Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Great Ones Are Dying

I’m sure I was the last to hear, but John Updike died this morning of cancer at the age of 76.  I was thinking of Updike just last night, an early literary hero in mybook, thinking of how all that gorgeous and absolutely beautiful prose towers over the ephemera that passes for literary writing today.  I know all the complaints, and maybe later I’ll explain why they are all hogwash, but for now I just know that he will be missed, by me if by no one else.

My first published essay as an academic was on Updike.  Following is the first paragraph:

In trying to explain to a friend how I could be fascinated, even in love with so sexist, racist, and superficial a literary monstrosity as John Updike, I responded that Updike’s prose provoked in me intense moments of cultural recognition, that even if I recognized other writers as abstractly superior; even if I am more concerned with Reformed theological individualism; even if the racism is egregious and the pornography is too often tedious–still, Updike is a homeboy I cannot give up, his inadequacies and genteel perversities too much like those of a brother or sister or uncle with whom we must stand arm in arm for family portraits, frozen in an uneasy embrace.

From “Scribbling for a Life: Masculinity, Doctrine, and Style in John Updike.” Christianity and Literature. 43.3-4 (1994): 329-346.

Literature Matters, yet again!

The Web has been recently awash with literary analyses of the inaugural, of all things.  Some of this is due to the excitement surrounding the fact that Obama had an inaugural poet.  Well, I’m glad to have poetry present on the national stage, but I’ll be honest that I thought the poem was a yawner and tone deaf to the moment.  Too much writing for other intellectuals at Yale instead of the man and woman in the street.  Maybe I wanted something more incantatory and straightforward.  Walt Whitman.

There’s also a good bit of literary kerfuffle over the state of Obama’s prose in the inaugural address.   Charles Krauthammer derides “the mediocrity of his inaugural address. The language lacked lyricism. The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln’s second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush’s second inaugural.”  Ok, I might take this more seriously if Krauthammer didn’t try to assert the oratorical superiority of our last president, but he’s not alone in finding the speech tame.

On the other hand, Stanley Fish–sorry, I’m on a bit of a Stanley Fish kick these days–gives a thorough going literary analysis of the speech, spying in Obama’s use of parataxis a biblical rhetoric fitting for the occasion:

But if we regard the text as an object rather than as a performance in time, it becomes possible (and rewarding) to do what the pundits are doing: linger over each alliteration, parse each emphasis, tease out each implication….

Of course, no prose is all one or the other, but the prose of Obama’s inauguration is surely more paratactic than hypotactic, and in this it resembles the prose of the Bible with its long lists and serial “ands.” The style is incantatory rather than progressive; the cadences ask for assent to each proposition (“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood’) rather than to a developing argument. The power is in discrete moments rather than in a thesis proved by the marshaling of evidence.

Paratactic prose lends itself to leisurely and loving study, and that is what Obama’s speech is already receiving. Penguin Books is getting out a “keepsake” edition of the speech, which will be presented along with writings by Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (You can move back and forth among them, annotating similarities and differences.)

So the prose is Lincolnesque….or not.  It’s enough to make one believe in the kind of reader response criticism that Stanley Fish largely abandoned, wherein the reader makes up the text as he goes along.  Still, I guess if I had to choose a reader to trust, Stanley gets my vote. (Disclaimer:  Fish was my prof at Duke in grad school, and Krauthammer has irritated me for years, so what do I know).

All I know is that it is good to know we have a President whose language calls for attention that reaches beyond ridicule.

The Solomon Scandals

David Rothman's New Novel

David Rothman's New Novel

David Rothman over at has just published his first novel,The Solomon Scandals, so many congratulations to David.  David gave me the chance to read a manuscript version of the novel, so I’m glad to have been some small part of this project. Maybe I’ll get around to writing a review.  Since David gives me an acknowledgment in the book, I can puff myself and David’s work at the same time.

Humanists, despise thyselves

Stanley Fish has a depressing review of Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors:  The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, posted a few days ago. An excerpt:

Stanley Fish--Courtesy of Indiana University

Stanley Fish--Courtesy of Indiana University

In “ two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”

How has this happened? According to Donoghue, it’s been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “ fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”

The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold’s conviction that poetry will save us could not be more stark. But Donoghue counsels us not to think that the two visions are locked in a struggle whose outcome is uncertain. One vision, rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.

I find especially delicious Crane’s quotation.  It reminds me of a friend in college who gave the following definition of an English major:  Someone who makes life more difficult than it really is.  The obvious riposte, of course, is that the English major sees the deep and underlying difficulties of life that no man or woman has seen before.  Doctoral dissertations can be written on Love Story and on Goodnight Moon, if one only knows how to go about seeing and reading in the right way.  And I suppose the obvious riposte to Crane is that a man with a taste for literature is not so interested in happiness, narrowly construed, after all.  We delight in being morose, in thinking deep thoughts, and in being sadder for it.  Of course, we wish the world would recognize the legitimacy of our sadness and reward it with wine and women, and extensive paid vacations on the French Riviera–but in most respects a knowing melancholy is its own reward.

I thought I should also note the titles of several other Crane texts, published between 1909 and 1911:  “The Futility of Higher Schooling,” “The Futility of Technical Schools” and “The Demoralization of College Life.”  Crane apparently saw a lot of futility in education.  And Donogue takes the current state of higher education as evidence that the Cranes and Carnegies of the world have really at last won the day.

I’ll be the last to say that Donoghue doesn’t have a point.  And it does seem to me that faculty often make their cases for their pet projects or their majors or their departments with a lack of awareness–or perhaps interest–in the facts of how institutions are run as institutions.  Almost as if their paychecks appear miraculously in the bank every month and don’t come from clearly defined and self-replicating economies that make the traditional project of education for its own sake increasingly precarious.  [Ok, now I’ve alienated faculty members and clearly deserve to die].

Still, there’s counter evidence.  All in all, humanities remain relatively robust.  My colleague, Joseph Huffman, pointed out that today’s Chronicle of Higher Education that the ARts and Humanities continue to produce over 13% of the college and university graduates in the United States, trailing the Business and Professional fields, to be sure, but well ahead of the sciences and most others.  Hardly the fainting violet that everyone takes the Humanities to be these days.  Even in the stuff that Fish-Donoghue present, there’s reason to hope.  Should it not say something that people have been saying this kind of thing for 100 years, or more?  That is,  does the fact that Crane could say this kind of thing 100 years ago point to the ultimate triumph of his point of view, or to the remarkable endurance of certain kinds of humanistic educational ideals, the ideal that it is better to know–oneself, one’s fellows, one’s world–than to not know?  That ignorace, far from bliss, is a failing of our purpose;  to learn, to explore, to develop the mind that God gave us is surely part of our vocation as human beings.  Maybe this latest sense of humanistic despair and crisis is merely one more chapter in an ongoing saga.  It is, in many respect, our secularized version of the Christian divide over works and grace.  Americans for the most part have little use for grace and celebrate the man who works his own way in to heaven–or wealth, or political influence, or whatever.  The old line humanists among us, like Stanley Fish, insist that our real goal in life is no worldly good at all.

Jordan Windholz, poet

Congratulations to Jordan Windholz, one of my former students, for his recent nomination as a finalist in the Omnidawn poetry contest.  I had the chance to work with Jordan in a lot of different ways during his tenure at the college, and I’m so glad to see his success.  You can see Jordan’s poem “ruminant” at the Omnidawn blog.  Jordan’s poetry is scattered all over the web, and I’m looking forward to a book someday.

Zits, The Parents Bible

I love the cartoon strip Zits, and am convinced that the creator has a direct line of inspiration from God, or at least is a very good observer of teenage behaviour.  I really love the strip from this Sunday.  Makes me wonder whether the issue with declines in reading comprehension in teenagers and young adults has less to do with internet media per se (there has been some studies done that show that people read a screen differently than they read a page of paper) than with the simple fact of multi-tasking.  People never learn to slow down and read deeply, but do a multitude of things at the same time.

I’m trying to get permission to post the cartoon to my blog, so we’ll see.

Bodies and Books–II

I’ve continued reading Karin Littau’s Theories of Reading.  The second chapter is mostly a schematic History of Reading that will be familiar with anyone who’s read some stuff about that history.  Still, I was struck anew or again by two aspects of that history.

First, Littau rehearses the manifest distinctions between our own (gradually eroding??) views of textual authorship and those of earlier periods.  According to Littau there’s no real way to distinguish the copying of a text from the creation of a text in the Middle Ages (which makes me think that more than a few of our students would be more textually at home in the middle ages than in our contemporary academy).  According to Littau, one reason for the fluidity between “copying” and “creating”  was “‘the common classical and Christian view of poetic inspiration’, in accordance with which ‘the poet does not originate the poem but is the inspired channel for a divine act of creation’ (Selden 1988: 303).  In pre-print culture an author, or auctor, was therefore less a creator of a given work than its assembler, whose rights to the work extended merely to the physical object of the manuscript he or she had produced in the first instance rather than the text as the fruit of his or her private consciousness, as is the case in the copyright law now” (16).

The relationship to our own modes of electronic creation almost don’t bear pointing out.  How many blogs are simply compilations of materials generated elsewhere, and yet we still think of them as something we’ve somehow produced or written, unique only in their assemblage, not in creation?

Still, I’m more interested in the implications of the latter part of the quote.  I wonder especially whether this doesn’t reaffirm the notion that trying to get back to original intention springs from a god-like view of authorship.  However, in the ancient world, the idea that the words were divinely inspired allowed them to be disseminated endlessly into new texts and new assemblages, without worrying fastidiously about the point of historical origin in a particular writer in a particular time and place.  By contrast, our own view of the author as Godlike locates that divine authority in a specific moment of history, to which we have to return to the point of exhaustion.

I wonder how this plays out especially among Christian views of scriptural authority and inspiration.  Our own view of historicism insists that grappling with the historical uniqueness and situatedness of the point of creation–with the author is one can be determined–ironically discards a sense of authorship, authority, and inspiration that would have been common at these earlier points in history. To some degree we make the text captive to history, rather than releasing it to new and unforeseen forms of assemblage and creativity.

Well, this is too much for me to flesh out right now, and I’m not sure it would go anywhere anyway.