The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby
June 13, 2008 in book reviews
In the mid-20th century, so I’ve been told, middlebrow culture aspired to high-falutin’ secular thought. It was all science and Plato back then. And look at us now! What’s happened to us?
Susan Jacoby, the curmudgeonly author of The Age of American Unreason, blames it on Americans’ patriotic objection to intellectual thought.
In this update to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (sweet jacket, by the way), Jacoby lists the three founding beliefs of the anti-intellectual church:
- Experts are usually foreigners, and thus, they are alien to the American body politic.
- The educated minority is always trying to impose its views on the affable majority.
- The educated class is an enemy of religion.
So according to Jacoby, most folks see smart people as non-believing pinkos. Maybe this is why “elite” has turned from a compliment into an insult. With eerie prescience, Jacoby predicted that elitism would probably resurface as a political negative in the next presidential race. And what do you know? It has! Barack Obama, symbol of the “elite,” has been cast as “out of touch” with the American people. Putting aside my opinion on whether or not Obama is the better presidential candidate, wouldn’t we want a candidate to be elite and out of touch with the American people? Wouldn’t we want our president to be, bluntly, better than we are?
The Age of American Unreason wisely reminds us that the past is the key to the present. Why do we need to be reminded of this? Because in an age when thought is seen as the opposite of action, rather than something that precedes or goes hand-in-hand with action, we need to be reminded to keep up with our history lessons. As Jacoby points out, “It is the ignorance and erosion of historical memory that make serious deceptions possible and plausible.” The war in Iraq isn’t our first unpopular war, and with our paltry collective memory, it won’t be our last.
Susan Jacoby is also excellent on the subject of junk thought and the impossibility of banishing it from our lives—its inconsistencies can only be pointed out to our interlocutors, but they can’t be dispelled. The nastiest part about pseudoscience is that irrational arguments can’t be disproven. The tenacity of junk thought calls for intellectual responsibilty: the spurious arguments that veil themselves in intellectual jargon only serve to undermine the effectiveness of intellectuals. In other words, “junk thought with an intellectual patina fosters anti-intellectualism.”
What does this mean for bloggers (like me)? I’ll spare you the mincing words of Jacoby’s disdain and summarize: leave the writing to those with PhDs.
While we work on obtaining our advanced degrees, we also ought to be better at reading both sides of the story. Jacoby rightfully points out that we can’t have intellectual robustness until we read as many opposing viewpoints as complementary viewpoints:
“That kind of curiosity, which demands firsthand evidence of whether the devil really has horns, is essential to the intellectual and political health of any society. In today’s America, intellectuals and nonintellectuals alike, whether on the left or right, tend to tune out any voice that is not an echo.”
Point taken. Looks like it’s time to throw in some Commentary in with that Harper’s.
What do we stand to lose from the surround sound of homogeneity? Well, consider first why we use “the media” as a singular noun. Jacoby quotes Todd Gitlin to chilling effect: “Through all the confusion we sense something like a unity at work…Even as we click around, something feels uniform.” The TV may have 400+ stations, but there’s only one show on.
I know this all sounds like a downer, and I would argue that The Age of American Unreason is needlessly hopeless and uninspiring. Think of what we’ve gained, culturally, since the advent of a visual culture: we’ve learned an entirely new vocabulary of visual and cinematic iconography. We’ve gained the emotional proximity of seeing far-away locales, rather than picturing them on a map. Video has made the news that much more real, even as Jacoby accuses us of relying on video to distance us from real life.
Video is only one of the abstractions that Susan Jacoby blames for the rise of anti-intellectualism. She blames it on the South. She blames it on the youth. She blames it on religion; she blames it on rock ‘n roll. Jacoby’s Satan would undoubtedly be a teenager from Alabama listening to Jesus rock. While she isn’t partisan in her politics, Jacoby takes elitism to hurtful, unhelpful lengths. I’d like to remind Jacoby that older does not always mean better. E-mail is not “an early sign of the enfeeblement of print culture.” Just because interpersonal communication has moved to a less preservable format does not mean that letter-writing sensibilities have stalled. Those who would write letters write lengthy e-mails (and lengthy blog posts). Those who don’t write lengthy e-mails probably wouldn’t have written a letter worth preserving 50 years ago. I’m sure some of you out there can vouch for the inaccuracy of Jacoby’s assertion: “Neither I, nor anyone I know, turns to e-mail with anything like the sense of anticipation and pleasure that used to accompany my opening of the mailbox.” I don’t know about you, but it’s exciting even to open my work e-mail every morning. 40 new e-mails overnight! I’m so popular!
Similarly, Jacoby praises Robert Kennedy for quoting Aeschylus during a public address after the assassination of Martin Luther King. But she damns those politicians who would quote Bob Dylan. I say, if the sentiment behind the quote is just as complex, who cares who the source is? The same problem crops up again when Jacoby discounts the value of cultural analysis. Students are reading popular fiction in their literature classes! she bemoans. She should, instead, be a proponent of cultural analysis so long as the teaching of pop culture is accompanied by sophisticated modes of dissection. I don’t care if you’re reading Harlan Coben; if you’re reading it with an active mind, there are valuable insights to be made.
Nevertheless, despite Susan Jacoby’s obvious prejudices against everything she is not (zing), The Age of American Unreason opened my eyes. Even if you disagree with some of Jacoby’s pointed barbs, this will be the most you’ve engaged with a book in a long time.
June 13, 2008 in gewgaws
Just Say No to “Literary Science”
June 13, 2008 in the literary conversation
This is nearly a month old, but it comes from The Boston Globe: English professor Jonathan Gostchall wrote an article on why we ought to apply the rigors of the scientific method to literary analysis in order to revive literary scholarship from its current (and supposed) irrelevancy. He argues:
“We literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves. So instead of steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition, the field wanders in continuous circles, bending with fashions and the pronouncements of its charismatic leaders.”
But is this really true? I’d like to see Gottschall provide some sincere examples—I’m sure a cynic could easily assemble a list of increasingly esoteric PhD dissertation titles that seem to point to the growing irrelevancy of literary thought. But I don’t think any literary scholar goes into his studies with the intention of detaching himself from reality. If there’s any fault in current literary scholarship, it’s that scholars are growing increasingly dependent on examining literature rather than examining life. I know this sounds like a facetious comment, so let me explain: It’s one thing to point out that “x” quality appears in 10 books written in Romania between 1978 and 1985. It’s another thing to explain why, to use literature as evidence of emotional movements, political happenings, and philosophical truths. From the looks of all the good lit theory that got written in the 20th century, this used to happen a lot more than it does now. Maybe this decline is the fault of college English classes, or maybe it’s the fault of the fierce criticism that gets heaped on writers when they drift away from grounded, referenced fact to rambling, uncited hypotheses. And so our current stabs at “steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition” must be yoked to books; any knowledge must be eked out, observation by observation, by the minute analysis of gayness in butlers in 18th century Welsh novels.
The situation won’t be ameliorated by applying a scientific method to literary analysis—if anything, such rigorous methodology will only make it worse. Take, for example, the author’s “experiments” to test the hypothesis that the emphasis on female beauty is a Western phenomenon or the hypothesis that the author is dead. Is the author really holding up this kind of methodology as something to be praised? It seems to me to be the hilarious endpoint of the kind of literary analysis that’s already being taught in lit classes.
But Gotschall hits gets it right on the money when he observes:
Instead of forcing professors to rigorously test their big ideas, as scientific methods do, literary methods encourage us merely to collect and highlight evidence that seems to confirm them. The result of this laxity, as Berkeley’s Frederick Crews points out, is that “our bogus experiments succeed every time.” And since it is so hard to be wrong in literary studies, it is equally hard to be right. So books and papers pile up but, more often than not, genuine advances in knowledge do not.
Good point—I’m guilty of doing exactly this. Most papers generate from having an idea and contributing pages upon pages of examples. But is this really a bad thing? I don’t set out in my papers to prove a hypothesis—I write papers to show something, and then to wonder why that something exists or occurs. There’s something fundamentally wrong with asking literary scholarship to adhere to the same ambitions of science. Authors aren’t like atomic particles—they don’t follow the same rules all the time. The patterns are varied, and the patterns are personal, and it’s more interesting and valid to explore the erratic movements of a couple of writers than it is to define a universal rule for all writers. By the way, if you did the latter, you’d just be accused of “generalizing” and “stereotyping,” a heinous crime in literary analysis.
Gotschall concludes that “setting things right will require an embrace not only of science’s theories and methods but also of its ethos—its aspiration to disinterested inquiry and its measured optimism that the world can, in the end, be better understood.”
Isn’t there that saying about college, that they desire not to teach students not what to think but how to think? Perhaps this is the difference between scientific analysis and literary analysis. In the former, you’re trying to learn concrete facts about the world. But in the latter, you’re trying to learn how to perceive literature, how the meaning of a book can change based on the lens through which you read it. I’m going to make another facetious comment, but there might be some truth in this flippancy: Science desires to make the world better understood. Literary analysis desires to make the world better at understanding.
Hi, I’m Back.
June 3, 2008 in gewgaws
Sorry it’s been so long between posts. I was all working overtime and subsequently vacationing in Paris. You know how it goes. In any case, I haven’t slowed on my reading—if anything, I’ve been reading more than ever. I only post on the books that elicit enough of a response that I feel I can ramble on for paragraphs, but if you’re interested to read micro-reviews of all those books that come and go in the upper right hand corner of this blog, check out my GoodReads page.
In the meantime, here’s a poem I read in a recent issue of The New Yorker that gave me pause:
I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go
to be in Michigan. The right hand of America
waving from maps or the left
pressing into clay a mold to take home
from kindergarten to Mother. I lived in Michigan
forty-three years. The state bird
is a chained factory gate. The state flower
is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical
though it is merely cold and deep as truth.
A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”
can sincerely use the word “sincere.”
In truth the Midwest is not mid or west.
When I go back to Michigan I drive through Ohio.
There is off I-75 in Ohio a mosque, so life
goes corn corn corn mosque, I wave at Islam,
which we’re not getting along with
on account of the Towers as I pass.
Then Ohio goes corn corn corn
billboard, goodbye, Islam. You never forget
how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.
It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.
The Upper Peninsula is a spare state
in case Michigan goes flat. I live now
in Virginia, which has no backup plan
but is named the same as my mother,
I live in my mother again, which is creepy
but so is what the skin under my chin is doing,
suddenly there’s a pouch like marsupials
are needed. The state joy is spring.
“Osiris, we beseech thee, rise and give us baseball”
is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April,
when February hasn’t ended. February
is thirteen months long in Michigan.
We are a people who by February
want to kill the sky for being so gray
and angry at us. “What did we do?”
is the state motto. There’s a day in May
when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics
is everywhere, and daffodils are asked
by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes
with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.
In this way I have given you a primer.
Let us all be from somewhere.
Let us tell each other everything we can.
I wanted to write something similar about Connecticut, and then I quickly realized that I was 1.) too lazy and 2.) such an endeavor would be hokey and very high-school English class. Sorry, Connecticut!
And speaking of The New Yorker, in last week’s issue, there was a brilliant essay on Milton entitled “Return to Paradise: The enduring relevance of John Milton.” I totally groaned when I first saw the essay, but I’m so glad I read it. Jonathan Rosen’s discussion of Paradise Lost‘s function (well, partial function) as a response to then-contemporary political events is a welcome reminder of that poem’s multi-faceted importance. And a reminder of my shame in only having read excerpts of the poem. Mere excerpts! AUGH.
The Twilight of the General
June 3, 2008 in book reviews
The General in His Labyrinth is Gabriel García Marquez’s fictionalized chronicle of Simon Bolívar‘s farewell tour through a post-”liberated” South America, which he took shortly before his death. Reading this book begs the question: Has Marquez written a fictional history or a faithful rendering of history as it happens?
Let me first emphasize that The General is not Marquez for Beginners. If you haven’t already read One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera, then you’re short-changing yourself by reading this book. The General is for the Marquez completist, or maybe for someone well-versed in and enthusiastic about South American history. Unlike those novels in which Marquez conjures up a self-contained family history, The General drapes itself over the sharp contours of historical fact. Though you’d think a little factual underpinning would only serve to heighten the experience of reading about Bolívar’s last days, I actually found it to detract from the drama. The emotional power of The General derives from Marquez’s description of Bolívar’s withdrawal from friends, lovers, and his legacy. When Bolívar declares, “I am not myself,” it’s as if he’s unhinged his former, recognized self from his current, deteriorating self. The past becomes someone else, something to be scrutinized and assessed through the lens of old age.
This book would be an appropriate subject for Edward Said’s book of criticism on artwork created late in life, On Late Style. As Gabriel García Marquez ages, so, too, do his protagonists. (The rumored new novel from Marquez undoubtedly features a cast of nonagenarians.) The General in His Labyrinth is suffused with a feeling of twilight; it’s a sustained goodbye to a continent. And because this is Marquez, the whole tour is redolent with an elegiac beauty.
I don’t want to commit the sin of reading the author through his protagonist, but it is impossible not to read many of the General’s edicts as issued through Marquez’s pen. In fact, I consider The General to be the most personal novel of Marquez’s that I’ve read, especially in light of confessions like this: “[H]e could not renounce his infinite capacity for illusion at the very moment he needed it most.” It’s tempting to think of magic realism as a coping mechanism for old age. And then we have wry asides like this one: “There’s nothing more dangerous than a written memoir.” Perhaps this is why we’ve never received Volume II of Marquez’s memoir, Living to Tell the Tale? When Bolívar bemoans “the fact is there are fewer and fewer good books,” it reads as much like authorial comment as like the fictional criticism of a political leader.
The General in His Labyrinth is also a defense of a life and a continent. Marquez writes of the fractured South American identity:
“The damn problem is that we stopped being Spaniards and then we went here and there and everywhere in countries that change their names and governments so much from one day to the next we don’t know where the hell we come from.”
It’s a spurious explanation for the continent’s lack of cohesion, but still a clever summation of post-colonial confusion. And of the Western perspective of South American politics:
“Don’t attempt to teach us how we should be, don’t attempt to make us just like you, don’t try to have us do well in twenty years what you have done so badly in two thousand…Damn it, please let us have our Middle Ages in peace!”
Bolívar’s exasperated outbursts are as valid now as they were then.
So where does that leave The General? Unfortunately, the book itself is not as compelling as its potential insights into Marquez and his beliefs. In the end, The General in His Labyrinth offers us the same narrative that we can find in Marquez’s other, better titles: a man near the end of his days reconciles his love for an abstraction.