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A Curse on Mean-Spirited Intellectuals:
And Literary Scholars Above All

Philip Davis professor of English literature at Liverpool University, author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, and editor of The Reader is fed up! This post originally appeared on Moreover.

It is probably because when I was a young beginner, trying to write about literature, I did not feel encouraged or appreciated. Those were days of high theory in literary studies: it was naïve to be interested in realism, in emotion, in the human content of literature as I was. “Nobody came,” says Thomas Hardy of the plight of his own young idealist, “because nobody does.”

But I was very pleased when a friend recently sent me a book of literary criticism that he said I would like, and I did. This is rare: I am sick of university teachers treating literature as though it were a branch of something else—Social Studies, Gender Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Political Studies. The book was by Brigid Lowe and is called “Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy“.

9780199270095.jpgIt is a brave book, with one big simple message: all too often literary scholars merely use books (they call them “texts”) for the sake of their own agendas and careers. Here’s the novel; here’s the ideological agenda to which it is to be fitted; and here’s the critical mallet to whack it into shape. For example, this is from another recent book on “Victorian Sympathy” from Stanford University Press: “The Victorians were very interested in sympathy—which was all about consolidating the male sense of identity, and an early example of interpellation in action.” Ah, so that’s what it’s “all about”.

Instead Ms Lowe offers a vision of sympathy—both within Victorian novels and in the reading of them—that is too generous and too complex for prescriptive and self-righteous narrow-mindedness. A character in Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Gaskell” will have a prejudice, a theory, a plan or a principle—and then suddenly, when confronted by a particular person in a specific human situation and moved or pained, will give it all up. That’s what the novel does, and it is what novel reading helps to foster.

I was really looking forward Ms Lowe’s book making a stir. But in the Times Literary Supplement on Sunday, her book was loftily dismissed by a foremost American literary scholar. Ms Lowe is a member of the “younger generation” of literary scholars, the reviewer argues, but the book is rather “dated”. Apparently, all of Ms Lowe’s targets in the world of literary theory—Terry Eagleton, Mary Poovey, Catherine Gallagher, Roland Barthes, Edward Said and J.Hillis Miller—are not a problem any more. We have “gone on” to new ideas.

Well, you could have fooled me. But then the reviewer does one of those sneaky scholarly things designed to make fools of people. Lowe quotes with interest an argument from “In A Different Voice”, by Carol Gilligan: in tests to measure ethical development, where a moral person is (so narrowly) defined as one who can “effectively apply abstract principles of justice and fairness”, women did far worse than men because they got too interested in the particular case. Good for them! But our reviewer notes that Lowe quotes from the 1998 reprint of this “landmark book”, and, actually, “In A Different Voice” first appeared in 1982. Therefore Lowe too is “dated” (—and the Victorians, poor souls, presumably even more so).

I say to this distinguished reviewer as I said in my last posting: A Blog On You! Somebody had something important to say, but you did not want to hear her say it. You didn’t really offer an argument. Instead you made something true, regardless, into someone “dated” instead, just by being clever. It wouldn’t be morally good were you a scholar of Roman drainage systems (as I wish you were). But it is worse if you are a literary scholar, because literature should have made your intelligence more sympathetic. Let the curse stand on all such failures of university education: A Blog On All Your Houses.

(Philip Davis, author of “Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life”, is a professor of English literature at Liverpool University and editor of The Reader magazine. He will be speaking on Malamud at the 92nd Street Y in New York on October 31st.)

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  1. BMC

    It is lovely to hear Phillip Davis arguing bravely about the problems that are plaguing today’s literary studies. But these problems are not to be located in the rise of general theory that seems so distressing to many literary scholars – all those social, sexual and racial readings of literature. Theory has, if anything, simply proliferated the number of readings and sympathies that are available in literary studies. If this is perverse, it is the perversity of numbers and of viewpoints. So Davis’ subscribes to Brigid Lowe’s definition of Victorian sympathy as the way in which a reader “will have a prejudice, a theory, a plan or a principle—and then suddenly, when confronted by a particular person in a specific human situation and moved or pained, will give it all up.” What a wonderfully intimate, almost phenomenological account of reading. But this reading cannot be denied to a new generation of literary scholars in academia, and to readers who discuss racism or gender problems in Victorian novels not merely because of the pressure of tenure, the job market or funding. For there is also the pressure of racism and sexism that is never anything other than “a particular person in a specific human situation”. Mrs. Dalloway experienced the specific human situation of an upper-middle-class lady growing old, and being provided for in such a comfortable existence so as to have time within a day to remember her life and to be troubled by lost chances and existential crises. Not everyone can identify in the same way, can experience the same sympathy, for such a specific situation, just as no theory can encompass all the possibilities of Mrs. Dalloway’s life – a lack of encompassing which makes Woolf’s novel so terribly haunting and evocative on each and every reading. Of course the abstraction and the false encompassing that often passes for theory these days does point to a lack of penetrating analyses of the particular situations that are generated by literary works. This may have something to do with the way in which literary theory has become interdisciplinary and, in the process, often lost its most intimate object in literature. But the transfer away from literature to other mediums in cultural and communication departments in universities also marks a mournful loss of funding for literary studies and, in addition, to the victory of the combined financial and ideological pressures that are seeing the destruction of the old-style, imperial and colonial universities that used to pride themselves on their popular, New Criticism-style literary readings. It is true, however, as Davis implies, that there is something deeply wrong with academic life generally. A nice, sympathetic academic I met the other day, who was going out of his way so unusually to help a lowly graduate thesis student, told me it is the chicken coop syndrome: too many chickens and not enough grain. So, academic chickens are tearing themselves to shreds over the little grain (funding) left in a small space. But they forget that the best grain, the one you want space and time to sit with in order to be in the green fields, is the food of literature itself. Everything else is just a passing fashion that supports the games played in a horrid factory of intellectual production. The problem is not really located in the literary theorists out there, like Hillis Miller et all, but in the mediocre and mediating academics out there who lack any real sympathy for anything except their own factory-farmed chicken-like existence. In relation to this particular situation, we all fear for the worst. One may well dare to hope that the luxuries and green fields of the Blogs out there would house some better readers and feeders in the world of literature.

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