Jul/Aug 2014 Nonfiction

Ein Blick Ins Chaos

by Jascha Kessler

Image credit: Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov

Image credit: Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov

The significant development, change? devolution? in the Humanities since I started teaching in 1951 has been the unthinking and determined politicization of the profession we once knew as students. Granted, it was unthinking and unconsciously political in the generation before my time. Remember that Saul Bellow was told he wouldn't make it as an English Ph.D. candidate at Chicago. He majored in Anthropology, the Eskimo, as I recall. Ergo, Nobel Laureate. Remember that Lionel Trilling, a decade before Bellow, scarcely made it through Columbia, and was assured it would be no place for him as well. He never forgot that, nor forgave that, as I know from a long evening in 1958 over brandy in my rooms in Carbondale at a big conference on Joyce and DHL. The utterly asinine swing to the Stalinist world view, even after 1936-1937, meant even that in politicizing footnotes, theories, philosophy, Marxistizing, as it were, the fundamentals of political/social philosophy were neither studied nor understood. John Dewey could have taught them all about thinking.

It resulted in attacks on every level of study and research and teaching, more intense decade by decade after 1965, until nothing was known of examining the premises of theory, and little else of the techniques of analysis. New Criticism petered away from the little it was to nothing. All that is familiar. The attack on the soi-disant Canon of white males really was an attack on responsibility for knowing something about the history of the language and its literature, qua literature. The situation today and for the future shows the worst sort of result: scholars and critics and students dislike Literature per se, qua Literature. A book, if read, is understood in terms of its political/polemical utility, race, Party, gender, sexual preference, whatever. Categories for sociological analysis; nothing to do with Literature, capital L.

Ezra Pound wrote that the History of a Literature [or of an Art] is the history, or list [Canon] of its masterpieces. He was trashing the Humanities as known and taught in 1905-1910. Pound left off teaching and fled to England, thence Europe, and ended, politically, at points Right and East. In sum, our situation today is pervasively anti-intellectual, commercial, Left-utilitarian. When literature is made a mealy, homogeneous and ugly paste of 3rd to 5th rate work, then history and philosophy, needed as ancillaries, goes the same way, and so they have gone. It is one thing to blame the media, but TV and movies have become technically powerful, intellectually as low as one can go. But that is another story. It is all stumbling if not tumbling downhill, a decline to a level of sheer uninterest.

Myself, I was allowed to devote some of my time to teaching the writing of verse, fiction, drama, from 1961 on at UCLA, and honors seminars since I reached a step to heaven known as Emeritude. And there are always unlettered aspiring and naive students who are pre-political, if not for long. That helps. But the teaching of writing during the same decades became the province of writers who themselves usually had not had any training in the history of English language and literature, à la the Ph.D. Enlightening studies once. But those are occluded and rather obfuscated today, since there may be no programs today examining candidates who have traversed the history from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf and beyond.

For the future one must have hope: that, gradually, perhaps K-12 may be taught better... by whom? That literacy will be valued by a young generation that doesn't seem to know quiet but talks constantly, eating, driving, drinking, dating, and perhaps even in love-making if not texting away in crosswalks or jogging. Talk talk talk on the cellular. Talk, as we know, is cheap. Words have to resist attack and analysis. Ergo, by being written down. Given reasonable numbers of high-level students in elite schools, private and public, there is hope... for the sciences, at least, which is where the plupart of best and brightest are heading. Or corporate America. Or, one hopes, the Military-Industrial Establishment. Or, god help us, The Law. It was interesting to notice a few years ago that the young Marine who brashly put the Stars and Stripes over the visage of Saddam H. in Baghdad, named Chine, was a graduate in 1998 of my own Bronx High School of Science, which in 70 years has produced five Nobelists and uncounted numbers of heads of everything in medicine, universities, and government. That school was an elite public school, drawing from every borough in NY. There were others, Music and Art [Juilliard], Stuyvesant, Boys High, Julia Richmond, and Hunter High. The fearful ones shut down Townsend Harris because it showed far too many brilliant future sociologists and psychologists, etc., during the war. Gone by 1943, as it made the powers suddenly anxious. Science is one thing; politics another. We have similar problems, their inverse today. It is all because of the anti-intellectualism of this era, and in California the foolish leveling-down of educational egalitarianism.

As for doing it all over again: I suspect it could not be done, but not by those who think as I do, who resisted the mere footnoting pedantry of semi-literate specialist profs in the 40s-50s, not to mention their prejudices [Bellow, Trilling], and certainly not be the vapid and mechanical domination of Critical "Theory," most of which is a farrago of jargonified words, of misunderstood history and uses of philosophy, juggling five levels of abstraction like mad hatters walking on eight-foot high stilts... rickety and unstable, below them a madding crowd of careerists, cynics or ideologues. What else is new? Socrates had successful, money-making Sophists to contend with. A perennial problem. Mass society and mass education make it worse than could have been dreamt of in ancient Athens...

The little isles of Liberal Arts professors and temporary teachers and adjuncts today scattered through 50 States are faintly visible, candles fluttering in the night breeze of nescience. As the Chairman of the English Department at Hunter College dismissed me from a job interview in 1953, he remarked: "There will always be more or less useful English instructors to be had cheap." How so? "Because some people like to sit around reading books in preference to real work." Shocked as I was, I took his point. Teaching in the Humanities is, like poetry according to Auden, a mug's game.


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