|The Future of Literary Studies|
Jessica R. Feldman
I take as my topic today not the future of literary study, but its very future: i.e., whether or not it has much of a future, and if so, under what circumstances. During my recent three year term in University Administration I learned in detail what we all know impressionistically and try to ignore: that Virginia, and indeed every other major Research University in this country—has located itself squarely in the marketplace, with faculty output—that is, research plus teaching plus service —one of several products on offer. Furthermore, in the market competition conducted within the late twentieth-century research University, literary study has been trounced by the professional schools. Just this morning the newspaper announced the second largest gift ever to the University of Virginia: $52,600,000 —given by an alumnus of the law school to the medical school The largest gift is $62 million to the Darden Graduate School of Business. Both the Law School and The business school here have long had Foundations: that is legally constituted bodies to which donors can give funds directly; Arts & Sciences incorporated its Foundation only last year.
I am hardly the first to notice that when we conduct literary study, we do so in the real world of money, time, power, and chance. My starting point today is neither a Marxist analysis of the academy, nor a whining call for better fund raising. Rather, as you’ll see, I have chosen to spend my fifteen minutes in simply wondering why it is that literary scholars run faster and in more directions than they would like along the mobius strip of their private and professional lives—and whether we might begin to face this problem with the intelligence and passion we bring to more strictly literary questions.
Trying to put such thoughts out of my mind, I recently began to collect visual images for a course I’m developing, “Modern Painters and Writers.” I was struck by Cézanne’s Card Players (1890-92, http://www.abcgallery.com/C/cezanne/cezanne23.html) and found that I wanted to linger before it, even though it had been so over-exposed through the years (dorm walls, coffee mugs, travel ads for Provence). Still the painting drew me in. Meditating on it, I realized that it was itself about a condition of being, about a state of utter repose and concentration that I wish I could experience more frequently. These cardplayers are doing what they’re doing, they’re not multitasking. I began to think about what we might call the frenetics of experience, the often conflicting demands and ambitions that sweep each one of us through the day, and then the semester, and before we know it, a career. Money, time, power, chance.
So it is that I wish to take as my topic today: Repose—that state which Cézanne’s cardplayers seem to me to embody—and the relation of this concept to the future of literary study. I’ll spell out one of my conclusions now. I hope that starting tomorrow, the nearest future I can think of, we’ll bring more repose to our study of literature and that we will describe ourselves to ourselves and then to others as those who dwell in a state of repose rather than as those who produce just-in-time intellectual inventory. Then I hope that we act in such as way as to make true this description—that we think about changing the ways in which we write, teach, and talk to one another. That’s the bottom line of my talk, and if we’re thinking about the University as many are, the bottom line is what matters.
Certainly Don M. Randel, President of The University of Chicago, would applaud my use of a term, bottom line, that originated in the world of accounting. In a recent column in the Chicago Alumni Magazine entitled “The secret of leading a truth-and-beauty business,” [truth and beauty are hyphenated] he writes,
The University is in what we might call the truth-and-beauty business. That is not a business that we should want to get out of., and the underlying logic of such a business is that if we had greater resources we could produce even more truth and beauty. The job of leadership in this environment is to try to figure out what might constitute truth and beauty at any given point and then to align our resources in such a way as to maximize our production of them.Like me, you’re probably used to flinching when you come across one of these statements, but you flinch and pass on. After all, we tell ourselves, we have lots to do today. But I want to pause and consider President Randal’s statement, however painful it may be to do so.
Certainly the bottom-line response of research Universities to literary study as part of arts and letters or arts and sciences colleges hasn’t been encouraging for a long while. At many prestigious universities, the college of Arts & Sciences or its equivalent may still be the school with the most students and faculty members, but resources are allotted to it at a rate that is lower than that by which they are allotted to the other schools. That is, while it doesn’t cost any more to educate an undergraduate business student than an English major, per capita funding for business students will be higher.. Furthermore, taking the long and wide view, nationwide the number of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities appears as an ever-diminishing percentage of all bachelors degrees granted annually. All those undergraduate degrees in forensic science, business, journalism, and yes, fashion merchandizing and recreation management, occupy the wide and deep lower floors of the higher education pyramid in this country, while arts and sciences, including literary study, occupy the narrow tip of the pyramid. I’m not here to advise that we demand more resources for literary study, but rather to suggest that we stop and think why our place in the larger picture has diminished. I take these kinds of observations not as a death knell, but rather as an occasion to think about the study of literature and why it is that others seem less excited about it and sure of its value than we are.
One obvious way for any University president to align resources correctly is to focus on an important part of the University, the faculty. He or she must ensure that faculty members be selected on the basis of their ability to produce ideas of high quality and that, once hired, they continue to produce such ideas with increasing regularity and intensifying power. We all operate within a world of what I shall call, tongue only half way in cheek, the Quantification Edification Denominator or QED: all the ways in which our activities are publicly judged both in quantity and quality.
Of course judgment in the University happens every day apart from the QED. And something within us and among us resists; we guard our ideas against inventory control and nurture them in wonderfully creative ways. Yet I don’t think we can deny that a set of incentives is in place, and we not only respond to them, but actually invite them to determine the rhythm of our days. More is still somehow better than less; and sooner is better than later. What’s more, even given our internalization of the QED, we have lost ground.
I suggest that we pause and discuss among ourselves the extent to which we have adopted to our own detriment the notion that more and sooner are better. Perhaps what we have to offer is something quite different: our almost unique ability to show others how to slow the ghastly engines of daily life, how to undo what Louise Bogan called “the terrible arithmetic”. I think we’re good at something called repose, even though we are afraid to think about it, because it sounds so dangerously like indolence and so suspiciously like something that might get us trounced at the next budget hearings. Even worse, it sounds like the refuge of mediocrities. We know that ours is a paradoxical product : if it is merely produced, it’s not the real thing. Literary study is in the world, of the world, and apart from the world, in such subtly shifting ratios that increases can be diminishments, diminishments can be increases. And we enjoy dividing by zero.
But what is it, exactly, that we might want to live, create, teach—and perhaps announce to the marketplace from which we cannot escape? Let’s hypothesize for a moment that Cézanne’s card players possess it. Look at them again: three men play cards, while a young boy watches and learns, and a fourth man observes. These are working men who play on a crude table; they present an emblem of peaceable brotherhood. Their very plainness is sumptuous—rich blue and chestnut robes whose highlights rhyme visually with a scene washed in gold: drapery, skin tones, chair and pipe. A golden man inhabits the center, the sun of this indoor landscape filled with the earth tones of Provence. Perhaps this painting attracts me because everything in it just is as it should be, undisturbed, undisturbable. Dame Fortune, Lady Luck—she who would seem to hover over any game of cards—has no place in this men’s club.
Contrast Cézanne’s painting with that of Chardin’s House of Cards (c.1737), subtitled The Son of M. Le Noir Amusing Himself by Making a House of Cards and painted more than a century earlier than the Cezanne (http://sunsite.icm.edu.pl/cjackson/chardin/p-chardin15.htm).
This painting would have been read as a lesson; indeed, the caption to the engraving available to English viewers of the day reads as follows:
Dear child all on pleasure bent
We hold your fragile work in jest
But think on’t, which will be more sound
Our adult plans or castles by you built?
We may easily infer a moral from Chardin’s painting: we are all children, building houses of cards. The balance and repose which we build are but fictions, swept away by a current of air or our own unsteady hand. Cézanne, in contrast, reassures.
Yet both paintings present a myth of texts, and it is here that my initial pleasure in Cézanne’s painting begins to darken. Everybody in these two paintings suddenly seems an emblem of literary study. Playing cards are texts; on them we may see images, colors, numbers, even letters, each a small work of art that takes its shifting place in a gallery of others. Chardin shows us the edge of the Jack or King of spades (or is it the Joker?) on the table, along with a coin, suggesting gambling. Young M. Le Noir, expert textual manipulator, has literally bent these cards to his own uses, with the inventiveness and vigor of an English honors student—or of a professor writing a grant proposal . He places one text against another, carefully constructing the walls and roof of an almost imaginary house of texts that is sure to cave in. And what about that open drawer? It’s dark in there; will he be pulling even more texts out? What, besides cards, might the drawer contain?
Le Noir: gradually I begin to see it in Cézanne’s golden study, too. His child is all in black, as if in mourning now that he’s learning adult games, and his shoulder and arm are so dark that we cannot fully make them out. Nor can we make out the face of the shadowed card player at the right. Things are cut off, hidden from view in this painting: table legs, legs of the card players, blue coat, shelf and crockery: these players and the objects of their world are crammed into a space. And perhaps what we took to be sunlight was false, like the gilding on the framed painting above the table, that painting itself cut in half and filled with darkness. Here is a world that is incomplete, truncated, occulted. Perhaps the cardplayers’ repose is really taut suspense and their communion is competition. The player at the left has, after all, just placed a card on the table, and some kind of reckoning is nigh.
So, two images of repose, people, and texts. One, a boy’s balancing of cards, such effort sure to fail. The other, men at the table playing a card game whose rules they have mastered, yet conveying uncertainty and anxiety. By day’s end, somebody is sure to be the loser, someone the winner, but who? At this point, I find that I’m seeking repose more than I’m finding it. What is repose—How am I to understand that concept? Can it ever be achieved? I think of another nineteenth-century visual artist, John Ruskin, because I remember that he speaks repeatedly on the subject.. I grab for my reading notes.
Ruskin often speaks of repose as part of a triplet: repose, gracefulness and ease (1.162); tenderness, repose, and dignity(3.51); repose, intensity, and solemnity” (3.547). Repose comes to us in waltz time, but with any tinge of frivolity removed. It is a term that enables Ruskin to move fluidly between works of art and actual lives—he tells us that it is the necessary quality in all good architecture and painting, but it is also a quality of mind. He associates its absence with second-rate art, and, in parallel, with the glitter, confusion, and glare of poorly led lives. Perhaps most importantly, it is NOT laziness, indolence or “inanition.” He often links the term to power and even grandeur., and locates it in both action and rest. I think his best definition of it appears in Modern Painters. Repose is “The rest of things in which there is vitality or capability of motion actual or imagined” (4.114). Notice how this definition juxtaposes ideas which we at first assume to be opposites: things at rest, yet vital, in motion. Notice, too, how the sentence enacts such a contradiction: it certainly reads like a clear definition, until we begin to notice that it is slowing us down even as we work hard to understand it. I don’t have time here today to dwell in the meanings of this sentence whose syntax is as fragmented as the play of light in Cezanne’s constructive stroke. Suffice it to say that It’s not at all clear what is modifying what. Repose occurs in a flux of making meaning in this sentence, and that is what we do, teach, and yes, produce: slowing down to consider alternatives, taking stock of the richness of art rather than stocking ideas on the shelves of inventory storage, doubling back rather than merely forging ahead.
I begin to think of the circumstances in which Cézanne painted the Card Players in 1890). Provence was his native land; Paris is where he went to become a professional painter. In an art scene that was as bohemian and transgressive as any, he was the bad boy: he was the art rebel’s rebel. He wanted to place paintings in the Académie salon, but he wanted equally to tell the Salon judges to go to hell, and he did so, in a number of ways. He retreated to Provence periodically, like Antaeus touching the earth. The restlessness of his passage between the marketplace and the place of beauty marks this painting. Repose addresses anxiety, but repose does not lose its place.
(1) I propose that we are too anxious, and not anxious enough. Too anxious: let me count the ways in which we have given away with one hand the repose that we have reaped with the other. We expend vast amounts of energy in denying it. Tenderness, repose, and dignity aren’t for the most part nurtured in airport lounges, hideous gateways to too many conferences in which too many are speakers, not enough are listeners. “The rest of things in which there is vitality” isn’t nurtured by rigidly demanding the five-chapter book five years after the five year Ph.D. It isn’t recreated by requiring graduate students to publish articles before they have had time to know their own cast of mind. When does an active and engaged academic community shade into a frenetic one, creating, through hundreds of e-mails, dueling activities in jammed time slots? To give up these and other professional practices is to take a risk, to gamble. We all know how the professional game is played at the moment, but who among us will have the artistic courage to step beyond accepted forms?
(2) Not anxious enough: we have done a poor job of speaking back to power, of nurturing our repose and through its vital energies letting those who have never and will never see the radiance shimmering about a loved text that such an experience has a real value in a society that requires a major, heart-stopping disaster before people will slow down and read poetry. Do I mean Marketing? Perhaps—or we might just call it communicating with those inside and outside the University who don’t actually know what we do and why it matters. But I also hope that we will change our scholarship, our graduate courses, our undergraduate courses, our relation to the community, in order to stand up for repose, a state perhaps best experienced when sitting down. I propose that we explain to ourselves, so that we may explain to others, why any given professional practice matters, one practice at a time. Repose, intensity, solemnity, tenderness, dignity: these were the concepts giving emotional meaning to Ruskin’s jeremiads against what he called the Illth of nations. Am I being naive, nostalgic, sentimental—and in public, too? I sure hope so. We gamble every day. Let’s at least look at our cards before we play them
|TEI markup by John Unsworth|