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Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The ABC's...



Chaucer's Books, Santa Barbara
Photo: Victoria Ordin/Writers Clearinghouse
 ... Of My Life in Letters

“The effort really to see and really to represent is no idle business in the

face of the constant force that makes for muddlement.”
-- Henry James, Preface to What Maisie Knew


“She had for many hours the sense of showing Mrs. Wix so much that she
was comparatively slow to become conscious of being at the same time the
subject of a like aim. The business went the faster, however, from the moment she
got her glimpse of it; then fell into its place in her general, her habitual
view of the particular phenomenon that, had she felt the need of words for it,
she might have called her personal relation to her knowledge."
-- Henry James, What Maisie Knew (Chapter XXV)

By Victoria Ordin
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]


Santa Barbara, California
Questions of knowledge and representation have always, at least since adolescence, been at the center of my life. Far earlier than most, I think, my ways of constructing reality were deeply personal and emotional issues. From 7th grade on, I never had any doubt that I wanted to be a college professor of literature.

By senior year in high school, when I studied English at UCLA with some of the best professors in the department —Jack Kolb, David Rodes and Ruth Yeazell (who was to remain in my life for two decades in one form or another) -- having exhausted the courses taught at Westlake School for Girls -- this was more than vague notion.

I remember writing a paper on Congreve's Way of the World (certainly the most famous and arguably the best of the Restoration comedies, though I like Richard Sheridan just as much), and going to the UCLA English Reading room to find criticism. I do not recall the articles I found in the conceptual oasis of Rolfe Hall, as I have lost a great deal of my Yale and UCLA papers. I only remember that as I turned the pages of the two books I found, I felt what I take to be the sort of rapture, clarity, and passion which religious people report when they find God and decide in some fundamental way to structure their lives around their personal relationship to this entity.

The kind of thinking and writing I encountered for the first time in these literary-critical articles was unlike any I had encountered in political science journals like Foreign Affairs or World Policy Journal, both of which I read on a fairly regular basis as a top high school debater and competitor in foreign extemporaneous speaking. I enjoyed those journals, but the analytic-critical writing they contained seemed to me devoid of imagination and truly innovative thought. Literary criticism immediately struck me as a form of art, yet one so unlike fiction, a form of art which I could never envision creating, having neither fictional nor poetic talent, training or aspiration.

So when I moved from New Haven to Santa Barbara in September, 1996, to begin an MA/PhD program in English with the intention of specializing in British literature (though I was not sure if it would be the 18th or the 19th century), walking into Chaucer's Books gave me the illusion that I was not in what I considered by the first or second quarter the waste land of Santa Barbara but rather the cultural and literary mecca of New Haven. (I realize some of my readers on the East Coast will smile at this celebration cum idealization of New Haven, but believe me, compared to Santa Barbara, New Haven is heaven on earth for an intellectual, partly because of Yale and partly because of its proximity to Boston and other Eastern cities like New York, Washington, and Philadelphia.

Only in 1998, when I began to prepare for my MA exam — Restoration and 18th Century Literature, Romantic/Victorian Literature, General Theory were my fields — and came to understand how ill-suited I was for UCSB's English department, with its Cultural Studies focus, did Chaucer's come to be the saving grace of my graduate school years. I do not remember when Amazon and Barnes and Noble became fixtures in the lives of American readers, but I remember buying many books there for the M.A exam, those which I could not check out from Davidson Library or wanted to have in my personal library. Some I bought off the shelves; others I ordered.

Below is a list of books which stand out in my mind as having a more than ordinary influence on me. But I will here discuss just four texts from the list. Three helped shape my critical orientation (roughly, proponent of philosophical/rhetorical criticism rather than Cultural Studies (CS)). One —Charlotte Bronte's last novel and in Tony Tanner's view her most complex — at once shaped my understanding of crucial ethical issues driving Eliot's fiction and deepened my understanding of my own isolation (and early in her life Eliot's as well) in critically productive, not merely psychologically useful, ways.

Rather than strive for comprehensiveness of synopsis with these texts, I discuss them in the Jamesean terms set forth in the quotations with which I began, in terms of their “personal relation [to my] knowledge.” Put another way, each of these texts sharpened my understanding of my relation to my knowledge, made that knowledge in some meaningful William Jamesean sense, “mine.”

Of course, the preoccupations and preferences these texts express shaped and defined my worldview long after the years of graduate school proper. As George Eliot said in Daniel Deronda (1876), her last novel and my favorite after Middlemarch -- as well as the subject of my unfinished fifth dissertation chapter about Eliot's “fictional project” -- the moment of finding an idea is like that of finding a person. So I think of my introduction to these texts as social encounters in the broadest sense:

Literature and the Question of Philosophy, ed. Anthony Casardi, 2). Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Richard Rorty, 3). Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, Mark Bauerlein, and 4). Villette , Charlotte Bronte.

My first chair of the dissertation, Kay Young, recruited me largely on the strength of a 26-page paper on Emily Dickinson and skepticism, which I wrote for Richard Brodhead's lecture on 19th-century American literature at Yale in 1994. It was a lecture, not a seminar, but I bonded deeply with my wonderful TA, Margo Crawford, later assistant professor at Vassar, and she gave the paper to Brodhead, then Dean of Yale and now Duke President.


The paper relied heavily on a book by Christopher Benfrey, Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others, and essentially argued that instead of viewing her legendary isolation in terms of an aversion to people, we ought instead to view it in terms of skepticism or the problem of other minds along the lines Benfrey suggested. Kay did her dissertation at Harvard with Stanley Cavell and Phil Fisher.

I now realize that reading a paper by an applicant which revealed a profoundly philosophical approach to literature — rare at UCSB — made an impression. No talk of race, class, gender, or sexuality: simply a rhetorical focus and interest, in what she said to me on a day in her office I will never forget, the category and notion of “the human.” This, she explained to me the second quarter of my first year, was not only no longer trendy in literary studies; it had all but disappeared as a legitimate object of inquiry.


Tears actually came to Kay's eyes when describing her relationship to Cavell — not simply the enormously close personal relationship they shared, as I take it he was like a second father to her, but the intellectual mentoring she was privileged to experience with one of the philosophical legends of our time. (I recently bought Cavell's autobiography, Little Did I Know, at Chaucer's and it's at the top of my reading list at the moment).

For Kay, literary criticism was and remains an avocation. The ethical criticism she practices in the tradition of Martha Nussbaum and Stanley Cavell, among others, stems from a deeply felt place in her. She was one of the three or four professors at UCSB for whom criticism represented an all-encompassing intellectual and emotional endeavor, one reason I related to her on such a profound level. And in fact, relations between thinking and feeling—embodiment—are crucial to her work though not in any defined Kantian-Schillerian, or even

Kay told me, without sugarcoating, that I would find the field in general and this department in particular, somewhat lonely and frustrating. She told me a girl named Valerie, whose project she was chairing, had left UCSB primarily because she had no one to talk to with similar interests, values, and ideological commitments.

The following quarter, in her beautiful home in Westlake Village with her Harvard-educated neurosurgeon husband and toddler, where we had our independent study on Daniel Deronda (with a view toward producing my first article), Kay loaned me her copy of the Cascardi anthology with essays by Anthony Cascardi on Romantic responses to Kant relative to the natural and the sublime, Martha Nussbaum on literature and the moral imagination in Henry James's The Golden Bowl (a now famous, seminal essay reproduced in many places), Dalia Judovitz on relations between poetry and philosophy in Plato and Descartes, and Arthur Danto on general relations between philosophy and literature. The book also features essays by Denis Dutton, Harry Berger and many others in the philosophy/lit orbit.

Literature and the Question of Philosophy, said Kay, was the Bible of the sort of criticism that interested me and was essential to grasping the theoretical foundations of the joining of the two disciplines. I ordered my own copy at the end of the quarter at Chaucer's and it became one of my most used and loved books when it came time to study for the M.A., write my dissertation prospectus, and take my Orals in the spring of 2001.

The second book, which appeared on the 9 or 10 category General Theory list of books for the MA Exam, was Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. I fell in love with Rorty upon reading the introduction to the book listed under “pragmatism,”, but obviously encompassing far more than this school of philosophy (hence its inclusion on the General Theory list). After having to wade through the feminism, New Historicism and psychoanalysis on the list (the first two of which I have long since banished from my mind), Rorty was at once a pleasure and relief.

The climate of this department which I felt to be inhospitable on every level is captured by the generally negative and faintly derisive tone with which one of the smartest students in my year-- a unusually attractive Medievalist who came to UCSB with an MA — spoke of Rorty. She said, “Oh I find it very hard-going,” adding that it was not at all appealing to her. Of course Zizek—a thinker invested in Hegelian thought, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism—one of the theorists her adviser, Louise Fradenberg, loved most and unquestionably among the most convoluted (and unpleasant) theorists on the list, struck her as compelling and not that difficult.

On a par with Zizek were Deleuze and Guattari — most famous for Capitalism and Schizophrenia, a two-volume work comprised of Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). D and G, as they are called for short, discuss a range of psychoanalytic/Lacanian, economic and political concepts, much of them organized around desire. But Zizek's “The Rhizome” was simply awful to me, utterly without interest. Until I looked it up to write this piece, I could not define for you a “rhizome.” Now that I know, I am not at all sorry! It is essentially a complex botanical metaphor for thought with so much jargon of a pseudo-scientific flavor that it makes Paul de Man look transparent. And to what end, from the perspective of literary studies?

On the heels of Zizek or D and G, Rorty was like manna with his talk of “rule-governed sentences,” “conceptual vocabularies” and “the traditional subject-object picture,” to say nothing of his mention of Hilary Putnam, Wilfrid Sellars, and Donald Davidson, famous Analytic philosophers none of whose names ever once arose in the course of a conversation, syllabus or seminar in all of grad school.

A sentence like the following — “Davidson is a nonreductive behaviorist about language in the same way that Ryle was a nonreductive behaviorist about mind” (15)--excited me in a way hard, thirteen years later, to describe. I just didn't care about gender or race or class or sexuality and I certainly didn't care about capitalism—not in an intellectual sense. I so longed to think about mind, consciousness, and language, that the mere reference to these topics in Rorty's initial chapters, particularly in the context of philosophers of mind like Gilbert Ryle and Davidson, stilled the intense discomfort I felt when confronted with issues so far afield from anything I studied at Yale or ever even cared about.

I realized, even before Bauerlein's book, to which I will come shortly, that ignoring capitalism or economics more generally, was precisely the sort of apolitical stance (here, one which denied the reality of capitalist forces) which the political or Marxist-influenced critics regarded as equivalent to collusion — intended or not — with the status quo. (In case you hadn't guessed by now, this would be bad. God forbid a professor of canonical British literature should entrench the elite or the status quo. Never mind you never signed on to change the world, merely to enrich your life and the lives of others with an appreciation of beauty on the deepest philosophical levels through a transmission to young people of one of the greatest literary traditions in history. Had I wanted to save the world I would have gotten a law degree and become a public interest attorney!)

I just couldn't bear the whole ethos of the department, apart from thinking the students were just not nice. Let me say, the human light of USCB for me was Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, who had come from Yale to UCSB one year before as an associate. She is a feminist critic — but not theorist — and I so enjoyed her seminar on Restoration and 18th century female writers. She's brilliant and extremely wide-ranging and she does not practice as a one-dimensional critic like so many do in all of the cultural studies fields.

But in general, I could not see so much of the theory list had to do with the formal, rhetorical features of the literary objects I thought I was there to study (and I did general theory, not the genders and sexuality list, you can imagine what that list looked like — sheer torture). And of course the answer is that it didn't, which is why Bauerlein's book, though merely a theoretical glossary of terms with a definite axe to grind about the hijacking of traditional literary studies by “political criticism” (one of the twenty or so entries in the books) was so refreshing.

Before turning to Bauerlein, however, let me say that when I picked CIS back up last month, I noticed the dedication for the first time: “In memory of six liberals, my parents and grandparents.” I never thought about politics at Yale or UCSB during both which I was essentially apolitical beyond the act of voting, so this meant nothing to me.

But of course Rorty's advocacy of what he calls the “liberal ironist,” following Judith Shklar's definition of a liberal as “one who think[s] cruelty is the worst thing we do” (xv), drives the multiplicity of topics and arguments he offers throughout the book. Rorty defines “ironist” as “the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires—and someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance” (xv).

The book is dense and complex but not at all “hard-going” if you have a basic background in philosophy. The chapters which moved me most were those on the contingency of language (Chapter 1), the contingency of selfhood (Chapter 3), and solidarity (Chapter 9). I did not, for the exam, read the Derrida, Orwell, or Nabokov chapters. But a mere listing of chapter topics reveals a main objective of Rorty's: to turn us away from “theory” and “toward narrative” (xvi). Of course, this is a familiar move in the lit and philosophy crowd, much of which argues that literature can explore ethics in a way that traditional moral theory cannot and further, that it is in part the particularity, vividness, and immediacy of narrative which allows literature to do what philosophy cannot.

But for Rorty, the turn to narrative has a particular thrust; he believes that “there is no way to bring self-creation together with justice at the level of theory.” This is because the “vocabulary of self-creation is necessarily private, unshared, unsuited to argument” and the “vocabulary of justice is necessarily public and shared, a medium for argumentative exchange.” The good news, for Rorty, is that writers devoted to the former goal which he also calls “autonomy” and “private perfection,” such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Proust, Heidegger, and Nabokov, and those devoted to justice such as Marx, Mill, Dewey, Habermas and Rawls, “are in as little need of synthesis as paintbrushes and crowbars.”

Now, while Rorty's work may not have direct impact on the analysis of an individual text (beyond those of Orwell or Nabokov to which Rorty devotes whole chapters), one can see (or I could) that though these complex and abstract philosophical reflections do not necessarily yield insight into this or that text, they deal with ideas about truth, meaning, language, selfhood taken up by two different sorts of writers (autonomy vs. justice writers) and also that basic topics and concerns are fundamentally at stake in the most compelling literary texts.

More important, the study of a Rorty does not threaten or negate what those of us who grew up (in college) with a more traditional, formal approach to literary analysis. I am not saying that a reading of Wordsworth in a survey course at Yale would not be in some way by the work of deconstructive or Yale School critics like Geoffrey Hartman, but never once in my experience, was theory taught at the expense of traditional explication, whatever the genre of the text in question.

Thus, while Bauerlein does not endorse philosophy over other types of theory in the crowded late-20th century conceptual landscape (and in fact takes a potshot at Cascardi's title—objecting to this familiar “X and the question of” critical practice), his general emphasis on the “methodological” over the “representational” implies a preference for the kind of rigor about issues central to literature (like meaning) which philosophy generally possesses to a higher degree than much fast-and-loose, jargon-laden literary criticism.

Bauerlein cleverly defines and illustrates the “representational”/“methodological” distinction in the preface through two hilarious but depressing anecdotes which reveal that the discipline is dead (he merely conducts “the autopsy” without offering much by way of solution): 1). the hiring process of a new professor in his department and 2). an absurd and grandiose conference paper submitted by an inexperienced student with shamefully sloppy argumentation and an apparent lack of any common sense or training in formal explication.

The meaning of “representation” is of course a vast topic. But Bauerlein simply means to underline the damage the “representational” task articulated without definition as “the goal” with the new hire. Who or what is to be represented? The world at large? Particular interests? Or “demographic equivalence?” And to what end? Bauerlein spends much of the book stressing that when “literary study involved research into and teaching of reading and writing skills, literary history, textual interpretation, its methodological parameters and canons of evaluation were understood, if debatable” (xi). Now, it is quite simply a big mess.

The introduction begins with one of the all-time great sentences in a book of this kind: “To many professors of literature and language, overstepping the traditional boundaries of literary criticism seems like a good idea.” Of course all 23 entries — from cultural poetics to cultural studies to discourse to gender to problematize to essentialize — explain why it's not a good idea at all. I particularly like the deconstruction entry (42-8) because he attacks not the early practitioners like Hillis Miller — or Derrida himself — who were steeped in the Continental tradition, but those who “neglect philosophical context” and the “promiscuous” usages which proliferate as a result. The gender entry (62-9) is damning, particularly its citation of a labyrinthine, nonsensical definition put forth by Joan Wallach Scott.

As heartening as the three texts I have thus far discussed were to me at UCSB, I remained extremely lonely socially and intellectually and the last book I will discuss — Villette -- influenced me at the deepest possible level. Tony Tanner, the great Austen critic, calls it one of the great modern studies of “self without society” (a description just as pertinent to Dickinson, a poet whose work always seems to lurk in the background of so much I studied). Lucy Snowe's search for a home, and for a project which will ground her in the world with others — in some “expressive activity” or what Tanner frames as a “project” along the lines of phenomenologists (also Sartre), resonated on a visceral level for me. The novel also explores the boundaries between the sane and the insane, figured partly in terms how the power of objects triumphs over human autonomy (14). Richard Eldridge, my Orals member from Swarthmore, writes a good deal about “intentionality” and added another layer of meaning to me.

The despair Lucy articulates early on in the novel became in some ways the ultimate hope of my dissertation, which I hoped would change my life, save me, and make me “at-home” (a significant issue in Kant's aesthetic theory) by giving me a project and way of being in the world with others as professional literary critic and academic. Eliot's value of sympathy or “fellow-feeling” is quite close to Bronte's, yet another reason this novel meant so much. And monotony and boredom (lack of stimulation) along with profound suffering, were constants in my life as well. Isolation of this magnitude imposes a great burden on the self to contain and record experience in the absence of an other or others.

For years I had hoped I could answer the questions posed in the following passage in the affirmative. I could not, at least not through a career in academia, but I have been able to find a home both intellectually, emotionally, and geographically as well as a “project,” my blogging:


Is there nothing more for me in life — no true home — nothing
to be dearer to me than myself, and by its paramount precious-
to draw from me better things than I care to culture for myself
only? Nothing at whose feet I can willingly lay down the whole
burden of human egotism and gloriously take up the nobler
charge of laboring and living for others?

Informing the text:
1. Richard Rorty: Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Essays on Heidegger and Others.
2. EBB, Aurora Leigh.
3. Paul de Man: Aesthetic Ideology
4. Wayne Booth: Rhetoric of Fiction. (Not a favorite of mine, but a must read for someone who works on narrative)
5. Tim Hilton: Ruskin: The Early Years
6. Robert Pippin: Idealism as Modernism.
7. Hans Georg Gadamer: Truth and Method.
8. Elizabeth Gaskell: Mary Barton
9. Friedrich Holderlin: Hyperion and Selected Poems, trans/edit Eric Santer
10. GE: Impressions of Theophrastus Such, Daniel Deronda, Middlemarch, Silas Marner
11. Lyotard: Postmodern Condition (MA list, not read by choice).
12. Carol Rovane: The Bounds of Agency, An Essay on Revisionary Metaphysics
13. Charles Taylor: Sources of the Self, Hegel and Modern Society.
14. Thomas Nagel: View from Nowhere
15. Elizabeth Gaskell: Life of Charlotte Bronte.
16. Derrida: Of Grammatology.
17. Essays on Aristotle's Poetics, ed Amelie Rorty.
18. Identities of Persons, ed. Amelie Rorty.
19. John Dewey: Art as Experience.
20. Richard Eldridge: Beyond Representation

New books: Stanley Cavell autobiography; Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object, Kathleen Rooney; Mary Shelley: The Last Man; Tobias Smollett: Peregrine Pickle.

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