.
I won't get into the problem of his math (see the discussion at Historiann for some trenchant critiques). And I'll concede that he means (I think) to be descriptive: it's just true that the majority of jobs that are available for Ph.D.s in English right now are not at research-intensive universities or elite liberal arts colleges, or teaching specialized classes to majors and honours students in their fields. In a painfully literal way, then, he's just telling the truth (though every time he talked about supply and demand I wondered why he wasn't acknowledging the work of Marc Bousquet). But he makes it sound as if "teach[ing] poetry to college students for a living" is a pretty trivial occupation, one that really doesn't depend on a base of specialized knowledge. What he doesn't say, in this astonishingly dismissive remark, is that the eight or nine years people spend in graduate school are preparing, not just to teach Introduction to Poetry, but to rethink, and perhaps transform, how we teach poetry to undergraduates--not to mention what poetry we teach. I have only to compare the undergraduate training I received with what is standard in the curriculum today to realize what a seismic shift has gone on, in expectations, in contexts, in critical approaches. I had occasion to remark just this week, for instance, that when I studied "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in my own first-year English class, the term "Modernism" never came up. Never. We read Joyce but no Woolf, just as in my Victorian novel class we read Trollope but not Gaskell or Braddon, and the term "imperialism" never came up. Now, I suppose you could argue that a small cadre of specially privileged researchers could be off doing the kind of work the effects of which would trickle down to the peons in the classroom, but as Menand himself argues, the fewer people engaged in an activity, the less likely it is that its norms and paradigms will be challenged. And as Grafton argues eloquently in his own response to Menand, "all this takes time," and "the vocation of scholarship is difficult." I think there are some difficulties with Grafton's emphasis on the academic life as a "quest," but I really wish that, having grabbed people's attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us. I'm not sure that someone who wants to be a stockbroker should finish a PhD either, but I'd rather have a stockbroker who reads Joyce (or Trollope or George Eliot) than one who doesn't see the point of that stuff.


March 9, 2010

Worth a Look or Listen: Louis Menand, Philosophers and Fiction, and the Dangers of Theism

I haven't been keeping up my "Weekend Miscellany" posts for a while, so here's a bit of a miscellany for a Tuesday evening instead:

At Open Letters Monthly, Laura Tanenbaum reviews Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas:
The basic facts will likely be familiar to current or recent graduate students: graduate school takes longer to complete than ever before, especially in the humanities, nearly half in some fields like English drop out before completion, and many of those who do finish will not find tenure-track positions. To his immense credit, and unlike many critics, Menand recognizes that making graduate school more demanding or raising barriers of entry will only exacerbate the problem. Instead he suggests a shorter time to degree, with the completion of an academic article taking the place of the dissertation. He argues this on humanitarian grounds, but then notes the institutional pressures that demand a large pool of graduate students and underemployed PhDs as cheap labor.
At A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers writes about philosophers and fiction:
Philosophers want to show that a possibility is valid; novelists try to make it plausible. The distance between validity and plausibility is the distance between philosophy and fiction, but it does not follow that the one is sharp while the other is fuzzy. They are, instead, as Putnam suggests, merely different approaches to knowledge.
Further to his comments, I'll add that I've done some work myself at the intersection of philosophy and literary studies, and I've found that many philosophers cannot, or at least do not, understand the textuality of literature. Even Martha Nussbaum, whose Love's Knowledge is a kind of manifesto for making philosophy literary, or reading literature philosophically, sometimes lapses into readings that extract dicta about how to live rather than finding literary form itself, and the experience of that form, meaningful. Interdisciplinarity, in other words, is harder than it sounds. There are, unsurprisingly, a number of essays on or around this topic in the excellent journal Philosophy and Literature.

And at Common Sense Atheism, another Professor Maitzen is interviewed on, among other things,
  • how many theistic defenses don't make sense given the demographics of theism
  • how Christian theism leads to twisted morality
  • the problems with free will theodicies
  • the incoherence of 'Ultimate Purpose'
In my wholly unbiased opinion, the interview is well worth a listen, not least for its articulate explanation of why, "though it's an extremely popular view that atheism is bad for morality, ... it seems pretty clear that theism is what's bad for morality," for its crushing judgment of a recent Christian best-seller ("it's the most intellectually shallow, childish, morally frivolous novel I've ever read"), and for its Utopian vision that "maybe the blogosphere can help us where the schools evidently have failed us."

You all keep busy with these while I go put together my lectures for tomorrow! I hope to be able to do some book blogging myself again soon; I just finished Hilary Mantel's Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, for instance, and am about half-way through Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.

March 8, 2010

This Week in My Classes (March 8, 2010)

It will be easier next time. And better, too, probably.

Or at least, this is my comforting mantra every time I come out of my Brit Lit survey class these days. Today it was a madcap dash through Yeats, with some gestures towards "What is modern(ist) poetry?" Wednesday and Friday are T. S. Eliot, next Monday it's Auden, then Dylan Thomas, then Seamus Heaney. It is nerve-wracking trying to decide what to say when you're moving so fast. I'm sure learning a lot, though, and that's always exhilarating. Did you know, for instance, that Yeats had a testicle transplant? Or, more to the point (if there is one) that he considered himself a Romantic, or at least that's what he said sometimes? We spent most of our time today on "Easter 1916." I wasn't altogether intending that until I started reading about Yeats's "distaste" for the War Poets, who he omitted from his edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse. I was surprised that they aren't represented in our Major Authors edition of the Norton anthology, and reading about Yeats's objections to their depiction of "passive suffering" along with other information about his own turn to political poetry after the Easter rebellion got me thinking about the possible extremes in representing political violence--I suggested in class that his view of the War Poets would be one problem, a kind of lament, I guess, with something like "The Charge of the Light Brigade" perhaps at the other end, didactic and bombastic. "Easter 1916" perhaps successfully occupies more ambivalent territory, epitomized in its refrain about a "terrible beauty." How far might the stakes be understood to include the aestheticization of violence that "Easter 1916" itself inevitably participates in? Is its beauty part of what is, terribly, born of the firing squads? I wish we could have read "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" or "Dulce et decorum est" along with it, if only to test Yeats's "distaste" against our own reactions. And yet I suppose that is not really the main point to be considered about Yeats--and I did save a little time for the widening gyres of "The Second Coming."

We had our second session on Indemnity Only this morning in Mystery & Detective Fiction. I wanted to explore Paretsky's (or at least V. I. Warshawski's) feminism more inductively this time, considering how exactly V.I. behaves, what her values and priorities are, rather than assuming she represents any particular dogmatic idea of feminism. (Coincidentally, as I was typing this, Sara Paretsky sent out this 'tweet':" Today is Int'l Women's Day--a national holiday in Ukraine. Good wishes to women everywhere, with hopes for equality in our lifetimes.") We talked, for starters, about V.I.'s good looks, self-consciousness about eating too much, and interest in clothes, all stereotypically 'feminine' concerns. The suggestion I eventually made is that Paretsky sets Vic up to illustrate the compatibility of feminism with femininity--or, that femininity need not be equated with weakness. Similarly, Vic is fiercely independent, with a chip on her shoulder especially about men encroaching on her 'turf,' but she shows a softer side in her interactions with young Jill Thayer, calling her 'sweetie' and 'honey' and offering her help and comfort: strength is compatible with tenderness. One context for this discussion is our recent work on The Maltese Falcon, in which Sam survives by choosing against his softer sentiments: that kind of toughness is idealized in some versions of hard-boiled detection, as is the inhuman detachment of Dupin and Holmes. It's easy to see that these models repeat and solidify old ideas about men and women (such as the 'separate spheres' model of the 19th century). The Maltese Falcon hints at how damaging it can be (morally, emotionally) to live up to such a standard of masculinity. It wouldn't necessarily represent progress, from a feminist perspective, to show a woman living up to the same standard. The greater challenge is to create models, for both men and women, of living freely and fully in both professional and private life. Like Grafton (whose Kinsey Millhone can never really accept the compromises of romantic partnership, at least on conventional terms), Paretsky seems to suggest that there's still a way to go before such a resolution is possible--though in the later novels in the series, Vic does settle, more or less, into a long-term relationship, in this case poor Ralph is just not up to it, not because he's a bad man, but because he's an ordinary man raised with "ordinary" (traditional) assumptions.

Tomorrow, it's the George Eliot graduate seminar and round two of Middlemarch--which reminds me, there's no student officially responsible for discussion questions this week, so I'd best go start up an open thread on our class blog. This week's installment includes Chapter 42, currently my very favourite.

March 3, 2010

This Week in My Classes (March 3, 2010)

Last week there were no classes--it was that heady interval known as 'Reading Week,' or, to some, 'February Break.' I could tell it was a 'break' because I didn't work nights. Otherwise, I was pretty busy, especially with working my way through the major research assignment that had just come in from my Brit Lit survey class, reading through some graduate thesis chapters, and catching up on paperwork (note to me: keeping track of your students' contributions to wikis and blogs requires both foresight and ongoing attention). Round about last Thursday, though, it hit me that this week was coming, with a nearly full slate of classes on material I hadn't lectured on before. So much for the 'break.'

However, here I am, nearly half way through the week and so far, I'm more or less on top of it, I think--even though it's hard to escape the vaguely surreal feeling that I'm role-playing rather than teaching (today, RM appears in the unfamiliar role of a modernist and Joyce expert...). I have two research assignments to finish evaluating, but I made it through my session on Woolf's "Modern Fiction" for the survey class on Monday and have spent a few quite enjoyable hours since then brushing up on Joyce for today's class on "The Dead." Friday it's Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party" and then we're done with modernist fiction and on to T. S. Eliot and Yeats next week. In Mystery and Detective Fiction we wrapped up The Maltese Falcon on Monday and now we're moving into feminist revisions of hard-boiled detection, starting with short stories by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. I have usually taught Grafton's 'A' is for Alibi as the longer text for this topic, but this year I've switched in Paretsky's Indemnity Only. It's at least as interesting in terms of confronting specific conventions of the genre, but I admit it is not quite as much fun: Paretsky (like her detective) takes herself pretty seriously, whereas with Grafton, at least in her early novels, there's a playful quality to it. But Paretsky's focus on systemic corruption actually seems more relevant to the kind of story Hammett tells in Falcon than Grafton's emphasis on dysfunctional family structures. We'll see how they react. I have found in past years that when I start taking overtly about feminism, there's a perceptible disengagement. On Monday, for instance, I invited discussion about how far we could interpret Brigid O'Shaughnessy as a woman choosing survival strategies in a profoundly sexist environment: not (just) a femme fatale but in her own way a victim, including, perhaps, to Sam's hyper-professional, masculine code of ethics by which "if a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it." No takers at all, at least not anyone prepared to speak up.

In my graduate seminar, happily for me we have moved on to Middlemarch, a novel I know well enough not to sweat the details of class prep in quite the same way I had to for Romola. Although I just read through it last term for my 19th-century fiction class, I am rereading it carefully, with a clean new copy to mark up (and put sticky notes in), to make sure my recollection is precise and to see what different aspects stand out in this particular context, reading through so much of her work at once. A colleague remarked not long ago that she has the hardest time preparing to teach material she knows exceptionally well; the problem is that it's hard to be satisfied with what you can get through in a limited time. I do feel that a bit now with Middlemarch--not that I know anything like everything about it, but that it's a bit laborious starting it up all over again with a new group, and wanting to get past some of the obvious bits or sticking points. Also, my own comments seem inadequate, whereas I'll be happy enough to have found anything reasonably intelligent to say about "The Dead" (as long as no real Joyce expert is listening in).

Overall, we're hurtling towards the end of term, which means I have to get final paper topics ready, mid-term tests prepared, and all the other bits and pieces that are part of your plan but seem so far away when you first show up in January. And before that, I have to get those last two annotated bibliographies squared away, so off I go to do that.

March 1, 2010

3 Quarks Daily Arts & Lit Blogging Prize

If you'd like to show your appreciation for good blog writing about literature and the arts, click on over to 3 Quarks Daily and take a look at their nominees for the 2010 3QD Prize in Arts and Literature. The editors invited nominations of blog posts of no more than 4000 words, written since February 21, 2009. I've begun browsing through the entries and it seems like a lively and predictably eclectic selection. Since they encouraged self-nominations, I threw one of my own posts into the ring, my review of Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost. I chose it because the book absolutely topped my list of notable reads last year, because writing about it as well as I could was important to me, and because I was reasonably satisfied that I had said what I wanted to about it. Also, one of my most trusted readers wrote me to say that she thought it was the best thing I'd ever written on my blog. I have no idea how it holds up to whatever the standard will be for winning the competition, though I think it's a safe bet, given my obscurity, that it won't win in the public voting--if you think it's any good, though, do come by and click on the button for me. Or, if in general you think it's a good thing that people write thoughtfully about literature and the arts for love, for free, and for everyone to read, vote for whichever post you think exemplifies the best of public criticism.

March 10: I'm very proud to say that my post has been selected as one of the finalists to be judged by Robert Pinsky. Thanks to any of you who went and voted for me or were otherwise encouraging, and thanks also to the editors of 3 Quarks Daily for making me one of their 'wild card' picks.

February 24, 2010

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures

In a word, unremarkable.

I suppose it should be no surprise that the majority of books I read are not that good. If writing a great book were easy or common, we wouldn't have the concept of a masterpiece--or of 'the canon,' for that matter. Still, it's always a disappointment when a book seems really promising, and comes trailing clouds of good reviews ("a stunning story, compassionately reimagined," says the back jacket of this one, and "thoroughly absorbing ... a moving story"). I'm left wondering if the reviewers read the same book, or if, perhaps, they haven't really read very many books--or very many really good books. At least this one hasn't won any prizes--yet.

Like The Mistress of Nothing (speaking of mediocre but prize-winning books), Remarkable Creatures is a good idea poorly realized. In fact, I put off reviewing it for a week or so after finishing it because I felt so weary at the thought of saying pretty much the same kinds of things. So, I'll say them more briefly. This novel too is based on a real-life relationship, and one that has every ingredient you need for a compelling and evocative story, including unusual characters participating in one of the great intellectual and spiritual shifts of recent centuries. It's about fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot (the former, of course, much better known). So we have women engaged in hands-on scientific inquiry at a time when such conduct is hardly ladylike, and we have the unfolding crisis of faith by way of the ancient specimens they collect. But too much is insisted on that ought to emerge from the situation and characters, too much is wooden that ought to be natural and thrilling, too much--and yet too little--is said. Chevalier tries to evoke the trauma and exhilaration of discovery, of the vast expansion of the historical horizon and the destabilizing of comforting certainties about the world and our place in it, that was part of the intellectual life of the nineteenth century, but the result is endlessly unconvincing and mechanical, to my ear at least. Here's Philpot, for instance, contemplating a fossil find:
If it was not a crocodile, what was it? I did not share my concern about the animal with Mary, however, as I had begun to on the beach, before thinking the better of it. She was too young for such uneasy questions. I had discovered from conversations I had about fossils with the people of Lyme that few wanted to delve into unknown territory, preferring to hold on to their superstitions and leave unanswerable questions to God's will rather than find a reasonable explanation that might challenge previous thinking. Hence they would rather call this animal a crocodile than consider the alternative: that it was the body of a creature that no longer existed in the world.
This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded, was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created. If He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff. It was not fair to bring Mary to the edge with me.
It's not terrible, but it's also not either moving or evocative. The language (again, as in Mistress of Nothing) is flat and stilted., with that odd uncomfortable formality that (second-rate) historical novelists seem to believe will convince us that they are bringing us back in time. The subject of the book is intrinsically interesting, but if a novelist can't do any better than this, we might as well read non-fiction, or, better yet, poetry:
"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more." And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law--
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed--

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.
That's how you bring us to the edge of that cliff with you.

February 22, 2010

Novel Readings Discovered by the Spammers

For the first time since I started this blog three years ago, I've been spammed to such an extent that I've turned on comment moderation. I've always felt that this step slows down discussion--which is hard enough to generate as it is--but it's certainly preferable to having the comments sections littered with links to pornographic sites or essay mills. So, my apologies to the real readers and writers out there for what I hope will be short delays between when you post your thoughtful remarks and when they appear here.

February 18, 2010

More of Woolf on the Victorians: "an abandonment, richness, surprise"

I think I must be on the verge of a breakthrough in my relationship with Virginia Woolf, a writer I have been interested in, drawn to, even, for many years but whose fiction nonetheless I haven't seemed able to read. I know my way around A Room of One's Own pretty well, and I have thoroughly appreciated a number of Woolf's essays and reviews. I love the crackling intellect of her critical writing, the combination of wit and tenderness she shows, her appreciation of writers whose aesthetics seem so wholly unlike her own (she writes wonderfully about EBB, for instance, as well as George Eliot). I blame only myself for my inability to reach further into her creative work, and I was pleased when I finally read all of Mrs Dalloway last summer. There at least, the ice is broken: now that I am acquainted with that novel, I can develop a deeper relationship with it, by rereading it and thinking more about it, and reading more of what other people have written about it. I've begun Hermione Lee's much-praised biography, and look forward to finishing it. So far, though, I like listening to Woolf's own voice the best, and so it seemed more than serendipitous to find three volumes of her letters and the final volume of her diary on the discard table at the public library on the weekend. Maybe Woolf "unfiltered" is the right next step for me. And just dipping in to the letters, immediately I came across this:
I don't know that I had anything very definite in mind about dialogue--only a few random generalisations. My feeling, as a novelist, is that when you make a character speak directly you're in a different state of mind from that in which you describe him indirectly: more 'possessed,' less self-conscious, more random, and rather excited by the sense of his character and your audience. I think the great Victorians, Scott (no--he wasn't a Vn.) but Dickens, Trollope, to some extent Hardy all had this sense of an audience and created their characters mainly through dialogue. Then I think the novelist became aware of something that can't be said by the character himself; and also lost the sense of an audience. (I've a vague feeling that the play persisted in the novelist's mind, long after it was dead--but this may be fantastic: only as you say novelists are fantastic.) Middlemarch I should say is the transition novel: Mr Brooke done directly by dialogue: Dorothea indirectly. Hence its great interest--the first modern novel. Henry James of course receded further and further from the spoken word, and finally I think only used dialogue when he wanted a very high light.

This is all rather incoherent, and also, as is the case with all theories, too definite. At the same time I do feel in the great Victorian characters, Gamp, Micawber, Becky Sharp, Edie Ochiltree, an abandonment, richness, surprise, as well as a redundancy, tediousness, and superficiality which makes them different from the post Middlemarch characters. Perhaps we must now put our toes to the ground again and get back to the spoken word, only from a different angle; to gain richness, and surprise.

I wish you'd look one day and see if there is any sense in this.
First, this letter makes me want to talk to her: she just sounds so lively and interesting and well-read and curious! Second, I can't think of any contemporary author I've heard or read an interview with who has anything like this kind of critical or literary-historical perspective; like Eliot and James, Woolf is a novelist-critic, and that may account for the intellectual rewards of their best writing (fictional and critical). Finally, this is the first thing I've read in about a year that actually made me want to read a work of recent criticism: Steve Ellis has a recent book called Virginia Woolf and the Victorians that I'm going to sign out of the library today.

February 12, 2010

Finishing A Suitable Boy

"I hate long books," says Amit Chatterji, Lata's poet-suitor, near the end of A Suitable Boy:
"the better the worse. If they're bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for a few days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch."
It's impossible not to realize this is Seth's sly joke, not at the expense of, but on behalf of the reader who has read this far (page 1371, to be precise) in A Suitable Boy. It closes the self-referential frame begun with the epigraph, a little ditty called "A Word of Thanks," which concludes,
Buy me before good sense insists
You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.
As Seth clearly anticipated, the novel's length is a major feature of any conversation about it. For many, it is a disincentive to even starting it; for some, including me the first time I tried it, it becomes an obstacle to finishing it. Now, having read to the end of its 1474 pages, I feel obliged to address the question whether it needed to be so long: is its bulk a necessity, or even a strength?

Thinking about this question, particularly after Seth's own allusion to Middlemarch, I'm reminded of George Eliot's comment about that novel: "I don't see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly." Middlemarch is subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life," and among its ambitions is clearly coverage of a broad but complexly intermingled portion of English society at a carefully particularized moment in history. Her achievement is enormous, but not, of course, comprehensive, as many critics have pointed out; as I have often remarked to my students, the novel might have been longer still if she had carried her theory through to its fullest realization. As it is, because of her interest in representing so many elements of her story from multiple perspectives, she concedes some horizontal reach in favour of the three-dimensional structure I have inelegantly called the "giant hairball" effect. Here too, of course, the limit on the scale of the text is set only by her not in fact trying to give us everyone's perspectives on everything. "Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending," she reminds us in the Finale, and with that principle in mind, we can read Middlemarch as itself revealing as many limits as insights, and leaving us with the challenge of reading the world as it has taught us. The scope of the novel, though, ensures that we realize the scope of the problem and the effort of the solution: though Book 1 is called "Miss Brooke," there's so much more in Middlemarch that we can hardly make the mistake of considering her errors of perception idiosyncratic personal ones, or of imagining she can take some simple, heroic step to find happiness, regardless of historical or social contexts. You need a long book to do these things effectively.
Dickens's best long books also justify themselves by their ideas about the world they depict. One of the governing ideas of Bleak House, for instance, is relationships--often unknown or underappreciated--between people of all kinds in all places, separate by vast differences in wealth and situation, family and education, philosophy and values. That we are all, in effect, one human family is a simple idea but one that increases in potency the more dramatically its reach is extended--from Lady Dedlock, say, brightly illuminated in the glare of fashionable society, to poor Jo the crossing sweeper. To assert the connection is one thing, and Dickens's narrator does this, but by populating the novel so densely Dickens gives his social message emotional resonance.
Thackeray, too, inVanity Fair . . . but you get the idea. Abundance in a novel reflects abundance in life; artfully deployed, it gives us both ideas and feelings about that abundance and our own relationship to it, and at its best, a long book reflects its ideas in the way its abundance is structured into a unified whole. And these are just the intellectual aspects. Despite the popularity of James's infamous line about "loose, baggy monsters," long books can be enormously satisfying, both formally and aesthetically. They also occupy mental and physical space in our lives so that we develop a special relationship with them, with the world into which we go when we read them. Here my chief example would be Trollope: immerse yourself, as I did one sabbatical, in the whole Palliser series, or the Chronicles of Barset, and you feel as if you are living two lives, one with your actual family and friends, the other with your friends in this enormously specific alternative universe (as Hawthorne said, Trollope's world seems "as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of"). Escapism? Perhaps, but another way to think of it is as vicarious living, including plenty of exercise for our moral imaginations.
OK, so. What about the length of A Suitable Boy? Does the novel satisfy the standard set by these illustrious predecessors of the doorstopper form? Do its ends justify its means? I would say, mostly yes. Of the novelists I have named, Trollope seems closest in spirit to Seth, whose reach, like his, is primarily horizontal. The novel's principle seems to be inclusivity: in brief, Seth hates leaving things out. The relatively large number of major characters in the novel is itself a bit startling, though the family trees provided are helpful here. But then there are the relatively minor characters, dozens of them, and the crowds of incidental figures, and, literally, the crowds. Then there's the historical detail. There isn't a lot of straight exposition, but there are long sections of political wrangling, most of which require at least some contextualizing (though one striking feature of the novel, I think, is how much it opts not to explain). And there are details of other kinds, too, crowding the book: clothes and books and food and drink (lots and lots of food, and many, many drinks) and religious rituals and holidays, both Hindu and Muslim. And cricket. And shoe-making. And curriculum wars in the English department. And singers and songs and musicians--and their instruments. Of course, any novel interested in time and place has to include details, but the overall impression of A Suitable Boy is of crowds of them, not noisily clamouring for attention, but filling every available space, as if somehow the book is a tangible object, like Meenakshi's lacquered box, overflowing with sights and sounds and smells (the tanneries!). Did it always seem artistically controlled? No, not always, but I would be hard pressed to single out any expendable piece: once begin trimming and tidying, and where to stop, after all? Life is cluttered: why can't that be an artistic rationale?
With so many characters, plots and stories, too, are abundant. Here Seth's control is more overt, as the story of Lata's quest (or, more accurately, her mother's quest) for "a suitable boy" provides a unifying structure used, I thought, to lovely dramatic purposes at times, as when the three top contenders--Kabir, Amit, and Haresh--meet up, quite unaware of their status as competitors for her favour. The rituals that open and close the novel also show its underlying tautness: major events (birth, marriage, death) do give shape to our lives, much as we like to insist that plots are all impositions, and yet life itself presses on, as does the momentum of the novel even as its central mission is resolved (how, I won't tell you--read the 1474 pages for yourself!): "You too will marry a boy I choose," says Mrs Rupa Mehra on the first page, and "You too will marry a girl I choose," she says on (almost) the last one. (Would I read A Suitable Girl? You bet I would.)
As I neared the end, though, the unity I felt the most strongly, and found the most poignant, was precisely the one best supported by the risky choice of putting so much into the novel: that principle of inclusivity is itself, I think, a theme of the novel, perhaps its main idea. Everyone is in it together. Seth's inclusivity reflects what the novel shows as the greatness but also the curse of India (India as he depicts it, of course). Often, people in the novel are, or feel, deeply divided by their differences: the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, including some horrifically violent ones, are the most serious examples, refracted much more delicately through Lata's lingering conviction that Kabir can never truly be "suitable." Others are good friends in spite of their different religions--Maan and Firoz, for instance. That difference seems insignificant to us and them, until they are caught up in larger events that remind them (and us) that it means life or death when they are among those who define their communities by exclusion rather than inclusion. Many scenes in the novel--such as the ultimately disastrous attempt by the Raja of Marh to raise the Shiva-linga and install it at the new temple being built basically right beside the Alamgiri Mosque, or the earlier riot sparked by the same awkward proximity, or the painful memories of Partition, which haunt Hindu and Muslim characters alike--evoke the human cost of intolerance, even as the same neighbouring sites of worship have the potential to represent the peaceful alternative. By the end of the novel, the relationship I felt exemplified its most cherished possibility was that between Mr. Mahesh Kapoor and the Nawab Sahib, though I can't point to its key moments without giving away some of the more dramatic events of the novel. Their story reminds us forgiveness is essential to friendships that persist over time and in the face of violence and difference, an idea that is easily extended from their particular case to the larger context.
As for Lata's final decision about marriage, well, you don't think I'm going to give that away, do you? After all, one of the most important reasons to read 1474 pages is to find out what happens. I will say, though, that I was surprised at first, and then pleased. Her choice is not conventionally romantic, or unconventionally heroic; it's not a triumphant conclusion for her, but she rides away into a future that felt true to what she had learned from participating in the complicated panorama of A Suitable Boy.

February 10, 2010

This Week in My Classes (February 10, 2010)

Don't let the lack of new posts between last week's teaching update and this one mislead you: there has been plenty of novel reading around here lately! Specifically, I have finished A Suitable Boy--yes, just a few short weeks after deciding it would be the perfect complement to a term already well-stocked with loose baggy monsters. It became a thoroughly enjoyable and often surprisingly poignant reading experience (and there was some melodrama and some humour in there too), and I hope to write a proper post about it soon. For now, though, here's what I've been doing for my day job:

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, after Monday's midterm (too short, apparently, as over half of them were done well before time was up), we've moved on to hard-boiled detective fiction. For today we read Chandler's great essay "The Simple Art of Murder" and Hammett's "The Gutting of Couffignal." This stuff will really wake you up when you've been reading Agatha Christie for a while. Though it's not at all to my personal taste, I get pretty energized teaching it, partly from the intensity of the language and the fast-paced plotting, and partly, I think, from exactly that contrast between the world Hammett puts us in and the much more artificial world of the puzzle mystery. I am also (nearly) convinced that puzzle mysteries, though far less graphically violent, are far more morally problematic. Even Poirot's sombre analyses of the corrupting effects of small moral lapses on ordinary men--blunting their moral fibre, as he says of Dr. Sheppard--are not sufficiently weighty to compensate for the essential frivolity of the murder story itself, the insouciance, for instance, with which Poirot seats himself in the very chair where Ackroyd's body was found as he works out possible theories of the crime. I think Chandler is right when he argues that such works have little to do with live as it is lived--or, more important, with violent death as it is died. But the degree to which we accept violence by our hard-boiled protagonist because we accept the ends he serves does, itself, become problematic, as I know we will discuss more next week with The Maltese Falcon (yes, I faltered in my resolution to replace in with The Big Sleep).

In my George Eliot seminar, we've moved on to Romola, which I am thoroughly appreciating now that I've made it through the painfully ponderous early portion. And, having described it that way, I should add that we talked quite a lot in class yesterday about the challenge of reading it, yes, but also about the effect of struggling through so much information and about the thematic and generic purposes it serves. As I recall, George Eliot said (in a letter, I think) that she hoped to create as rich a sense of the Florentine context as she had of the environment of St. Ogg's in The Mill on the Floss. How do you achieve such a goal, so that your characters can be seen to move in a milieu that is richly historically specific and also intensely local and personal--so that their language, values, and behaviour belong, as it were, to their place and moment--when that milieu is not already familiar to your readers? Though (as we also discussed) there seems to be even more pressure in Romola than in her earlier novels towards the universal or mythic, all of the characters embody their characteristics in ways that are entirely within realistic parameters (OK, until we get to the very end, but that's next week). It's fascinating how she takes her favourite abstractions (egotism and altruism) and makes them more concrete by associating them with major intellectual strains of Renaissance humanism, on the one hand, but also fanatic Christianity on the other: the impulses may transcend history, but their expression is determined by history, or constrained by it, and so in a way we are being prepped for Dorothea's inability to express her heroic spirituality in the ways that Romola can. Last week we talked a lot about Maggie's moral appeal to Stephen Guest: "'If the past is not to bind us, where should duty lie?'" And here we have Tito, who personifies just the moral unmooring that results when you cut ties to the past--or try to. Of course, you can't escape your past, and in Romola we are reminded of that with the thrillingly literal clutch of Baldassare's hand on Tito's arm. Romola herself is, surprisingly, not that prominent in the first half of the novel. Our installment for this week ended just as her alienation from Tito begins to undermine her dreams for fulfilling herself through marriage; next week we will be able to consider the various ways in which she (or George Eliot) attempts to imagine a different future, even a different identity, for her that will satisfy her ardent soul (yes, she's another one of those).

In British Literature Since 1800 we are finishing up Great Expectations this week. The students are also hard at work (or so I hope) on their first major assignment for me. I'm rather proud of its design, though I have not given it before and so I won't know whether it takes them where I hope they'll go until I see the results late next week. In brief, it's an annotated bibliography, but it's tailored to a general topic which they are then supposed to shape as they build the list of sources. In the end, they will submit a list of their "best" (most relevant) sources, but also a narrative of how, through the process of the research, they identified their narrower topic and then pursued it. It's the backstory of an essay, as I told them. I'm not actually having them write the essay, though their commentary will include a preliminary working thesis. Too often when I've assigned essays on Great Expectations students in past classes have skipped the preparatory stages and turned in plagiarized papers. But the thinking and reading and researching part is every bit as important as the final "writing it up into an essay" stage, so that short-cut is not only dishonest, since it isn't their essay, but irrelevant. I'm hoping that by emphasizing this part of the exercise they will really feel that difference. Also, one of the course objectives is research skills (citation and stuff), so I wanted an assignment that would really highlight research as a process, as well as giving lots of practice in the fun stuff like MLA style.

All that and A Suitable Boy too. No wonder I'm feeling a bit run down!

February 3, 2010

This Week in My Classes (February 3, 2010): "words, ingeniously used"

It's Agatha Christie week in Mystery and Detective Fiction, which means fun times with "words, ingeniously used." When we start The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of the things I point out is that it is published in 1926, so within hailing distance of a couple of other very famous novels including Ulysses (1922) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Unlike those novels, however, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is rarely assigned in university classes and never (to my knowledge) discussed as a modernist classic--because, of course, it is no such thing. In fact, modernism is probably one reason it's tricky taking genre fiction seriously as literature, for reasons we spend a little time on. That said, in its own field, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic, and one of the reasons it deserves that status is that it does quite brilliantly some of the things that kind of book is supposed to do, such as giving the reader enough information to solve the mystery without ever, in fact, giving the reader enough information to solve the mystery. You have to be ingenious indeed to tell without telling. It's fun, once the murderer has been revealed, to go back through the novel and see, not just the clues, but the delicately duplicitous way the story is controlled throughout.

Still, Christie exemplifies ingenuity only in its cunning aspects. For the full experience of language "marked by inventive skill and imagination," Dickens is your man. I find it hard to talk about Great Expectations without wanting to sound like Dickens, just a little bit, just for the fun of it--so today I found myself helplessly muttering "J-O-Joe!" at odd moments during our class discussion. That's the comic Dickens, of course, but there's also the creepy Dickens ("I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community") and the poignant Dickens ("Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts"). Sometimes, the most remarkable thing is his ability to change registers, or even to sound both funny and tragic notes at once. There's Joe's hat, toppling hilariously off the mantlepiece like an animated indicator of Joe's unfitness to be in Pip's elegant lodgings, and then moments later there's Joe himself, showing up the superficiality of that very judgment and shaming Pip back into humility with his own "simple dignity":
'You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain't that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I'm wrong in these clothes. I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th' meshes. You won't find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe. You won't find half so much fault in me if, supposing you should ever with to see me, you come and put your head in at the forger winder and see Joe the blacksmith, there, at the old anvil, in the old burnt apron, sticking to the old work. I'm awful dull, but I hope I've beat out something nigh the rights of this at last.'
And so, of course, he has.

In my George Eliot seminar, it was week 2 on The Mill on the Floss. I wrote a bit about it at The Valve and don't have much to add except that reading so much George Eliot at once this term is really bringing home to me how important I think intelligence is to fiction with any real literary aspirations. I've quoted David Masson before on the relationship between a novelist's writing and a novelist's thinking; here's the most relevant bit from British Novelists and Their Styles :
the measure of the value of any work of fiction, ultimately and on the whole, is the worth of the speculation, the philosophy, on which it rests, and which has entered into the conception of it. . . . No artist, I believe, will, in the end, be found to be greater as an artist than he was as a thinker.
I'm thinking maybe I will found a school of criticism based on this principle. The Massonites? This may be the definitive answer to the whole 'should aspiring writers go through MFA programs': no, or at least not too early on, because they should not expect to be taught how to write before they have learned how to think--and think hard. The satisfactions of George Eliot's novels are certainly not all intellectual or philosophical, but far from agreeing with those who object that the novels are somehow too discursive to be pleasurable, I agree with Henry James's remark that the "constant presence of thought, . . . of brain, in a word, behind her observation, gives the latter its great value and her whole manner its high superiority. It denotes," as he says, "a mind in which imagination is illumined by faculties rarely found in fellowship with it."

January 30, 2010

Reading A Suitable Boy

Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy has been in my TBR pile for some time. I started it once before but didn't make it much past page 300, which isn't really that far in a 1500-page novel. It wasn't that I didn't like it: I just started picking up other things to read instead, because they were more portable, for instance, or met some more immediate need. Then I decided that if I were going to finish it, I'd have to start all over again, if only to remind myself who everybody is. Eventually I moved it back onto the shelf, and there it sat, until for some reason when I was looking for my next book to read for myself earlier this month, I pulled it off again.

I don't know what possessed me, to be honest, given how busy this term was shaping up (and is turning out) to be. And yet now that I'm about 600 pages along, I think my instinct was a good one. Though the book is long, and that in itself makes certain demands, its leisurely pace and even tone make it a kind of calming retreat from the rapidity of the rest of my activities. The action (if that's the right word) unfolds so gradually that it makes Trollope's novels look like thrillers, but it's certainly Trollope I am reminded of, rather than Dickens or George Eliot (both cited often as comparisons in the excerpted reviews that lead off my edition). Like Trollope, Seth exudes a quiet confidence in the intrinsic interest of people going about their business. Also like Trollope, he seems unconcerned about literary language: the prose is commonplace and persistent, not poetic or philosophical--though it can be evocative, nonetheless, partly because of its attention to details:
But even when he closed his eyes to cut out the dry brightness of the afternoon light and the monotonous fields stretching out to the huge visible quadrant of dusty sky, the sounds of the train bore in on him with amplified volume. The jolting and clicking of the train as it rocked sideways and slightly upwards, the sound of it going over a small bridge or the whooshing of a train rushing past in the opposite direction, the sound of a woman coughing or the crying of a child, even the dropping of a coin or the rustle of a newspaper, all took on an unbearable intensity. He rested his head on his hands, and stayed still. (542-3)
I assume reviewers have compared Seth to Dickens or George Eliot because A Suitable Boy is very long and has the breadth of character and incident typical of Victorian realist novels. But (so far at least) A Suitable Boy gives me none of the sense of underlying design you get from Dickens, or at least from the great later novels like Bleak House or Little Dorrit, in which the multiplicities are charged with significance because they develop a common idea. There's also no narrative presence: no metafictional reflections, and no philosophical commentary providing perspective or a sense of purpose to the abundance of specifics. At this point, I would say that I can't discern the "aboutness" of A Suitable Boy: it just is. That's not necessarily a flaw, though I do find myself wondering sometimes, as characters and details accumulate, why they are necessary, whether there is anything more at stake than creating a narrative that reproduces the crowding of people and incidents in real life. The 19th-century novelists alluded to seem far more self-conscious about the constructedness, the artifice, of their results; this is why the chargesof naive realism seem so misplaced in their cases, but it does not seem so far off, about Seth.

When I tried to read A Suitable Boy before, I was frustrated at the absence of a glossary. I still find it a disadvantage, though inevitably you acquire a working understanding of what things are. I've been thinking this time, though, that that absence, certainly a deliberate choice on Seth's part, may make a kind of tacit statement about the novel. Though it is definitely a learning experience for me to read the book, it is not, itself, set up with me in mind, or at least with my education in mind: it is a not a didactic book for outsiders about "understanding India." It is "just" (and I don't mean that pejoratively) a novel about India, or, better, about people in India. It's my problem, not Seth's, if I don't know what a 'ghazal' is, or a 'munshi' or a 'dupatta.'

Finally, for now, I'm amused at how I've begun imitating Mrs Rupa Mehra as I read. I look at every young man to see whether he's "a suitable boy" for Lata.

January 26, 2010

This Week In My Classes (January 26, 2010)

Last week went by too quickly for comment, apparently. The usual term-time feeling of things hurtling by is exacerbated by my Brit Lit survey course: Monday was Tennyson, Wednesday was Browning, Friday was Arnold. Forget the Romantics--they're so, like, the week before last! But I also tripped into my own small version of the perpetual 'crisis of the humanities,' and there went all my blogging time.

So, this week.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction it's Sherlock Holmes week. In previous incarnations of this course I have given short shrift to the greatest detective of all, or so at least my evaluations have routinely pointed out. So this year we're doing not just a short story ("Silver Blaze," the one with the dog that does nothing in the night time) but also The Hound of the Baskervilles, which we start tomorrow. I find Holmes's displays of superhuman brilliance and pseudo-scientific deduction fairly tedious, actually, and I don't find there's much to say about them once you've run through the basic "Holmes represents the comforting promise that science and reason can control the world's complex uncertainties" theory, to but Hound has a rich mix of gothic, mythic, historical, and symbolic elements, so I hope it will prove more interesting to work through.

In the Brit Lit survey, we're rushing onward through Victorian poetry. We read the Norton's excerpts from Aurora Leigh for Monday. I enjoyed working them up: Aurora Leigh is one of those texts I get quite excited about, mostly because of its enormous exuberance, but also because it has such brilliant unity of form and content. As I tried to explain to the class, it's a poem that overcomes all kinds of conventional oppositions, not just poetry / prose (it's a 'novel-poem,' after all) but also epic / lyric, art / life, fallen / pure, spiritual / material, social / personal... Take Aurora's defiant words to her practical cousin (and would-be lover), Romney:
I hold you will not compass your poor ends
Of barley-feeding and material ease,
Without a poet's individualism
To work your universal. It takes a soul
To move a body: it takes a high-sould man,
To move the masses, even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow a hair's-breadth off
The dust of the actual.
Then there's her radical poetics, as announced in this passage as remarkable for its imagery as for its self-assertion:
Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
'Behold,--behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life.'
I find the Norton's choice of excerpts somewhat tendentious, selecting out those that illustrate, not so much Aurora's development as a poet or the crucial reconciliation between her artistic ideals and Romney's commitment to social reform, or Marian's radical revision of the 'fallen woman' narrative, but the condition of women, particularly through her chafing against her limited education and then against Romney's belittling suggestions that she abandon her art to become his "helpmate." These choices make Aurora Leigh seem more comfortably feminist than I think it actually is, and the complications that arise (but are not excerpted) make it a less doctrinaire and more interesting work than it seems from these pieces. What about Aurora's declaration, for instance, that "art is much, but love is more," or that "the end of life is not a book"? It's tempting to make her an iconic figure for the woman artist's struggle for autonomy, but it matters, I think, that for her there really is a struggle between love and independence. Arguably, this opposition is also resolved in the poem's jubilantly erotic conclusion, also not excerpted, which is a shame. Here's a bit of it:
But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,–
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason's self
Enlarges rapture,–as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!
While we two sate together, leaned that night
So close, my very garments crept and thrilled
With strange electric life; and both my cheeks
Grew red, then pale, with touches from my hair
In which his breath was...
O indeed!

And in my George Eliot graduate seminar, we've moved on to The Mill on the Floss. Much as I like Adam Bede, this novel feels like a substantial leap forward in artistry and intellectual reach--though, as I'm sure we'll discuss next week, there is (arguably) an imbalance in its structure, as George Eliot herself felt (she confessed to having lingered too long on the childhood scenes for sheer delight in them, only to find herself running out of room for her conclusion). Though if anything the narrative commentary is more pervasive here than in Adam Bede, the voice seems surer and better integrated. It's also darned funny. Here's just a tiny sample:
But,' continued Mr Tulliver after a pause, 'what I'm a bit afraid on is, as Tom hasn't got the right sort o' brains for a smart fellow. I doubt he's a bit slowish. He takes after your family, Bessy.'

'Yes, that he does,' said Mrs Tulliver, accepting the last proposition entirely on its own merits, 'he's wonderful for liking a deal o' salt in his broth. That was my brother's way and my father's before him.'

At the same time, Mill has some of Eliot's most poignantly evocative passages, particularly when she treats the relationship between landscape and memory:

There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality: we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs. Very commonplace, even ugly, that furniture of our early home might look if it were put up to auction: an improved taste in upholstery scorns it; and is not the striving after something better and better in our surroundings, the grand characteristic that distinguishes man from the brute - or, to satisfy a scrupulous accuracy of definition, that distinguishes the British man from the foreign brute? But heaven knows where that striving might lead us, if our affections had not a trick of twining round those old inferior things, if the loves and sanctities of our life had no deep immovable roots in memory. One's delight in an elderberry bush overhanging the confused leafage of a hedgerow bank as a more gladdening sight than the finest cistus or fuchsia spreading itself on the softest undulating turf, is an entirely unjustifiable preference to a landscape gardener, or to any of those severely regulated minds who are free from the weakness of any attachment that does not rest on a demonstrable superiority of qualities. And there is no better reason for preferring this elderberry bush than that it stirs an early memory - that it is no novelty in my life speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and colour, but the long companion of my existence that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.

The novel (and, indeed, all of her fiction) can be read as an extended meditation on "the labor of choice"; sadly, those "deep immovable roots" may entangle as much as enable us, which is probably why these passages feel elegaic and yet mournful. The importance of memory to morality in the novel has always seemed to me to justify the imbalance of its parts: if we hadn't spent so much (and such closely scrutinized) time with Maggie and Tom in their childhood, it would be impossible for us to understand the intensity of Maggie's dilemma later on.

January 23, 2010

The "Skills" Argument Sounds Even Worse When We're Talking about Ph.D.s in the Humanities

The most recent issue of University Affairs includes these remarks in a letter from Robert Stainton, a philosophy professor and associate dean at UWO:
Notably, there is a new and crucial role for graduate degrees in the humanities. In the 1960s, undergrad enrolments grew exponentially because Canadians recognized that a high school diploma was no longer sufficient. Nowadays, the master's degree has become "the new BA." The PhD, in turn, raises a student's critical analysis and writing skills to the level required for the most intellectually demanding careers.
Well, again, yes, doing a PhD in the humanities will certainly enhance a student's critical analysis and writing skills. But, again, and even more so than in an undergraduate context, don't the particular specialized demands of a PhD make it an astonishingly indirect and inefficient way to master those skills? Most PhD students in the humanities complete at least a year of coursework, to increase the breadth and depth of their expertise in the materials and methodologies of their field. In English, that will almost certainly include not just sustained attention to literature from the medieval to the contemporary period, but also exhausting (if not, probably, exhaustive) engagement with esoteric theorists and critics of all persuasions. One goal is to become reasonably fluent in a style of argumentation and writing that is not universally practised, as anyone who has ever coached a student initially trained in, say, Dr. Stainton's field, philosophy, to do work in literary criticism (as I have) would know. A related goal is mastery of, or at least familiarity with, a vocabulary that really has little or no place outside the academic study of literature. Then follows a year of really intensive reading in preparation for a set of qualifying exams. Precise requirements vary: at Dalhousie, our exam lists are field-specific and teaching oriented. The exam itself is a gruelling combination of written essays and an oral examination--aha! writing to deadlines and oral presentation skills! And of course the final phase is the production of the thesis, a 300+ page document demonstrating your ability to first create and then resolve a critical 'problem' or 'crux' that hasn't yet been addressed, or at least not from your unique angle. Anyone who has revised a PhD thesis into an academic book knows that even that step requires changing almost the entire tone, not to mention the supporting apparatus, of the original work, and probably expanding its scope.

If writing a thesis isn't even altogether good preparation for writing a scholarly book, it is surely disingenuous to discuss it as if it's a reasonable task to undertake if what you are eventually going to do is become a public servant, a school teacher, a lawyer, the administrator of an NGO, a novelist, or a small business owner. As for the seminars and the qualifying exams, again, it seems to me a mistake to talk about them as if they operate according to the same principles or serve the same purposes as undergraduate courses. PhD programs in the humanities are professional programs, same as MBA or LLB programs : they train people to become professional literary critics, or philosophers, or academic historians. They aren't a somewhat more elaborate kind of intellectual finishing school. Precisely because the work they demand is so much more specialized, esoteric, and obscure to people on the outside looking in, we need to be particularly clear about defending them on the grounds that that work itself has value. Ideally, that value would be more than (though it would include) the need for professional self-replication.

Now, the same issue of University Affairs includes an entire article dedicated to the proposition that the solution to the job crisis for PhDs is to include more diverse professional training as part of a PhD program's offerings. My own Dean of Graduate Studies is quoted:
According to the 2006 census figures, 31 percent of Canadians with PhDs who were employed full-time held jobs as university professors. This was little changed from 2001, but down from almost 36 percent in 1986.

To be sure, a good portion of those who end up in non-academic jobs do so of their own volition. Dalhousie University’s surveys of graduating doctoral students show that about 40 percent intend to work within academia and the rest in industry, government and non-profit organizations, says Carolyn Watters, dean of graduate studies.

Still, she adds, universities don’t do nearly enough to make students aware of non-academic career options and to train them for these positions. “Really, all we train people for is to be another Mini-Me,” says Dr. Watters, president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. “As faculty members we should be more sensitive to the fact that not everybody is going to be like us.”

Dr. Watters is right, both about the "Mini-Me" syndrome and about the need to stop imagining that all of (or even most of) our graduate students are headed down the academic path. But what to do about that? As another interviewee points out, academics aren't in a position to "give knowledgeable advice about non-academic careers because most of them have only worked in academia." But even that practical obstacle, which can be somewhat mitigated by bringing in outside experts with real-world experience (ahem: is there going to be funding for departments to do this? people outside the academy often have the odd idea that they should be paid for speaking elsewhere...) is only part of the problem. The actual degree requirements will continue to emphasize the arcane and highly specialized discourses of the academic field. They must do this, because after all, we do need to train up more professors (don't we?). Sure, we can add, as apparently Western has, a week-long seminar on "Preparing for Non-Academic Employment," but what's one week, out of what is on average a seven-year undertaking? And how are we justifying those seven years, to ourselves and our students, if most of the work to which they will be devoted is not in fact in any way essential preparation for what will come next?

There's the intrinsic merit argument, of course: the experience itself may in some ways be intellectually exciting and personally fulfilling, and there's the satisfaction of contributing to one's field and to the larger project of expanding the horizons of knowledge and understanding. Given how oriented most PhD programs are towards professionalization, though, I expect that to most graduate students those lofty ideals sound like--well, like lofty ideals. Most PhD students I know, including myself, have found that graduate school dampens rather than nurtures their idealism. The article quotes a PhD now working "in the private sector," as saying he "has no regrets about getting his PhD and would happily do it all over again. I wonder how many recent PhDs in the humanities would say the same.