Posts Tagged ‘Joshua Landy’

Joshua Landy: “Literary texts are not cudgels but weight machines.”

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012
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"Literature as Rorschach test, simulation space, participatory wrestling match" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Why read hard books? the Guardian‘s Stephen Abell asks.

Joshua Landy rushes to the rescue with equally hard answers in his new book, How to Do Things with Fictions.  Josh is nothing if not a lively thinker.  Abell writes:  “His answer, when shorn of its sometimes uncomfortably scratchy fleece of critical theory, is simple: complicated literature (like green vegetables) is good for you. Landy believes that certain texts provide training for our minds, by actively working on the reader to expand their mental capacity: ‘each work, in other words, contains within itself a manual for reading, a set of implicit instructions on how it may best be used.’”

Frankly, I like the even more simple answer he gave me in his Stanford office, nearly two years ago: “Spending time in the presence of works of great beauty can powerfully change your life.”  In fact, I think the article I wrote goes some way towards answering the questions I posed last week about defending the humanities:  “The Cambridge-educated Landy rejected the notion that literature is morally improving. Instead, great works ‘enable us to clarify ourselves to ourselves.’ He offered ‘literature as Rorschach test, literature as simulation space, literature as participatory wrestling match.’ He advocated moving away from the ‘stranglehold of narrativity,’ which literature shares with biography and history, and turning to ‘a more lyrical mode of thinking.’”

The case studies from his new book range across five countries and 2,500 years: Plato‘s Gorgias and Symposium, St. Mark‘s gospel, Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, a sonnet by Stéphane Mallarmé, and Samuel Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.  Abell writes:

Before we get to the evidence, we receive a breathless summary of various other literary theories that seek to explain the purpose of fiction. Landy is fond of lists and numbers, and posits “13 ways of looking at fiction”, which include three main schools of thought: the “exemplary” (novels as morals; read Clarissa and become a better person); the “affective” (freeing our emotions; see Kafka‘s wonderful observation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”); and the “cognitive”. Landy spends most time on the “cognitive”, subdividing it – I think – into four other sections, but basically categorising it as the view that novels are “directly educational”.

Landy’s own theory, of fiction as a thought-trainer, comes close to this notion, but he exerts himself considerably to condemn those “meaning-mongers” who insist that fictions provide the key to straightforward verities. He is also dismissive of those of us who only want to dwell on the enjoyment of being told a story, or what he calls “the glorious uselessness of fiction, its ostensible inability to yield anything beyond pleasure”.

Abell hints strongly at the end of the piece that he reads books for the plots.  But Josh Landy’s description of one case study, the Gospel of St. Mark, during a colloquium two years ago, was downright spellbinding:

Landy offered an example from his forthcoming book, focusing on Jesus’ parables, as told in the Gospel according to Mark: “The big mistake that people have made across the centuries is to think that what’s on offer in the parables is some kind of message. But the parables do not seek to teach; they seek to train.”

The parables, often obscure, were meant to move readers of Mark’s texts from the literal to the metaphoric, Landy said, a shift that “implies that nothing we see is inherently significant, since the entire visible realm is merely a symbol for a higher plane of experience.”

“To move away from literal language to figurative language is to move away from the body and to the spirit,” Landy said.

“Literary texts do not bludgeon us into submission,” Landy said. “They are not obligations but offers. They are not cudgels but weight machines. Their effects are neither automatic nor inevitable.”

Read the rest of Abell’s interesting article here.  Or read my story here.

Josh Landy’s lonely fight against “The Chicago Way”

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012
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"Has he not read his Bakhtin? Has he not read, well, anything?" (Photo: L.A. Cicero"

“Who is this Mr. Chicago?” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Unemployment remains above 8 percent.  Foreclosures continue to devastate cities.  There’s persistent talk of a double dip recession.  And all President Obama and Mitt Romney do is whack at each other.

It’s time to get serious.

So what about the Oxford comma? I have had an ongoing argument with an editor of my acquaintance over this issue. Wars have been fought over less.

Josh Landy has some good and certainly witty points on these and other subjects in his Arcade essay entitled, “Who is this Mr. Chicago, and what does he have against the English language?

Chicago ManualHe is, of course, railing against the tyrannical Chicago Manual of Style.  I think of myself as somewhat of a style agnostic, having been brought up on the AP Stylebook since I was knee-high to a pica rule.  I’ve even adhered to the esoteric MLA Stylebook, on occasion.

But I applaud the Mr. Chicago on most of his choices,  with the most powerful exception being the prohibition against starting sentences with numerals. “Nine hundred and ninety-eight people responded to the survey” seems a bit cumbersome to me.  So does writing out numbers up to 100.  Like Mr. Chicago, I still prefer the old-fashioned abbreviations for states over the ugly postal codes that have become ubiquitous (I favor Mich. instead of MI, Wisc. instead of WI).

Josh takes exception to Mr. Chicago’s avoidance of hyphenated words, rolling them into one:  ”I sometimes think he has a secret desire to turn English into German.  An Englishintogermanconvertingdesire.” I side with Mr. Chicago. I think the excessive use of hyphens is aesthetically squalid.

Josh deplores Mr. Chicago’s putative habit of wrenching hyphenated terms apart, but he blows his argument when he uses “finely tuned” as an example.  Surely he knows adverbs ending in “ly” are never hyphenated?  Wait a minute, that’s the AP Stylebook…

“You better watch where you put those commas, Mr. Landy. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”

It is time for me to out Mr. Landy.  He is an Englishman.  And, as someone once wrote, an Englishman lecturing Americans on punctuation is akin to an American lecturing the French on sauces.  I am irritated by English texts that seem to be on a unending comma diet.  The elimination of commas after clauses like these: “In May Churchill gave his address to the…”  Who is May Churchill?

Josh continues:

No, Mr. Chicago won’t let us say “consider for example the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V,” or “thus for instance I may acknowledge,” or “fiction too is a requirement.”  Instead he insists on commas around “for example” and “for instance” and “too,” and also after “namely” and “now.”  In fact, Mr. Chicago would not have allowed my first sentence in this paragraph; he would have insisted on a comma after “say.”  But all these commas slow things down.

As they say in Chicago, “What’s the hurry, Bub?”

To show how desperate things can get, Helen DeWitt, who can only be described as a punctuation libertarian (she hyphenates copy editor, for example), rants in a 2007 post over at Paperpools about her trauma in publishing a book involving a number of texts with different kinds of punctuation.  She cites an Oprah Winfrey interview with  author Cormac McCarthy: “He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things.”

Style libertarian (Photo: Aileen Son)

Now, I like 18th-century punctuation; I like 17th-century punctuation; I like 16th-century punctuation; one of the things I love about Peter Ackroyd is the way he gets the punctuation right when he writes a text that is from another century. The punctuation is part of the texture of the text, and when I read that a text has been repunctuated for modern readers I go away and find another edition of the text. I like McCarthy’s punctuation in McCarthy’s texts, but I would rather not have it imported into the work of Jonathan Swift. The assumption that one has the right to repunctuate a writer’s texts is in fact a very dangerous one, since it leaves modern writers open to all kinds of abuse.

Hence she was at odds with her publisher when a manic copy editor decided to have a go at her text, making thousands and thousands of punctuation corrections.  DeWitt describes one of the opening rounds:

The editor came back to the office; I assumed we would now have a discussion involving someone with a wider knowledge of literature. My editor has an undergraduate degree from Oxford in French and Italian; he has an M.Litt. for a thesis on Music and Montale; presumably someone who has read Montale &c. &c. The office was on the 55th floor of a building looking down Manhattan; it was so high you could see the East River and the West River and the end of the island, it was the office of a Master of the Universe.

He hates semicolons.

In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.

It gets worse.  In America, land of the free, she argues, we should be free to punctuate as inventively, as creatively as we wish.  She dashes to a bookshop to buy The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and shows it to her publisher.  Her manuscript nevertheless slips through to the “advanced reading copy” stage with her persistent “stets” disregarded.  She mulls suicide: “If I kill myself now, though, the book will go out looking like this, so I have to try not to kill myself before it is fixed.”

Even Tatum O’Neal is involved. Read the rest here.

Postscript on 7/20:  The incomparable Dave Lull retrieved the following passages, from Jacques Barzun‘s  essay “Dialogue in C-Sharp,” in response to a younger editor who cited the Chicago Manual whenever he could:

“. . . run words together and make the reader puzzle out the result. See here: antiintellectual in one word. What is the point? What has been gained?”

“Never mind the Manual – it isn’t holy scripture; I haven’t joined a religious sect and taken an oath to be ruled by a book. My creed is that I put my name only to what I write; I write as I like; and I like hyphens – especially when they make reading easier.”

Postscript on 1/8/2013:  You see what it’s all come to?  “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence,” from The Onion, here.

“Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. ‘At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,’ said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word ‘anti-social’ had been corrected to read ‘antisocial.’”

50th anniversary of René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel gets kisses and punches

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011
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Josh Landy’s practical application of Girard’s “mimetic theory”

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of René Girard‘s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel – and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, try looking at the website here for scheduled celebrations at Stanford, Berlin, São Paulo, Cambridge, and Yale.  Berkeley symposium is described  here.

I can’t say I sampled many of the events, but I did drop by for a few of the Stanford talks, notably Robert Harrison‘s opening and closing remarks, and Josh Landys anti-Girard talk, “Valentine’s Day,” especially since Josh said he had written his remarks with me in mind (we had quarreled somewhat over at Arcade months ago, which is how we met).

Robert noted that René is a leading Christian thinker – “to what degree is that a stumblingblock?” he asked.  He said “René is one of the titans of the 20th century – of whom there are few.”

Yet “Girard’s standing is in doubt,” he said. “Precisely the Christian framework within which people understand Deceit, Desire, and the Novel can turn people off.”

The conference, to circumvent the perceived problem, limited its scope to the 50-year-old book  they were celebrating, considering René’s mimetic theory and “the invidious nature of human desire,” but banishing his theories about the scapegoat mechanisms and civilizations from the event.  Robert wanted to explore “to what extent one doesn’t have to buy into the whole theory,” since modern people don’t want “to submit to a totalizing theory.”

“Girard does not believe the truth of literature is confined to the text,” said Robert.  “He believes that the truth has to be wrestled from concealment.”

Hence, he is “pressing to uncover the structure of certain psychological laws … the primary site of revelation.”  He is trying to learn “the truth that applies to human religions in general.”

Noting that “very, very few anthropologists give any credence” to René’s thoughts on the anthropology of religion” because “he comes to anthropology as an amateur” (René called it “poaching” when he spoke to me), Robert compared him to  Heinrich Schliemann, the German businessman who was right about Troy, but whose successful amateur attempts to excavate destroyed important archaeological layers of the real Troy.

“Even if it’s true, they will not take him seriously.”

I did, also, attend a few of the events in Berkeley.  The two gatherings – one at Berkeley; one at Stanford – were like night and day.  The Berkeley gathering focused on the theological aspects of René’s work, as well as the literary, with presentations on Girardian connections with Simone Weil, Molière, Rousseau, and others.  The Berkeley crowd was older, and predominantly male; the Stanford crowd was younger, trendier, with more women.  But there was an more profound split in orientation, which has interesting presentiments for the thinker’s legacy.

At Berkeley, I scribbled a few of René’s sayings in my notebook, as they were related by others.  “Philosophers never include themselves in their philosophy.” “Laughter means a denial of reciprocity.” “Escaping from mimesis is something only geniuses and saints can do.” “I am really a positivist, but I’m too ashamed to admit that – it is such a peasant thing to be.” “All art is incarnation.”

Robert Hamerton Kelly, at Berkeley, trumped all with his quote, when René said of his work, “I really shouldn’t have called it a theory – but every French intellectual has to have a theory.  It’s just a few observations of human behavior.”

“That took the wind out of my sails,” he said.

NYT: “Do colleges need French departments?” Josh Landy thinks they do.

Friday, December 10th, 2010
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My recent article on Joshua Landy‘s rousing defense of the humanities built on an earlier New York Times article:  “Do Colleges Need French Departments?”  The Proust scholar addressed the question with his students in the video above, and to the rest of the world here.  The NYT focus is once again the Albany Massacre, which we wrote on the Book Haven here and here.

Josh told me that he’d made a similar spirited defense on Arcade, “SUNY Albany, Stanley Fish, and the Enemy Within.” It’s worth a look.  Inevitably, perhaps, Josh also attacks Stanley Fish‘s much-blogged post, “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives“:  “Let’s put it this way: if the most prominent humanists are publicly proclaiming their belief in the utter uselessness of what they do, what reason could a cash-strapped administrator possibly have for not shutting down their departments?” he asks.

Fortunately—as many excellent Arcade posts, among other things, have shown—not all of us feel the same way our “friend” Stanley does.  But it’s time for all of us to get just as vocal as him.  Yes, it may be embarrassing for us to make positive claims for what we do (we’ve specialized for quite a while in making negative claims about more or less everything), but we may just have to accept a little embarrassment.  Perhaps it’s the price we’ll have to pay for heading off future Albanys.

What can we say? Plenty. Here are his talking points:

  • Yes, the humanities do enhance our culture. … In fact, it’s hard to know what culture is if it’s not things like Picassos and Pink Floyd albums and Toni Morrison novels.  Not to mention the people, like Henry Louis Gates and Michael Fried and Helen Vendler (or for that matter Sister Wendy or Benard Pivot or the makers of Art21), who help us to love those works even more.  This may not be an exciting thing for us humanists to say to each other, but it’s straightforwardly true.

    "Has he not read his Bakhtin? Has he not read, well, anything?" (Photo: L.A. Cicero"

    "We need every voice we've got." (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

  • Yes, some of those books that people teach do contain “the best that has been thought and said.”  It should be remembered here that Fish has a very hard time distinguishing between the humanities in general and literary study in particular.  But the rest of us, I think, understand that the humanities also include, among other disciplines, that of philosophy.  Who wants to say that W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, to take just one example, is not among “the best that has been thought and said”?  I’m not in any way arguing for a core curriculum (it’s part of Fish’s polarizing thinking that you’re either a hip value-denier or a pathetic canon-defender; let’s resist that false dichotomy).  I’m just saying that people who teach DuBois (and Lao-Tsu, and Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir…), in whatever context, are doing everyone a favor.multidisciplinary minds and a broad spectrum of experiences.” (qtd. in Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, 132.)  These are not humanists.  These are business people.
  • What is more, the humanities expose us to—and, very often, cause us to fall in love with—other cultures, both within our country and outside it.  Is it embarrassing to say this out loud?  Certainly.  Does it need to be said?  Apparently so.
  • And then there’s the fact that exposure to the humanities changes us, enriches us, expands our imagination, clarifies our thinking, gives new depths to our being.  Yes, even the literary humanities manage this.  Fish appears to believe—stunningly!—that great literary works could help us only if they provided examples for emulation in the form of heroic characters.  Has he not read his Bakhtin?  Has he not read, well, anything?

Josh concludes:  “There’s much, much more to be said; please help me in saying it.  We need every voice we’ve got.”  A lively discussion follows — check it out.