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.

January 22, 2010

The Case for the Humanities

In response to my previous post, a lurking friend sent me a link to a rousing piece by Mark Slouka from laast September's issue of Harper's. (Thank you! Also, you should comment here some time. Choose a sly pseudonym; we'll never know it's you.) Some excerpts:
You have to admire the skill with which we’ve been outmaneuvered; there’s something almost chess-like in the way the other side has narrowed the field, neutralized lines of attack, co-opted the terms of battle. It’s all about them now; every move we make plays into their hands, confirms their values. Like the narrator in Mayakovsky’s “Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry,” we’re being forced to account for ourselves in the other’s idiom, to argue for “the place of the poet/in the workers’ ranks.” It’s not working. . . .

What is taught, at any given time, in any culture, is an expression of what that culture considers important. That much seems undebatable. How “the culture” decides, precisely, on what matters, how openly the debate unfolds—who frames the terms, declares a winner, and signs the check—well, that’s a different matter. Real debate can be short-circuited by orthodoxy, and whether that orthodoxy is enforced through the barrel of a gun or backed by the power of unexamined assumption, the effect is the same.

In our time, orthodoxy is economic. Popular culture fetishizes it, our entertainments salaam to it (how many millions for sinking that putt, accepting that trade?), our artists are ranked by and revered for it. There is no institution wholly apart. Everything submits; everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to the market; thus cost-benefit analyses on raising children, on cancer medications, on clean water, on the survival of species, including—in the last, last analysis—our own. If humanity has suffered under a more impoverishing delusion, I’m not aware of it. . . .

It can be touching to watch supporters of the arts contorting themselves to fit. In a brochure produced by The Education Commission of the States, titled “The Arts, Education and the Creative Economy,” we learn that supporting the arts in our schools is a good idea because “state and local leaders are realizing that the arts and culture are vital to economic development.” In fact, everyone is realizing it. Several states “have developed initiatives that address the connections between economic growth and the arts and culture.” The New England states have formed “the Creative Economy Council . . . a partnership among business, government and cultural -leaders.” It seems that “a new economy has emerged . . . driven by ideas, information technology and globalization” (by this point, the role of painting, say, is getting a bit murky), and that “for companies and organizations to remain competitive and cutting edge, they must attract and retain individuals who can think creatively.”

You can almost see the air creeping back into the balloon: We can do this! We can make the case to management! We can explain, as Mike Huckabee does, that trimming back funding for the arts would be shortsighted because “experts and futurists warn that the future economy will be driven by the ‘creative class.’” We can cite “numerous studies” affirming that “a student schooled in music improves his or her SAT and ACT scores in math,” and that “creative students are better problem solvers . . . a trait the business world begs for in its workforce.” They’ll see we have some value after all. They’ll let us stay. . .

The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion. . . .

Alas, despite our eagerness to fit in, to play ball, we still don’t belong, we’re still ignored or infantilized. What we’ve earned is the prerogative of going out with a whimper. Marginalized, self-righteous, we just keep on keeping on, insulted that no one returns our calls, secretly expecting no less.
Read the whole thing here, if, like me, you missed it when it first came out, and then send it to anyone you know with an interest in truly higher education--or any influence! To be sure, Canada is not the United States, and some of the details don't apply here in quite the same way, but the basic idea--that we are making a painful and ultimately self-defeating category mistake when we try to justify our work in the terms provided by, suited for, something altogether different, is just as important in our context. It may be more important here, in fact, because we lack the habit of vigorous public debate and public spiritedness that is such a longstanding part of the American identity. We lack a national myth of self-assertion to buoy (or sell) any revolutionary rhetoric. But on all sides our current political landscape surely displays the inadequacies of our collective sense of "how to be."

January 20, 2010

Is Arguing for the Practical Utility of Literary Studies Ultimately Self-Defeating?

There's a review of Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas up at Slate:
The Marketplace of Ideas is a diagnostic book, not a prescriptive one, and Menand's proposals for how we might invigorate the academic production of knowledge are added as afterthoughts. He thinks we ought to shorten the length of study required for graduate students; the fact that it takes three years to get a law degree and close to a decade to get a humanities doctorate, he writes, is just another symptom of professors' anxiety about the worth of their trade. We also ought to invite more applications from students who might not have self-selected as academic specialists. The notional aims of the academy—the lively and contentious production of new scholarship—would be better served by making academic boundaries more permeable rather than less.

But in the end, Menand's proposals, smart and coherent though they are, seem less important than the case study provided by his career. He has managed to stay accountable at once to his colleagues in English departments and to his audience of general readers, and he has pulled this off without sacrificing either rigor or range. Menand is proof that an academic can be a great prose stylist, and that a journalist doesn't have to be a dilettante—and that having a commitment to one community enriches one's contribution to the other. He makes it hard to take seriously the rhetoric of crisis, and helps us get on with the important business of creating the problems of the future.
Reading it led me to look back at the excerpt from it published in Harvard Magazine last fall. I had a few ideas in response to it which I wrote about then. One of my remarks at that time was this, made in the context of the difficulty of defining a coherent curriculum when our discipline has become so undisciplined that there is really no way to justify doing one thing rather than another, and thus it becomes increasingly challenging to justify doing any of the things we do at all:
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.
I heard similar arguments being made again this week as we worked on setting up a "capstone" course for our honours students: in response to my observation that some proposed ingredients were designed to groom the students for graduate school in English (something about which I am currently filled with anxiety, thanks to the kinds of discussions underway here and here and here and here, not to mention these classics of the scarifying 'just don't go' genre), I was reminded that good research and writing skills, as well as oral presentation skills, would benefit students in "law school or publishing or journalism or really any other jobs." And don't forget that we can teach them how to write a cv and a resume, and writing grant applications is not just for SSHRC but something you may have to do in many different contexts.

First of all, I totally agree. Research and writing and oral presentations are all excellent things to be good at, as are synthesizing a range of material and learning to build a strong evidence-based argument and proofreading and making a persuasive case for the value of a project you want other people to pay for and filling out forms and all the other transferable skills we know are part of what our students are learning and practising through their work in our classes.

That said, the more I think about it the more I wonder whether, in playing the game of "we're useful too" we don't actually end up rendering ourselves irrelevant by so happily setting aside the specificities of our work. Isn't literary analysis (not to mention the extensive reading of, you know, literature, that it requires) a fairly roundabout route to those practical goals? If that's what the students really want from us, we could save them a lot of time by not making them read so much Chaucer or Dickens or Joyce or Rushdie, that's for sure. If we play the game that way, it seems to me we are bound to lose eventually. Yes, like writing, critical thinking requires content: "writing across the disciplines" makes sense because you need something to write about, and you can't teach critical thinking unless you have something to think about either. But if you can learn to write anywhere, you can learn to think (and all the rest of it) anywhere too. Why English?

We need a pitch for ourselves that makes literature essential, but not in the self-replicating terms Menand rightly identifies as characteristic of professionalized literary studies (that is, by contributing to our profession according to existing norms and as judged by the profession itself, and the profession alone). We need to justify the study of literature for reasons literature alone can satisfy. We need to stand up, not for our methodology (doing so, after all, has meant warping that methodology to make it look as much as possible like some kind of science, or being so inscrutable that outsiders can't tell what we're doing anyway), but for the poems and novels and plays we take with us into the classroom every day. We need to be arguing, not that studying literature is just another way to do the same things every other discipline does (what university major won't help you with critical thinking, research, writing, and presentation skills?), but that there are things--valuable things--about literature that you just can't get any other way.

I'm thinking the way there is through aesthetics, on the one hand, and ethics on the other, and that the pitch should somehow involve a commitment to the importance of cultural memory and cultural critique, to character building and self-reflection, and to the needs as well as the ideals of civic society. If that sounds old-fashioned, I guess I don't mind, though I'm not sure it needs to be.

In his account of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill famously urges us away from too narrow a notion of the pleasures to be valued under his system:
Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable: we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or to the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it: but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire to them.

Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness- that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior- confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
We should similarly urge our administrators away from too narrow an idea of the useful. Our motto could be, "Don't be a pig."

January 19, 2010

Duthie Books to Close

Sad news from Vancouver:
VANCOUVER - Independent bookseller Duthie Books will shut its doors at the end of February after 52 years in business.

Facing pressure from online bookseller Amazon and multi-national chains such as Chapters, owner Cathy Duthie Legate has decided to pack it in and close the last of eight locations on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano.

The family-owned chain was founded in 1957 by Bill Duthie.

"I'm just not making it, so I'm going to close it down," said Duthie Legate. "We are going to start our regular sale January 28, but it will be better, of course, with discounts of 40, 60 then 80 percent and I hope to have all the books out of here by the end of February."

"Then I will tear down the store," she said. "I'm sorry that it will leave a void in the city."

Duthie Books has been hurt in recent years by encroachment on the traditional book market from every direction: big box stores, online sellers and most recently Kindle.
(via, full story here)

I think the original Duthie's on 10th Avenue was the first place I consciously shopped for books.

Somehow Murchie's was saved; where's the backer with a heart of gold, a lot of money, and a great personal library to keep Duthie's going?

January 16, 2010

Recent Reading: Ghosts (or Not)

It was an interesting experience reading Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger and Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry one after the other. Both are well-written, original books by consummate story-tellers. Both invite us to imagine a lot of "what if" questions about our world, particularly about whether there's more to it than we can see, whether we (at least some of us) live in it longer than our physical bodies do, and whether those remnants (call them supernatural, or spiritual, or perhaps metaphysical), if they are around us, might be trying to tell us something. Both seem self-conscious about their Gothic inheritance; both treat that legacy somewhat playfully, Waters, as in Fingersmith, showing herself especially deft at the evocative use of intertextuality (of course the peeling wallpaper in the house is yellow, for instance). The similarities seem to me to end there, however, except that in my estimation at least, both books also have in common that they are good but not great.

The Little Stranger is certainly the more ambitious of the two novels. Like Waters's other period pieces, it is conspicuously researched without being tediously expository; she has the enviable knack of weaving in historical details (in this case, about life in Britain in the post-war years) as if they belong to the immediate perspective of the characters rather than the retrospective discovery of the author (or reader). She's also extraordinarily sure-footed with dialogue, not just in creating voices for her characters but, again, in sustaining a faintly outdated tone that nonetheless feels completely modern: yes, people use words like "bloke" and "chum," but not too often, and often enough with their own sense of irony at play, so that we can sustain our connection with them without losing our self-conscious historical distance. I've read a couple of historical novels recently that I thought really struggled with how to make their people sound. I think Waters grasps the important principle that people who might have spoken in what, to us, would be an archaic idiom, in their own moment were wholly contemporary and idiomatic, and she avoids the hazard of attempting versions of Olde Englishe or, equally annoying, having everyone speak with extreme formality, as if slang hadn't been invented yet and wearing corsets (or the post-war equivalents) meant you actually were uptight all the time. She's an excellent plotter, of course, too, and The Little Stranger is suspenseful without relying on cheap thrills. I think one way in which her expertise in 19th-century fiction has influenced her as a novelist is in convincing her that a good story can be the basis for a serious, intelligent, and subtle novel--can be literary, in other words.

So for all those reasons, I enjoyed The Little Stranger. But . . . I was also a bit disappointed in it by the end. It is not quite as well written as Fingersmith or The Night Watch, for one thing. It's a bit prosy at times; the energy flags--or at least mine did, reading along (the long saga of the man with the burst appendix near the end, for instance). Of more significance, though (because after all, my own favourite novelist is extremely vulnerable to just that charge), is that I felt the novel did not exploit its ingredients as fully as Fingersmith does. There's Dr. Faraday, for instance. As the novel went along I began really hoping there was more to him than there seemed to be. I could imagine a few pretty cool twists, either involving him more directly in the uncanny events at Hundreds Hall, or, from a more metafictional perspective, undermining our trust in his narration. The ambiguity or uncertainy on which the story turns--is it, can it be, a ghost, or at least some kind of a haunting, something "spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house itself," causing all the upsets, or do they all exist in the minds of the characters, or in his mind?--is not resolved, which is fine (that's how uncanny things stay uncanny, right?). But our inability to know for sure ought to have mattered more: think The Turn of the Screw. Or his inability to know for sure should have been more of a problem. Instead, unless I missed some crucial detail, he is, throughout, the perfect foil for the more psychologically susceptible Ayres family, a medical man, a man of science, always ready with the skeptical explanation, always taking the practical steps. At the end he admits to being "troubled" by the details he couldn't explain away, but there's no weight to his wavering, though surely there should be: if he can even entertain the supernatural explanation, where are we left, in the battle between rational and irrational, natural and supernatural?

The other interpretive option, of course, is symbolic, and here's where the book is at once smartest and dullest. Throughout, it's made clear that Hundreds Hall represents a decaying way of life, one out of step with modernity and under threat from all sides as the estate loses money and the house quite literally falls apart. This is a fight the family cannot win, unless it can adapt, and under the pressure of time, or history, the Ayreses prove maladaptive. Faraday sees the family with a real, if faintly bitter, nostalgia, due in part to family connections (his mother was 'in service' at Hundreds Hall) and in part to his own consciousness of the changing times. He loves the house first, and the family, including his eventual fiancee, as much because of their home as for themselves, as Caroline protests at one point. He is in an interestingly conflicted position, then, representing, as a doctor, the forces of progress, but as a man, regret for the erosion of a certain idea of England. So far, great: we have everything we need to grasp that the mysterious events at Hundreds Hall, and their catastrophic consequences, are heavily freighted thematically. Why doesn't Waters trust us enough to bring things to a crisis without then laying out our options, as she does at the very end? Faraday's colleague Seeley offers the "defeated by history" theory; Faraday rehearses the "other, odder theory"; and then he concludes with his own perplexity, and the possibility that all he really saw in the old Hall was his own reflection--his desires, his longings. All of those options are activated effectively enough in the telling that it seemed inept to sum them up in this way. At the same time, though, I didn't feel the novel had shown me clearly enough what difference it would make which option I (or Faraday) ultimately believed. What are the stakes in this interpretive decision, or indecision? (Also, how much cooler would it have been if Faraday turned out to have been scheming all along to somehow get the house for himself? I was really hoping--half expecting--that he would turn out to be quite, if not wholly, unreliable.)

Her Fearful Symmetry is a lighter book, morbid, perhaps, in its fascination with death and cemeteries, but not scary or even really poignant. It too is meticulously researched: one of my favourite aspects of it was all the lore about Highgate Cemetery. I had hoped to get out there on my recent trip to London and didn't; next time, for sure. While Waters is working with the uncanny possibility that there are forces beyond our senses (or our control), Niffenegger takes a resolutely literal and definite stance on ghosts: there are such, and they 'live' (exist? operate?) according to fairly specific constraints and possibilities, which you have to accept without too much quibbling or you might as well stop reading. (One of my problems with this book, much as I enjoyed it, was that it kept reminding me of Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze struggles mightily to move pennies and so forth but somehow never, say, falls right through the floor. Niffenegger's ghost also spends a lot of time learning how to concentrate her "energy" enough to have an impact on the material world. In case you're wondering, her big breakthrough is discovering that dust is light enough for her to move. Fortunately, the piano is dusty so she can write messages there! For some reason, she can fit in a drawer or pass through walls but not leave the flat. No quibbles. Just accept it.)

I liked that Niffenegger is not sentimental, about either death or ghosts. There's a bit of a twist near the end, for instance, that I really appreciated because it kept the ghost consistent with the highly imperfect and self-serving character she was when alive. There's no heaven in this novel, no angels, no starry reunions with loved ones, no catering to wishful thinking about everything being all right at the, or past the, end (The Lovely Bones, anyone?). Even love is not treated sentimentally here. A couple of the most intense loving relationships are claustrophobic for those in them, one, in fact, literally so, as the wife of a man with severe OCD chafes against living with the windows papered over and most of the contents of their flat in boxes. Life, we come to see, is not always all it's cracked up to be--not, that is, if death is a viable option. But death, too, has its drawbacks: it's cold, and you can't smell people, or feel them. The novel's climax is built around a quirky version of a sensational plot involving switching identities (with two sets of twins in the case, I kind of saw that coming, though I admit I hadn't anticipated quite how it would resolve) and body-snatching (sort of). Here too, as with The Little Stranger, I wanted people to be more devious than they turned out to be: as I'm trying not to give too much away, I'll just say that I wish the whole thing had been planned more or less from the get-go. But I liked that Niffenegger avoids the saccharine ending that would justify all the cliches about loves that endure past death. Perhaps she wanted to write a kind of antidote to The Time-Traveller's Wife.

So where's the problem with this one? Well, basically, I thought it lacked ideas. My dissatisfaction with The Little Stranger was that, good as it was, I thought it could have been even better, because it was smart enough to do so much already. In this case, the story really is all. I realize that in some quarters it is considered 'middlebrow' to expect a novel to be about something. I'm not altogether afraid of being middlebrow, but I should be clear that I'm not regretting the lack of a didactic moral or a message. It's just that there don't seem to be any ideas under all the activity in the novel, except maybe that love is unpredictable and potentially dangerous, and that dead people can be selfish too (does that count as an idea if it deals with something as hypothetical as the emotional status of the dead?). Here Niffenegger has taken as her setting a site filled, literally, with many great literary figures, many of whom write with great creativity and insight about love and death. But Her Fearful Symmetry doesn't raise questions about, for instance, who framed that symmetry and what intention or design we might thus infer from it. It doesn't exploit the irony that sisterhood can be as constricting as saving, which it might have illustrated with some lines from "Goblin Market." It doesn't put up an idea about how death is constructed today to put up against its evocation of Victorian death, which it deals with so engagingly through its account of the development of Highgate Cemetery. It takes us to a wonderful little park full of plaques commemorating acts of ordinary heroism, but this illuminates (at most) our sense of the character who loved to picnic there, not a commitment to "unhistoric acts" as the real foundation of life after death, when we join "the choir invisible." What, ultimately, is this book about, then? It's about an inventive cast of characters (and I definitely give Niffenegger credit for making them interesting and vivid) and a "what if" scenario: what if, after death, your opportunities to interfere in the lives of others turns out not to be over? It's very clever, but that's not really enough.

January 13, 2010

This Week in My Classes (January 13, 2010): "Most of them seem to be twaddling stuff"

It's always fun when there's an unexpected synchronicity between two (or more) courses. Even the sheer coincidence of juxtapositions can be fruitful: I remember the thrill I felt as an undergraduate when I happened to be assigned the first volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality in my historiography seminar for the same week I was reading John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman for my English honours seminar. I still have the paper I wrote as a result, "Changing the Angle: A Re-Interpretation of Sex, Power, and Sexuality in The French Lieutenant's Woman"--and oh my goodness, glancing through it, was my undergraduate writing self a painful blend of sincerity and sententiousness (plus ca change etc., I know).

Anyway, I had a modest version of that intertextual thrill this week rereading Adam Bede for my graduate seminar. In waltzes our "hero," the dashing young squire Arthur Donnithorne, and almost the first thing out of his mouth is this pithy assessment of Lyrical Ballads, hot off the press when the novel is set:
"It's a volume of poems . . . : most of them seem to be twaddling stuff; but the first is in a different style--'The Ancient Mariner' is the title. I can hardly make head or tail of it as a story, but it's a strange, striking thing."
As it happens, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was Monday's reading for my Brit Lit survey class, and so I spent much of my weekend renewing my acquaintance with its "strange, striking" verse and browsing in the vast array of attempts to "make head or tail of it." As I'm sure I would have known more definitely if I were a Romanticist, "Mariner" is one of those poems that have become as significant for their critical history as for themselves (if there's a distinction, an issue which of course underlies many of the articles I was reviewing). Having introduced Romanticism last week with some Wordsworth, particularly "Tintern Abbey," it is certainly vexing to turn to "Mariner" and see how it messes with one's generalizations (the language of common men? I don't think so!)--and yet that's the point, or one of them, that there aren't going to be any truly stable generalizations in our course even though we will need them to move forward, or to start from. And I'm in some sympathy with Arthur about Wordsworth's contributions; as was remarked over at Wuthering Expectations some time ago, Wordsworth is probably "the most boring great poet in history." Great, yes, but the risk of trying to write unpoetically is writing, well, unpoetically at times.

But I know I shouldn't sympathize with Arthur's reading taste too far, and in fact one of the interesting issues we discussed about Adam Bede in our seminar was characters' reading (or not) and how it affects both their thinking about their own lives and our judgments of them. Hetty doesn't read novels, we're told, and so spins her fantasies about becoming a lady oblivious to the potential complications; Arthur should have finished Zeluco, which might have strengthened his moral resolve by emphasizing the consequences of seducing innocent young girls. A lot of our attention ended up being on our own reading of Hetty, and in particular on whether the narrator's close attention to her interiority and the inadequacies of her self-perception and moral development in any way compensates for those defects, or whether that attention is (perhaps inevitably) condescending, or worse. We remarked that everyone around Hetty attributes qualities to her that she doesn't really have, largely because of her deceptive beauty (leading Adam, for instance, to assume a tenderness of character equal to the softness of her arms and other curves). Dinah too mistakes Hetty for something more than she is, but Dinah's case is particularly interesting because she gives Hetty credit for greater moral elevation, seeing in Hetty's sobs, for instance, "the stirring of a divine impulse" when in fact Hetty is just moody, in an "excitable state of mind." "[W]hile the lower nature can never understand the higher," the narrator remarks,
the higher nature commands a complete view of the lower. But I think the higher nature has to learn this comprehension, as we learn the art of vision, by a good deal of hard experience.
The hierarchical language is potentially troubling here, especially in combination with the frequent associations of Hetty with animals and other "lower" creatures. Some judgment on Hetty for her vanity and selfishness (eventually destructive not just to herself, but, most painfully, to her child) is surely essential. But if she is of a "lower" kind, how far ought we to hold her responsible? It's striking that the "hard experience" called for here is Dinah's, or the "higher" nature's: Dinah is capable of moral growth and the expansion of her sympathy even to Hetty as she really is, seems to be the message, but isn't it Hetty's "hard experience" to which much of the novel is primarily dedicated? But it's Hetty who is not able to read her own experience and learn from it: that's for Dinah, and us, to do.

January 10, 2010

Just Briefly...

I hope to write a proper post soon on the combined efforts of Audrey Niffenegger and Sarah Waters to make me believe in ghosts (or not). In the meantime, I thought this was as nice a suggestion about the difference that marks out "literature" from other written texts as I've seen:
Art that is not in an argument with itself declines to entertainment.
It's a bit of Howard Jacobson's commentary in a Guardian round-up of contemporary novelists on whether Tolstoy is "the greatest writer of all time." None of them really answers that question directly, but they all seem to be fans. Which reminds me: my lovely copy of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace still sits pristine on my shelf: I hereby commit myself to reading it in 2010!

January 6, 2010

This Week in My Classes (January 6, 2010): Beginnings

It feels as if this year there was an unpleasantly (even, unconscionably) short time between the end of exams--or, more significantly, the end of marking exams--and the beginning of our new term. The feeling of hurtling headling into another round of, well, everything was exacerbated by the entire administrative structure of the university being closed from the day I submitted my final grades until the day I showed up to teach again. Well, it's nice that some people weren't working between December 24 and January 3, but for some reason I didn't think I could just show up on January 4, walk into the classroom and start talking. Good thing I didn't need the library, a/v support, answers about anything from room booking or the Registrar's Office, or a printer.


But I was, mostly, ready. And the truth about teaching (one truth, anyway) is that there's only so much you can do in advance. I find I can't even draft detailed lecture notes much ahead of time if I want to really mean the things I say. For one thing, transitions and examples that seem absolutely reasonable at one moment can look wholly obscure at another ("Why have I put 'quote Arnold' here, again? Which Arnold?"). And for another, each class meeting has to be to some extent responsive to the one that came before it (and the ones that came before that). So I usually focus a lot of energy and attention on the scaffolding for my classes--planning reading and assignment sequences, tweaking course policies, setting up Blackboard sites and so forth. This time I obsessed about the wiki projects I am doing with my Brit Lit survey class (very similar to the one JBJ describes here), especially the instructions (detailed! with screen shots!) and the evaluation rubric. I also puzzled for some time over what assignments to use in my graduate seminar, as I am tired of going through the ritual round of in-class seminar presentations (in the end, I decided to move a fair amount of writing and discussion onto, you guessed it, a class blog). I'm hopeful that these mildly innovative formats for our work will be energizing for the students as well as for me, but right now I feel exhausted from the effort it took to create the sites and then explain (and justify, pedagogically or methodologically) their use.

And even having laboured over syllabi and websites and reserve lists and discussion questions until my eyes were all starey and red, the problem still remained: what to say in class? Luckily, for one class (Mystery & Detective Fiction) I have a lot of material to draw on from previous years, so this time all I added was some pizazz in the form of PowerPoint slides. There really is no lecture that can't be improved by a large picture of Humphrey Bogart. For my graduate seminar, I knew I wanted to begin with an overview of George Eliot's life and philosophy, also something I've done before. I also had asked them to read three of her major essays ("Woman in France," "The Natural History of German Life," and "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"), so we could begin our seminar work with some discussion of, among other things, gender and voice.

The big blank for me was how to start up the Brit Lit survey. In the end I decided to go with a sort of 'motivational speaker does literary history' thing, emphasizing ways in which a text can hum with unexpected significance if we bring to it a keen enough sense of the contexts and forms on which it draws, or to which it responds. To feel that energy ourselves, we have to stock up on ideas and information, including historical and literary-historical, so that, for instance, we can look at something that otherwise might seem entirely innocuous, even trivial (my example was "I wandered lonely as a cloud") and see it as, in its own way, revolutionary. Why would someone say this thing, in this way, at this time? Under the circumstances, what did it mean? And then, of course, given all that and everything else we know, what does it mean for us? I had the idea that they should not take the class, or literary history for that matter, for granted--not just sit there and be writing down things about what the texts meant, or who wrote them and when. Nobody has ever (I think!) written literature in the hope of being anthologized, after all. People write (or so I assume) so that other people will join with them, if only temporarily or provisionally. Anyway, I tried to communicate some sense of why I think it matters (and helps) to know something about literary and historical contexts; I tried to make the discussion at once abstract and personal (for them, not for me). Today, on the other hand, I made large generalizations about "Romanticism" and pointed to some sections of "Tintern Abbey." I think that was more what they were expecting from the course.

January 4, 2010

First Day of Classes

Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that 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.
How many years, exactly, do I have to do this before I no longer feel jittery on the first day?

January 1, 2010

A New Year and a New Look at Open Letters

Open Letters Monthly has rung in 2010 with a great new design for their site to showcase their January issue. Take a look--including at my own contribution on "The Radicalism of Felix Holt" Finally, an excuse to try out my pet theory about why Jane gets all the costume balls and zombies...