Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A rare honor; Thoughts on a literature group blog; the T.S. Eliot controversy and the culture wars

A rare honor for me.

UPDATE: Erin O'Connor is enthusiastic about the idea of organizing a professionally mixed group of people, some academic and some non-, for a group blog about literature. I am enthusiastic too, though my vision might be a little different in places. Following are some thoughts on the subject.

I like the idea of a group blog for a number of reasons, some practical and some philosophical. Practically speaking, the group academic blogs tend to develop a measure of consistency that is extremely rare for blogs done by individuals. Individuals sometimes have the time to write, but sometimes not. Sometimes they are inspired, sometimes not. Group blogs usually have something new every day, because chances are one of the 8-10 writers had an idea and time to log it. Also, there is less of a concern for personality compatibility amongst writers and readers in a group setting -- if you don't like how X writes, you can go to something by Y.

Method, and how to start. For starters, it might be possible to do a group blog that simply culls the best materials from other spaces. A few people (3-4 'editors') could simply create links and commentary on excellent posts in 'small' blogs (especiallly blogs that don't have their own comment pages). Over time, this could encourage a self-selecting group of people to volunteer to write directly for the main space.

Professionals/non-professionals I'm less concerned about ensuring that non-professionals form a major component of a group literature blog than Erin is. For one thing, there is no professional literature group blog out there. It might seem boring to start such a thing, especially since so many of us are slightly (or greatly) alienated from the profession, but a blog that is at least somewhat professionally oriented might be able to attract other literary critics who are not currently in blogland. There are many professional students and teachers of literature out there with a healthy 'loyalty to the material' (my own colleagues in the English dept. at Lehigh exemplify this spirit, if I may say so). But they currently avoid going to the internet for anything beyond

All I am suggesting is an openness to issues in the profession. I agree that there shouldn't be any specific criteria for who can or cannot write for this thing. All that is needed is writers who have good ideas about real issues.

Example: T.S. Eliot Anti-Semitism Controversy.

[NOTE: I have revised and extended this section since first posting it earlier today.]

There are interesting controversies within the discipline of literary studies all the time. A good example from my own period might be the controversy in 2003, in the wake of a book by Anthony Julius called T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form over whether it is generally acceptable to refer to Eliot as an 'anti-Semite'. The journal Modernism/Modernity did a good job of opening up the issue, with the better part of two full issues devoted to the question.

But that could have also been a debate carried out amongst literary bloggers, and indeed, bloggers might have done a better job of really honing in on the key issues and disregarding the fluff. (Perhaps it was discussed in these circles -- I might have missed it) Interestingly, the debate itself was initiated by a non-academic (Anthony Julius is by profession a lawyer, though he does have a literature Ph.D.). In the end, I'm still not sure where I stand. Many of Julius' arguments have been refuted (for instance, see James Wood's piece), but others (like Louis Menand) see Eliot's statement in 1933 about the "undesirability" of "free-thinking Jews" as definitive, even if that ugly phrase appeared only once in Eliot's public statements. The question of whether he is or isn't is also tied in with a further question, that of the implications of our knowledge about Eliot's views on our teaching of his poetry and criticism.

My instinct is that it's nothing new, another battle in the ongoing (endless) culture wars. Many of us have long been dealing with the problem of writers who have opinions we don't like, or who use insulting and ugly language, for years. Conrad, Yeats, Pound, Wells, Kipling, to name just five, are part of this tradition, and yet it is still possible to teach their works with a spirit of critical respect. Racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and homophobia, are a part of literary history that should be brought out into the open, but hopefully one's concern over identifying the role of politics in literary history doesn't overshadow the imperative to talk about language itself. In his book Julius aimed to integrate the question of aesthetic value with that of anti-Semitism by arguing that many of Eliot's best poems have fishy references to Jews (though only a small number of early poems are explicitly hostile to Jews). But this argument was overshadowed by his need to fill out the polemic with every trace of evidence he could find that elucidated Eliot's 'real' feelings and beliefs outside of the poetry itself.

We are, effectively, still in the culture wars. Fortunately, the original response of left in the 1970s and 80s -- to refuse to teach books that have objectionable content -- is now thoroughly discredited. I am comfortable teaching these materials, but I feel it is important to give political context, as I see it as one among several essential component of effective literary analysis. I have instead aimed to find a new balance in my approach, though this balance is admittedly rather precarious.

And I should add that the real hot seat in today's culture wars is not in literature (race and gender) but in religious studies and middle east studies, with special emphasis on Islam. The old question of "Shakespeare vs. Toni Morrison" is effectively out, even if it was never answered properly. The new question appears to be Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, and many others ad nauseam, vs. Edward Said. And the real flashpoint in today's culture wars is therefore the bill currently in Congress called HR 3077 (which will deserve its own separate posting).

Titles. I posted some possible titles to Critical Mass for the proposed group blog. They are profoundly unworthy:

(since the term seems to have taken on a life of its own. Downside: sounds a little like 'Bookslut')

'13 Ways'
(A reference to Wallace Stevens; suggests an openness to multiple perspectives)

'Fastidious Ant'
(from Marianne Moore's "Critics and Connoisseurs": "Happening to stand / by an ant-hill, I have / seen a fastidious ant carrying a stick north, south, / east, west, till it turned on / itself, struck out from the flower bed into the lawn, / and returned to the point." )

"All That Is Solid"
(...melts into air. Can mark the resistance to jargon [air], or it can be self-deprecating acceptance of airiness)

(suggests that the bloggers are 'over' MLA, its conventions, and its journal, in the fashion of postmodernism, etc.; also alludes to the structure of a blog, where one 'posts')

"Surprised by Sincerity"
(ok, I just like the title... probably not a realistic suggestion)