January 29, 2009

Glaring Omissions

It seems only fair that after exposing my students' shocking ignorance of Hopkins not long ago, I should come clean about some of the many gaps in my own reading experience. I'm inspired by the frank admissions (and often compelling justifications) posted by the contributors at The Millions, including Emily Wilkinson's disavowal of "burly man-authors" (the excerpt she includes from Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses is certainly enough to keep him on my "not reading" pile indefinitely!) and Kevin Hartnett's admission that he has made many "false starts" with the modernists, including Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (hey, me too!).

There are always too many things to read, so one issue this kind of exercise raises for me is why a particular author or title matters as an omission. Sometimes (especially for an English professor) ignorance is the problem: you really should know about someone influential or innovative or great in a particular tradition so that you understand the genre or period well and can justify speaking on it as any kind of expert. Sometimes (for any reader) you believe your intellectual, aesthetic, or emotional life will be enriched by a particular reading experience. Sometimes you're curious to see what the fuss is about. Sometimes you want to challenge yourself.

In my own case, I have glaring omissions that fall into all of these categories. The books I feel obligated to catch up on for professional reasons are really the least interesting to reflect on: canonical stuff I've just never gotten around to, partly because I do so much rereading of the big ones I routinely teach. As a Victorianist, I really should read the Dickens novels I don't know, including Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and The Old Curiosity Shop. I should probably read some Thackeray besides Vanity Fair (I did read The History of Henry Esmond once, but I've repressed it). There are a lot of Trollope novels I haven't read yet (I think I've read 18, but when you remember he wrote 47, that's not impressive), and some Hardy (I really don't enjoy reading Hardy, sigh). And there are all kinds of "lesser" novelists I've never touched, including Charlotte Yonge, George Meredith, and Disraeli (shhh, don't tell). My concern here is almost totally about my credibility as an 'expert' on the 19th-century novel. I don't in fact feel I'm missing out much as a reader--though I'd be pleased to be surprised about that. In earlier fiction, I never finished Tristram Shandy--but in my defense, I've read not just Pamela, but Pamela II, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. I'm curious about some of the Romantic women novelists I have read about but not read for myself--but not really curious, because I've read excerpts and they often strike me (as the lesser Victorian novelists do) as writing books that are more stimulating as cultural artefacts than as, well, books to read.

There are a lot of 20th-century novelists I haven't read. My professional conscience bothers me about the modernists, but I'm morally certain I would need support to get through Ulysses, never mind Finnegan's Wake, so my secret ambition is one day to audit my brilliant colleague Len Diepeveen's Joyce seminar and see how it's done. Woolf I admire wholeheartedly as a critic and essayist, but so far as a novelist she eludes me. Unlike Joyce, however, whom I regard as an obligation, Woolf draws me personally because of what comes across as the beauty and clarity of her mind in her other writing, and because of what I've read about her novels and what they reach for. Also, some of the other readers I know and love best are passionately devoted to her: if she's their friend, one day she'll be mine too.

Moving further into the 20th century, I lose my sense of what's an obvious omission, except perhaps Salman Rushdie. I've read none of his novels; I don't expect to like them--not my kind of thing--but I might be surprised. I think Iris Murdoch is the mid-century author I'm most interested in trying, largely because what I've read about the philosophical reach of her approach to the novel. I feel as if I've read a decent amount of contemporary British fiction (Ishiguro, McEwan, Zadie Smith, and so on), but I'll be teaching a new survey course for the department next year (Brit Lit 1800 to the Present) so no doubt, as I prepare for it, I'll be learning about the unknown unknowns that are in fact serious gaps.

I've stuck to British literature so far, but in terms of my own enrichment, I think the omissions I most regret and hope to remedy are in the French and Russian novel. I have my sights set on Tolstoy at the moment: I read War and Peace long ago, but I don't think that counts, so I am very happy to have received a handsome new edition from my Christmas wish list. The posts on Balzac at Wuthering Expectations whetted my appetite for some of that, I haven't read Proust, and I have read no Dostoyevsky either.

As Archdeacon Grantly would say, Good Heavens! If I keep this up, they'll probably revoke my tenure, my degree, and my driver's license. Now I feel I'll have to post a long list of things I have read, just to ward off criticism. (Also, I suddenly regret having spent so much time reading obscure works by mediocre 19th-century historians....speaking of which, all you smug Woolf-reading Sterne experts, how much Agnes Strickland have you read?) But if they ever read this, my students will probably feel just fine about what they haven't gotten around to yet.

What about you, Dear Readers? Anyone want to 'fess up? I can't promise absolution, but given what I've admitted to, you know you won't end up looking bad by comparison.

January 27, 2009

Recent Reading

I'm mostly reading for my classes right now, of course (Agatha Christie and Tennyson, an odd combination). But in the interstices I have made my way through a few things just for myself.

Some of them don't inspire much commentary. Louise Penny's Still Life was OK. It was good enough in parts that I can imagine the series gets better, but mostly it felt laborious--too much detail to be pure puzzle mystery, not enough depth to become actually literary. I enjoyed reading Margaret Campbell Barnes's My Lady of Cleves for the first time in about twenty years. Once upon a time I read all of her books, and all of Jean Plaidy's, devotedly and repeatedly, but I have a harder time than I used to making the necessary suspension of disbelief for historical fiction of this type. Scott was definitely on to something when he put his own characters in the foreground and turned historical figures into bit players. Still, it's a sweet book, and not just, I think, because it was such a nostalgic experience going back to it. I'm sure the reissue of some of her novels (and some of Plaidy's) in handsome new editions is a response to the conspicuous success of Philippa Gregory's Tudor series (and the TV show too). I was diverted by Round Robin, the second in Jennifer Chiaverini's 'Elm Creek Quilts' series, but as with the first one, I liked the concept here much better than the execution.

More thought-provoking has been my first time reading Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. I felt as if I could not quite catch the tone of this novel. It seems too sincere and poignant (sometimes, anyway) to be straight satire; there's too much pressure put on religious beliefs and their consequences for it to be social comedy or romance of any conventional kind. I felt hampered by my inability to fall in love with either Sebastian or Julia. Was I supposed to? I think I was supposed to be charmed, then wearied, then saddened by Sebastian, and I sort of was, though the teddy bear was just too precious. But Julia? She reminded me of Sue Bridehead, another ethereal beauty prone to erratic mood swings and inconvenient fits of piety. Is this kind of pseudo-philosophical eroticized flightiness really what intellectual men find attractive in women?* (My intense dislike of Sue in most of her moods is one of many factors inhibiting my appreciation of Jude the Obscure.) But, again, discerning the novel's tone towards her is essential here, and that's just where I had trouble. If the satire is thorough, perhaps she and Ryder's love for her are relics of the pre-modern world Brideshead comes to symbolize. The evocation of time and place is often lovely, nostalgic yet clear-sighted. Also, I became increasingly interested (as I'm sure I was meant to) in Ryder's architectural paintings and how they might be related to the novel's depiction of Brideshead. The prose is often exquisite, but I have to say it may be hard for me to forgive this little bit of self-indulgent male awfulness:
It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure.

*The antidote to these irritating relationships is definitely Harriet and Peter in Gaudy Night, my own favourite "Oxford novel" and a book that really wrestles the challenge of male-female intellectual equality and its effects on romance to the ground (once, it even does so literally). And speaking of Oxford, I'm excited to report I expect to actually be in Oxford for a few days in June. What other books should I be reading to get in the right frame of mind? Also, if anyone has a great tip on a charming but affordable B&B in or near, I'd be happy to know!

January 25, 2009

Last Week in My Classes (January 2009)

Last week started badly (or well, I suppose, depending on your perspective), with Dalhousie actually closing for the morning due to winter weather. This is one of a handful of times the university has closed since I came here in 1995; many times I have trekked out in blizzard-like conditions wondering why, exactly, anyone should be expected to carry on under the circumstances. Monday's problem was a bit unusual: we had a sizable dump of snow last Sunday which turned to freezing rain and rain overnight, but rather than the rain washing the streets clean, it collected on top of what became a layer of solid ice. The result was a mess of puddles (some as deep as car doors) over a skating rink. It was a relief not to have to decide for myself whether I would cancel my morning classes or struggle in. And fortunately, from a pedagogical standpoint, the cost was minimal, or at least easily made up for, as we were doing the same readings all week, so we could make up for lost time by covering more in the days remaining.

So what did we do, when we got back on campus? Well, in Mystery and Detective Fiction we finished up The Moonstone. On Wednesday we talked especially about Rachel, Franklin, and Ezra Jennings; I tried to move us towards the novel's emphasis on the importance of getting outside 'conventional English' perspectives to resolve its crimes--not just the ostensibly central crime of the novel, the theft of the diamond, but the other injustices that reveal themselves, including class and gender prejudices and colonialism. My excellent TA took the final class, and gave a smart and thorough talk on science in the novel (a topic that, in addition to its intrinsic interest and relevance to Collins's work, sets us up well for this week's transition to Sherlock Holmes). Then she led us into a discussion of the novel's conclusion and the solution of the mystery, and how far the broader issues opened up by then are in fact resolved. Is justice served at the end? The class consensus seemed to be that Godfrey got what was coming to him (though we considered how far he is a scapegoat for larger forces) and that the diamond is finally where it belongs. Here, as with so much crime fiction, we are pressed into making moral distinctions that we might not ordinarily be so comfortable with (is suffocation a kinder and thus more acceptable method of murder than multiple stab wounds? is death a reasonable punishment for opportunistic thieving? is killing for religious reasons, instead of for materialistic ones, somehow excusable?).

In my Faith and Doubt seminar, we were reading A Christmas Carol this week. It was not an obvious choice for this class, but it is included in its entirety in our anthology, and I wanted both to read some Dickens and to use as much of our assigned text as possible (to repay their financial investment in it). I thought it worked well, actually, as it raised a lot of questions about how far Dickens is secularizing Christian ideas and mores, how far he is rather trying to translate them into a non-sectarian (but still largely Christian) vision, how much of the story's religiosity is lost on (most of) us because we don't catch a lot of the Biblical or doctrinal allusions, and so on. Because we've been talking about Victorian religious controversies and ideas of faith and doubt, certain moments stood out more sharply than usual (Scrooge's debate with the Spirit about restrictions on Sunday leisure activities, for instance, in which the Spirit repudiates such evangelical measures). In Friday's class we had our first student presentation. I always enjoy seeing the results of the students' creativity applied to our class readings; it tends, also, to energize the larger group to see their classmates so involved. This week's group used clips from two film adaptations of the story to help us focus on ways its religious elements are changed and downplayed--though even in the Muppet version, as we discussed, the key note is struck through Tiny Tim's "God bless us, every one" and the song "Bless us all". If our initial impression is that the story has been revised for a secular era, maybe we can only see and hear it this way because we have become accustomed to religious language stripped of its sacred meanings (as in "Oh my god!" "Good Heavens!" and "Jesus Christ!"--all expressions used incessnatly today purely as expostulations). In the face of several comments about ways the adaptations lose or give up on many of the more serious elements of Dickens's original (such as its social criticism and calls for reform), one student objected to our giving the original too much credence or authority: she said she found it heavy-handed and not well written. I grant it's not Dickens's most subtle story, but there is a genre issue here as much as an evaluative one, I think: it's a moral fable, so it seems inappropriate to criticize it for being, well, moralizing! It's a separate and probably unanswerable question how far we can or should value such a genre. We didn't have time to parse her claim that it's not "well-written," but I wonder too if that would hold up against patient reading. Large swatches of the story, at any rate, are great examples of Dickens's gift for imagery and sensuality in his descriptions; the excess of metaphor, and even of sentiment, seems well-suited to his affective designs on us; and of course, generations of readers have taken pleasure in it. Still, the underlying question is always an interesting one when it comes to adaptations: should faithfulness to the original be the measure of success? (Having just seen two fairly uneven adaptations of novels by Ian McEwan, I have been pondering this question a bit lately. FWIW, I thought the recent film of Atonement was at least brave in trying to capture the novel's interest in modernist aesthetics as well as its metatextuality; I'm not altogether sure that the makers of Enduring Love read that novel all the way to the end.)

The final teaching event of the week was my participation in the WHiPS event on Friday. In retrospect, I think I would have been a more interesting case study for the audience if I'd chosen to work on a blog post, so that they would see more new words actually being generated and tinkered with. But I was told it was fine just to bring my current writing project, so I worked (or tried to work) on my book review of Case and Shaw's Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel and Levine's How to Read the Victorian Novel. I'm not much further ahead on the review, because a lot of time was taken up with fielding questions about my "writing process"--but also with explaining to the constantly shifting audience just what I was doing, where I had gotten so far and what issues I was (am) still struggling with. Because a number of these issues are conceptual ones (e.g. what is most useful or important to say about these books?), a lot of what I'm currently doing is thinking--not really a spectator sport, even when (as requested) you are giving an informal running commentary on your efforts. I did show (as I think most of the participating writers did) that writing is not a matter of starting at the beginning and keeping on until the end, but rather putting pieces down and considering their coherence and usefulness, roughing in outlines, shuffling things around, adding quotations, shuffling things around again, and so on. One of the Ph.D. students I'm supervising was there for a while and remarked that, for her, it was indeed helpful seeing that I myself do the kinds of things I'm always urging her to do (for instance, writing things out before you are sure you have got them right or know what to do with them). But I don't know how much other observers got out of the experience. In trying to explain why I had the rough pieces they could see in the document, I did end up explaining in various ways some of the issues I'm interested in regarding differences between criticism as we practice it in the classroom and criticism as we (usually) publish it--this is the 'angle' I think I'm going to use to motivate the discussion of the particular books. Explaining this many times helped me think about how I was actually going to weld this general issue to the specific review portions, but I'm pretty sure it was all more interesting to me than to them. Some of the chunks of prose I'm working with in the draft of the review are taken from earlier blog posts on related topics, so there was some discussion about differences between how I write for the blog and how I do other things. I emphasized that for me, blogging is, deliberately, a less formal and self-conscious kind of writing. I always compose posts online, and I allow them to be more open-ended and stream-of-consciousness. In some ways, then, blogging is a kind of pre-writing for me when I'm dealing with material I also work with professionally. Several people seemed interested in my comments about how writing often on my blog has (I think) made me a more confident writer in other venues--the best way to become a better writer, after all, is to write! One student asked if I prefer to work for long intervals (a few hours at a time, say) so that some momentum can develop; I had to laugh at the idea of ever having a few hours straight without interruptions or other commitments interfering. Still, no question, to my mind the single most important quality of a successful writer must be discipline. Trollope was spot on when he said that the essential tool for a writer is glue on the seat of his pants!

One interesting conversation that broke out a few times was about technologies of/and writing. A couple of people asked about writing by hand vs. composing online. I explained that I still find some stages of the writing process much easier or more comfortable to do by hand. One issue for me, for instance, is taking notes from a book. Physically, it is easier to hold the book with one hand and write in a notebook with the other than to prop the book open and look back and forth from it to a computer screen while using both hands to type. We talked about working with electronic files and ebooks: I don't yet have experience with using ebooks for my work, but I can imagine naturalizing note-taking on the computer once I can have the book (or an article) open in one window and my word-processor in another. In theory, I can do this already with articles, but I don't (yet) have software that enables me to highlight or comment right in the margins of a PDF file, and this remains a typical step in my processing of sources. I still feel there's something in the physical, tangible connection between pen and paper that helps me own the material and the ideas it is generating. There are also things I don't know how to do on a computer, such as roughing out brainstorming ideas in diagrams and charts. Sometimes I need to be messy, and I don't know that a computer can let me do this--though I did learn that there is software that lets you simulate the mapping-out steps of brainstorming. While in some ways I draft much more efficiently now that I do almost all of my actual composing on my computer, then, my own process is still a hybrid one. Of course, the limits of the technologies I have or know how to use are important factors here. How much time do I want to invest in learning to use new toys, though, rather than, say, actually getting words in order? (Relatedly, we wondered if concerns about electronic waste are going to inhibit the current momentum towards going paperless.)

January 22, 2009

WHiPS 2009 January 23

Announcing: Write Here in Plain Sight 2009
Dalhousie Writers Offer WHiPS

Yeah, yeah, we know what they tell you about writing. But have you ever wondered how it is actually done? Today you can witness one of the most secretive of all human behaviours – writing. Come for ten minutes or come for seven hours. Come and go from venue to venue.

First introduced to the world in 2007, Write Here in Plain Sight (WHIPS) is a bold adventure in teaching. The project is based on the premise that, as with other skills, learning how to write an academic paper can be significantly enhanced by observing expert behaviour.

Every word, every typo, every moment of writer’s block will be projected on large screens in four different rooms. Audience members witness the horror, the struggle, and the triumph of writing as it is practiced.

Watching the writers will reveal exactly how messy and idiosyncratic the writing process is and how it actually happens. The writers will share their inner-most thoughts as they plow through the process. The audience will get to question what they see as it evolves. In Sunny Marche’s case, the audience will choose the topic, and then be witness to the research, thinking and writing as it happens.

Among the writers wielding their pens at WHIPS are:
  • Carolyn Watters, Dean of Graduate Studies, Computer science
  • Ian Colford, award winning creative writer
  • Lyn Bennett, Early modern poetry and rhetoric
  • Sunny Marche, Information systems
  • Rohan Maitzen – dedicated blogger and expert in the Victorian novel
  • Carol Bruneau – award winning writer-in-residence. She writes for adults and for children; now she writes in front of you.
  • Jacob Posen and Seamus Butler – student voluntees for you to compare yourself to!

Killam G70
* 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m. Lyn Bennett
* 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Carolyn Watters
* 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. Rohan Maitzen
Killam 4106
* 9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Jacob Posen & Seamus Butler (students)
* 11:00 – 1:30 p.m. Ian Colford

KC Rowe building – Room 3089
* 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Sunny Marche
* 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. Carol Bruneau

Open to anyone who needs to know more about writing! Enter and leave whenever you want as long as you do it quietly.
Yes, that's right: you can come and watch me work on my book review. I think we're supposed to proceed as we normally would, which means I'll need snacks, drinks, lots of breaks, some nice music playing, and an internet connection for procrastinating making sure I'm up-to-date on all the latest blogs I follow relevant scholarship.

January 17, 2009

Second Anniversary Musings

My first post here went up on January 18, 2007.

A two-year anniversary seems as good a time as any for some reflections on my experience of blogging so far. I've written fairly often already about blogging and my interest in it as an extension of my academic work, my pedagogy, and my desire to find common ground between academic criticism and 'common' readers. So what else is there to talk about?

Well, for one thing, I have found that writing this blog has made me very aware of the things I can't (or at least don't) talk about here--this is a feeling enhanced by my recent reading of the anthology Dropped Threads (from the cover: "A beautifully woven tapestry of perspectives on the silences women still keep"). Now, I've never been a convert to the highly confessional version of blogging, not just because it seems at once solipsistic and exhibitionist, from the writing side, and voyeuristic, from the reading side. And even if I were inclined to blog about myself in a more personal way, because I use my own name rather than a pseudonym, self-disclosure risks impinging unfairly on others' privacy. Of course, there are no external inhibitors here, only my own sense of propriety and reserve. But maybe because the format of a blog makes it feel like writing in a diary, the gap between the (usually) calm, reasonable tone of my postings and my currently rather vexed and complicated life can sometimes be disconcerting. Blogging for me is another version of my calm public face. I certainly prize and respect self-control, but as the wise narrator of Middlemarch observes, "behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control." It's tempting, sometimes, to launch an anonymous blog in an attempt to tap into the same reservoir of kind, thoughtful people I've discovered are "out there" ready to contribute generously to conversations about books, to see what answers they might have to some questions about life. But don't worry: I'm never going to turn Novel Readings into naval gazing. I've been reading too much Carlyle recently to be tempted into that kind of self-indulgence!

Even as an expression of my public or professional personality, my blogging has seemed to me lately to have become a bit bland. Not that it ever was particularly edgy! And by some, I know, my approach has always been dismissed as 'middle-brow' at best (that's not, by the way, an epithet I'm altogether averse to). Still, in person, even at work, I think I'm a bit more acerbic and prickly, or funny and irreverent, than I have been here, where of late "a common greyness silvers everything." Also, I've become more inclined to avoid topics on which I feel snarky and know I might generate some controversy (however small in scale). In some ways it is responsible to think twice about statements which, thanks to the wonders of electronic memory, you can't ever really take back. I also believe reciprocal courtesy and avoidance of cheap ad hominem slurs should be the standards for blogging as much as for any kind of intellectual exchange. Still, one of the initial attractions of blogging was the freedom it offered to express my opinions without layers of qualifications or justifications (or footnotes). Though of course with tenure I have, officially, all the leeway I could want to say what I think, I do try to get along with my colleagues, and I have a responsibility to my students to present a variety of perspectives and to teach a range of material that is variously congenial to my own critical commitments and temperament. Being polite and responsible like this can sometimes feel intellectually dampening, that's all, and for a while, I felt relatively uninhibited here, and so took a few more risks than usual. I don't want to seek controversy or be contrarian just for the sake of it, but I don't want my commitments to remain wholly implicit here: I'd like to define myself more sharply as a critic and make Novel Readings stand out more distinctly as a source for a more particular kind of commentary. We'll see how that goes.

On another topic, since I started putting time in as a blogger I have inevitably asked questions about the value of doing this instead of doing other things that lead more directly to professional credit or advancement. In the next year or so I'd like to discuss some of the things I've learned or considered more formally with first our departmental and then our faculty administration. I've already proposed to our departmental committee on professional development that we move towards a 'portfolio' approach to to evaluating academic publications. Given how strongly worded the MLA's recommendations on scholarly publishing were, it is a bit shocking to me how little impact they appear to have had so far on ordinary practice--or even on thinking about ordinary practice. I'm not claiming anything in particular for Novel Readings here, except insofar as exploring the world of academic blogging and electronic publication has opened my eyes to the inadequacies of our entrenched assumptions about what 'counts.'

Finally, blogging for this long starts to raise questions about the value of the archived material. I recently did some downloading and sorting of old posts, with an eye to drawing on them for some more formal writing projects. Doing so made me very aware of the sheer quantity of writing I have done here over the past two years (hundreds of pages worth, it turns out). The material varies widely in quality and depth, but I would like to do something to ensure that the more substantive posts are accessible in a useful way: one aspect of literary or academic blogging that has always bothered and puzzled me is that writing about books is not properly subject to quite the same time pressures as, say, writing about current events (or even, dare I say it, writing about pop culture). The blog format, though, persistently favours the new, always moving older posts down and then off the page as if somehow critical insights get dated like any other story. I'm going to work on setting up something like a 'table of contents' for the blog that will work better than the 'labels' function to direct visitors to what I think of as the "back-blog" of material here. There's no reason in principle why despite the unbreakable convention of 'latest first,' a blog couldn't work less like a newsfeed and more like a constantly expanding volume.

January 16, 2009

This Week in My Classes (September 16, 2009)

I don't have a lot to say about our first week on The Moonstone in Mystery and Detective Fiction that I didn't say around this time last year. I notice that in last year's post I didn't say much about Miss Clack, though, who was the main subject of today's meeting. I like Miss Clack for many reasons, including for her name (clickety-clack! it captures and trivializes her annoying persistence with Dickensian precision) and for how well she illustrates one of the novel's major formal interests--the effect of character on both language and perception. Her narrative is extremely comic, but because it is funny at the expense of her religious attitudes (especially her missionary zeal), the humour inevitably has larger thematic implications. Her major charitable project, for instance, is the "Mothers'-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society": "the object of this excellent Charity is . . . to rescue unredeemed fathers' trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent, by abridging them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son." Actually, that's not a bad idea: recidivism might just plummet with severe enough applications of pantsing among the "irreclaimable," especially when, as here today, the temperature is a bracing -33 C in the wind. I also enjoy her as a case study in sublimation, as she attempts to translate her erotic interest in Godfrey Ablewhite into spiritual terms:
He beamed on us with his beautiful smile; he held out a hand to my aunt, and a hand to me. I was too deeply affected by his noble conduct to speak. I closed my eyes; I put his hand, in a kind of spiritual self-forgetfulness, to my lips. He murmured a soft remonstrance. Oh the ecstasy, the pure, unearthly ecstasy of that moment! I sat — I hardly know on what — quite lost in my own exalted feelings. When I opened my eyes again, it was like descending from heaven to earth. There was nobody but my aunt in the room. He had gone.
"Unearthly ecstasy." Uh huh, sure.

In my Faith and Doubt seminar we are also looking at religion with an ironic and occasionally skeptical eye, but there it is important to be clear, with this week's reading, that there's religion, and then there's religion: we've been working on bits of Carlyle, excerpts from Sartor Resartus and Past and Present, and God is everywhere acknowledged, though every imaginable doctrine seems to be dismissed as Sham, Cant, and Quackery. We worked to clarify the notion of "Natural Supernaturalism" today. I had recourse (legitimately, I hope) to a couple of passages from Aurora Leigh which have always seemed to me to pursue something very close to Carlyle's idea of Nature as a system of "celestial Hieroglyphs," even relying on the same metaphors he uses, and pressing us (as Carlyle does in Past and Present) to see consequences for our social responsibilities and behaviours resulting from what EBB calls that "double vision" by which the "temporal show" is "built up to eterne significance" (AL VII:807-8):
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God. (VII: 821-22)

If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist's ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyph of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man, --
Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns
Make offal of their daughters for its use .... (AL VII:857-66)
As I understand it, Carlyle's objection is that we have (mis)taken the surface show for all, forgetting or denying the greater reality which, on his view, is simply 'clothed' in what we can see and measure ("We have quietly closed our eyes to the eternal Substance of things, and opened them only to the Shows and Shames of things"). We have become materialists, scientists, even (gasp) atheists. And the result is a world in which the only concept of Hell is "not succeeding...chiefly of not making money"--we are become believers only the the "gospel of Mammonism": "We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash payment is not the sole relation of human beings." Soon after this part comes his well-known story of the "Irish Widow," which I routinely circulate to my students when we discuss the fate of Jo in Bleak House.

As noted in my previous post, there's a head-punching-needed quality to Carlyle's prose (the editors of my edition of Sartor Resartus quote his one-time friend J. S. Mill writing to him cautiously to ask whether his points could not be "as well or better said in a more direct way? The same doubt has occasionally occurred to me respecting much of your phraseology"). But there are moments of sheer delight, too, and this time it was the seven-foot hat that did it for me, so here it is for you to enjoy as well. It's hard not to feel, when reading it, that Carlyle is, in his own crazed way, a prophet for our time as well as his own. It is part of his general indictment of society for having "given up hope in the Everlasting, True, and placed its hope in the Temporary, half or wholly false."
Consider, for example, that great Hat seven-feet high, which now perambulates London Streets. . . The Hatter in the Strand of London, instead of making better felt-hats than another, mounts a huge lath-and-plaster Hat, seven-feet high, upon wheels; sends a man to drive it through the streets, hoping to be saved thereby. He has not attempted to make better hats, as he was appointed by the Universe to do, and as with this ingenuity of his he could very probably have done; but his whole industry is turned to persuade us that he has made such! He too knows that the Quack has become God. Laugh not at him, O reader; or do not laugh only. He has ceased to be comic; he is fast becoming tragic. To me this all-deafening blast of Puffery, of poor Falsehood grown necessitous, of poor Heart-Atheism fallen now into Enchanted Workhouses, sounds too surely like a Doom's-blast! . . .

We take it for granted, the most rigorous of us, that all men who have made anything are expected and entitled to make the loudest possible proclamation of it, and call on a discerning public to reward them for it. Every man his own trumpeter--that is, to a really alarming extent, the accepted rule. Make loudest possible proclamation of your Hat: true proclamation if that will do; if that will not do, then false proclamation--to such extent of falsity as will serve your purpose, as will not seem too false to be credible!
"Make loudest possible proclamation of your Hat"--here, indeed, is a motto for our times. Carlyle's view, of course, is that "Nature requires no man to make proclamation of of his doings and hat-makings." And a "finite quantity of Unveracity" may leave real life and Faithfulness sustainable, but beware when "your self-trumpeting Hatmaker" becomes emblematic of "all makers, and workers, and men":
Not one false man but does uncountable mischief: how much, in a generation or two, will Twenty-seven millions, mostly false, manage to accumulate? The sum of it, visible in every street, market-place, senate-house, circulating library, cathedral, cotton-mill, and union-workhous, fills one not with a comic feeling!
Indeed. I'm off now, to try to make a better Hat, in accordance with the Universe's plans for me. O reader, go thou and do likewise! (OK, no more Carlyle for me...)

January 13, 2009

Wondrous Indeed is the Virtue of a True Book...

Not like a dead city of stones, yearly crumbling, yearly needing repair; more like a tilled field, but then a spiritual field; like a spiritual tree, let me rather say, it stands from year to year, and from age to age . . . ; and yearly comes its new produce of leaves (Commentaries, Deductions, Philosophical, Political Systems; or were it only Sermons, Pamphlets, Journalistic Essays), every one of which is talismanic and thaumaturgic, for it can persuade men. O thou who art able to write a Book, which once in the two centuries or oftener there is a man gifted to do, envy not him whom they name City-builder, and inexpressibly pity him whom they name Conqueror or City-burner! Thou too art a conqueror and Victor, but of the true sort, namely over the Devil; thou too hast built what will outlast all marble and metal, and be a wonder-bringing City of the Mind, a Temple and Seminary and Prophetic Mount, whereto all kindreds of the Earth will pilgrim.
It always seems nearly futile to comment on Carlyle (this is a bit from the "Centre of Indifference" chapter of Sartor Resartus--technically, the words are those of the fictional Philosopher of Clothes, Diogenes Teuefelsdrockh, which, yes, translates as "God-born Devil s--t"). His prose is at once exhilirating and infuriating; the same can often be said about his ideas (I think it was William Morris who acknowledged his genius but said someone should always have been stationed beside him to punch his head every few minutes). Do you think he would consider much contemporary criticism 'talismanic and thaumaturgic'?

January 11, 2009

Globe and Mail Book Section Goes Online

The Toronto Globe and Mail, which fondly declares itself "Canada's National Newspaper," has, like many other newspapers, recently eliminated their stand-alone books section. I haven't found the Globe's book section very stimulating for some time, so to me the loss is more symbolic than intellectual. (One of my theories about why the section is so often disappointing is that they ask too many authors--as opposed to, say, critics--to write their reviews.) Literary coverage will continue, but as part of the Focus section (odd, maybe, that it's not the Review section?). At the same time, however, the paper has dramatically expanded its online books coverage. I haven't had time to explore the site very thoroughly, but it seems to include many of the same features that the print version had as well as a range of interactive pieces, including a couple of blogs and an "Ask the Author" feature that looks like fun--P. D. James is scheduled for later this month, and she's an author I'd like to ask a few questions myself. I see that their Blogroll so far is exclusively other Globe and Mail blogs. I wonder if they will get outside that box a bit and link to some of the wide range of other book blogs (affiliated with newspapers and not) in and out of Canada.

January 6, 2009

This Week in My Classes (January 6, 2009)

That's right, another term has begun. Blogging about teaching has become yet another reminder for me of how cyclical academic work is: to everything there is, indeed, a season. As my years in this job add up, I am increasingly self-conscious about the potential the work has for becoming repetitive (if it's the second week of January, it must be The Moonstone...). At the same time, I am also increasingly appreciative of the on-again, off-again rhythm, the three-month bursts of intense concentration, barely-controlled chaos, and incessant demands and deadlines, followed by an interval of relative calm--still full of work, but without the same feeling that you are just grasping at the next thing in a never-ending chain. Sometimes, in between terms, you don't even do much real work on evenings and weekends!

Here's what's up this term. Once again, by popular demand (and to help meet my 'quota' for what our higher-ups tactlessly call "bums-in-seats"), I'm teaching Mystery and Detective Fiction. Some of you will remember the convolutions I went through trying to revamp the reading list for this course. I undertook that re-thinking process a bit belatedly, as I had already ordered most of my books for this term; I am using a new anthology, the Longman Anthology of Mystery and Detective Fiction instead of the Oxford Book of Detective Stories, which means a different selection of short texts, and I have added Auster's City of Glass. But otherwise the major landmarks of the course are the same as last winter's version. Next year, however.... One text I'm sure I won't change is, actually, The Moonstone. It's just so much fun; I'm not sure I'll ever be sorry to wake up on a Monday morning in January and realize it's Gabriel Betteredge Day. We haven't done much yet this term. Tomorrow's "Big Intro Lecture" day. I just hope more of the students have actually bothered to get back in town.

My other class is a new one for me, an upper-level seminar on "Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt." Back when we still offered a lot of full-year courses, I sometimes taught a Victorian literature survey, and it included a "crisis of faith" unit (along with the "Woman Question" unit that became the basis of another special topics seminar I have now offered several times). I thought I'd like to get back to some of the prose and poetry I don't otherwise get to teach much, and religion is not only the quintessential 19th-century topic but also a topic of some personal interest to me; this new seminar is the result. I would not feel competent to offer a graduate level course on this material, but I've been brushing up on key texts and contexts and I think (I hope!) I'm going to be OK for my purposes this term. I've got my intro lecture on "varieties of 19th-century faith and doubt" ready to go. We haven't done much but organizing so far, but one comment in yesterday's class meeting did take me by surprise--maybe unreasonably, I don't know. The students were signing up for seminar presentations and I remarked that they seemed to be avoiding Hopkins. "It's because we've never heard of him," one of them said. Never heard of Hopkins? Am I crazy to find this startling in a room full of 4th-year English Honours and Majors students? I've been trying to remember when I first came across Hopkins and what my first reading would have been. I'm thinking it was "God's Grandeur" in my second-year Chaucer-t0-Yeats survey class, or maybe (since I was the kind of person who read around) I just encountered him while reading on my own. I always teach something by Hopkins when I'm doing a poetry class or a class with a poetry unit; I'm pretty sure that when I taught Close Reading (still my most challenging and rewarding pedagogical assignment) we did at least "God's Grandeur" and "The Windhover" every year. It's hard to think of poetry that better illustrates both the rewards and the limits of close reading! Dear readers, do you read--have you read--any Hopkins? How obscure is he these days?

To close, then, because I'm in a poetry frame of mind, here's a study in contrasts from my 'faith and doubt' syllabus: my favourite section of In Memoriam (Tennyson, often belittled for his "pretty" language, shows he can be stark and restrained with the best of them) and a dose of Hopkins (ah! the ecstasy of that last moment). Go ahead: scan them both. You know you want to.

from In Memoriam A.H.H.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more --
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
"God's Grandeur"
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge & shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.

January 3, 2009

Happy New Year!

It has been quiet here at Novel Readings due to the combination of the holidays and the pressure to get my winter term courses ready for (gulp) Monday morning. As part of my class preparation, I have been working again on Tennyson's In Memoriam, that beautiful, melancholy sequence described best by lines from the poem itself: "Short swallow-flights of song, that dip / their wings in tears, and skim away." By way of a New Year's offering, here's section 106:
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night:
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
I haven't taught much poetry at all lately; my 'Victorian Faith and Doubt' seminar is going to make up for that, not only with In Memoriam but also poems by Matthew Arnold, Emily Bronte, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, and Christina Rossetti--including, of course, "Goblin Market." Novel Readings should include some forays into poetry reading in 2009, then. I'm looking forward to it.