Everybody wang chung tonight

by Michael Bérubé on September 24, 2007

Well, it’s been months and months since my last contribution to this fine blog, but this time, folks, I have a real excuse: the dog ate my August, and it’s all Janet’s fault. Janet, you may recall from months and months ago, is married to me. We learned in mid-July that Janet would need surgery to keep a couple of bones in her neck from pressin’ on her spinal cord. Those bones have now been put back in their proper places, and Janet’s recovering the way people do when they’re told that their surgery has been a “complete success.” (That’s how the neurosurgeon felt about it; now we gradually find out what the patient thinks.) As for me, the minute I learned the surgery would take place on August 28 and that Jamie would have no summer camp in August, I realized that I would very likely have to spend every spare waking second of my summer trying to finish a draft of the book I’ve been talking about for the past couple of years, The Left At War: The Totalitarian Temptation from Hume to Human League. So I made my apologies to my fellow CTers via “electronic” mail, and let them know that I probably wouldn’t be posting again for quite some time. And though I know this will mortify Janet no end, I thought I’d offer CT readers a closeup of the X-ray that started the whole thing:

janetbones.jpg

As you can plainly see, those stray bones were causing Janet some serious neck and shoulder pain, and needed to be “fused.” And if there was one thing we did well back at my old haunt, it was fusion!

But that’s not why I’ve come out of semi-retirement (again). I’m here because I am exasperated as no creature has ever been exasperated before, and you know how I get when I’m exasperated. Last Sunday there was an essay in the New York Times Book Review on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and since it is my job, in such affairs, to be quoted as the person who says a me-like thing, I happily obliged. I was also called upon, ten years ago, to comment on the tenth anniversary of the publication of Bloom’s book, and I told the Chronicle of Higher Education that although I admired Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic as well as his brilliant essay justifying the translation, I thought that whole sections of Closing read like the work of the dotty uncle who comes down from the attic to rant at the family during Thanksgiving. For some reason, this appeared in the Chronicle, iirc, as “the dotty uncle who comes out of the closet to rant,” which is really not what I meant at all. That was not it, at all. But never mind that! The important thing is that I have to start thinking now about what I will say on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Closing of the American Mind. Suggestions welcome, as always.

Now, I know perfectly well that Henry was all over this a week ago, but still, I am exasperated to the point of flummoxation, and here’s why. It’s not just that Alan Wolfe’s Achebe/Yeats remark was foolish beyond belief, claiming that an African novel for which the New York Times has to provide an identifier is better known than one of the most-cited poems in the English language. (That kind of thing goes with the territory: I’m tapped to say the me-like thing, and Wolfe gets to say the Wolfe-like thing. Somebody’s gotta do it, and he’s just the guy.) And it’s not just that Alan Wolfe’s foolish-beyond-belief remark is a tired retread of the famously mistaken remark from the 80s canon wars—namely, that Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is assigned in English courses more often than all the works of Shakespeare combined. It’s that the entire premise of the zero-sum argument is dead wrong. Here’s how Rachel Donadio framed the crucial me-to-Wolfe transition:

But many scholars see these changes as part of a necessary evolution. To Michael Bérubé, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University and the author of “What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?” (2006), the changes have been particularly beneficial in American literature, which has seen the most canon revision in part because it never had a very stable canon to begin with. “The old guard had very little to offer in the way of serious intellectual argument against the reading and teaching of … Olaudah Equiano or Djuna Barnes or Zora Neale Hurston, so the canon of the past two or three centuries got itself revised in fairly short order,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “Only the Department of Surly Curmudgeons still disputes that we’re dealing with a usefully expanded field.”

Reading lists, though, are a zero-sum game: for every writer added, another is dropped. One can debate the changing fortunes of writers on the literary stock market, but it’s clear that today the emphasis is on the recent past— at the expense, some argue, of historical perspective. As Alan Wolfe puts it, “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ”—Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria—“but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”

You know, I thought I was fairly careful about naming names here. I tried to pick writers who were intellectually complex and historically important, and I subtly suggested that people who would try to argue against the study of such writers were surly curmudgeons. But I forgot that in Canon-Debating World, it’s always 1987, and we always have to be on the lookout for the possibility that some black writer, somewhere, is getting too much attention at some dead white guy’s expense. (Odd, isn’t it, that the allegedly overrated contemporary writer is always black? And if people don’t want to make an issue of this, then they shouldn’t complain about the attention being paid to writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe. They should try complaining instead that everyone has read Don DeLillo’s Underworld but few people have read Book VI of the Aeneid, or something along those lines.) It’s the last part of this formulation—the “at the expense, some argue”—I forgot: since I inhabit a sane and sunny world in which it is reasonable to expect people to read more books every year, I completely overlooked the fact that because the Department of Surly Curmudgeons actually don’t have any good arguments against studying Equiano or Barnes or Hurston, they pretend, instead, that the study of these figures is a “zero-sum game” that will distract us from the real classics. This is—how shall I put this decorously, so that even the surliest curmudgeon will understand it?—ah, yes, I know: this is horseshit.

Honestly, I am so very, very weary of people who pretend that the field of literature consists of a reading list—one reading list. For every writer added, another is dropped? Ah, no. That’s what the National Association of Surlycurmudgeons will try to tell you, because that’s their job: they don’t punch out and go home until they’ve written or said something to the effect of “Toni Morrison is displacing Shakespeare because of affirmative action racegenderclass OH NOES,” but there’s no reason for a smart person like Rachel Donadio, whose work I like, to fall for this tripe. In reality, for every writer added, a writer is added to the field of literary study—perhaps to a freshman-level survey; perhaps to a lower-division undergraduate course; perhaps to an upper-division course on a literary genre or period; perhaps to an undergraduate honors seminar; perhaps to a graduate seminar—and those are just the basic possibilities for teaching assignments. Quiet as it’s kept, the college literature curriculum does not consist of one course on the West’s Greatest Hits; you can read Achebe in one course and Yeats in another. Then there are all the possibilities for research, for literary criticism, for scholarly editing, for new anthologies, and for literary history: in none of these endeavors is there a zero-sum game among writers. A new book on the poetry of H.D. does not wipe out another book on the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge; and a new book on the “long eighteenth century” is enriched, not enfeebled, by a scholar’s study of a wide range of writers and works. (And if you’re the kind of person who’s given to complaining that the newer, larger literature anthologies are too inclusive, well, I have a Department for you! As Nina Baym once told me, there’s even a minor cottage industry devoted to complaining about how “writer X gets Y pages but Hemingway only gets one short story” every time a new anthology is published, because no one bothers with grainy material details like the fact that the Hemingway estate will permit no more than one short story to appear in each anthology.) The only place where the zero-sum dynamic operates is at the level of the individual syllabus. But since these exasperating “debates” have started from the assumption that there is room for only one literature course in your average undergraduate’s college curriculum, the Surly Curmudgeons have been allowed to pretend that every citation of a previously neglected or underappreciated writer somehow diminishes Shakespeare.

The truly weird thing is that even the National Association of Surlycurmudgeons’ survey of ZOMG They Are Killing Shakespeare doesn’t quite bear out Donadio’s claim for it:

The invasion of politics has been particularly notable in the literature curriculum. On campus today, the emphasis is very much on studying literature through the lens of “identity”—ethnic, gender, class. There has also been a decided shift toward works of the present and the recent past. In 1965, the authors most frequently assigned in English classes were Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope and T. S. Eliot, according to a survey by the National Association of Scholars, an organization committed to preserving “the Western intellectual heritage.” In 1998, they were Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Milton, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison.

As John Quiggin pointed out, this isn’t exactly a “decided shift toward works of the present and the recent past.” What’s more, my sense is that most people—that is, except for members of a certain Department, one of whom I’ll get to in a moment—would gladly trade Dryden and Pope for Austen and Woolf in any literary fantasy league you care to name. And since Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer (in 1965) have been replaced by Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton (in 1998), that leaves only the controversial Eliot-for-Morrison matchup, which is well described as an “invasion of politics,” since, unlike Morrison, Eliot didn’t have politics—or, if he did, at least he didn’t write about them, and so they were irrelevant to his stature as a writer.

Perhaps the sorry state of contemporary canon-commentary is best exemplified by Ross Douthat, who picks up the NAS study and writes, “obviously, having Morrison and to a lesser extent Woolf in that group is somewhat depressing.” Obviously, you just gotta love the “obviously.” In a stroke, five of the most accomplished novels from the high-modernist era—Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves—have now been so pwned by Ross Douthat! No way they deserve to be sitting in the chair reserved for the author of “Mac Flecknoe.” Douthat’s judgment is then seconded by a couple of rapid-fire commenters, one of whom writes that “intelligent professors should acknowledge that Toni Morrison’s work is low-brow junk” only to be corrected, one comment down, by someone who writes, “Excuse me. Toni Morrison’s work is not ‘low-brow junk.’ It’s middle-brow junk.” I can’t explain these comments myself, any more than I can explain why a once-respected literary magazine like the Atlantic would want to offer gigs to people who find it “obviously” depressing that writers like Woolf and Morrison are widely read and studied, but I can suggest three options: (1) the commenters have actually never read Paradise or Beloved, novels that make substantial demands on ordinary readers; (2) people are unaware that the properly highbrow way to sneer at Morrison is to compare her unfavorably with Faulkner or Garcia Márquez, neither of whom is usually associated with the lower brows; (3) these remarks are actually a subtle form of praise, insofar as they link Morrison to Charles Dickens, long considered by Surly Curmudgeons everywhere as the king of middlebrow junk.

And why are people still hating on Toni Morrison? Because in Canon-Debating World, it’s always 1987, and . . . oh, you know the tune. Everybody have fun tonight.

{ 4 trackbacks }

Canon Talk, Now With 20% More 80s References « Pax Americana: Culture, Politics, and Ineffectual Debate
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09.28.07 at 10:00 am

{ 135 comments }

1

Matt 09.24.07 at 3:31 pm

Don’t forget that Douthat made his name by claiming to have learned nothing while at Harvard. This seemed like an obvious lie or at best a silly exaduration, so now he must go around trying over and over to prove that he really did learn nothing there. I take his remarks noted above to be a piece of this exercise.

2

Amanda French 09.24.07 at 3:56 pm

I noticed that hilarious lack of parallelism in the author lists, too (Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer –> Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton) — I suppose it could be due to a scrupulous fidelity to frequency of taughtness, but I prefer to attribute it to a deliberate attempt at obfuscation.

And I did wonder: What the heck do we need this article for, anyway? It definitely has a “General Francisco Franco: Still Dead” quality to it.

And on the zero-sum game: last semester I taught a course in the Victorian period in which we all read lots of works by Oscar Wilde, and then each student went off and read lots of works by a different Victorian author and did lots of writing and reporting and wiki-creating on that author. Tell me a better way to get about 30 authors on one syllabus, and I’ll tell you that you’re wrong. I loved it, and I dare swear the students did, too. So much better than everyone reading scraps of three authors per week.

3

John Protevi 09.24.07 at 4:04 pm

Welcome back; best to Janet; what’s all this about the Pope being displaced? Does William Donohue know about this?

4

Jacob Christensen 09.24.07 at 4:07 pm

For what it’s worth, Bloom has directly or indirectly had quite an impact on Danish education and culture policy. We now have officially sanctioned canons for literature, classical music, pop music (!), film, theatre, architecture, industrial architecture and what not: Kulturkanon

The Ministry for Education is now taking the next step and preparing an officially sanctioned Democratic Canon, due to be revealed in January 2008.

But granted: Denmark has a culturally conservative government. Maybe we can have that canonised as well.

5

Bloix 09.24.07 at 4:07 pm

Michael, I have a son who is a senior in high school. He has read Things Fall Apart; he has never read Yeats. He has read The Color Purple and is reading the Bluest Eye; he has never read Fitzgerald or Hemingway and I don’t believe he has even heard of Faulkner.

Now, you may say that Achebe and Morrison are simply being added to the canon, and that Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner are not being deleted. But given his interests, I don’t expect that my son will voluntarily take an English class in college and he certainly won’t read Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald on his own.

Most Americans get their major exposure to literature in high school, and the number of novels a student can read in high school is limited. If the students read The Color Purple, then they will not read As I Lay Dying. And that means that most Americans will have no exposure to writers who for decades were considered the greatest American literary artists of the twentieth century. The works of these writers are drifting out of the scope of general knowledge and are become the province of specialists.

Is that a good or bad thing? I’m not expressing an opinion, I’m just noting that it’s a true thing, and the fact that English lit majors will continue to read Faulkner in upper-level seminars doesn’t alter it.

6

John Protevi 09.24.07 at 4:08 pm

Oh, and about trading Ken Dryden for Jane Austen? I think they should have held out for Bernie Parent at least.

7

Michael Bérubé 09.24.07 at 4:25 pm

John, I’m so sorry I forgot to put in a plug for your blog! Dang this other-people’s-surgery. It makes me forget everything. As for Dryden-Austen, the word is that she looked good in the Northanger Abbey tryouts, and appears to be the wittiest goaltender to come up through the ranks since Lorne “Gump” Worsley. Go figure.

Amanda, that’s great about those 30 writers and all. But you obviously haven’t stopped to consider which 30 writers they displaced. Because everyone’s read “Spring and Fall” but few people have read . . . uh . . . hey, hold the phone — Francisco Franco is dead?

Matt, thanks for the reminder about Douthat and Harvard. But I don’t think Douthat is alone in this regard — the way I heard it, our nation’s top colleges aren’t teaching anybody much of anything anymore.

8

Hogan 09.24.07 at 4:26 pm

Obviously the way to reopen the American mind is to go back to the reading list of 1965 and never ever change it. Obviously.

9

SEK 09.24.07 at 4:26 pm

Odd, isn’t it, that the allegedly overrated contemporary writer is always black…

and Caribbean, and a woman…

10

Jennifer Ouellette 09.24.07 at 4:30 pm

Welcome back to the blogosphere, Michael! Glad to see someone’s talking sense about Bloom, although the mere fact of discussing his book, yet again, 20 years down the line ascribes more importance and influence to it than it actually merits, IMHO.

As for the Achebe/Yeats debate — I would think that any decent lit professor assigning THINGS FALL APART would also, as supplementary reading, assign the original Yeats poem alluded to in the title. It’s essential to any critical reading of the book. So Achebe gets read, Yeats gets read, and everybody wins — except the Surly Curmudgeons, who are deprived of something to complain about.

11

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 5:00 pm

There’s no reason for a smart person like Rachel Donadio, whose work I like, to fall for this tripe.

A concessive approach like that makes you seem weak and not ready for prime time. I personally would prefer:

If Rachel Donadio were torn apart by ravenous hyenas, that would be OK with me.

However, that’s not realistic. So how about:

In the past I’ve been under the impression that Rachel Donadio was a smart person, but she seems to be trying to make me change my mind.

Goldilocks should be happy with that one. Just right!

12

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 5:07 pm

When I used the name “Goldilocks” in my earlier comment, I in no way intended to imply that Rachel Donadio is “a dumb blonde”. Indeed, her “ethnic” name suggest that she’s a brunette. And indeed, Google Image confirms that surmise.

13

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 5:08 pm

See, in the story “Goldlocks” there were three bowls of porridge: one too hot, one too cold, and one just right. That’s all I meant.

14

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 5:09 pm

I am not a sexist, nor am I prejudiced against blondes or ethnic types.

15

Rich Puchalsky 09.24.07 at 5:09 pm

I’m not a right-wing canon-defender, but I am noteably surly, and suspect that I will one day become a curmudgeon. So on behalf of surly curmudgeons everywhere, “the only place where the zero-sum dynamic operates is at the level of the individual syllabus” does not seem quite true. The zero-sum dynamic operates most pressingly at the level of the individual’s life reading list. Each person only has so much time in their life to read, and unless they are willing to make the claims of Harold Bloom, that time will not be enough to read everything major. So, in that sense, each book added does mean another one struck off.

If you assume that people are influenced to read what they are assigned in, say, freshman English or high school English courses — or that, for many people, the reading they do in such courses is a high percentage of all the literature reading they will do ever — then this does make some kind of sense.

Do I think that this means we need a canon? No. But I do feel a certain sympathy, because looking at the question in this way means that what these people might really be worried about is the inevitable approach of individual mortality — something that’s a lot more universal as a source of worry than some culture war concern.

16

aaron_m 09.24.07 at 5:27 pm

“ethnic types”

What are ethnic types? Please describe

17

bob mcmanus 09.24.07 at 5:28 pm

people might really be worried about is the inevitable approach of individual mortality

I worry about that a lot, and I promise to read some Dryden…ok, would the translation of Homer be ok? Wait, there is a new translation of Homer that is way cool. Hell, maybe I’ll stop buying books and save up for Paris and then die.

I am not a sexist, nor am I prejudiced against blondes or ethnic types.

I probably am a sexist, unless saying I’m not in itself raises my conciousness and I am definitely prejudiced against blondes.

Iam also trying to come up with two words so that National Association of Surly Curmudgeons can be shortened to NASCAR.

18

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 5:32 pm

Curmudgeons and Retards.

Michael might retort that he is, in fact, already in the prime time. But that proves my point: he’s thinking small.

For example, he was not given a token mention as the new Attorney General nominee, neither by Bush nor by any of the Democrats. And granted, Michael’s skills are more in the Cultural Commissar area, but I haven’t heard his name mentioned for that either.

18: Aaron, you might be or you might not be. I can’t tell from just an initial.

19

sabina's hat 09.24.07 at 5:33 pm

Rich,
What gives you the idea that the amount of books we read in our lifetimes is foreordained? What would be more accurate is that each person has only so much free time available, and how much of that is devoted to reading literature (as opposed to blogs) is certainly malleable. If I take a lit class in college and discover that I really like Lorrie Moore and then read all of her books, that is five more than I would have read than if I took that lit class and didn’t care for anything and so played video games in my free time instead.

20

aaron_m 09.24.07 at 5:35 pm

John,

Your powers of description underwhelm.

21

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 5:36 pm

Don’t worry, Aaron, I am in no way prejudiced.

22

J— 09.24.07 at 5:51 pm

I am also trying to come up with two words so that National Association of Surly Curmudgeons can be shortened to NASCAR.

and Reactionaries
and Racists
and Right-Wingers

or NASCARRR (imagine the Rs roaring like an engine): National Association of Surly Curmudgeons and Right-Wing, Racist Reactionaries

23

jrb 09.24.07 at 5:52 pm

Jennifer’s spot on about teaching “Things Fall Apart” and “The Second Coming” together–the second OC (Olde Canonical) work that pairs naturally with the novel is “Heart of Darkness,” the book that Achebe has said his novel is intended to answer. Similarly, Morrison and Faulkner. Part of the inanity of these canon complaints is the assumption that works must be taught in hermetic isolation.

& while this comes packaged as concern for the great humanistic tradition, it seems to me as much part and parcel of caving in to the wholesale preprofessionalization of the undergraduate curriculum. If literature classes amount to little more than the Best and Brightest Book Club, who cares if the vast majority of students never take any?

Re: Pope and Dryden, though, I think they deserve more props than MB gives them. They do represent the last poets to seriously address a public in English. Arguably what’s best about Language & its inheritors in contemporary poetry is the call to ethically and politically engaged writing that still functions as aesthetically adventurous–& I don’t think it’s entirely mistaken to call that impulse “Augustinian.”

24

JP Stormcrow 09.24.07 at 5:53 pm

My personal title for this blog post is Come Together in the Widening Gyre, but I guess blog post titles are a zero-sum game, so nevermind.

I was struck by this Searle quote from back in the day.

Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude,” Searle wrote, “the ‘canon’ served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions.

To use John’s image, I guess the amount of critical attitude inculcated by The Canon was “just right” , not so much that you would go after a general in uniform for instance.

25

JP Stormcrow 09.24.07 at 6:04 pm

a closeup of the X-ray that started the whole thing:
surgery has been a “complete success.”

Has she checked that the gold tooth evident on the x-ray is still intact?

26

Sk 09.24.07 at 6:12 pm

You’re obviously trying to out-Belle Waring Belle Waring in the blathering stream-of-consciousness style-which-for-some-reason-is-considered-to-be-hip-on-this-blog-perhaps-because-its-irreverent?-stream-of-consciousness-makes-me-look-harried-and-breathless-and-I-reject-your-patriarchal-expectations-of-structure? but I can assure you; I’ve read (i.e. suffered through) Belle Waring, and you’re no Belle Waring.

Sk

27

Michael Bérubé 09.24.07 at 6:22 pm

The zero-sum dynamic operates most pressingly at the level of the individual’s life reading list. Each person only has so much time in their life to read, and unless they are willing to make the claims of Harold Bloom, that time will not be enough to read everything major.

Hmmm, point taken, Rich, though there’s still enough time to read a great deal of great work. The trick is to stop reading blogs! That’s where we really court the danger of being run over by time’s winged chariot.

And since the first trackback above notes that I do, after all, hold the best-named-endowed-professorship in the world, I figure that now is a good time to point out that one of the features of the selection process for the Paterno chair is that all candidates were required to compose a version of “The Second Coming” that centers on an episode from the history of Penn State football. My entry read as follows:

Turning and turning in the wishbone backfield
The flanker cannot hear the quarterback;
Teams fall apart; the center cannot snap;
Bad penalties are called against the line.
The Crimson Tide is loosed, and everywhere
The spectacle of halftime shows is drowned.
The best have nine concussions, and the worst
Are full of holes in the secondary.

Surely an interception is at hand;
Surely the Second Quarter is at hand.
The Second Quarter! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of the 1979 Sugar Bowl
Troubles my sight: somewhere on the field of the Superdome
A shape with Lou Ikner’s body and the head of a man,
A punt returner elusive as Maud Gonne,
Is moving its quick thighs, while all around it
Flail the limbs of the incompetent defensive ends.*
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That all our pregame dreams of going deep
Were rendered pointless by a goal-line tackle.
Yet what rough Beast of the East, its redshirts eligible at last,
Waits in Beaver Stadium to be born?

*Actually this happened in the third quarter of that game. But give me a break already.

28

Adam Roberts 09.24.07 at 6:26 pm

They should try complaining instead that everyone has read Don DeLillo’s Underworld but few people have read Book VI of the Aeneid, or something along those lines

I think they should go with “everyone has read Don DeLillo’s Underworld but few people have read Book VI of the Aeneid in Latin“.

From there it’s a short step to: “everybody has read Book VI of the Aeneid, but nobody has yet translated Don DeLillo’s Underworld into Latin hexameters“. Which is, incidentally, a damn shame.

29

alwsdad 09.24.07 at 6:27 pm

An excellent rant.
I have only one thought to add, regarding some of the comments here. If it is true that almost no one reads literature after high school or whatever lit class they take in college, then perhaps THAT is the problem, not “the canon”. (Of course, I doubt that adding more Chaucer to the curriculum is going to have a positive effect on that trend, either.)

30

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 6:35 pm

Some would say that Berube is an ethnic type, but I think that in the U.S. are more like “Original Peoples”, since they were already here when civilization arrived in 1620.

31

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 6:36 pm

“The French”

32

Michael Bérubé 09.24.07 at 6:46 pm

I think they should go with “everyone has read Don DeLillo’s Underworld but few people have read Book VI of the Aeneid in Latin.”

Well, the Paterno chair strongly seconds this motion. You all know that Joe Pa was a Classics major at Brown (before he earned his M.A. in American literature) and still considers Virgil his favorite poet, right?

Let’s see Bobby Bowden try to match that, dactyl for dactyl.

33

MoXmas 09.24.07 at 6:54 pm

You know, I remember reading CLOSING in 1987 with my Mom, and both of us laughing too hard to finish. And then I went off to Columbia to see, and have, some canon fights. And then read about the WW1/Trilling/Columbia hoo hah about why a Canon got stuck into the curriculum in the first place — defend Shakespeare from the horde of Huns!

For all of that, I would have thought that the true legacy of CLOSING was the almost-yearly spectacle of an intellectual, admired in their field, making either a partial or total ass out of themselves when they write “popular” books. Recent examples include Harvey Mansfield’s MANLINESS, and Harry Frankfurt’s ON BULLSHIT.

(Where David Denby re-taking the Core Curriculum fits into this, though, I have no idea.)

And for anyone who worries about a writer like Morrison replacing a writer like Faulkner, well, your mother is a fish.

34

Rich Puchalsky 09.24.07 at 6:54 pm

“The trick is to stop reading blogs!”

I know that I should stop addressing this even remotely seriously, but seriously, the kind of attention required for one can’t be used for the kind required by the other. It’s not like I could take the five minutes here and there that I read blogs with and instead slowly make my way through À la recherche du temps perdu. For that matter, I couldn’t even take the time I’d spend reading a non-challenging fantasy book and use it to read Proust, because I read that kind of thing after I’m already tired.

I suppose that with maximum charitability, the argument could be that if people have only limited lifetime reading time, there is a social solidarity reason that they should be encouraged to have a base of common literature. That would be an argument indifferent to what particular items were actually in the canon, though, except insofar as older people already have read certain things.

alwsdad: “If it is true that almost no one reads literature after high school or whatever lit class they take in college, then perhaps THAT is the problem, not “the canon”.”

Well, from the point of view of my phrasing of the problem — which I know is not the conservative phrasing of it, but I don’t care since mine is more interesting and theirs is kind of stupid — it’s really a problem that affects everyone. Doubling the amount of literature that people read would no doubt have all sorts of good effects, but it would still leave the average person reading only a minescule fraction of the major works that exist.

35

joel turnipseed 09.24.07 at 7:06 pm

Heh. Maybe they could give Joel Weinsheimer the Kevin McHale Chair here at Minnesota? For I have dwelled enough in Target Center to know that only the most rigorous of hermenauts could find the Wirkungsgeschichte that animates McHale’s tenure at the Wolves.

More seriously–well, that in a second: the Paterno chair? That’s awesome.

There’s certainly a strong element of Masterpiece Theatre to the canon-upholders, but I’m in the fence-sitting middle, somewhere to the canon-side, even, of Rich. Woolf (whom I love) and Morrison (whom I can take or leave) are sufficiently strong that they aren’t really at issue–and neither is likely to displace Shakespeare in the course catalogues–but the idea that there’s no priority in the “canon,” broadly conceived, or that there’s an unlimited elasticity to text choices for, esp., undergraduate education seems like an extremely catholic idea.

36

bjk 09.24.07 at 7:15 pm

Berube and the curmudgeons are on the same side of the fight. The enemies are all the other departments which would be glad to see requirements and the literature department disappear altogether.

37

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 7:22 pm

I always thought McHale was sickly-looking, with bad posture and dark circles under his eyes.

38

dsquared 09.24.07 at 7:30 pm

I’d always thought that there was a bit of a paradox here; surely if Allan Bloom and his mates thought that every piece of attention paid to a new piece of literature was going to draw attention away from the vastly superior old classics, then the only ethical thing for them to do would be to shut up! and stop contributing to the problem themselves. I read about three chapters of “The Closing of the American Mind” – that’s potentially two of Dr Johnson’s pamphlets gone bang, right there.

39

Thers 09.24.07 at 7:32 pm

Glad to see someone’s talking sense about Bloom, although the mere fact of discussing his book, yet again, 20 years down the line ascribes more importance and influence to it than it actually merits, IMHO.

But it does go to show that great books really aren’t ever displaced.

Myself, I’ve replaced all the plays in my Shakespeare course with The Closing of the American Mind, by the way.

40

novakant 09.24.07 at 7:35 pm

Speaking of Wang Chung: they did the very effective soundtrack to William Friedkin’s forgotten little masterpiece To Live and Die in LA – in several respects a bit like Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” from the following year; two great little 80s movies.

41

alwsdad 09.24.07 at 7:42 pm

Exactly! New literature is being created all the time, and lives aren’t getting any longer, and neither are degree sheets for a bachelor’s degree. Our engineering students get one humanities elective. When asked, I advise them to pick something that sounds fascinating, or that will make them look at the world in a new way. (Sadly, their main criteria is “does it fit around my work schedule?”)

42

Tom Hurka 09.24.07 at 7:44 pm

Re Bloom: didn’t he say somewhere (I can’t remember whether in Closing or not) that the use of fade-outs to end rock ‘n’ roll records reflects the decline of the West, because it shows an inability to reach definite conclusions?

43

Bloix 09.24.07 at 8:01 pm

john emerson- you are in a deep hole and only my respect and affection for Prof B has restrained my hand from dumping a bucket of fragrant liquid on you as you continue to spade your way down into the dark and damp.

Here’s a bit of friendly advice, meant with no sarcasm or irony: people whose last name is emerson should not make jokes about ethnic types.

44

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 8:06 pm

I made no jokes about ethnic types. I am unwilling to grant Berube victim status based on his surname, and so far he hasn’t asked for it.

45

SEK 09.24.07 at 8:18 pm

people whose last name is emerson should not make jokes about ethnic types

You see, John, the problem’s with your name. Change it to mine, and you’ll have yourself a whole slew of ethnicities to crack wise about.

46

Martin James 09.24.07 at 8:20 pm

From day to day, to Michael’s ear there came
Distressful tidings.

The culture war is over: the professional schools and the Department of Economics won.

The point of the wilting canon arguments was never to change the canon, it was to assure the people going to law school and business school that by getting an undergraduate degree in Economics instead of English that they weren’t missing out on any status-raising cultural knowledge.

The complaint is about middle-brow authors, but the point is to comfort the power elite that there is no high-brow culture to miss. Its all low-brow now.

They sleep soundly with the clearest knowledge that power is money and money is power, that’s all you know on earth and all you need to know.

47

joel turnipseed 09.24.07 at 8:25 pm

Yes, Martin, there’s a lot of sad truth in that: the entire debate has a waft of nostalgia about it.

(Meantime, I retreat to my corner, rub my fingers, and think: ‘Well, at least I get to crack wise about anyone’s name…’)

48

Adam 09.24.07 at 8:27 pm

Clearly the problem is that people keep writing books. And again, the obvious solution is to forbid all new literature. Obviously, because good things were written in the past, all the goodness has been used up – nothing worthwhile can possibly be written in the future.

49

Bloix 09.24.07 at 8:32 pm

Anyone interested in Allan Bloom in any respect should read Bellow’s Ravelstein. It’s a fascinating picture of a monster from the point of view of the monster’s closest friend. Bellow seems to think he’s presenting an admirable character and a great intellect, but I was reminded of no one so much as the Roy Cohn of Angels in America.

50

Martin James 09.24.07 at 8:37 pm

novakant,

The chase seen in To Live and Die in LA where they go the wrong way on freeway is surely to live and die for!

51

Bloix 09.24.07 at 8:43 pm

If I can keep on- the great irony of Allan Bloom is that it was the Jewish American writers of the mid-20th century – Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Bellow himself – who broke the grip of the canon on American literature. The authors who forced the keepers of the canon to recognize that the experience of people who were not WASPs – yes, john emerson, “ethnic types” – could give rise to literature were Bloom’s own protege and his literary colleagues. Until then, the only way to be a Jew in an English department was to be more WASPy than the WASPs, Lionel Trilling-fashion. Bellow, Roth and Malamud ended all that forever.

52

fardels bear 09.24.07 at 8:51 pm

Oh, fer cryin’ out loud. HERE:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Happy now Mr. Wolfe?

53

aaron_m 09.24.07 at 9:08 pm

fardels,

Such crazy ramblings are just not appropriate in the context of a serious discussion about literature.

54

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 9:10 pm

Bloix, the WASP-ethnic struggle ended, as you yourself point out, 40 years ago when I was still in my youth. (I personally date it from the appointment of Gronowski as Postmaster General, but never mind that). There’s little or no advantage in being a WASP anymore, goddamnit.

I do not actually believe that civilization came to America in 1620.

“Ethnic” is specifically used in the US to designate 19th-century non-WASP immigrants, especially Catholics and Orthodox. I’ve never been clear whether Germans and Scandinavians counted, but I think not. Jews would count, but you know, they’re Jews.

America still does have ethnic enmities, but the word “ethnic” doesn’t really designate Native American, blacks, or Latinos. Different narrative.

As for the French, they may or not be ethnic but they certainly were here before the English, and that was my joke. In much of the American West the French were the first Europeans.

I do not believe that Berube was bedeviled by anti-French prejudice as he fought his way ruthlessly to the top, but if he was, he has my apologies. Outside two small areas, French-Americans are not a recognizable ethnic group in the US, and as I recall, Berube did not grow up in either of them.

55

joel turnipseed 09.24.07 at 9:10 pm

Well, Aaron… at least he didn’t try to type all of Things Fall Apart in the comments box.

56

Matt Weiner 09.24.07 at 9:12 pm

As my brother said to Ross Douthat,

Multiculturalism as presently constituted is not a threat to the cultural heritage of the liberal arts. The fact that the university is being reformed as a set of pre-professional schools and the students are all majoring in Communications rather than English Lit is. This cannot realistically be blamed on mean old French post-structuralists or tenured radicals.

57

Uncle Kvetch 09.24.07 at 9:14 pm

The Left At War: The Totalitarian Temptation from Hume to Human League

IIRC, the first track on Dare, “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of,” contains the lyric “March, march, march across Red Square.” QED.

58

Gene O'Grady 09.24.07 at 9:42 pm

If you guys were really multicultural you’d reflect that Goldilocks was a Filipino-American restaurant chain. Pretty good for fast food, too.

Oh, and Dryden didn’t translate Homer — although he did, for what it’s worth, translate Chaucer.

59

joel turnipseed 09.24.07 at 9:47 pm

But Gene: we prefer Jollibee Yumburgers…

60

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 9:53 pm

There’s a classic Ovid translation by a team of Dryden-era poets including Dryden himself. I own a copy but I don’t like Dryden-era poetry and probably not Ovid either.

61

Michael Bérubé 09.24.07 at 9:54 pm

I do not believe that Berube was bedeviled by anti-French prejudice as he fought his way ruthlessly to the top, but if he was, he has my apologies.

I wouldn’t say “bedeviled,” myself, but there was the time in March 1995 when the MLA suspended me for the remainder of the year: “The time for probationary lenience has passed,” wrote then-president Sander Gilman, “whether this type of conduct is the product of temperamental instability or willful defiance of the authority of the profession does not matter. Bérubé will be suspended from all games both league and playoff for the balance of the current season.”

Many MLA historians date the emergence of French-Canadian identity politics from the Montréal riots that followed Gilman’s decision.

62

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 9:59 pm

Them Hungarians. Or whatever the fuck he is.

Gilman’s “Conversations with Nietzsche” is a fantastic book everyone should read. On the balance, this excellent book inclines me toward the opinion that the frog motherfucker Berube had it coming to him.

63

Bloix 09.24.07 at 10:00 pm

john emerson – this started off with your reference to Rachel Donadio as an “ethnic type,” which was innocent but tone deaf. Aaron m heard it, as did I, as meaning “one of those people who would stand out at a garden party at my parents’ house in Saddle River.” You went blithely on, getting louder and more off-key, believing that anyone who could possibly take offense was just a thin-skinned humorless party-pooper.

But it’s not so long ago, and it is still the case in parts of the US, that the Jews, Italians, Portuguese, Slavs, and Greeks stood on the middle rung of the racial hierarchy, marginally white, acceptable as a luncheon companion at a restaurant, but not in one’s home or one’s country club. When you say “ethnic type,” even lightheartedly, you position yourself at the top of that ladder looking down. Which is how, through the magic of mixed metaphors, you’ve managed to put yourself so deeply into a hole.

“Donadio,” by the way, is a common Italian, and particularly Neapolitan, surname. Rachel Donadio may identify herself as an Italian-American, or she may think of herself purely as an American, but it’s not likely that she thinks of herself as an “ethnic type.”

64

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 10:13 pm

Bloix, I don’t accept that. First, despite my ancestors on the Mayflower, I’m unquestionably on the bottom looking up, and Donadio is unquestionably up there looking down. And a lot of Italians are in her situation, and a lot of us Mayflower honkies are in my situation, and that’s all fine.

“Emerson” is just a generic honky name. We do not collect royalties on Ralph’s books, goddamnit to hell — not only have they been public domain for over a century, but the distant cousins never got a cut. Every time I go past an Intro American Lit class I curse. And Emersons never had the status of Cabots, Lodges, Saltonstalls, Roosevelts, Bushes, and Rockefellers.

There’s got to be some statute of limitations on ethnic jokes, and as far as I’m concerned, Italian jokes are now public domain.

65

Pat 09.24.07 at 10:14 pm

I think the NYT article gets too much credit here. The narrative I could reconstruct from it was something like, English departments are assigning controversial (black) authors, such as Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, and because those authors aren’t “worth anything” on the post-college job market, people have stopped majoring in English (and History) and now major in Business.

I like Elaine Showalter’s quote, though: “But now it’s time for a period of evaluation and consolidation.” Indeed. So long, Dryden!

66

MR. Bill 09.24.07 at 10:33 pm

Mr. Berube, a wonderful pastiche.
Mr. Emerson, I am a member of an ethnic subtype who it is still seemingly ok to make fun of. i.e.
The Hillbilly
And my life is better for reading the good stuff, Lady Murasaki and Aphra Behn and Wolfe (both Tom and Virginia) and Tariq Ali and Naipal on my own. I set out to read all of Dickens, and it is wonderful. But once it was serially published pop fiction. Who was Allen Bloom to tell us what to read? Allen Bloom was a twit, with an axe to grind. As a gay man, I find him less than sympathetic. As an example of the Academy, the less said the better.
“Education is the acquisition of a better set of prejudices.”

67

Adam Aurisano 09.24.07 at 10:35 pm

I was going to stay out of this, but the claim that Italian jokes are now in the public domain kind of annoys me. You don’t exactly get to make that determination. As bloix said, there a good number of ethnic groups who are marginally white, and as such, usually escape direct discrimination as experience by other groups, but people don’t seem to have any problem making comments of the above sort which indicate that as far as the real whites are concerned, we’ll never quite fit in. Comments like those, and fact that any movie which includes explicitly above mentioned ethnicities always portrays us as ‘those crazy ethnic types, aren’t they quaint?’ So just cool it off.

68

Bloix 09.24.07 at 10:37 pm

Well, two different “ethnic types” have just told you, as politely and humorously as they know how, that “ethnic types” is offensive, and you’ve repeatedly refused to accept that it is. I don’t know what else to say to you.

I once said, in a court room in San Francisco, that something my adversary was doing was like “Chinese water torture.” The judge stopped the proceedings and proceeded to rip me a new one. I didn’t think the expression was particularly offensive. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but you know what? I don’t say it any more.

Sometimes you just have to accept that other people are too stupid to know when they’re not being offended. This is one of those times.

69

joel turnipseed 09.24.07 at 10:40 pm

Mayflower honkies and gay hillbillies… guess that means it’s time to go make dinner.

Sa meantime–oo, ‘Dog-Eaters’ ay nararapat na basahin ng lahat.

70

John Emerson 09.24.07 at 10:49 pm

Bloix, Aurisano, I’m willing to offend you. I don’t think your concerns are valid in today’s world. America does have a real problem of the type we’re talking about, but prejudice against Italians ain’t it. And if you think that having a WASP last name gives someone an advantage any more, you’re nuts.

71

Stephen Frug 09.24.07 at 10:59 pm

Yay, Berubé’s back!!

I particularly liked the poem…

SF

72

JP Stormcrow 09.24.07 at 11:15 pm

Seeking and seeking in the widening curriculum
The student cannot find the requirements;
Syllabus fall apart; the canon does not hold;
Post-modernism is loosed upon the academy,
The Politically Correct tide is loosed, and everywhere
The inculcation of tradition is drowned;
The “best” lack serious attention, while the “worst”
Are assigned with passionate intensity.

The remainder left as an exercise for the reader (of course).

73

MR. Bill 09.24.07 at 11:22 pm

Some guy also wrote:
Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.

‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

And in an elegy for that dead Mick, a great Brit Poof wrote:
“time which is indifferent
to the brave and innocent
and so cruel in a week
to a beautiful physique

Worships language and forgives
everyone who by it lives.
Pardons cowardice, conceit.
Lays it’s honor at their feet.

Time for this strange excuse
has pardoned kipling for his views
and will pardon Paul Claudel
pardon him for writing well…”

74

Robert 09.24.07 at 11:45 pm

Us French-Canadians were ethnically cleansed from Acadia before the U.S. was a country. So we must be victims.

For some random reason, I recently read Conrad’s “The Rescue”. While not as post-modern as Cervantes, it is plenty self-consciously literary in the way it starts each part. And it is all about race, gender, ethnicity, and even imperialism. I guess the multicultural rot started long before the 1960s.

75

MR. Bill 09.24.07 at 11:48 pm

And then there is that dreadful “strange” Tristam Shandy, so odd Dr. Johnson said it wouldn’t last. A novel about writing a novel.
The postmodern rot was very early indeed.

76

Derek Walcott 09.25.07 at 12:27 am

All of your Homer, Shakespeare, and Bible are belong to me.

77

vivian 09.25.07 at 1:22 am

May I just say that, literarily speaking, Toni Morrison can totally kick Charles Dickens’ hindquarters? His heart was often in the right place, but we’re talking television, moralito-tainment, writ large (or at least writ copiously). But heart being in the right place, ol’ Chuck D would agree about Ms Morrison.

(Welcome back, Prof B.)

78

bob mcmanus 09.25.07 at 1:22 am

“Oh, and Dryden didn’t translate Homer—although he did, for what it’s worth, translate Chaucer.”

No chit. My error. Pope? Whoever Chapman was? My ignorance is boundless. Must go googling.

Hey guys, I can vouch for Emerson. Best Kleagle we’ve ever had.

79

Chuck Tinker 09.25.07 at 2:29 am

I just wish I was half as smart as all of you. I’m dumb enough to have actually “studied” Mansfield’s Manliness book almost since it came out, and I’m dumb enough to think it is great. Does anyone else know what’s in it?

80

rea 09.25.07 at 2:34 am

“Oh, and Dryden didn’t translate Homer—although he did, for what it’s worth, translate Chaucer.”

Well, he published a transaltion of Book I of the Iliad (in Fables Ancient and Modern but didn’t do the rest.

He also prophesied the Bush adminstration:

All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.

81

bob mcmanus 09.25.07 at 3:29 am

Chapman, Hobbes, Pope…ok, I confused Dryden & Pope. I wonder how many Americans have a clue as to which is who. 1%? Puchalsky has reason to mourn.

I did read three books of the Cowper Odyssey via a Wiki link. Liked it.

82

Justin 09.25.07 at 4:22 am

I thought Dryden was a goalie in Montreal. Ken Dryden, that is.

83

bare bodkin 09.25.07 at 5:39 am

On the other hand:

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.

Which will it be?

84

Josh in Philly 09.25.07 at 6:09 am

Michael, you’re partial to Paradise and not Between the Acts? Dude . . . well, be that as it may, best wishes to Janet; and Donadio should pay royalties to John “Are You Politically Correct?” Taylor for the use of his 1991 boilerplate.

85

Rich Puchalsky 09.25.07 at 6:29 am

Well, I’ve never read Pope either, and, unless someone in this thread baits me into doing so, will probably die never having read Pope.

But if someone does bait me into doing so, they take responsibility for causing me to not read whatever book I would have read instead. Which would probably have been something on the order of Hunter’s Blades Trilogy: The Two Swords, so that’s OK.

I can’t believe that someone is apparently taking John Emerson’s self-ethnic-joke-baiting seriously, though. Unless John is sock puppeting.

86

JP Stormcrow 09.25.07 at 12:48 pm

Well, I’ve never read Pope either, and, unless someone in this thread baits me into doing so, will probably die never having read Pope.

It does strike me that Alan Wolfe would have had a much truer claim if he had said:

“Everyone’s read `Things Fall Apart’ familiar with Zembla” – the mythical country in Nabokov’s `Pale Fire’ — “but few people have read the Yeats Pope poem that the name comes from.”[Or Timon of Athens, whence came “Pale Fire”, for that matter]

But that doesn’t quite quite adhere to the 1987 Rules of Canon-Debating World.

87

Rich Puchalsky 09.25.07 at 12:56 pm

That does seem much more true, jp. I like Pale Fire, and I never bothered to look up whether the name Zembla came from somewhere.

88

Anderson 09.25.07 at 1:31 pm

How many pages does Bloom even spend in Closing on the canon? Surely, he thought time wasted on Dryden and Pope was time better spent on Xenophon and Rousseau.

Along with A Brief History of Time, The Closing of the American Mind is my nominee for the great unread bestseller of the decade.

89

Katherine 09.25.07 at 2:04 pm

I have read and studied The Second Coming, but have not read Things Fall Apart. I was taught English Lit by a gay commie. Oh Noes, I am so confused.

Also, anyone else notice that the major substitution in the 1998 list is women for men – i.e. Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison for Dryden, Pope and T.S Eliot. Some good old fashioned misogyny going on hree?

90

alwsdad 09.25.07 at 2:18 pm

anderson, maybe Bloom should follow Hawkings’ lead and issue The Illustrated, Tighter Closing of the American Mind , just in time for the 25th anniversary. It’d give Michael something new to comment on, too.

91

Michael Bérubé 09.25.07 at 2:34 pm

“Pale Fire” comes from Timon of Athens? I don’t see where — though all I have at my fingertips at the moment is the Zemblan translation, which, I hope, sufficiently approximates the text, or is at least faithful to its spirit:

The sun is a thief: she lures the sea
and robs it. The moon is a thief:
he steals his silvery light from the sun.
The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon.

Nothing here even vaguely resembles “pale fire.” I think JP Stormcrow doesn’t know his Shakespeare. I blame multiculturalism.

Which reminds me that I missed Rich in 36:

It’s not like I could take the five minutes here and there that I read blogs with and instead slowly make my way through À la recherche du temps perdu.

But have you tried?

92

Rich Puchalsky 09.25.07 at 3:25 pm

Not really, no. Why, Michael, are you trying to get me to stop reading blogs?

93

JP Stormcrow 09.25.07 at 3:27 pm

I think JP Stormcrow doesn’t know his Shakespeare. I blame multiculturalism.

OK then.
Help me, Michael! Silvery Light?

…or is this just all part of some convoluted trick you’re all playing on us up there at PSU?

Few things are more depressing to an intelligent person than the revelation that a whole league of supposedly enlightened literati is in fact a mob of petulant nitwits.

94

Rich Puchalsky 09.25.07 at 4:32 pm

I somehow missed 21, from Sabrina’s Hat:

“What gives you the idea that the amount of books we read in our lifetimes is foreordained? What would be more accurate is that each person has only so much free time available, and how much of that is devoted to reading literature (as opposed to blogs) is certainly malleable.”

Well, yes, but no matter how many other things we crowd out, each of us will still never read everything. No doubt it’d be good to try to get people to move more of their free time to literature reading. But that doesn’t really change the nature of the problem at all. If everyone read twice as much, we could have canons that people might actually read that are twice as long. And then people would promptly argue over what to add to the twice-as-long canon.

It’s not that I’m really suggesting that people need to do anything about this. I’m suggesting that anxiety over mortality is really what seems to underlie a lot of reading list selection, whether it’s canon-building, the people who will only read the newest things, the people who will only read one genre, etc.

95

Michael Bérubé 09.25.07 at 4:51 pm

is this just all part of some convoluted trick you’re all playing on us up there at PSU?

Not at all, JP — in fact, I have no idea what that webpage is doing there. My guess is that it’s some kind of mirror site.

Why, Michael, are you trying to get me to stop reading blogs??

Not necessarily, Rich. I’m just curious to see if someone can read the Recherche in five-minute bursts. I’m trying to qualify for the finals in the 2008 Summarize Proust Contest, if you must know.

96

JakeB 09.25.07 at 5:19 pm

Suppose 2 pages every five minutes with no rereading. It’s about 4,000 altogether, right? So 2,000 reading chunks. Suppose you read one per day. Then it would take 5 years, 5 months, and 21 days, more or less. I would probably reread bits, though.

97

Rich Puchalsky 09.25.07 at 5:45 pm

I suspect that it would go more like this, Jakeb; first day, many short batches of reading. Second day, the same. Third day, realization that I couldn’t remember what was going on or keep the thread from one batch to the next, coupled with irritability at having to concentrate during breaks rather than do automatic writing in comment boxes (I sometimes think that I have achieved a level of practise in that area such that it is now handled by autonomic, reflex-level processes), followed by either giving up the project, or, more likely, settling down to read the whole thing, after which, having earned no money on days 4 through 6, I would be one literary classic richer and about one half of the week’s income poorer. Perhaps only a philistine would complain about this choice, but feel free to imagine the Dickensian looks of my family as we all trudge to the poorhouse etc.

98

nnyhav 09.25.07 at 5:53 pm

STET!

“Everyone’s familiar with Zembla” – the mythical country in Nabokov’s `Pale Fire’ — “but few people have read the Pope Yeats poem that the name comes from.”

A Poet to his Beloved

I BRING you with reverent hands
The books of my numberless dreams;
White woman that passion has worn
As the tide wears the dove-gray sands,
And with heart more old than the horn
That is brimmed from the pale fire of time:
White woman with numberless dreams
I bring you my passionate rhyme.

99

JakeB 09.25.07 at 6:49 pm

Rich–
. . . as they take turns knocking you on the head with a copy of Swann’s Way.

A friend of mine actually took two years to read Vikram Seth’s _A Suitable Boy_. I was afraid to ask her how much she got out of it.

100

OhIsee 09.25.07 at 7:03 pm

I have to say that the proper response to those who say, now my kids will never read [Shakespeare, Yeats, Milton, Whoever] is: Shame on you *and* them. Is that the kind of person you are, your kids are? Because someone didn’t force them to read something, therefore they won’t read it for themselves? That you haven’t inculcated in them, or developed for yourself, a habit to read and think about the deep and wonderful literatures of our culture? So you don’t want to read alone. How about join a book club? Or just ask a friend of you want to read a book and talk to each other about it?

I’m flabbergasted at how lazy Americans are, and even more flabbergasted that they make a point of pride to saddle American education with forcing them to do some f’kin work to educate themselves.

101

JP Stormcrow 09.25.07 at 7:25 pm

STET!

Upon further reflection, you may be right!

Plus we’re left with this from Yeats’ play The Land of the Heart’s Desire:

A thin old arm comes round the door-post and knocks and beckons. It is clearly seen in the silvery light.

……………………………………………………………………………………..

[Rich’s Life, A User’s Manual]
Then it would take 5 years, 5 months, and 21 days, more or less.
And it would be only fitting that you should then undertake to un-read it over the same time period, extinguishing the memories one-by-one (old age and Dr. Alzheimer may help with this without any particular effort on your part), until you are left tabula rasa.

102

jre 09.25.07 at 7:41 pm

Re/ #1: Excellent comment. But my irony-deficiency forces me to ask (while others just know): is Matt having fun with us by way of commenting on Ross Douthat’s Harvard non-education?

103

Rich Puchalsky 09.25.07 at 7:59 pm

jp stormcrow, it looks like your original revision was half-right — at least if we go by wikipedia, the authoritative source of all knowledge. According to wikipedia,

“As Nabokov pointed out himself,[6] the title of John Shade’s poem is from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: “The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun” (Act IV, scene 3), a line often taken as a metaphor about creativity and inspiration.”

and

“The name “Zembla” (taken from “Nova Zembla”, a former anglicization of Novaya Zemlya) […]”

So neither Pope nor Yeats was involved. At least, until someone in this thread edits wikipedia or something.

104

Rich Puchalsky 09.25.07 at 8:01 pm

That is, the link in the wikipedia page points to Novaya Zemlya, an actual archipelago.

105

Anderson 09.25.07 at 8:09 pm

I think the solution to the dilemma Rich notes is a simple one: no more books are allowed to be written.

In fact, we should probably burn everything published after, oh, Four Quartets.

Problem solved! ;)

106

MR. Bill 09.25.07 at 8:21 pm

I think the solution to the dilemma Rich notes is a simple one: no more books are allowed to be written.

In fact, we should probably burn everything published after, oh, Four Quartets.

Problem solved! ;)
Posted by Anderson · September 25th, 2007 at 8:09 pm
Anderson, I suspect your suggestion would not be uncongenial to the late Mr. Bloom.

107

JP Stormcrow 09.25.07 at 8:22 pm

Zembla

I believe it is pretty well established that the primary reference is to Pope (who I assume is in turn referencing the island):

Ask where`s the north? at York, `tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland, at the Orcades; and there,
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.

Pope, “An Essay on Man – Epistle II”

I assumed nnyhav was just funning us with the Yeats. Pages 436 & 437 give a full rundown on the title here. Then MB’s #93 is worth a re-read.

108

Robert Cooprider 09.25.07 at 8:25 pm

Eliot didn’t have politics or if he did he didn’t write about them? Is someone on crack? Surely, you don’t mean the T.S. Eliot didn’t have politics…only a little right of George the Third.

109

Matt Weiner 09.25.07 at 8:43 pm

I believe it is pretty well established that the primary reference is to Pope

Doesn’t Shade himself in quote “Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where” in “Pale Fire,” to Kinbote’s great distress?

110

Rich Puchalsky 09.25.07 at 8:50 pm

You mean that wikipedia was wrong, or, at least, somewhat misleading? I refuse to believe that.

But yes, I think that I do now get the joke in #93, which I had skimmed over before.

111

Bloix 09.25.07 at 8:54 pm

#102- spoken like a person without children.

112

Charles 09.25.07 at 9:06 pm

Part of the inanity of these canon complaints is the assumption that works must be taught in hermetic isolation.

Does that mean we now should teach Liz Phair along with the Rolling Stones?

113

OhIsee 09.25.07 at 9:26 pm

I have three. Thanks for asking, though.

114

Anderson 09.25.07 at 9:51 pm

Mr. Bill, I think Bloom would rather have started somewhere around the invention of the printing press. Take that, Moderns!

115

John Emerson 09.25.07 at 9:52 pm

I was distracted by ethnic types above so I’m very late, but I have to say that Dryden and Pope are two very dispensable authors who are part only of the English-language canon, and of little real interest to non-English-speakers. They reek provincial Englishness. This is not to say that they’re no good, but they strike me as a thoroughly discretionary choice.

116

Gene O'Grady 09.26.07 at 2:38 am

Two comments on Dryden and Pope —

I’m not sure that fusing them like most of us seem to do isn’t a bit like saying if you’ve read Toni Morrison you don’t Zora Neale Hurston, or Philip Roth if you’ve read Saul Bellow.

And they certainly do not reek provincial English, unless you find their language quaint. If you can’t read Latin pretty well the closest you’re going to get to what Horace sounds like is reading Pope. Of course some versions of Horace reek of provincial Englishness….

117

MissLaura 09.26.07 at 3:21 am

I read the Yeats in high school religion class and thought it was overwrought crap. This was the same class in which we read The Education of Little Tree. The truth about its author came out in the middle of our reading of it, which may in retrospect have made me feel entitled to be viciously critical of everything else we read.

I still don’t much like that poem, though.

118

John Emerson 09.26.07 at 4:10 am

Nobody needs to read them except specialists in English literature. I didn’t mean “from the provinces of England”, I meant “from England, considered as provincial.” Should a German, Italian, Frenchman, Russian, etc. read Dryden and Pope? Only if they’re English specialists.

119

Lucy Kemnitzer 09.26.07 at 7:31 am

(of Pope and Dryden) They do represent the last poets to seriously address a public in English

Did I misunderstand this claim? Did nobody else notice it?

What does it intend to mean? It can’t mean what it seems to mean on the face of it, because that’s too dumb for words. What are all those later poets doing, if not seriously addressing a public?

Maybe there’s some mysterious meaning to “address a public” I’m not getting. Something to do with clothes, or location, maybe?

120

mathpants 09.26.07 at 10:17 am

Apparently, American undergraduates cannot be bothered to read Steenrod anymore, choosing instead to read the more fashionably ethnic treatment of the subject given by Shiing-Shen Chern. This sort of bundling up of politics and mathematics is really characteristic of the academic class these days.

121

John Emerson 09.26.07 at 11:24 am

It may be that they wrote the last non-fiction verse. I remember when I was looking at early Brazilian poetry, one of the first poems was a versified botany-zoology report. Chaucer wrote a versified astronomy text, IIRC.

122

Martin Wisse 09.26.07 at 11:34 am

#96:


Well, yes, but no matter how many other things we crowd out, each of us will still never read everything. No doubt it’d be good to try to get people to move more of their free time to literature reading. But that doesn’t really change the nature of the problem at all. If everyone read twice as much, we could have canons that people might actually read that are twice as long. And then people would promptly argue over what to add to the twice-as-long canon.

That problem is not solved by rigidly adhering to a canon that refuses to acknowledge anything written after 1940.

The debate pre-supposes it’s a sin to miss T. S. Eliot for reading Toni Morrison. Why is it not also a sin to miss Toni Morrison for reading T. S. Eliot?

123

sloo 09.26.07 at 2:01 pm

Literature may not be a zero sum game, but there is a substitution effect of adding authors to “the list” (articulated by Rich Puchalsky in #17 and others above).

People only have so many hours in their life. The best case scenario when new authors and works are added to the cannon is that it makes reading liturature a richer, more attractive experience overall, causing people to spend more time reading and less time doing other things. But it can’t be that everyone reads everything they did before, then add Olaudah Equiano and Djuna Barnes and Zora Neale Hurston to their “to-do” list. Instead, they read five works by these authors and don’t get to two works by the white-guy cannon that they would have otherwise.

This is not a bad thing: people are spending more hours reading high-quality stuff and getting a richer experience. In the end “zero-sum is nonsense” is a straw man: you have to admit that people are reading less of the old cannon material as a result of the new additions, even if each addition is not a one-for-one trade.

124

John Emerson 09.26.07 at 3:17 pm

Atrios: “I’d write more posts noting that the porridge to my left was too hot, the porridge to my right was too cold, but miraculously the porridge in front of me was just right.”

My Three Bears meme has gone viral. Yay Emerson.

125

Rich Puchalsky 09.26.07 at 3:27 pm

Martin, I’m not trying to defend the people who think that Toni Morrison is valueless. I’m not really making a conservative argument at all. I’m presenting an alternative view in which compulsive canon-building and the feeling that for each book added one is taken out is at least understandable.

But actually, the problem would be solved by “rigidly adhering to a canon that refuses to acknowledge anything written after 1940.” As Anderson says in #108, that would mean that the canon would be of a size such that people could read it in a lifetime, and would not grow. The problem is not really that it’s a sin to miss out on reading something good. The problem is that you’re going to die before you have the chance to read everything good. Since there’s not anything you can do about the “you’re going to die” part, the temptation is to redefine the what the “everything good” part means, which is at least theoretically under your control.

126

Dave Maier 09.26.07 at 5:52 pm

111: Eliot didn’t have politics or if he did he didn’t write about them? Is someone on crack?

No, someone has a very very dry sense of humor. I did think that line was particularly straight-faced, even for MB.

As for Proust (Proust thread!!), I read the first 2000 or so pages a few years ago (left off in the 4th volume, about when his grandmother dies), and it was tough sledding but totally awesome. Best part: the steeples at Martinville. Wow. Funniest part: the end of the third one, when Charlus is alternating between berating M. for his supposed rudeness, telling him that this makes absolutely impossible any further relations between them, on the one hand, and (when M. tries to take his leave) entreating him to stay a bit longer, have some tea, etc., on the other. Classic.

127

Gene O'Grady 09.26.07 at 11:10 pm

Many years ago in the Amherst ModPo course I remember Prichard saying (a) Yeats is a major poet, and (b) The Second Coming is a pretty bad poem. I think both are true.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I’m curious if there are other poets in the neo-classical tradition with which Pope and Dryden might be associated who are of more “world-literary” impact. It strikes me that their French analogues, even Racine, might be considered equally provincial, and their German counterparts are pretty minor. Don’t know about Italy, and don’t know Spanish well enough to have an opinion. Maybe Johnson’s two imitations of Horace?

It’s interesting that the canon of Greek prose authors studies in American universities seems to have changed from the time of Calvin Coolidge to our own from Xenophon and Demosthenes to Plato and Thucydides. Maybe if we read more Demosthenes and less Thucydides we would worry more about showing our manhood by paying taxes and less about standing on the table pounding our chests while paraphrasing Corcyra or Melos or Nikias or whatever.

128

John Emerson 09.27.07 at 1:31 am

The dramatic thing is the way Latin has declined. Almost no one studies Latin any more, and few Latin authors are studied in translation.

The decline of the Church, the decline of a certain concept of elite education, and the German and romantic obsession with the Greeks come to mind. Partly, maybe, Latin authors are more dependent on style and turns of a phrase than Greek authors.

I don’t have a lot of insight, certainly not original insight, but the phenomenon is enormous and seldom thought of.

129

Knemon 09.27.07 at 2:42 am

“Latin authors are more dependent on style and turns of a phrase than Greek authors.”

Depends on the Greek author. There are plenty of Greeks who are just as untranslatable, and hence unread – e.g. Theocritus.

130

Lucy Kemnitzer 09.27.07 at 4:10 am

(Of Pope and Dryden, again, this time John Emerson speaking) It may be that they wrote the last non-fiction verse. I remember when I was looking at early Brazilian poetry, one of the first poems was a versified botany-zoology report. Chaucer wrote a versified astronomy text, IIRC.

No, that doesn’t work, either. There’s a lot of non-fiction verse since those guys, good, bad, high art, folk art, all down the line. I’m thinking of a book I had as a kid — “The Americans” — simple biographies of various historical figures, for one (I’m having tip-of-the-tongue syndrome for the name of the poet).

There’s songs like “The Great Mississippi Flood,” “The Princeton Strike of 1923,” and “The Missouri Earthquake,” not to mention a whole raft of murder ballads based on actual events and set to music so pretty you’ll never get the damned things out of your heads. Oh, and “Peg and Awl,” on the one hand, and “Stackalee,” on another (which is actually about real events of great philosophical and political import). These are verses, with metric regularity, end rhyme, and heightened language, so don’t tell me folksongs aren’t poetry.
More tip-of-the-tongue syndrome prevents me from naming or even describing a pile of natural-sciences poetry. And Brecht. He’s got a couple. And Adrienne Rich. She’s got some. And Phillip Levine, he’s got a few. I wish I could remember the natural sciences poems, they were really cool.

131

Chris 09.27.07 at 8:13 pm

Well, perhaps not Proust, but I’m old enough to remember reading Ulysses a line at a time in the New Yorker. They’d got tired of running the same review each week for a long-running off-broadway play called The Fantasticks (not to be confused with The Aristocrats) and started from Stately, plump Buck Mulligan instead. Unfortunately the run ended before the book did, so I still don’t know how it finishes.

132

Michael Bérubé 09.28.07 at 1:31 am

Wait — you’re telling me that The Fantasticks‘ run at the Sullivan Street Playhouse is over? After only 17,162 performances? Then surely Western Civilization is falling apart. The center cannot hold!

I bet Toni Morrison had something to do with this.

133

Lucy Kemnitzer 09.28.07 at 4:20 pm

#136 is comment spam, in case you missed it.

134

cathy 09.29.07 at 3:05 am

Michael,

What does “pwned” mean?

135

Michael Bérubé 09.30.07 at 4:38 am

Cathy, I have to refer you to the experts on this one.

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