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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Inter-Racial Sex: A Passage to India and Light in August

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/06/10 at 09:58 AM

This is the third post in a series of five posts dealing with the symbolic deployment of racial difference. The first was about Shakespeare’s Caliban while the second was about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Cross posted at New Savanna.

Now I want do deal with projected sexuality as depicted in two more recent novels:  William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924).  Faulkner, like Twain, is central to the recognized canon of American literature and Light in August is one of his most important works.  Forster of course, is British, not American, and, as such, is a more direct heir to the psycho-cultural dynamic of Prospero’s magic island.  But Forster’s novel is worth discussing because it displays much the same psychological dynamics as Faulkner’s even though the racial Other is an Asian Indian rather than an African American.  The psycho-cultural dynamic I’m concerned about didn’t originate in America.  The European settlers brought it with them.  It is a Western problem, not an exclusively American one – nor, for that matter, is it exclusively Western (whatever that means), but that’s well beyond the scope of this post.

A Passage to India centers on Adela Quested and Dr. Aziz.  Ms. Quested came to India to be with her fiancé, Ronny Moore, who was stationed there.  Dr. Aziz is a local physician who befriended her in her desire to see the “real” India.  In particular, he took her and some companions to see the Marabar caves, a local natural wonder that was sacred to the Hindus.  While walking in one of these caves Ms. Quested become confused, lost all sense of herself, and after coming out concluded that she must have been raped by Dr. Aziz.  From that suspicion came a trial and during the trial Ms. Quested admitted that Dr. Aziz had not followed her into the cave at all.  Hence he could not have raped her. 

Why would Forster make such an incident the center of his novel?  Because he wanted to underline a hidden sexuality in the British attitude toward the Indians.  Just as Tom Sawyer used Jim as a screen on which to project his fantasies of escape and capture, so Forster’s British used the Indians as a screen on which to project their own sexuality.  Ms. Quested came to India to be with her fiancé, a man she found to be stilted, boring, and less interesting than the enthusiastic Dr. Aziz.  The warmth and sexuality she saw in Aziz was the warmth and sexuality she wanted in her fiance, but was unable to find.  And the outrage which the British community felt over this alleged rape had more to do with their collective fears and hidden desires than it had to do with justice.

Much of the book is conversation.  And much of that conversation is that of one social group trying to make some sense out of the actions of another social group.  For the most part we have Indians trying to make sense out of the British, and British trying to make sense out of the Indians.  Much of the mutual puzzlement can justifiably be attributed to cultural difference.  But these conversations aren’t matters of mere curiosity about the others; they are part of a social process.  And that social process is one of oppression.  The British, in their conversations, talk of the inferiority of the Indians and, hence, the justice of British rule.  The Indians are concerned both with insulating themselves from the British and with maintaining their dignity in the face of the ruling raj. 

Forster’s British men think of the Indians as women (or children).  And, just as man is destined to rule over woman, so the British are destined to rule over Indians.  Indian women have almost no role in the book; the key Indian characters are all male.  And they are depicted in ways that give them many of the stereotypical attributes of women—they are emotional, dependent, changeable, they take poetry seriously.  Forster is quite clearly sympathetic to these men; but his British males are not.  Let us grant that Forster’s sympathetic portrayal of Aziz and friends is accurate—I certainly don’t have any grounds on which to question it.  As such, it does reflect real cultural difference.  But that cultural difference functions in this novel as sexual difference, the politics are sexual politics.  The cold, rational British male must rule over warm, emotional creatures - such as women and Indians.

We see a typical example of this attitude in the testimony of the Superintendent of Police, Mr. McBryde, who opened the trial for the prosecution.  At one point McBryde remarked, under the general heading of Oriental Pathology, that “the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa . . .” At this point someone in the court most ungraciously commented “Even when the lady is so uglier than the gentleman?” McBryde’s comment is standard racist fare.  The “darker races” are sexually rapacious and inevitably drawn to white women.  The anonymous reply, while certainly not meeting current tests of political correctness, restores a measure of volition and even dignity to the sexual preferences of the “darker races.” The statement doesn’t deny sexuality, but it clearly indicates that Aziz and others exercise discrimination in their choice of objects. They are not the slaves of mere whiteness.

However certain her countrymen (and women) where about the events at the Marabar caves, Adela herself was not so sure.  As the trial approached, she gave voice to her doubts about what happened, or did not happen, in the cave.  She was counseled to put those doubts aside and to give testimony against Aziz. When she finally recanted and the case was dismissed, she was ostracized.  Mrs. Turton, wife of the local head of the raj, had remarked that she would never see Adela again.  On the face of it, that is a strange attitude.  Yes, it is unfortunate and a bit embarrassing that Adela made this groundless accusation against Aziz.  But now that it is over, wouldn’t it be reasonable and humane to be glad that this business is over and help Adela restore herself to society?  Why shun her, for the embarrassment is mostly hers. 

Or is it?  We need to ask ourselves why the Anglo-Indian community was so eager to embrace Adela’s cause and to bring Aziz to trial.  What Forster is showing us is that much of the British attitude toward the Indians originates in their own repression.  Successful prosecution of the charge against Aziz would confirm their sense of moral and cultural superiority.  This horrible sexual beast would have been exposed, captured, tried and convicted, and now will be punished.  God only knows, so they were thinking, what would have happened to these people if we British hadn’t come around to save them from their own animality. That is how a conviction would have allowed the British to feel. 

Instead, Adela dissipated this energy with her admission that nothing had happened, leaving the British all worked up and nowhere to go.  They were expecting a full-dress rape trial, complete with testimony about awful sex acts, and now have nothing to satisfy those expectations.  With these unsatisfied expectations stirring in their souls they are a bit too close to suspecting that they need the trial for their own unconscious reasons.  In this situation it is easier simply to shun Adela, to avoid the whole incident.  Instead of making Aziz their scapegoat, they use Adela, since she’s the one who made them uneasy.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to consider the preceding remarks in view of the fact that Forster was gay.

* * * * *

With William Faulkner’s Light in August we are in the American South.  The story centers on one Joe Christmas, who has an affair with Joanna Burden, a recluse who lives outside the small town of Jefferson, Mississippi.  Eventually he rapes and murders her, then runs, is captured, escapes and is hunted down, killed, and castrated.  This story is framed by that of Lena Grove, a poor white country girl who is made pregnant by Lucas Burch and who journeys to Jefferson to find Lucas, who has become Christmas’s partner in the bootleg business.  She meets Byron Bunch who befriends her and sees that she is attended during labor.  Lucas runs away from her but, as the novel closes, Byron is traveling with her and the implication is that they will be married.

The central story gets its horrible depth from the curious ambiguity of Joe Christmas’s racial identity.  He appears to be white, but there is some little reason to think he may have some black blood in him, making him a black man, at least by the standards of the American South--and North and West as well, but those regions play no role in the story.  For Joanna Burden, this bit of blackness is much the attraction and point of her affair (from chapter 12):

Now and then she appointed trysts beneath certain shrubs about the grounds, where he would find her naked, or with her clothing half torn to ribbons upon her, in the wild throes of nymphomania, her body gleaming in the slow shifting from one to another of such formally erotic attitudes and gestures as a Beardsley of the time of Petronius might have drawn.  She would be wild then, in the close, breathing halfdark without walls, with her wild hair, each strand of which would seem to come alive like octopus tentacles, and her wild hands and her breathing:  “Negro! Negro! Negro!”

To Joanna Burden, Joe Christmas is just a black sexual animal, as unconnected to the larger social fabric of Jefferson as she is, totally lacking in individuality.

Both Christmas and Burden are victims of grandfatherly obsession.  Christmas’s grandfather, Doc Hines, is an ex-preacher and a rabid racist.  His daughter Milly ran off with a circus performer.  She said her lover was Mexican, which is what he told her.  But Doc Hines, who killed the man, claimed he was black—and the circus owner may have said that as well.  The kids at the orphanage called young Joe “nigger.” We never really know.  The issue is ambiguous.  But not to Doc, or later to Joanna, or the lynch mob.  Joe’s putative blackness so angered Doc, and he felt so guilty about it, that he took a job as a janitor at the orphanage where he left his grandson after the boy’s birth on Christmas Eve.  That way he could keep an eye on the boy and see that no white person was ever contaminated by him. 

In a parallel, but opposite fashion, Joanna Burden is the granddaughter of a Puritan abolitionist who had been murdered in the South in retaliation for his work on behalf of blacks.  Joanna’s sexual obsession is his legacy to her.  She lived as a single woman and met Joe Christmas when in her late thirties or early forties.  For three years she had an affair with him, more or less in secret.  He lived in a cabin on the grounds of her house.  He would come in through the kitchen, eat food she had left for him, and then go to the bedroom (or elsewhere) to have sex with her.  As befitting her abolitionist heritage, she wanted him to get an education and take over her financial affairs—mainly giving money and advice to black colleges.

For none of these people is Joe Christmas a person.  As Alfred Kazin argues in his classic essay on “The Stillness of Light in August“, Joe Christmas is an abstraction trying to become a person.  The central characteristic by which others define him, his blackness, is doubtful.  It exists more in their minds than in him.  That is the link between Faulkner’s South and Forster’s India.  The Moslem Dr. Aziz didn’t really rape Adela Quested.  That rape happened only in her mind, and in the collective fantasies of her colonial cohorts.  That sexuality, like Christmas’s blackness, is mostly in the minds of the surrounding racists. 

Both Forster and Faulkner give us a symbolic universe in which one group of people project their sexuality onto another group, a group over which they have control.  Their efforts to control that group are, symbolically, efforts to control their own repressed desires.  The trouble, of course, is that no matter how effectively you control the Other, whether the indigenous Indian or the African American, your own desires continue to make their claim on your actions.  Trials and lynchings can confirm you in the rightness of your actions, and offer some temporary relief.  But neither offers lasting satisfaction. 


Backing up a little bit to Huck Finn: I’m no Twain, of course, but as a writer, I know that sometimes the most important thing in the text is happening almost unseen. I’m comparing Jim’s kindness to Huck with the scene in To Kill A Mockingbird, when the earth-shaking “mistake” Tom Robinson makes is that as an African-American man, he extends sympathy to a white woman. An act of kindness shatters the whole evil system, and is often punished.

By Shelley on 05/06/10 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Faulkner is canon? Another reason to reject the whole notion of “canon”. I find his books not just unreadable, but repellent. I’d much rather read Mary McCarthy!

By on 05/06/10 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are a lot of things in the canon that “one” doesn’t like.  The taste of some random individual has nothing to do with it.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 05/07/10 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I decline to be told that there are certain things that one MUST appreciate. I spit them out. I am well-read, thank you, and erudite in certain fields (lesser-known Victorian novelists) and I refuse to kowtow to Faulkner. Or the canon, as defined by some nebulous authorities.

By on 05/08/10 at 12:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow.  Zora, the point of a canon is not that you have to like every work on it.  Its entire point is to transcend the vagaries and passing fashions and subjectivity of individual taste by creating a tradition.  A canon is a group of texts that through the tests of time, the pressures of cultural and professional forces, etc., remain important. 

And the biggest lie about the literary canon is that there are some body of authorities out there creating it.  Who would those “nebulous authorities” be?  Who’s The Man?  Each individual literature professor; each high school teacher; each librarian; each reviewer; each reader; all participate in the messy process of canon formation.  Some individuals might come out to defend a particular version of the canon, but they aren’t authorities *of* the canon.  They are professional authorities.

I don’t love Hemingway, but I can easily see why he’s canonical.

By on 05/08/10 at 06:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What Luther said.

By Bill Benzon on 05/08/10 at 07:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I watched canon being enforced back in the days when Victoria-L was a much livelier mailing list. An English professor would kvetch about having to come up with a reading list for, say, Intro to 19th Century English Literature. Various books would be suggested. Other professors would comment that such-and-such books were expensive or out-of-print. The reading list would eventually be composed of the same books other professors were assigning, simply because those books were in print and cheap. Because the professors were assigning the books, the books would stay in print. Because they were in print, the books would be assigned.

My pathetic cries of “ebook! ebook!” were generally ignored (though this may be less and less the case).

Of course, that’s Victoriana, where all the primary sources ARE in the public domain. If you’re reading post-1923 material, you’re stuck with what the publishers give you. Which makes “canon” even more self-reinforcing.

There WAS one recent post to Victoria-L that was of great interest to me: a professor structured his course around the issue of canonicity. His students read a range of material: authors regarded as canon (Scott, Dickens, Bronte), authors still read but not regarded as canon (Braddon, Haggard, Stoker), and lurid popular trash :) (String of Pearls). Students didn’t have to depend on someone else’s opinion as to what was “worth reading”—they could read a range of materials and make up their own minds. 

I reject the idea of canon as being the books that are worthwhile, that MUST be read if one is to be an educated person, and enjoyment of which is considered to be a mark of a superior person.

I would much rather characterize books as either 1) something you might enjoy or 2) historically important; read this if you want to understand the time in which it is/was popular. The categories only occasionally overlap with each other, OR with what is now canon.

We now read Wuthering Heights, even though it didn’t start to become popular until the end of the 19th century, and we ignore a book like Warner’s The Wide Wide World, which had a much larger readership in the 19th century. Which is more characteristic of the 19th century? Which would tell us more about that world? I’d pick Warner :) Which is more enjoyable? For me, it’s the Warner.

By on 05/10/10 at 02:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Which is more characteristic of the 19th century? Which would tell us more about that world?

Holbo takes up that issue in this post:


And I elaborate a bit in this:


By Bill Benzon on 05/10/10 at 06:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Zora, the question of which nineteenth century novel tells us more about that world or is more characteristic of the time is really a historian’s question.  As such, it’s not a question I’m terribly interested in as a high school teacher.  There are far better ways to teach students about nineteenth century Britian than by reading novels.  In my junior English class, which is a survey of British (and some anglophone) literature, I see my main goal as tracing the development of effective styles and forms from *Beowulf* to Philip Larkin and Tom Stoppard. 

I teach history only insofar as it touches upon the literature itself.  Pope’s “Essay on Man” or Shelley’s *Frankenstein* do *not* tell us much about what it was like for most Europeans to live in the 18th or 19th centuries.  What they tell us is how two powerful writers developed distinct attitudes and styles for writing about issues that they—very unrepresentative people—found important. 

This sort of canon—the Eliotic vision of tradition—is very different from the sort of canon you describe, which is more like a habitus, as Bordieau describes it, a set of professional habits and assumptions.  There was a time when the two canons were co-terminous, but that was a brief moment, all told.  Then there’s the larger canon that encompasses both and other canons.

Should students make up their own minds about what to read?  Sure.  But do you trust the aesthetic judgment—and I mean that very generally, in the sense of sensual pleasure—of an 18-22 year old?  Might they not need exposure to all sorts of writing and art for a much longer period of time, before we start acknowleding their judgments as more than personal?  I’m thinking of Hume’s “On the Standards of Taste” here.  A student who has read one Scott novel and one Haggard might like the Haggard novel better, but why wouldn’t he?  It’s more like the films he’s watched and the few novels he might have read before the class.  That student might not have even read much Shakespeare, much Homer, much Austen, much Fielding, much Defoe—so what does he know about style, or about the British novel even? 

There was a time when education was about broadening and molding students’ perspectives.  Now it’s about “empowering” them to trust their own nonsense instincts and biases.

By on 05/10/10 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mold my perspectives? I refuse!

My sophomore year in college, I commented in seminar (I went to Reed, where everything was seminars) that I found Wordsworth clunky and unappealing. The professor took great umbrage at this and informed me that I was too young to know what I was saying. I told the professor that I much preferred Alexander Pope to Wordsworth, at which point he looked shocked, shut up, and didn’t bother me again. I never took an English class after that. My reading is MY business. I don’t need anyone to make me do it; I don’t need anyone to tell me how to feel about it.

I utterly reject the notion that one’s character is formed by literature that one is forced to read. It took me years to get over the unpleasant experience of reading _Silas Marner_ and _Hard Times_ in high school English class—even though I otherwise worship George Eliot and Dickens. People who didn’t like to read hated English classes; people who DID like to read hated English classes.

Luther, I understand that you BELIEVE in what you’re doing, BELIEVE that it’s useful. Sorry. IMHO, English classes are useful insofar as they encourage reading and talking about reading (even if it’s Harry Potter novels or Twilight, or discussing which is the best Star Trek novel) and as they teach students how to write (a skill that will stand them in good stead in later life). 

BTW, I believe that considered fan opinion has it that _How Much for Just the Planet_ is the best Star Trek novel. Discuss :)

By on 05/11/10 at 03:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

O no.  Not “one’s character.” One’s taste. 

And you’re confusing personal judgments with the canon.  *You* prefer Pope to Wordsworth (as do I), but both are canonical, in part because not every reader will prefer Pope to Wordsworth.  The canon is not a list of books you must enjoy.  It’s a constellation of books considered important for one reason or another. 

And English classes are *not* the places to discuss how one feels about literature.  They are places to analyze and discuss the language of literature.  I tell my students every September, I don’t care if you like what we’re reading.  I only care that you can determine what the author’s doing with language and try to do it yourself.

By on 05/11/10 at 08:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So Zora is claiming that “literature” is sheerly a matter of personal preferences and undifferentiated pleasure, just another items in her utility preference function. And, by implication, there is no genuine question as to how and why “we” would treat this discursive effluvia called “literature” is any distinctive way. It doesn’t occur to her that “literature” is “about” the brokenness and transcendence of human existence in the world, not arbitrary preferences, “about” estrangement and not self-satisfaction. I guess that’s what $150,000 of tertiary education gets one nowadays, an induction into neo-liberal synthetic ideology “grounded” in solipsism.

By on 05/12/10 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"It doesn’t occur to her that “literature” is “about” the brokenness and transcendence of human existence in the world, not arbitrary preferences, “about” estrangement and not self-satisfaction.”

When I want transcendence, I read The Blue Cliff Record, Rumi, Guyon, or St. Teresa of Avila. Literature is not religion.

Reading Jane Austen is an experience of pure pleasure, very much like listening to Bombay Jayashree, looking at a painting by Watteau, or eating a raspberry chocolate tart at a local patisserie run by a Paris-trained chef. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with pleasure?

I don’t see why it’s necessary to believe that Austen improves my character. She’s not at all morally edifying. I shall never forgive her for her catty remarks about Mrs. Musgrove’s lost son.

By on 05/13/10 at 06:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is your contention that Rumi isn’t literature?  How odd.

“Reading Jane Austen is an experience of pure pleasure, very much like listening to Bombay Jayashree, looking at a painting by Watteau, or eating a raspberry chocolate tart at a local patisserie run by a Paris-trained chef. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with pleasure?”

At the risk of being crass, the raspberry chocolate tart will be gone from my body and lost forever within a few hours, which is also my experience with works of art that I experience as “pure pleasure.” The taste of chocolate passes away; literature lasts.

By tomemos on 05/13/10 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Reading Jane Austen is an experience; eating the tart is an experience. When the experience has passed, all that is left is the memory.

It’s true that I can reread Austen but then, I can buy another tart if I like.

I agree that reading Austen leaves a more complicated memory, has a broader effect than eating a tart. But then, so can reading anything, because it communicates ideas. One of the formative books in my life must surely be Andre Norton’s _Star Guard_, because that introduced me to science fiction and in a way, to social science (speculation about how worlds, cultures, lives could be different). Still, I’d never argue that Norton was a complicated, sophisticated pleasure, to be compared to reading, oh, Stephenson’s _Anathem_.

As for reading Rumi just as literature ... that’s problematic. There are translations that hew closely to the medieval Persian, but those tend to be ornate, leaden, and difficult to follow. The Rumi that’s popular these days has been paraphrased by Coleman Barks, who knows no Persian and seems to me to turn Rumi into greeting card sentiments. I like Kabir Helminksi’s translations, but those also are more like paraphrases than translations. It’s just that Helminski is a practicing Sufi and grasps the pith of Rumi. I haven’t yet bought, but will have to get, Annmarie Schimmel’s translations. Those look promising, in the bits I’ve see. To really read Rumi one would have to learn Persian.

By on 05/13/10 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I agree that reading Austen leaves a more complicated memory, has a broader effect than eating a tart. But then, so can reading anything, because it communicates ideas.”

Well, we’re moving closer towards agreement.  This is pretty far from your claim that Austen is “an experience of pure pleasure, very much like” eating the tart.  Part of the virtue of a literary canon is that it contains works which communicate interesting ideas in interesting ways, independent of one’s personal aesthetic response.  Certainly the science fiction canon contains many books which some today consider quite unreadable, but which were vitally important in the formation of SF, just as Star Guard was personally important in your own formation as an SF reader.

It’s a side issue at this point, but none of what you’re saying about the translation of Rumi seems to bear on the question of whether his poetry is literature, which hardly seems a question.  Who said anything about reading him “just as” literature?  Religious literature is literature; what else would it be?

By tomemos on 05/13/10 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Writing that is helpful to one’s religious or moral life isn’t necessarily literature; Teresa of Avila isn’t regarded as the best prose stylist in Spanish. Many enjoyable texts, such as The Rape of the Lock, are of no religious significance whatsoever.

Rumi is known and loved because he wrote beautiful poetry (I’m trusting the Persian devotees here, since I don’t think much of what makes him a literary treat is evident in the translations) AND because he said things that hit the heart like arrows. Breaking into the treasury when the door is open! Ah, there’s Zen right there!

By on 05/13/10 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Where did you derive the inference that “the brokenness and transcendence of human existence in the world” means any appeal to religion? (The Rev. Hightower might have thought that, though, then again, he might have just been reflecting on his own complicity in the corruption and violence of this world). Is that really the only “model” you’ve got? The point is that the effect of literary works of any significant quality or “genuineness” is to lift one out of a merely ego-centric perspective toward the world and others in it.

There is nothing “wrong” with pleasure, (although assuming it is in necessarily plentiful supply might be a bit delusional). As a matter of fact, a certain lure of enjoyment, mostly attaching to the play of the excess of symbolic possibilities over anything “given”, is part of the process. But if it starts there, the “experience” of literature doesn’t resolve there, and mere pleasure is not a sufficient, nor even necessary condition, (else it reduces to sterile gamesmanship). Literature doesn’t serve to gratify needs, any more than it improve character; rather it “criticizes” them, by bringing about shifts in perspective on our mistaken {projections of) meanings. “Real” or “genuine” literary works are made out of illusion and are at bottom essentially meaningless, but they disrupt and criticize their own illusions and draw us out of the givenness of our and their “world”, unsettling the ego and the seeming continuity of its place in the world. (The other explanatory conundrum is how works, which, by prior agreement, are obviously fakes, fictive, can nonetheless generate such convincing persuasive power).

The problem with your de facto utilitarian account of literary “Erlebnis” is that it can’t account at all for anything distinctively literary about literature. It’s not that literary works are useless, (since their very lack of functionality might have functions of its own), so that they can only be “explained” as pleasurable “utilities”. Nor is it a matter of despising the dreariness and pressures of quotidian life. It’s rather the notion the pleasure and pain or simple opposite categories that can be readily separated and somehow quantified. But its the inseparability of pleasure and pain in any “genuine” conception of human life and the world, (or, for that matter, in actual human feeling), that literary works uphold and give objective expression to, which renders them radically anti-utilitarian. And which is why the composition and reception of literary works generate criteria for discrimination, from which judgments, however necessarily inconclusive can be formed. But such criteria are idiosyncratic and constantly changing from work to work, even as they spill-over into the general socio-cultural “institution” of literature. It’s your apparent inability or unwillingness to articulate anything “criterial” about the matter that I find, er, “amazing”.

Auntie Jane is still read because, beneath the polished, elegant surface of her prose and its arrangements of conventions, lurks a rather sardonic irony: she tells against her own tales. It’s not the comic denouements, the didactic moralism of an harmonious social order, nor the sentiment carried by “proper” manners that remain enticing. After all, who cares nowadays about the mores of post-Napoleonic English gentry? The effect of her novels is rather more complicated than mere pleasure or approval; they convey intimations of sharper loss and threatened disorder, as well as, a more distanced, less gemuetlich perspective, by means of their formal composition and conventional matter. But then why are we restricted to 19th century English novels? What about those barbarous Germans and Russians? Are there not more ancient and more modern literatures? The point about “the canon” is that it largely amounts to the great unread; it’s as much a fiction as literary works themselves. But then it also exceeds the “authoritative” control of any mere ego and its preferences.

So I just find you self-insistency here rather smug, banal, unperceptive and fraudulently “debunking”. Is this what an over-priced education gets one nowadays? (Well, I’m a long-ago Reed College drop-out, so at least you’ve got me beat!)

Let’s just put down this screed, parphrasing Pip, to “the higher snark”.

By on 05/14/10 at 01:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“The point is that the effect of literary works of any significant quality or “genuineness” is to lift one out of a merely ego-centric perspective toward the world and others in it.”

And isn’t that what religion in the broadest sense does? Gives one a star by which to navigate? Whether that star is Christ or Buddha or Marx or Jane Austen?

You sound angry, Mr. Halasz, and I suspect it’s because I have attacked what seems to be your “religion”—that art gives nobility and meaning to life, that art erases egocentrism and teaches sympathy.

I don’t see, however, that writers or English professors are notable for their lives of goodness and charity, nor that those who largely consume “literary works of any significant quality or genuineness” are all that saintly.

Note that you have to artificially carve out a class of works to fulfill this function. Some books do it, some don’t. I see no evidence that these books have the effect that you claim, nor any particular merit in the haphazard process by which some books are lifted from the mass of texts and adored.

As for the civilizing effect of Jane Austen … I suggest a course of Methodist history. It took me several years to be able to put aside the effect of reading Wesley’s sermons and enjoy Austen again. Her church-—the aristocratic sinecures and comfortable endorsement of the powers that be—-looks rather shabby from that perspective.

By on 05/14/10 at 11:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"And isn’t that what religion in the broadest sense does? Gives one a star by which to navigate? Whether that star is Christ or Buddha or Marx or Jane Austen?”

Didn’t you yourself bring up religion with the words, “Literature is not religion”?  It certainly seems as though at this point you’re just reaching for arguments at random, rather than based on any coherent system of thought.

“I don’t see, however, that writers or English professors are notable for their lives of goodness and charity, nor that those who largely consume “literary works of any significant quality or genuineness” are all that saintly.”

And the clergy are?  Have you looked at a newspaper in the last ten years?  (Leaving aside the irrelevance of this to what Halasz is actually claiming.)

By tomemos on 05/15/10 at 04:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m baffled by the insistence that a tart is something that “will be gone from my body and lost forever within a few hours”, will leave only a memory.  Um… nutrients exist, you know.  Surely there has to be something wrong with a recurring example that is exactly wrong.

What Halasz is writing seems to me to be equally wrong, though in a different way.  Literature is about “the brokenness and transcendence of human existence in the world”?  It can be for some people.  But that presents a particular sort of post-modernist sensibility as if it is a universal truth.  It’s like the people who teach poetry as if Modernism was all that ever existed, and as if all of that repetition in e.g. the Beats was just some kind of puzzling waste of space.

By on 05/15/10 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, that’s an interesting and USEFUL comment. The tart isn’t just a pleasant memory, it’s also a nutrient. Some commenters are claiming that texts are a nutrient in the same way. Hmmm.

I would agree that anything that presents the world to us from another viewpoint can be enriching. Leave behind a nutrient, so to speak. That could mean almost any form of human communication: text, film/video, music, painting/photography, sculpture.

But art doesn’t even need to be formally good, or complex, or reward repeated experiences, to remind us that there are other people out there and that they have experiences, feelings, needs, that we might not have considered. Sue’s _The Mysteries of Paris_ isn’t all that good, IMHO, but it does vividly present the sufferings of the poor (often exaggerated for melodramatic effect).

I suppose you could call this a nutrient ... and then make distinctions between texts that are all nutrient but taste nasty (Mayhew on the London poor?) and those that are all sugar and no nutrients. (How about Margaret Hungerford’s late 19th century high society novels for an example? Well-written but utterly superficial.)

The definition of a nutrient, of course, would depend on your religion/philosophy.


As for my comments re literature and religion ... it seems to me that there’s a religion-shaped hole in human beings, and that it gets filled with material of greater or lesser personal and social utility. I don’t think much of the religion of ART, nor of the religion of Marxism ... nor of Ayn Rand. I would also admit that much of what happens in the name of formal religion is gefukt. Still, there’s usually a thread of the sublime running through the dross. There is Father Maciel, yes ... and there is St. Francis. There is Aurangzeb ... and Kabir.

By on 05/15/10 at 06:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yep. I’m not obsessed with religion, nor especially interested in, except as a basic anthropological matter. And I’m certainly not advocating, like Mathew Arnold and the Oxford Idealists, for a cult of “ART” as a secularized substitute for religion. I belong to a much later day,- ya know, like the late 20th century? I don’t think I’m the one here who’s not “up-to-date” and discounting the effects of modernism. It’s entirely Ms. Zora who brings this up, as a matter of religion, due to apparently marked limits to her conceptual set.

“And isn’t that what religion in the broadest sense does?"- “In its broadest sense”? Such over-generalization is likely evidence of bad abstraction, in lieu of actual thinking. But the short answer to the apparently and maladroitly rhetorical question is: no. More likely, to hazard a generalization, the effect of religion on most of its adherents is precisely the opposite: to construct a defence against any such recognitions.

“Gives one a star by which to navigate?"- Literature is not a star of redemption, to coin a phrase. It’s entirely imaginary and does nothing in the world. It’s, in worldly terms, a dis-aster, and guides nothing, but is only an errant divagation, by definition false. That much should be obvious. But what I actually wrote, if anyone had bothered to accurately read it, was that the effect of literary works was, not to redeem the world or inculcate universal love, but to produce estrangement. Hardly a typical function of religion. (In fact, I got in trouble here at this website a long while back for arguing that literature doesn’t function to foster identifications, thereby purportedly enlarging the “circle of sympathy” or increasing the alleged virtue of empathy, but rather literary works break identifications). So you haven’t “attacked” my “religion”, Zora, “that art gives nobility and meaning to life, that art erases egocentrism and teaches sympathy”, because I adhere to no such “religion”. Read at all accurately, I never used any notion of “nobility”, (which, er, is scarcely in my active vocabulary), and I explicitly stated that literary works are “at bottom” meaningless. No sense of attributing “meaning”, when it’s not there, eh? And the idea that the ego can or should be “erased” is, er, not in my “ontology”. That the ego can be (and is) broken, as a structure of identifications, (socially conforming, no less, in accordance with its “milieu"), doesn’t mean that, pragmatically speaking, egos can be dispensed with, in terms of some “purer” or “finer” life, but rather that they can be cracked open to “reveal” the otherness of the world and of separately situated others in it, such that, though such distension, insights can come to be “revealed”, into the composition of such egos and their others and into their “worlds”. But, I suppose, my basic point was that “literature” (or any other “art"), is less an induction into pleasure than a registration of suffering, (born of the limitations and denials of human existence , of the excess of human possibilities and desires, over against the strictures of “given” social reality, and how they are repressed), which used to be a commonplace, but nowadays seems to be regressively forgotten, due to the dread and denial of any such “thing”.

And BTW who reads Teresa of Avila? She’s just a sculpture by Bernini, no? Or the sermons of Wesley? Kierkegaard’s I could understand, but Wesley’s? I have no such obsession. But one doesn’t need any such source to read Austin. Anyone with two cents to rub together realizes that, in that “world”, when Mr. So-and-so “has” 200 pounds annually, it’s land rents that are meant, though there is no trace of the actual producers of those rents visible. (I supposed you’d have to read Hardy to find such “traces"). Still, when the divine Jane has, say, the younger daughter elope with an army officer, (who bought his commission), and then the cad abandons her, who put that into the story? Is that just because these misfortunate, misbegotten characters aren’t “up-to-code”? Did the distinguished authoress hold such view, in introducing such a disturbance into the serenity of her “universe”, or was it because she was, however mischievously, subverting such a view, and its imperviousness to any sort of “otherness”?

I originally considered getting into this thread on the basis of the original post, since I had read both novels, oh, a billion years ago. (I’d intended to say something to the effect that, it wasn’t any use isolating the repressed, degraded desire for the other, since that is involved in all sexual relations, and abstracting it from novels as a supposed “universal structure” is pointless for interpreting specific works, though novels typically focus on erotic relations and their conundrums as a crystallization of their more general issues, since, er, such is life. What “Light in August” is “about” is the Reconstruction, with the issue of miscegenation, both past and present, being emblematic for that troubled and unresolved history in the larger social world implicated in that particular novel). But then Zora popped up, declaring that she detested Faulkner, (because, no doubt, Faulkner was a bad, mean man), and preferred Mary McCarthy(?). (O.K. I’ve never read McCarthy and haven’t the slightest clue why I should). I’m afraid she proved far too, er, diverting.

I could tell right away she was a fake. Based on her retailing what I tend to think of as a “boy scout narrative”, ( after my late, unlamented father, pater-family-ass), whereby the ego-centric narrator casts his/her self in the role of the hero of the alleged story, in obvious denial of likely countervailing material circumstances. If the seminar professor really did respond to the announced preference for Pope over Wordsworth as she claims, then that was incompetent teaching,- (no surprise there, really),-and he/she ought to have been sued for pedagogical malpractice, (since it’s a highly litigious society anyway and, since you’re overpaying, you might as well demand your money’s worth). But the preference was actually an apples-to-oranges comparison, hence irrelevant, OT, to the seminar of the day, week, or term, (depending on what the title was). Likely it wasn’t the startling brilliance of actually having read Pope that was at issue, but rather the irrelevance of the comparison, (since much academic discussion of literature depends on apposite comparisons, whether within or between works), which evoked the mumbled response. Of course, following on Pound’s dictum that “literature is news that stays news”, the professor could have redirected the conversation to how early Wordsworth, together with his running-buddy Coleridge, constituted as certain “inaugural” moment in English literary tradition, whatever one thinks of its subsequent devolution and effects,- (me, not much, as far as English romantics are concerned)-, how something that is initially esteemed “fresh” can subsequently grow stale, how a radical reduction to “simplicity” can come to seem trite, how the “news” can decompose into fish-wrap, or how the coming-into-being of the news can remain within its recurring-to-having-been. Which would have been on topic. But, no, Zora’s “brilliance” was triumphant, producing an astounded silence! And then she follows on here with merely adventitious name-dropping, (once again with no sense of relevance or appositeness), evincing not the slightest sense of any rationale for literary studies, no sense of the reasons, arguments or criteria involved, no account of how and why literary works at once solicit and compel interpretation and judgment, nor of the peculiar form of “work” involved in literary reading. This doesn’t take any great “science” to detect, just elementary philological criticism. By her apparent account, literature is just another piece of furniture for Bourdieurien status-seekers, like herself. No, she did get her money’s worth.

I tend to get irritated by the attitudinizing and topic-jumping ways of literary types. But that’s really just the “nature of the beast,” since literature is a mixed, intermediate, highly modalized form of discourse, so it’s all “attitudes” without allowing for any definitive conclusions. But Zora can’t even attitudinize “properly”.

Hannah Arendt remarked, with her characteristic shrewdness, that the fin-de-siecle elevation of mandarin, high-cultural, aesthetist “taste” was already a harbinger of and degeneration into mass-cultural consumption, which it claimed to oppose itself to, since it was already a privatized appropriation of the formerly public significance of “works”, in her peculiar political account of them. But then Zora exhibits, after such a long decline, the very sort of historicist-relativist eclectic “enrichment” that St. Benjamin was already sharpening his critical axe against. But I suppose the tubz have killed, at long last, the old book culture, so she can exult in her “emancipation” as she pleases, even without any accurate ideas or referents.

For the rest, Zora dearest, enjoy your pop-tarts!

By on 05/16/10 at 02:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Mr. Halasz, I’ve been trying to ignore your ad hominem remarks. I’ve done my best to be civil to you in return; my apologies if I’ve failed. But I do find my civility failing now, so I think it best to stop responding. Enjoy your reading :)

By on 05/16/10 at 04:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Couldn’t resist adding onto this interesting though long-past discussion. I’m always late to the party, even if some people would rather I hadn’t arrived at all…

First, Luther stated at one point that “I tell my students every September, I don’t care if you like what we’re reading.  I only care that you can determine what the author’s doing with language and try to do it yourself.” While it’s admittedly good that a student’s particular like or dislike of a text is irrelevant, we should consider how “determin<ing> what the author’s doing with language” and thereafter “try<ing> to do it yourself” amounts to sufficient instruction of a literary text. If determining ‘what the author is doing with language’ entailed situating the text within its historical and social context in the interest of divining first its author’s intended meaning and thereafter a deeper investigation of the function of that logic, then this would seem like a good approach. But because this first wouldn’t have anything to do with trying to ‘do what the author did’ yourself or second determining what the author did with language (he presumably wrote a book), we end essentially where we began, having no better insight into the meaning of the text.

Interestingly, Luther at once says that when reading a text one should “teach history only insofar as it touches upon the literature itself,” while elsewhere he will describe “the spectre of history” as important to the point of inescapable, since “we commune with the dead every second of every day” (a la James Cameron’s Avatar, presumably…). Additionally we find Luther asserting that a proper understanding of a text like Beloved requires an understanding of the “zombie-like survival of the racist destruction of black family structures from the 1600s to the present.” However this sort of contradiction shouldn’t involve our choice between either the first or the second approach, since both are equally wrong. How, for example, can history—meaning the social conditions in which the author produced their text—ever not ‘touch upon’ the text itself? How, since Luther provides the example, can an instruction of the texts of Frankenstein or The Last Man not address Shelly’s response to the social conditions about which she was prompted to write and thereafter comment upon? How to make sense of Shelly’s handling of science and identity in Frankenstein or her retort to the apparent fallibility of social institutions in The Last Man, much less the fact that The Last Man was long banned in England for its seeming subversiveness?

Kenneth Warren’s brilliant book So Black and Blue is an example of the sort of erudite criticism that situates a text and its author in their respective historical circumstance, and his approach (an approach that is not, of course, exclusive to Warren alone) should prove instructive to anyone endeavoring a critical analysis of a literary text. For this is an approach (and not, I should add, a theory) that produces analyses quite different from claiming that Beloved is about “what it was like suddenly to know freedom as the ability to have a family, to love one’s family, to settle with one’s family, to settle in a community, to hate one’s family, to hate one’s community, to love one’s body, to hate one’s body.” To properly understand Morrison’s text, or what any of Luther’s preceding analysis concerning freedom and family and community might mean, we would need to situate Morrison in a social and cultural framework at the time in which she produced her text, identifying what ideas influenced her writing and what argument her book seems to be advancing. After all, how can a book that actually won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 ever not be representative of some prevailing ideology of its time? 

Despite Luther’s arguments that literary analysis, especially as it concerns the canon, is not about whether or not you like the text, he would seem to contradict this assumption even as he makes it. And herein lies the confusion too with Zora’s comments. If I read Austen, a well written piece of literature, and yet I don’t have that enjoyable feeling of eating raspberry chocolates (which I don’t like either), then it’s not like I’m really missing the point of Austen’s novel. Insofar as the novel is, as Zora also points out (quite correctly), about ideas, then the affective response to it (whether I considered the experience akin to eating raspberry chocolate or my girlfriend’s not so delicious African snail soup) is irrelevant. At the same time, if what we’re concerned about is what the author is “doing with language”, we aren’t exactly concerned with the ideas either. This formalist argument may be related to the aesthetic value of a book (a value certainly of merit), but this value remains independent of its ideas or its fundamental meaning. Furthermore, especially as concerns the “tracing” of British Literature and styles in Luther’s junior level class, why on Earth should anyone want their students to try to write in the style of the author of Beowulf or any of the countless other painfully verbose British authors included in the survey? A student will arrive to the University equipped to write like any of those authors without having much to say about them (outside of some formalist critique of what they ‘do’ with language), and less to say about the meaning of their texts.

Insofar as we are concerned only with aspects of the form of a text and its impact upon us, then Luther and Zora appear to understand literature as an object. This is what happens when Zora equates reading a ‘good’ text with experience in the form of food. The problem with this, of course, is that it goes against her (quite correct) claim that texts are actually about ideas. Because I can experience an object that is devoid of meaning—one does not consider a redwood tree to be the product of an agent with an intention (at least, not without invoking God, whom we should leave out of the discussion at least for now)—and because my experience cannot be said to be wrong, since it is a fact of reality that I did experience the experience, a text that is understood as an object of experience loses its representative capacity and, because experiences are involuntary reactions, the text becomes meaningless in the same way the redwood tree is meaningless. In this way, if texts are about experiences and not ideas then it probably makes sense for Zora to resist the idea of translating a text, saying that “To really read Rumi one would have to learn Persian.” However, if texts really are about ideas, then there is no reason why one would have to learn Persian to “really read Rumi”. Zora here is describing the experience of reading Rumi, but she is certainly not describing an understanding Rumi, since any language (as any contemporary linguist will tell you) is sufficiently capable of communicating the ideas in need of being expressed by a speaker.

Luther advances a similar claim when he says that English classes should cultivate one’s “taste” for literature as opposed to one’s “character” (again despite the seeming contradiction of claiming that the canon, and ostensibly Luther’s classroom instruction, should “transcend the vagaries and passing fashions and subjectivity of individual taste”). The issue of how a literary text might cultivate one’s character aside (this would involve a different set of practices that would probably not include The Great Gatsby or Intruder in the Dust or Absalom, Absalom! in the canon, for instance), how does a text read in the context of a classroom amount to the cultivation of one’s taste? It may cultivate a student’s taste, of course, but in the event that it doesn’t, has the class failed the student? In order to claim this, one must be willing to claim that one person’s taste (a taste that is again understood as distinct from questions of aesthetics) is correct while another’s taste is incorrect—another way of describing one person’s experience as correct and another’s as incorrect. If I don’t enjoy reading Morrison (I do enjoy her writing), but understand and perhaps even agree with her ideas (I absolutely do not agree with them), are my tastes wrong? Since by “cultivate one’s taste” Luther must mean that he makes his students’ tastes better, he must have in mind an agenda in which he changes those students’ tastes for the better. But tastes, like bodies (tastes are products of a body, after all), cannot be right because they cannot be wrong. Tastes, like experiences, are either yours or mine not by appeals to right versus wrong, but by nature. And changing one’s tastes does not amount to a better argument from a position of what is right versus what is wrong, but rather a coercion in which I compel you to agree that my taste is better than yours through force. And, should I fail and your tastes have not been changed, it’s not as though I’ve failed to make anything better or worse, only that I’ve failed to change what is fundamentally you in favor of what is fundamentally me. In other words, no amount of convincing can persuade me to have a ‘taste’ for raspberry chocolate, but a good argument can convince me that Morrison’s ideas are fundamentally sound. However Luther’s did not, and that is the beauty of ideas. Ideas are either right or wrong; tastes are either yours or mine. And a canonical text cannot be a determination of simple tastes just as it cannot be a product outside of its historical context.

By on 07/15/10 at 05:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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