Posts Tagged ‘J.M. Coetzee’

Why the humanities? Coetzee asks if universities have “redefined themselves out of existence”

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013
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J.M._Coetzee

Going beyond “critical literacy”

Yesterday, I posted a brief rant about the plight of the humanities, likening it to a dancing bear, here.  But why take my word for it?  The South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee gives a different slant on the same subject in an article here,  an excerpt from a foreword to John Higgins‘s book, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa.  Coetzee asks: “Is a university without a proper faculty of humanities (or faculty of humanities and social sciences) still a university?”

“All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy,” he writes. “You argue – cogently – that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short­sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society – indeed, to a vigorous national economy – is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves, you argue, we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis. And only the neglected humanities can provide a training in such critical literacy.”

That’s Higgins’s stand, but I wish all that we were risking was a “complacent stasis.”  I don’t believe in stasis.  The escalator is either going up or down.  Stasis is an illusion, or at best a pause, a snag, in a movement in one direction or the other.  Coetzee admits “the traditional humanities have become alien ground” for many in academia.  He is pessimistic, but for different reasons.  He describes a move underway since the 1980s, pursued by “neoliberal enemies of the university,” to purge what he described “as a leftist or anarchist or anti-rational or anti-civilisational malaise.”  It has  has succeeded to such an extent “that to conceive of universities any more as seedbeds of agitation and dissent would be laughable.” He adds that “there are too few people left who really believe in the humanities and in the university built on humanistic grounds, with philosophical, historical and philological studies as its pillars.” This is an excerpt of a longer foreword, and I wonder if some of the logic of his argument wound up on the cutting room floor.  Then he tackles the commonplace Higgins’s defense of the humanities, that they alone can teach “critical literacy”:

petrarch1

Whozat guy on the right?

… I envisage a telling question will be asked of you: even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses – courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enrol – one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

Basic courses in cultural literacy are not a new idea. They have been mounted at countless American universities under the rubric of “Freshman Composition”. These universities have been responding to precisely the same pressure that the humanities in South Africa now feel.

There is nothing wrong with arguing that a good humanistic education will produce graduates who are critically literate, by some definition of critical literacy. However, the claim that only the full apparatus of a humanistic education can produce critical literacy seems to me hard to sustain, since it is always open to the objection: if critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself? Would that not be simpler, and cheaper too?

He concludes:

higgins… in the end, I believe, you will have to make a stand. You will have to say: we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society.

In institutions of higher learning in Poland, in the bad old days, if on ideological grounds you were not permitted to teach real philosophy, you let it be known that you would be running a philosophy seminar in your living room, outside office hours, outside the institution. In that way the study of philosophy was kept alive. It may be something along the same lines will be needed to keep humanistic studies alive in a world in which universities have redefined themselves out of existence.

Have we come to that?  Of course I’d heard about such secret classes in Poland during both the Nazi and Communist era.  But could I find a picture?  Obviously, participants had an interest in not documenting these events.  So I noodled around on Google for a bit.  Instead I turned up this, a rather clumsy translation on a French article, “Sans Armes Face au Nazis,” from L’Histoire Magazine, 2007.  The Polish universities, closed by the Nazis, continued secretly to accept hundreds of students. The photo purports to show the dean of the University of Bromberg and others, awaiting execution.  I can find no confirmation of this incident anywhere online.

Nevertheless, my point, and I do have one, is to point out the enormous payment made by others to preserve precisely the areas of knowledge whose worth we are now questioning, “frills” like literature and philosophy and art, which don’t seem jazzy or cool enough compared to our smartphones.  Yesterday, I likened the situation of the humanities to a dancing bear.  But there have been times in the not too remote past when the bear has risen up to is full stature and power and majesty, and was nobody’s circus pet.

bromberg

The enormous price.

 

 

Happy Halloween – here’s the best pumpkin evah.

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012
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Happy Halloween, everybody!

Enjoy the day with the best pumpkin of the year – perhaps the best pumpkin evah.  This beauty was commissioned for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and carved by Marc Evan and Chris Soria.  I wonder how long it took to make.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of the day, you might want to revisit Dana Gioia’s ghost story, or more recently the Jeff Sypeck’s take on the spooks from the rooftops of Washington’s National Cathedral.  Or how about George Orwell on love, sex, religion, and ghosts. Or… or… or… Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween.

Enjoy the day, and take it easy on the candy.  Read a book instead.

Postscript:  From high art to pop art in a few quick hours.  Here’s another pumpkin to celebrate the day.  Sculptor Andy Bergholtz created the jack-o-lantern Joker in one manic 8-hour stretch:

“Surprisingly, Bergholtz has only been carving pumpkins for a year. He said that another sculptor he knows, Ray Villafane, had been encouraging him for years to sculpt squash, but he resisted.  Then last year Villafane recruited him to help carve pumpkins for Heidi Klum’s Vegas Halloween party. Bergholtz said, ‘I instantly fell in love with the art form and haven’t looked back since.’”

Want to know how the artist did it?  See video below.

René Girard and the verboten four-letter word

Saturday, May 12th, 2012
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What is the forbidden, unspeakable four-letter word in the English language?  René Girard has the answer:

“We often brag that no one can scandalize us anymore, but what about ‘envy’? Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant.  We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation.  If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?”

The words are from his 1991 book A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare – the only book he has written in English (fittingly, about William Shakespeare, who has been a lifelong passion for this devotee of French literature).  My copy of the book arrived a few days ago, and just in time.

He has a lot to answer for.

Coincidentally, I checked out Arcade a few days later and found that João Cezar de Castro Rocha of Rio de Janeiro is extending René’s argument about “mimetic envy” to include  colonialism and the notion of “Shakespearean countries”:

Perhaps the best way of outlining a brief definition of what I propose to call Shakespearean countries is resorting to V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, whose title already suggests a Girardian reading of the work of the Nobel Prize [writer]. Reflecting upon his life, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Ralph Singh, identifies a common feature between him and a “young English student”: “He was like me: he needed the guidance of other men’s eyes”. A little further, the narrator acknowledges the mimetic nature of his desire: “We became what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others”.

Whoever experiences this cultural circumstance lives a sort of “half a life”, always dependent upon someone else’s eyes and opinions – very much like Shakespearean characters, according to René Girard’s study William Shakespeare: A Theater of Envy. Indeed, Half a life is precisely the title-metaphor of another novel by the same writer. In it, Naipaul deals with the same fundamental issue expressed by a character [a Brahmin] who has casually met the English writer W. Somerset Maugham. Due to a series of revealing cultural misunderstandings, the writer considered the Brahmin a sacred and wise man, and wrote about him as a holy man in one of his novels. Then, the Brahmin immediately became “famous for having been written about by a foreigner”, as J. M. Coetzee aptly summarized the plot in an important review of Naipaul’s novel. However, to the Brahmin this fame did not come without its pitfalls: “It became hard for me to step out of the role”. The role created by someone else’s eyes, and as the character has to accept:  “I recognized that breaking out had become impossible, and I settled down to live the strange life that fate had bestowed on me”. In this case, fate has a proper name and refers to the foreigner’s gaze. And since the foreigner is seen as an undisputed model, he has the authority of defining what he looks at.

Naturally, the Brazilian scholar focuses more on Latin American literary and cultural history.  He’s made several posts already: “Mimetic Theory and Latin America” is here, “Mimetic Theory and Cannibalism” is here, and “Shakespearean Countries?” (cited above) is here.

Incidentally, W. Somerset Maugham inspired some mimesis of his own.  Leonard Nimoy has said that when he was creating a voice for Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, he listened to hours of recordings of the English writer reading his works.

 

Postscript on 5/13:  I thought the name João Cezar de Castro Rocha sounded familiar – he’s one of René Girard’s interlocutors for the book Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture.

By the way, René’s theories are getting some new traction not only from a mini-revival of Shirley Jackson, whose landmark short story, “The Lottery,” describes the “scapegoat mechanism,” but also from The Hunger Games, another exploration of societal scapegoating.

A priest’s explanation of The Hunger Games in light of René’s theories (below) has been making the rounds … but there’s a curious omission. He describes the need for scapegoating when tensions arise within societies, but he skips a huge chunk of René’s thinking when he overlooks the cause of that tension – that nasty four-letter word taboo again.

Goethe, J.M. Coetzee, and a million little lies

Monday, April 9th, 2012
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Show me a guy like this, and I’ll show you a first-class drag:

“I present a young person gifted with deep, pure feeling and true penetration, who loses himself in rapturous dreams, buries himself in speculation, until at last, ruined by unhappy passions that supervene, in particular an unfulfilled love, puts a bullet in his head.”

Leave it to J.M. Coetzee, writing in this week’s New York Review of Books, to explain how Goethe‘s early book, The Sufferings of Young Werther (new Norton translation by Stanley Corngold) is “extraordinary, trail-blazing.”

“Goethe claimed that he wrote the first draft of Werther in four weeks, in a somnambulistic trance,” writes Coetzee.  That explains it.  The book is a testament to bottomless self-pity – am I missing something? I haven’t the patience. Oh, the joys of middle-age … one has survived so many thing worse than a lost love.

"Ossian on the banks of the Lora, Invoking the Gods to the Strains of the Harp"

But the most interesting passages discuss James Macpherson‘s putatative Ossian, that Scottish bard from misty, mystic early centuries who flavors Goethe’s novella.  What a lot of hooey!

The taste for Ossian is a feature of early Romantic sensibility easy to mock. The fact is, however, that until well into the nineteenth century the poems were widely accepted as a great epic of northern European civilization. “The Homer of the North,” Madame de Staël called Ossian. The recovery of the Ossian epic in Scotland became a spur to the recovery—or invention—of other founding national epics: Beowulf in England, the Kalevala in Finland, the Nibelungenlied in Germany, the Chanson de Roland in France, the Song of the Host of Igorin Russia.

Macpherson was not a great poet (pace William Hazlitt, who set him alongside Dante and Shakespeare) nor even a dedicated one: his Ossian project concluded, Macpherson quit the Highlands for London, where he was fêted, then took ship to Pensacola in the new British colony of West Florida, where he spent two years on the staff of the governor. Returning to England, he entered politics; he died a wealthy man. …

Taken in ... in a big way.

In Britain the Ossian poems were tainted by controversy over their authenticity. Were there indeed Highlanders who could recall and recite these ancient lays, or had Macpherson made them up? Macpherson did not help his case by seeming reluctant to produce his Gaelic originals.

In Europe the question of authenticity had no purchase. Translated into German in 1767, Ossian had a huge impact, inspiring an outpouring of bardic imitations. The young Goethe was so smitten that he taught himself Gaelic in order to translate directly into German the specimens of Scots Gaelic he found in The Works of Ossian. The early Schiller is full of Ossianic echoes; Hölderlin committed pages of Ossian to memory.

Well, I had thought better of Hölderlin.  Sensible Samuel Johnson concluded that Macpherson was “a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries.”  Gives a historical perspective to James Frey, Greg Mortenson, & co., don’t it?

Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween!

Saturday, October 30th, 2010
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In their book-crammed flat (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Still thinking about evil after my post a few days ago, in keeping with Halloween.  Where better to turn than a Dostoevsky scholar?

Joseph Frank sent me his book Between Religion and Rationality some time ago.  Morgan Meis over at The Owls would have found the cover sexy.  My tastes, alas, are a little more flashy and vulgar.  I found it too sedate.  Perhaps that’s why the book remained in a pile of books I meant to read.  But I picked it up at last for his chapter on “Dostoevsky and Evil.”

I was pleased to see Joe’s essay style is lucid and unaffected — and as digressive and roundabout as he can be in conversation.  So the effect is halfway between formal essay and a conversation in Joe and Marguerite’s book-crammed campus flat.

He opens with J.M. Coetzee‘s Elizabeth Costello, discussing the title character’s revulsion at Paul West’s The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, which describes degrading,  obscene details of the execution of Hitler’s would-be assassins.  But the details recounted are fictional.  No one was there to say what had actually happened.

Not sexy

“What troubles her above all is that, while appalled and repelled by the book, she had not been able to push it away entirely. It had resisted her feelings of revulsion and disgust, and she feared that some of the ‘absolute evil’ it depicted had, as it were, also infected her; ‘she felt, she could have sworn, the brush of Satan’s hot, leathery wing.”

(The protagonist also shares Coetzee’s passionate vegetarianism: “If Satan is not rampant in the abattoir, casting the shadow of its wings over the beast … where is he?”)

Mario Vargas Llosa, author of The Feast of the Goat, another book that portrays evil in graphic detail, has a different take.  (And here’s where Dostoevsky comes into play.)  Joe quotes the Peruvian author:

“Perhaps we would be able to read what Mr. West wrote and learn from it, and therefore come out stronger rather than weaker. … The manner in which a poem, a novel, a play works on the sensibility or on a character varies to infinity, and much more as a result of the reader than rather than of the work.  To read Dostoevsky may, in some cases, lead to traumatic and criminal consequences, while on the other hand it is not impossible that the spermatic iniquities of the Marquis de Sade have increased the percentage of virtuous readers, vaccinating them against carnal vice.”

Sorry.  I’m with fellow vegetarians Coetzee and Elizabeth Costello on this one. I know what it is like to feel polluted even by a brilliantly written book (perhaps more so then).  But the good Prof. Frank has a different p.o.v. altogether:  “The details chosen to evoke the scene are his [West's] own creation, and her [Costello's] horrified response cannot simply be fobbed off as a private reader reaction.”  Recalling Dostoevsky’s murders in Crime and Punishment, he writes:

Pity, terror, and dinner soon

“One would be hard put to match such grisly details in either the European or the Russian novel of the same period, but their effect is ultimately offset by the intensity of Raskolnikov’s inner suffering and his final inability to endure his total estrangement from the rest of humanity.  …  One can find example after example in Dostoevsky’s works of the same boldness in depicting evil at work and the same effort to overcome its effects.”

He returns to Costello, Coetzee, and Paul West:

“… as author he [West] is responsible for the manner in which he depicts this episode; and there is no evidence here of pity, only terror and even horror.  It is such horror that leads Costello to level against him the charge of ‘obscenity,’ and to arrive at her extreme conclusion. ‘To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must for ever remain off-stage.  Paul West … has shown what ought not to be shown.’”

Costello longs to argue with West, “some confrontation leading to some final word” — however, concludes Frank, “one cannot help thinking that the person Costello really wishes to meet, rather than Paul West, is an incarnation of Dostoevsky.”

And perhaps Charles Dickens, as well.  And Victor Hugo.  Maybe Lev Tolstoy, too. May I come to that dinner?  Soon?