A Reader’s Dilemma: On Books and Racism

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Image from Wikipedia

What does one do when one is reading a book that is entertaining but turns out to be blatantly racist? Does one stop and refuse to read it? Does one relegate it to the status of those books which, as Dorothy Parker famously said, deserve not to be set aside lightly, but thrown with great force? I pose this question as an ethical problem, not merely as a matter of taste.

 

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Wikipedia image

The book in question is Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan, a man more famous as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was made into a movie by the young Alfred Hitchcock some twenty years after its publication. John Buchan was a career diplomat who served in South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War and as an intelligence officer in WW I. He is perhaps most famous, however, for becoming the Governor General of Canada in 1935, and by most accounts, he did a good job, as evidenced by his declaration, as Doug Saunders reports in this article, that Canada’s strength as a nation depends on its cultural diversity.

 

As one of his first public acts, Buchan created the Governor General’s Literary Awards, among whose later recipients number Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munroe, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, and Rohinton Mistry. By most accounts, then, Buchan was a fairly good guy, a champion for diversity and the arts, and a pretty good story-teller. So what am I to feel and to think when the first-person narrator of Mr. Standfast expresses open derision and contempt for conscientious objectors? Or when I read passages in which he makes fun of certain characters’ profound desire for peace, for an end to the debilitating war that has cut short hundreds of thousands of lives, hopes, and aspirations, an end to a war that has robbed not one but several generations of their hopes and dreams? What am I to feel when I see another passage which documents a disgusting contempt for the budding African movement towards self-determination, lines so replete with a complacent sense of superiority that I hesitate even to bring myself to quote them here? Such lines are particularly offensive to me because I have been reading Njabulo Ndebele’s excellent book, Fools and Other Stories, which offers a compelling view of life in Soweto, South Africa. So it infuriates me when Hannay, the narrator of Buchan’s novel, reports on “a great buck nigger who had a lot to say about ‘Africa for the Africans.’ I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit.” It is significant, I’d argue, that the narrator offers neither the Sesutu words themselves, nor a translation, nor even a summary of them, an omission that renders his boastful declaration of a logical victory over the African speaker both empty and bombastic.

And yet I don’t think the answer to my anger and dismay about this is to throw Mr. Standfast across the room. Or perhaps it is to do just that, but then to go and pick it up again, after my temper has cooled, and go on reading it. Certainly my enjoyment of the novel will be less than if I had not encountered such ugly things in the narrative. After all, I would like Stevie Smith’s poems much better if I hadn’t come across baldly antisemitic sloganism in her Novel on Yellow Paper. (As it is, I like Smith well enough to have named one of my cats after her.) Rather, I think the lesson to be learned here is that racism comes in many forms; that, in all probability, it resides in every single human being. Furthermore, we must remember that we cannot eradicate racism by simply looking the other way, by trying to ignore its presence–either in our heroes or in ourselves.

Only by confronting racism dead on, by calling it by its true name without trying to excuse it, can we quash it when it rises up, as it will continue to do for the next few generations at least. At the same time, we cannot afford to dissimulate, as the Introduction to my edition of Mr. Standfast (Wordsworth Classics, 1994) does when it attempts to excuse Buchan: “Some of the language and many of the attitudes find little favour today,” the anonymous editor explains, “and have prompted some commentators to label Buchan with a number of those epithets that are fashionable among the historically illiterate. It should be remembered that Buchan was a high Tory politician, and also that the views he expresses are relatively liberal for his time.” No–this isn’t good enough. Let us admit once and for all that in this book at least, Buchan wrote as if he was a deplorable racist.

But let us also admit that the novel in question is a mere snapshot of him taken in 1919, and that it is unfair to judge the entirety of his life by this snapshot. It’s possible that he changed by the 1930s; but even if he didn’t, we can learn from his example. We can look at his works and see how very far we’ve come, and we can, without dissimulation or censorship, confront his racism for what it is: we can critique it, we can condemn it–and then we can move past it. If we choose not to, if we set the book down, then we miss out on the experience of reading it, and I’d say that would be a victory for racism, because it would shut down our capacity to explore human experience in its great variety.

I am not willing to foreclose on  such experiences. I believe that I am strong enough as a reader, indeed, as a person, to encounter racism in literature and to move past it so that I can gather a more complete picture of human culture, not as it should have been, but as it was. Distasteful as it can be to read reflections of ugliness, we must continue to do so if we want to try to understand our past and to control both our present and our future.

For me, it’s simply a matter of honesty. And so I will grit my teeth, shake my head, and continue reading Mr. Standfast. If it’s a good book, or even a spectacularly bad one, I may even write about it here in a few weeks.

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Buchan and Hitchcock, image from the Hitchcock Zone Wiki

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An Elegy for Pat McGee

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Stock Photo of Apple I from Getty Images

I am not particularly good at keeping up old friendships: time, distance, and differing life circumstances often seem to divide me from my past, which includes all the friends that I’ve had in different periods and places during my life. Yet I remain curious about my friends, and, while I rarely think of re-kindling a friendship through awkward online or actual encounters, I am only human, and so I do sometimes use the internet to find out what some of my old friends are up to.

The other night, when I was riding shotgun during a long trek home from downstate, I looked up, for some reason, my friend Pat McGee, whom I had last heard from some seven or eight–perhaps even more–years ago. Having recently started graduate school at a somewhat advanced age, he called me, knowing I taught at a community college, to see how I managed juggling several class preparations. I remember only the long silence that followed when I told him I was responsible for five courses a semester. Actually, I don’t think I offered him much help in his attempt to manage his two classes per semester–and perhaps I was rather stingy with sympathy as well.

I’d looked him up because I wanted to see whether he’d finished his program and which educational institution he’d ended up at. What I found instead, however, was profoundly troubling: an obituary for James Patrick McGee, dated 2015. The idea that Pat had left this life without me knowing it has been something of a shock to me ever since then. An even greater shock was that aside from this obituary, which was very perfunctory, with no details, Pat seemed to have left very little trace of his life at all on the web.

I am going to do my small part to rectify that.

I first met Pat many years ago, when I was a freshman at Rice University. He was much, much older (I now know that he was only nine or ten years older than me, but of course, when you’re eighteen, that seems like so much more than a mere decade). Although he was an old guy, he still hung around Rice, probably for one simple reason: he was a nerd, a computer geek, way before there was such a term in our cultural vernacular. Because computer science wasn’t even a discipline back in the 1980s, much less a major, Pat had stayed on at Rice after getting his Bachelor’s Degree to get a Master’s Degree in accounting. Then he kind of just hung around campus looking for good conversations and interesting people.

With his black-framed glasses, short-sleeved shirt, and pocket protector, Pat looked like the quintessential 1960s NASA programmer. But he had a lot more personality than one might first presume. In fact, I have several distinct memories about Pat to share in this elegy.

Pat McGee loved Chinese food, and he had been to a great many of the Chinese restaurants in Houston. If you wanted to know anything about Chinese food, or about where to get the best Szechuan food on a Sunday afternoon, Pat was your man. I’d been going to Chinese restaurants all my life, for example, but it was Pat who introduced me to moo shoo pork.

Another tidbit about Pat McGee: I first saw a personal computer–or something like it–at Pat’s house. “Come here, Suzanne,” he said one day. “I want to show you something.” Ordinarily, I’d have been wary of a man, even one who wore a pocket protector, beckoning me to his bedroom. But this was Pat, and I knew there were no ulterior motives. He pointed me towards his desk, where an old Panasonic portable television sat. Then he opened the right-hand drawer, where a jumble of metal boxes and wires lay tangled together. “What is it?” I asked. I wish I could say that he stared at me and said, “It’s the future,” or something significant like that, but I honestly can’t remember his answer. I just remember thinking he was spending a lot of time on something that had very little practical value–but then again, that was pretty much what Pat did, so I guess it’s natural that I didn’t really pay attention to his explanation of a device that would soon change the world.

A third memory: Pat had many jobs during his lifetime, but two of them were really interesting. In the 1990s, he worked as a computer programmer of some kind at Sandia National Laboratories, which focuses on nuclear national security. Later on, he worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Guess which job required him to take an oath of lifelong secrecy? It was the IRS, which tells you something about our government’s priorities.

The last memory I’ll share here is simply this: I first saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Pat’s living room, with a handful of other young people. It was a scratchy, out-of-focus bootleg copy of the film, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. To be honest, I wasn’t able to follow the plot. Then again, there isn’t much of a plot in that movie, so perhaps I didn’t miss that much.

These are my memories of Pat McGee, and, in the absence of any other kind of accessible testament to his existence, it seems important that I share them in some form, no matter how inconsequential. And I’ll just add this: as we move into our middle years, it’s not at all uncommon to think about mortality–our own and that of our loved ones. That’s to be expected. But surprisingly, it’s the deaths of those people we once knew, those one-time friends who played a role in our lives for only a short time and then disappeared into a quickly receding past life, that can blindside us, pulling us up short and making us realize with a dull shock how temporary this life is, and how transient our passage through it can be.

And so I offer my elegy for Pat here. I realize how inadequate the gesture is, yet I cannot refrain from making it. Sometimes we wave goodbye after the train has left, when no one is there to see our handkerchief flying in the breeze. It’s just human nature to do so.

So long, Pat McGee. Thanks for the memories.

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My Short, Tragic Career as an Independent Scholar

 

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Several months ago, I had what seemed like a fantastic idea: now that I was retired from teaching English at a community college, I could engage in critical research, something I’d missed during those years when I taught five or more classes a semester. I had managed to write a couple of critical articles in the last few years of my tenure at a small, rural two-year college in Northern Michigan, but it was difficult, not only because of the heavy demands of teaching, but also because I had very limited access to scholarly resources. Indeed, it is largely due to very generous former students who had moved on to major research institutions that I was able to engage in any kind of scholarly research, a situation which may seem ironic to some readers, but which is really just closing the loop of teacher and student in a fitting and natural way.

And so last fall, on the suggestion of a former student, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply to  a scholarly conference on Dickens, and my proposal was chosen. In time, I wrote my paper (on Dickens and Music– specifically on two downtrodden characters who play the flute and clarinet in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, respectively) and prepared for my part in the conference.

It had been close to 25 years since I had read a paper at a conference, and so I was understandably nervous. Back then, there was no internet to search for information about conference presentations, but now I was able to do my homework, and thus I found a piece of advice that made a lot of sense: remember, the article emphasized, that a conference paper is an opportunity to test out ideas, to play with them in the presence of others, and to learn how other scholars respond to them, rather than a place to read a paper, an article, or a section of a book out loud before a bored audience. Having taught public speaking for over a decade, I could see that this made a lot of sense: scholarly articles and papers are not adapted to oral presentations, since they are composed of complex ideas buttressed by a great many references to support their assertions. To read such a work to an audience seemed to me, once I reflected on it, a ridiculous proposition, and would surely bore not only the audience, but any self-respecting speaker as well.

I wrote my paper accordingly. I kept it under the fifteen-minute limit that the moderator practically begged the panelists to adhere to in a pre-conference email. I made sure I had amusing anecdotes and witty bon mots. I concocted a clever PowerPoint presentation to go with the paper, just in case my audience got bored with the ideas I was trying out. I triple-spaced my copy of the essay, and I–the queen of eye contact, as my former speech students can attest–I practiced it just enough to become familiar with my own words, but not so much that I would become complacent with them and confuse myself by ad-libbing too freely. In short, I arrived at the conference with a bit of nervousness, but with the feeling that I had prepared myself for the ordeal, and that my paper would meet with amused interest and perhaps even some admiration.

It was not exactly a disaster, but it was certainly not a success.

To be honest, I consider it a failure.

It wasn’t that the paper was bad. In fact, I was satisfied with the way I presented it. But my audience didn’t know what to do with presentation. This might be because it was very short compared to all the other presentations (silly me, to think that academics would actually follow explicit directions!). Or it could be because it wasn’t quite as scholarly as the other papers. After all, my presentation hadn’t been published in a journal; it was, as C.S. Lewis might have called it, much more of a “supposal” than a fully-fledged argument. Perhaps as well there was something ironic in my stance, as if I somehow communicated my feeling that research in the humanities is a kind of glorified rabbit hunt that is fun while it lasts but that rarely leads to any tangible, life-changing moment of revelation.

Yet this is not to say that humanities research is useless. It isn’t. It develops and hones all sorts of wonderful talents that enrich the lives of those who engage in it and those who merely dip into it from time to time. I believe in the value of interpreting books and arguing about those interpretations; in fact, I believe that engaging in such discussions can draw human beings together as nothing else can, even at the very moments when we argue most fiercely about competing and contrasting interpretations. This is something, as Mark Slouka points out in his magnificent essay “Dehumanized,” that STEM fields cannot do, no matter how much adminstrators and government officials laud them, pandering to them with ever-increasing budgets at the expense of the humanities.

And this is, ultimately, why I left the conference depressed and disappointed. I had created, in the years since I’d left academia, an idealized image of it that was inclusive, one that recognized its own innate absurdity. In other words, sometime in the last two decades, I had recognized that research in the humanities was valuable not because it produced any particular thing, but because it produced a way of looking at the world we inhabit with a critical acuity that makes us better thinkers and ultimately better citizens. The world of research, for me, is simply a playground in which we all can exercise our critical and creative faculties. Yet the conference I attended seemed to be focused on research as object: indeed, as an object of exchange, a widget to be documented, tallied, and added to a spreadsheet that measures worth.

Perhaps its unfair of me to characterize it in this way. After all, most of the people attending the conference were, unlike me, still very much a part of an academic marketplace, one in which important decisions like tenure, admission to graduate programs, promotions, and departmental budgets are decided, at least in part, by things like conference attendance and presentations. It is unfair of me to judge them when I am no longer engaged in that particular game.

But the very fact that I am not in the game allows me to see it with some degree of clarity, and what I see is depressing. One cannot fight the dehumanization of academia, with its insistent mirroring of capitalism, by replicating that capitalism inside the ivy tower; one cannot expect the humanities to maintain any kind of serious effect on our culture when those charged with propagating the study of humanities are complicit in reducing humanities research to mere line items on a curriculum vitae or research-laden objects of exchange.

I can theorize no solution to this problem beyond inculcating a revolution of ideas within the academy in an effort to fight the now ubiquitous goal of bankrupting the study of arts and humanities, a sordid goal which now seems to characterize the age we live in. And I have no idea how to bring about such a revolution. But I do know this: I will return to my own study with the knowledge that even my small, inconsequential, and isolated critical inquiries are minute revolutions in and of themselves. As we say in English studies, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. And in the end, I feel confident that it will take far more than one awkward presentation at a conference to stop me from pursuing my own idiosyncratic path of research and inquiry into the literature I love.

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Border Country

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I have fairly sloppy reading habits these days, moving randomly from one book to the next, choosing them for the slightest of reasons. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Wales, and I stopped in a bookstore. This bookstore was not in Hay-on-Wye, which is noted for its bookstores and its annual literary festival; frankly, I found Hay-on-Wye to be too commercial and couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Rather, it was a small bookstore in Crickhowell, in South Wales, which, it turns out, was a place that Tolkien visited on a holiday as a young adult and whose influence can be found in The Hobbit.

Whenever I go into a bookstore, I feel obligated to purchase something. For me, it’s like getting a table in a restaurant: you wouldn’t go in at all if you didn’t mean to buy something. And, because I was in Wales, and because the bookstore had a wonderful collection of Welsh books written in English, I picked up a novel by Raymond Williams called Border Country. I chose it because I am a retired English professor and am familiar with some of Williams’s critical work. I was hoping it would be a good book, because I always root for scholars who write fiction, being one myself.

I will simply say here that Border Country surpassed any hope I had that it would be an interesting book to read on vacation. It really is a fine novel, a beautiful and thoughtful narrative in which Welsh village life is depicted against the background of labor struggles, the clash of generations, and the difficulty involved in leaving one’s home and then returning to it.

Williams creates a subtle story with a strong narrative pull, largely because of the lively, interesting characters he presents. The protagonist is a professor of economics who lives in London with his wife and two sons; he must return to the Welsh border country, however, because his father has had a stroke. But “border country” also refers to the space that Matthew Price (called “Will” back in his hometown of Glynmawr) occupies within his own world: neither fully in the cosmopolitan world of London intellectuals (we get only a glimpse of his life there) nor in the village of his birth, Matthew is caught between worlds and a strange, palpable dysphoria ensues.

Yet the novel does not dwell on this unease. Rather, it provides flashbacks to an earlier time, when Matthew’s father Harry first arrives in Glynmawr to work as a railway signalman with his young wife Ellen, and in doing so it recounts the struggles involved in making a life in that beautiful and rugged country. The novel, true to its form (and no one would know that form better than Williams, who was a literary scholar of the highest merit), presents a varied and beautiful mix of narratives, woven together so subtly and with such artistry that the reader moves effortlessly between them.

I am new to Welsh literature, but I have learned this from Border Country: reading Welsh novels means reading about the Welsh landscape, with its rough yet welcoming mountains, where life is difficult but well worth living. Williams manages to get that feeling across to the reader in his simple, almost elegiac tone. The threads of the story keep us turning the pages, but the message of the book will stay with us long after we finish reading.

This is a novel that deserves to be read. It is both a pleasure and a pain to say that: a pleasure to discover a hidden gem, and a pain to realize that this gem has been obscured by newer, less deserving but flashier novels, and has only been revealed by the undisciplined, random choice of a reader strolling into a bookstore looking for something to read while on holiday in Wales. So I’m doing my part to gain it the readership it deserves by saying here: get this book and read it. You will be glad that you did.

Border Country, Raymond Williams

Parthian, Library of Wales, 2017

 

 

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New Feature: Book Reviews

The title is a misnomer of sorts: most contemporary book reviews, I’ve noticed, are little more than marketing ploys designed to get you to buy the book they’re reviewing. If the reviewer is quite brave, the review might actually critique the book, but the point remains the same: to weigh in on a book that has grabbed, or wants to grab, the attention of a large body of readers.

That is not my goal in writing book reviews.

Am I alone in wailing and moaning the lost art of reading? Certainly not. Yet I am advocating here a certain kind of reading, a way of reading which demands thoughtful yet emotional responses to a book. This kind of reading and critiquing is not systematic, like a college paper; it is not formulaic and profit-generating, like a Kirkus book review; and it is certainly not aimed at gaining a readership for a book, or for this blog, either, for that matter. I am simply modeling the behavior I would like to see in other readers. I want to log my emotional and intellectual responses to certain books, to join or create a critical discussion about the the works I’m reading. Some of these works will be current, but many more will be older. As I used to tell my literature students, I specialize in works written by long-dead people. Long mesmerized by the works from the nineteenth century and before, I have, one might say, a severe case of century deprivation.

But today I am starting with a book by Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance. Published in 1992, it is a historical novel set in Naples, Italy, at the end of the eighteenth century, focusing on Sir William Hamilton and his second wife Emma, destined to become the mistress of Horatio Nelson.

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Image from Wikipedia

Let me say that I have never read many of Sontag’s essays, and now I feel I don’t really have to, because this book seems in many ways much more a essay than a novel. There’s a good story in the lives of Sir William, Lady Hamilton, and Lord Nelson, but Sontag pushes this story into the background, eclipsing it by allowing her narrator’s cynical distance to diminish the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and events portrayed in the novel. Sontag gets in the way of the story a great deal too much. Egotism has no place in the act of telling a story; unfortunately, this lesson is something many writers are slow to learn, and indeed, some writers never learn it at all.

The true protagonist of the novel emerges only in the last eight pages. Sontag has had her revenge on the prurient reader who has picked up this novel only to delve into the lurid details of one of the most famous threesomes in British history. She pulls out a minor character, one that has had only the most fleeting reference given her, and gives her some of the best scenes to narrate. By playing hide-and-seek games with her story in this way, Sontag regrettably implodes her own narrative.

In the end, Sontag is much too clever a story-teller, and this hurts her novel–irreparably, in my view. There is one sentence in the novel that I think is worthy of remembering, however. Describing Sir William long after her own death (yes, Sontag does this, time-hopping with impunity, apparently), his first wife describes him like this in a single-sentence paragraph: “Talking with him was like talking with someone on a horse” (376). That’s a clever description, and I will give Sontag her due by calling attention to it.

In the end, though, I am left feeling frustrated and annoyed by The Volcano Lover. I have no idea how it can be construed as a romance, just as I have no idea why this novel, with its sly undercurrent of critical attitudes–towards the characters, the actions, and perhaps even the very nature of novel-writing–should hold a reader’s attention. Sontag’s work, described on the jacket as “a book of prismatic formal ingenuity, rich in speculative and imaginative inventiveness and alive with delicious humor,” is in reality a self-absorbed narrative, filled with annoying commentary, strained attempts at originality, and a smug disregard for its readers’ desire to like the book they’re reading.

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How I Spent My Winter Vacation

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It has been a long, dark winter for many of us. The key to surviving such bleak periods is keeping busy, and I am lucky to have found an absorping, yet perhaps a pointless, task. A project fell into my lap, and to explain how it got there, I have to go back to a very dark time indeed: Election Day.

In those days after the Election, I, like many other people, struggled to come to grips with a president who had not won the popular vote, who represented the very things that I have come to despise about my country, and who was, in short, an embarrassing representation of the intellectual and cultural vacuity that threatens the United States. I was in a dark place. I clutched at straws for salvation. One of the things I found online was a fine essay that I forgot to bookmark, which is now lost to me. But in that essay was a reference to the French writer Léon Werth, to whom Antoine St. Exupéry had written a moving dedication in The Little Prince.

My lost essay referred to Werth’s book 33 Days, which recounted the author’s harrowing journey to escape the German occupation of France in 1940. The book, it seems, was lost until 1992 and only translated into English in a few years later. (You can buy the book here, at Melville House Press.) After reading about Werth, I became interested in his second novel, Clavel Soldat (in English, Clavel the Soldier) which was published to some national acclaim in 1919.

I looked for an English translation, but could not find one, so I had my son, a student at Michigan State University, check out the original French version (which had to come out of “Deep Storage”–the very phrase sends shivers of excitement down this scholar’s spine). When at last he handed the book to me, held together with a string, and I held it in my hands, I was in for a shock: the pages had never been cut.

I knew what this meant well enough. No one, despite its presence in the MSU Library 20170402_163630from August 22, 1949, to the present day, had ever read this copy of the book. I now had a thorny ethical dilemma to resolve. Was it right for me to cut the pages, even if that meant that I would in all probability harm the book, perhaps destroying it? Like any other scholar, I respect the sanctity of the written word. And yet books are meant to be read, aren’t they? If I refrained from reading the book, wasn’t I doing the worst disservice possible to Léon Werth, by not reading a book over which he had labored? After all, I’ve done my own share of writing things no one can be bothered to read; I know how easy, perhaps inevitable, it is for a writer to become invisible. Looking at it from that perspective, I realized that I had no choice. I was compelled to read this book, to rescue it, at least temporarily, from complete obscurity.

Yet I was disturbed by the need to cut the pages, because it seemed somehow like a wanton act of destruction. And so I decided on a compromise of sorts. Though I am not a translator by any means, I can get by (je peux me débrouiller) in French, having majored in it in college some two thousand years ago. The last literary work I had translated was a mere twenty pages of  Mongo Beti’s Ville Cruel, which I had to do back in graduate school, but it was a cold, dark winter, Trump had been elected president, and I had to find something to keep me from succumbing to existential despair. It seemed clear to me that I was called on by some strange cosmic force to translate this novel into English, if only to prove that one person, at least, had read it.

And so I embarked on my translating work. I began some time after Thanksgiving, and each day I translated a few pages. It became a habit as well as a self-imposed duty. I used a cartridge pen (and at least 30 ink cartridges) to write by hand in a spiral notebook, in order to slow down the process of reading just enough to allow me some deliberation about wording. I relied on my very old Harrap’s French-English dictionary, a wonderful bookstand from A+ Bookstand with which to prop it up, a utility knife lent to me by my husband to cut the pages, and a total of three spiral notebooks. I resorted to on-line dictionaries as well when I came across difficult phrases.

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It was only when I was a third of the way through the translation that I began to suspect that no one had ever translated Clavel Soldat into English before. After all, 33 Days had only been translated in the mid 1990s; perhaps this novel had escaped the notice of international readers. I emailed the British Library to see if their copy was in English, as it was listed online; three days later, they emailed me back to say that it was, in fact, in French. At the moment, as I write this blog, I believe that I am the first person to attempt to translate Clavel Soldat into English.

Yesterday, I finished my first round of translating Clavel the Soldier. The task has taught me a great deal, even though I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do with the translation (after I’ve done my best to polish it). Through translating Werth’s novel, I’ve obviously learned a lot about World War I. I’ve also picked up a great deal of out-of-the-way information–for example, Peter Kropotkin is now my hero, although I’d never heard of him before. And I’ve learned that our age does not by any means have a corner on the market of despair and cynicism. Most of all, however, I’ve learned about patience, about the art of slinging words together as well as you can to communicate with a reader, and, more important than anything else, about the need to engage in creative acts even during the darkest times, even when you think that you might be the only person in the world who will ever acknowledge or celebrate them.

That’s a lot to take away from one simple winter project. As I said, I’m not sure what will become of my translation of Clavel Soldat, but I am very grateful to have discovered the novel and to have done my part, however fruitless, to bring new readers to it. It has been a humbling but enriching experience, and I look forward to refining the translation in the months to come. After all, winter is over. Spring is just beginning.

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On Becoming Professor Brulov

There’s a part in one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, Spellbound (1945), in which Ingrid Bergman, a clinical psychologist, takes Gregory Peck, a man who has amnesia and may have commited a murder, to her former psychology professor’s house to hide out from the authorities. Professor Brulov is the epitome of a German academic: eccentric, kind, and highly intelligent, he is genuinely happy to see Ingrid Bergman, who, he says, was his best assistant. It’s a wonderful part of an interesting movie, but lately it’s taken on even greater significance for me.

I first watched the movie on television as a teenager, at which time I identified with Ingrid Bergman (of course I did–the movie is all about Freudian wish fulfillment, after all). Some years ago, as a middle-aged professor, I watched it again with my students when I taught a course on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and I realized with a rather unpleasant shock that I had evolved without realizing it from the young, attractive, and inquisitive Dr. Constance Peterson into the aged, almost-but-not-quite-grumpy Profesor Brulov. (In Mel Brooks’ hilarious spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, High Anxiety [1977], Professor Brulov is transformed into Professor Lilloman, which the protagonist mistakenly pronounces as “Professor Little Old Man.”) And, while it has taken me a few years to accept this transformation, I’m now fairly comfortable with my new, much less glamorous, role as mentor to my former students.

The reason is simple. Constance Petersons are a dime a dozen. The world is filled with beautiful young people making their mark on the world. But Brulov–he’s different. In fact, he’s quite special. Think of it this way: When Peterson is in trouble, she seeks him out, and Brulov helps her without asking any difficult questions, despite the fact that he knows she’s lying to him. He trusts her even more than she trusts him, which is touching, in a way. And so one thing that this very complex movie does is set up the idea of a mentor relationship between Brulov and his former student. It’s an interesting side angle to the movie that I never really noticed before.

And, now, in my retirement, I am learning to embrace this new Brulovian stage of life. I have had very few, if any, mentors in my own career, so while I’m not too proficient at it yet, I hope to grow into the role in the years to come. The way I see it, we need more Professor Brulovs in this world; we can’t all be Ingrid Bergman or Gregory Peck, after all. I’m happy that my students remember me with something other than aversion, after all, and so becoming Professor Brulov is, at least for now, quite enough for me.

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Could Capitalism Be the Enemy?

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Earth Day 1971 Poster, from Wikipedia entry on “Pogo”

Like many other people these days, I’m asking a lot of questions, and I’m not finding too many satisfying answers. But that doesn’t matter. We should all be suspicious of quick—and satisfying—answers. While it might produce a kind of temporary euphoria, the tendency to try to solve our problems quickly and neatly is precisely what seems to have landed the world in this precarious position, with climate changes staring us in the face as we confront unprecedented human migration across increasingly hostile borders. It is a scary place to be.

One question I’ve been asking is this: could capitalism, with its emphasis on constant growth and acquisition of wealth, be the evil spirit lurking behind this state of affairs? This is a difficult question to consider, and it’s likely that few people will be brave enough to confront and admit such a question. (For curious readers, here is an article in last week’s New Yorker that explains, at least in part, why new ideas and self-criticism meet such resistance.)  But it’s worthwhile to lay out a few arguments for this menacing explanation, even if not many people take the time to consider it.

First of all, capitalism, with its emphasis on garnering profit, depends on constantly expanding market shares. It doesn’t work in a static environment; in order for a capitalist economy to function well, it must grow. And yet, as any observant person realizes, constant growth simply isn’t sustainable. Eventually the market place becomes saturated. When that happens, there are few options for the capitalist enterprise: either it expands its market—in which the same thing will happen a few years, or decades, later—or it works to cut out competitors and appropriate their growth and their profit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or an economist, to determine that this process isn’t feasible for long-term stability in a society dedicated to equity and the pursuit of happiness.

And that brings up the second problem with capitalism as it has developed. The acquisition of profit and material goods seems to be insufficient for the kind of capitalists, the captains of industry, we have created in recent years. In other words, the most successful capitalists have become so wealthy that it is ludicrous to suppose that they are intent on gathering still more money, or luxuries, for themselves. How many mansions are necessary for a person’s, even a family’s, happiness? Is it really necessary for Mark Zuckerberg to own 700 acres of prime Hawaiian land—and to sue longtime landowners to make sure that his privacy on this new piece of property is inviolable? One theory about the tendency of the super-wealthy to engage in this kind of action this states that capitalism’s great heroes and heroines garner not only wealth for themselves, but happiness as well. And, since happiness is not as easy to gauge as material wealth, the best way to determine whether one is happy is to compare oneself to those who are not happy. This, in essence, is what capitalism does: it takes happiness away from people in order to create a sense of happiness in the capitalist, who, numb to the thrill of wealth and plenty, cannot determine whether he is actually happy unless he can be sure that there are others who have been made unhappy by his own acquisitive actions. This view of capitalism presents it in a horrifying, sordid light. It goes something like this: once their quest for great wealth has met with success, capitalists create another quest for themselves: that of acquiring the happiness of others. This kind of theorizing leads to a truly disconcerting question: What if the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and so dear to every American citizen, has become a literal pursuit, in which the happiness of others becomes fair game for pursuing? This frightening scenario, in which capitalists resemble Dementors more than anything else, may well be taking place in our society.

But we need not enter the world of Harry Potter to find a third reason to reexamine capitalism in our time: it appears to be antithetical to the idea of ecological conservation. I could argue this carefully, in a step-by-step demonstration of the ways in which capitalism abuses the natural environment, but this is quite unnecessary, with stories like Standing Rock, Line 5, the Kalamazoo River oil spill, fracking, and other items in the news. We all know that big business cares little about the natural resources it uses, regarding these resources like factory machinery as it tries to figure out a way to produce still more oil for an ever-growing market. The argument that capitalism stands in opposition to safeguarding our environment has undoubtedly been made before, and it is unnecessary to go into it at length here.

Instead, I would like to offer a fourth reason that capitalism may be the enemy. It depends on competition, maintaining that competition brings out the best in people. But even Darwin, as this article in The Guardian points out, believed that cooperation was at least as  important in evolution as competition.

I have little hope that I can change anyone’s mind about capitalism. Most Americans cling to their belief that it offers us, and the world at large, the best way to live—period. Besides, changing our ideology would be too great a task to undertake.

Or would it?

As we encounter more and more crises, sooner or later we will have to face the fact that Americans are not always the good guys, as we have been taught to believe. Ideology is a difficult veil to penetrate—in fact, it may be impossible to penetrate the veil at all, and we may have to be satisfied with shifting it aside from time to time to try to catch a mere glimpse of the truth. Denying the efficacy and value of capitalism is a scary proposition, and doing so necessitates that we decide what will take its place—another scary proposition. It will take some time to reach the point where we can face these difficult ideological problems. But I believe we will get there. For now, let’s start by admitting that the old comic strip from 1971 was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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The Art of Reading

 

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green, from https://thesleeplessreader.com/about/fellow-readers-favorite-paintings-of-women-reading/

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green   Image from The Sleepless Reader blog

 

“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.”  –Jorge Luis Borges

 

“In short, reading is directed creation.” –Jean-Paul Sartre

As the number of blogs and podcasts about writing multiply with Malthusian abandon, overpopulating our digital feeds, the topic of reading seems much less popular these days. Of course, there are the articles published in the various newspapers and magazines stating that science bears out what every English teacher has always suspected: the act of reading makes us more sympathetic and thus better people. (You can read articles of this kind here and here and here.) But are these articles enough to make us better, more serious, “literary” readers?

Apparently not. And the reason is simple: the creation of better human beings is not the sum-total of what reading offers us. In other words, reading literature is too important an activity to engage in just because it might make us better or more moral people.

That might seem an incendiary statement, but I don’t mean it as one. In fact, I am echoing C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his short book An Experiment in Criticism, published in 1961 and thus one of the last things he wrote, “I have rejected the view that literature is to be valued (a) for telling us truths about life, (b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself.” But this, he has said earlier, is precisely what most readers simply cannot do.

In this book Lewis theorizes that there are two kinds of readers: the unliterary readers (whom he calls “users“), and the literary readers (whom he calls “receivers.” Users tend to, well, use books to achieve a desired end: entertainment, escapism, gathering information. In fact, it’s not too far-fetched to theorize that the epidemic rise of unreliable news is due to the fact that there are too many users in our society and not enough receivers. According to Lewis, “the most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news.’ He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know.” It’s just possible that these readers and the demand they place on profit-seeking media are skewing the type of reading that is available to us, leaving receiving readers out in the cold and clogging up our news feeds with sensationalist tripe. These users, Lewis might say, would be better off reading mystery, spy, or some other kind of thrilling novels, but their desire for “the news” precludes them from doing so.

Receivers, those who read in a literary way, exert their critical and imaginative faculties to treat the book as an end in itself, not as a link in a chain leading to a desired end. They give themselves fully to the experience of reading. As Lewis says, those of us who want to be receiving readers “must empty our minds and lay ourselves open.” Such readers, few though they may be, can change the way they see things, and in this way, they can help to change the world itself.

Yet the idea that reading makes us better people puts the whole activity of literary reading at risk, co-opting it for some kind of greater, communal good, which is in my view putting the cart before the horse. In other words, reading may be good for human beings, but it certainly won’t be if reading is relegated to the role of making good human beings. This kind of utilitarian advocacy of reading is dangerous. We have already lost so much to utilitarian ideas. In our universities, composition classes have been usurped to create students who can write discipline-specific reports and papers, not essays that allow for exploration and expression. In fact, college itself has become a mere step in the path to obtaining a good job (with the irony that going to college does not necessarily lead to a good job and almost certainly leads to the acquisition of debt). And of course there are those who argue that art must have a political dimension to be relevant. So many intellectual and artistic activities have already been offered up on the altar of utilitarianism. Must we really give up the act of reading, too?

My point is this: only in pursuing these activities in and of themselves–for example, in reading for the sake of reading, in educating oneself for the sake of being an educated person, in painting in order to depict the world, whatever shape it takes–only by doing these things freely, without the thought of some added benefit, can we engage in truly imaginative activities. We should be far beyond the point of saying that reading is good for us, that it makes us better human beings. That’s the kind of thinking that went out of fashion with the death of Jeremy Bentham (whose embalmed body presides over University College London). Instead, we should be asking ourselves this: how do we become better readers? And perhaps more importantly, how do we turn using readers into receiving readers?

Reading is something of a holy act when we do it freely, because it marries the ability to sound out words with the use of our intellect and our imagination, connecting us with the past and propelling us into the future. As Sartre says, “reading is a pact of generosity between author and reader. Each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.” Reading, as Borges says above, is its own art form. If we acknowledged this, we would be much less tempted to assign it additional value; reading would be enough in and of itself.

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Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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