Andrew Kay has a PhD in English and left the academy three years ago. He returns to the Modern Language Association’s annual conference and finds that it is like that viral photo of Oregon golfers “calmly putting while, in the near distance, a wildfire consumes the landscape”: “Thus MLA 2019. In conference rooms located in the depths of the hotel, the field’s most vigorous minds — Lauren Berlant! Bruce Robbins! — teed off powerfully before hushed spectators, launching fresh takes on everything from satire to the nature of critique. They often began the same way: with the stated intention to ‘trouble’ or ‘disrupt’ the existing paradigm by staging an ‘intervention.’ A windup would follow: ‘If, as Foucault suggests, …’ the speaker would say, gathering might. Then a swing, swift and superb — the intervention sailed through the intellectual firmament, and, with luck, found its critical mark to the dazzlement of those present: birdies of theoretical acumen, eagles of originality. Other scholars opted for modest putts, readings of Coleridge and Coetzee greeted by polite clapping. Now and then a bogey: A reading would be less than convincing, and the author would, during the Q&A, ‘get a little push-back’ from one or more listeners (that’s academese for ‘I’m not buying this’). It was all mannerly and urbane. People were getting in one last round.”
Or, it’s like living in a bunker. More: “I woke the next morning with a hangover. I looked at my phone: it was the three-year anniversary of my finished dissertation . . . I showered, dressed, and headed to the elevator, where a young man from Seton Hall University effused to a peer: ‘If you practice dialectic in the antinomian way that Adorno lays out, then you can’t achieve the synthesis Hegel envisions.’ I stared straight ahead. Downstairs, wide-eyed scholars skipped to panels, kids let loose at Six Flags. I wandered among them, surrounded but unrecognized, like a ghost come back to a world once its own. I followed the current to a panel on Romanticism, where a presenter argued for ‘the now-ness of Foucault’s Archaeology.’ I was relieved to discover that I didn’t give a damn. All I could think was how strange it was that this was the endpoint of falling in love with, and dedicating your life to, poems about people striding through the Alps and glimpsing sublimity: you wound up in a hotel room far below the ground, where the air was awful and people talked at you in a weird, creepy language — a language that had somehow attached itself to poetry the way the titular creature clings to John Hurt’s face in Alien and won’t let go.”
It’s a good piece, though there’s something slightly performative about the whole thing. Let me also add that the problem with the discipline is not just the language English professors have adopted over the past fifty years, it’s the view that literary works are mere tools in a power struggle between individuals and groups in a society. The discipline replaced literature with politics long ago, and so it should come as no surprise that literature is seen by politicians and others as superfluous.
In other news: How “Christian” are Marilynne Robinson’s novels? Less than you might think, argues Jessica Hooten Wilson: “Robinson interprets the Christian faith according to her own rubric, focusing always on God’s love, an admirable-sounding goal. In the 2008 Harvard Divinity Bulletin, she reveres the Apostles’ Creed, except, Robinson adds, for ‘that descent into hell, which I don’t find in scripture.’ For Robinson, the most repugnant part of scripture is God’s sacrifice on the cross. She chooses to emphasize the love and self-giving of Jesus in that act, rather than its violent cost or our need for atonement. However, as Johnson reminds readers, ‘Christ’s death not only reveals that God is love; it also shows us how God is love. The cross reveals that God’s love is not sentimental but self-giving.’”
You may have read that “Shakespeare Was a Woman” piece in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Dominic Green responds to the silliness: “Winkler’s article, like every case for Shakespeare not having been Shakespeare, repeatedly commits the elementary error of historical writing. Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. It is strange that Shakespeare doesn’t refer to books in his will. But it doesn’t mean that he didn’t read. Hitler, after all, did not attend the Wannsee Conference. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t order the Holocaust.”
How has Danielle Steel written 179 books? By working, she claims, 20 to 22 hours a day.
A new biography of Susan Sontag claims she wrote her first husband’s book Freud: The Mind of the Moralist: “Out in September, Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser lays out textual and anecdotal evidence that Sontag was not only the unofficial co-author of the 1959 analysis of Freud, which has long been known . . . Moser acknowledges in the biography that Freud: The Mind of the Moralist is based, at least to some degree, on Rieff’s research and notes, but claims: ‘He almost certainly did not actually write the book upon which his career was based.’ Sontag’s friend Minda Rae Amiran told him that, while the pair lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ‘Susan was spending every afternoon rewriting the whole thing from scratch’.”
Lox, the word that “hasn’t changed in sound or meaning in 8,000 years.”
Terry Teachout writes in praise of the McDonald’s cheeseburger: “I stopped at a McDonald’s for a snack while driving from Connecticut to New York the other day. I ordered a two-cheeseburger meal, which is what I usually get at McDonald’s when not eating breakfast. I wouldn’t dream of trying to tell you, though, that the McDonald’s cheeseburger is anything special. In fact, it’s the most nondescript of sandwiches, designed for near-instant preparation and similarly quick consumption, consisting as it does of a paper-thin ground-beef patty, a limp slice of American cheese, a couple of dill pickle chips, a sprinkling of freeze-dried onion flakes, and a splash of ketchup, all squashed between the halves of a white-bread bun. It doesn’t hold a candle to the Quarter Pounder, which is superior in every way—yet I remain stubbornly loyal to the penny-plain cheeseburger. Why is this so? The reason came to me from out of the blue midway through my second burger: it reminds me of my childhood.”
Essay of the Day:
In Lit Hub, Tobias Wolff writes about his memoir, This Boy’s Life, which was published 30 years ago, and explains why he decided to write the book in the first place:
“I started writing fiction as a schoolboy, imitating the kind of stories I loved to read—stories by O. Henry and Edgar Allen Poe; later, Jack London, and later still Ernest Hemingway. And for many years I remained dedicated to fiction, where I could give myself free rein, drawing on my own experiences as much or as little as I liked, while wrapping them in stories and characters of my own creation. The veil of fiction gave me liberty not only to invent, but also to tell the truth, even deeply personal truth, which is easier to do from behind a mask. Thus you can say what you have to say, confess what you must confess, and at the same time deflect judgment by appealing to fiction’s implicit claim that the faults on display are the faults of a character, and certainly not—or at least not necessarily—your own. In this way writers of fiction set themselves apart from the fallen creatures whose troubles and shortcomings give shape to their stories, hovering above the fray ‘like the God of the Creation,’ as Joyce suggests, ‘invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.’
“The memoirist enjoys no such elevation from this human mess, no concealment from its scrutiny, no immunity from its judgments. Though I admired the best of them—Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, for example, Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, or my brother Geoffrey’s The Duke of Deception—I had no wish to write a memoir. I was shy of the personal exposure unavoidable in such a project, and also of the question it posed: Who would care? I was not a famous writer or any kind of famous, and with very few exceptions most memoirs of the time depended for their interest on the celebrity of the writer—Oscar-winning actors, war-winning generals, and so on.
“But here it is—the memoir I did not intend to write. Why did I do it, after all? It happened this way, or roughly this way. A colleague of mine came to dinner one night with his wife. In the course of the evening, he made a few references to what he supposed to be our shared background, a background of prosperity and comfort and seamless ascent to our current pampered condition as university professors. His inaccurate assumptions about my history were mildly irritating, but on reflection I couldn’t really fault him. I had gone to good schools, lived in a nice house, drove a Volvo, read deep books. He didn’t know the particulars of my background, and why should he? Except with my mother and my brother I rarely talked about the past, not out of any shame, but because I was more interested in what was going on in the present with my growing family, my work as a teacher, and scrounging for time to write new stories while fretting over the fate of those I was sending out to various journals and, later, book publishers.
“Not long after that dinner with my colleague, I began to write This Boy’s Life. It is almost always a mistake to assign a single cause to changes of heart or mind. Though I’ve put weight on that conversation, with its good-willed but annoying presumption, it probably just gave a nudge to a possibility I hadn’t really dismissed, of writing about my early life with my mother. In any case, I wanted to leave some record of those years for my young children, who, knowing so little of my past, might well have grown up assuming that the privileged life we enjoyed was somehow natural and even inevitable. It was not. I’d been a better prospect for the penitentiary than for the college lectern or the writer’s desk. My mother, once so glamorous and unconventional, footloose to the point of recklessness, had settled into respectable retirement in Florida, serving as secretary of the Deltona Lakes Garden Club, and, for a time, president of the League of Women Voters of Volusia County.”
Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.