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.

I, Celebrity blogger

Well, I’ve had my first interview as a result of my blogging, with the Pakistani Spectator, of all places.  Out of the blue, I hear from these folks saying they’d like to interview me and what I think about blogging.  Apparently it’s a group trying to make a go of blogging in Pakistan, with political and cultural commentary–a lot of it written in Urdu which i have no hope of reading.  It’s a bizarrely interesting site to my mind.  Advertisements for Pizza Hut and chances to meet Pakistani women ride alongside Islamic critiques of the Israeli war in Gaza (and, given that some of it’s in Urdu, who knows what else).  In any case, I’m sure you’ll want to check out my deep and profound commentary on the nature of blogging, as well as my admission that i know next to nothing about Pakistan.

We’re really getting desperate now

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a man walked into an English class at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis Tennessee and robbed 18 students at gunpoint.

Do thieves really have nothing better to do with their time than to rob a bunch of people who are learning how to read and write.  More, these folks will never make any money anyway, as amply demonstrated by their being English majors?

A theoretical side-note.  In my literary theory classes at Duke, I remember fellow students attempting to refute deconstruction by asking, “If someone held you at gunpoint, would you really sit there and deconstruct the gun?”  We may never know, but these students really have the opportunity!  I think the prof should take advantage.  This is one of those infamous “teachable moments,”  by which teachers usually mean “something uncomfortable and really unfortunate just happened, but let’s just turn it in to language!”

“How, John, did you see the gun–as a phenomenon in the moment of its appearance or as sign and symbol of our oppressive political dialectics…No thoughts?…Jane?…Jim…anyone?”

Bodies and Books

My good friend Julia Kasdorf wrote a book called “The Body and the Book,” broadly taking up the theme of contrast and connections between intellectuality/textuality and embodiment/materiality.  Karin Littau seems tolittau-theories-of-reading be mining a similar territory in Theories of Reading:  Books, Bodies and Bibliomania, a book I just started in on, though Littau is explicitly interested in reading as a bodily or material act, one in which affect more than cognition takes a center stage.

A couple of quotations and impressions from the early going:

Discussing early perspectives on novel reading on page 3–“William Wordsworth saw [the novel providing] ‘deluges of idle and extravagant stories.’ Insofar as ferocious novel reading also fostered disconnected and ‘higgledy-piggledy’ practices of reading (Schenda 1988: 60), it was thought that, ‘if persisted in’, it would have the effect of ‘enfeebling the minds of men and women, making flabby the fibre of their bodies and undermining the vigour of nations’ (Austin 1874: 251).  Like all addictions, those afflicted demanded more and more of the same:  more to read, more excitement, more tears, horror and thrills.  Bibliomania is therefore part of a larger cultural malaise specifically associated with modernity:  sensory overstimulation.  From the perspective of a theory of reading it shows that reading, insofar as it is either bad or good for the reader’s health, is in both instances conceived in physicalist terms.”

I think Littau is right here.  One of my commenters on yesterdays post apparently objected to the notion that we require permission to read.  But I really think I’m write about this for a big swath of Middle America.  There’s a long history of reading being seen as deleterious and slothful.  So in some sense we had to turn it in to a moral activity.  We had to quit reading for pleasure plain and simple and had to start reading for aesthetic experience, or meaning, or as a form or religion, or in order to improve ourselves.  This is deeply endemic to English deparments, and, I think, is one of our biggest failings;  we fail to account adequately for the grosser affective pleasures of narrative art which bring us our students in the first place.  Instead we have to imagine how literature improves their minds in order to justify our budgets.

I think that although I would grant Littau her premises here, that I would go beyond her simple statement of reading’s physicality to point out that these early and later continuing critiques of excessive reading have a moral dimension to them.  The sense that reading might have deleterious effects on the body, or, alternatively, that it awoke the passions and so had a deleterious effect upon self-control, both spoke to a much broader ethos than the simplistic enlightenment division between mind and body really captures.  There is a certain morality of the body associated with Christianity that isn’t captured in the simplistic notion that Christians despise the body.  Rather the body is to be situated and used and built up in particular kinds of ways because it is the temple of the holy spirit, and so forth.  Thus the physicality that Littau notes occasions a moral dilemma for the reader–one, frankly, that I still experience in a way.  Well, I’m reading, but I could really be out helping the homeless, or stumping for Obama, or doing other good works.  Or, more basically, I could be working out and trying to shave off all the pounds that I’ve put on over the course of my 49 years.  I truly suspect that if I read half as much and used the time to work out, I would be healthier (perhaps wealthier, perhaps wiser).  This is a judgment of relative goods, but the critique of reading isn’t as dumb and outmoded as it first appears.  How we use our time is an ethical conundrum, and so the fact of reading isn’t self-evidently justified, however many good moral benefits we may tend to attach to it as devotees of books.

From page 10–“Thus, the bulk of twentieth centiury reader-oriented theories, with some notable exceptions from within feminist theory, are concerned predominantly either with how readers make sense of a text (Culler, Fish, Iser, Jauss, Gadamer), how texts frustrate readers’ attempts at making sense (de Man, Miller, Hartmen, Bloom, Derrida), or how readers resist the meanings of certain texts (Fetterley, Radway, Bobo).  Thus, even when theorists turned away from an overly textualist approach to a more contextual, or politically engaged, approach, the production of meaning is still the primary concern.  By contrast, theories of reading before the twentieth century were also concerned with readers’ sensations.”

I think Littau is really on the mark here.  I remember sitting around with Jim Berger at a coffee shop called Kiari’s when I was teaching at George Mason University.  Jim and I would reflect on the fact that we didn’t know how to talk with students about the pleasure of literature, and didn’t quite know how to lead students into taking pleasure in more complicated and difficult texts.  I know that one of the great benefits of my undergraduate education was certain the ability to make and discover meaning in texts.  However, another huge benefit was learning how to take pleasure in things I could never before have imagined as pleasurable (Joyce’s Ulysses is NOT a natural taste).  I think we’ve shied away from pleasure as beneath the “serious” pursuit of ethical and metaphysical views of literature, but I wonder whether there isn’t an ethical dimension to the means and manner and ranges of our pleasure.  Finding ways to take pleasure in things that aren’t in our inherited bad of tricks is, it seems to me, a sign of growth and maturity and even, in some sense, an act of opening the self to otherness, a kind of ethical stance in and of itself.

I’m interested in how to take our pleasures seriously, how to learn our pleasures and how to learn from them.