About Rohan Maitzen
Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her main teaching and research interests are the Victorian novel, gender and historiography, and ethical criticism. Her academic career is mostly an excuse to keep rereading Middlemarch.
Posts by Rohan Maitzen
Friday, August 27, 2010
Time to get on with it!
A couple of months ago I wrote a post at Novel Readings expressing my impatience with the seemingly endless recurrence of the same questions and topics in academic blogging. It’s not that the questions have been answered or the topics exhausted--or that my own contributions have been especially original or revelatory. It’s just, as I said then, that “having done this dance before, I don’t think I want to do it again”:
At this point I just want to get on with it: trying to find a critical voice, and to hone and articulate perceptions that reflect both rigorous reading and a more personal, affective, and engaged vision of criticism.
What that resolution has meant for me, in practice, is that I have spent a lot of time this summer working on a couple of writing projects that (while they certainly draw on my academic experience and expertise) are not themselves academic projects--or at least, they aren’t, strictly speaking, scholarly projects. It has meant that I have become increasingly interested in the editorial work I’m now doing at Open Letters Monthly, which provides a forum for the kind of crossover critical style I want to develop. It has also meant a decline (indeed, nearly a collapse) in my interest in jumping into the never-ending debates that always resurface, in one form and forum or another, about academic writing, the value or scope of the humanities, the future of academic publishing or of peer review. And it has meant a decline in my posts here at The Valve, because however loose the official parameters of the site, it has always felt to me like a place best suited to more academic or theoretical discussions, not a general repository for either literary or personal reflections. These aren’t lines that are always very clear, and when the energy at The Valve seemed higher overall, it seemed natural enough to post a wider variety of things and just see where the conversation went. But lately, I have found myself hesitating about posting or cross-posting,and more often than not, I haven’t contributed anything. Rather than simply and silently joining the fairly long list of ghost bloggers here, people whose names are listed but who don’t in fact write for The Valve any more, I’ve decided that it’s better to make a clean break and ask the editors to remove me from the list of current authors.
I want to thank Joe Kugelmass and Scott Kaufman for inviting me to write for The Valve back in March 2008. It was a great two years: the conversations were varied and invigorating, and I appreciated the chance to participate. I know I’ll always look back on the Summer of Adam Bede as an inspiring example of the kind of cooperative intellectual experience blogging can become! I’ve learned a lot from all my fellow Valve-ers, who always showed both generosity and wisdom in their responses to my posts, not to mention rigor and intellectual curiosity in their own. There’s still a lot of interesting material going up here on a pretty regular basis, and I certainly expect to keep on reading and commenting. But I’m going to concentrate my own blogging energy just on Novel Readings for a while. I hope some Valve readers will come over and visit sometimes.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Frank Kermode R.I.P.
From The Guardian:
Widely acclaimed as Britain’s foremost literary critic, Sir Frank Kermode died yesterday in Cambridge at the age of 90.
The London Review of Books, for which the critic and scholar wrote more than 200 pieces, announced his death this morning. Kermode inspired the founding of the magazine in 1979, after writing an article in the Observer calling for a new literary magazine.
Prominent in literary criticism since the 1950s, Kermode held “virtually every endowed chair worth having in the British Isles”, according to his former colleague John Sutherland, from King Edward VII professor of English literature at Cambridge to Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London and professor of poetry at Harvard, along with honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He was knighted in 1991, the first literary critic to be so honoured since William Empson.
A renowned Shakespearean, publishing Shakespeare’s Language in 2001, Kermode’s books range from works on Spenser and Donne and the memoir Not Entitled to last year’s Concerning EM Forster.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Florence Nightingale, Letters from Egypt
Having cleared at least the semblance of a path through the draft thesis chapters that have taken up the bulk of my time since my summer class wrapped up at the end of June, I’m finally turning my attention back to my summer research project, which is to extend and perhaps even complete the essay on Ahdaf Soueif that I’ve posted about here before. Yes, that’s right, it’s not done yet. It got as far as a conference paper last year, and since then, in between other projects, I’ve been collecting references and sources for it and trying to conceptualize what it is I hope that the final essay will do, or be about and where exactly I might submit it. My basic idea is to fill in more details about In the Eye of the Sun and then develop a comparison between it and The Map of Love--which I’ve just finished re-re-reading. The Map of Love has a more complex form than In the Eye of the Sun, interweaving the story of two 20th-century women (Isabel, an American, and Amal, an Egyptian who turns out to be Isabel’s cousin) with the story of Lady Anna Winterbourne, an Edwardian Englishwoman who travels to--and eventually marries and lives in--Egypt. While my motivating interest is still the intertextual relationship between Soueif’s work and George Eliot’s, The Map of Love clearly has strong ties to other literary sources, particularly accounts of “lady travellers” in Egypt. Lucie Duff Gordon is probably the most famous, but I’ve also signed out of the library a lovely illustrated edition of Florence Nightingale’s Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile 1849-50, which turns out to be quite entertaining. For instance, like me she wages war on biting insects:
I and the gnats have so many ways of outwitting each other. X and Mr B. look as if they had the small-pox; but I, who would sleep in an Indian rubber tub with a tallow candle in my mouth if it were suggested, shut my windows before sundown; and I hear those who are in, furling their wings and uttering little infernal cries of triumph. Then I set my door open, and put a light in the passage, and they think I’m there, and follow; but I’m not,--don’t tell them. Then, when night comes, I take out a large sheet of paper and begin to write, and they believe I’m not thinking of sleep. But I leave off in the middle of a word, run with all my might at the Levinge [an elaborate netted sleeping bag], where I insert myself by so small a hole that you would say a camel could get through the eye of a needle; and then I clap my hands, and sing a little ode in honour of Mercury, the god of theft, because I have stolen myself from the gnats. Meanwhile I hear their whistle of rage and disappointment, and I see their proboscises coming through the curtains, as if they would fly away with the whole concern.
In a more serious vein, she often reflects on what she perceives of “Mahometism.” Carefully fitted up in “Egyptian dress,” including a complete veil, for instance, she is able to step inside a mosque to observe:
That quarter of an hour seemed to reveal to one what it is to be a woman in these countries, where Christ has not been to raise us. God save them, for it is a hopeless life. . . . Still, the mosque struck me with a pleasant feeling; X was struck with its irreverence. Some were at their prayers; but one was making baskets, another was telling Arabian Night stories to a whole group of listeners, sitting round him--others were asleep. I am much more struck with the irreverence of a London church.
It is so pleasant to see a place where any man may go for a moment’s quiet, and there is none to find fault with him, nor make him afraid. Here the homeless finds a home, the weary repose, the busy leisure,--if I could have said where any woman may go for an hour’s rest, to me the feeling would have been perfect,--perfect at least compared with the streets of London and Edinburgh, where there is not a spot on earth a poor woman may call her own to find repose in. The mosque leaves the more religious impression of the two, it is the better place of worship,--not than St. Peter’s, perhaps, but better than St. Paul’s.
I don’t know why it surprised me, from the author of Cassandra, after all, but I was struck by how often her interest and enjoyment in the scenes she observes are undercut, or at least rendered more problematic, by her consciousness of her sex and the complications it brings:
We have had a delightful week at Cairo. I wish we were going to stay longer. It is the riding in the streets, above all, which is so delightful, of which one never wearies; the latticed windows meeting overhead, the pearls of Moorish architecture at every corner, the looking up to the blue sky and golden sunlight from the wells of streets and in the bazaars, the streets entirely roofed in; and as you stand bargaining for a pair of yellow slippers, you see the corner of a street with the spring of an arch covered with Moorish network, and the sunlight pouring through the square holes left in the roof which shuts in the street. . .
In riding home by moonlight, ... there is not a corner which is not a picture; and no picture can give an idea of the colouring. But you don’t enjoy all this for nothing. A Christian female dog has two titles of dishonour here, and she cannot stir out without her ass, her running ass-driver, and at least one gentleman or a dragoman. A la langue this dependence becomes tiresome beyond what a European can conceive. It is not that one minds being spat at (which I have been) for a religion which one loves, but one is so afraid of the gentlemen of one’s party noticing any insult, as an Englishman’s complaint would bring a bastinado upon the poor wretch, which has often ended in death.
Like Soueif’s Lady Anna, she is particularly fascinated and spiritually moved by the desert. “The oftener you are astonished at it, the more like a stranger a mysterious power it seems,” she remarks;
While the earth in our country is rich and variegated with light, and crowded with animation, the sky above contrasts with its deadness. Here, on the other hand, the sky is radiant, the light is living, the golden light which seems to pour not only from the sun, but from all the points of the transparent blue heavens. One looks down, and the ungrateful earth lies there, hopeless and helpless, a dying, withered desert: one almost fancies one hears the Devil laughing as he dares even Almighty power to bring forth bread.
This is what gives one a supernatural, mysterious feeling in Egypt,--the looks naturally turn to the sky when the earth has no beauty that one should desire it, and the heavens have all beauty. The struggle between God and the Devil is perpetually visible before one’s thoughts, for the earth seems the abode of the Devil, the heavens of God; and you do not wonder at the Orientals being the mystical people they have become, nor at the Europeans, where all beauty is of the earth, and the thoughts turn to the earth, becoming a practical, active people.
Here’s an excerpt from Lady Anna’s (fictional) journal:
We rode on, and we stopped only twice. Once when we made camp for the night. The other earlier: when the sun set beyond the Gulf of Suez, making clear to me whence came the name the ‘Red’ Sea, for the setting sun brought out the red and black of the ore in the mountains and the sea reflected it all back. All the reds, and yellows and orange and purple, were in that wonderful landscape, and as it faded and the colours all round us melted more and more into gentleness, I thought there should be some act--some formal recognition of this daily magnificence. Even as the thought formed itself in my mind, we came to a halt as if by agreement. The animals knelt, the men dismounted and turned towards the South-East. One voice was lifted: ‘Allahu Akbar’, and they prayed silently together.
I might think that Soueif is delicately parodying the orientalizing English tendency to translate the Egyptian landscape into something exotically mystical, except that in her scene, Anna too is moved to prayer and to peace--and after all, isn’t there something spiritually uplifting about extraordinary natural beauty? For George Eliot, it’s the landscapes of one’s childhood that carry one towards “religious” peace and truth. What’s interesting in these examples (well, one among many interesting things) is the way an unfamiliar landscape opens up new spiritual ideas or possibilities.
Thursday, July 01, 2010
Canada Day Miscellany
First of all, Happy Canada Day! I hope you’ll all be raising a frosty mug of some real beer (none of that watery American stuff) in honour of our national holiday. Then we can all do the same again for the 4th of July.
I haven’t been doing much around The Valve for a while, as I’ve been teaching a spring class (13 exams left to mark, but not, I promise, under the influence of my Canada Day celebratory beer) and trying my hand at some new editing work for Open Letters Monthly--and speaking of Open Letters Monthly, I know there are a number of Valve-ers who have been watching Mad Men, and the July issue of OLM features a thought-provoking analysis of Betty Draper in the context of Edith Wharton, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan that you should check out:
In the person of Betty Draper, Mad Men has resurrected a beautiful neo-Victorian horror that brings to mind the cruelest moments of Wharton’s The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence: the crushing weight of unearned privilege, the vanity, cruelty, and boredom of women always on display, the Puritanism and decadence of old money: all of it embodied in a type we thought had been deconstructed and clichéd into irrelevance: the pre-feminist suburban housewife. Even as viewers root for the rise of aspiring career girl Peggy Olson and trace Don Draper’s ambivalent and self-loathing ambition, the show transforms itself into an elegy for a long line of seemingly fortunate women suffering beautifully from the most gilded of cages. (read the rest here)
Also featured in the July issue is my own essay on Vanity Fair which began its life as a (much, much shorter) blog post here at The Valve.
With the spring course almost filed away, I’ve been starting to realize it’s summer, and this post by research consultant Jo VanEvery on “Summer Contradictions” struck a chord:
Many academics eagerly anticipate summer as a period free from teaching and service obligations in which they can finally get some Real Work (TM) done.
You are understandably peeved with acquaintances who think you get the Whole Summer Off.
At the same time, the summer feels like such a short period of time in which to do this work that carries so much weight in the rewards system. You feel it would be irresponsible to take any time off at all.
There is a happy medium.
Multi-tasking might be a myth, but some of the work you need to do mixes very well with gardening, going for long walks, biking, or sitting on the patio staring off into space.
Thinking big thoughts, for example.
There is no reason you have to sit at your desk to think big thoughts.
Indeed, sometimes sitting at my desk seems antithetical to thinking big thoughts: it’s just too distracting there, and it just feels too much like business as usual. Do you have summer routines that help you get in touch with your inner big thinker? And how do you cope with the academic anxiety about being caught having fun? I’ve been thinking about this issue lately specifically in the context of reading: I know I need to use the summer for some deep, specialized reading if I’m going to make progress on the kinds of research and writing projects that count professionally, but I feel an equally strong compulsion to use the luxury of time without teaching to broaden my reading. How do you choose your reading priorities for the summer?
Monday, June 07, 2010
The Summer of Genji
According to Wikipedia, The Tale of Genji “is a classic work of Japanese literature attributed to the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century, around the peak of the Heian Period. It is sometimes called the world’s first novel, the first modern novel, the first psychological novel or the first novel still to be considered a classic.”
Virginia Woolf reviewed it favorably in Vogue in the 1920s, and many Europeans went on to claim it as a Japanese Proust or Austen. Jane Smiley claimed it helped her make sense of 9/11.
In The New York Review of Books, V.S. Pritchett wrote this about it:
When Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji came out, volume by volume, in the late Twenties and early Thirties, the austere Sinologue and poet said that Lady Murasaki’s work was “unsurpassed by any long novel in the world.” If we murmured, “What about Don Quixote or War and Peace?” we were, all the same, enchanted by the classic of Heian Japan which was written in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and we talked about its “modern voice.” What we really meant was that the writing was astonishingly without affectation. Critics spoke of a Japanese Proust or Jane Austen, even of a less coarse Boccaccio. They pointed also to the seeming collusion of the doctrines of reincarnation or the superstition of demonic possession with the Freudian unconscious—and so on.
See here for the schedule; the first round of dicsussion begins June 15-20.
Tuesday, June 01, 2010
From the CHE: Text-Mining and Data Digging as “The Humanities Go Google”
Data-diggers are gunning to debunk old claims based on “anecdotal” evidence and answer once-impossible questions about the evolution of ideas, language, and culture. Critics, meanwhile, worry that these stat-happy quants take the human out of the humanities. Novels aren’t commodities like bags of flour, they warn. Cranking words from deeply specific texts like grist through a mill is a recipe for lousy research, they say—and a potential disaster for the profession. . . .
The idea that animates [Franco Moretti’s] vision for pushing the field forward is “distant reading.” Mr. Moretti and Mr. Jockers say scholars should step back from scrutinizing individual texts to probe whole systems by counting, mapping, and graphing novels.
And not just famous ones. New insights can be gleaned by shining a spotlight into the “cellars of culture” beneath the small portion of works that are typically studied, Mr. Moretti believes.
He has pointed out that the 19-century British heyday of Dickens and Austen, for example, saw the publication of perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 novels—the huge majority of which are never studied.
The problem with this “great unread” is that no human can sift through it all. “It just puts out of work most of the tools that we have developed in, what, 150 years of literary theory and criticism,” Mr. Moretti says. “We have to replace them with something else.”
Something else, to him, means methods from linguistics and statistical analysis. His Stanford team takes the Hardys and the Austens, the Thackerays and the Trollopes, and tosses their masterpieces into a database that contains hundreds of lesser novels. Then they cast giant digital nets into that megapot of words, trawling around like intelligence agents hunting for patterns in the chatter of terrorists.
(read the whole story here)
Monday, May 24, 2010
Dan Green Reviews Rebecca Goldstein
Occsasional Valve contributor Dan Green reviews Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God at The Reading Experience:
In novels such as The Mind-Body Problem (1989), Mazel (1995), and Properties of Light (2000), Goldstein takes as her subject characters working in the “hard” disciplines who struggle to reconcile their commitment to the intellectual rigor of these disciplines with their physical and emotional impulses that tempt them away from that commitment, in some cases toward the suspension of reason and rigor represented by religion and religious tradition. 36 Arguments continues the preoccupation with this subject but does so in the form of a conventional academic satire, a mode the earlier novels, for all their focus on academics and their eccentricites, did not really approach. These novels (as well as the short story collection, Strange Attractors) seemed to manifest an effort to satisfy both the demands of philosophy and of literary form (perhaps analagous to their protagonists’ efforts to reconcile head and heart). Properties of Light, for example, finds a provocative way to use science to create a ghost story of sorts, as one of its characters comes back to quantumly “haunt” the woman responsible for his death.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God, however, doesn’t really exhibit the same concern for transforming philosophy and science into literary devices. Granted, the “36 arguments” construct is used as a structural element, incorporated literally in the form of a series of propositions and their refutations as the novel’s concluding section and metaphorically by providing the novel’s chapter titles, but otherwise this novel presents few surprises either formally or thematically, proceeding as a garden-variety academic satire complete with bursting egos, pretentious-sounding projects, and fierce political in-fighting. It provides Goldstein with the opportunity to portray the current phenomenon of “new atheism,” but its appeal is largely restricted to the examination of this phenomenon as a “current issuue.” While some marginal interest might be added by dramatizing this phenomenon through attributing positions to fictionally depicted characters, finally not much about the controversy over new atheism is really illuminated by dressing it up as fiction rather than addressing it more straightforwardly through analysis and explication.
The most serious limitation of 36 Arguments, however, is that as satire it isn’t very funny. (read the whole review here)
FWIW, I didn’t find it very funny either.
Friday, May 21, 2010
I’ve been exploring options for an upcoming seminar on ‘women and detective fiction.’ Frankly, right now I’m feeling tired of the whole project and wouldn’t mind not reading any more mystery novels for a long time: after a while, the machinery just seems so creaky. Start with a prologue introducing the crime or the criminal. Sound an ominous note to create suspense (from the book nearest to hand, for instance, “If they’re the ones who killed Mary Claire, why wouldn’t they kill me?"). Introduce the detective, more or less alienated from work or partner or family or society. Start investigating. End lots of chapters with ominous notes, of the “little did she know how things would turn out” variety ("Things seldom went this swimmingly for me, which should have been a clue"). Reach putatively thrilling denouement. Fade out. Repeat as necessary. I know, I know. The good ones are not like this, or do it well. Still, genre fiction is, inevitably, formulaic. A particular phenomenon I’ve been struck by lately, though, that actually bothers me more than the essential predictability of the form (which is, as P. D. James has argued, in some ways a strength of the genre as it establishes a firm structure within which the author is free to explore themes and characters as desired): there seems to be a trend towards overwriting, providing lots of unnecessary literal detail that contributes little to either plot or atmosphere but is just there. Now, I’m a Victorianist, and I like details: I’m not one to argue in favor of brevity for its own sake. But I like the details to be somehow resonant, whether with thematic or symbolic significance or with literary interest or pleasure. Dickens’s details, for instance, hum with life. But I don’t feel any life in this kind of writing:
I dropped my shoulder bag near the copy machine and crossed to the shelves where the yearbooks were lined up. The 1967 edition was there and I toted it with me, riffling through pages while I activated the On button and waited for the machine to warm up. The first twenty-five-plus pages were devoted to the graduating seniors, half-page color head shots with a column beside each photograph, indicating countless awards, honors, offices, interests. The juniors occupied the next fifteen pages, smaller photographs in blocks of four.
I flipped over to the last few pages, where I found the lower school, which included kindergarten through fourth grade. There were three sections for each grade, fifteen students per section. The little girls wore soft red-and-gray plaid jumpers over white shirts. The boys wore dark pants and white shirts with red sweater vests. By the time these kids reached the upper school, the uniforms would be gone, but the wholesome look would remain.
I turned the pages until I found the kindergartners. I checked the names listed in small print under each photograph. Michael Sutton was in the third grouping, front row, second from the right.
I’m no best-selling author, but I can’t see why a reader needs to know most of this. We’ve seen yearbooks, after all. The uniforms are, I suppose, period details and class markers, but the number of pages, or rows, or photographs per row, seems tediously irrelevant. How about this, instead:
I dropped my shoulder bag near the copy machine and crossed to the shelves where the yearbooks were lined up. I found Michael Sutton’s kindergarten picture in the 1967 edition . . .
The whole book is padded with this kind of excessive, and excessively literal, description of mundane objects and activities:
As long as I was downtown, I covered the seven blocks to Chapel, where I hung a left and drove eight blocks up, then crossed State Street and took a right onto Anaconda. Half a block later, I turned into the entrance of the parking facility adjacent to the public library. I waited by the machine until the time-stamped parking voucher slid into my hand and then cruised up three levels until I found a slot. The elevator was too slow to bother with so I crossed to the stairwell and walked down. I emerged from the parking structure, crossed the entrance lane, and went into the library.
I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that once she is actually in the library and has spent a couple of paragraphs explaining about the directories she’ll consult, she reaches into her bag and “remove[s] a notebook and a ballpoint pen.” The blow-by-blow description slows down the action without developing anything else--not atmosphere, character, or theme. In other ways, this particular book is well built: Grafton is clearly interested in experimenting with form beyond the journal-like first-person narration she has used in most of her novels, and here she varies her point of view and alternates between past and present events in a fairly effective way. Still, the novel could have been much shorter and not lost anything valuable if someone had edited it more strenuously. I’m reading The Girl who Played with Fire and feel very much the same way about it: it just goes on and on and on.
Friday, May 07, 2010
Cleaning Up Nancy Drew
I’ve been thinking about including one of the Nancy Drew series in an upcoming seminar on Women and Detective Fiction and so I’ve been learning a bit more about the books and their fairly complicated textual history. One important detail is that the currently available versions of the ‘original’ 1930s stories, beginning with No. 1, The Secret of the Old Clock, are in fact revised versions, rewritten beginning in the late 1950s because apparently the true originals included pretty offensive racist slurs and stereotypes. This got me thinking about when or why or what books are revised or cleaned up to satisfy modern mores. It seems to me that plenty of ‘classics’ wouldn’t pass a very stringent political correctness test (Kipling, anyone, as Colleen points out in a comment to my other post? or Tarzan, just out in an Oxford World’s Classics edition? or fill in the example of choice, for misogyny, anti-Semitism, class prejudice, etc.), but these we expose, critique, interrogate, etc.--not rewrite. I’m just wondering what makes the difference. Perhaps it’s the YA context: the presumed audience for Nancy Drew books isn’t ready to read critically? Marketability, since an overtly racist series would (one hopes) have lost its mass market appeal long ago? Thoughts on this? Are there other examples that people know of ‘cleaned up classics’?
Sunday, May 02, 2010
Ian McEwan, Solar
Solar is everything I expected of a new novel by Ian McEwan, who may be the smartest contemporary writer I read: clever, timely, acerbic, well-written, intensely readable. The problem is that those expectations are not, themselves, at a peak, by which I mean I had no expectation that a new novel by Ian McEwan would be humane, beautiful, or morally weighty. I believe Atonement to be all of those things; I believe Saturday to be all of those things at various points, though not as unequivocally so as Atonement. But after reading Atonement and Saturday I read some of McEwan’s other novels, and was alienated by what felt to me like intellect and skill divorced from humanity. Enduring Love fascinated but repelled me; A Child in Time puzzled me. Amsterdam left me cold, notwithstanding its Booker Prize, and then so did On Chesil Beach. Of course it is not a universal prescription for excellence that a novel satisfy both heart and head, but that’s what I want, that’s what I think takes a novel from good to great, and Solar seems quite content to leave my heart untouched. I think this is a missed opportunity for a novelist with McEwan’s gifts. Why not set against the shabby opportunism of the protagonist (who is both brilliantly drawn and wholly unsympathetic) either some idealism not undermined by the general attitude of cynicism that permeates the novel--even if only to show it up as ineffectual against the absurd realities of political and scientific institutions--or some unembodied but evocative commitment to the beauties of the planet Michael Beard only pretends to cherish? Bleak House is an unforgettable critique of the stupidities of a system that serves, at most, only those who constitute it, because we see beyond it, unrealized, an idea of human flourishing, of love and justice, worth yearning for. Thus we find the yammering of innumerable lawyers both comic and tragic. Where is Miss Flite, or Lady Dedlock, never mind Jo the crossing sweeper, in McEwan’s universe?
But then, McEwan is not a reformer; he has not taken it upon himself to be--or to target--the conscience of a nation. Is he, in fact, a skeptic about global warming? I’m sure I could find out if I read around in the innumerable interviews he has given since the novel’s publication, but then I’m not sure how relevant that question is, really, to Solar, which I think is less about climate change or solar power in particular than it is about the fallibility and foibles of a particular scientist and, more generally, the peculiarities and contexts of scientific research, which is, inevitably, both constituted and compromised by structures and inividuals bound up in many interests besides whatever lofty ones they claim to serve. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that his skepticism is directed at our faith in science (and scientists). Both the much-cited “boot room” and Beard’s increasingly chaotic and filthy basement flat undermine our confidence that these are people who can clean up a whole planet:
Continue reading "Ian McEwan, Solar"
Four days ago the room had started out in orderly condition, with all gear hanging on or stored below the numbered pegs. Finate resources, equally shared, in the golden age of not so long ago. Now it was a ruin. . . . How were they to save the earth—assuming it needed saving, which he doubted—when it was so much larger than the boot room?
Monday, April 26, 2010
So That’s Why We Need Literary Theorists!
Chad Gaffield, the President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, recently defended his literary consitutuents against charges that their research is not relevant outside the academy:
(read the rest of the article here)
Does Canada need students studying fields such as literary theory? More than ever, if we can judge by the example of scholars like Ian Lancashire, an English professor from the University of Toronto, and his colleague Graeme Hirst, a computational linguist, who topped the New York Times annual list of the best ideas of 2009. Their idea was to analyze Agatha Christie’s novels based on the knowledge that written vocabulary changes subtly but perceptively with the onset of dementia. Their textual analysis demonstrated for the first time that the prolific Christie did, in fact, write her last novels while suffering from Alzheimer’s. Moreover, their work suggests new diagnostic tools for identifying the initial onset of dementia which, in turn, make possible new preventive treatments.
Although I appreciate why he would choose this example, it strikes me as a bad choice nonetheless, for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that this project (interesting as it sounds, in its own way) has very little to do with what we usually mean by “literary theory.” At least as importantly, it seems to me to play into the hands of those who want to measure all research by the same utilitarian standards. I’m reminded of Mark Slouka’s rousing piece in Harper’s a while back: as he says, “It can be touching to watch supporters of the arts contorting themselves to fit. . . . We can do this! We can make the case to management!”
Thursday, April 15, 2010
“Mediating and Defining the Essential Elements of Our Humanity”
Of all the reading I did for my work on Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun last year, this is the passage that I have thought about the most since, and which I think may be the starting point for my next round of research and writing. It’s from John Marx’s essay “Postcolonial literature and the western literary canon,” in the Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies.
Appiah goes so far as to contend that postcolonial literature helps engender a new sort of humanism based not “as the older humanists imagined, [on] universal principles or values,” but on the reading of postcolonial fictions like Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (Appiah 2001: 224). “What is necessary to read novels across gaps of space, time, and experience,” he argues, “is the capacity to follow a narrative and conjure a world: and that, it turns out, there are people everywhere more than willing to do” (224–25). Because it maintains an authority to mediate local culture, postcolonial literature reveals that cultural differences can be overcome, as demonstrated by what Appiah describes as a basic human capacity to read and understand literature (at least of the narrative sort). Without sacrificing its point of entry into literary curricula as the representative of cultures repressed by imperialism, therefore, postcolonial literature seems poised to acquire the responsibility once claimed by the Western canon of mediating and defining the essential elements of our humanity. As postcolonialist critiques of the West have taught us, this cannot be regarded as an apolitical stance. Nor does it seem inherently conservative, in the strict sense of the term.
To me, there’s an initial plausibility to this suggestion: the humanistic assumptions that have been discredited (though also defended) in academic theoretical circles still have a lot of traction in the wider world, and they underlie a lot of recent popular examples of what we might, loosely, call ‘literature about others’ (The Kite Runner, for instance, or Rooftops of Tehran or The Wasted Vigil): the idea, for instance, that readers not only want to but can step, imaginatively, outside their own norms and enhance their sympathetic understanding of the lives and values and perspectives of people quite different from themselves. I realize that the examples I’ve given are not strictly ‘postcolonial,’ but they are certainly positioned at various cultural crossroads and seek, as Marx suggests postcolonial literature does, to play a moral and pedagogical role in the interests of “mediating and defining the essential elements of our humanity.” I think they are also read in that spirit, of finding common human ground through stories. I find this angle on a renewed or revised (new and improved?) humanism tempting--at least, tempting to explore further. How does it strike other people?
Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Who Reads Scott Anymore?
There’s an interesting piece at Standpoint on Scott and historical fiction, by Allan Massie:
I still meet people who read and appreciate Scott, and the splendid new Edinburgh edition of his works has led to a reawakening of academic interest. Yet Woolf was probably justified in saying that he had “entirely ceased to influence” other writers, even 80 or 90 years ago. Certainly, it is likely that none of the authors on the Man Booker list owed him anything, consciously or unconsciously. It was different in the 19th century. Dumas and Hugo in France, Manzoni in Italy, Fontane in Germany, Tolstoy in Russia, and Thackeray — in Henry Esmond certainly and Vanity Fair probably — were all in his debt, as were Stevenson and Buchan in their historical novels. Hugh Walpole, in his Herries chronicles, was one of the last novelists to regard himself as a disciple of Scott. But though he was Woolf’s friend, he knew, to his dismay, that she didn’t think much of his books. (read the rest here; HT 3QD)
He doesn’t mention George Eliot, who famously wrote that she couldn’t bear to hear a disparaging word about Scott, and whose novels are infused with the same interest in people as embodiments of complex historical conditions. I don’t know if it makes sense to say that contemporary writers don’t owe Scott anything even unconsciously: the genre they work in was surely shaped and formed by him, even if (as does seem likely) they aren’t aware of it.Reading this piece, I was reminded of an earlier post I wrote calling attention to a wonderful essay by Brian Nellist at The Reader Online. Here’s the old post, reprised, and then the follow-up with links to the wonderful response at Wuthering Expectations, one of my favourite literary blogs.
Sunday, April 04, 2010
New Models for Online ‘Salons’: the ARCADE example
There’s been some discussion here a few times about the challenges of keeping blog content accessible and useful, because of the structure of blogs themselves: older material scrolls off the bottom and into the cloud, and though it is archived, there’s not usually a systematic way to keep it current. One result I’m sure we’re all familiar with is the constant reinvention of the wheel. I know when I first joined the list of authors at The Valve I (re)opened conversations that were new(er) to me but had been hashed out a few times here already, whether about the state of the profession or the future of literary studies or blogging. It’s interesting to watch, now, as blogging and web publishing are gradually becoming familiar parts of the academic landscape, and new ventures explore ways to create online the kind of intellectual community and continuity we all, in one way or another, are after. One of the latest additions is Stanford University’s ARCADE, which seeks to combine blogging with other features to make it, according to its founders, a kind of online salon. Here’s how it was described in the Stanford News:
Arcade describes itself, in a brochure, as “curated but participatory” and “technologically rich in the service of ideas.” But at first glance it can be overwhelming in the wealth of information it offers – Greene guesses it has “about 10 times more stuff” than, say, The Valve, another site for the academically inclined. He said that he and Zach Chandler, who is the academic technology specialist for Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, are exploring ways to make the site easier to navigate.
It currently works like this: The left side of the page features bloggers; the right side of the page is structured to feature constantly refreshing scholarly journals, podcasts and multimedia. On a particular day, a post by Christopher Warley of the University of Toronto, musing about the various editions of Shakespeare his students bring to class, might appear on the left side. On the right, in the scholarly reviewed Occasion, John Bender of Stanford gives his take on rational choice in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
I agree that the front page is “overwhelming” but it’s an interestingly ambitious attempt to draw together different kinds of writing and publication. I can’t pretend to have explored a great deal of the content yet, particularly the more ‘official’ journal-type content (I’m least interested in online content that is just more of the same kind of writing typical of the profession). But I’ve been keeping an eye on a couple of the blogs, particularly the posts on “the profession” (such as Roland Greene’s on ’Misplaced Horizons in Literary Studies‘)--which is what made me think of the “reinventing the wheel” problem--the lack of difference made by all the previous discussions of related issues at, say, The Valve. Don’t get me wrong: all the problems and questions discussed at ARCADE remain good ones, complicated ones, ones worth asking. But there’s an archive of previous ‘work’ on these questions, including our discussions at The Valve, that isn’t referenced at all (and I’m sure our Valve discussions didn’t find or link to every other relevant discussion either). So are we just reproducing online the same phenomenon of an overabundance of unconsulted material that we see in our conventional scholarly work? If people can’t (or don’t) find or cite what’s already been said, how worthwhile is the conversation, after all? Is that primarily a technical problem, because, for instance, there’s no equivalent of the MLA Bibliography for blogs?
In any case, what do people think of the combination of features at ARCADE? Does it seem to prefigure the future of online scholarship, with its mix of blogs and journals and seminars? Does its all-in-one approach create its own kind of insularity or homogeneity? I thought the news article rather exaggerated the novelty of the salon effect: any group blog is already achieving a lot of that, though not, perhaps, with quite the same ambitious reach as seems to characterize ARCADE. It may be an idiosyncratic response, but I rather shy away from the institutional identity and heavily ‘curated’ impression the site gives off: I like a well-managed site, but I enjoy the individualism, the almost unhinged quality, of the internet. I think I’d be sorry if in our effort to make online work academically respectable (or to get it noticed / cited / archived) we lost too much of that, but I realize that very disorderly quality is precisely what makes it so difficult to build anything more sustained, or to move conversations forward instead of just having them again (and again).
Thursday, April 01, 2010
Interview with Frank Donoghue
Puttering about the internet on this eve of a long weekend--freed, more to the point, from the usual Thursday night labor of making sure my Friday class prep is all in order--I happened across a very interesting interview with Frank Donoghue, author of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. Here’s the part that really made me sit up straight and pay attention:
I’m not otherwise familiar with Harlot, self-described as “a digital meeting place for everyone interested in playful yet serious conversations about rhetoric in everyday life.” Looks interesting, though.