The Book Club

Professional Deformation

Dear Sarah,

This week on the “Book Club,” Virginia Woolf and Ralph Waldo Emerson discuss Monica’s Story and Chicken Soup for the Alienated Intellectual Soul

I did indeed “do time” in graduate school–the penitentiary connotation is apt. The better part of a decade, in fact, failing to complete a dissertation in English–actually several dissertations, owing to my temperamental dilettantism, the fickleness of my advisers, and my short attention span. One of them (quickly abandoned) was about the structure of argument in Emerson’s early essays and lectures. I mention this not as a Wendy Lesser-ish factoid (even though I am the only person who ever dropped out of grad school–no typographical swearing, please!), but because you asked about self-reliance and original relations to the universe. (To access a hypertext version of the first chapter of my abortive dissertation on the structure of argument in Emerson’s early essays and lectures, click here. Just kidding.)

Emersonian concepts tend to be versions of each other, so your intuition is correct: The “original relation to the universe” that he posits at the beginning of Nature is linked to the idea of self-reliance elaborated in the essay of that name. And you are also right to suspect that these notions are rather irritatingly abstract and over-totalized. (Did you really say “over-totalized”? … Are you sure you never went to graduate school?) Or at least they are when quoted out of context, since Emerson’s method–the thing that makes his essays an unmatched intellectual workout–is to rotate and inflect a concept over the course of an essay until it ends up meaning something very different from, or even antithetical to, what it started out meaning. So the idea of “Self-Reliance” turns out to describe the experience of limits as much as it does the possibility of liberation. But, most simply, I take the stuff about having a right to an original relation to the universe to speak to our desire–our desire, not least, as writers and as readers–to throw off the feelings of secondariness, of belatedness, and of inferiority we feel when confronted with the masterpieces of the past, and to express ourselves with vigor and confidence equal to what the authors of those masterpieces must have felt when they composed them.

Or, as you put it rather more cogently, “you gotta live in the world you gotta live in.” An exemplary Emersonian sentiment, at once limiting and liberating. Emerson would not, however, have approved of your referring to the present moment in history as “crapola,” even though he might have felt that way about his own time. People tend to emphasize Emerson’s optimism and, often, to assume that he’s a shallow feel-good nitwit guru because of it. But Emerson’s early (and most typically Emersonian) writings were written during a time of intense personal and social anguish: the death of his first wife, the collapse of his career in the ministry (and of his Christian belief), the death of his beloved son Waldo, growing sectional division over slavery, and the aftermath of the ruinous Panic of 1837. These conditions are not those you spelled out at the beginning of your last letter, the ones we face today, but nonetheless we may know something about how Emerson felt. You could even say we’re all peas in a pod! Well, maybe not.

Which brings us (not really, but when there’s so much to talk about you have to force the transitions a little) to “The American Scholar,” not the magazine Joseph Epstein and Anne Fadiman have both edited, but the essay from which it borrowed its name, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is, all appearances to the contrary, not the subject of this “Book Club.” “The state of society,” Emerson wrote, “is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about like so many walking monsters–a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.” Ignore the sexism, and it’s clear that he’s talking about the division of labor, and the distribution of specialized functions across the population. My sense of the recent and continuing battles over the academy is that the specialization of intellectual work, and in particular the professionalization of literary study, is what they’re really about, rather than the supposed hijacking of the curriculum by a bunch of wild-eyed leftists.

What I think about this has changed a lot, partly as a consequence of having left academic life, but you and I have perhaps arrived at the same place from opposite directions. The biggest recent explosion of academy-bashing (which I remember as an avalanche of books: Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, David Lehman’s Signs of the Times, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals) came early in my grad-school sentence, and I tended to view it at the time pretty defensively: as, at worst, a malign right-wing conspiracy to deprive me and my friends of our livelihoods or, at best, a fatal, perhaps willful, misunderstanding on the part of journalists of the true nature of academic institutions and intellectual work. In other words, I thought that the professionalization of literary study was unambiguously a good thing. Now I think that it’s, ambiguously, not such a good thing, as I find myself frustrated with how distant the people who teach and study literature in the academy–that is to say, some of my best friends–seem from the needs and concerns of, dare I say it, the common reader.

But though I find myself increasingly bored by the both the narrow specialization and the persistent moralism (what Poirier calls “criticism in the spirit of the FDA”) in so much academic work, I share your sense that the generalists, amateurs, and “independents” out there have their own deficiencies, which might be cured by a dose of academic rigor and careful reading. For instance: I’m delighted that Wendy Lesser knows Thom Gunn, a poet whose work I adore, and I’m happy to hear about his love life, the way he dresses, etc. But her essay failed as criticism (which, to be fair, it was probably not intended to be) because it didn’t supply any information, or any argument, that could deepen my appreciation of his work. It was all impression, no analysis. And, similarly, while I was moved by Joseph Epstein’s memoir of his friend the University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils, I wasn’t terribly enlightened by it. A scholarly essay explicating Shils’ debt to Weber, say, or how Gunn absorbed the influence of Yvor Winters, who was his teacher, might be drier, but it also might be more useful. Useful, I mean, to the common reader, who is, as you so beautifully put it, “searching inside in order to go outside.” But Fadiman, Epstein, and Lesser block the way, by remaining stubbornly inside themselves. All we get is a guided tour of their own sensibilities. As Elaine once said on Seinfeld, apropos of the sex scenes in The English Patient: “Give me something I can use !”

I’m not necessarily faulting Lesser or Epstein (or Fadiman) for not being scholars or critics, but I do wish that they could be, somehow, more scholarly and more critical. Their essays left me with the feeling that criticism–vigorous, accessible, learned, and impersonal–is what we need these days. A face full of cold water after a long soak in the tepid bath of narcissism–other people’s narcissism, at that!

Which is to say: I think we should move on to James Wood, since he is neither a specialized scholar nor a self-loving amateur, but seems rather to be attempting, almost single-handedly, to revive the kind of wide-ranging, learned-but-not-academic, ethically serious criticism that flourished in the middle decades of this century. I think we both have doubts about the success of the enterprise–as you pointed out yesterday, his title and some of his governing preoccupations have a fusty, pompous air about them–but it’s risky, timely, and eminently worth discussing.