This Week In My Classes: Revisiting Chartres Cathedral

chartres-rose-windowFrom the Novel Readings Archives: Since I started this blog almost ten years ago, one of its most important roles for me has been as a place for me to reflect on my teaching, which is the part of my professional life I value the most and that takes up, usually, the majority of my time and energy.

Universities talk a lot about the importance of teaching, but in practice, as we all know and are frequently reminded, in big ways and small, it’s of secondary — possibly tertiary — value when it comes to our professional advancement. A lot of the discussion about teaching at the higher levels of administration seems to turn on the lure of new technologies or the promise of impersonal kinds of efficiency. To those of us who stand in the classroom every day — at least, those of us in the humanities — much of that discussion misses the point entirely. What we want is to engage with our students in ways that are at once rigorous and profound, that serve both the head and the heart.

Standing in front of my students this morning, talking with them as passionately as I could about the final sequences, and the beautiful Finale, of Middlemarch, I hoped I had gotten better at combining the intellectual and what, for want of a better word, I’ll call the spiritual. If I have, it’s partly through the work I’ve been doing outside the classroom (indeed, outside the university altogether), including here on this blog, and including especially the kinds of thinking out loud I did in this post from 2010. I’m so grateful to everyone who reads and comments for helping me sustain and improve this ongoing project of finding (and sharing) both meaning and inspiration in literature.


Standing in Chartres Cathedral Unmoved

I’ve been thinking more about this passage from May Sarton’s The Small Room that I quoted in my earlier post on the novel, from Lucy’s irate speech to her students on returning their woefully inadequate assignments:

Here is one of the great mysterious works of man, as great and mysterious as a cathedral. And what did you do? You gave it so little of your real selves that you actually achieved bordeom. You stood in Chartres cathedral unmoved. . . . This is not a matter of grades. You’ll slide through all right. It is not bad, it is just flat. It’s the sheer poverty of your approach that is horrifying!

I’ve been marking assignments myself (in my more benign moments, I call it ‘evaluating assignments,’ which sounds less adversarial). But that’s not actually what has had the line about standing in Chartres cathedral unmoved running through my head. Instead, it’s our recent class meeting on James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which I know I am not alone in finding one of the greatest pieces of modern fiction: smart, patient, subtle, powerful, poignant. My very smart talented teaching assistant led the class, and as always happens when I hand over the reins, I learned a lot and was reminded why I ended up where I am today, namely, because I loved being an English student. (I had the same treat today because another of our very smart and talented graduate students kindly took over the class on T. S. Eliot. Boy, we can pick ’em!)

Because I was sitting among the students, I couldn’t see their faces, so I had less than my usual sense of whether they were engaged or listening, but there was certainly not a flurry of responses in answer to Mark’s questions about the story. Now, it’s not a hugely forthcoming group anyway,  and for that I partly blame both the style in which I have decided to teach the course (basically, lectures, with some Q&A, which seemed to fit the purpose of the course) and also the room we were assigned (quite a formal tiered lecture hall, narrow but deep, which exaggerates the distance and difference between the front of the room and the back and makes the prospect of throwing up your hand to volunteer an idea more intimidating, I expect, to any usually reticent students). Anyway, I sat listening to Mark and looking at the moments on the page he called our attention to and filling up with the old excitement–but also simmering a little at what seemed to me an undue lack of excitement in the rest of the room. ‘Aha!’ I thought. ‘This is what Lucy was talking about! Here they are, in Chartres cathedral, unmoved!’

But the more I’ve thought about that moment and my reaction, the less satisfied I am–not with them (though come on, it’s “The Dead”!), but with myself and with the unfair lose-lose situation I am (silently) putting the poor students in.

The thing is, my classroom is nothing like Chartres cathedral. And I don’t mean just in the look and layout, though here are some pictures so you can imagine the scene for yourself:

No, the dissimilarity I’m thinking about is one of atmosphere. Or, perhaps more accurately, attitude. As I remarked in my write-up of The Small Room, Sarton seems to me to be appealing to”an old-fashioned view of literature as a kind of secular prophecy,” imagining a world in which “the professor’s scholarship giv[es] her the wisdom to speak ‘from a cloud,’ a ‘creative power,’ a ‘mystery.'” I wasn’t–and I’m not–lamenting that this is not my academy. I’m not a secular priest; I have no special creative power, no authority to speak to them from some mysterious height– no interest, either, in evoking spiritual revelations. That’s not my business. We can’t just stand there and emote, after all. There’s not much point in their bringing their “real selves” to their work in the way Lucy seems to want it: what would I grade them on? Failure (or success) at having their own epiphanies, rather than failure (or success) at explaining the concept of ‘epiphany’ in the context of Joyce’s fiction in general and “The Dead” in particular? As Brian McCrea writes,

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors.

And as I wrote in response to McCrea in a (much) earlier post,

While we can all share a shudder at the very idea, to me one strength of McCrea’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McCrae says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public” (164-5). (In Democracy’s Children, John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself” [65]).

chartres_cathedralThey aren’t standing in Chartres cathedral unmoved. I’m slamming the door of Chartres cathedral in their face. They might well have been feeling all the excitement I could hope for, or at least those who actually did the reading for the day might have. But it wouldn’t be their fault if they thought the CIBC Auditorium was no place to bring it up. It wouldn’t be Mark’s fault either, or mine. We do show enthusiasm and appreciation for the literature we’re covering, to be sure, but it’s not of the viscerally rapturous variety, or even the aesthetically transcendent variety. It’s a heavily intellectualized variety, and while I don’t think that makes it inauthentic, it isn’t something they are quite ready to emulate, not yet. I want them to feel the readings, and to show that they feel them, but there’s really no appropriate way for them to express that feeling in the ways they would find natural.

But what are we to do?  I’m not a fan of the unreflexive response, and taking down the nets would open up our class discussions (at least potentially) to a particularly banal and subjective kind of verbal tennis (“I really like this” / “Can you say more about why?” / “Not really, I just thought it was nice / beautiful / relatable”). Nobody learns anything from that. I usually just hope that my enthusiasm (however peculiar its variety) catches their interest and makes them read more, and more alertly, then they otherwise would. I try to give them tools to notice and think about their more personal responses, too: how they might have been achieved by the formal strategies of the work, and what their implications might be. I was remembering, though, a conversation of my own with one of my undergraduate professors. We had been reading Matthew Arnold, including “To Marguerite–Continued,” at a time when a lot of emotionally difficult things were going on in my life, and after our seminar (in which, as I recall, we talked about things like faith and doubt, and modern alienation, and verse forms, and metaphors) I very tentatively went up to the professor–one of my favorites, a wry 18th-century specialist who always looked faintly sardonic (as is only fitting, of course, for that period). “But don’t you think,” I remember saying (and those who know me now would not, probably, believe how nervous it made me even to stand there and ask this kind but intimidating man anything at all) “don’t you think that life is like he says? that we are isolated like that?” “Perhaps,” was his only reply–that, and a quizzical lift of his eyebrow. Well, what else could he say? What did my angst have to do with his class?

But (I’m full of these equivocations tonight, apparently) I can’t help but think that, for all the gains involved in professionalizing the study of literature, one of the reasons our students don’t graduate and go out into the world and absolutely trumpet the value and significance of the work they did with us is precisely that we have given up that prophetic role. We stood with them outside the cathedral, perhaps, and told them it mattered, and explained its history and architecture and social role and so forth, but left them to stand inside, moved, on their own. To be sure, they might have ignored it altogether if it weren’t for us (how many of these kids would pick up Joyce on their own?), but no wonder they are left thinking that when it came to the things that really mattered, we weren’t there for them.

Originally published in Novel Readings November 10, 2010.

The Price We Pay: Brian McCrea, Addison and Steele Are Dead

mcrea-not-the-coverFrom the Novel Readings Archives: I still find myself thinking a lot about the questions raised by Brian McCrea’s book Addison and Steele Are Dead, which I wrote about during my first year of blogging. Apparently I’m in something of a minority, or presumably I’d be able to find the actual cover image online somewhere! But rereading this post nearly a decade later, McCrea’s theory about the relationship between literature, professionalism, and teaching still seems well worth considering.


In parallel to my reading of ‘books about books’ aimed at non-specialist readers, I have been reading scholarly books that treat the development of English studies and/or academic criticism in historical as well as theoretical contexts. (Examples include John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent: The Critic and Society, and Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars. My notes on these have been largely maintained off-line, though my post on Denis Donoghue’s The Practice of Reading comes out of the same line of research.) All of these books (and many more like them, of course) make explicit that what now appear to be the “givens” of professional literary criticism and the discipline of English studies are highly contingent and far from exempt from scrutiny, evaluation, or (presumably) further development.

McCrea’s Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books in this collection. As his title suggests, McCrea frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele “render it useless to critics housed in English departments”–not, as he is quick to add, that “their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform.” The opening sections of the book look first at the express intentions of Addison and Steele as critics and men of letters, particularly at their desire to be popular, widely read, accessible, un-mysterious. The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs; the “techniques of simplicity” that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon. (McCrea reports that the last PMLA essay on Addison or Steele appeared in 1957, and that Eighteenth-Century Studies, “the publication of choice for the best and brightest in the field,” published only two short pieces on them in 20 years.) (As an aside, I wonder if a similar argument could be made about Trollope, whose novels often seem difficult to handle using our usual critical tools.)

spectatorAs he develops his argument, McCrea offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians’ admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I’d say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McCrea’s larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not “academicians” or “specialists in a field”:

For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline–housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition–not in English literature–justifies the existence of the English department.

As McCrea tells the story (which in its basic outlines is pretty similar to that told in other histories of criticism) this decline in the critic’s public role has had both significant costs (among them, the critical ‘death’ of Addison and Steele) and significant benefits. At times the book has a nostalgic, even elegaic sound:

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors.

mcgowanWhile we can all share a shudder at the very idea, to me one strength of McCrea’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McCrea says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public.” (In Democracy’s Children, John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself”).

But why, McCrea goes on to consider, should we expect such cross-over between our work–our professional lives and discourse–and our personal lives? McCrea’s answer to this question (we shouldn’t) puts the professionalization of English studies into the context of professionalization more generally, which he argues (drawing on sociological studies) was a key feature of American society during the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of McCrea’s book, in fact, seems to me to be his insistence that, in this respect at least, ‘professing English’ is (or has now become) just another job, and indeed that its success at establishing itself professionally at once accounts for and has depended on its investment in theory and metacommentary: “The ultimate step in the aggrandizement of any professional group is for its members to get paid to talk about how they do what they do rather than doing it.” If one result is isolation from and (perceived) irrelevance to the broader public, including the reading public, the gains for criticism and even for literature are also, McCrea argues, substantial:

Rotarians no longer look to us for uplift, future presidents no longer turn to us to increase their ‘stock of ideas,’ nor do ex-presidents attend our funerals, undergraduates no longer found alumni associations around us, family members can no longer read our books, and plain English has disappeared from our journals. But professionalization has liberated us from a cruel Darwinian system in which one white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male emerged at the top while others struggled at the bottom, grading papers in impoverished anonymity. It has liberated us from the harsh economic realities of eighteenth-century literature . . . while [today’s critics] might wish to share Steele’s influence, I doubt they would want to share his life. He practiced criticism in a world in which there was no tenure, a world devoid of university presses, National Endowments for the Humanities, and endowed university chairs in literature. . . .

In a society in which no one outside the classroom reads Pope, professors can earn handsome incomes by being Pope experts. The five top Pope experts compete with each other, but probably not with the Tennyson experts, and certainly not with the Chaucer experts. The quest for autonomy has cost us Addison and Steele, has cost us the ability to treat literature as a public, moral, emotional phenomenon. But it has left us with a part of literature, with a canon of works complicated in their technique and tone, and with a classroom in which we have a chance to teach those works, to keep them (and whatever value they hold) alive.

Provocative, as I said, not least in reversing the oft-heard line that (undergraduate) teaching is the price professors pay for the opportunity to do their research and as much as declaring that, to the contrary, academic criticism is the price they pay to preserve literature and its values.

Originally published in Novel Readings August 8, 2007.

From the Archives: T. H. White, The Once and Future King

the-once-and-future-kingIt comes back to the geese, in the end. I hoped it would, because of all the marvellous episodes in Wart’s education (the tyrannical pike, the totalitarian ants, the philosophical badger), his time with the geese is the most sublime. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, detailed and evocative, freely fanciful:

The sun, as it rose, tinged the quick-silver of the creeks and the gleaming slime itself with flame. The curlew, who had been piping their mournful plaints since long before the light, flew now from weed-bank to weed-bank. The widgeon, who had slept on water, came whistling their double notes, like whistles from a Christmas cracker. The mallard toiled from land, against the wind. The redshanks scuttled and prodded like mice. A cloud of tiny dunlin, more compact than starlings, turned in the air with the noise of a train. The black-guard of crows rose from the pine trees on the dune with merry cheers. Shore birds of every sort populated the tide line, filling it with business and beauty.

The dawn, the sea-dawn and the mastery of ordered flight, were of such intense beauty that the boy was moved to sing. He wanted to cry a chorus to life, and, since a thousand geese were on the wing about him, he had not long to wait. The lines of these creatures, wavering like smoke upon the sky as they breasted the sunrise, were all at once in music and in laughter. Each squadron of them was in different voice, some larking, some triumphant, some in sentiment or glee.

Like the lengthy excursus on the Middle Ages much later on in the book, these expeditions into natural history speak above all of the writer’s joy in his subject–and what writing is more delightful, more uplifting, to read than joyful writing?

But the flight of the geese is not just natural history: it’s also, like Merlyn’s other lessons (like the whole novel), an embodied class in political theory. “Are we at war,” asks Wart. The goose Lyo-lyok does not understand the question. “There are no boundaries among the geese,” she eventually explains to him. “How can you have boundaries if you fly? Those ants of yours–and the humans too–would have to stop fighting in the end, if they took to the air.” “I like fighting,” replies Wart. “It is knightly.” “Because you are a baby,” replies Lyo-Lyok.

At the end of The Once and Future King, Wart is no longer a baby. Now he’s an old, exhausted king staring in near despair on the failure of his experiment to reconcile might and right. Why do men fight, he wonders? “Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong: all these seemed to be a part of it”:

Yet they were not the solution. He could not see the real solution. He was too old and tired and miserable to think constructively. He was only a man who had meant well, who had been spurred along that course of thinking by an eccentric necromancer with a weakness for humanity. Justice had been his last attempt–to do nothing which was not just. But it had ended in failure. To do at all had proved too difficult. He was done himself.

But he isn’t quite done: there’s a bit of thinking in him yet, not to mention “something invincible in his heart, a tincture of grandness in simplicity,” and he uses his last bit of hope and strength to tell his story to young Tom (“his surcoat, with the Malory bearings, looking absurdly new”), and then “to think again,” and what he thinks of is Lyo-lyok–and there it is, “the problem before him as plain as a map”:

The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing–literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines. There was no visible line between Scotland and England, although Flodden and Bannockburn had been fought about it. It was geography which was the cause, political geography. It was nothing else. . . . The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok, and would to Man if he could learn to fly.

Imagine there’s no countries…it isn’t hard to imagine it. But to realize it? The Once and Future King isn’t that kind of fantasy. Ideas are only as good, as strong, as tenable as principles, as the people who try to live up to them, or to subvert or destroy them. And people, the novel shows over and over, are mixed, complicated, contradictory, creatures.

There’s Arthur himself, for instance. He’s such an ordinary fellow for a legendary hero! As the Orkneys gather to force Arthur’s hand with an open accusation against Lancelot and Guenever, Gareth sees him “as he was … a plain man who had done his best–not a leader of chivalry, but the pupil who had tried to be faithful to his curious master, the magician, by thinking all the time–not Arthur of England, but a lonely old gentleman who had worn his crown for half a lifetime in the teeth of fate.” Because we first meet him as Wart, we carry with us throughout the novel a sense of his childish innocence and his simple desire to do his best. “He was sadly unfitted for hating his best friend or for torturing his wife,” says the narrator; “He had been given too much love and trust to be good at these things.” Such innocence and simplicity should surely be strengths, but for Arthur they are weaknesses. If he were more suspicious, more wily, less scrupulously loyal and just, he would not have been there in that room, “hoist,” as the vengeful Agravaine exults, “with his own petard”–“trapped by his enemies into crushing his friends,” as Steve Donoghue nicely puts it, “using the very structure of law and order he worked so hard to champion.”  But “it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.”

Lancelot and Guenever, too, are painfully ordinary, which is not to say that they are dull or commonplace but that they are flawed and mistaken and loving and loyal and treacherous all at the same time. If they were worse people than they are, they could have simplified the situation, as we would handle it today “when everybody is so free from superstitions and prejudice that it is only necessary for all of us to do as we please.” But they have other values, and they love Arthur as well as each other. Their love (the love of all three of them for the others) is a beautiful, fragile thing, more so as they get older and become “seasoned people, who knew what they were about.” Here they are late in the story, poised on the very threshold of disaster:

The room glowed into colour round the lovers, who had released each other quickly. It began to show the splendour of its hangings as the boy put fire to the wicks. The flower meads and bird-fruitful spinneys of the Arras teemed and rippled over the four walls. The door curtain lifted again, and the King was in the room.

He looked old, older than either of them. But it was the noble oldness of self-respect. Sometimes even nowadays you can meet a man of sixty or more who holds himself as straight as a rush, and whose hair is black. They were in that class. Lancelot, now that you could see him clearly, was an erect refinement of humanity–a fanatic for human responsibility. Guenever, and this might have been surprising to a person who had known her in her days of tempest, looked sweet and pretty. You could almost have protected her. But Arthur was the touching one of the three. He was so plainly dressed, so gentle and patient of his simple things. Often, when the Queen was entertaining distinguished company under the flambeaux of the Great Hall, Lancelot had found him sitting by himself in a small room, mending stockings. Now, in his homely blue gown…he paused on the threshold of the gleaming room, and smiled.

‘Well, Lance. Well, Gwen.’

Such a homely greeting, from this simple man to the two people he loves most in the world. Doesn’t this scene make you yearn for their safety? It’s terrible watching the calamity descend on them that you know all along is coming–for inevitably, the novel is governed by dramatic irony, not just for us, who can’t help but know the story already, but for Arthur too, who is warned at the outset by Merlyn. If only, if only, if only… but there’s no way out for any of us: “before she was quite certain of what had happened, Guenever was laughing or weeping, unfaithful to her husband, as she had always known she would be.” And the rest, after that, is as foreseen and foretold.

For such a tragic story, the telling is surprisingly lighthearted–or light, at least. I was equal parts enchanted and puzzled by the novel’s tone. How can something so sad also be so funny? How can something so elevated also be so colloquial? If it’s not that serious, why am I crying? In the end, though, what I came to see was that the sadness lay precisely in the lightness of it all, in the way the joyousness I already remarked–the bursting excitement about nature and creativity, about “the age of fullness, the age of wading into everything up to the neck”–is undermined so steadily by the awareness of its eventual destructionThe story would not be so sad, also, if it were kept at more of a distance from us. The novel’s most ridiculous, delicious flights of fancy (the thwarted romance of the Questing Beast, for instance) are narrated in the same down-to-earth way as the most extreme moments of betrayal or grief or psychic torment (“Do you think it would be fine to be the best knight in the world? Think, then, also, how you would have to defend the title. Think of the tests, such repeated, remorseless, scandal-breathing tests, which day after day would be applied to you–until the last and certain day, when you would fail.”) and so we experience them both as part of the same world of people who may transform into animals, trap unicorns, and perform miracles, but are somehow, bizarrely, wonderfully, just like us. White’s casual references to Malory and Tennyson, rather than making his version seem coolly metafictional or presciently postmodern, make it seem natural, real, sincere: “Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites would have found it difficult to recognize this rather sullen and unsatisfactory child, with the ugly face,” he says of Lancelot; “An observer of the present day, who knew the Arthurian legend only from Tennyson and people of that sort, would have been startled to see that the famous lovers were past their prime.”

It’s sad because even though it’s a myth, it’s also a true story, one that ought to be told in as direct and simple a way as possible so that we’ll understand it. It’s a sad story because it’s the story of our failure, of our inability to solve King Arthur’s dilemma: to build a just world in which such joy can flourish. Merlyn’s lessons were based on the premise “that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly.” At the end of his reign, Arthur finds this “central tenet of his heart” undone, “ravaged.” If anything, man is worse than beastly–Mordred’s scheming, the blood feuds, the fatal seductions are all calculated and so beyond the capacity of animals. “What creature could be so low,” wonders Lyo-lyok, “as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?” Taught by Merlyn, Arthur had dreamed of a world in which these evils could come to an end. To read The Once and Future King is both to participate in his dream (just as he hopes young Tom will “tell everybody who would listen about this ancient idea, which both of them had once thought good”) and to experience its failure. Can we, perhaps, create the future he dreams of, a day ready for his return? “The hope of making it would lie in culture,” he thinks:

If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.

That must have seemed like a pretty slim chance when the novel was first published in 1939. It still seems like something only a dreamer would imagine.

Sometimes I like to highlight a favorite post from my blog archives, both to share it with readers who might have missed it the first time and, as in this case, to remind myself of the pleasure I have found in writing here about my reading. This post was originally published June 27, 2012.

Sowing Seeds: On the Duties of Professors

Arcimbolo LibrarianFrom the Novel Readings archives, a post that addresses issues still very much on my mind: what we mean by the terms “research” and “scholarship,” and what we take to be the duties of professors and the work of the humanities.


A friend and colleague who read and sympathized with my previous post passed along to me an essay by the late C. Q. Drummond, a long-time member of the Department of English at the University of Alberta. The essay is called “On the Duties of Professors,” and it addresses many of the same issues as my post, particularly the competition for attention, resources, and rewards between research and teaching. As competitions go, all academics know, this is a distinctly unequal one these days: officially, university policies may stress the equal importance of both duties, but inadequacy or irresponsibility in teaching will never hold back someone’s tenure or promotion if they have a “strong” publication record, and while the administrative infrastructure for research is large and powerful, topping out at the Vice Presidential level, if the two factors are really equally important, where, Drummond rightly asks, is the “Vice President (Teaching)”? (Here at Dalhousie, our office of Research Services has 22 staff, including a VP and an Associate VP. Our Center for Learning and Teaching has 10, with a Director and Associate Director at the top.) Not that Drummond wants to see an expansion of teaching-related bureaucracy–though I quite like his idea for how a VP (Teaching) would go about his or her business: this VP “would move through all the Faculties, visiting classes, hearing lectures, attending seminars, drinking coffee, joining oral examinations, talking into the night.” Through qualitative engagement with teachers and students, this VP would become “another source of evidence, besides tabulated student assessments, for who teaches well and who poorly.”

Drummond’s remarks are directed specifically at his own situation: at the time of writing (around 1984), he had recently been “penalize[d] for insufficient publication during a year in which [his Faculty] received extraordinary evidence of his merit as a teacher.” There’s a polemical thrust to them, as a result, but Drummond uses the occasion to place his own professional experience into its larger context: the increasing dominance of precisely the kind of quantitative measures of research “output” about which I was complaining yesterday. Actually, there is one difference that signals the 30-year gap between us: I didn’t notice any mention of research grants in his piece. I expect he would have objected still more strenuously to measuring scholarly success by level of external funding. He directs his criticism at “forced publication,” and at the reductive equation of publication with research or scholarship:

The Salaries and Promotions Committee certainly does not ask for wisdom; it does not ask for erudition or for scholarship; it does not ask for learning, or even for research; it asks for output, something to be measured or counted. . . . What good does such output do anyone? If research in an Arts Faculty means humane learning, then we all hope our teachers are as much involved in research as they possibly can be. We want them to know better and better what they are talking about, so that they will have, and will continue to have, something intelligent and important to profess to their students. But if research means output or publication, as it so often does today, how do the students profit? And how does the scholarly world profit from the forced production of ephemera? Most professors in Arts Faculties would be better off reading more and publishing less, and their students would be better off too, and so would the world of scholarship.

The very term “research” is, he argues, part of the problem.  He quotes George Whalley, who argued in an essay of his own that “research” suggests a goal-oriented activity, work carried out in pursuit of something in particular. “The functions of research,” Whalley writes, “are specialized and limited; … the word research is not a suitable term for referring to the central initiative and purpose of sustained inquiry in “the humanities” . . . “The humanities” is what “humanists” do; not only what they study, but how they study, and why . . . .”

BPL EntranceDrawing on the Handbook published by the CAUT (invoked by his Dean in response to Drummond’s appeal of the Committee’s decision), Drummond himself brings in the vocabulary of knowledge “dissemination” which is once again very current in discussions of our aims:

Research should result in teaching, and might result in publication, teaching and publication being the most important means of dissemination of knowledge. We may teach those near at hand in our lectures, discussions, tutorials, apprenticeships, and supervised practical training, or we may teach those distant through our published papers, articles, essays, and books. But in either case we will have to have found out and shown something worth lecturing about, discussing, or writing down. And where will we have our greatest effect in disseminating what we have found out and know? . . . Dissemination has to do with sowing seed; what we hope when we disseminate is that the seed will take root and grow. . . . So much of the seed one sows in publication falls by the wayside and is devoured by birds, or falls on stony ground, or among thorns and yields no fruit. What the good teacher sows in his class or tutorial is far more likely to find the good ground, spring up, increase, and itself bring forth.

 He reiterates at intervals throughout the piece that he is not opposed to either research or publication, only to a mechanistic understanding of both, especially when it “drives out teaching”–which almost inevitably follows: institutional systems of measurement and incentives are set up not “to encourage the combination of knowing and teaching,” but to “encourage the production of printed pages,” and “because we live in a world in which time itself is scarce, the time taken for one must be taken from the other.” Again, it’s not that he wishes teaching, in its turn, to drive out research–teaching depends on research, broadly understood as inquiry.

It’s not, in my turn, that I wish to drive out either research or publication, both of which are essential (as Drummond too acknowledges) to learning, teaching, and knowledge dissemination. What bothers me is the  incessant identification of “productive” scholarly activity with a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible. It’s a shame that the faux-scientific model Drummond objects to is now so firmly entrenched–so deeply entangled in the values, practices, and especially the finances of our universities–that it seems unimaginable that we could ever undo it. Some might argue that we have won more by it than we have lost–that without playing the game that way, we would have forfeited any place in the contemporary academy. Others might reply that, yes, we are playing the game, but on terms by which we can only, ultimately, lose: however vast our research output, will we ever win either the public or the institutional respect enjoyed by the sciences? Hasn’t our preoccupation with research actually isolated us and cost us public support? And in our effort to insist on the goal-oriented practicality of our fields, we may have flagged in our defense of their intrinsic value.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)Again, it’s not that I think we should not do research, or publish what it teaches us–but it’s a shame that the system is so rigged in favor of hurrying it along and rushing it into print–not to mention aiming it at a specific (and very narrow) audience. “I know for a fact,” Drummond observes, “that policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” That’s certainly true of my reading as well. The narrow concept of research and the pressure to publish also, when made the primary measures of professional success, marginalize undergraduate teaching. (The emphasis in grantsmanship on teaching and funding graduate students, or “HQP” [Highly Qualifed Personnel] is another whole area of trouble.) Finally, it seems to me paradoxically retrograde to be urging or following a model that measures productivity by grant size or output of peer-reviewed publications at a time when the entire landscape of scholarly communication is changing. We can circulate our ideas, enhance our and others’ understanding, pursue our inquiries and disseminate our knowledge in more, and often cheaper, ways than ever before. As long as we are all using our time in service of the university’s central mission–the advancement of knowledge, including through teaching–by the means best suited to the problems we think are most important and interesting to pursue, aren’t we doing our duty as professors?

But as the Associate Vice President who spoke to my Faculty on Thursday said repeatedly, there aren’t “metrics” for those other ways of doing (or discussing) research or measuring its impact: they do not yield data that can be counted, measured, and easily compared across departments, faculties, and campuses. Apparently, that means we have to set them aside–or, at any rate, that the VP (Research) will do so, when reporting to us on our “performance.”

The essay I discuss here is in the volume In Defence of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton, and Others by C. Q. Drummond, edited by John Baxter and Gordon Harvey (Edgeways Books, 2004).

Originally posted January 29, 2012.

“After all, war is war”: All Quiet on the Western Front

remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front is as bleak and compelling a version of the “lost generation” narrative of World War I as I’ve read. In fact, Paul Bäumer, the novel’s narrator, comments explicitly, repeatedly, and bitterly on the chasm between the generation fighting in the trenches and the older generation far away from the front lines. “We agree that it’s the same for everyone,” Paul and his comrades conclude;

not only for us here, but everywhere, for everyone who is of our age; to some more, and to others less. It is the common fate of our generation.

Albert expresses it: “The war has ruined us for everything.”

Though the novel is replete with vivid vignettes, from the tedium of training to the camaraderie of trench life and the horrific chaos of bombardments, the most poignant moments arise when the young men (and they are so very young, most of them, just the age of so many of the first-year students I’m about to meet) reflect on the war’s catastrophic effect on normalcy:

To-day we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities. We are no longer untroubled–we are indifferent. We might exist there; but should we really live there?

We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.

They can’t even imagine what they will do when it ends: even if they are lucky enough to survive at all, much less intact, what’s the value of a life from which all meaning has been stripped? The physical violence ultimately comes across as peripheral–collateral, even–to the other damage they endure:

The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer. We believe in the war.

Battle is terrible, but it allows no time for reflection; Paul (and the reader) hurtles along, transformed from a thinking being to a “wild beast”:

We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down–now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged. . . . [C]rouching like cats we run on, overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but our deliverance. If your own father came over with them you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him.

 It’s when you stop to think that the true madness of war overwhelms you, because of course it is against men that you fling your bombs, and only the decisions of other men far removed from the consequences have turned ordinary people into enemies. “Just you consider,” observes Paul’s mate Katczinsky,

“almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are just labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchman as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”

“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

“Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.

“Not you, nor anybody else here.”

But it is dangerous to think this way, or to think at all, as Paul discovers during a turn guarding a group of Russian prisoners. In the trenches, the enemy is abstract until he is upon you, and then your common humanity becomes irrelevant in the desperate struggle to survive. But face to face, what you perceive is “the suffering of the creature, the awful melancholy of life and the pitilessness of men”:

A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom non of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us. And yet we would shoot at them again and they at us if they were free.

Paul pulls himself up short here: “I am frightened: I dare think this way no more. This way lies the abyss.” Yet he realizes, too, that he needs these thoughts: “I will not lose these thoughts, I will keep them, shut them away until the war is ended.” Though it is these thoughts that make the war unbearable, it is also these thoughts–these moments of recognition–that he hopes give him “the possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling.”

Human feeling surfaces again when, hiding in a shell hole during an enemy attack (and how odd and salutary it is, just by the way, to be on the German side for once in my reading), Paul stabs a Frenchman who tumbles in on top of him. He had expected this moment, prepared for it (“If anyone jumps in here I will go for him … at once, stab him clean through the throat so that he cannot call out; that’s the only way”), but he is not, in fact, prepared (how could he be?) for this moment when killing becomes intimate. He strikes without thinking and feels “how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses.” The man does not die, however–at least, not at once, and Paul is trapped in the shell hole with a man who now seems, not his enemy, but his victim. This way, indeed, lies the abyss:

These hours. . . . The gurgling starts again–but how slowly a man dies! For this I know–he cannot be saved, I have, indeed, tried to tell myself that he will be, but at noon this pretence breaks down and melts before his groans. . . . By noon I am groping on the outer limits of reason. . . . every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me: Time and my thoughts.

 At last he dies: what a relief! “I breathe freely again. But only for a short time.” At least his dying was a distraction: “My state is getting worse, I can no longer control my thoughts.” Insanely, pathetically, beautifully, he tells his dead companion what he is thinking:

“Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they not tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up–take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”

After he finally brings himself to leave the shell hole, Paul is restored to reason (or what passes for it during war) by Kat showing him the snipers gleefully picking off enemies. “What else could you have done?” ask his friends. “That is what you are here for.” “It was only because I had to lie there with him so long,” Paul says; “After all, war is war.”

That simple tautology says everything that is to be said, and at the same time it says nothing, offers no meaning, no consolation. There is nothing to be said, Paul thinks, as, recovering from a wound, he looks at the wreckage of young lives passing in a ceaseless stream through the hospital:

And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

 Paul’s testimony–Remarque’s novel–shows that too, with harrowing simplicity. For Paul (for Remarque) war is definitive. It is everything. Beyond it, for those who have experienced it, there is nothing:

And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing;–it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

I had been interested in reading All Quiet on the Western Front for many years; I finally read it as part of my preparation for my Somerville Novelists seminar. It is an example of what Testament of Youth is not: a soldier’s story, a first-hand (if fictionalized) account of fighting and survival and tactics and rations and brothers in arms. It is the masculine story of the war, and as many of the critics I’ve read point out, that’s the valorized story, the “authentic” one. Brittain knew these aspects of the war only second-hand, through the letters she received from the front and through her experience as a nurse. There are many points of convergence, though. Above all, both tell a story of lost innocence. And both focus almost exclusively on the personal, on individual disillusionment, devastation, and loss–but both lead us towards political conclusions by making it impossible to understand what cause could possibly be worth such a price. Outside their books, we might well feel there’s an argument to be had about that. Reading them, though, it’s hard to do anything but mourn.

poppies

From the Novel Readings archives (lightly updated). First published September 2, 2012.
Photo of field of poppies from Wikimedia Commons.

Pleasure, Guilt, and Pizza: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

One of the writing projects I’ll be turning to in the near future is a review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things. I thought that made this an appropriate time to revisit her earlier work. I also wrote a bit about Committed, which I ended up not liking as much as Eat, Pray, Love.

eat-pray-loveEat, Pray, Love was not one of the books I specifically had in mind to read this month. In fact, until recently it wasn’t a book I ever intended to read–but the positive reviews of Committed at Tales from the Reading Room and Of Books and Bicycles made me curious, so I put holds on the digital copies of both of Gilbert’s books at the public library and lo and behold, this weekend, just as I was despairing at the difficulty of reading Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, I got to the head of the queue for Eat, Pray, Love. Rescued! Because after all, I own The Man Who Loved Children, so there’s no rush there, whereas Eat, Pray, Love will expire on my Sony Reader in just a few (well, about 12) more days! So I simply had to put everything else aside and read it. Right?

And you know, the thing that surprised me (because of various prejudices I had going into this) is that once I’d started reading it, I really did want to put other things aside and keep going. One reason is that Gilbert makes the reading so easy: her prose is lively, conversational, personal, colloquial. It’s also full of vivid details, entertaining anecdotes, and genuinely funny quips–for some reason I didn’t expect the book to be quite so funny, but for the first time in a while (since Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I think) I was chortling merrily through a book, which actually was a nice change after all the gloomy Catholics and grim police inspectors I’ve been hanging out with this term. La Vendée is no laughing matter either, and as for Agnes Grey, which I whisked through last week–why, the kid who likes to torture baby birds is delightfully cheering, really!

To be sure, there is some serious stuff in Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert’s struggles with divorce and depression are not, in themselves, funny at all, and though I had trouble taking Gilbert’s spiritual quests and episodes of transcendence quite as seriously as she does, they too are not intrinsically comical. But Gilbert has a gift for finding the irony or just the plain old silliness in any situation, and she relates even her most profound spiritual experiences with enough self-deprecation and unpretentiousness that it didn’t matter much to me that much of what she said about religion was pretty much all feel-good evasions and platitudes.

It’s not altogether complimentary, of course, for me to say that I basically gave the book a pass on this because it was fun to read. Usually I’m more stringent than that! So why aren’t I railing at Gilbert for peddling comfortable truisms? I did do a little rueful head-shaking, but mostly I just moved on to the next “good” part, mainly because Gilbert is really just talking about herself, and she seems perfectly sincere. She comes across as someone who is smart but kind of flaky, and the book–which is a memoir, after all, not a a treatise, not even really a self-help book (since she’s too smart to insist that what worked for her will work for anyone else)–speaks in her voice and tells her story. She is who she is, so the book is what it is.

But that doesn’t quite do justice to the book: it sounds more condescending than I think is altogether fair. Though the book is not a deep intellectual or philosophical exploration of the meaning of life in general, I did find it unexpectedly thought-provoking about life more particularly. In her review of Committed, litlove remarked that the book “makes you consider your own life, and those of the friends and family around you. Her vivid emotional honesty encourages you to look clear-sightedly at yourself, and the range of information she provides, as well as the stories she tells, provide a rich tapestry of experiences against which to measure your own.” I haven’t read Committed yet (I’m still in the queue!) but this description really fits Eat, Pray, Love as well. For instance, Gilbert talks about her (first) marriage and her reasons for finally leaving it in terms that probe the nature of the demands and expectations of marriage and family (an encouraging sign for Committed, which obviously continues these themes). I doubt that anyone who is or has been married can read someone else’s frank analysis of their own relationship without holding the mirror up to themselves. But some of the more abstract issues that arise as Gilbert makes her own voyage of self-discovery and self-affirmation were ultimately the most interesting to me.

One thing she talks about a lot, for example, in the context of her four months in Italy, is pleasure or beauty. She learns Italian in the first place because she thinks the language is so beautiful, and her Italian experience (the “eat” part of the book!) is full of sensuality (but not, as she repeatedly reminds us, sexuality, or at least not shared sexuality, as she has committed to celibacy–no easy commitment to keep, as she also often reminds us, when surrounded by beautiful Italian men). A lot of this sensuality is expressed through food. I particularly relished her description of the pizza she and her Swedish friend eat in Naples, which may well be “the best pizza in the world” –because the pizzeria is the best in Naples, which has the best pizza in Italy, which has the best pizza in the world:

I love my pizza so much…that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return. I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair. Meanwhile, Sofie is practically in tears over hers, she’s having a metaphysical crisis about it, she’s begging me, “Why do they even bother trying to make pizza in Stockholm? Why do we even bother eating food at all in Stockholm?”

…I always thought we only had two choices in our lives when it came to pizza crust–thin and crispy, or thick and doughy. How was I to have known there could be a crust in this world that was thin and doughy? Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yumy, chewy, salty, pizza paradise. On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce that foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance, much the same way one shimmering movie star in the middle of a party brings a high contact of glamour to everyone around her. . . . really, the pizza is so good we can barely cope.

But pizza, even the best pizza in the world, is still pizza. Her most amazing meal is in a little trattoria in Sicily:

It’s pasta, but a shape of pasta I’ve never before seen–big, fresh, sheets of pasta folded ravioli-like into the shape…of the pope’s hat, stuffed with a hot, aromatic puree of crustaceans and octopus and squid, served tossed like a hot salad with fresh cockles and strips of julienned vegetables, all swimming in an olivey, oceany broth.

And the next night, in another “little restaurant with no name,” “the waiter brings me airy clouds of ricotta sprinkled with pistachio, bread chunks floating in aromatic oils, tiny plates of sliced meats and olives, a salad of chilled oranges tossed in a dressing of raw onion and parsley. This is before I even hear about the calamari house specialty.” (Mmm, calamari!)

Gilbert is in love, enraptured, with the sights and smells and flavours of Italy; her pleasure is palpable. But what is it worth? She’s perfectly aware that what she’s doing might seem–might actually be–sheer self-indulgence. “A major obstacle in my pursuit of pleasure,” she herself remarks, “was my ingrained sense of Puritan guilt. Do I really deserve this pleasure?” And in Sicily especially, where “you can still find yourself picking your steps through World War II rubble, … is it maybe a little shallow to be thinking only about your next wonderful meal?” The meditation on the human value of pleasure and beauty thus provoked was, to me, one of the most thoughtful and convincing parts of the book.  Gilbert understands how privileged she is to be able to seek pleasure deliberately, exclusively, as she is doing, but it still seems fair to propose that “the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one’s humanity,” a reflection of “individual human dignity.” The juxtaposition of beauty and degradation does create a tension, one she is honest enough to admit, but to turn away from beauty out of guilt would be what Will Ladislaw calls, in Dorothea, “the fanaticism of sympathy.”*

zinnI was less convinced by her yogic experiences–or I guess I should say, since I can hardly dispute her experiences, by their underlying philosophy of acceptance. Gilbert talks a lot about her battle to overcome discontent and dissatisfaction, and she can be eloquent or, again, very funny about the damaging effects of these negative emotions on her life and her relationships. But there’s a fundamental passivity in all that embracing the wrongs and the injustices and the hurts and the insults and the failings–letting them into your heart and just living with them, or letting go of them. At a difficult time in my own life, someone recommended the book Full Catastrophe Living, which preaches a similar philosophy. But what if you don’t want to accept the things that are wrong, but rather to change them? to fight against them? I’ve long been a believer in the importance of dissatisfaction: it drives political change and social transformation, after all! Without people who refused to accept things the way they were–well, we can all put together a catalogue of the advances in social justice that would never have been made. Isn’t something similar true at a personal level? Acceptance may be the path to mental quiet, but it has always seemed to me the path, also, at least potentially, to self-suppression (which is, I suppose, actually the point), and also, again at least potentially, to unacceptable levels of self-sacrifice. It’s just not an ethos I can embrace. As a consequence, I have not found lasting mental quiet, and I continue to struggle against and complain about and be dissatisfied with some aspects of my life that I may ultimately never be able to change–or maybe I shouldn’t even aspire to change, who knows. Of course I’m always conscious that all things considered, I have it pretty good (I must say that seems especially true in a week full of overwhelmingly bad news from all corners of the globe). So I often feel guilty about my own mental chafing (meta-self-criticism!), and I wondered, as I read Gilbert’s rapturous accounts of learning meditation (and of the aftermath, in which she is both happier and, of course, much prettier) whether I should go down that road and seek contentment and inner peace through acceptance. I still have Full Catastrophe Living, after all. Gilbert isn’t really that specific, though, about the long-term benefits, or even about the real-world implications of her training. Maybe Committed will clarify for me what learning to just live with (or even embrace) life’s imperfections and disappointments means for her in practice. How do you find the balance between that acceptance and standing up for what you (or others) want, need, or deserve?

So that’s eating, and praying. The final part of the book is, of course, about loving–including her eventual abandoment of that vow of celibacy. Though I found her account of life in Bali as lively and entertaining as the rest of the book (at least, the rest of the travel and eating parts), the happy romantic conclusion seemed pretty pat to me. If it were a novel, I would have been disappointed at the descent into cliché, and at the way yet another story ostensibly about a woman’s self-discovery ends with her finding Mr Right. But I guess it really happened that way! And in the end, it doesn’t much change my overall response to the book. It made me laugh and it made me think. Both are good things in a book!

*For some interesting comments about Eat, Pray, Love as an example of “priv lit,” see these posts from zunguzungu and MillicentandCarlaFran about the film adaptation. I haven’t looked into the wider debate they reference–but I did follow up the link in the comments to Historiann’s post “Selfish! Selfish! Selfish!” which is well worth a read in this context.

Originally published March 16, 2011.