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The Authoritarian Character   Leave a comment

Sometimes there are moments when, as you are reading a book, you stop, sit up straight in your chair, and look around you in a sort of silent, physical form of exclamation. That’s what happened to me at the end of last year while reading Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom (1941), a penetrating analysis of what it is that draws human beings to submit themselves to authoritarianism. What caught my attention only partly concerned what Fromm was describing – instead, it was the way in which his brief sketch of what he calls “the authoritarian character” had the effect of recalling, with startling clarity, someone that I knew.

The person in question was strikingly tall, around six and a half feet, a  physical superiority that he used to menace the space around him. Although he had gone gray, he wore a trendy spiked haircut, worked out regularly, and looked rather well preserved for a man who had just clicked past fifty. He had a loud, booming voice that he employed to great effect; walk within a hundred feet of his classroom, and you could hear him ranting and raving, putting on an energy-filled performance for a classroom full of misguided young students who viewed this weekly fountain of rhetorical fireworks as “challenging” and “entertaining” without ever stopping to think whether they were actually learning something of value.

It was more than just his dynamic but empty teaching style, however, that identified this person as the incarnation of the Authoritarian Character (AC). The central contradiction that Fromm identifies in this need to dominate others is that it stems from a profound paradox, for the authoritarian character is “torn by a constant ambivalence towards authority; he hated it and rebelled against it, while at the same time he admired it and tended to submit to it” (p.57). There is nothing wrong with authority and power, Fromm contends, when it extends from a healthy sense of oneself, but when it stems from emotional inadequacy the end product is the authoritarian character.

AC covered over his lust for power by employing a strident rhetoric of social justice. “I’m a thousand miles to the left of Karl Marx,” he claimed at one department meeting. The door of his office was adorned with a large poster of William Blake, his favorite poet, with the inscription “The Arts and Sciences are the Destruction of Tyrannies.” Inside, the office itself was decorated with posters of The Clash. He wore Sex Pistols t-shirts and hosted a radio show on the local college station dedicated to punk music. Although he hadn’t published an academic paper for more than a decade, he claimed to have expertise in African-American literature and women’s literature. He bought an apartment in East Harlem. He labeled himself a feminist, a gay rights campaigner, a vegetarian, an advocate against racism, a bulwark against all forms of injustice.

It wasn’t necessary to look far to see the inherent contradictions in this charade of left-wing piety. AC was at his rampant worst when it came to the topic of racism. A former Southerner from Georgia, AC had grown up in an era of desegregation during the 1970s and claimed that it had left a profound mark on his character. The reality was that his experiences had allowed him to identify racism as an emotional hot button, a switch he could cynically flip to stir up controversy and righteous anger at any moment. His histrionics in the classroom were focused primarily on this issue, and he would whip himself into a frenzy of rage and anger in every class, regardless of the topic, repeatedly screaming out the n-word at his students under the guise of having them “confront” the collective sins and prejudices that constitute the collective guilt at the heart of American culture. This approach created a mob mentality that appealed to the basest, most anti-intellectual instincts of his students, a contradiction that could be justified thanks to the smokescreen provided by AC’s anti-racist angle. Surely only a racist, went his perverse logic, could fail to be visibly outraged by the injustices of the past.

AC was, then, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but all the more dangerous because he had convinced himself of his own righteousness, unable as he was to identify the glaring contradictions between his rhetoric and his actual behavior. The great feminist, for example, ignored the women in the department, and it was an open secret that he conducted improper dealings with numerous young female students. When his colleagues voted for a representative to sit on the newly formed Faculty Senate, he stormed out of the meeting after narrowly losing to the department’s elder statesman, furious that the democratic process had not produced the result he wanted. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the administration chose one of his drinking buddies as the new Vice President, and used this access to power to persecute faculty members he didn’t like, eventually driving two of his departmental colleagues from the college. Speaking up loudly in faculty meetings against the supposed corruption of the system, he nonetheless happily accepted tenure in an institution where that privilege extended only to a select few of the full-time faculty.

It wasn’t until my final few weeks as AC’s colleague that I learned some of the nastiest truths about his past. Ten years previously, it turned out, he had been fired from a tenured position after being charged with assaulting a student at a party. That incident, in turn, brought to light AC’s behavior at a position several years before that at a college where his contract had not been renewed, also due to problems with physical violence. I could well believe it – when I saw him shortly after the Faculty Senate vote, AC, clearly in a state of rage, had himself threatened me.

Now that I have moved on from that position and entered Korean academia, where the politics are more difficult to penetrate but in which I am happy to serve with few questions, I am grateful that I no longer have to think about AC . He was in my thoughts today, though, for two reasons. The first was the deep disappointment that I felt after finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel that unsettled me in its resemblance to AC’s teaching, filled as it is with rage and self-recrimination, emotions that hide behind a smokescreen of noble causes but that scream of dishonesty and a suppressed lust for power. The other reason is the email that landed in my inbox today. It was from a former colleague whom AC had forcibly driven out, letting me know that she was doing well, and that AC had just been fired for misconduct with a student.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.


Posted February 9, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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The Literary Gymnasium   Leave a comment

It must have been about three or four years ago, when I was still living in central New Jersey, when this incident occurred. I was standing on piece of gym equipment, one of those assisted pull-up machines, waiting between sets for my muscles to recover before I strained my arms and shoulders and back again, when I heard a voice directly behind me. It was the one of the personal trainers, a youngish guy with a thick Jersey accent who probably made decent (but not great) money from the Sisyphean task of showing middle-aged women how to use the Nautilus machines.

“We had to read The Great Gatsby in my senior year of high school,” he was saying to his client, “and I didn’t understand the point of it at all. It made absolutely no sense to me. Thankfully I’ll never have to read another novel again.”

Since he was standing right behind me, I was momentarily tempted to turn around and tell him that I was a professor of English literature, before thinking better of it – realizing that I could only come across as intrusive and annoying in this context – and hoisting myself back up onto the pull-up machine. As he moved on, I kept thinking about what he had said, in particular the unintended irony of his choosing The Great Gatsby, the classic American novel about the failures of self-improvement, as his particular example.

Further chewing the trainer’s words over in my mind, however, I began to think: in a culture where stories (books, movies, television) are consumed primarily for the easy pleasure of their entertainment value, is it any wonder that this trainer had difficulty seeing the point of reading a complex work of literature? Raised in this environment, we are quick to dismiss what we don’t immediately understand as being uninteresting and valueless.

What if, I thought to myself, one were to approach the gym with the same mindset. Imagine, let’s say, you were a trainer who took on a football player as a client, a football player who had never been to a gym in his life, and had no idea what it was for. You put the footballer through his paces, and then send him home.

That evening, the footballer’s girlfriend asks him over dinner: “So, how was the training session at the gym? What was it like?” To which he replies: “I didn’t understand the point of it at all. It made absolutely no sense to me.  First, I had to run for half an hour on a treadmill – absolutely pointless, running on the same spot over and over. Then, even more stupidly, the trainer made me pick up a series of heavy objects and then put them down again. I can’t see any connection between these absolutely pointless activities and improving my football skills. Thankfully I’ll never to have to do another workout again.”

Why does the footballer’s response sound absurd? Because we understand that working out in a gym is a necessary supplement to a successful football career. It builds a foundation of fitness and strength on which specific skills can then be built and then sharpened. No footballer today would question why the apparently “pointless” tasks performed in the gym are necessary to his game.

Yet, when it comes to literature (and the humanities more broadly), this is precisely the kind of sound logic that is dismissed by today’s culture. People never learn what the value of literature is, and so they dismiss it as an ornament rather than an intellectual foundation on which specific skills can be built.

Let’s be clear: literature can never be a substitute for real-world experience, any more than football training drills are a viable substitute for on-field experience. But if we understand its uses and purposes, literature can be a powerful tool for developing the basic skills for forming a successful character, a kind of gymnasium for the mind.

As I stepped off the assisted pull-up machine, having mentally sketched out the basics of this defense of literature, there was one thing that still bothered me. While I’ve read The Great Gatsby three times, taught it twice, and I acknowledge its canonical status, I too don’t really understand all the fuss about that particular novel. I mean, it’s good – but whatever its title may proclaim, it’s not great.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted January 31, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

On the Passing of Gilbert Adair   Leave a comment

Although Gilbert Adair passed away on December 8, 2011, I only learned about his death today, and the belated news got me thinking. You see, I read his novel The Holy Innocents (1988) – better known these days by its cinematic title The Dreamers – at what might be termed a crucial time in my life.

Growing up in a rigorously Protestant family, in my youth I was perhaps more sensitive than most people to novels about sensuality and decadence. I remember, for instance, reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) at the age of sixteen and being strangely aroused by it. It wasn’t just the eroticism of the book – although that obviously played a part – it was also the sense of deep subversion that touched something profound in me. Here was another way of living, something exciting, dangerous, edgy – a way of living in which risk and radical honesty were not merely performed, but were demanded.

When I read The Holy Innocents in 1994, at the age of 19, I hadn’t yet had my Road to Damascus moment, but it was imminent, coming at the beginning of the next year, when I discovered critical theory and postmodernism. Crucial seeds were being sown in my French classes, where we studied Albert Camus, the Theater of the Absurd, and the upheavals of mai 68, that revolutionary time in world history which has left such a mark (positive and negative) on French intellectual life. It was in this climate that I encountered The Holy Innocents, a book that, like Death in Venice (a story, perhaps not coincidentally, that Adair himself rewrote as his 1990 novel Love and Death on Long Island) and The Story of the Eye, lingers as a formative work not just because it changed my sexual perception of the world, but because it rang an existential chord in me. Here, it seemed to say, is a new and dramatic way of existing.

What about this novel seduced me? Most crucially, it was its affirmation of aesthetics over politics, of beauty over the ugliness of reality, of the fleeting moment of pleasure over the calculating tedium of the long term investment. In short, this was a reformulated romanticism for the postmodern era. It was nihilism at its most beautiful, the perfect trap for a nineteen-year-old on the cusp of intellectual discovery. I identified with Matthew in the same way that, at sixteen, I identified perversely with the aging, decadent Aschenbach, for being overcome by the sublime power of beauty. How could one not feel eliminated, reduced to nothingness, by the power of the aesthetic?

A year or two later I read Adair’s The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice (1992), a collection of his critical essays, and the first hints of disillusionment with certain aspects of postmodernism began. After his death, Adair’s criticism was praised as his greatest contribution to letters, but for all its cultural mastery, I found The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice to be narcissistic, arrogant, the proclamations of a privileged bully who belongs to smug little clique of fellow intellectuals. Adair pales in comparison to Roland Barthes, the critic he clearly aspired to emulate. My formerly ardent admiration faltered – I read no more.

It wasn’t until I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), an adaptation of The Holy Innocents, that I thought about Adair again. If The Holy Innocents was darkly romantic, then The Dreamers was downright sentimental – and I began to realize then just how much of a blind fool my younger self had been. And yet, and yet – despite its flaws, The Holy Innocents remains a book that I will continue to love and cherish, for its flaws, for all its nihilism. Its sense of irresistible folly, after all, is precisely what is so utterly seductive about it.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted January 23, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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New Directions   Leave a comment

Those of you who tuned into the old version of this blog will have encountered various stories about the state of contemporary English literature – links to reviews of newly released books, interviews with leading authors, calls for academic papers, and so on. That was, as I have said, the old version of the blog. An experiment, one might say, or more realistically, a place-holder until I worked out what I really wanted to do with the blog.

With the new year, then, comes a new direction. Instead of providing links to content generated by others, I am planning on creating my own writing for this site. Mostly it will come in the form of reviews and commentary about the various books I happen to be reading, although who knows what other directions it might take. While the main focus will naturally be on contemporary English literature, I am thinking of including in here comments on other national literatures and even some writing on literary and critical theory.

Posted January 19, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article