It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate. A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention. There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence. A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors. Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins. Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently. While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous. Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more. Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence. In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them. To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade. It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.
A hierarchy that is not consecrated and thus ordered in all its parts to the vision of the Good vouchsafed by the common cult is as likely to work good as is a broken clock to display the correct time. A profane institution is finally, and thus fundamentally, and thus thoroughly misdirected away from the proper mundane end of all human acts: the achievement, maintenance, repair and restoration of that proper harmony among and within things under and toward heaven, in virtue of which alone is there any health, prosperity, propagation, contentment, wisdom.
Reading a book of evangelical theology this afternoon, I realized that there are a few reliable ways we can be sure that an author is a liberal weenie, and that the text he has written is therefore ideologically driven, ergo tendentious (whether witly or not), and probably wrong in its arguments. It is very simple, at least in books of theology. We can be sure that an author is a weenie if:
- He uses “impact” as a verb.
- He uses “image” as a verb.
- He avoids using masculine pronouns in referring to God.
- He uses “gender” to indicate sex.
- He uses “gender” as a verb.
If furthermore there is ever in a writer about ancient texts anything like environmentalism or feminism, egalitarianism or communism, relativism or nominalism, we can be sure that he has read them anachronistically, and therefore wrongly. We can, in short, be pretty sure that he is a hopeless idiot, and what is worse, not even therefore much useful to his sinister god.
What can we take from this? That we should never, ever, ever in a million years commit any such howlers.
Probably I have missed a few. I welcome correction of any such omissions.
As the fall semester began in the first week of August at Upstate Consolation University, student radicals and their faculty sponsors, seeking solidarity with their fellow Social Justice Warriors elsewhere in the country, rallied in the Mehar Shandruff-Danpoo Multicultural Center and Cafetorium, formerly the Andrea Dworkin Memorial Housing and Parking Office, to announce their determination to overturn and smash all statues of Confederate Civil-War heroes currently standing on the teaching-college’s architecturally bland lakeside campus. On leaving the rally, however, to go in search of offensive icons to topple and desecrate, the emotionally overheated crowd could find none. There were various commemorative statues scattered about the grounds of UCU, but not only did none of these represent or honor any Confederate Civil-War hero, none represented or honored any Civil-War hero, or, with one exception, any participant in any war. This fact is perhaps unsurprising given that UCU was only founded in 1958, nearly a century after the Southern surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. The absence of targets nevertheless provoked the protesters maddeningly, causing them to retreat to designated “safe places,” where volunteers supplied them with pearl necklaces to clutch and offered smelling-salts to redeem the marginalized and oppressed from their debilitating white-privilege-induced vapor-attacks.
Let us begin with two questions – what is literary criticism and who or what is a literary critic? The true answers to these questions might surprise someone who attends college and who associates literature almost solely with what is called academic or scholarly interest. Very possibly, only a few academicians or scholars are today genuinely deserving of the title literary critic. The humanities departments, having become all at once thoroughly and fanatically political and thoroughly and fanatically bureaucratic, what passes in them for literary criticism is largely the imposition of predetermined and stereotyped ideological matrices on novels, plays, poems, and stories such that, in the main, the novels, plays, poems, and stories disappear and all that remains is the ideological matrix. Practices still calling themselves literary and critical will work themselves out as though they were self-actuating algorithms (“apps” in contemporary parlance), in the functioning of which, no human intervention is necessary. The sole interests are hierarchy, which everyone knows to be “bad” and which everyone therefore loves to denounce, and the somatic attribute, conceived in the narrowest way, and assumed to distribute itself according to a moral hierarchy. * Such a practice can only issue in a debilitating self-contradiction, which is exactly what happens. Missing in the “deconstructive,” “postmodern,” “feminist,” “classist,” and related English-Department discourses concerning novels, plays, poems, and stories is any scintilla of Eros – that is to say of passion, desire, or love – and any sense that the critic might be far less significant than the object of his interest. We have, of course, not yet answered the two questions, but clearing away certain misconceptions is a necessary prequel to furnishing those answers.
Literary criticism – to tackle the first question – is best grasped as a subject’s passion, desire, or love for novels, plays, poems, and stories. The passion, desire, or love is so great that the subject, gradually forming himself into a critic, relinquishes his ego entirely to his transcendent project of understanding the object as itself, in its beauty, its meaning, and, as entailed by those, in the total organic relation of its parts to its whole. More than that, literary criticism, nourishing itself on individual items that inflame its ego-dissolving passion, develops an interest in the generic relation of one item to another, thus also in the distinctions of the genres, and in the history of those genres. The ultimate object of literary criticism would be literature in itself, or the essence of the literary, but the ultimate object would not be identical to the ultimate aim, the telos, of literary-critical vitality. The ultimate aim or telos of that activity would constitute itself in the transformation of the subject – his raising of himself to a higher level of conscious awareness. There is an old saying that intelligent readers never, in fact read books; rather, intelligent readers let the books read them. No serious person who reads a serious book should expect to be the same person afterwards. Reading, supposed by college students on the basis of their secondary school experience to be a tedious obligation, has been understood by bibliophiles since the Fourth Century BC to resemble mystic initiation, a rite de passage, one of many such in the unwinding journey between birth and death. We must return to these themes, Eros and so forth, reading as a rite de passage, but let us first tackle the second of the two questions, who or what is a literary critic.
The other day in my Introduction to Literary Criticism course, I contested a student’s objection to my thesis that, whereas there might be many plausible interpretations of John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian urn,” it would nevertheless not be the case that every interpretation of “Ode on a Grecian urn” was equally plausible or even plausible at all. Furthermore, I reasoned, the range of interpretations might be graded according to their plausibility, from least to most, in a hierarchy. The student’s agitated insistence was that, “everybody has his own opinion.”* (As if no one had ever heard that before.) I immediately responded that “opinion” was an irrelevant category; and that, in any case, where it concerns any particular topic, the number of opinions is strictly limited. In respect of Topic X, there are probably only two opinions, or at most three. The claim that “everybody has his own opinion” is therefore absurd. To put it in plausible English, one would have to say that, “In respect of X, everyone has one opinion or another, of a limited set.” One of the definitions of “opinion” is that an opinion is a freely circulating, conformist view about a topic, entirely unoriginal and non-proprietary. People never have opinions; they borrow or endorse them, at which point the opinions have them.
I conclude that it has two ultimate causes. One is well known: The leftist doctrine that men victimize women, whites victimize nonwhites, normal people victimize sexual deviants, and so on.
But this doctrine has been around for decades, if not centuries. It wasn’t enough to create the “safe space” phenomenon until a few years ago. (Although we can identify a precursor in the various “ethnic studies” programs created starting in the 1960s whose main purpose was to give academically-weak nonwhites a semi-academic field in which they could excel.) Continue reading
“Higher education is not about knowledge or skills,” says Upstate Consolation University Executive Deputy Chancellor of the Committee on Investor Communications Marl Flaybiter from behind the large mahogany desk in his office overlooking West Campus’s scenic Green Parking Lot; “no – higher education is about respect.” A few years ago, on being appointed to his incumbency, Flaybiter began noticing how little respect graduating degree-holders from UCU were receiving when they entered the job market and presented their credentials to prospective employers. While escorting potential investors around Uppchoock-on-the-Lake, the small, northerly city where his institution is located, Flaybiter observed that many of the service personnel in the local coffee bars and chain restaurants were recent UCU graduates.
Flaybiter counts off the many types of prestigious UCU-granted degrees held by these disrespectfully under-employed new alumni: “At least three of those kids – bright kids – had come out of our Social Justice and Sustainability Programs; five or six had bachelor’s or bachelorette’s degrees in Women’s Studies, and others came from Adventure Education, Puppet Arts, Safe Space Organizing, Slut-March Planning, and Critical White-Privilege Sciences.” Flaybiter pauses to shake his head sorrowfully. “I just couldn’t bear to see those kids – I mean, those young people – so shamefully disrespected by having to work as baristas, cashiers, waiters, and waitresses while living in their parents’ basements and going to work in their pajamas.” As Flaybiter sees it, “The mismatch between the education and the job is, well, a tragedy, not just for the kids, and not just for the pajamas, but for the community.”
I recently dragged the concept of “homonationalism” into the Orthosphere, feeling rather like a cat that proudly deposits a mangled meadow vole or titmouse on the hearthrug of its owner. Homonationalism, you will recall, is the proposition that Western societies are nice to homosexuals because this allows them to be nasty to Muslims. It was the theme of a conference hosted by the philosophy department at my university (and as no counter-conference was staged in the football stadium, we must suppose that homonationalism is a proposition with which the university administration substantially concurs). Continue reading