I spent the morning finishing John McGahern's Amongst Women, a cramped, pinched, claustrophobic novel about family ties that is as hard to put down as it is to keep reading. There were many other things I should have been doing in my little garret in my remote, undisclosed Irish location, and morning tends to be my best time for getting things I should be doing done. But this novel was too terrible to be deferred. It needed to be dispatched with as much speed as several cups of strong milky tea could make me read. By "terrible" I should clarify that I don't refer in any way to the quality of McGahern's writing--quite the opposite. McGahern has an awesome ability to conjure up the minute but powerful tensions and pleasures of daily life in mid-twentieth century rural Ireland. His fiction is quiet and unassuming--if you aren't completely focussed on it, you miss it entirely and think you've read nothing but a gray and shapeless narrative of bland and uninteresting people doing bland and uninteresting things. But if you are properly attentive to his prose, he draws you into a world where domestic life is both more important and more painful than anything else. His characters live and die by the strength of their family ties--but more often than not, those ties are mediated less by uncomplicated love and affection than they are by power, fear, obligation, longing, and a loyalty that surpasses all reason and sometimes even takes the form of a truly committed, unflagging hatred. What's terrible about McGahern's portrait of rural Irish life lies not in his craftsmanship, but in his subject.
John McGahern is writer of place and tone, of geographically particular sensibilities and historically specific temperaments. He is not at all showy, and I suspect that for his writing to register fully, you should have spent some time in the kinds of places with the kinds of people he writes about. This might sound like a sharp criticism: Isn't the best art the sort that transcends time and place? We tend to assume so, at any rate. But what makes McGahern's work resonate is precisely its fidelity to time and place--a quality that means the more the reader can bring to his evocations, the more he or she will be able to grasp the special character of McGahern's literary skill.
That has at least been true of me--I was given The Leavetaking for Christmas one year, before I had ever visited Ireland or studied its history much. I dutifully read the novel about a schoolteacher who loses his job for not being moral enough, but it did not strike me much one way or another. A couple years later, while spending the summer in a tiny Irish village, I read The Dark, a coming-of-age novel about a poor country boy who gives up his university scholarship in order to appease his controlling and insecure father. I was blown away. What was devastating about the novel was not so much the giving up, but the way it was, after a struggle, gladly and willingly done, the son sacrificing his future to preserve the father's illusions. It was, like so much of McGahern's work, a terrible, terrible novel, and a hauntingly beautiful one, too. It was also, in its presentation of conflict and choice, quintessentially Irish in ways I was just beginning, by virtue of spending time in Ireland, to understand.
McGahern writes with restraint and understatement about some of the worst uglinesses of family life--children who spend their lives tip-toeing around the potential violence of their father's changeable moods; a son who forfeits his scholarship so that his father will not feel abandoned or surpassed; a wife dying of cancer while her husband furiously works the fields, unwilling to admit what is happening and incapable of offering support. The families in McGahern's novels are all poor, hardworking, insular, rural, and Catholic; they are all riven by tension, loss, and denial; they are all also powerfully knit together by their interwoven failures, secrets, and needs. In other words, the picture of Irish life McGahern draws in his fiction is both immensely deep and crushingly narrow. There is no real sense of wider alternatives, of imagined possibilities, of inspiration or hope (when Moran, the patriarch of Amongst Women, becomes engaged to the woman who will become his second wife, McGahern describes his feeling as that of a door quietly shutting). And yet what redeems them--and what also makes them deeply disturbing, as hard to keep reading as they are to put down--is how McGahern manages to write about such families with genuine, unassuming sympathy. He sees his characters for what they are, and yet he does not despise them; he writes without judgement, with an almost impassive acceptance--and he does so quite consciously: "Judgment has no place in the writer's trade," he said in an interview near the end of his life. "I think an ounce of sympathy is worth a ton of judgments."
As such, McGahern is an interesting writer for an American reader encountering Ireland to encounter. He offers none of the easy charms that tend to distinguish Ireland in the romanticized eyes of Americans--about forty million of whom are of Irish descent--who often get their idea of the island from a highly selective and distorting popular culture filled with beer and whiskey, ah begorrah accents and nice cups of tea, emerald green fields dotted with sheep, thatched cottages, peat smoke, and potato patches. McGahern sets his writing in just the sorts of places among just the sorts of people that, for example, feature in John Ford's The Quiet Man. McGahern's novels have all the trappings of the pastoral Irish archetype--the alcohol, the architecture, the turf, potatoes, fields, and sheep. They are awash in tea, punctuated by reverent repetitions of the rosary. But the effect is far from pastoral, and the stories are far from quaint. McGahern is a realist, depicting a certain strain of Irish life with as much fidelity as he can. Along the way, without ever seeming to be mindful of the stereotypes that mar perceptions Irish culture and history, he gently but decisively destroys them.
But it would be a big mistake to think that McGahern was in any way writing with an eye to educating anybody, or to dismantling stereotypes, or to doing much of anything at all in the way of making statements, aesthetic, political, or otherwise. McGahern's work was, from the outset, relentlessly, unapologetically personal. The self-enclosed quality of his fiction shows itself in an utter lack of concern about audience--the painstaking care with which he writes is thoroughly detached from any palpable sense that his writing is meant to entertain, or to please, or even to instruct. Again, this is quite conscious on McGahern's part: "In fiction, the most powerful weapon the writer has is suggestion," he said in the same late interview. "I think that nearly all good writing is suggestion, and all bad writing is statement. Statement kills off the reader's imagination."
A little over a year ago, McGahern was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He responded by writing his autobiography, which was published in the U.S. last winter, weeks before his death. I ordered the autobiography the moment I found out it had been written, and I finished reading it--without knowing that McGahern was sick--on the day he died. All Will Be Well is a striking piece of work, at times elegaic (especially in early passages about his mother, who died of cancer when he was quite young) and at others bitterly frank (especially in passages describing his overbearing, abusive father) (an excerpt is here). What was most striking about it, though, was not the work itself--though the work is very fine--but how much it reveals about the origins of McGahern's fiction. McGahern's father appears throughout his works, as do his mother and siblings; from novel to novel and plot to plot, the unifying themes of McGahern's works are strung together by way of faithful recreations of his family members, and the inwardness of the fiction proves to be, in retrospect, the inwardness of memoir by novelistic means. In a sense, McGahern's audience was ultimately himself; in his fiction, he endlessly retold the story of his childhood, endlessly recreated the disturbing character of his father, endlessly traced the twisted knot of his family's intensely disfunctional bonds. In his autobiography, McGahern revealed that he had no more stories to tell than the ones he had already told, and that in devoting his life to writing fiction, he had been writing autobiography all along.
This explains the cramped quality of McGahern's work, the obsessive return to a restricted number of themes, ideas, character types, and even moods. It also explains the tone of the fiction, which labors--gracefully, almost imperceptibly--to accept, if not redeem, characters who deprive others of certainty, security, and hope ("I never felt a victim," he said when asked about his childhood. "To be a victim is a failure of intelligence"). McGahern used his fiction to practice a kind of transcendance that is more easily, if less urgently, done, perhaps, in art than in life: In establishing aesthetic distance between himself and his subject, he moves beyond the limited act of remembering to the limitless work of creating. This, in turn, is a move away from personal limitation--the unchangeable facts of one's past, the immoveable force of one's relations--to an almost impersonal expansiveness: "No matter what happens to you, no matter how depressing the material, if it becomes depressing to write, or indeed, to read, it's no good. I firmly believe that unless the thing is understood it's useless, and that the understanding of it is a kind of joy. It's liberating."
McGahern ended by rejecting that liberation in favor of a final, frustrated concentration on the facts from which so much of his fiction stemmed. His decision to spend his last months writing a memoir was a decision to confine himself to the memories he had spent a lifetime converting into story. "There is not the same freedom in the memoir as there is in the novel," he reflected afterward. "Fiction needs to be imagined. Even events that actually happened have to be reimagined. With a memoir you can't imagine or reinvent anything. ... You have always to stick to the facts." The strange thing about All Will Be Well, though, is that it reads less like a memoir than like another literary meditation on McGahern's eternal themes; by the time he came to write his autobiography, he had already so thoroughly explored the governing ideas of his existence that his attempt to "stick to the facts" is indistinguishable in style, setting, and tone from his earlier efforts to move beyond them. This, too, though, he seemed instinctively to know: "One thing you find out while writing a memoir," he said, "is what an uncertain place the mind is."
June 27, 2006
Swilling the World Cup
I'm in Ireland right now, which means that I'm watching the RTE broadcast of the World Cup. This in turn means that the ads I'm seeing on Irish television are not the same as those I would be seeing if I were watching the World Cup in the States. My guess is that the ads Budweiser--the official beer of the 2006 World Cup, and the only beer you can get at World Cup games--is running in the U.S. differ substantially from those I'm seeing over here.
There are a number of them. They go like this: Each ad features a sports newsroom with two American broadcasters who are --here's the funny part! -- really, really stupid about soccer. So they say things like, "And coming up, the third half!" or "It hit one guy on the head and then it bounced and hit another guy on the head -- I mean what are the chances of that happening?" or "Why are they talking about nutmeg at a soccer game?" or "'What did you think of the diving?' 'Diving? I thought we were watching football'" -- and on and on. I haven't got the lines word-for-word, but that's their gist.
So we have Anheuser-Busch, an American company, trying to sell Budweiser, an American beer, to Europeans by mocking Americans. The irony, of course, is that European soccer fans don't want to have anything to do with either the watery swill or the aggressive marketing with which Anheuser-Busch is favoring them.
June 22, 2006
Re-reading in the dark
I first read Seamus Deane's novel-memoir, Reading in the Dark, shortly after it was published in 1996, and I must confess it did not make much of an impression on me. Despite rave reviews--Seamus Heaney called it a "sudden, brilliant book," and other critics were similarly awed by Deane's story of how a Catholic family living on the Northern Irish border during the 1940s and '50s was torn apart by political strife--I just didn't get it. I didn't know much about Irish history, I had never been to Ireland myself, I had not read much Irish literature, and the whole thing just went miles over my head.
Since then, I have become deeply interested in Irish history and Irish writing. Part of that interest is genealogical (I began doing serious research on my family history about four years ago, and discovered that I have four great-great grandparents who were famine immigrants); part of it is intellectual (Irish history is inherently interesting, and Irish writing, at least from the late nineteenth-century onward, is frequently remarkable); part of it is experiental (I've spent considerable time in Ireland over the past several years, living in rural villages near where Deane's novel is set).
So it's not surprising that on re-reading Reading in the Dark, my thoughts about it are entirely different from what they were the first time around. Deane's is indeed a "sudden, brilliant" book--elegaic and angry at once in ways that I have come to associate with some of the best Irish writing of the late twentieth century (John McGahern, Roddy Doyle, and Heaney come particularly to mind). I won't belabor my recommendation by trying to string along persuasive or intriguing comments about the book; I'll just recommend it and let it speak for itself.
Here's the first chapter:
On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.
It was a short staircase, fourteen steps in all, covered in lino from which the original pattern had been polished away even to the point where it had the look of a faint memory. Eleven steps took you to the turn of the stairs where the cathedral and the sky always hung in the window frame. Three more steps took you to the landing, about six feet long.
"Don't move," my mother said from the landing. "Don't cross that window."
I was on the tenth step, she was on the landing. I could have touched her.
"There's something there between us. A shadow. Don't move."
I had no intention. I was enthralled. But I could see no shadow.
"There's somebody there. Sombody unhappy. Go back down the stairs, son."
I retreated one step. "How'll you get down?"
"I'll stay awhile and it will go away."
"How do you know?"
"I'll feel it gone."
"What if it doesn't go?"
"It always does. I'll not be long."
I stood there, looking up at her. I loved her then. She was small and anxious, but without real fear.
"I'm sure I could walk up there to you, in two skips."
"No, no. God knows. It's bad enough me feeling it; I don't want you to as well."
"I don't mind feeling it. It's a bit like the smell of damp clothes, isn't it?"
She laughed. "No, nothing like that. Don't talk yourself into believing it. Just go downstairs."
I went down, excited, and sat at the range with its red heart fire and black lead dust. We were haunted! We had a ghost, even in the middle of the afternoon. I heard her moving upstairs. The house was all cobweb tremors. No matter where I walked, it yielded before me and settled behind me. She came down after a bit, looking white.
"Did you see anything?"
"No, nothing, nothing at all. It's just your old mother with her nerves. All imagination. There's nothing there."
I was up at the window before she could say anything more, but there was nothing there. I stared into the moiling darkness. I heard the clock in the bedroom clicking and the wind breathing through the chimney, and saw the neutral glimmer on the banister vanish into my hand as I slid my fingers down. Four steps before the kitchen door, I felt someone behind me and turned to see a darkness leaving the window.
My mother was crying quietly by the fireside. I went in and sat on the floor beside her and stared into the redness locked behind the bars of the range.
Remarkable in itself -- and also a compressed, symbolic telling of the story of the whole book, which is all about the haunting, hellish quality of a present bound up, like worn linoleum, in a past pounded thin by human hardness.
June 15, 2006
Fjordman of Gates of Vienna has written a long, reflective, and funny post on the politicization of higher education, using Ward Churchill and ACTA's report, How Many Ward Churchills? as starting points. Fjordman begins by noting what many of the ACTA report critics have strenuously denied, that there is a logical connection between the fact of the Ward Churchill scandal and the question, "How many professors like Ward Churchill are there?": "His notoriety focused attention, not just on his outlandish views and alleged fraudulent activities, but also on the entire "tenured radical" phenomenon in the modern academy. How many other Ward Churchills are there? Is it likely that he toils alone in his tower of radical pedagogy?" He then goes on to describe what reading the ACTA report was like for him: "Reading the ACTA report makes me glad that my son, the future Baron Bodissey, is a chemistry major. Mathematics and the sciences are largely exempt from the ugly cant that infests the humanities courses," he writes; "One of the notable features of the classes listed by ACTA is how much alike they all are. ... They all sound alike, and after a while the litany of transgressive gendered oppression whiteness colonial racism community activism imperialism social change blurs into a meaningless background drone. ... After reading a few of these, you say to yourself, "You can't make this s**t up!" These course listings are like lefty Mad-Libs, with a predictable script and blanks to be filled in."
Fjordman concludes with a quiz:
Below are four course listings. Three are real courses from major universities funded in part by your tax dollars. One is a Gates of Vienna creation. Can you tell which is which?
SOC 31: Prisons: The American Way of Punishment. Prison as a place of confinement, punishment and rehabilitation is the focus of this survey of the history, philosophies, structure and operation of corrections in the United States. The course critically examines the concept of prison as a total institution and its panopticism as a model of social control that extends to other social contexts. The course will explore the world of inmates and their strategies of subcultural adaptations to and resistance against incarceration; as well as the role of the prison staff. Particular attention will be paid to how gender, race, economics and politics structure prison policies and dynamics. Specific topics may include cultural representations of prison life, implications of current sentencing practices, privatization and the prison-industrial complex, incarcerated mothers, capital punishment, juvenile justice, and alternatives to incarceration.
ARHI 186wBK. Whiteness: Race, Sex, and Representation. An interdisciplinary interrogation of linguistic, conceptual, and practical solipsisms that contributed to the construction and normalization of whiteness in aesthetics, art, visual culture, film, and mass media. Course questions the dialectics of "blackness" and "whiteness" that dominate Western intellectual thought and popular culture, thereby informing historical and contemporary notions and representations of race, gender, sexuality, and class.
English 341: The Etymology of Oppression. This course examines the development of the English language as an instrument of the Anglo-Saxon power structure. Topics include: the removal of gender from English nouns, and how this process accelerated the suppression of the Feminine in thought and discourse; the Great Vowel Shift, and how the replacement of diphthongs with monophthongs helped enforce oppressive masculine power-oriented language structures by removing the softer and more intimate vowels; the development of eccentric, irregular, and inconsistent word forms and spelling, which created a despised and subservient class of "ignorant" and "illiterate" people, ripe for capitalist exploitation.
Sociology 384b: Black Marxism. The growth of global racism suggests the symmetry of the expansion of capitalism and the globalization of racial hierarchy. In this context, global racism works to shatter possibilities for solidarity, distort the meaning of justice, alter the context of wrong, and makes it possible for people to claim ignorance of past and present racial atrocities, discrimination, exclusion, oppression, and genocide. By concentrating on the works of Black Marxist intellectuals, this course examines the discourse of confrontation, and the impact of Black Marxist thought in contributing to anti-racist knowledge, theory, and action.
I'm not a fan of mockery as a mode of analysis myself -- like Timothy Burke, I dislike intemperate, snide, and snarky criticism, no matter what side of the debate it comes from. I also dislike how, in the current polarized climate, one person's snark is another person's temperate utterance. That this is so points both to how little communication is actually taking place in our debates about higher education and to the importance of free, unfettered debate. We might all be talking past one another much of the time, but that's far better than one side trying to silence the other. One of the most noxious things, for me, about debates in higher education is how academic "insiders" who would defend the status quo--or who would at least defend their right to privately and non-transparently ruminate on whether change ought to occur--seem so often to regard the criticism, commentary, and questions of "outsiders" as inappropriate, interfering, controlling, and censorious. I can't count how many times I have read someone somewhere on line or in print saying that reports such as ACTA's How Many Ward Churchills? actively threaten academic freedom. Criticism is not a threat to academic freedom. It is its lifeblood.
That said, I find Fjordman's quiz to be at once funny (in a depressing sort of way) and highly apposite. If you want to make the point that at some crucial level academe's pedagogical commitment to politically engaged teaching has become a hollow and imitative exercise in striking certain once radical but now overly ritualized poses, if you want to make the point that teaching with "liberal conviction," as Michael Berube describes it, can and does degenerate into teaching according to an increasingly hackneyed and predictable script, then there are few better ways to do it than Fjordman has done it. Berube himself notes that some sort of attempt at a balanced perspective is central to truly responsible, committed pedagogy of any stripe: "legitimate, well-founded beliefs ... should be presented--ideally, along with legitimate competing beliefs--in college classrooms." I agree with that. But I also can't help but notice that this is an ideal that too often fails to be realized in practice.
Timothy Burke insists that this failure is more a symptom of bad teaching than of ideological intention; this is part of his broader argument that the real issue with academe is careerism, not politicization, and that attempts to bring political issues to the fore only really amount to unhelpful and damaging distortions ("Zeroing in on and correcting the intellectual and institutional sins of academia is an important conversation, but increasingly I think the public version of it is malformed beyond repair"). I take Burke's point; careerism is a huge factor in the shape of current academic scholarship and teaching, in more ways than I can enumerate here. But at the same time, I feel strongly that Burke is drawing a false dichotomy between critiques of careerism in higher education and critiques of higher education's politicization. These things go hand in hand--if only because careerists cynically morph into the sorts of scholars and teachers the academic zeitgeist requires. At this point in time, that means they morph into scholars and teachers who deplore conservatism (without often having a clear sense of what that term means, or of how many kinds of conservatism there are), and who embrace the fashionably progressive tenets of current academic style: diversity, multiculturalism, interdisciplinarity, and so on. That this embracing may in fact be less owing to true conviction and more the result of careerist conniving only makes the situation sadder to contemplate. An academe filled with ideologues is an unpleasant enough prospect. An academe filled with convictionless bounders who are masquerading as politically committed scholars and teachers is worse.
There is much more that could be said here; I regard this post as an exploratory sketch rather than a definitive set of claims. Comments, as ever, are more than welcome.
June 5, 2006
A few words on governance
Dartmouth's Association of Alumni has been conducting a workshop in how not to do it.