Two Narratives about English Literature

My Ph.D. is an interdisciplinary degree in Religion and Literature.  When I was in school, there were only two Religion and Literature departments in universities: U Chicago, and U Virginia.  Religion and Literature is a strange major that neither discipline wants.  Religion departments don’t understand why one of their students would study literature.  And I have been called an “interloper” by a professor in the English department.  The reason I wanted to study Religion and Literature is due to my conviction that literature conveys meaning.  Most sacred literature, including the Bible, is written in literary forms (also the Rig Veda, the Koran, and the Songs of Milarepa).  Many of the prophets use poetry and metaphor, the Psalms are lyric poems, and much of the other books are stories.  It was, and is, my belief that Hemingway says something about life, about reality, and about meaning or the lack thereof in existence.  So did T.  S. Eliot.  So did Samuel Taylor Coleridge–especially in his famous poem, THE EOLIAN HARP.  And Coleridge certainly said something about existence and thinly disguised religion in THE RHYME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.  But I need to be clear, I was not interested in religious literature.  Rather, I sought statements about life in all literature.  I suppose I was making a Swedenborgian connection not everybody would make.  Swedenborg writes, “All religion relates to life, and the religious life is to do good.”  So for me, statements about life are religious statements.

Unfortunately for me then, and now, the keepers of English literature do not think that literary art is about meaning-making.  I’m not at all sure what English literature does or is for them.  But two narratives point to what literature does or is, today.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, where the University of Virginia is located, I ran into a fellow student from the English department in a bar.  I asked him what he was writing about in his dissertation.  He said he was writing about the process by which the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  He alluded to T.S. Eliot’s remark that Hamlet “is the Mona Lisa of literature.”  He said that in his dissertation he makes a lot of that remark by Eliot.  We were on friendly terms, and I was interested in his doctoral work.  But I wondered why someone in the English department was writing about how the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  I think that my colleague was writing critical theory.  Making judgments about the value of art is something critics do.  But I thought that what he was writing on would be more appropriate in the art department than in the English department.  This was due to my presuppositions about English literature.  You see how out of sync I was, and am still?

My second narrative isn’t direct personal experience.  It is a conversation I had with an English professor at a charming coffee shop where I live now.  She has a friend who won an award, she thought, for a poem her friend wrote.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop related her recollection of the process her friend went through in writing the poem.  She said that her friend wrote out in prose a narrative about her parents’ murder-suicide.  She may have also included the guilt she felt as their child.  Then, the poet either physically or conceptually cut up the narrative into phrases and segments.  Then she rearranged the parts out of sequence, out of grammatical order, and the final product is unintelligible.  The final product is called a poem.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop said she was unable to read the poem.  And she believes that her friend won an award.

I think that these two narratives show what is going on in humane letters.  Criticism plays a prominent role in English literature.  That’s what my first narrative says.  Although criticism didn’t really come of age until the 17th Century, it seems to be alive and well, today.  Deconstruction, which I thought was a passe brand of philosophy, dominates contemporary literature.  That’s what my second narrative says–I think.  For I think that disassembling and reassembling a story is a form of deconstruction.  I’m guessing here, I I may be wrong.  But what I do think, is that the poem in question is a lie.  If a narrative is first written out in prose, that is the truth being expressed.  Cutting it up and rearranging the parts into an incomprehensible word salad is a lie.  Why rearrange the sentence fragments?  Or, more importantly, why write out the story in plain English first?  Isn’t the plain English story the reality and the cut-up poem a falsification of the story?  And I don’t think that rearranging words into salad is art at all.

Finally, the subject matter of the so-called poem is also telling about the direction in which contemporary art is going.  Of course her art would be about something horrible.  Contemporary art is not allowed to be about happy, pretty, joyful subjects–especially about the glory of God and God’s works.  Only a few years back a movie called No Country for Old Men won several Academy Awards.  That movie is about a serial killer.  The movie narrated him murdering people.  He got away with his killing as Woody Harrelson, the sheriff, was also murdered.  (A generation ago The Sound of Music cleaned up at the Academy Awards.)  Another acquaintance of mine at the same charming coffee shop told me about her experiences in art school.  She said that someone made a painting of an animal torn open.  Then, the artist covered the frame in pig’s blood.  I went to the art gallery in the city I live in now.  There was a display composed of about 20 speakers on stands, with folding chairs set among them.  I sat on a chair, and there was an audio loop of a woman describing a dream of crows dying.  No eagles soaring upward into the sky.  No baby crows hatching into life.  No hummingbirds and flowers.  Crows dying.

I come up with these ideas about art because I still believe that art makes statements about life.  I believe, too, that my view of art is disjunct from how the contemporary keepers of art view it.  I have already expressed my inability to appreciate contemporary art.  And, indeed, my disinclination even to try.  I have made a decision, though, that in my artistic endeavors, I will express my own vision of art.  I will not attempt to assimilate contemporary trends.  And whether there is an audience or receptivity for what I do is not of my concern.  I think that artists who matter, held similar positions about creativity.  Critics debated Frost’s value all his life.  Andrew Wyeth never was considered a real artist.  And Hemingway’s mother never liked his fiction, nor did Gertrude Stein.  Of course, I’m not situating myself in such august company.  I’m just saying.

The Demise of Greatness

The handful of artists who finished the circle of life in the ’60’s were the last great artists–ever.  I’m thinking of Hemingway, Faulkner, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot and perhaps a handful more.  I think that Thomas Pynchon just made the cut.  In art, Picasso, Matisse, Jackson Pollock and a few others, lesser known.  And in music, Aaron Copeland is about it in the US, and in England Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughn Williams, and the Russian Stravinsky –there are a few others I have left out.  In their day, Hemingway and Eliot were about as big as one could get.  Now, both of them are being reconsidered in academic circles.  From being as great as one could get, they’re now not so great.  Hemingway was too macho and I don’t know what the problem is with Eliot, but he’s on his way out, if he’s not out altogether.  Adulation may be one indicator of greatness, and both Hemingway and Eliot had it.  But are we prepared to say that Falco is great due to his adulation in the ’80’s, or that Smash Mouth in the ’90’s, or who knows who today?

Now, in academic circles, advocacy issues are becoming criteria for import.  I do not say for greatness, because that very category is dissolving.  So, for example, Clara Schumann in  music, Mary Shelley in literature, and others add their names to the important due to revisionist gender concerns.  Other names are emerging from other advocacy issues.  But the real problem with greatness is due to contemporary critical theory.  Contemporary critical theory is deconstructing the whole notion of greatness itself.  The idea that art can be great is attacked also for advocacy reasons.  Greatness implies elitism, and today it is passe to be elite or to be an elitist.  I remember a student in a class I was taking at Harvard saying that our professor was being elitist for asking us to read Baudelaire in French.  I pointed out the irony that she was saying this in Harvard University.  A friend on mine in another grad school, who was deeply steeped in post-modern critical theory, said that everyone in every walk of life is an artist.  I didn’t know what he meant.  But one night when I was drinking a beer I suggested to him that I was being an artist, drinking beer.  I believe that it was then he told me that one day he would kill me.  We lost touch and he never made good on his remark.

Today in universities, pop culture is a bona fide discipline.  On a flight recently, the scholar sitting next to me gave me a feminist critique of Friday the 13th.  Even in the theological school in which I work, Jesus and pop culture is a course offered.  Pop culture is fun and all.  I have been known to watch the Police Academy movies.  But I wouldn’t dream of paying money to an academic institution in which they would teach me about it.  (I’m not saying that there are or have been courses on Police Academy in universities.)  And although I have been known to watch Police Academy, I would never put it on a par with Richard the Third.  But if there is no greatness, and if contemporary critical theory places all art on a level plain, what are we left with?  We are left with the demise of the great.  I don’t see our way to identifying a great poet today.  Remember Run DMC?  Did that band create today’s great poetry?  Please do not take me the wrong way.  The great philosopher/sociologist Eric Michael Dyson elicits much meaning from the lyrics of Jay Z.  But as he himself says, his class at Georgetown on Jay Z is not just hearing “dope lyrics.”  He uses Jay Z to shed light on pressing issues of race in American history.  But even Dyson is not making an aesthetic judgment on Jay Z as a poet.

In fact, I’m not sure that critics can make aesthetic  judgments today at all.  Sure, publishers make decisions on what material they want to publish.  And governments appoint poet-laureates.  Philosophy has reasoned itself out of existence, and Rorty wouldn’t accept an endowed chair in the University of Virginia philosophy department for that reason.  And now I believe that art has criticized itself out of existence.  I suspect that there is no longer criteria for deciding greatness in art.  No word “great” at all in the lexicon of language.  So the likes of Hemingway and Eliot may be the last of the great writers.  And even they are losing their standing in university estimates about who we ought to read.  Are we at the point where Marvel Comics are leading authors of our day?  Will the next generation compare Iron Man to Prince Hamlet?  If the next generation will even know who Hamlet is.

DISCOVERING ART, ARTISTS

It’s taken me this many years, in my mature age

To understand, and, more, to enjoy Shakespeare

For in my younger years, I couldn’t, didn’t

I look forward to the delight in store for me

As play by play, I will open the heavy, leather volumes

Of Shakespeare in my home library

 

I recall, in my youth, my delight

As symphony by symphony, I discovered Beethoven

I recall my sadness, when there were no more symphonies to discover

Symphony by symphony, I had heard them all

Though I can still listen to them time and again

 

I recall, in early manhood, my delight

As novel by novel, I discovered Hemingway

I recall emulating Hemingway’s characters, Hemingway

As I was young, and searching for an identity

 

I recall, also in early manhood, my awe

As I viewed paintings in museums

That I had previously seen only as prints in books

And I could, can, view them time and again

 

So all these years, these good years

Bring me to the doorstep of Shakespeare

And like an eager youth, I anticipate

The delight in store for me

As play by play, I open the heavy, leather volumes

Of Shakespeare in my home library—

A surprising boon bestowed on my advanced years

A LITANY

The Keepers of intellectual trends hold apparent power

And to make it, some are slaves to the Keepers’ fashion

I am a free man to my own muse

I am a priest who intones the litany:

 

Blake was a free genius, self-published,

And died in literary obscurity

Until T. S. Eliot gave him a name

Shelley knew, “Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure”

Whom all English students now study

Though F. Scott knew fame and wealth,

Gatsby didn’t even sell out its first printing

And F. Scott never knew the book as all high school students do

They suppressed Hemingway’s Pulitzer

They fiercely debated whether Frost were a poet, Wyeth a painter

The Impressionists showed in the Exhibition of Rejects

And Moreau, in the National Paris Salon

Pollock had his 10 years, before his suicide

Mozart died unknown, unsung

 

We can’t give our contentment to the Keepers

It rests in the beauty of our art manifesting,

In the pen of the writer alone with paper or laptop screen,

And a  happy finished project

In the living-room, study, or dorm room

With, or without, the blessing of the Keepers

GRADUATE STUDENT

I left my idealism somewhere

Back in early manhood, apprenticeship

For getting by only.

My knees hurt

Not like they did before, to pay the bills

Walking behind a power-mower

All day

 

Isn’t it ironic that Wordsworth will sing of

Quarry workers singing as he

Wanders in his daffodils

Whitman praises the common laborer

As he loiters in the grass

 

The privations, the deprivations

The catalog of things to do without

Logged into my bitterness–

Formerly an occupation–I try not to be bitter.

 

I read Hemingway to buoy my spirits–

His Catholic poverty in Paris,

His un-Christian feeling of superiority

To the vague wealthy.  I guess I feel superior

 

Or try to feel superior to buoy my spirits.

The indignities,

The fear as I lie to a bill-collector,

Slough subordination,

Try to feel above it all.

While the town keeps me down.

 

To dignify the working class—

Which I am now and a grad student

And the town keeps me down—

Your sore knees

Must speak more than their pain—

The bills that demand their “dignity”

The landed idle

Still demand my money

As they loiter

GRADUATE STUDENT

I left my idealism somewhere

Back in early manhood, apprenticeship

For getting by only.

My knees hurt

Not like they did before, to pay the bills

Walking behind a power-mower

All day

 

Isn’t it ironic that Wordsworth will sing of

Quarry workers singing as he

Wanders in his daffodils

Whitman praises the common laborer

As he loiters in the grass

 

The privations, the deprivations

The catalog of things to do without

Logged into my bitterness–

Formerly an occupation–I try not to be bitter.

 

I read Hemingway to buoy my spirits–

His Catholic poverty in Paris,

His un-Christian feeling of superiority

To the vague wealthy.  I guess I feel superior

 

Or try to feel superior to buoy my spirits.

The indignities,

The fear as I lie to a bill-collector,

slough subordination,

Try to feel above it all.

While the town keeps me down.

 

To dignify the working class—

Which I am now and a grad student

And the town keeps me down—

Your sore knees

Must speak more than their pain—

The bills that demand their “dignity”

The landed idle

Still demand my money

As they loiter

 

Though,

In the end

I will have to forget

The laborious pain

Of achieving a place of less pain.

Pain where?

 

Will I be able to forget adulthood?

When eternity speaks its demands.

Reflections about Money

For 3/4 of my adult life I’ve lived in poverty.  My impoverished life, though, was of my own making.  I was chasing a goal–education–and that was why I ended up poor.

I resented my poverty quite a bit, when I was in school.  I didn’t see why poverty was a necessary condition for education.  The English department at my university had a motto, “Going for broke!”  Back then, I spoke with a young woman once, and asked her if she were considering Ph.D. studies.  She said that she wasn’t.  When I asked her why, she replied, “I don’t want to spend the next 8 years of my life in poverty.”  However, pursuing the goal of higher education made my poverty bearable.  I had a higher purpose; it transcended the pecuniary world.  I tried to make myself feel better by thinking about Hemingway, and his poverty in Paris while he was learning to write.  Nobody likes poverty; but when one likes a calling more than money, one accepts one’s condition.

Now I have a comfortable income.  That has been for 12 years out of my 40 adult years.  I am still getting used to the feeling of having enough money, in fact more than I need.  But I am still pursuing a higher purpose, though, with my money.  I am recording a disk of my original music.  And that is draining a considerable amount of my income.  Some might consider this an extravagance, in that I’m not a professional musician and I’m not in a band.  But even as higher education is not always a money-making endeavor, but a meaningful pursuit, so music is not always a money-making endeavor, but art is a meaningful pursuit.  And without the CD project, I don’t know what I would do with the several thousands I am investing in this enterprise.  And for me, the purpose of money is to be used–not just possessed.

Most people secure gainful employment at a young age and spend most of their lives financially set.  I think self-image for many depends on money.  Sociologists have given us status labels.  They made up the categories, “upper-class; middle-class; lower-class.”  In doing so, they told us how we were to think of ourselves.  I try not to measure my self-worth by money.  But when I was an impoverished student, always riding in the back-seat of someone else’s car, not being able to buy “nice things,” not being able to take a girl out on a date, I felt worthless.  This, despite my higher calling, higher education.  My brother, a rich engineer, told me, “It’s only money.”  That didn’t help.  Now that I’m in a good financial place, I don’t think about money at all, don’t measure myself by money.

Growing up, my generation disdained money.  The rock music of my time sung songs against materialism and money (Pink Floyd wrote a song with that for a title).  We talked about love and peace; looked to get back to Nature.  Perhaps that’s why I didn’t pursue money in my life, but went for more spiritual acquisitions.  I made my bed and I’m happy to sleep in it.  Everybody makes their own bed.  They must sleep in it, and hopefully they are happy to, as I am.

Entertainment Value in Literary Classics

Let’s agree that there are classics of literature.

I’ve just started reading the Russian classic, Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev.  I didn’t know what to expect when I bought it.  I was surprised with what I found in the first pages.  It was spellbinding!  I really enjoyed reading this classic!

I have had the idea, like a lot of people, that classics of literature are boring and dense and you have to plod through them.  And that’s true of some.  But not many.

Can it be that classics are classics because they are entertaining?  Another way to phrase this is to say that classics are entertaining because they are written well.  The artful style of telling a good tale is what makes the classic entertaining.

I first noticed this with Hemingway.  I discovered Hemingway in graduate school, at the age of 27.  I still remember sitting in the student lounge late at night reading, For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I couldn’t put it down.  At the time I was reading Hemingway, he was considered great literature.  In fact, Hemingway did win the Nobel Prize for literature, and a Pulitzer Prize.  Today, some scholars are debating Hemingway’s literary standing because in an age of feminism, his work is too macho.  But his innovation with language, I believe, will secure his place in the literary pantheon regardless of whether he is too macho or not.

I notice an analogous entertainment value in the works of Tom Wolfe.  His works are artistically plotted, and riveting to read.  It’s always risky to try to discern the artistic value of contemporary writers, but I think that he may well be considered a major author of our time.  He is most certainly a popular and successful writer.  But I believe that his works will be considered classics after this age passes into history.

In fact, I find Shakespeare equally entertaining.  If it isn’t the pace of the psychology, Shakespeare is an entertainer.  A sword fight will break out after a heavy scene, or when psychology becomes too overwhelming.  I don’t need to say anything about Shakespeare’s union of sense and sound.  If we lived in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s language wouldn’t be hard to read or hear in a performance.  With footnotes, contemporary readers can follow the story and discover the delights that the Bard offers.

Great literature delights.  Maybe that’s why such literature is considered great.  Much could be said about why literature delights–accuracy to the human situation, plot tensions that we feel . . . But that is material for another blog.  This one is about the entertainment value that great literature possesses, that makes literature great.

Fame

Fame and success are not always meted out in a person’s lifetime.  Some great artist were relatively obscure in their own lives, and did not know that they would be important later, after their demise.  All they knew was that their work didn’t catch on.  And they were unknown–and that, for their whole lives.  They didn’t make it.

William Blake was known to some of the Romantic poets, but achieved no real fame.  Shelley wrote these verses about his own life,

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,

Nor peace within nor calm around,

Nor that content surpassing wealth

The sage in meditation found,

And walked with inward glory crowned—

Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.

Others I see whom these surround—

Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;

To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had fame and money, but failed to find critical acceptance as an artist.  His greatest novel, The Great Gatsby, didn’t sell much and went out of print in a few years.  Fitzgerald died thinking himself a failure.

Now we study Blake, Shelley, and Fitzgerald in literature classes, and all these writers are considered great.  Every high school student in the United States reads The Great Gatsby.

Hemingway and T.S. Eliot had fame all through their lives, and the respect of the artistic community.  Hemingway also had wealth.  Intellectual fashion is now debating whether they are still as great as they used to be, but I suspect the laurel wreath will not be taken away in the end.

But Shelley and Fitzgerald had respect among the community of artists in their day.  Coleridge and Wordsworth knew and respected Shelley.  And Hemingway was Fitzgerald’s close friend.  Even in Hemingway’s scathing stories about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway praises Fitzgerald as a great artist.

Fame may not be the best measure of a person’s worth.  Respect from one’s peers, self-respect, believing in oneself, and the joy of creation alone are not fame, but are abiding satisfactions in lieu of fame.  While an artist wants recognition, it is satisfying to enjoy one’s own creations privately, while perhaps also enjoying favorable reception from a few who matter.