14 October 2014

On time travel and not getting it.

No, not that! Even if this does go back to the '60s.

We are moving (Update. Were. It's fallen through.) After twenty years in this house, we have accumulated a great deal of baggage— psychological, social, possibly cultural, and certainly physical. Packing is a big deal, and what to take and what to dump presents difficult decisions, particularly because we are "down-sizing" in some respects. The battle of the books has been won, I think, although I shall do some judicious culling. But then there remains the question of the "papers" (as they would be termed were I a person of any significance). No US university has so far bid for them (although the opportunity is open until the next recyclable rubbish collection a week on Tuesday). The shredder has been working overtime already. But I'm not going for a scorched-earth policy; I'm sampling my past.

In particular, my undergraduate days (1963-66, U. of Sussex). I retained much more that I'd thought; handouts, lecture notes, and essays, together with my forays into undergraduate journalism and documentation of my ecumenical activism. And it has been fascinating for me to read—but probably not for anyone else.
  • I was by no means as good, academically, as I thought I was. Granted, a "B" was an acceptable mark in those days, but finding a "C-" mark on one of my finals papers made me wonder however I managed to get a 2(i). (Hitherto I believed I missed a 1st only because I answered only three instead of the required four questions on the very last exam. But the evidence of the paper itself shows that I did tick four questions, I have to admit. Interesting how we can kid ourselves—a theme much explored by psychologists and others in recent years—especially here.)
  • I managed to spend at least two years missing the point of literary criticism—"It would not have gone amiss to pay some attention to other aspects of the novel than the plot." "The intentions and the perspectives of the author and the narrator are not always the same thing." "You treat [this early 19th-century French text] as if it were contemporary—where is the recognition of the culture of the readers?" "You speak of 'we' as if all readers and audiences approach the play in the same way..." Even the essay* I have celebrated for 49 years as my only straight "A" was far from the masterpiece I thought; "An interesting and ingenious argument indeed, but (Henry) James is not a pamphleteer... Are there no contrasting undercurrents?"
  • (A couple of days later) Yes, I really did (and still do) miss the point of literary criticism. (I had no such trouble with history and philosophy.)  I remember reading (and even buying) volumes of lit. crit. and ploughing through them, wondering what was the point? Fellow-students read out their essays in tutorial, replete with sage quotations from the critics. I could never do that. It just didn't make sense to me. It still doesn't (with a qualified exception for Wayne C Booth—reference below). I went back to the primary source and relied on my personal judgement, having no time for the scholarship of centuries.
The bit which may be of some interest to other readers, however, arises from this reflection. For all I bang on about threshold concepts nowadays, I clearly never got many of them when I was an undergraduate, and haven't even now. I lack a literary sensibility. I don't even know what it means to "think like" a literary scholar or critic.

And yet, I had no such problem with philosophy and history. For philosophy the key TC is "This is the way things are. Come on and argue. If you're hard enough."

For history: "Once/if we agree on what happened, it's about how it connects and counts and means and matters."

The morning I finished finals (they were a big deal in those days: ten exams in 13 days covering all the courses taken in the preceding five terms—and the whole degree resting on those results alone—or at least that was what they told us..), my bags were packed and I headed for the station. I looked at the bookstall, and my sense of relief was palpable; I did not have to read any of this stuff. I bought a thriller which I can't remember, and Isaac Asimov's first book in the Foundation trilogy (it later expanded). I remember reading it on the train and being somewhat sniffy about the style... but I read little fiction beyond science fiction (some of it very sophisticated) for almost two decades.

I now recognise those formative comments on my essays as nudges toward the mindset of the literary scholar, but they didn't work. I still haven't passed that threshold.

I happen to be reading, on a friend's recommendation, Harry Eyres' memoir Horace and Me. (Classics seem to be big this year. I've enjoyed Mary Beard's revisionist Confronting the Classics, and Daniel Klein's Travels with Epicurus is riding well up the charts; Klein wears his scholarship very lightly, as they say. It is there, to be sure, but the images of slowly savouring** the day, of sun and wine and olive groves... do somewhat swamp it!)

Horace and Me is quite an enjoyable read, (although I am struggling to finish the final 50 pages, and it's not that long) but... Eyres is a poet***. He uses Horace's (65-8 BCE) poetry as a commentary on his own life, and some of the meditations—on the pre-eminence of friendship, for example—are useful lenses/mirrors for reflection. But. Why should I be interested? It's not that it is merely self-indulgent, it's just that—for better or worse—I have failed to acquire the perspective he wants to share.

Thinking back, my tutors were right. I read literature searching for the moral of the story. Occasionally I got beyond that, to see a particular piece as an "example of" a particular style or philosophical stance, and got intrigued as to how that viewpoint was communicated—and deeply admiring of the craft of writing. But felicity of literary expression and rhetoric vary independently of the truth and value of content, and I was naively looking for the latter.

And literature has no necessary foundations. It's turtles all the way down. It was not until I discovered empirical social science that I felt there was somewhere to stand... I was disabused of that silly idea years later, of course.

So clearly I have missed some threshold concepts. OK. Without them—and of course I don't know what they are, or else I would perhaps have got them—I am excluded  from the ranks of people of literary sensibility.

But I de facto joined a different, less respected, club, of those who supposedly aspired to be social "scientists". (Proper scientists rightly won't let us join theirs, of course.) That's the ontological impact of TCs.

* 'Was Henry James a philistine? Discuss with respect to "The Portrait of a Lady" and "The Spoils of Poynton".' My argument somehow aligned these questions with Kierkegaard's "spheres"—aesthetic, ethical and religious... (The rhetoric of the question, I think I argued, privileged [pardon the modern shorthand] the ethical over the aesthetic...) Remember this preceded all the structuralist and po-mo b***s**t by about 20 years. The most radical framework of the day in this respect was Wayne C Booth's "Rhetoric of Fiction". I read it at least twice and enjoyed its insights—but totally missed the point that it was about a method and a perspective rather than simple information/ideas about the novels it analysed.

** Eyres suggests that carpe diem should be read as taste the day rather than sieze the day. I think savour (probably savor across the pond) is better although perhaps less faithful. If such matters interest you, I can heartily recommend David Bellos Is that a Fish in your Ear? (2011), on the challenges of translation..

*** He is a published poet, so he has some credibility. Anyone can claim to be a poet!


Booth, W C (1961) The Rhetoric of Fiction Chicago, Ill. University of Chicago Press (later ed., 1983)

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