Friday, February 26, 2016

The Anger of the Academic

 Perhaps it is the election cycle, perhaps the increased intensity of my own research—whatever the cause, I’ve become far more aware over the past few months of the amount of anger in academia.

I’m not referring to the anger of students, to the dangerous absurdities that most often make the news, but to the anger of the academics themselves.  It is, fortunately, not nearly so universal a trait as (to choose a quality at random) the habit of carrying one’s own dry-erase markers; but it is common enough to be noticeable—remarkable, in the etymological sense of the word—especially in the humanities.

All professors in the humanities are inclined, by profession as it were, to make professions—indeed, to commit what are referred to coyly in the Catholic world as “professions of faith.”  As with all good faiths, these professions involve negative and positive elements.  A Catholic rejects sin and Satan, and embraces Jesus Christ; a biologist rejects cancer, and embraces health.  The Catholic may study sin (indeed, a great many of us are walking human experiments in the subject, making it well-nigh irresistible for the eager student), but that hardly suggests that the Catholic is in favor of sinning.  Likewise, the biologist may study cancer, but only with the purpose of contributing to its eventual eradication.  His focus, like the peccatologist’s, may be on the evil he sees all around him; but the evil is evil precisely because it is destroying some good.  His anger may be severe, but it is an anger ultimately based on love of something beautiful.

The oddity in the humanities is that this does not always appear to be the case.  Within literature in particular, there are certain scholars who seem to take delight in studying things which make them angry, things which on some level they regard as evil—but with no apparent consciousness of the good or the beautiful in the background.  They are professors whose profession appears to be fundamentally negative.

Chinua Achebe’s famous essay on Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is a classic instance of the phenomenon.  Achebe’s argument, in brief, is that Conrad’s portrayal of Africans makes them the real dark centers of the story.  For decades readers focused on Kurtz’s corruption and the irony that of corruption, given the purportedly “civilizing” influence of Europeans in Africa; and finding in the story, if anything, a lesson against supposing that one’s race or culture is a guarantor of one’s virtue.  But Achebe argues that, despite the superficial appearance of cultural humility, Conrad’s work is essentially culturally imperialistic, inasmuch as it highlights the superiority of European culture to African again and again.

A counter reading of the novella might emphasize the role of the narrator, his prejudices and his disenchantment, more than Achebe does.  But be that as it may, Achebe is correct to observe that the portrayal of Africans in the story displays prejudice.  And given the correctness of his observation, there is nothing surprising about his anger.  Nor is it surprising that he should write an entire lecture fueled by that anger.

It is not even surprising that his is not the only scholastic effort bent on tearing to shreds a previously well-accepted piece of literature.  If artists can be prejudiced like anyone else, they are capable of writing things that are offensive; and naturally, if everyone goes around lauding such works to the skies for their artistic merit without noticing that there is offense in them, the situation ought to be rectified.   I, personally, have always found Ulysses offensive, and (if I ever get around to actually reading it) may someday write a scathingly brilliant essay against it myself.

But I doubt I will ever actually write the essay.  For one thing, Ulysses is a very long book, and I have plenty of other things left to read.  There are so many good books that it seems a waste of time to gorge on one which (based on the excerpts I’ve encountered and the descriptions I have read) would be profoundly antithetical not only to my aesthetic taste but also to my moral principles.  A work of genius I have no doubt it is.  But again, there are even so many works of genius in existence that it is probably more worth my time to read Moby Dick (for example) than Joyce’s equally oversized saga.

(I know, I know—it’s scandalous that an English PhD student
hasn’t read Moby Dick.  I didn’t get around to Crime and Punishment
or Anna Karenina until a couple years ago.  And I still haven’t read
Timon of Athens.  Consider this my Lenten abasement for the week.)

The world is so full of a number of things (observed Stevenson), I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.  There’s no reason to spend time on books that one doesn’t enjoy.  And there’s certainly no reason to make them the focus of one’s academic career.  And yet, people do.  People do dedicate their academic careers—not simply to works by men who are flawed (all of us are); nor even to works that themselves show the dark side of the era in which they were written (few, I suspect, do not); but to works that they consider the embodiment of everything that they don’t like about literature.

Now there is a way in which this approach is similar to that of the biologist with cancer.  The biologist wants healthy people, and therefore he focuses on eradicating a disease that kills billions of them.  In the same way, perhaps, the feminist literary scholar who despises pre-modern portrayals of women is certainly a proponent of women, and of their accurate portrayals.  But literature does not work like medicine, or even like philosophy.  In medicine, if enough people study a bug for a long enough time, the bug generally gets licked.  Even in philosophy, the theory is (or was) that if enough people argue about a bad philosopher for a long enough time, his errors will become apparent and his influence, therefore, will be destroyed.  In literature, however, the more people study a work—even a morally questionable work—the more of a life the work seems to have.  One does not kill prejudice by angry academic writing; one perpetuates it by extending its voice.

The real solution, if a work is sufficiently morally iniquitous to make one angry, is to ignore it and to study or write something else, something more morally worthy of attention.  Scholars here could stand to learn a practical lesson from politics: giving air time to an opponent is usually a strategic mistake.  But scholars, like politicians and people in general, sometimes let their anger get the better of them, and spend endless reservoirs of time and effort and influence trying to dismantle a canon they perceive as problematic and, in the process, reminding the rest of us of its existence.  Wiser would be the man (however wrong) to argue that Samson Agonistes is a work of terrorist literature, and leave it at that.

But the real oddity of the angry literary scholar is not even his impracticality—scholars are, after all, stereotypically bad at realizing how their ideas will affect those around them.

No, the real oddity of the angry literary scholar is that in a field which is purportedly devoted to delight, they have determined on a course of study and work which will keep them perpetually miserable.  The entire point of an aesthetic representation is, after all, to give pleasure to its readers.  Whether or not it is also to contain some elements of truth is disputed.  I myself would argue that a great deal of the pleasure is in seeing the truth—in seeing that the way this character acts in this moment is eminently true to life, in the sense that that sort of man would indeed act in just that way in that sort of moment.  But whether the pleasure comes from the truth of a depiction or from something else or some combination of things, pleasure is at the heart of reading, and at the heart of creating an object to be read.

It is odd, then, that those who are professionally dedicated to the study of things designed to give delight are so adamantly determined not to enjoy themselves.  It is odd that they should choose to attach themselves to works which are so morally iniquitous as to anger them.

But then again, there are a great many desiderata that other people enjoy which I, in my saner moments, regard as odd: power, heels from Prada, and hang-gliding, to name but a few.  But there are darker moments when the appeal of being angry, really, righteously angry at something, and being known to be angry at it, and respected for it, does appeal to me.  There are also moments when the idea of standing on four-inch calf enhancers sounds exciting, not to say daring.  I gave my heels to Goodwill a long time ago; I have yet to eradicate the remains of empty righteous indignation from my life.  Probably the job of doing so will go on until my life is over.

But in the meantime, someone somewhere is writing an essay about how T.S. Eliot or Dickens or Milton or Shakespeare is evil, and they are angry.  I can only hope that, on some level, they’re enjoying it.

“It is consequently my degrading duty to serve this upstart as
First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief,
Lord High Admiral, Master of the Buckhounds, Groom of the Back Stairs,
Archbishop of Titipu, and Lord Mayor, both acting and elect, all rolled into one. 
And at a salary!  A Pooh-Bah paid for his services! 
I a salaried minion!  But I do it!  It revolts me, but I do it!”

Monday, February 15, 2016


I’ve been engaged in other kinds of writing, alas; but I couldn’t pass up this guest post (if you will).  In betwixt all the headlines about Scalia’s death, I was reading Martz’s The Poetry of Meditation, and stumbled on this poem which somehow I missed when reading Herbert’s complete works last spring.  It’s a timely Lenten reminder, like Scalia’s own death, of the Ars Moriendi—and a lovely illustration of how Herbert’s flavor of metaphysical conceit suited his religious impulses.

Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
                           Nothing but bones,
      The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we considered thee as at some six
                           Or ten years hence,
      After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
                         Where we did find
      The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Savior’s death did put some blood
                           Into thy face,
      Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
                           As at Doomsday;
      When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
                           Half that we have
      Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.
—George Herbert.

No, that’s not George Herbert—I couldn’t
find a death mask for him.  But kudos if you
can recognize his near-contemporary.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Room of My Own

 I will confess, I’ve never considered myself to be a feminist.  Probably my reluctance to embrace the term has something to do with the fact that most of the men and boys with whom I’ve ended up associating for any length of time—brothers, teachers, friends, coworkers, and now students—have treated me with respect.  My life doesn’t need feminism.

This is not to say that I’m ungrateful for the women and men who made it easier for me to go to college, get an office job, and pursue a PhD: I am grateful.  But oftentimes expression of gratitude towards early feminists really amount to criticisms of the current situation; and I see no need to go through life reminding the gentlemen around me that they (by which I would mean, I suppose, their grandfathers and on back) were not always so polite.

Lately, however, I’ve begun to actively dislike the idea of feminism, or at least the idea of feminism as it’s usually understood: feminism as a call to erase from the lives of women everything that makes their experience different from that of a man.

“But,” says my interlocutor, “that’s not what feminism means at all.  Feminism is about equality—erasing the differences that hurt women, or allow men to take advantage of them.”

And indeed, that’s what feminism meant at one point in history (the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I believe).  Among my friends who own the title “Feminist,” that’s what feminism still means today: leveling the workplace playing field, making dating and marriage fair, correcting false assumptions about femininity, etc., etc.  But I don’t think that’s what most of America means by “feminism” today.  Certainly that is not how opinion leaders and media outlets use the term.  The write as if feminism means the erasure of the feminine.

This is nothing new, of course; whole books have been written on the topic (not to mention plenty of editorials and other blog posts).  But over the last few years the idea that women must be the same as men—not just equal to but the same as—has been gaining traction.  As evidence, I submit to you three recent stories.

First, there is Sheryl Sandberg’s call to end the chore wage gap.  Yes, apparently boys get more money for their chores than girls.  And apparently, boys and girls do different chores.  Fact #1 would certainly bother me, assuming that there are no ameliorating circumstances; I can, however, imagine many which would not be inconsistent with the evidence Sandberg cites.  Self-reporting errors? boys doing more or harder work by choice? girls receiving rewards in-kind (can anyone say, “Honey, how ’bout let’s get your nails done?”).

 Let it be known that I profoundly disliked
nail polish as a child.  I still do. 
Spending the afternoon with my watercolors, now …
P.S. Is it just me, or does that picture sing
"Cruella De-evil?"

But Fact #2, that boys are doing different chores than girls, troubles me not a wit.  Oh, they get to weed-whack and mow the back forty, before repairing the drywall they kicked in last week?  Be my guest.  Yes, I would actually rather stay in the kitchen with the dishes, and then fold the laundry.  Now obviously, this disparity in chores can become problematic when the boys are always given less work, or when either the gentlemen or the ladies leave the house without knowing the basics of survival.  But there’s a difference between, on the one hand, being fair to one’s children and doing Home Ec right and, on the other hand, making sure that Buddy and Sissy always, but always spend the exact same amount of time doing the exact same thing.  And it’s especially silly to expect Buddy and Sissy to do the same chores all the time when Buddy and Sissy don’t want that.

Now, if your Buddy really does like ironing, he may
have a future in fashion (or at least dry cleaning). 
And Sissy’s fondness for changing oil may signal her future
in the world of auto mechanics.  But for
the love of mud don’t be surprised if
their preferences are more … erm … traditional.

Exhibit #2 in this mug line of The Murderers of True, Good, and Beautiful Feminism is the recent call by some generals for women to register for the draft.  I know full well this is a response—logical or piqued, who can say—to opening up full combat roles to women.  So perhaps it is only fair to say that those women and men who were eager for women in combat started the fire.  But frankly, I don’t care who started it.  It’s foolish to put women in combat, and it’s foolish to draft women.

Let’s speak in broad but true generalities, and words that a five-year-old can understand.  Women make babies, both accidentally and on purpose.  Women give great pleasure to men.  Women are physically weaker than men.  And, finally, men are mentally weaker around women: bad men are more likely to hurt them than to hurt other men, and good men more likely to rush to their protection than to fly to the aid of their fellow bros.

I don’t think I need to spell out the implications of these premises.  Once they’re accepted, it becomes clear why having women in combat is a bad idea.

And a final remark on this whole draft thing, for those of us who are prolife and/or opposed to contraception, for reasons of religion, lifestyle, or health: What happens if you, the woman, are drafted when you already are taking care of three kids?  What happens if you, the woman, are drafted while pregnant?  What happens if you, the woman, spend leave with your husband and are suddenly “at risk for getting pregnant?”  What sort of policies will be concocted to deal with these inevitabilities?  For if there is a female draft, they will be inevitabilities.

I might add, forestalling an objection,
that yes, “I am a coward, doctor.” 
But I’m not actually worried about
ending up on the front lines.  My physical
inability to pass basic training would probably
ensure that, at worst, I ended up typing
some major’s memos.  So this is a
personal concern, but not a
personal one—if you follow me.

My final point of proof—and the immediate inspiration (despiration?) for this post—is an Atlantic article on—um, well, you can go read it if you want to.

The striking thing about this article is not the author’s failure to admit that there are some legitimate concerns about even modern birth control.  The striking thing is not the author’s ignorance of the stability of the luteal phrase in all women.  The striking thing is not the author’s blitheness about suppressing rather than resolving medical issues like endometriosis.  And the striking thing is certainly not the author’s desire to avoid pain and inconvenience.

Actually, all of those are striking, except
for the last.  But that’s another post—and
another kind of blog.  We don’t go there here.

No, the striking thing is the list of reasons the author gives for seeking to avoid a monthly reminder of one’s femininity.

A Midol slogan famously said, “Because your period’s more than a pain.” This is true not only for women like me who just don’t want the burden of buying tampons and avoiding wearing white. There are shift workers who cannot escape to the restroom, women in male-dominated jobs where they feel they have to hide their feminine-hygiene products to prevent further alienation, sex workers for whom bleeding is more than a hassle, and women with young children or otherwise unreliable sleep schedules who don’t need the stress of making sure they take a birth-control pill at the same time every day.

Think about those first three examples for a moment.  Shift workers who can’t go to the restroom.  Women who have to act like the men they’re working with.  Sex workers.  Isn’t it clear that in each case we’re talking about a situation that is profoundly wrong in the first place?  If you can’t go to the bathroom, act as if you are the sex you are, or are selling your body—isn’t it clear that there is something wrong with the job?  And if there’s something wrong with the job, why aren’t we fixing the job?  Why do we need to fix the woman?

This is the problem with modern feminism.  It purports to be about fixing society.  Let’s fix it so that girls can do the same chores as boys.  So that women can do the same dirty work as men.  So that we can stand hardships that, frankly, neither men nor women should have to stand.  But when they say “Let’s fix it” what they really mean is “Let’s fix them.”

Dear world: I may be weak, and possibly even hormonal, but I’m not broken.  And I certainly don’t want to be “fixed.”  In any sense of that euphemistic word.

I’ll give the last lines to Henry Higgins, God bless him.  At least he was frank about what he wanted.