At Barmecide’s Table: Notes on Literary Education Now

…in good democracy every man should be an aristocrat.
—Oscar Wilde, Vera; or, The Nihilists

One of the things I hope to show with this exhibition is that we tend to think of, say, Borges or Nabokov as geniuses, but really what we’re seeing is people who from an early age had access to knowledge that is completely off the table in schools. The presumption is that children couldn’t possibly cope with all this. We don’t even give them the chance. We decide on their behalf what we will dole out to them. The self is a product of choices and individualisms, but there is actually a very narrow range of choices. One does not have the chance to choose, and yet one is meant to invest so much into the path that one has chosen among this very small number of paths.
Helen DeWitt

1. De-Skilling Communication

“Don’t read the comments!” they say. But why not? We can learn from the comments what people think, what assumptions they share across the fiercely-maintained divisions of politics and culture. Some comments, then, all pseudonymous, drawn from Slate’s terribly Slatey article, “Should Serial Replace Shakespeare in English Class?”:

Sitting in class trying to listen to classmates stammer out lines of Shakespeare is one of the least fond memories of my school years.

I think the problem with Shakespeare in high school is that the class spends most of the time simply deciphering the arcane language, which leaves little time for actual literary analysis of themes, characters, and such. I remember reading this or Canterbury Tales out loud in class, and the teacher would have to stop after every other line and explain or have a discussion of what it meant.

The issue is that Shakespeare is written in old English, and, as such, is difficult for modern readers to understand. Personally, I think Shakespeare should be “translated” to modern English.

The messages I’m getting from admin, common core, and taxpayers is that I should be focused on teaching communication skills — and that’s easier to do with more accessible texts.

Try teaching Shakespeare, it is less like teaching about literature and more like teaching a foreign language.

The following is not about Serial, which I have not listened to. It is not a defense of Shakespeare (I have done that already). It is not a defense of the “dead white male”—after all, if you cannot read older English-language writers, if you cannot read Alexander Pope, Charles Dickens, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, then you will not be able to read Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Jacobs, and W. E. B. Du Bois either. It is a defense of the explicit study, perhaps even as the centerpiece of the literary curriculum, of the history of literary language as used by older writers, however we may wish to select them. (Were I braver, I would straightforwardly advocate the demotion of the contemporary in literary education.)

I remember reading Shakespeare in high school: what thrilled me, what expanded my mind, what added to my stock of “communication skills,” was precisely the language. Not the plot: Shakespeare’s plots are not original (or, to put it more politely, they are archetypal), and substituting true-crime stories for them is easy enough. But seeing how complex meanings and passionate emotion could be folded into an intricate organization of words was like nothing I had experienced in my reading of fiction or my encounters with other media. A whole treatise on nature, morality, and epistemology can be drawn out of a compacted epigram like Hamlet’s “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” The process of translating such a phrase, of unfolding its meaning and its passion, was the education of reading Shakespeare, and has been the foundation of my education in literature and the humanities more broadly ever since. The loss of such an education may be a gain in a certain kind of up-to-the-minute informational literacy, but this informational literacy will be ill-informed if it can only deal with language as spoken and written in the present. The commenters quoted above share the assumption that “communication skills” and the skills of interpretation have no history, or that history is irrelevant to them. One consequence of this excision of history from liberal education will be an inability to evaluate the writing of the past.

2. “look up the word”

A case study: Nick Mamatas defends H. P. Lovecraft from the critics, past and present, who claim that his prose is verbose, pretentious, and overheated. To this end, he argues that Lovecraft is a “difficult” writer, an avant-gardist whose calculated manipulation of verbal registers (the style of intellectual authority giving way to panic in the face of the meaningless cosmos) serves an anti-metaphysics to affront the comforting teleologies of both the conventional pulps and middle-class realism. I am not sure whether one should accept Mamatas’s by-now rather venerable anti-bourgeois critical gesture, at least as an aesthetic judgment; his description of Lovecraft’s achievement makes the writer sound like less of an irreplaceable original and more like a belated follower of earlier writers from Brockden Brown to Poe to Stevenson, who also created faux-documentary fictions in which the sober prose of reasoned witness collapses when called upon to represent the inexplicable. But to make the case at all, Mamatas has to reconstruct the basics of Lovecraft’s prose style, including the meanings of archaic (then and now) key words, the in-story and contextual socio-psychological justification of lexical and syntactical choices, and the place of such a style within the literary field of its time. Lovecraft, not being our contemporary, cannot be read as if he were yesterday’s podcast; the comprehension of his achievement, however we judge it, has to take into account a historical understanding of style:

Writer Daniel José Older recently complained in a Buzzfeed Books essay that a favorite Lovecraft phrase, “cyclopean”, was nonsensical. “What image are we to take from this? Buildings with a single window at the top? Buildings built by one-eyed giants? It means nothing to me visually, yet it’s clearly one of Lovecraft’s favorite adjectives.”  All Older had to do was look up the word. Cyclopean means gigantic and uneven and rough-hewn—it is both allusive and descriptive. “Cyclopean masonry” is a term of art in archeology.

Why does “cyclopean” appear in, say, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”? The narrator is a student and a declassed part of New England’s elite. (He discovers that he’s a descendent of the wealthy Obed Marsh.) He’d know the word and use it. Would the station agent in the same story use it? No, he’d say something like “Leaves the square-front of Hammond’s Drug Store – at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. unless they’ve changed lately. Looks like a terrible rattletrap — I’ve never been on it.” And he does. Lovecraft’s narrators are often intellectuals — is it really a surprise that Peaslee, a professor of political economy, narrates “The Shadow Out of Time” like so:

“This is a highly important fact in view of the shadow which fell so suddenly upon me from outside sources. It may be that centuries of dark brooding had given to crumbling, whisper-haunted Arkham a peculiar vulnerability as regards such shadows — though even this seems doubtful in the light of those other cases which I later came to study. But the chief point is that my own ancestry and background are altogether normal. What came, came from somewhere else — where, I even now hesitate to assert in plain words.”

Let’s compare it to the rhetoric of an actual political economist:

“Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin, which Germany began, by a Peace which, if it is carried into effect, must impair yet further, when it might have restored, the delicate, complicated organization, already shaken and broken by war, through which alone the European peoples can employ themselves and live.”

That’s Keynes, in the introduction to The Economic Consequences of the Peace from 1919. Similar sentence structures, similar free use of figurative language, and a sense of holding court even in the preliminary throat-clearings before a case is being set out. Do a mind-switch between Keynes and an alien Yithian for a few years, and he’d come back nervous and drooling and sounding even more like Peaslee than he already does.

In asserting Lovecraft’s salutary difficulty, Mamatas draws on the old debates around Jonathan Franzen, the figurehead of populist realism in our time. In Mamatas’s critical narrative, the high and low wage war against the middle: Lovecraft emerges from the pulp morass bearing “a proto-postmodernism,” a challenge to language, narrative, and representation that should earn its author a place beside Kafka and Borges, and therefore a challenge to “[li]terary realism” and “its many books about middle-class foibles” defended by Franzen. And at this point, despite my reservations, I want to join Mamatas in his attempt to unite the autodidacts and the scholars against the leveling administrators of publishing and public school.

3. Against Cultural Populism

Franzen’s populism is the ideology underlying the belief that public education must never confront students with language they do not immediately understand. At the beginning of his essay, “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen condescends (I use this word advisedly) to take the following argument, from an irate reader of The Corrections, seriously:

A few months later, one of the original senders, a Mrs. M—, in Maryland, wrote back with proof that she’d done the reading. She began by listing thirty fancy words and phrases from my novel, words like “diurnality” and “antipodes,” phrases like “electropointillist Santa Claus faces.” She then posed the dreadful question: “Who is it that you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.”

Instead of telling her that unless she genuinely lives in a place without dictionaries and libraries she is wasting both his time and her own and should accordingly go to hell and never write to him again—which is what I would have told her—Franzen reports with dismay that he has some sympathy for her anger, given his own “anti-elitist” background. This is a lot of political guilt to expend on somebody whose claim to virtue is the willful self-limitation of her own vocabulary.

How did it come to this? To the belief that democracy relieves the individual of having to educate herself? Surely the point of democracy is to put the means of education within reach of all individuals, not to abolish the content of education because it will, if learned, raise the individual above the average. If democracy does not raise individuals above the average, and thereby raise the average itself, then it is both utterly pointless and potentially disastrous.

Mrs. M— is, I gather, a conservative, but she also sounds like a Maoist, scorning intelligence and culture as so many ruling class weapons in the hands of urban elite bourgeois running dogs. But of course, the urban elite bourgeois running dogs also subscribe to a variant of this ideology, as shown by Franzen’s willingness to entertain Mrs. M—’s argument. I once came across a poem—in breathless free verse, if that even needs to be said—criticizing “academic feminism.” Its author, a graduate student, expressed outrage that her advisor told her she had to read 300 pages a week to succeed, even though she, the author, was an economically disadvantaged person who had to have a second job and care for a child. It is bad that a person in the graduate student’s position cannot afford her education; a good society should be maximally generous with educational opportunity, if for no more ethical reason than only to ensure that it does not end up governed by hereditary elites, with all the mediocrity and insularity this implies. There is, however, no inherent human right to become a scholar. Not reading enough is legitimately, not oppressively, disqualifying. And the confusion in this poem replicates the confusion I explained above: the failure of our democracy to put the means of education within everyone’s reach becomes a wish to abolish the content of education. It may be an ethical and political scandal that a student is too poor to become a scholar; it does not follow, though, that people should get to be called scholars even if they fail to become learned. This kind of “charity” is mocking theft in disguise.

The ideology does not matter as much as do the shared assumptions of all cultural populisms. Mrs. M—’s right-wing rural patriotic Christian anti-elitism and the graduate student poet’s left-wing urban intersectional feminist anti-elitism are two ways of expressing contempt for the concept of individual self-transcendence, even though the form of activity clumsily captioned by this term is the only guarantor of human achievement, and also the precondition of a genuine collective self-transcendence that is not just some new tyranny cynically called a “democratic republic.” This contempt, it seems to me, may be as much a consequence as a cause of literary education’s paucity in our time.