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Tuesday 18 March 2014

Essay: Some Doubts about Universities and the Humanities

I have always had my doubts about universities. If you take the long view, they have rarely encouraged scientific enquiry or tolerance of different opinions. Often enough, they have not been so very different from overtly theological seminaries which don’t even pretend to value Science or Toleration. Both universities and seminaries recruit from the same age groups and – until very, very recently – they have only been interested in recruiting those biologically sexed as male.  The teachers have been even more exclusively male, often with a requirement of Celibacy or (what used to be called) Bachelorhood. In the long view, the history of a university like Oxford makes you wonder why we bother. 

It’s easy to think that things have changed and it is not like the bad old days. I’m not so sure and I’m not so sure it could be otherwise.

Ironically, it is in those countries and cultures which appear most attached to the values of Truth and Tolerance that sceptical (“deconstructionist”), relativist (anti – “humanist”) and anti-realist (anti – “essentialist”) theories have been in vogue among university teachers who then – unable to appeal to any notions of Truth or Right – substitute Disapproval or Outrage for any kind of considered Judgement on the ill-considered opinions of their students or the misguided views of colleagues who shouldn’t be.

I’m thinking about places like Literature Departments in British and American universities, bursting at the seams with young seminarians anxiously working out what they must say to please their professors.

Of course, the kinds of science in which Literature departments could engage are not the same as those deployed by the Physics departments, though there may be some overlap. As places where Texts are read, the essential discipline for a Literature student is the ability to pay attention to the Text. From there, it’s possible to go on to respond to and Interpret it in an indefinite number of ways – as Comic, Tragic or Pornographic; as the Expression of a personality, as the (witting or unwitting) vehicle for an Ideology, as belonging to a Tradition, as embodying a distinctive Voice, as in (acknowledged or unconscious) Dialogue with other Texts – and so on and so forth. As you respond and Interpret, so the Text itself may re-focus: you notice things you didn’t notice the first time round. So Interpretation has no obvious end (as the deconstructionists would agree), though it may approach it asymptotically by which I mean that sometimes we exhaust the plausible possibilities and supposed new interpretations seem arbitrary and forced.

At their worst (and this is not something new), a course in a Literature department is about putting a text through a Grinder. In the past, it was sometimes a Marxist Grinder - made bearable by the introduction of a distinction between “Naturalist” novels which were politically correct but, unfortunately, boring and “Realist” novels which were bourgeois but much more fun. Today, the Grinder is more likely to be some version of Deconstructionism-cum-Feminism-cum-Queer-Theory. Whether these new theories accommodate a distinction between Boring and Fun I don’t know, which is probably a bad sign.

The Grinders are products of the university system, not of great Theorists or Theories. They are ways of making it possible for students to write term papers and for the term papers to be sufficiently alike for tutors to grade them. 

There seems an in-built tendency for the Grinders to produce essays which read less like (literary) Criticism and more like (political) Denunciation – or, occasionally, Endorsement, though I think  it’s harder (maybe intrinsically harder) to write an A grade essay for saying nice things about a book.

I think we might get better work done in the humanities and some of the social sciences without the seminaries. If people want to read books together, there can be evening classes, book clubs, residential weekends. We don’t really need the big bureaucracies, the professional career structure and the clubs of like-minded people giving each other a leg up.

In recent years, some of the best books I have read are the work of very clever people who haven’t followed the career path into university teaching but, instead, have become political activists or bankers or serious journalists.

I will mis-use a tripartite classification from Roland Barthes. Writers have no future as writers if they can’t write. Intellectuals need ideas - a vision even - or else no one will listen. But Professors can advance in their careers and hang their hats on a decent pension though quite unable to write and pretty much devoid of ideas. They have the power to make generations of students labour over unreadable and soon-to-be-demoted books which in a free world would be left unread and never promoted in the first place.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Review: Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case

I read this short and big-print novel at a single sitting, so that’s a recommendation. Yet the style is set at a sort of degree zero of plainness, slipping occasionally into pedantry. The structure is that of a murder mystery – the killer is known but not his motive. There is an (obstructed) quest for truth  by a youthful hero; there is a Helper; a court-room trial of strength; and a hint of a happy and romantic ending. As I write that summary, I realise I am  describing it as a Fairy Story or Folk Tale. You could probably bring Vladimir Propp to its structural analysis.

But it’s subject matter could not be more serious. It is a Roman à Thèse which culminates by demonstrating a weakness in the (real world) criminal code of the Federal Republic of Germany, a weakness due specifically to a seemingly innocuous amendment, inserted administratively in 1968 by a former prominent Nazi lawyer (Dr Eduard Dreher). The effect was to pull the rug from under a large number of ongoing investigations into Nazi war criminals by extending the scope of a statute of limitations.
Von Schirach happens to be a lawyer in real life and uses the novel to dramatise these consequences.

From a note annexed to von Schirach’s book (page 189 ), his novel has been added into an ongoing official review of  the 1968 amendment and related matters. In another book I reviewed here recently, Beorn’s Marching into Darkness, there is a discussion of  the same topic (in Chapter Nine, Endgame).

I haven’t looked at the German original. English readers will probably miss the clue to the murder mystery provided by the first occurrence of the word “Ludwigsburg” (p 110) – home to the Federal German centre for investigating Nazi war crimes – but apart from that, this book is probably as accessible to the English reader as it is to the German. 

It is a separate topic, but it is interesting to look at this novel as an example of the thoroughness with which younger Germans (von Schirach was born in 1964) are willing to think about the Nazi past. It is a way of thinking I don't think one sees in Russia, thinking about Stalinism, or France, thinking about its own Nazism.

Review: John Cornwell, The Dark Box

I find it quite easy to believe in Freedom of Conscience and quite hard to go on believing in Freedom of Religion. The latter now serves primarily to exempt from ordinary forms of accountability powerful and worldly organisations most of which are of a more-or-less criminal nature. The Roman Catholic Church is the Big Daddy of the type.

The appeal of the Roman Catholic Church baffles me, though not in the case of worldly and more-or-less criminal individuals drawn to it by the incense of power.

John Cornwell is a born-again Catholic who, while lapsed, nonetheless allowed  his own children to be brought up in the faith and he has written a book which promises a challenge but ends up being intellectually and morally flabby, a damp squib.

Cornwell picks a good topic –the role of Confession in securing the hold of the Church over its individual members – and in relation to the Church’s cruelty over the past hundred years, he makes an interesting and sometimes passionate case against Pope Pius X.

A nasty piece of work by name of Giuseppe Sarto, Pius X arrived at the core ideas of modern totalitarianism while Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were still schoolboys. 

Confession has a role at the base of the totalitarian scheme; the wider totalitarian ambition was only realised in the Catholic fiefdoms – Ireland, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain. 

Of these proto - North Koreas, Slovakia was closed down by the victorious allied powers. The others are still emerging from the trauma of clerical fascism – in Ireland’s case, with no encouragement from the old Imperial power: shamefully, the United Kingdom rolled out the red carpet for Pope Benedict XVI at a time when the former Joseph Ratzinger could not have set foot in Ireland.

Cornwell sticks to the narrower context and at the core of his book is the argument that Pius X’s demand that Confession start at six or seven instead of fourteen or fifteen ruined the lives of many children, not only from sexual abuse in the Confessional, but from the universe of psychological Terror surrounding it.

Intellectually, there is just too much bland anecdotal material, padding out the text. So we learn, for example that Pius X:

Chose as his secretary of state the suave Anglo-Spanish prelate Rafael Merry del Val, although the latter was not yet forty years old. A consummate diplomat, and highly intelligent, Merry del Val spoke a number of languages and had an enormous capacity for administrative work” (page 81)

Morally, Cornwell assembles the case against the Church and then, it seems to me, seeks to persuade us that it could all be dealt with by feel-good internal reforms. He cannot see that the Church has only ever been responsive to external changes and force, never to internal moral argument or pressure. (You get excommunicated or exiled for that – Pope Benedict made his career out of silencing the internal opposition).

The Church’s conversion to the cause of Democracy dates only from the moment when American tanks showed up in Rome. I don’t think there is any way it can be converted to decency. It's never been in that business. It just has to be closed down.

So why do Catholics like Cornwell stick with - and even return to - a Church which they know is vicious at its heart? For the same reasons that if we closed down North Korea there would still be those for whom the guilt of betrayal would be assuaged by longing for the Kim dynasty. For the same reasons that in Russia there are still those who long for the Romanovs or Stalin. Erich Fromm called it the Fear of Freedom. It’s the fear which prevents you seeing that the way out is through the door.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Review: Sarah Bakewell, How to Live or a Life of Montaigne

I read this book after giving up on Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, which I found intolerable. Heilbroner’s leading idea seems to be that you spin out a noisy yarn about your subject of the moment (I got no farther than Adam Smith – absent minded, he was, did I already tell you that? Well, he was absent minded. D’you know what he did one day? No? Well, I’ll tell you   …) and then, when the reader is open-mouthed with amazement, you shove a spoonful of disgusting Economic Theory down their throat. Not painful at all, you see, give it a Human Interest and, see, you’re away.

So Sarah Bakewell’s book was something of a welcome contrast. It is not technical or difficult and it provides a Life of Montaigne. At the same time it seeks to engage us with his writings in an organised and developed manner. I think it works very well. You get a strong sense of how writings celebrated for their digressiveness are held together by a fairly coherent body of thought.

I’ve never read Montaigne’s Essais, but I now know that I owe to Montaigne an idea I have liked and deployed on several occasions – but drawing on a version of Montaigne’s thought found in Malebranche. It’s the idea that paying attention – being able to pay attention, being in the habit of doing so, valuing the time it takes – expresses a natural piety of the soul. It’s a way of acknowledging the importance of the world and our own unimportance in face of it. It may be a phenomenon of nature or a work of art or simply another person – but if we can’t or don’t stop, look, listen - then we are not only letting down the object which invites our attention but ourselves. Maybe you could say: we don’t live our lives unless we pay attention to our situation at this or that moment in time.

I always think of very young children, capable of extraordinary absorption in tasks they have set themselves and at which they persist until disturbed, usually by some adult in a hurry.

Then I am reminded of something in my life which provided me pleasure but which now, in retrospect, makes me feel a bit proud. I once had a lover who after showering in the mornings, plumped herself down on the bed  to dry her hair. She had lots of hair and drying it was a serious business. I always sat and watched, at a distance and without speaking. I never tidied away the breakfast things, read the newspaper or otherwise distracted myself. It was such a pleasure just to sit and watch, her and all the intricate work involved in drying that hair. I was very happy.

I digress from Sarah Bakewell’s book. It runs to over 300 pages, has a fine Apparatus of Notes and References but isn’t written by an academic – the outside funding to assist the work’s completion came from literary Funds. You may take that as a recommendation.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Review: Caroline Walton and Ivan Petrov, Smashed in the USSR

This book is a testimony to the strength of the human body. Ivan Petrov lived to the age of 67 (1934 - 2001) despite a brutal upbringing in a polluted Soviet industrial town, the hunger and cruelty of Soviet labour camps, police beatings, the hazards of life as a tramp, and above all alcohol - not just vodka but home-made varieties: eau de cologne, paint stripper and furniture polish. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he ended up in London as an asylum seeker (though what he was seeking asylum from is not indicated) who, though continuing his career as an alcoholic, made contact with Caroline Walton and entrusted to her his tape-recorded life story. It is published a dozen years after his death, with no indication of the cause of the delay - except perhaps Caroline Walton's identification of herself as also an alcoholic.

It would be foolish to take Ivan Petrov as a reliable narrator and we do not know how much Caroline Walton has had to edit his words to make it the fascinating read that it has become. But the fascination is not in the "truth to self" of the book but in the details of the underbelly of Soviet life out in the Urals, Central Asia and the Caucasus. It's the details about domestic violence, vodka shops, casual labour, riding the trains, run-ins with the police, improvised alcohol, sleeping rough, Soviet rehab centres, and much more - including the fact that in the Soviet Union even tramps read books - that makes this book thoroughly worthwhile - and more informative than Oliver Bullough's Last Man in Russia reviewed previously on this Blog.