The decline and fall of the English department

A long time ago I decided against a career in academia. It was one of the few major life decisions I got right.

… pluralism in academic settings rarely lasts for long. There has to be a truth at the end of the day, even if it’s the “truth” of an artificial academic consensus. When theory killed literary truth, it doomed the discipline. Into this vacuum, identity professors in English departments poured ersatz truths about race and sex, which have failed to shore it up. At the time I was baffled at this suicidal trend, but in retrospect I can see that it was only natural that identity politics should have ascended so quickly in the nineties. Its urgent claims gave English a moral meaning that theory had undermined. When literature itself no longer sparked the heat of conviction that divided Bloom and Hirsch in the early sixties, the discipline had to find another source of energy. Identity critics had the answer. They weren’t decadent—they were impassioned. By 1992, “post-structuralism” had a stale tang, but gender and queer sounded fresh and potent. A theory panel at the MLA Convention on “Shelley and the Sign” was ho-hum, but “Queer Shakespeare” down the hall was packed.

High seriousness was restored, but literature was the victim. It wasn’t Shakespeare that drew the crowd, but queerness: Lear was a pretext. Literature had become a booster rocket, at best, one that you jettison when you reach the orbit of political relevance. The institutional effects are plain to see at this late date. Fifty years ago, a university couldn’t call itself “Tier One” unless it had a renowned English department. No more: Abysmal enrollment numbers in the humanities at such universities prove the irrelevance of literary study. My colleagues around the country bemoan the decline, but they blame the wrong things. English did not fall because a bunch of conservatives trashed the humanities as a den of political correctness. It didn’t fall because it lost funding or because business leaders promoted STEM fields. It fell because the dominant schools of thought stopped speaking about the truth of literature. Once the professors could no longer insist, “You absolutely must read Dryden, Pope, and Swift—they are the essence of wit and discernment”; when they lost the confidence to say that nothing reveals the social complexity of the colonial situation better than Nostromo; if they couldn’t assure anyone that Hawthorne’s sentences showed the American language in its most exquisite form, they lost the competition for majors. Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.

Miscellaneous quotes

Assistant Village Idiot:

Critical Race Theory, and Critical Theory in general doesn’t have any art I can think of. Not poetry, not music, theater, film, painting, sculpture, nor literature. It may just be that I am not up on such things. I don’t think it is mere recency, as both have been around for years, nor is it a bias from unfair comparisons from centuries ago. I am not asking that it produce an equivalent to the high Renaissance. Existentialism is also recent but does not suffer from the same lack. There is plenty of interesting theater, poetry, and literature from them, and I think only a little stretch of the concept brings in the visual arts including film….

This is a major red flag for the intellectual foundation of a philosophy, that artists in no medium can bring forth anything of interest. The heart of artistic expression is transposition, of reframing or new understanding of one concept and making it manifest in another. If you can find nothing to transpose, it means there is nothing there.

Jeff Sypeck:

How many boys doze off in English class because no one made clear that poetry is also the province of Satanic wizards, voodoo queens, blood-flecked Vikings, Puritan swordsmen, and frantic barbarian hordes?

TS:

In 2008 I was wary of Obama but never bought into the “born in Kenya” crap and thought maybe he could do some great good in uniting our country racially. I think by 2012-ish I realized the enemy was within. By 2017 I realized we were in a Cold Civil War. And now in 2021 I think it’s a tossup as to who is the bigger enemy: the Left in this country or China.

Historical note: Dave Mustaine in 2012:

I’m just hoping that whatever is in the White House next year is a Republican. I can’t bear to watch what’s happened to our great country. Everybody’s got their head in the sand. Everybody in the industry is like, ‘Oh, Obama’s doing such a great job…’ I don’t think so. Not from what I see.

Looking at the Republican candidates, I’ve got to tell you, I was floored the other day to see that Mitt Romney’s five boys have a $100 million trust fund. Where does a guy make that much money? So there’s some questions there. And watching Newt Gingrich, I was pretty excited for a while, but now he’s just gone back to being that person that everybody said he was – that angry little man. I still like him, but I don’t think I’d vote for him.

Ron Paul… you know, I heard somebody say he was like insecticide – 98 percent of it’s inert gases, but it’s the two percent that’s left that will kill you. What that means is that he’ll make total sense for a while, and then he’ll say something so way out that it negates everything else. I like the guy because he knows how to excite the youth of America and fill them in on some things. But when he says that we’re like the Taliban… I’m sorry, Congressman Paul, but I’m nothing like the Taliban.

Earlier in the election, I was completely oblivious as to who Rick Santorum was, but when the dude went home to be with his daughter when she was sick, that was very commendable. Also, just watching how he hasn’t gotten into doing these horrible, horrible attack ads like Mitt Romney’s done against Newt Gingrich, and then the volume at which Newt has gone back at Romney… You know, I think Santorum has some presidential qualities, and I’m hoping that if it does come down to it, we’ll see a Republican in the White House… and that it’s Rick Santorum.”

The view from 1984

I’ve been browsing around in Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986. In his discussion of Free Live Free, he quotes a couple of passages that have gained force in the years since the year the novel was published. I thought I’d put them here, a bit more fully.

A history of America, delivered by a man in a duffel coat near the end of the story:

“Our country was founded on the principle of the destruction of the wild by the civilized. Let me … go back thirty thousand years before Christ, when the ancestors of the Indians crossed what are now the Bering Straits to occupy what some people have called an empty land. Those Indians represented civilization. The beavers felled trees and built lodges, but the Indians killed the beavers and skinned them.

Barnes said, “Then the whites came and skinned the Indians.”

“Precisely. But the frontiersmen who destroyed the Indians and their culture were destroyed themselves, with their culture, by the settlers who followed. Those settlers lost their farms to the banks, and the banks sold them to companies who have brought the advantages of corporate existence—immortality and amorality—to agriculture.

“In the cities, the same thing occurred. The early city of independent shops and restaurants is properly being displaced by one of the chain outlets, so that progressively greater control is exercised. Perhaps none of you have ever understood before why they are called that—chain outlets….

“You see the progress? The old stores had to sell things their customers wanted. As they’re eliminated, the need for their type of slavery is eliminated, too, and the chains can sell whatever they want. Their customers have to buy it because there is nothing else to buy. I ask you, all of you—how often have you gone into W. T. Grant’s and found there was nothing at all you wanted?”

And:

“The Indians used to be Americans—that’s what an American was. Then the trappers were Americans, the Americans of their day. Then the farmers, with their buggies and plow horses and white clapboard houses. Even today when you look at a picture of Uncle Sam, you’re seeing what those farmers were like dressed up to go to the county fair. Only farmers aren’t real Americans any more. Neither are Indians. Poor bastards of Indians aren’t even foreigners, and we like foreigners more than Americans, because foreigners are the Americans of the future. The trappers are gone, and pretty soon you’ll be gone too.”

After further provocation, one of his audience responds:

“… I am a gypsy and a princess. And a dupe, because you have made me one. But I will speak for the Indians too, because they were nomads when they were shaped by their own thoughts and not by yours, and we are nomads now, who will remain so though you will slay us….

“You have overcome us, but you have not conquered us. To conquer us you must beat us fairly, and you have not beaten us fairly, and so you have struck us to the ground, but you have not won. To conquer us, you must have dignity too, and for that reason you have not conquered us. A man may flee from a wasp and be stung by the wasp, but he has not been conquered by the wasp; it remains an insect and he is still a man. You deck yourselves like fools and chatter and hop like apes, and your princes marry whores. That is why even those you have crushed to dust will not call you master, and none will ever call you master until you meet a nation more foolish than yourselves.”

Earlier in the book the gypsy does some “catoptromancy.” She explains, “… what I have done is the verso of necromancy; I summoned the spirits of the unborn to reveal the future.” According to her,

“The greatest event of the coming decade will be the quadrumvirate. Four leaders, unknown today, shall unite to take political, financial, artistic, and judicial power. They shall create a revolution in thought. Many who are now rulers shall be imprisoned or exiled. Many who are now powerless shall rise to places of great authority. The rich shall be made poor, and the poor rich. Old crimes, now concealed, shall be made public, and their perpetrators given to the people as to a pride of lions. The four shall be hated and idolized, but their rule will not end within the period specified by my prediction.”

It’s time for the quadrumvirate to reveal itself.

Second-hand links

Via Edward Feser.

Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury:

My favorite memory of Ray came from a science fiction convention at the University of California at Riverside. Not the convention itself but trying to get to it. Ray was the keynote speaker. He asked if I would introduce him. The speech was scheduled in a huge building at the center of campus. But there was no direct way to get Ray’s wheelchair into the building. Every entrance had high steps designed for 18-year-old college students. Our faculty hosts eventually took us around back to the service entrance by the garbage dumpsters. I pushed Ray through a series of underground corridors until we got to a huge elevator, which had been designed to bring trolleys up from the food service kitchen.

We went up a floor or two, and a group of guys from the food service came in with their packed trolleys. They were all young Mexicans speaking Spanish. They noticed this old man in a wheelchair. The professors all froze up. They felt uncomfortable. But these were the sort of guys I grew up with. I turned to them and asked in my lousy Spanish if they knew who this man was. They shook their heads. Then I told them he was “el escritor famoso, Ray Bradbury.” My hosts looked at me as if I were crazy. But then the guys shouted, “Ray Bradbury!” Every one of them knew who he was. Then they crowded around to get his autograph….

The moment strikes me as the best measure of Bradbury’s fame. Can you imagine the same reaction, indeed any reaction, to Saul Bellow or John Updike? These immigrant workers, whom American intellectuals consider beyond the compass of literature — you know all the social, cultural, and racial barriers that exist — were part of Ray’s audience.

And Ray was delighted to meet them. He chuckled and signed napkins and order slips. He had a global audience. He spoke to people novelists don’t usually reach. That is something that we should honor. Bradbury had an imagination that invited people in.

Update: See KT’s comment for more glimpses of Bradbury.

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My first college may be one of the few not run by lunatics and quislings.

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Trevor C. Merrill on Milan Kundera’s insights and limitations:

In the minds of many, Kundera and his specific political and national context were bound inseparably together. And so, once he was no longer surrounded by the dissident’s aura, his meditations on life behind the Iron Curtain felt passé; a new regime, and a new set of global concerns, had taken over: “… when communism vanishes, Kundera’s insights into humans under communism lose immediacy, too,” wrote novelist Jane Smiley in 2006.

A lot can happen in a decade. Those certain that the situations in Kundera’s novels were unique to the Soviet era, and that they were thus shrinking in history’s rearview mirror, turned out to be mistaken. In 2016, an essay by philosopher Ryszard Legutko argued that EU-style neoliberalism had become an oppressive ideology like the communism he and others in the Polish Solidarity movement fought to overthrow. More recently, Rod Dreher draws on the experience of Christians under Soviet rule in Live Not by Lies, a handbook for Americans faced with soft totalitarianism. Kundera’s novels now seem less like reports on a bygone disaster, and more like crystal balls showing aspects of our own society, and foreshadowing what could happen if current trends accelerate.

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I haven’t noticed any pigs on the wing, but Dennou Coil was finally licensed for the USA a few years ago, and Texas has frozen over. Now it looks like The Last Dangerous Visions may at last be published. We’ll see.

In related news, Neil Gaiman confirms that Ellison did indeed mail a dead gopher to Ace Books.

Noise and pessimism

It is no coincidence that, as our culture has become stupider, it has also become noisier. Here’s an 1851 essay by Schopenhauer. He focuses on the wanton cracking of whips; I wonder what he would have said about subwoofers.

On Noise

Kant wrote a treatise on The Vital Powers. I should prefer to write a dirge for them. The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — nay, a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and coarse quality. On the other hand, noise is a torture to intellectual people. In the biographies of almost all great writers, or wherever else their personal utterances are recorded, I find complaints about it; in the case of Kant, for instance, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul; and if it should happen that any writer has omitted to express himself on the matter, it is only for want of an opportunity.

Continue reading “Noise and pessimism”

February miscellany

Maureen Mullarkey defends — sorta — the Vatican’s 2020 creche:

However off-beat the interpretation or craftsmanship, the Abruzzo portrayal is as innocent of blasphemy as a Lego Nativity. It is the departure from expectation—from the protocols of established iconography—that offends critics. Falsely accused of irreverence, its installation in St. Peter’s Square insinuates an intention that the project never held….

Agreed, Abruzzo’s Nativity was unsuited for solemn display in the Vatican. Both site and timing were malapropos. Nevertheless, all the artillery fired at it should have been aimed more accurately.

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Everything you need to know about Netflix:

The Netflix warning about a documentary concerning a man who beat women to death has two warnings: “Nudity, Smoking.”

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Shamus has as clear and lucid an explanation of the GameStop business as you’ll find anywhere:

People called this a “David versus Goliath” type situation, which for me conjures up the image of a middle schooler vs. a linebacker. But in terms of weight class, this is more like a regular-sized dude versus Godzilla. Maybe David didn’t totally kill Goliath today, but given the extreme size differential I think cutting Goliath in half is pretty damned impressive.

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(Via Dale Price.)

… and that’s enough reality. Now for silly nonsense.

Continue reading “February miscellany”

Today’s quote

Clarissa, on The African Queen:

I’ve been thinking about why I like these old movies so much and now I realize it’s because they aren’t hectoring me. Today’s movies remind me of what Hepburn’s character is at the beginning of the film: preachy, humorless, ridiculous, and barren. Even Frozen 2, whose biggest audience is aged 3, reads like a syllabus in a course titled “The Evils of Whiteness and Colonialism” at some rich-kid college.

Bonus quote:

Oh, I hate “high-brow” movies. The pretentiousness makes me vomit. A movie should do nothing but entertain.

Divergence

O’Connor versus Hemingway:

The fact that our gal Flannery is repeatedly castigated and critiqued for “racism” when….hoo boy ….have you read Hemingway lately?

Let me put it this way. I would have no problem teaching any work of O’Connor – even a story with a title like “The Artificial Nigger” to any group of students, while I would give serious pause to teaching something like The Killers or The Battler.

What’s the difference? Well, if you are agonizing over whether or not O’Connor was racist, you should take a look at those two stories, compare and contrast. In Hemingway, his narrators regularly describe and characterize Black characters by the n-word, and describe their characteristics in those terms – as qualities or quirks specific to Black people – but not called Black. In O’Connor, her characters may think racist thoughts and treat Black people poorly…because that’s what those characters would do. And racist characters are there, not just because they were in her world and she was committed to accuracy, but because they are, and are ultimately understood as, one more specimen of that thing called Pride.

It doesn’t make it super-easy to have students encounter these words and descriptions and views, but at least in O’Connor they are presented as expressions of specific characters living in a specific place. Hemingway, being a bit more abstracted from time and place in many of his stories, has his mostly objective narrators describe Black characters in racist, stereotypical terms.

In O’Connor’s world, racism exists in the world, but it is obviously a damaged part of a fallen world. In Hemingway, racist attitudes are just The Way It Is, no problem, no argument, no tension.

End of the year drivel

Gee, what a thrill it’s been. Not every generation has the privilege of living the prologue to a dystopian novel.

A year ago, I didn’t think I could possibly ever have a lower opinion of the intelligentsia; I was wrong. To all the petty tyrants and their toadies, all the experts, all the journalists and pundits, all the criminals in office, all the profiteering oligarchs, all the sanctimonious scolds and everyone else who has made this such a remarkable year, I have one thing to say: go to hell.

Enough of that. On to the stuff that mattered in 2020.

Music

The non-classical album I found most interesting this year was Atomic Ape’s Swarm (2014). The tunes range from quasi-surf to near-Klezmer, plus a quirky Django Reinhardt cover; if I had to name a genre, it would be the conveniently vague “cinematic.”

Gryphon’s Reinvention (2018) was a pleasant surprise but ultimately a disappointment. Three of the original quartet reformed a few years ago and drafted another trio of musicians to fill out the ensemble. However, the missing fourth member, Richard Harvey, was the best composer of the bunch, and he is missed. Reinvention is pleasant music, nicely arranged and well-performed, but the melodies don’t remain in my ears after listening. There’s nothing comparable to “Midnight Mushrumps,” “Estampie” or “Ethelion.”

Otherwise, I mostly listened to classical keyboard music: Bach’s forty-eight, Beethoven’s thirty-two, Alkan, Debussy, Szymanowski and Scott Joplin.

There was no Winfield this year, and no concerts worth attending in the area. There were frequent outdoor luncheon performances of lukewarm jazz during the warmer part of the year at the coffeehouse on the corner, which I did not appreciate.

Anime

I didn’t watch anything released this year, and watched very little overall. I did sample several episodes of Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which I’d been meaning to investigate for years. Amiable flake Justy Ueki Tylor joins the space force seeking the easy life, and through a bizarre sequence of events gets command of a battleship. It’s not clear whether he’s a genius or an idiot (probably the latter), but he survives and prospers by being luckier than Milfeulle Sakuraba. It’s a funny show, but Tylor remains a flake, and I lost interest.

Other arts

Nothing worth mentioning.

I’ll write about books later.

Today’s quote

F.L. Lucas, via Joseph Epstein:

I have come passionately to prefer sense to sensibility, and even cynics (if one must have either) to rhapsodists and rapturists. . . . I can only ­suggest that humanity seems throughout its history to have suffered far worse from mental intoxications and fanaticisms than from any rare excess of sober reason.

Bonus quote:

I sometimes wonder if there have not been two great disasters in the history of modern letters: the first when literature began to be a full-time profession, with writers like Dryden and Lesage, instead of remaining a by-product of more sanely active lives; the second, when the criticism of literature became likewise a profession, and a livelihood for professors.

Odds and ends, mostly odd

Today’s useful term: “counter-Renaissance.” E.g.,

The Nazi leader who described the National Socialist revolution as a counter-Renaissance spoke more truly than he probably knew. It was a decisive step in the destruction of that civilization which modern man had built up from the age of the Renaissance….

—F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom.

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J Greely:

… for all the (mostly true) complaints about how horribly misogynist the Gor novels were, the core audience was female. The local bookstore clerks who more-or-less adopted me in the late Seventies often laughed about how women would come up to the counter with a Gor novel artfully concealed in the middle of their purchases.

I tried reading one of Norman’s novels once but gave up half-way through. He didn’t like women and had no understanding of them. Or so I thought — apparently he understood some well enough.

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Greely found a little game:

“List 5 famous people you’ve either met or have been within a few feet of, but ONE is a lie. Then let your friends guess which one they think is a lie.”

Let’s play.

1. Wendy Whelan

2. Phil Keaggy

3. William F. Buckley, Jr.

4. R.A. Lafferty

5. James Lee Burke

(Don’t recognize all the names? All are legendary in their fields, though those fields might be ballet or music, rather than sports or television.)

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Damn

Charles G. Hill, perspicacious observer, superior wit, and brony, passed away last September. Although his death was not unexpected, it was a bitter loss. However, we did have over twenty years’ worth of commentary at his website to peruse at our leisure. Or so I thought, until just now when I clicked on the link to Dustbury and saw the above.

Hopefully, Hill’s writing is archived somewhere, and perhaps someone will do for him what J Greely and Pixy Misa did for Steven Den Beste.

Update: Greely found that at least part of Dustbury is available from the WayBack Machine.

Tenderized

Princess Mononoke wasn’t quite what Disney expected:

Disney executives like Michael O. Johnson, the president of Walt Disney International, had only seen Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, and were expecting similar child-friendly films when they took on Ghibli’s world distribution. Johnson was hence entertainingly horrified when he visited the Tokyo office and saw clips of the film in production, including a graphic moment of decapitation, and the heroine wiping blood around her mouth. Johnson begged Suzuki to change it, pleading that his own head would roll unless he could deliver something more sedate: “Do we have to have the arms and heads flying off? Isn’t there something softer in the film? Romance maybe? Can’t I get a nice romantic scene, you know, between the hero and heroine? Maybe a kiss or something?” The final cut of the trailer included a shot of the wolf-girl San feeding Prince Ashitaka a piece of meat, mouth-to-mouth. Johnson went away delighted, and nobody corrected him when he thought he’d just witnessed a tender kiss.

A glimpse of Miyazaki:

In the midst of all of this, surrounded by toadies and flunkies, duelling cockswans and shouty executives, Hayao Miyazaki sends back his drink at a restaurant, telling the waiter that it is not the forty-year-old port that he ordered. The waiter insists that it is, but Miyazaki sticks to his guns, until a sheepish manager admits that they had, indeed, tried to fob him off with a cheaper variety. He remains the only one who is true of heart, in a Sea of Corruption.