Essays - Winter 2005

The Coming of the French

My life as an English professor

By Phyllis Rose | December 1, 2004


In 1971, in my second year of holding a doctorate in English literature and of teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, I attended a lecture by a French literary scholar of whom I knew nothing. Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities, which brought writers, scholars, and political thinkers to the campus for visits as short as an evening or as long as a semester, offered public lectures every Monday night. There was some pressure for professors to attend, although I, living far from campus, didn’t often go.

At that time, the faculty was almost entirely male. I was one of five women among some two hundred professors. There were no female undergraduates. It’s hard to imagine how woman-empty many American colleges were in those days, colleges that are now coeducational. Moreover, the atmosphere at the Center for Humanities was something I did not yet have the word for—patriarchal. Many of the Monday night lectures resembled coming-of-age rituals in which young faculty men sought to prove themselves intellectually to elder males. Challenged in the aggressive question-and-answer session following their talks, they either defended their intellectual competence or, painfully, did not.

I went to hear the speaker that night in 1971 simply because she was a woman. I had never heard a woman speak at Wesleyan. Indeed, in the course of my undergraduate education at Harvard, between 1960 and 1964, I had heard a woman lecture only twice. A woman lecturing at the Center for Humanities made me remember a Harvard professor’s favorite Dr. Johnson witticism: a woman preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs: one doesn’t expect it to be done well—the wonder is that it is done at all. The speaker was Hélène Cixous, and I welcomed her as the Indians welcomed Columbus to the New World, little understanding the significance of the event. As I recall Cixous’s lecture, billed as concerning James Joyce, it began with a discussion of Saussure’s idea of the signifier and the signified. I had heard of Saussure and his linguistic philosophy. So far, so good. Cixous then mentioned a man named Lacan as she discussed how a developing baby learns to separate himself from his mother. She kept mentioning a mirror. I understood what she said about a baby’s sense of self but not why this was important for literature—and especially not how it applied to James Joyce. And why the mirror?

However uncertain I was about what she was saying, I welcomed her presence. Her talk was imaginative and, in its way, witty. The self-satisfied male professors were flummoxed. Not only was she brilliant, she was wearing fabulous pants! Her hair was fabulous. She did not defer to the codgers or undercut her own authority in any way, as in my experience most women had been trained to do. I seem to remember mouths hanging open. In the question-and-answer session, the natives attacked. Not one person made a friendly comment. The level of masculine preening was even higher than that aroused by the usual run of assistant professors, and Cixous was so alien, the men didn’t even think to flirt with her. She was poised and held her own. I’d like to say I went to her defense, but I was too unsure of myself to do that. I satisfied my feelings of female solidarity by sending her a note the next day to say how much her lecture had meant to me. I didn’t say exactly in what way. This was my first encounter with poststructuralist criticism, and I welcomed it for reasons that had little to do with its argument and everything to do with its style. It was intellectual rather than philistine, sophisticated and worldly rather than homegrown and provincial, good-looking and elegant rather than tweedy and professorial, witty and daring rather than ponderous and bullying. I welcomed it because its messenger was a woman. She was a feminist. So was I.

How naïve I was. Within ten years, her feminism would displace mine. Her way of reading would displace mine. Her half-poetic, elusive, you- never-knew-which-end-to-grab-it-from assertions would be the dominant intellectual style, and what I had welcomed as not bullying would, in its jab-and-retreat deviousness, come to seem as irritating as flat-out aggression. I was expected to believe this story of the baby, the mother, and the mirror as though it were literal truth. Yet the story was understood by those who told it to eviscerate the truth of every other assertion. Hélène Cixous planted the flag of the two Jacques, Lacan and Derrida, on the soil of the New World, and I, dumb indigenous American, took it for a festive decoration.

Then, as now, literary study in America was divided between those whose instincts led them to pay more attention to the text itself than to anything outside it, and those whose instincts led them to pay attention to things outside the text—the circumstances in which it was produced, the historical moment in which it appeared and whose values it expressed, or the life and times of its author. The name we gave to the school that attended exclusively to the text was New Criticism, and loosely speaking, all the approaches that paid attention to context as well as text were known as literary history. Literary history attracted the less flamboyant among us, those of us who liked to sit in libraries and read obscure books, who had fun doing research, who enjoyed subjecting ourselves to fact. New Criticism was more entrepreneurial. Close readings, although they followed certain categories of investigation and had favorite avenues into a text—imagery and irony, above all—were free-form affairs and very personal. There was a method in which students were trained, but in practice the individual was on his own, and what were called close readings by star professors were often bravura performances. Look at Reuben Brower’s Fields of Light, if you want to be re-razzle-dazzled by New Critical readings. To hear a lecture by a New Critic was like listening to a piece of music in which themes were introduced, intertwined, and recombined into a fabulous symphonic outpouring. The critic seemed to ignore the sense the poem made on the surface, dissolve it into elements, and reconstitute it according to a poetic system of his own. This was close reading, and by the time I graduated from college in the mid-1960s, we were all, by instinct, training, or osmosis, pretty good at it. At the same time, the formalities of our education—exams that emphasized an author’s style or required us to explain what made Augustan prose, for example, Augustan—also required us to think in terms of literary history. Although the bedrock assumptions of deconstruction and New Criticism were totally opposed—in one case the text did not exist, in the other it did—in practice, in the hands of skilled practitioners, they often sounded alike. When you went beyond a superficial understanding of a text, in the New Criticism as in deconstruction, and began to tease out meanings that didn’t strike you on the first reading, the literary critic seemed able, magically, to make it say whatever he wanted it to. To begin with, everything’s opposite was always implicit. Light implied darkness. Order implied chaos. Nature implied civilization. Male implied female. Many New Critical readings had been organized according to the same binary oppositions that turned up again, as something implicit in language, in deconstructive readings—only in the old readings, they had been called “themes” or “patterns of imagery.” In my youth, when a professor performed a New Critical reading, we students, however impressed, sometimes felt bamboozled. We wanted to know: Did the author really mean all that? Didn’t something get lost if you looked at a poem too closely? We quoted Wordsworth: “We murder to dissect.” We felt that the more you analyzed a work of art, the more it seemed to disappear, the more the critic and the act of criticism came to the fore. In a way, deconstruction felt the same and even said the same thing—that the closer you looked, the less was there and the critic rather than the author was creating whatever significance the text had.

Perhaps because of a lack of theoretical sophistication, I have frequently had the experience of not understanding why new ideas are new. My undergraduate teacher, Walter Jackson Bate, the biographer of Samuel Johnson and of John Keats, who had inspired so many of us with his humanist readings of the one and scrupulous reconstructions of the creative process of the other (and who was the professor fond of citing Johnson’s remark about a woman preaching), published a book in 1970 called The Burden of the Past. The thrust of this book was familiar to those of us who in our undergraduate years at Harvard had taken courses—usually in eighteenth-century literature or romantic poetry—with Bate or Bate disciples. Poets, who may have seemed to us splendid articulators of their own thoughts, gloriously themselves, sometimes worried that there was nothing left for them to say. It had all been said in the past. For Keats and Wordsworth, the shadows of Milton and Shakespeare loomed large. It was news to me that the past could be a burden. I thought the past inspired writers or provided them with material. Yet Bate’s insight seemed true and revealing. Wordsworth certainly did spend a lot of time thinking about Milton, and I could understand, from my own experience, the fear that by the time I made it to adulthood, everything would have been said, everything written.

Three years after Bate published The Burden of the Past, Harold Bloom published The Anxiety of Influence. The thrust of this book was that young poets were intimidated by their predecessors. Far from each generation standing on the shoulders of the one before, each had to rebel against, dethrone, demolish the very figures who had meant the most. This rebellion was fraught with anxiety—as an Oedipal struggle must be. The solution was to creatively misread the earlier poets, so that you could make them say something that served your ends rather than theirs. I could not see that Bloom’s point was very different from Bate’s. He was complicating it, adding flourishes and speculative touches by arguing that “strong” works were those based on creative misreadings. The emphasis on anxiety and Oedipal rebellion sounded a Freudian, Jewish note that was absent in the more straightforwardly depressive view of W. J. Bate. The emphasis on misreading showed he was attending to the new winds blowing in from France. Saying essentially the same thing, Bloom was complex and modern, while Bate was fusty and old-fashioned. Whenever I read Borges’s great story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” about a contemporary of ours who writes the same book Cervantes wrote but with oh-so-much-more depth, I think of Bate and Bloom.

I mention this example because it was typical of my professional experience for a number of years. People seemed to be saying the same things in new ways, and the difference didn’t seem worth the trouble of having to learn another vocabulary. But if the outer raiments—the readings produced—were similar, the spirit had changed, and the change in emphasis and assumptions had a huge impact on how literature was taught in American universities during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The years between the end of World War II and the heating up of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s appear now to have been a kind of golden age for literary study. Professors, whatever their critical allegiance, believed in literature as a repository of values. Students believed they could learn from literature how to live. Literature became a vehicle for the discussion of all kinds of issues—political, moral, even religious—and it was a commonplace of the time that literature had replaced religion as the focus of the culture’s real priesthood. We, the graduate students and newly minted professors of English literature who entered the profession in the late 1960s, were an elite. Even our government believed in us, giving us National Defense Education Act fellowships to pursue our interests in writers of whom our parents had barely heard.

All this activity, although we did not realize it at the time, was under the fundamental protection of a British positivism which held that there was reality in a written text. Language referred to things that existed independently; literature could communicate truths; readings weren’t merely creative acts but reports on something real. Two people reading Heart of Darkness, however New Critical the one person and literary historical the other, would still read a book that was concerned in some way with the evils of colonialism. The two Jacques and deconstruction put an end to that golden age by making forever simplistic the assumption that language referred to something outside itself. Instead, reality was created, moment to moment, by language that was constantly misunderstood, misused, serving temporary interests. There was no referent for language. There was no text. There was not even an author. Too many unconscious assertions were built into the cultural substructure of any text for an individual author to be wholly in control of what he conveyed. “There is no there there” replaced “A rose is a rose is a rose” as Gertrude Stein’s most essential observation.

New Criticism and literary history had worked comfortably together to provide materials and method. They were both easy with the idea of masterpieces, supremely expressive texts. They believed that good literature repaid a reader’s attention more than inferior literature. It was almost the hallmark of great literature to bear close scrutiny. Most important, they were happy to present the literature of England (with a few Irish exceptions like Swift, Shaw, and Joyce) as literature in English. American literature might be studied, too, but with very few exceptions it was considered a lesser body of work, worthy of study because it was, after all, our national literature, but not as rich a tradition as the British. It was more interesting looked at contextually, as part of a study of culture or of “history and literature,” rather than for its literary merit alone.

In the years before the Lacanian asteroid slammed into the American university, an undergraduate majoring in English literature had requirements that made at least superficial sense and a program to follow that, if irritatingly straitlaced and ultimately hollow, made demands a person could fulfill. You had to cover (really, sample) the whole chronological span of English literature, from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf up to the nineteenth-century novel or early-twentieth-century poetry. If you were very avant-garde, you might study more recent writers, too: Pynchon and Vonnegut, perhaps. The more courses you took in different periods, the more sense of completion you had. Your parents might not understand. They might tell you that you didn’t “need” to take courses in literature and that “anyone can read a book.” But you knew that literature was the hot center of intellectual life, the vehicle for discussing meaning, morality, purpose, justice, imagination, freedom, tradition, self, and society. The more courses you took, the better you would get at articulating and discussing these concepts. If you were really good at it, you yourself might qualify to be a professor—a member of the priesthood.

When I started teaching at Wesleyan in 1969, students of English literature were required to take a survey course on the literature of England. The year we stopped teaching that survey course marked the moment of the great change and dissolution. From then on, we in English departments were never certain exactly what we should be teaching. Sometimes we required students to take courses in theory, sometimes in literature before 1800, sometimes both—more or less of each depending on our feelings at the moment about whether the material or the status of the material was of primary im- portance. Departmental requirements asked a student to try this and that approach, to encounter this and that body of work, and to effect, personally, some kind of synthesis. This rarely happened. We spent a lot of time in department meetings discussing the problem and seeking remedies for it. What were our common interests? What did we, the English professors, stand for? What did we want our students to know? Since we had de-emphasized historical coverage, could we do without (for example) a course on eighteenth-century literature? If the emphasis and methods of Americanists were so radically different from those of the teachers who focused on British literature—as they tend to be, the British specialists being less interested in cultural studies than the Americanists—then what were we doing in the same department? We talked about these issues for twenty years. Our ceaseless tinkering with the curriculum never solved the essential problem, which is that the categories we work in—English literature, Romance languages and literature, Slavic languages and literature—which derive from the essentially philological approach to literary study born in the German universities of the nineteenth century, have become obsolete. The reasons for linking the study of literature to specific languages are no longer compelling. But because we members of the English department like one another and want to stay together for sentimental reasons, because we like our jobs and our status in the university (which tends to be higher than that of mem- bers of literature departments in languages other than English), we have always ended up reaffirming the fundamentally illogical alliance between American studies and British literature.

That university departments of literature managed to survive the new ideology is amazing. You’d think that when the finest minds in a field believe they are studying nothing, they would soon go out of business. But this was not the case. For one thing, undergraduates, with their natural youthful anarchism, loved deconstruction. It provided them with an empowering nihilism. They needed to respect none of the masterworks of literature. Nothing had anything to teach them. All statements of value were smoke and mirrors, impositions, manipulations by those who were in the position to enforce their own hegemony. The wise response was resistance, which comes easily to any person of spirit and especially to the young. The new ideology was serviced by many courses designated, at least in my university, by the name theory, and this new field needed many workers. There had to be a whole wave of hiring to replace the old-fashioned critics, literary historians, and editors with the more contemporary theoreticians and appropriately theorized practitioners. Then, too, the toppling of the old canon left room for new bodies of work to which it really was about time that American universities paid attention: Asian-American literature, post-colonial literatures, African-American literature, as well as work by women and homosexuals. This was heady stuff for many of us. To what happier goal could one direct one’s professional efforts than asserting the greatness of authors like Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, who, for various reasons, had been ignored or undervalued? As for the young, they could study literary traditions closer to their own experience. They could read Toni Morrison for a change, instead of always and inevitably Jane Austen. Again, this was a professional boon, requiring new personnel, new textbooks, and new courses.

In bad moments it seemed that a British canon was merely being replaced by a series of other canons of lesser literary value; but should you be so rash as to express this thought, you would be ridiculed for entertaining the notion of literary value. A student I knew was assigned Morrison’s novel Beloved in all four courses he took one semester. The hot teachers were teaching minor texts, though the whole idea of major and minor was discredited. After deconstruction demolished the special status of the written text and undermined the notion of a canon, centrifugal forces took over. Many an English department, like the one at my university, became largely a nexus of special studies programs—African-American studies, Latin American studies, medieval studies, film studies, women’s studies, queer studies.

Sometimes I wonder if the new curriculum hasn’t had a depressing effect on our students. Once you destroy the text’s authority, literary study can easily seem like training in advanced modes of skepticism. I think this may be why so many of our good students now end up as lawyers, trained to show how words do not say what they say, or as investment bankers who regard literature as a game they played as kids, or as television or film producers, screenwriters, scriptwriters, publicists, marketers, and other manipulators of popular response. The days of the finest minds becoming professors have been over for some years.

Many of us, the undertheorized, the unregenerate believers in literary merit, scorned as belles-lettreists, found sanctuary in teaching marginal genres, like memoir and autobiography. An even more potent stealth attack on deconstruction and theory was to teach “writing.” Writing courses enlist a student’s natural egotism on the side of affirming meaning in literature. People who write fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction have a hard time accepting that there is no author and no text. Also, by teaching students to write fiction and poetry, you can, with a little persistence, get them to entertain the idea that perhaps they should read fiction and poetry, too. Finally, I could get my writing students to see that while one discourse might be respected in the academy, another, based on its liveliness, clarity, and personal style, had more impact in the larger world.

I have recently taught fiction writing, family biography, and book re- viewing as writing courses. Whatever the ostensible subject, the courses have allowed me to initiate students into the idea of literary construction and to teach the power of narrative. Students learn not to hit each other over the head with their intentions, that a story can suggest an argument, and that one word can be more effective than another or than three badly chosen ones. They learn to edit and refine, not to be content with the “flow” (a word they love) of their own creativity, to appreciate how other writers have accomplished the things they want to accomplish. They learn that verbal constructs can be improved, made more effective, and that the signs of work won’t show, if done properly. They learn the humility of respecting an art that conceals art. In short, they learn about literature from the point of view of the producer of literature, rather than the critic or “consumer” of literature. The downside is that a disproportionate number of them (disproportionate compared with the world’s demands) want to go on being writers.

American colleges pamper students in ways that Europeans who have not experienced such pampering can scarcely imagine. I am not talking about the level of equipment considered routine for a college student these days. The average student arrives fitted out with computer, television, stereo, and cell phone. Each student in the class of 2008 at Duke was given a complimentary iPod by the university, ostensibly to keep track of classroom scheduling. In the forty years since I was an undergraduate, we have gone from one telephone per hallway in a dormitory (that is, one phone for twenty to twenty-five students) to a phone and voice-mail hookup in every student room. The difference is like that between a soldier in World War II, with his rifle and pack, and a soldier in the Gulf War, with night-vision goggles and a walkie-talkie. These aren’t students. They are self-contained information-processing systems, with the line between information and entertainment sometimes thin.

My target, however, is not so much the materialistic pampering as the cod- dling of psyches. On the athletic field at the center of the campus, before the start of classes every year, new students are led through a set of games by the administrators assigned to their care. The purpose is to make the students feel comfortable with one another. On the same field, the university gives dance parties and screens movies. This treatment of eighteen-to-twenty-one-year-old college students reflects the way all of American education in the past few decades has come to be as concerned with the student’s psychological state and self-esteem as with the passing on of knowledge. This is partly because we Americans are uncertain about what knowledge to pass on and partly because we’ve always emphasized the felt and organic over the formal and ritually acquired. So education is supposed to be an eliciting, a drawing out, of qualities already in the student, a cultivation of his or her critical and creative faculties, best achieved when the student is relaxed and noncompetitive. But there’s at least one other explanation.

Education in America is a consumer item—like health care, a huge one, demanding an immense outlay of money by individuals, which in most ad- vanced countries is undertaken by the state. Because of the financial burden they impose on parents and students alike, American universities need to make students and their parents happy with their own experience and convinced that the money they have spent is well spent. This partially explains the coddling of students that to European eyes is so inappropriate. Critics of late-stage capitalism have also seen the efforts to encourage bonding among students as part of a marketing strategy, training students to iden- tify with a “brand” in order, the argument goes, to lay the groundwork for future fund-raising.

I started teaching in the year that ended with a nationwide student strike against the war in Vietnam. In my career, I’ve seen political rebellion give way to PC (political correctness) enforcement: students identifying with one group or another in order, usually, to condemn someone else for insensivity to the feelings of that group. This was the most trying time of my teaching years, because the indignation was often so ignorant and mean-spirited. A professor could be reprimanded by a self-righteous student for assigning a text in which Faulkner used the word nigger. I was once scolded for not including any lesbians on a reading list that included Gertrude Stein and Willa Cather. (At the time, Audre Lorde was the only lesbian fully accredited to the young.) The current identity movement is perhaps even sadder and reflects decades of emphasis on victims’ rights. A student will now appear at the first meeting of a course with a note from parents or doctors explaining disabilities. In one small class recently, I had sufferers from dyslexia, bipolar disorder, an allergy that resulted in a state like narcolepsy, and two cases of attention deficit disorder. A social worker I mentioned this to said, “Isn’t it wonderful? These people would not have been able to attend college before we had the current range of medications.” But I don’t know. These students all did well and would have done well if I hadn’t been informed about their problems. It’s as though they are excusing themselves in advance for not living up to some impossible standard that is being demanded of them.

Probably every generation has felt that meaning has been lost in its time. In the 1860s, Matthew Arnold described “wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.” The sea of faith was at its ebb, he said. Americans of my generation had our faith destroyed by twin blows early in our adulthood. President Kennedy’s assassination destroyed our sense of security—of any special protection that adhered to the powerful, the young, or the beautiful. Then the war in Vietnam destroyed our faith in the rightness of government action. Through all this, it would have been hard to go on reading literature in the respectful, almost worshipful way of the 1950s. I know I can’t pin the whole blame on Lacan and Derrida. Still, they didn’t help, and I’m glad their day is over. Now—and as always with education, which never progresses and is always a holding action—we can begin.

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