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Proust’s Madeleine: Learning and Indirection   2 comments

MadeleinesThe most famous scene in Marcel Proust’s monumental novelistic cycle In Search of Lost Time involves a cup of tea and a madeleine, a kind of French biscuit (cookie). In that scene, the narrator, Marcel, dips the madeleine into his tea and is suddenly, without warning, transported back into a labyrinth of memories, a whole lifetime of impressions that subsequently become the base material for Proust’s gargantuan work.

Now, I want you to do an experiment. I want you to take a cup of tea and a madeleine – I’ve baked a few just so that you can try this out – and replicate Marcel’s actions. Okay. What happened? Yes, yes, the madeleine was delicious, I’m an excellent baker, but putting that aside, what about the rush of impressions? The flood of memories? Were you transported into a meditative state that inspired you frantically to write down every detail of your life? No? Well, why not? Why should this work for Marcel and not for you?

This experiment came to mind as I was reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life for the book club that I attend each month.  The experiment, of course, is designed to fail (and also provide an excuse for eating a delicious madeleine!). But what it illustrates to me, more seriously, is a realization that cuts to the  heart of why de Botton’s book is a horrendous misreading not only of Proust, but also of what novels do in general.

Even though they fall under the collective umbrella of literature, the genres of the fable and the novel are quite different in their intentions. Read to the end of Aesop’s “The Fox and the Bunch of Grapes,” for instance, and the author explains the moral of the tale you have just read: “Similarly, certain people, [just like the fox,] not being able to run their affairs well because of their inefficiency, blame the circumstances.” But flip to the end of In Search of Lost Time or Great Expectations or Gravity’s Rainbow and you’ll find no such explanation. It’s not that the novelist has forgotten to put it in there, nor because there is any shortage of moral messages in novels, but instead this absence arises from the fact that novels are meant to be read in a way that differs markedly from the purposes of the fable.

The great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin argues that the history of literature shows an evolution from early forms, which are characterized by their imposition of a single perspective and voice, to the gradual emergence of the novel, which incorporates multiple voices that are in dialogue with each other. While I don’t agree with the implication that fables and other early genres lack complexity, I do think Bakhtin’s insight into the character of the novel is correct: we ought to read every voice, every opinion, every action, not as a didactic assertion from the author about how we should see the world, but as one idea that is being played off against a whole series of competing points of view. For Bakhtin, then, the worst kind of novel is one that preaches at us, that tells us how to live rather than provoking us to enter into the dialogue and ask searching questions of ourselves.

There is a sense in which we already do this when reading drama. Take this famous dictum from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” This saying is widely quoted as an example of Shakespeare’s great wisdom, but close readers of the play will know that it carries quite a different meaning when viewed in its proper context. These words, in fact, are spoken by Polonius to his son Laertes, and carry not the conventionally understood message of “be yourself,” but rather “look out for your own interests,” a less morally glamorous meaning that is appropriate coming from such a self-serving toady. It is a mistake, then, to attribute these words so carelessly to Shakespeare the person: they occur in a dialogical situation in the play that changes their meaning and, in so doing, strips them of their general applicability as a moralistic proverb.

The greatest novelists, then, are those who are willing to step outside the comfort zone and give serious consideration in their novels to ideas and philosophies that are not their own. Bakhtin considered Dostoevsky to be one such example, and it is not hard to see why: for a devoutly Christian writer to paint such a convincingly cynical portrait of the church in The Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, is a daring and intellectually dangerous move. It not only shows the depth of Dostoevsky’s faith, but it also forces us, as readers, to question the extent to which we, in turn, are willing to ask difficult questions about our own beliefs. Dostoevsky is a brilliant novelist precisely because he raises these ethical questions without preaching to us, instead drawing readers into a dialogue of ideas that requires us to think for ourselves.

De Botton’s greatest sin in How Proust Can Change Your Life lies in the fact that he ignores this core logic of how novels work and instead uses In Search of Lost Time as a repository of maxims from which he can then draw moral lessons that suit his own middlebrow agenda. As such, Proust’s work is stripped of its status as a dialogue and transformed merely into a superficial “guide” to living. In so doing, de Botton, as he does repeatedly throughout the book, contradicts his own advice, for in the final chapter he warns that we must not treat writers as “oracles” whose wisdom we follow without question, for to do so would be to commit “artistic idolatry” – a perverse conclusion coming from a book  that even announces in its title, without any trace of irony, that it intends to do exactly that to Proust.

What de Botton overlooks is that this kind of indirection lies at the very heart of the kind of knowledge that the humanities seeks to teach. Indeed, it is something of a lost art in today’s society, which has seems only to value only those things in which the educational intention appears clearly on the surface. Thus, everyone understands, for instance, that the concepts and skills that an engineer learns are transferred directly through the classes they take and are then applied to their jobs. Engineering, business, medicine: these are all fields that rely primarily on direct learning.

But how does one become a person who is capable of learning and understands the path to success? These ingredients are just as important for becoming a successful doctor or businessman as prescribing the right pill or balancing an account book, if not more so, for such personal qualities are the foundation from which success springs. These qualities – let us bracket them under the name “wisdom” – can only be learned from experience, never directly from a book or a teacher, as Proust’s character Elstir observes:

“We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.” (p.67)

De Botton quotes this same passage but, in yet another example of self-contradiction, he nonetheless undertakes the journey of reading Proust for us in order to mine the latter’s work for every last sparkling piece of wisdom while ignoring its deeper meaning and context.

De Botton’s writing calls to mind Milan Kundera’s notion of kitsch. Kitsch, Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is the kind of populist art that simultaneously manipulates our emotions and transforms the extraordinary into a generic form, easily consumable by the masses and thus a perfect tool for political manipulation. De Botton does exactly that to Proust, especially because for many of his readers, How Proust Can Change Your Life will be the easy-to-read, populist excuse for not actually reading In Search of Lost Time: look at readers’ reviews of the book on the internet and just count how many times they say “well, I’ve not read Proust and I probably never will, but I loved de Botton’s book about him…” Make no mistake: underneath his veneer of fake intellectualism, de Botton represents a social agenda that is merely bourgeois morality masquerading as self-improvement.

The reality is that wisdom, if it can be taught, can only ever be taught indirectly. Just as you won’t evoke the torrent of memories simply from eating a madeleine, so too there is little chance that Proust or any other novelist can really change your life unless you learn to enact the kind of indirect, dialogic thinking that lies at the very heart of what the novel does – a mode of thinking that de Botton, despite all his knowledge and education, abandons in order to turn out this tawdry piece of kitsch.

© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.


Posted March 18, 2013 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Egyptianism: Mummifying Dickens   Leave a comment

What is “Egyptianism”? It’s a word that Nietzsche uses in Twilight of the Idols to describe the way in which philosophers take an idea and “mummify” it by draining all the life out. He writes of philosophers:

“There is […] their hatred of even the idea of becoming, their Egyptianism. They think they are doing a thing honour when they dehistoricise it, sub specie aeterni—when they make a mummy of it. All that philosophers have handled for millennia has been conceptual mummies; nothing actual has escaped their hands alive. They kill, they stuff, when they worship, these conceptual idolaters—they become a mortal danger to everything when they worship. Death, change, age, as well as procreation and growth, are for them objections—refutations even.” (p.45)

Philosophers, in other words, rework concepts so that they reflect their own values and prejudices because they cannot stand the idea that things have changed and evolved over time in ways that contradict how they think the universe ought to work. As such, they find ways to paper over those changes, to hide the twists and turns of how something came into being so that it appears, falsely, to possess a clarity and purpose of which we can make sense. Don’t like that an idea or event doesn’t fit into your system? Then rewrite it according to your own simple prejudices – that is a common operation in philosophy, according to Nietzsche.

As usual, Nietzsche’s choice of metaphor is a multi-layered one. Not only is he talking about how philosophers “mummify” ideas in a generic sense, he also clearly has in mind a particular episode in the history of Egypt: the reign of Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV. Upon ascending to the throne, Amenhotep IV undertook a project that was common for all new rulers in the ancient world: he systematically dismantled the legacies of his predecessor in order to establish his own. This revisionist process went further than any previous pharaoh had dared, abolishing the powerful state worship of Amun-Ra in favor of a new monotheistic religion. Thus, Nietzsche’s sarcastic comment: “Be a philosopher, be a mummy, represent monotono-theism by a gravedigger-mimicry!” (p.45)

I kept thinking about these words as I was watching the recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, a book that is fresh in my mind from having taught it to my graduate class last semester. Readers are almost invariably disappointed by how books are translated onto the screen, but I have to say that I am not a purist. I don’t expect a one-to-one translation, and it is understandable that some economies are going to be necessary in the process, but what really annoys me are the repeated ways in which these adaptations overlook key ideas that the author is looking to explore in a work.

Great Expectations is a novel about class, for instance, and while the adaptation hits us over the head with the way in which money draws barriers between people, the idea of class being entangled in notions of birth and nobility is completely eschewed. Of course it is: the culture of aristocracy has been so thoroughly exterminated that we have difficulty understanding its prejudices today, and so Pip’s journey is rewritten as simply a problem of social mobility. How very curious it is that aristocratic culture is only ever presented to us in a flattened, caricatured manner, in terms that only a bourgeois audience can understand. Is it only about understanding, though? Isn’t it that there is something inherently dangerous in having people learn that, until recently, there existed a social order that represented a genuine challenge to our bourgeois values? How insecure we must be, that we still cannot even acknowledge this past. In so doing, we turn ourselves, like Pip, into frauds, mere parodies of the sophisticated beings for which we mistake ourselves.

The irony is that Dickens, in his own time, was highly critical of the contradictory way in which English society related to its own ideals. Do you remember that scene early in Great Expectations – omitted in the adaptation – when Magwitch holds Pip by the feet, so that the church tower is inverted? This symbolic moment is part of Dickens’s larger critique of the gap between Christian rhetoric and practice, showing how Pip’s willingness to help someone lower than himself is reconfigured as a criminal gesture, not a Christ-like act of virtue. A similar seam runs throughout Dickens’s work: think of the way that Oliver Twist wanders from parish to parish, unable to find a single Christian willing to help him, instead finding greater charity amongst a group of thieves than in the church. None of these religious hypocrisies appear in the adaptation either. We may be living in an outwardly secular, enlightened society, but we continue to pay lip service to a sense of Christian charity that we do not practice , just as we continue, with a strange hysteria, to proclaim the essential goodness of the bourgeoisie, even as Dickens reviles the potential vulgarity of its mindset through such characters as Pumblechook.

So it is that, in this year, the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, we are predictably doing what we always have done to our cultural heroes: in the name of false piety, we mummify them by taking the critical essence of their ideas and hollowing them out until they become crude puppets for our own prejudices.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

The Virtuoso   Leave a comment

Tomorrow we are reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story “Cellists,” from his recent collection Nocturnes, in my graduate class, about a cellist who is tutored by an American woman, Eloise McCormack, who claims that she is a “virtuoso” despite the fact that she cannot play the cello herself – she possesses an “unwrapped” potential, she insists, that will someday be tapped by the right teacher.

One of my students, who is talented but has a habit of always putting her foot in her mouth, proclaimed loudly at the end of today’s class that she knows a bit about Ishiguro, not from reading him, but from the fact that I talked about Never Let Me Go in relation to one of our novels last semester.

“So have you read tomorrow’s story yet?” I asked. “Can you apply Foucault’s ideas about enlightenment to it?”

“No, I haven’t read it yet,” she said. “But I don’t need his theories. I have a critical mind of my own. I don’t need any else to tell me how to think.”

“Ah, so you are a virtuoso at literature,” I replied. “You don’t even need to read the text to understand it.”

She paused a moment and thought.

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I am a virtuoso!”

The point of Ishiguro’s story, of course, is to challenge some prevalent (but false) cultural perceptions about “genius” with which human beings tend to delude themselves. The first is the romantic idea of the “natural” genius, the kind for whose art seems to flow onto the page without any apparent effort. In music, for instance, it might be Mozart, while in literature, the romantics reconfigured Shakespeare – because he did not have a rigorous classical education – in this same mold.

It has become one of the great myths of our time that “true” genius comes from a source of in-born talent, not hard work. Hollywood loves to perpetuate this stereotype. How many times do we see Good Will Hunting actually doing some genuine study? When do we see Russell Crowe (as John Nash) hitting the books in A Beautiful Mind? We only ever see the end product of their labors, never the hours and hours of grunt work that are needed to produce it.

In part, such films produce this illusion out of a need to provide action over reality (watching someone study is obviously less interesting than dissecting their love life), but this false picture is also clearly an anti-intellectual dig at the academy. The implication is that those other professors, the vast majority laboring away in the ivory tower, are doing so under the delusion that work is important. Genius, these films imply, does not simply make the work easier – it makes it so that there is practically no work at all. The world is revolutionized with the ease of making a sandwich. Work, as such, becomes the hallmark of failure, a sure sign that you are not a genius. It’s a perverse idea that hides an even nastier ulterior implication: that professors who are not hailed as geniuses are second-rate frauds (unless, of course, they are misunderstood geniuses at the heart of the film…).

For Ishiguro, this seems to be a peculiarly American point of view. He diagnoses it as a symptom of their insistence that everyone is important, everyone has something to contribute, everyone has some talent at which they can shine. It is not hard to see the inherent paradox in such a view: what makes something truly valuable, after all, is a mixture of proven quality and relative scarcity. Thus, for Ishiguro, Americans (at least in Nocturnes) regularly exhibit a kind of cultural schizophrenia that is a result of the glaring disparity between their egalitarian, democratic rhetoric and the Darwinian reality of how they actually live. Eloise McCormack’s unwillingness to develop her talent as a cellist, for instance, is reconfigured not as a failure, but as an “unrealized potential.”

In his poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes had earlier asked: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Ishiguro asks us to be more specific: what kind of dream are we talking about here? If it is a political dream – as Hughes seems to imply – then it does indeed seem worthwhile to continue pursuing it, for such goals are open to all. But if it a matter of fulfilling a particular kind of dream, then Ishiguro’s point seems to touch on something more difficult and profound. There are few geniuses in this world, and so dealing with failure at some point in our lives is something that we must all do as human beings.

To fail is a crucial part of the human experience – and yet, like Eloise McCormack, we often refuse to admit that any failure is possible, as though a lack of success in one area were an indication that our entire lives have been a failure. What happens to a dream deferred? The answer, it seems, is that it simply gets deferred some more. Rather than living our lives in this kind of suspended animation, however, it is far richer for us to come to the realization that life is for living now, that failure is inevitable, necessary, so that even if we do not excel in our chosen field, we can at least learn from our mistakes and say that our lives, as an experiment in living, have been a success.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted April 30, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Psychological Hunger   Leave a comment

One of the strange things about humanity, especially modern humanity, is that we deliberately, repeatedly choose to shape our lives, both individually and collectively, in ways that, in the big picture, make us unhappy. It’s one of those great paradoxes of the Enlightenment and its legacy – that people, presented with the tools to make their lives better, choose not to.

Is it just perversity? Do we do it for the same reason that we refuse to eat our vegetables, because achieving happiness is “boring” when it’s “good for you”? Certainly I think that’s one aspect of the problem, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

One of the things that I have wondered at during the last few years, as I have endured some very difficult life lessons of my own, is the bizarre extent to which this crucial element of success and happiness is left to a mixture of chance and imprecision. There are qualified experts to teach us all manner of technical things: how to be a mechanic, a software engineer, a yoga teacher. But there are no credible, established paths for how to lead a healthy and successful life.

Sure, there are gurus and leadership experts, preachers and life coaches, that all claim to provide us with guidance in our lives. But the field is so full of cranks and phonies that, were our technical fields to be run in such a way, we might regard our technology with a much more wary eye.

I learned a great deal from my professors, but there was one in particular who had an impact on me – not merely because she was a brilliant teacher and scholar, but because I could see in her a rare skill for living life, something that my parents were certainly not equipped to do. It was a skill I hungered to know more about, but could not ask her without seeming like a stalker. Every little insight she spoke about the life of the mind I have clung to, for they have proven to be precious pearls of wisdom over the years.

Emotional need is a taboo topic for a basic, paradoxical reason. We avoid people who are needy because it denotes insecurity. They are often passive-aggressive, unreliable, and demanding. Worse, giving such people attention often does not satisfy them, but leads instead to an black hole of endless emotional demand. This situation, however, is unfortunate, because it makes us withhold our attention from people who might be needy in a positive sense – that is, who may be hungry now, but wish to learn how to feed themselves.

The other reason emotional need is a problem is that, culturally, we have downgraded it as being merely a “luxury,” something that is secondary to the more pressing necessities of food and shelter. I think it’s fascinating, though, to consider a point raised by Erich Fromm near the beginning of The Fear of Freedom (1941), in which he asserts that humanity needs more than just the physical necessities in order to live. Fromm’s point is not that life is better with the emotional care of others, but rather that without it, human beings cannot survive. Even if we have all our physical necessities met, but have no sense of community whatsoever – if we are “morally alone,” as Fromm puts it – then we are driven to madness and suicide.

I’m teaching Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) in one of my classes this semester, and Fromm’s insight seems to me the key to unlocking this complex novel. The narrator’s physical hunger is transformed by Hamsun into a mirror of his psychological hunger, of society’s neglect of its spiritual and emotional side.

How bizarre that, in the twenty-first century, as the shadow of the obesity epidemic looms over us, that this metaphor has mutated once again. Now, gorging ourselves with cheap comfort food has become the new sign of our emotional starvation. We eat to fill a void in our lives that can never be filled. Obesity is a signifier, ironically, of our lack of contentment.

There is a scene in Hamsun’s Hunger in which the protagonist, out of a bizarre sense of pride and contrariness, refuses food, even though he is starving. We live in a society, in a similar way, that continues to denigrate the humanities as a luxury even as, emotionally, we are longing for just a moment of real, solid satisfaction.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted April 20, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Covers   Leave a comment

When I was about seventeen, I read The Children of Men (1992) by P.D. James – or at least, I think I did. I have almost no memory of the plot, apart from its central storyline about the spread of infertility in a futuristic, dystopian future. It’s not unusual. I regularly forget entire storylines and characters within a surprisingly short space of time, especially given my profession, although I rarely forget that I have actually read a particular book.

The strange thing is, though, that twenty years later I still recall quite vividly the cover of the book. There is a forest in the background, and the bottom right corner is torn away to reveal a limp, broken doll whose two, blue eyeballs have, rather unrealistically, fallen onto the pavement beside it. The other thing I remember is that it was a Faber and Faber publication, a brand that was, for me, quickly becoming an indicator of quality. That little ff sign introduced me to Andre Brink, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro, and numerous other outstanding contemporary writers during the 1990s.

It was with a sense of dismay, then, that I recently watched the adaptation of The Children of Men (2006), a film that garnered glowing reviews at the time of its release. The film is rather different from the book, but what struck my adult eyes was the clunky Christian symbolism that pervades the storyline. There is no question that Kee is meant to be a Madonna-figure, and she is protected, in turn, by Theo, his name transparently chosen because it means “God.”

As I meditated further on the film, though, something ironic struck me about all this Christian symbolism. It came from the realization that there is a parallel between my own faulty personal memory of reading The Children of Men and the selective cultural memory about Christianity on display in the film.

The scene that epitomizes this phenomenon occurs right before the film’s close, when Kee and Theo escape from a building that is under siege by government troops. Seeing the baby in Kee’s arms, the commanding officer orders the soldiers to cease fire so that she can escape to safety. Kee’s pathway through the lines of soldiers is clearly supposed to be loaded with quasi-religious significance, as soldiers visibly cross themselves when the miracle baby passes them by.

As soon as Kee and Theo have reached safety, however, the soldiers resume their attack on the building, mercilessly slaughtering the refugees inside. It was this obvious disjunction between their supposed reverence for life and their practical embrace of killing, a moral contradiction that the film did not even seem to register, that caught my attention. What had these soldiers gotten from their reading of the Bible? Had they remembered any of Christ’s teachings? Or had they, as I had with James’s own novel, only ever truly caught the surface of that book?

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted April 10, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Love on Earth   Leave a comment

The historical persecution of the Jews delineated in Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio (2002), from forced conversions through to the Holocaust, is depressingly familiar to most readers. While doing research on this novel, however, I came to realize the importance of another, almost forgotten period of religious persecution that took place in the region of southern France where Pears’s novel is set: the Albigensian Crusade, in which the Catholic Church ruthlessly exterminated the “heresy” known as Catharism.

While this period has become, in recent years, a popular setting for historical fiction, it seems to me that the fundamental challenge that the Cathar belief system presented to the Church has often been poorly understood. Ruthless and bloody inquisitions, after all, can be gruesomely entertaining without readers of historical fiction having to understand the deeper nuances of the victims.

I was struck by just how subversive the Cathars were, however, during a recent rereading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ (1888). In that book, Nietzsche examines what he calls the “type of the redeemer,” a mindset he attributes to Christ and which, he argues, was subsequently distorted and twisted by St Paul (p.167). Christ’s message, says Nietzsche, has thus been profoundly misunderstood. The core of this message was that God has already forgiven humanity for its waywardness, and as such the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, at hand – not, as Christianity would later understand it, as a posthumous reward for faithfulness. Nietzsche writes:

“The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is a condition of the heart – not something that comes ‘upon the earth’ or ‘after death’. The entire concept of natural death is lacking in the Gospel: death is not a bridge, not a transition, it is lacking because it belongs to quite another world, a merely apparent world useful only for the purpose of symbolism. The ‘hour of death’ is not a Christian concept – the ‘hour’, time, physical life and its crises, simply do not exist for the teacher of the ‘glad tidings’.… The ‘kingdom of God’ is not something one waits for; it has no yesterday or tomorrow, it does not come ‘in a thousand years’ – it is an experience within a heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere…” (p.159)

Christ posed an obvious threat to the Jewish religious establishment with this message, for its implication was that the priests, together with their Mosaic system of atonement through sacrifice, had fulfilled their purpose and were now obsolete. The Kingdom of Heaven is not to be found in external rituals, but in one’s heart, with life becoming an expression of this divine goodness in a way that abolished the infrastructure of symbolic atonement.

While Catharism borrowed liberally from other strands of religious and philosophical ideas – gnosticism, for instance, as well as the neo-Platonist thread that Pears identifies in The Dream of Scipio – what is particularly noticeable about its debt to this “type of the redeemer” is its joyful announcement that divine mediation is no longer necessary. The Cathars therefore also did away with the role of the priest, believing that its adherents could be “Good Christians” whose lives reflected the goodness and mercy of God. For the Cathars, this aspiration was not tainted and limited by the “fallen” nature of humanity. Forgiveness had been granted here on earth, and as such it was their duty to become a “parfait” (“perfect being”) who practices the divine principles here on earth, not after the purification of death.

The response of the Catholic Church to the rise of Catharism reads like a blueprint for the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Like the Pharisees, like the Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s story, the Church rightly saw Catharism as a threat to its own political power. In the name of Christianity, therefore, they mercilessly hunted down and exterminated a movement that came closest to replicating the original teachings of Christ.

That ideal of a loving community has not been lost – think, for example, of the Abbey of Thélème that appears in Rabelais – but its conception has evolved in crucial ways since the time of Christ. While love is important, it cannot be the sole foundation for a community. “Love,” writes Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ, “is the state in which man sees things most of all as they are not. The illusion-creating force is there at its height, likewise the sweetening and transforming force. One endures more when in love than one otherwise would, one tolerates everything” (p.145). Christ failed because his conception of love, in its refusal to draw boundaries, made him both inherently weak and unwilling to acknowledge the harsh political realities around him.

The contrasting idea of a strong love, one that understands politics and protects itself from its pitfalls, is what drives Pears’s investigations in The Dream of Scipio. Manlius fails because he is too hard, displaying political strength and acumen, but sacrificing his friends and family in the process, while Julien’s fault, by contrast, lies in his recurrent willingness to compromise and negotiate at those moments when he ought to be drawing a line in the sand. Only Olivier understands that love must be forceful and effective, pragmatically cognizant of the political realities that impact on it, without ever losing the ability to be tender.

The source of humanity’s communal misery and inability to love thus arises from a double failure. The primary fault, as the story of the Grand Inquisitor illustrates, lies in our weakness, in our refusal to take responsibility for our own lives and freedom. This failing is then compounded by the way we rationalize our weakness. Our beliefs are built as a complicated excuse for why we cannot take action. This is precisely the deflective function of religious institutions: no institution has done more to put off the realization of Christ’s vision of love on earth than the church.

While I don’t subscribe to the creation of any kind of religious community, I do think there is a valuable lesson to be learned from these earlier examples about the difficulties of putting into practice what we believe. The prevailing philosophies of our time actively discourage the cultivation of a personality that radiates power, and yet this strength is the basis on which true love is constructed. Any other kind, as the example of Christ demonstrates, is weak and ineffective, passively allowing itself to be tortured and even killed. True love must face up to the unjust realities of political power with intelligence and clarity, not moral illusions. There are a thousand excuses for not loving, for not putting into practice the principles that are closest to our hearts, but they inevitably begin from a place of weakness.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Outside the Institution   Leave a comment

When was the last time you read a piece of literary analysis published in an academic journal and felt moved and inspired by what it had to say? My guess is that, if you engage in this torturous exercise, probably not very often.

Most papers are written and published, primarily, out of obligation. Academics have to show the universities that employ them that they are active in their fields, and universities, in turn, are ranked according to the productivity of their faculty. Since the squeeze for academic positions has become tighter and tighter, the situation has become increasingly worse.

How perverse it is that we allow the humanities to proceed in this manner. In the sciences, one must follow the scientific method or else the work undertaken would be declared invalid. In the humanities, by contrast, people are encouraged to write in an inhuman way. Academics in the humanities seem to lack the courage of their convictions – this idea is interesting, they say, but usually neither we nor they truly believe it.

Perhaps the most honest and perceptive assessment of this scholarly problem appears in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“For this is the truth: I have left the house of scholars and slammed the door behind me. Too long did my soul sit hungry at their table; I have not been schooled, as they have, to crack knowledge as one cracks nuts. […] If one takes hold of them, they involuntarily raise a dust like sacks of flour; but who could guess that their dust derived from corn and from the golden joy of summer fields?” (p.147)

Nietzsche wrote those words in 1883, before the academic field of English literature had even been founded, but the prevailing attitude toward intellectual activity is remarkably similar. The joy of learning is reduced to a mechanical exercise, a matter of pedantic precision, automatic rather than dynamic.

It’s easy to be negative. Anyone who has worked in academia knows that it can be a demeaning path, even when you are part of the lucky minority who manages to find full-time employment. It’s a structural problem in which people are intimidated into a particular way of thinking. If they don’t follow the rules in graduate school, chances are they won’t finish their degree. If they don’t write in the accepted style of their field, chances are they won’t be published. If they don’t meet the research quotas of the university, they won’t get rehired or tenured. And so on. It’s an endless cycle of intimidation that ends up creating a culture whereby most academics lose any of the radical visions or creativity they might once have possessed. They become, as we say of prisoners, institutionalized.

There will always be a minority of academics – including, I hope, myself – for whom no amount of institutional pressure will change our approach to the humanities. Yes, the university will continue to require us to publish, but we write and teach and read, at base, for the love of it.

But it’s not enough. Society needs the humanities because they are the foundation of its emotional maturity, but the contemporary trend is to restrict such benefits to the elite classes. The emphasis on technical and vocational skills is the increasing curricular emphasis at your average low to middle ranking university at the expense of a liberal education, but the humanities will never disappear, for instance, from the Ivy League.

There is a surprising number of people outside that privileged elite, however, who are open to the idea that literature and the humanities have something to offer them. It is for that reason that humanities needs to consolidate its future by establishing roots outside the institutional tentacles of the academy.

Over the last few years, I have seen this approach work, for instance, with the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. The MSCP was founded in 2005 by a group of thinkers – some of them my good friends – as a way of promoting a neglected area of study about which they are passionate. While they rely on the local university for certain practical support for some things, the MSCP is able to run courses and seminars entirely on its own terms, without interference from the institution. Hopefully this autonomy is allowed to last.

The great challenge, as always, is economic. To work outside the institution inevitably means little or no remuneration. It also carries with it the possible future challenge of becoming institutionalized oneself, and thus closing down the openness that formerly drove the mission. But this step, I believe, is a necessary one for the future of the humanities. We must take the future into our own hands.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.