Anna Blank

Anna Blank, somewhere in Baku in the early 20th century

Anna Blank was one of my great-grand-mother’s and Miron’s sisters.

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Uncle Miron

Miron Blank, somewhere East of Europe in the early 20th century

This is a picture of a picture that I took the other day at my aunt Nathalie’s. Even though the quality is really bad, Uncle Miron still comes out as a very handsome man, don’t you think ? And can you see the snow flakes on his coat ?

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Inside an outsider’s body

 

Avenue Parmentier, Paris, June 2009

Last time we started analyzing a few pages taken from A Single Man and we looked at the picture it drew of a lonely and anxious mind through the representation of George’s stream of consciousness.

We agreed that the atmosphere of the classroom where the passage takes place seemed to be bordering on paranoia, with a teacher separated from his students by an invisible wall and ”suspecting [his students] of suspecting him” of being an unpleasant person.

Remembering our discussion about MacCarthysm and its echoes through American literature, some of the witches underlined that this paranoid atmosphere may have been a reflection of the politics of the period. Can George’s insecurity be explained by his fear of being found out as a communist ?, someone asked in her commentary.

While it is true that the red scare was still pervading American society in the early 60s – in Tom Ford’s film it crops up in a conversation that George has with a colleague worried about the situation in Cuba – it is something else than the need to conceal his political opinions that is betrayed by George’s insecurity. As we saw when we talked about the Fear of the Invisible Other that dominated postwar American society, communists were just one face of the many-headed beast that was then suspected of subverting American identity. Homosexuals were another one.

True, there is no allusion to George’s sexuality in the passage under study. What can be perceived by an attentive reader however is his ”hyper-sensitivity” to the difficulty of judging someone by his or her appearance – his reluctance to judge a book by its cover, as we say.

George’s focus on the unreliability of visible appearances (whether he scrutinizes his students’ smiling faces or thinks about their term papers) is inextricably bound up with his sense of the theatrical quality of the situation he’s taking part in. Most of you underlined that George seems to regard himself as an actor performing a role in front of an audience, which most clearly appears in the reference to ”his wonderful provocative melodramatic silence” and in the way he stages his lecture.

George rolls the words of his tongue with such happy harmonics, such shameless relish, that this sounds like a parody of W.B. Yeats reciting. (He comes down on dies with a great thump to compensate for the And which Aldous Huxley has chopped off from the beginning of his original line.) Then, having managed to startle or embarrass at least a few of them, he looks around the room with an ironical grin and says quietly, schoolmasterishly, ”I take it you’ve all read the Huxley novel by this time, seeing that I asked you to more than three weeks ago ?”.

Bearing in mind that this description of George reflects his own perception of what he probably looks like, it is worth pointing out the ironical quality of this self-portrait. George obviously doesn’t take himself seriously, which is emphasized by his feeling of sounding like ”a parody of W. B. Yeats” and by the use of the adverb ”schoolmasterishly”. This adverb hints at a sense of detachment from the situation which suggests that in addition to feeling like an actor, George also feels like a spectator of himself and of the whole situation – which is in fact exactly what he imagined Kenny to be doing a few moments ago (”George gets a spooky impression that Kenny is laughing not at the joke but at the whole situation; the educational system of this country, and all the economic and political and psychological forces which have brought them into this classroom together.”)

Now there’s a slight difference between viewing your lecture as a performance (a familiar analogy for schooolteachers and university lecturers) and looking at the world as if it were a stage. Not only does George feel that he has to captivate his audience, he also seems to be thinking that he is in fact playing a part in a social comedy which goes far beyond the walls of the classroom. The allusion to W.B. Yeats is interesting in this respect (”this sounds like a parody of Yeats reciting”) because Yeats happened to be very interested in  ”masks’. And the ”enigmatic” faces of the Asian students can be seen as another echo of this image.

So the impression that is conveyed through the passage is that of a strange performance played by actors wearing masks which make it difficult to guess their true nature. This is both amusing and disturbing – or uncanny. George’s ironical gaze towards himself indeed enhances the carnivalesque dimension of the scene.

On the one hand his social role makes him the embodiement of the Law – he works for the State (of California), he is a professor, he is a man and he is white : all these aspects of his public self contribute to stamping him as a perfect patriarchal figure in the eyes of his young students – people whose integration into society still remains to be achieved through their participation in certain social rituals (getting a degree, finding a husband or a wife, finding a job, buying a house, having kids …). This aspect of George’s identity is what can be seen from outside. On the other hand what the passage shows is that this outward appearance is just that – a facade, a mask that conceals a very different person. Living with someone but pretending to be single, being part of an outcast minority and at the same time endowed with the responsibility of shaping young American minds, looking like an insider (someone who is part of the people-with-power) but feeling like an outsider (someone who is the butt of other people’s private jokes) …

So among other things, this extract indirectly gives us the opportunity of reflecting about the American notion of ”minorities”, which started to emerge in the 1960s before getting to the forefront of public intervention in the 1970s with the rise of affirmative action policies – now more often referred to as ”positive discrimination”.

Whether or not George’s fears of not being respected or trusted by his students are justified, they point to a society haunted by the fear of alterity and the need to classify people into reassuringly transparent categories. As a member of an ”invisible minority”, George stands for the emblematic threat to this categorizing compulsion.

Invisibility is the price he’s had to pay for his integration into society – he is not discriminated against because his sexual difference is not publicly recognized (you may want to look at the history of coming-out to understand the situation faced by gay people in the 60s). Now a very interesting moment in the passage we studied is George’s fear of being misinterpreted by one of his brightest students, who also happens to be black :

Out of the corner of his eyes, he notices Buddy Sorensen’s evident dismay, which is not unexpected, and Estelle Oxford’s indignant now-they-tell-me shrug of the shoulders, which is more serious. Estelle is one of his brightest students. Just because she is bright, she is more conscious of being a Negro, apparently, than the other coloured students in the class are; in fact she is hyper-sensitive. George suspects her of suspecting him of all kinds of subtle discrimination. Probably she wasn’t in the room when he told them to read the novel. Damn, he should have noticed that and told her later.

It is worth looking carefully at the way George’s description of and comments on his student are organized. First, he notes the indignation expressed by her body language (the wonderfully graphic ”now-they-tell-me shrug of the shoulders”). Then he immediately sets out to speculate about the cause of her anger and puts it down to her hyper-sensitivity to ”all kinds of subtle discrimination”, which turns out to be also a comment on George himself – he is hyper-sensitive to his students’ potential negative perception of himself.

What thus seems to happen as he looks at Estelle Oxford is the cristallization of a perfect reflection – as when you look at yourself in a mirror and see your reflected image, which is you in reverse. A white man and a black woman, they both stand outside mainstream society but he suffers from having to hide his difference whereas she suffers from being always reminded of it. He’s afraid of being found out and she’s angry at not being let in. The mirror effect is indeed perfectly expressed by the chiasmus : ”George suspects her of suspecting him”, which simultaneously stresses identification and alienation. They both have a problem with the way they look – he is aware of looking like somebody he is not, she is aware of being viewed as just another black body and of being denied the recognition of her inner worth – which is precisely the definition of racial discrimination. In other words, one is too invisible, the other is too visible. Thus George’s sense of being a fraud (wearing the mask of the Powerful White Man) is both what prevents him from being recognized as a friend by his black student and what enables him to understand a black woman’s frustration with the weight of appearances : it is an absolutely perfect tragic conflict in the true sense of the term.

And the fact that this particular student’s name happens to be Estelle Oxford only serves to reinforce the tragic irony of the situation. While George is a self-exiled British professor of literature teaching in the U.S., the black girl is named after the most illustrious seat of the British literary establishment, which is a reminder of the violent exile that was forced on the African people when they were enslaved by the descendants of the English colonists in America. George’s insistence that his students should ”stop to ask [themselves] what the title of a novel means” might therefore be read as an echo of his empathy with a student whose ”title” is like the stigmata of slavery, which around the same period led to the rise of people like Malcom X and Muhammad Ali.

I think ”empathy” is where I would like to conclude the commentary upon this extract.

Because despite George’s persistent fear of misreading his students’ true intentions and of being misread by them, there is a point in the text where a little window opens to indicate that moments of fleeting understanding can happen sometimes, if you know how to watch for them. Admittedly, it’s a very small window and if we hadn’t stopped to read the passage so carefully in order to write a commentary upon it – a privilege which few people enjoy in commercial societies where ”man has no time to be anything but a machine‘ – we might not have noticed it. But here it is :

He looks at Estelle and smiles. She smiles back. So, this time, it’s going to be all right.

Yes, even in a fear-ridden society, sympathy can sometimes overcome distrust and hostility. And literature is here to remind us of the invisible affinities that may reconcile people despite their visible differences.

Literature also reminds us that bodies and faces matter – not least because they enable us to exchange smiles when words seem to be failing us. The unsexed and colourless voice of the philosophy student may be a beautiful ideal, as Hope suggested in her comment upon my previous post. But then let’s not forget that the reason why we need this universal voice is because we live in a society where colour and gender are still overwhelmingly used to define who is inside and who isn’t.

And as long as we remember it, it’s going to be all right.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FOUqQt3Kg0&feature=related

 

rue Alibert, Paris, June 2009

 

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Inside a teacher’s mind

 

 

 

A plastic Freud leaning against Arielle's hat

 

At this very moment 25 young students are sitting in front of me, thinking and writing about ”Evil” (Le mal) – which is the word that was submitted to them on a piece of paper for their philosophy exam. They’ve been working in this classroom for five hours and they still have one hour left. Watching them I am reminded that doing 6 hours of intensive thinking is really like an athletic competition – I’m surprised it still hasn’t found any sponsor among the big sportswear brands (yet pharmaceutical companies seem to know better, as I learned in a recent Guardian article about the increasing use of cognitive enhancement drugs by students for exams). Testimonies to the physical dimension of the exercise are scattered on the students’ desks. Lying next to the yellow and blue sheets of draft papers provided by the school are bottles of water, packs of biscuits, bananas, chocolate, aspirin tablets, tissues … all the necessary implements for the student’s survival kit on exam day.

There are 5 young men and 19 young women, all of them white. But these visible aspects of their identity are not supposed to surface in the essays they will hand in at the end of the exam. The voice of a French philosophy student is not expected to be embodied. Referring to its author as ”We”, it is the cold voice of Universal Reason – colourless and genderless.

Glancing at the papers, I come across the following sentences they’ve written to introduce the topic :

”La dichotomie du Bien et du Mal, du bon et du mauvais est un topos bien connu bien que trop simpliste comme nous allons le montrer.”

”La question du mal est une interrogation ancienne aussi bien en philosophie qu’au sein de la société, puisque ”le” mal comme entité abstraite a des conséquences directes sur les comportements humains : l’homme peut mal agir.”

”Rousseau affirme dans une de ses maximes que l’homme est fondamentalement bon mais que la société le pervertit.”

Sometimes two students exchange a glance and burst into laughter, which would seem to indicate that the gravity of the question they have been required to ponder hasn’t succeeded in dampening the cheerful mood of this first week of Spring – even though the blinds have been pulled over, there are patches of light on the floor and through the open window happy young voices can be heard rising from the courtyard bathed in sunlight.

My official mission today consists in playing Big Sister – I’m watching the students, presumably to make sure that none of them peep at her or his iphone to google ”Arendt Banality of Evil”, ”Star Wars the Dark Side of the Force” or some other inquiry. I also performed this task last Friday, watching over a group of students who had been asked to write about another philosophical question : ”Error”.

Sometimes it feels good not to be 20 years old anymore.

 

To Alice’s impatient readers – I haven’t written for a while because my mother came to spend a week with me and then I had two friends staying for the week-end (a glimpse of which can be caught on Hope’s blog). As you know, a woman needs a room of her own if she is to write and in my case this is incompatible with having guests as I usually let them have my room.

 

Since my last post, an earthquake and a tsunami have devastated Japan and war has started in Libya.

 

Because of the exams, I haven’t seen the witches for a week – and I miss them. Last Tuesday it was Carnival and some of them were disguised – Delphine was wearing a wonderful necklace made of sweets. At school lots of male students were dressed as women, which would seem to confirm an observation that a South American friend recently communicated to me – he was struck by how often he sees French men disguised as women, a custom which is apparently much less widespread in other latitudes.

 

Delphine

 

Last week in class we translated an extract from A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, and we looked for a way of introducing our commentary. Here is a possible option we considered :

The extract under study records a few minutes in a literature class as seen through the eyes of George, a lecturer standing in front of his students and wondering what they’re thinking about him. It is a third-person narrative told with an internal focalization – the reader only sees what George sees and has access to his inner thoughts. As the passage unfolds, we come to understand that what matters is not so much the representation of a certain environment – a class of literature in an American university in the early 60s – as the relationship between an individual conscience and this environment. Through the depiction of George’s thoughts and feelings, these pages indeed give us a picture of a particular psychological landscape. Pervading this landscape is a sharp sense of insecurity. The character of George as delineated through this passage seems to be unusually anxious to please and worried about his students’ opinions of him. While being very aware of the clout and superiority he enjoys as a result of his social status, George nonetheless feels extremely vulnerable and unconvinced of his right to speak. As a result of this tension, the passage highlights the difficulty of trusting appearances and invites the reader to question her or his representation of identity. Being given access to the mind of a character who is both watching and being watched, we are led to wonder about the unreliability and instability of the visible signs we usually rely on in order to make sense of the world that surrounds us.

 

In the witches’ commentaries upon the extract, two aspects of George’s psychology were highlighted : first of all, he appears to be lonely ; secondly, he seems to be insecure, if not paranoid. In addition to the description of these features, I think our commentary could bring into light another dimension of the character that is suggested in the passage we studied – his yearning for human contact, which, if frustrated, does not remain absolutely unfulfilled. And this aspect is inextricably bound with something I call ”invisible connections”, whose potential power is emphasized by the text (yes Adèle, I’m an incorrigible optimist, I need a hopeful third part !).

So one of the most striking aspects of our extract is that it represents a lonely individual through the focus on a single point of view. Of course my choice of the adjective ”single” is deliberately meant to echo the title of the novel, A Single Man, thus following George’s piece of advice to his students :

”I must say, I don’t see how anyone can pretend to be interested in a novel when he doesn’t even stop to ask himself what its title means.”

So what does ”A Single Man” mean ? The Collins dictionary tells me : ”You use single to emphasize that you are referring to one thing, and no more than one thing” and ”to indicate that you are considering something on its own and separately from other things like it.” Another relevant occurence of the word is when it is used to describe someone who is not married. ” You can also use single to describe someone who does not have a girlfriend or boyfriend.”

Now those of us who had seen Tom Ford’s adaptation of the novel knew something that is not mentioned in the extract under study: George used to live with a man, his lover and partner, who died in a car accident not long before the day recorded in the novel. In that context, the ”single man” label can be understood in at least two ways. First of all, it points to the fact that George has recently become single again, after years of being in a relationship with someone. But given the period when the story takes place, the ”single man” label must also be read as a lie George has always had to make or as a mask he has always been wearing when dealing with the outside world, even when his partner was still alive. In the 60s, gay partnerships were not recognized as an acceptable personal choice, neither by the law nor by public opinion. Therefore the ”single” part of George’s identity both reflects his recent loss and the impossibility for him to grieve publicly over it – as he was prevented from making his union visible, he is now also prevented from showing his state of mourning and receive the usual tokens of human sympathy that come in such moments.

Now assuming we hadn’t read the novel nor seen the film, nothing in the extract under study could make us guess this part of George’s story. However the painful dichotomy (to use a pompous word that seems to be appreciated by young French students !) between George’s public and private identities is a major aspect of this passage, as we shall see later. For now, suffice it to say that our extract emphasizes George’s sense of loneliness and separation from other human beings.

As we mentioned earlier, the reader’s understanding of the situation is limited to what is recorded by George’s point of view. There is something slightly suffocating about this passage, which comes from the fact that we are trapped inside the mind of a single character – George is the overwhelming focalizer (as Claire would say), the exclusive subject, whether explicit or implicit, of most sentences. The text records what he sees, what he feels, what he does, in sentences like ”George finds himself almost continuously aware of Kenny’s presence in the room”, ”George feels he is being laughed with”, ”’George gets a spooky impression”, ”George suspects Kenny of understanding …”, ”George rolls the words off his tongue”, ”he notices Buddy Sorensen’s evident dismay”, ”He looks from face to face …”, etc.

Having established that the recorded perceptions are those of George’s, the text sometimes resorts to free indirect speech, in sentences such as

Oh, no – he can never venture to take Kenny for granted.

or

but who can be sure of anything with those enigmatic Asians ?

or

his beautiful head almost certainly contains nothing but clotted oil paint.

or

Damn, he should have noticed that and told her later.

This is free indirect speech because we can hear George’s voice, unmediated by verbs and inverted commas, and yet the text is not a first-person narrative. (Remember, the test for free indirect speech is ”If we wanted to turn the text into a script for a play or a film, if we wanted to hear George’s voice – which is in fact what Tom Ford did in his adaptation with Colin Firth’s voice-over – we would need to change only a few things : for instance, we would turn ”he” into ”I”, and that would be enough to make the sentences sound like speech”).

But then, this narrative device is not sufficient in itself to convey the impression of George’s loneliness. What are the other signs ?

Another sign of George’s isolation is simply the lack of verbal interaction with the other people in the room (I thank Marie for pointing out that aspect). The situation of communication which is described does not leave any room for dialogue : as a teacher, George is not there to exchange ideas with his audience but to lecture them, which to him means that he is expected to speak and to be listened to, no matter what he says:

The class has got to listen to George because, by virtue of the powers vested in him by the State of California, he can make them submit to and study even his crassest prejudices, his most irresponsible caprices, as so many valuable clues to the problem : How can I impress, flatter or otherwise con this cantankerous old thing into giving me a good grade ?

Yes, alas, now he must spoil everything. Now he must speak.

In other words, speech is not regarded as a liberating two-way process enabling to go out of oneself in order to reach out to other human beings but as a dictatorial instrument that expresses power relationships. And as the last of the sentences just quoted clearly indicates, this power is not something George enjoys, unlike what was suggested in some commentaries that failed to perceive the sad irony of his remark about his ”legal” power to be listened to. George is in fact painfully aware of the artificial attention he is entitled to receive from his students, he feels that it has nothing to do with who he is but that it is the product of certain ”economic and political and psychological forces which have brought them into this classroom together”, as he suspects Kenny of believing.

The passage thus points to an invisible wall that seems to prevent true communication from happening. George stands alone on one side of the wall, separated from his students who first seem to ignore his presence – he is excluded from the conversation of ”the talkers” – and who then fail to answer his questions – his inquiries are met with ”silence”. Whether they talk or not, the students stand at a distance from George, who is reduced to imagining what they may be whispering to one another.

George’s imaginary script of his students’ inner thoughts is indeed another remarkable aspect of the passage. Although it is focused on a single point of view, the text is in fact filled with references to what the students may be thinking or to the ”private jokes” they may be making about him.

George feels he is being laughed with.

George gets a spooky impression that Kenny is laughing not at the joke but at the whole situation …

which makes him wonder if she and Kenny have private jokes about him.

Sometimes, George even imagines the words of his students, as in the extract quoted above : How can I impress, flatter or otherwise con this cantankerous old thing into giving me a good grade ?, which is obviously not something he has really heard.

In other words, the text records the point of view of someone who is trying to see himself through the point of view of others – a yearning which is also indicated by the fact that the narrative is told in the third person, as if George wanted to see himself from outside.

Two remarks need to be made here. First of all, this attitude in itself betrays the character’s loneliness and vulnerability – it is as if George had lost the sense of who he is and why he is where he is, as if he was expecting his students to hold a mirror to him. And secondly, the image which they reflect back to him is not a flattering one. George, as you all noted, seems to feel threatened by his students, to the extent that some of you wondered if he wasn’t paranoid. So let’s now have a look at the sense of anxiety that pervades this extract.

As most of you underlined, there is something unusual about this teacher. One of you put it very well : teachers are supposed to be intimidating for their students, not intimidated by them. This made me smile of course, as I’m sure it will be the case for any teacher stumbling upon this article. Now young witches, I’m going to divulge a very well kept secret : believe it or not, teachers are intimidated by their students, and in fact the more intimidating a teacher is, the more likely he is to be himself intimidated by his students.

And yet you were right. There is something excessive about George’s fear of not being liked. Being intimidated when you walk into a room full of people who’ve come to listen to you is not strange. But usually you get over your fear as you remember that what’s important is not how you’re being perceived but what you’re going to talk about. That’s how teachers survive. Yet in the extract under study, George seems to be more preoccupied with what his students feel and think than with the novel he has come to talk about. And this suggests that he may be in trouble.

Thus you pointed out the many allusions to George’s suspicious mood, including the fact that he seems to view the classroom as a battlefield, doubting that Kelly may be regarded as ”an ally”, then noting that ”his silence has conquered” his students and that he has ”triumphed”. His sense of being in a hostile environment seems to stem from his inability to decipher the faces of his students, which is expressed by the remark about the ”enigmatic” Asian students :

She smiles at George in a way which makes him wonder if she and Kenny have private jokes about him; but who can be sure of anything with those enigmatic Asians ?

The verbs that are used to describe George’s inner thoughts – ”he can never venture to take Kenny for granted”, he ”gets a spooky impression that …”, ”he suspects Kenny”, he ”wonders”, ”he suspects her of suspecting him” – all point to his lack of certainty and confusion as well as to a process of perpetual self-questioning. This is emphasized by the recurring use of ”but” and by George’s tendency to revise his first impressions, indicated by the following sentences :

; but this doesn’t mean that he regards Kelly as an ally.

(Though you would certainly never guess this from his term papers.)

Lois Yamaguchi sits beside Kenny because she is his girl friend; at least, they are nearly always together.

The syntactic pattern is always the same : George ventures to make a speculation about a student, and then he takes it back or corrects it, which highlights his inability or reluctance to trust his own judgements about people’s personality or private life. Is Kenny a genius or a charming idiot  ? Is Lois his girlfriend ? Are they smiling to him or are they laughing at him ? George doesn’t know what to think, and neither does the reader, who is unable to decide whether she is faced with a ”hyper-sensitive” character (to quote an adjective that George himself uses to describe one of the students) or with a paranoid mind.

But ultimately what matters is not to know whether George’s impressions of his students are right or wrong. What this passage highlights is precisely the brittle nature of any kind of judgement we make about people and the elusiveness of our neighbours’ true identity.

To be continued …

 

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A Single Man

 

George finds himself almost continuously aware of Kenny’s presence in the room; but this doesn’t mean that he regards Kenny as an ally. Oh, no – he can never venture to take Kenny for granted. Sometimes, when George makes a joke and Kenny laughs his deep rather wild laugh, George feels he is being laughed with. At other times, when the laugh comes a fraction of a moment late, George gets a spooky impression that Kenny is laughing not at the joke but at the whole situation; the educational system of this country, and all the economic and political and psychological forces which have brought them into this classroom together. At such times, George suspects Kenny of understanding the innermost meaning of life; of being, in fact, some sort of a genius. (Though you would certainly never guess this from his term papers). And then again, maybe Kenny is just very young for his age, and misleadingly charming, and silly.

Lois Yamaguchi sits beside Kenny because she is his girl friend; at least, they are nearly always together. She smiles at George in a way which makes him wonder if she and Kenny have private jokes about him; but who can be sure of anything with those enigmatic Asians ? Alexander Mong smiles enigmatically, too; his beautiful head almost certainly contains nothing but clotted oil paint. Lois and Alexander are by far the most beautiful creatures in the class; their beauty is like the beauty of plants, seeminly untroubled by vanity, anxiety or effort.

All this while, the tension has been mounting. George has continued to smile at the talkers and to preserve his wonderful provocative melodramatic silence. And now, at last, after nearly four whole minutes, his silence has conquered them. The talking dies down. Those who have already stopped talking slush the others. George has triumphed. But his triumph lasts only for a moment. For now he must break his own spell. Now he must cast off his mysteriousness and stand revealed as that dime-a-dozen thing, a teacher – to whom the class has got to listen, no matter whether he drools or stammers or speaks with the tongue of an angel – that’s neither here nor there. The class has got to listen to George because, by virtue of the powers vested in him by the State of California, he can make them submit to and study even his crassest prejudices, his most irresponsible caprices, as so many valuable clues to the problem : How can I impress, flatter or otherwise con this cantankerous old thing into giving me a good grade ?

Yes, alas, now he must spoil everything. Now he must speak.

 

 

‘After many a summer dies the swan.’

George rolls the words off his tongue with such happy harmonics, such shameless relish, that this sounds like a parody of W. B. Yeats reciting. (He comes down on dies with a great thump to compensate for the And which Aldous Huxley has chopped off from the beginning of his original line.) Then, having managed to startle or embarrass at least a few of them, he looks around the room with an ironical grin and says quietly, schoolmasterishly, ‘I take it you’ve all read the Huxley novel by this time, seeing that I asked you to more than three weeks ago ?’

Out of the corner of his eye, he notices Buddy Sorensen’s evident dismay, which is not unexpected, and Estelle Oxford’s indignant now-they-tell-me shrug of the shoulders, which is more serious. Estelle is one of his brightest students. Just because she is bright, she is more conscious of being a Negro, apparently, than the other coloured students in the class are; in fact she is hyper-sensitive. George suspects her of suspecting him of all kinds of subtle discrimination. Probably she wasn’t in the room when he told them to read the novel. Damn, he should have noticed that and told her later. He is a bit intimidated by her. Also he likes her and is sorry. Also he resents the way she makes him feel.

‘Oh well,’ he says, as nicely as he can, ‘if any of you haven’t read it yet, that’s not too important. Just listen to what’s said this morning, and then you can read it and see if you agree or disagree.’

He looks at Estelle and smiles. She smiles back. So, this time, it’s going to be all right.

‘The title is, of course, a quotation from Tennyson’s poem Tithonus. And, by the way, while we’re on the subject – who was Tithonus ?’

Silence. He looks from face to face. Nobody knows. Even Dreyer doesn’t know. And, Christ, how typical this is ! Tithonus doesn’t concern them because he’s at two removes from their subject. Huxley, Tennyson, Tithonus. They’re prepared to go as far as Tennyson, but not one step farther. There their curiosity ends. Because, basically, they don’t give a shit ———

‘You seriously mean to tell me that none of you know who Tithonus was ? That none of you could be bothered to find out ? Well, then, I advise you all to spend part of your weekend reading Graves’ s Greek Myths, and the poem itself. I must say, I don’t see how anyone can pretend to be interested in a novel when he doesn’t even stop to ask himself what its title means.’

Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man, 1964.

 

 

 

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My haunted house

The attic in my grandfather’s house

Hello young witches,

I’m just back from Dordogne and I’m still jet-lagged, even though I travelled by train and haven’t changed the time on my wrist-watch. I went to spend a few days with my grandfather, which is why no post has been published for a while. Obviously, there is no internet connexion in my grandfather’s house. If it had been left up to him alone, we might still be using candles instead of electric light and washing laundry in the river (even though there is a hot water tap in the sink, he won’t use it and persists in boiling water in the fireplace in order to wash dishes).

My grandfather has a visceral distrust of anything ”modern”, whether in the material or ideological realm. Unlike the contributors to the Edinburgh Review, he does not believe in progress. ”Decline” is the one and only lens through which any sign of the times brought to his attention can be viewed – table-talk topics as diverse as ”the poor quality of tap water”, ”new teaching methods”, ”kids and Ipods”, ”the rise of unemployment”, ”the punctuality of trains”, ”domestic violence against women”, ”the transformation of the French language”, ”new road regulations and governement nutrition guidelines”, ”the financial meltdown”, ”teachers’ strikes”, ”the crisis of the healthcare system”, ”France football team’s score in the World Cup” are simply to be understood as the more or less direct consequences of the French Revolution and the rise of a Republican state.

The fireplace in the dining-room

 

In my grandfather’s favourite narrative, the long decline of Christian civilization in general and of French society in particular includes events such as the burning of Joan of Arc (by the English, as he always makes a point of reminding me), the rehabilitation of Captain Dreyfus, the shift from Latin to French during mass, the invention of chemical birth control and the decolonization of Algeria.

Unsurprisingly, my grandfather is a pathological recycler or hoarder – wrapping his Christmas presents in papers dating back to the 1980s, decorating the bedrooms with stuffed animals, storing all sorts of books and objects in every corner of the house. Which is why going there on holiday is always like travelling back in time. The house is a sort of museum of my childhood as well as of that of my mother and her nine siblings (8 sisters, 1 brother). Yes, it’s absolutely freakish and creepy – just try to imagine how you would feel if you found a picture of yourself as a toddler standing above the mantelpiece between a stuffed squirrel and a portrait of Pétain …

Hence the jet-lag that persists for a few days after I’ve come back to the twenty-first-century. And in those moments I also feel very much that I am a girl. That’s what my cousin Flore pointed out during the holidays – there were five of us, only girls, sitting around the table in the dining-room, my grandfather at the head of it, me to his right, next to his only functioning ear so that I could retranscribe for him the essence of my cousins’ conversation (a status of translator which I apparently owe to the fact that I’m the eldest of the grandchildren), cleansed of the words and remarks that might sound shockingly modern to him. So Flore noted that when we were on holiday with our grandfather we had no choice but to do good girls’ activities – baking cakes, performing plays, walking in the country, reading novels, gardening, watching pictures in the family albums, playing cards near the fireplace, writing in our diaries (for you know what they say – ”it’s only the good girls who write in their diaries : the bad ones never have the time”) … and, like a perfect set of Jane Austen characters, waiting for men to appear and bring news from the outside world.

Or correcting students’ papers and writing essays about the English Romantics.

Indeed there’s nothing like spending a few days at my grandfather’s to understand the kind of worldview underpinning the extract from the Edinburgh Review which we read in class just before the holiday.

But having just escaped from a haunted house, I will now go out in search of inspiring adventures in today’s world and put off the analysis of the nostalgic mood that I owe you for another day, if you don’t mind.

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The narrative of civilization

Paris, Belleville, June 2009

 

This morning we took a very brief tour of the Scottish Enlightenment so as to understand the kind of assumptions which underlie Francis Jeffrey’s 1813 anxious account of the state of knowledge in ”commercial societies”.

Jeffrey’s article indeed promotes a kind of historical narrative which was extensively developed in the works of eighteenth-century authors such as Francis Hutcheson, Lord Kames, William Robertson, Adam Smith, John Millar, Adam Ferguson and Dugald Stewart – to name but a few Scottish representatives of that philosophical movement, which also found followers elsewhere in Europe around the same period.

According to this narrative, the history of human communities had to be understood as an evolution from primitive barbarism to a civilised ”polite” state following a universal pattern that went through four distinct stages (hence the reference to the ”four-stage theory of history”) : societies of hunters-gatherers became pastoral-nomadic, then agricultural and ultimately commercial. Changes in the means of production were bound up with the rise of new forms of social and political institutions as well as specific cultural attitudes – which were then called ”manners”.

One of the reasons behind the appeal of the four-stage narrative was that it proposed to organise the history of western civilisation by showing the unity and rationality underpinning all the seemingly disparate aspects of human existence at a given time and in a given place : laws, customs, ways of dressing, ways of working, ways of speaking, ways of writing, relationships between men and women, … everything was in fact connected ! Which is why the Scottish school of history is sometimes said to have pioneered a new science of man that ultimately led to the invention of sociology. And of course the evolutionary understanding of human societies that it promoted also turned out to be a wonderful reservoir of arguments to justify colonization.

A good illustration of this very ambitious historical enterprize can be found in Adam Smith’s works. While he is today essentially known for his economic theories, Smith in fact primarily saw himself as a moral philosopher (this morning Delphine and Ariane found that the notion of the ”interior spectator” which he developed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments was extremely funny) and he was also interested in accounting for the transformation of literature and rhetoric over the centuries. Thus he insisted that each socio-economic stage could also be associated with a specific ”species of writing” – for instance, poetry was a genre ”in which the barbarous and least civilized nations, most excel in”, whereas ”It is the introduction of commerce, or at least of the opulence that is commonly attendant on commerce, that first brings on the improvement of prose” for ”wherever the inhabitants of a city are rich and opulent, where they enjoy the necessaries and conveniences of life in ease and security, there the arts will be cultivated, and refinement of manners a never-failing attendant.” (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, 1763).

After this far too short excursion into the history of ideas, let’s go back to our article and try to introduce it properly.

While reviewing an essay by Madame de Staël entitled De la littérature, Francis Jeffrey set out to examine ”the situation of human intellect” at the time when he was writing (1813) together with his contemporaries’ attitude to knowledge and writers. In accordance with the teaching of the Scottish Enlightenment, he took in ”the whole history of the [human] species” so as to make sense of the signs of his time and to draw prospects for the future. Focusing on this approach, the first part of my commentary will thus examine the conception of the essayist’s social role that is promoted in this article. I will then highlight the sense of loss that pervades Jeffrey’s description of his cultural environment, since the passage under study could be described as an elegiac ode to the age of epic knowledge.

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The pleasure of exercising our intellectual faculties

Arielle blowing soap bubbles out of the classroom's window, Tuesday 15th February

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From hunters to consumers : the degradation of educated men in commercial societies

Paris underground, June 2009

The chief pleasure [of learning] is in the chase itself, and not in the object which it pursues : and he who sits at home, and has the dead game brought to the side of his chair, will be very apt, we believe, to regard it as nothing better than an unfragrant vermin.

Thus spoke Francis Jeffrey, one of the editors of and leading contributors to the Edinburgh Review, in an 1813 article dealing with an essay by Madame de Staël entitled De la littérature. The metaphor of the hunt is one of the many images which he coined in order to assess the intellectual cost of the Enlightenment and to grasp the spirit of his time, which we have come to label the Romantic age.

While our ancestors had to hunt for animals and knowledge, modern men have become passive consumers of ready-made foodstuffs and cultural products – this is the essence of Jeffrey’s lament, published in a periodical which was usually keen to celebrate the circulation of knowledge and the expansion of industry and commerce across the western world as major engines of social progress. But though Jeffrey and his friends had launched the review with a view of promoting the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, they sometimes published articles that struck an anxious note breaking with the optimism of their predecessors – what if ”the improvement of England” brought about by ”the subdivision of labour”, the progress of ”wealth and luxury” and ”the general diffusion of knowledge” also entailed the extinction of ”original and independent speculation” and the triumph of ”indolence and imbecility” ?

For ”the more there is already known,” Jeffrey warns, ”the less there remained to be discovered ; and the more time a man is obliged to spend in ascertaining what his predecessors have already established, the less he will have to bestow in adding to its amount.”

Had he known Delphine, he might have be less disheartened, for she told us last Tuesday she was confident that ”literature will save the world”. Except that he would probably not have listened to her opinion, as he didn’t really care for what women had to say and was in fact worried to see them ”now beginning to receive a more extended education”, which led them ”to venture more freely and largely into the field of literature, and to become more intellectual and independent creatures, than they have yet been in these islands”. This was indeed an ominous development, for

”if they should ever cease to be the pure, the delicate and timid creatures that they now are – if they should cease to overawe profligacy, and to win and to shame men into decency, fidelity, and love of unsullied virtue – it is easy to see that this influence, which has been exerted to strengthen and refine our society, will operate entirely to its corruption and debasement; that domestic happiness and private honour will be extinguished, and public spirit and national industry most probably annihilated along with them.1

So sisters, in case you were still looking for a life plan, here is an inspiring blueprint for us, don’t you think ? But as long as we haven’t found a man willing to be saved by our virtuous influence, we might as well go on exploring the history of ideas and try to understand what was at stake in Jeffrey’s inquiry into the new ”habits of mind” flourishing in ”commercial societies”.

As a matter of fact, the representation of gender roles that underlies the extract just quoted happens to be relevant to the survey of the early nineteenth-century cultural landscape offered in Jeffrey’s review of Madame de Staël’s essay. Look at the words he used to describe the new intellectual attitudes that epitomized the educated men of his day – mourning the disappearance of men endowed with ”a vigorous understanding”, the decline of ”original and independent speculation” and of ”exalting” ”intellectual enterprizes”, the rise of ”reduced”, ”timid” and ”passive” minds instead of ”independent”, ”original” and active” spirits shining with ”the glow of inventive genius or the warmth of a generous imagination”. This elegiac ode to the age of epic knowledge is loaded with gender implications and points to the fear of an emerging feminized society where ”leaders” and ”explorers” have given way to ”indolent followers” who no longer create but can only be fertilized by the intellectual seeds planted by their illustrious predecessors. And in case you think I’m being carried away, please note that the agricultural metaphor is not mine, but Jeffrey’s :

”we think strong sense, and extended views of human affairs are more likely to be found, and to be listened to at this moment [1813], than two hundred years hereafter [2013]. The truth is, we suspect, that the vast and enduring products of the virgin soil can no longer be reared in that factitious mould to which cultivation has since given existence; and that its forced and decidous progeny will go on degenerating, till some new deluge shall restore the vigour of the glebe by a temporary destruction of all its generation.”

Admittedly, Jeffrey had not foreseen the invention of Facebook. But there is reason to doubt that he would have hailed it as a way to restore the ”force, dignity and importance” of literature. Meanwhile, the apocalyptic diagnosis he left us is part of a collection of Romantic writings that enable us to understand the anxieties that were fostered by the development of print culture and the advent of ”modernity”. Which I haven’t time to define tonight – being an indolent twenty-first century reader and a female who should start cooking dinner and go looking for a man ”willing to be shamed into decency and love of unsullied virtue”.

1Edinburgh Review, July 1806.

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The extinction of vigorous understandings (Edinburgh Review, 1813)

 

Jardin des plantes, Spring 2009

 

 

Even as to intellect, and the pleasures that are to be derived from the exercise of a vigorous understanding, we doubt greatly whether we ought to look forward to posterity with any very lively feeling of envy or emulation. More knowledge they probably will have, – as we have undoubtedly more knowledge than our ancestors had two hundred years ago ; but for vigour of understanding, or pleasure in the exercise of it, we must beg leave to demur. The more there is already known, the less there remains to be discovered ; and the more time a man is obliged to spend in ascertaining what his predecessors have already established, the less he will have to bestow in adding to its amount. The time, however, is of less consequence ; but the habits of mind that are formed by walking patiently, humbly and passively in the paths that have been traced by others, are the very habits that disqualify us for vigorous and independent excursions of our own. There is a certain degree of knowledge, to be sure, that is but wholesome aliment to the understanding – materials for it to work upon – or instruments to facilitate its labours: – But a larger quantity is apt to oppress and incumber it ; and as industry, which is excited by the importation of the raw material, may be superseded and extinguished by the introduction of the finished manufacture, so the minds which are stimulated to activity by a certain measure of instruction may, unquestionably, be reduced to a state of passive and languid acquiescence, by a more profuse and redundant supply.

Mad. de Staël, and the other advocates of her system, talk a great deal of the prodigious advantage of having the results of the laborious discoveries of one generation made matters of familiar and elementary knowledge in another ; and for practical utility, it may be so: But nothing, we conceive, can be so completely destructive of all intellectual enterprize, and all force and originality of thinking, as this very process of the reduction of knowledge to its results, or the multiplication of those summary and accessible pieces of information in which the student is saved the whole trouble of investigtion, and put in possession of the prize, without either the toils or the excitement of the contest. This, in the first place, necessarily makes the prize much less a subject of exaltation or delight to him ; for the chief pleasure is in the chase itself, and not in the object which it pursues : and he who sits at home, and has the dead game brought to the side of his chair, will be very apt, we believe, to regard it as nothing better than an unfragrant vermin. But, in the next place, it does him no good ; for he misses altogether the invigorating exercise, and the invaluable training to habits of emulation and sagacity and courage, for the sake of which alone the pursuit is deserving of applause. And, in the last place, he not only fails in this way to acquire the qualities that may enable him to run down knowledge for himself, but necessarily finds himself without taste or inducement for such exertions. He thinks, and in one sense he thinks justly, that if the proper object of study be to acquire knowledge, he can employ his time much more profitably in implicitly listening to the discoveries of others, than in a laborious attempt to discover something for himself. It is infinitely more fatiguing to think, than to remember; and incomparatively shorter to be led to an object, than to explore our own way to it.

It is inconceivable what an obstruction this furnishes to the original exercise of the understanding in a certain state of information; and how effectually the general diffusion of knowledge operates as a bounty upon indolence and mental imbecility. Where the quantity of approved and collected knowledge is already very great in any country, it is naturally required of all well educated persons to possess a considerable share of it; and where it has also been made very accessible, by being reduced to its summary and ultimate results, an astonishing variety of those abstracts may be sowed away in the memory, with scarecely any fatigue or exercise to the other faculties. The whole mass of attainable intelligence, however, must still be beyond the reach of any individual; and he may go on, therefore, to the end of a long and industrious life, constantly acquiring knowledge in this cheap and expeditious manner. But if, in the course of his passive and humble researches, he should be tempted to inquire a little for himself, he cannot fail to be struck with the prodigious waste of time, and of labour, that is necessary for the attainment of a very inconsiderable portion of original knowledge. His progress is as slow as that of a man who is making a road, compared with that of those who afterwards travel over it; and he feels, that in order to make a very small advancement in one department of study, he must consent to sacrifice very great attainments in others. He is disheartened, too, by the extreme insignificance of any thing that he can expect to contribute, when compared with the great store that is already in possession of the public; and is extremely apt to conclude, that it is not only safer, but more profitable, to follow, than to lead ; and that it is fortunate for the lovers of wisdom, that our ancestors have accumulated enough of it for our use, as well as for their own.

But while the general diffusion of knowledge tends thus powerfully to repress all original and independent speculation in individuals, it operates still more powerfully in rendering the public indifferent and unjust to their exertions. The treasures they have inherited from their predecessors are so ample, as not only to take away all disposition to labour for their farther increase, but to lead them to undervalue and overlook any little addition that may be made to them by the voluntary offerings of individuals. The works of the best models are perpetually before their eyes, and their accumulated glory in their remembrance; the very variety of the sorts of excellence which are constantly intruded on their notice, renders excellence itself cheap and vulgar in their estimation. As the mere possessors or judges of such things, they are apt to ascribe to themselves a character of superiority, which renders any moderate performance unworthy of their regard ; and their cold and languid familiarity with what is best, ultimately produces no other effect than to render them insensible to its beauties, and at the same time intolerant of all that appears to fall short of it. This state of public feeling, which we think inseparable from the long and general diffusion of knowledge, is admirably described by Mad. de Staël … (…)

In such a condition of society, it is obvious that men must be peculiarly debarred from indulging in these bold and original speculations, for which their whole training had previously disqualified them ; and we appeal to our readers, whether there are not, at this day, apparent symptoms of such a condition of society. A childish love of novelty may indeed give a transcient popularity to works of mere amusement; but the age of original genius, and of comprehensive and independent reasoning, seems to be over. Instead of such works as those of Bacon, and Shakespeare, and Taylor, and Hooker, we have Encyclopaedias, and geographical compilations, and county histories, and new editions of black letters authors – and trashy biographies and posthumous letters – and disputations upon prosody – and ravings about orthodoxy and methodism. Men of general information and curiosity seldom think of adding to the knowledge that is already in the world; and the inferior persons upon whom the task is consequently devolved, carry it on, for the most part, by means of that minute subdivision of labour which is the great secret of the mechanical arts, but can never be introduced into literature without depriving its higher branches of all force, dignity, or importance. One man spends his life in improving a method of dyeing cotton red; another in adding a few insects to a catalogue which nobody reads; – a third in settling the metres of a few Greek Choruses; – a fourth in decyphering illegible romances, or old grants of farms; – a fifth in picking rotten bones out of the earth; – a sixth in describing all the old walls and hillocks in his parish; – and five hundred others in occupations equally liberal and important: each of them being, for the most part, profoundly ignorant of every thing ouf of his own narrow department, and very generally and deservedly despised by his competitors for the favour of that public which despises and supports them all.

Such, however, it appears to us, is the state of mind that is naturally produced by the great accumulation, and general diffusion of various sorts of knowledge. Men learn, instead of reasoning. Instead of meditating, they remember ; and, in place of the glow of inventive genius, or the warmth of a generous admiration, nothing is to be met with, in society, but timidity on the one hand, and fastidiousness on the other – a paltry accuracy, and a more paltry derision – a sensibility to small faults, and an incapacity of great merits – a disposition to exaggerate the value of knowledge that is not to be used, and to underrate the importance of powers which have ceased to exist. (…) There will be improvements, we make no doubt, in all the mechanical and domestic arts; – better methods of working metal, and preparing cloth ; – more commodious vehicles, and more efficient implements of war. Geography will be made more complete, and astronomy more precise ; – natural history will be enlarged and digested ; – and perhaps some little improvement suggested in the forms of administering law. But as to any general enlargement of the understanding, or more prevailing vigour of judgement, we will own, that the tendency seems to be all the other way ; and that we think strong sense, and extended views of human affairs, are more likely to be found, and to be listened to at this moment, than two or three hundred years hereafter. The truth is, we suspect, that the vast and enduring products of the virgin soil can no longer be reared in that factitious mould to which cultivation has since given existence; and that its forced and deciduous progeny will go on degenerating, till some new deluge shall restore the vigour of the glebe by a temporary destruction of all its generations.

Hitherto we have spoken only of the higher and more instructed classes of society – to whom it is reasonable to suppose that the perfection of wisdom and happiness will come first, in their progress through the whole race of men ; and we have seen what reason there is to doubt of their near approach. The lower orders however, we think, have still less good fortune to reckon on. In the whole history of the species, there has been nothing at all comparable to the improvement of England within the last century ; never anywhere was there such an increase of wealth and luxury – so many admirable inventions in the arts – so many works of learning and ingenuity – such a progress in cultivation – such an enlargement of commerce ; – and yet, in that century, the number of paupers in England has increased fourfold, and is now rated at one-tenth of her whole population ; and, notwithstanding the enormous sums that are levied and given privately for their relief, and the multitudes that are drained off by the waste of war, the peace of the country is perpetually threatened by the outrages of famishing multitudes. (…)

The effect then which is produced on the lower orders of society, by that increase of industry and refinement, and that multiplication of convenience which are commonly looked upon as the surest tests of increasing prosperity, is to convert the peasants into manufacturers, and the manufacturers into paupers; while the chance of their ever emerging from this condition becomes constantly less, the more complete and mature the system is which had originally produced it. When manufactures are long established, and thoroughly understood, it will always be found, that persons possessed of a large capital, can carry them on upon lower profits than persons of any other description ; and the natural tendency of this system, therefore, is to throw the whole business into the hands of great capitalists; and thus not only to render it next to impossible for a common workman to advance himself into the condition of a master, but to drive from the competition the greater part of those moderate dealers, by whose prosperity alone the general happiness of the nation can be promoted. The state of the operative manufacturers, therefore, seems every day more hoplessly stationary; and that great body of the people, it appears to us, is likely to grow into a fixed and degraded caste, out of which no person can hope to escape, who has once been enrolled among its members.

Francis Jeffrey, a review of Madame de Staël’s De la littérature, Edinburgh Review, 1813.

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