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Meetings of the Mind
David Damrosch

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Chapter 1


How Do Disciplines Die?

The Hakone region has aerial cable cars traversing the mountains, boiling hot springs, and lake cruises.... The most worthwhile attraction in the area is the MOA Art Museum, named after its founder, Mokichi Okada. While establishing one of Japan's new religions, the Church of Messianity, Okada was able to collect more than 3,000 works of art.... Located on a hill above the station and set in a garden full of old plum trees and azaleas, the museum also offers a sweeping view over Atami and the bay. Admission: ¥1,500. Open 9:30-3:30; closed Thurs. Fodor's 91: Japan

The projector, which was fitted with inadequate bulbs, threw faint images on to an over-large screen, and the lecturer, however closely he peered, could hardly discern their outlines, while for the public they were scarcely distinguishable from the damp stains on the walls.... To this mixture of moth-eaten ghosts and restless infants the lecturer was privileged—as the supreme reward for so much effort, care and hard work—to reveal his precious store of memories, which were permanently affected by the chill of the occasion, and which, as he spoke in the semi-darkness, he felt slipping away from him and falling one by one like pebbles to the bottom of a well. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

I arrived at Narita airport, late in August of 1991, not knowing what to expect. Several hundred comparatists from around the world were assembling for the triennial meeting of the International Comparative Literature Association; this would be the group's first meeting in Asia. My uncertainty had partly to do with the conference's theme, if it had one; "The Force of Vision" was a pretty vague topic, though I'd certainly seen vaguer. My chief concern was with my fellow panelists. I knew none of them well, their work only a little better. As I waited for the airport train into the city, still groggy talking about. And now the instigator of all this debate was going to be our respondent. Would we have to spend our time decoding Midrash's response, trying to figure out whether he was complimenting us or mocking us?

    Actually meeting Midrash proved to be a relief. I found a message from him awaiting me when I arrived at my hotel, proposing that the four of us copanelists meet for breakfast the next morning at a nearby coffee shop. Dov and I were the first ones there; his stocky, bearded form stood out, the rest of the patrons being Japanese. Apparently the travelers in the surrounding hotels weren't venturing out so early, or if they did they may have been put off by the restaurant's English name—Snack Memory—and gone in search of more authentic cuisine. In fact, though, Snack Memory served standard Japanese fare to a clientele of office workers, and Dov and I settled down to a meal of miso soup and raw egg over rice. He proved to be a fascinating conversationalist, though at times he was a little hard to follow, speaking in low, gravelly tones punctuated by self-mocking interjections. He spoke English not so much with a pronounced accent as with underlying speech rhythms that reflected several different languages. As I later learned, he'd grown up speaking Russian with his father, Yiddish with his mother, and Hebrew in school, then had lectured in German for ten years at Konstanz, before assuming his new posts first at Geneva and now at Irvine as well. He had a keen ear for American colloquialisms, and at times he almost sounded American; then you'd get a glimpse of one or another linguistic layer beneath his command of English.

    "Glad to meet you," Dov said. "This fucking architecture." He gestured at the bland office buildings outside, an unfiltered cigarette in his hand. "You see -what happens when a culture gives up its own traditions? Food, no, thank God: here, we have a good breakfast." He used his chopsticks to stir his egg into his rice.

    I could see that small talk was not going to be Midrash's strong suit. I decided to respond in kind. "But what are Japan's `own' traditions?" I asked. "Do you mean the script they borrowed from China, or the metaphysics that came from India through Korea?"

    Dov smiled. "Maybe you are right, it is just a matter of time. The import needs to put down roots, be corrupted or purified in local terms, so in five hundred years they will build remarkable skyscrapers here. We should maybe come back then and see."

    I was about to point out the difficulty of doing so, when Marsha walked in. When I'd known her in her Berkeley days, we'd all been at the stage of androgynous jeans and tangled hair; now, though the hour was early, Marsha was wearing a suit, its black leather contrasting effectively with her pale skin and with the bright red of her nails.

    "Don't you just love it here?" she asked, after I'd introduced her to Dov. "The energy, the electronic readouts in the subway cars, all that neon in overdrive around the train station!" She gestured toward the bustling boulevard outside. "Don't you think they do Paris better here than we do in America?"

    Dov just shrugged. I decided to change the subject, and asked Marsha how she'd been in the last few years.

    "Great!" she replied. "The Bennington students are a trip, and the department's a really collegial bunch. It's hard to get much writing done, but the whole atmosphere is wonderful, artsy, off-beat, intense, and they're putting me up for tenure in the fall. Everyone says it's a sure thing."

    "So they have something so definite as tenure at Bennington?" Dov asked. "I thought they refused to play the usual academic games there."

    "It isn't called tenure, that's true," Marsha replied; "it's kind of a point of pride in the campus culture to stay away from any hierarchy of power. So we have a permanent renewal of contract instead of tenure."

    "It sounds like it's just the same thing under a new name," I remarked.

    "Names matter," Marsha replied. "A symbolic change can have a ripple effect in reality—otherwise, all of us in literature might as well shut up shop. The proof comes in the performance. At Bennington, refusing the ordinary language of academic authority is a way we express an institutional reality. The power isn't held tight by our senior faculty at all—I chaired the department last year myself, even before the vote this spring. Of course, my case still has to go through the Trustees, times are tough, enrollment's been sagging some, but no one expects any problem. The administration has a long tradition of close consultation with the faculty, we've got a dynamic new president—a woman, no less—and she's sure to strengthen our collaborative culture. She wants us to have campus-wide discussions this coming year about the future of the institution. All in all, we're expecting good times ahead. If only I wasn't feeling torn in two so much of the time."

    "What's going wrong?" I asked, alarmed.

    "Nothing's wrong at all," Marsha replied. "Just too much good fortune all at once. Especially the arrival of Cassie, our daughter, she's thirteen months now. She's so wonderful! And so engrossing—I just don't know how I'm going to juggle everything when classes start back up next month. Last year I had a half-time deal, that helped a lot, but we can't really afford it this coming year. Anyway, I'm impatient to get back into things full-time, what with the promotion and everything. At least she stopped breast-feeding a couple of months ago, but even so—if only I had an `insert paragraph' command in my life!"

    "Is there a husband in the picture?" Dov asked. "Does he help?"

    "You're damn right he does," Marsha replied, then paused. "I guess that came out sounding a little.... But I didn't really mean it that way. And he isn't exactly a husband, either, as far as that goes. Still, we've been together quite a while now, and we both wanted a child. Tom adores Cassie—he even thinks he does an equal share of all the work. I've never had to get up at night with her, which helps because I sleep like a rock. When I was nursing, we had this deal at night, I'd provide the food, he'd provide the transportation. But daytimes, I don't know, Tom can be kind of slow on the uptake, and half the time he's out in his greenhouses, or holed up in the study doing some gardening column on a tight deadline. A week can go by, and I've barely read a page. And as for writing...."

    Marsha's voice trailed off. She shook herself, and continued more positively.

    "At least I feel I've earned this break. Ten days! I have to say, it's kind of nice to be footloose for a change."

    Just then, a voice called out from the doorway:

    "David, my dear, there you are!" Vic Addams never simply entered a room when he could make an entrance. Bending his head gracefully to avoid a hanging lantern, he came to our table, and draped his slender form onto a chair. Without waiting for introductions, he took a tourist brochure out of the pocket of his linen blazer.

    "Do you see this?" he asked. We all looked: an ordinary promotional photo, showing the Tokyo skyline as seen from the bay.

    "Look!" Vic said. "They're windsurfing out there, Mistral sails no less, right in front of the skyscrapers. Sublime! And think of the housing here—do you know what that means?"

    "No, what?" I asked.

    "Rentals! How many Tokyo apartments could have space for a board, not to mention the mast? My concierge informs me that the hot spot is a beach out at Tsudanuma, part way round the bay, where well-endowed young fellows rent well-equipped sailboards. Who's coming with me? I've hired a car for the day; my driver can run you by your hotels for your suits, and we're off."

    "I thought we have a conference starting today," Dov said. "And our own panel comes tomorrow morning. I think we must plan it out, and I need to know what you will say so I can prepare my response."

    Marsha and I spoke at the same time. "Dov's right," I said. "Let's go," said Marsha. "I've never been windsurfing."

    "About the talk," Vic said to Dov. "I plan to extemporize; you can just disagree with whatever I say. People usually do."

    "Here's my paper," Marsha said, handing Dov a folder. "All the panels today are pretty traditional source-and-influence things, so I think I'll get more out of some immersion in the culture."

    "Immersion? Only if you're careless," Vic said. "The idea is not to Fall in. But I'll show you."

    I spent the next several hours in conference sessions. Marsha had been all too correct: a dutiful exposition of someone's influence on someone else, followed by a paper on the second someone's subsequent influence on some third someone, both presented by speakers who seemed to see life steadily, and see it in little pieces; a panel on that old chestnut, Ezra Pound's misunderstanding of Chinese script, the failure of all previous critics ever to say anything really interesting on this topic having inspired a new crop of earnest failures; and a depressing smattering of broader methodological papers, some presented by feel-good global-villagers who saw vague harmonies everywhere, the rest given by crypto-nationalists who emphasized the incommensurability of East and West and the implicit superiority of their own cultural system—unless, with an oppositional flourish, they demonstrated the superiority of any culture but their own.

    None of the panels I attended had any internal coherence, except for the Pound panel, which had no variety; none of the conference rooms had any windows; none of the panels left more than five minutes for questions; none of the questions was audible; none of the replies was intelligible. Even so, I couldn't decide: were Vic and Marsha showing the only real sanity in the place by going off windsurfing, or was their escape act just another symptom of the problem?

    As I emerged wearily from my third panel, I decided to find out. I walked up the street to get my bathing suit from my hotel. No concierge there, and the single desk clerk was absorbed in his comic-book novel, so I hailed a cab on the street. The driver spoke no English, and I had forgotten the name of the beach. Though I'd made an effort to learn some basic phrases, I hadn't thought to master any vocabulary concerning beaches and sailboards. After two or three minutes of fruitless non-communication, I let the cab go. Then it occurred to me that I might be able to pantomime my wishes, so I hailed another cab. Motioning for the driver to open his window, I made broad breast-strokes with my arms, pronouncing the words "swim, swim" and "beach, beach" slowly and distinctly.

    The driver looked at me quizzically over the rims of his sunglasses. "You wish to go to a beach, sir?" he asked. "Would that be Tsudanuma?"

    I got in, ignoring the looks of the passersby who had stopped to observe my performance. On the way, the driver taught me the Japanese term for windsurfing, which proved to be "windsurfering."

    The beach was a broad are of sand, bounded by a breakwater on the right and, on the left, a partially completed highway overpass surrounded by half a dozen construction cranes. I scanned the horizon for my friends. Japanese adolescents in Day-Glo bodysuits were zipping back and forth across the water, from the breakwater to the construction site and back, but Marsha and Vic were not among them. Probably they had left some time ago, I reflected; it was almost five o'clock by now. Then I saw them down the beach near the rental shed, their boards drawn up on the sand beside them. It seemed that they had forgotten to bring towels; Vic was drying Marsha's back with a tee shirt. Wearing only a skimpy black bathing suit, Vic somehow gave a more powerful impression than when clothed. His muscles had the fine but not bulky tone of runners and—as I could see, looking around—of windsurfing enthusiasts. His dark hair, neatly brushed as always back from his finely chiseled forehead, glistened in the late-afternoon sunlight.

    I almost hesitated to disturb them, but as Marsha turned her head over her shoulder to say something to Vic, she caught sight of me, and waved cordially.

    "It's been great!" she said, as I came up. "I only fell in a few times—I hope there isn't anything too toxic in the water around here. And I've even learned to tack!"

    "A natural," Vic said approvingly. "Most people take far longer to get started. Care to take a turn, David?"

    I contented myself with a swim, then joined the others at a beachfront snack bar where they were eating bowls of noodles.

    "And now, what next?" Vic asked. "A stroll through some exquisite garden before we take in the play?"

    "I'm afraid I missed my chance on that one," I said regretfully. "I didn't focus on it in the preregistration materials, and now I hear it's all sold out."

    "So what?" Marsha asked. "My attitude's always been, these big corporate-sponsored events, I'll save my money for worthier causes."

    "But Marsha, dear heart," Vic exclaimed, "this is not to be missed! Hamlet revised into Kabuki form, now being re-staged in a full-scale reproduction of the Globe theater?—To say nothing of the pleasures of the company," he added, with a smile that somehow seemed directed only at her.

    "Oh, I'm going," Marsha replied. "I just don't plan to add to the take. They've already sold the seats anyway, but there's bound to be no-shows. You come too, David, I'll get us both in."

    I found this hard to believe, given the precision with which everything seemed to be organized in Tokyo. Still, I had no other plans, and so I went along in Vic's car. We arrived at the Globe theater, somewhat incongruously set in a quiet residential neighborhood of single-story houses nestled among cherry trees and ornamental shrubbery. There was still some time until the show was to begin, so Marsha had us take a stroll.

    "The trick's in the timing," she said conspiratorially, as we returned to the theater. "We waltz in thirty seconds before curtain time. You do have a ticket, right, Vic? Give it here—just follow me."

    We went in behind Marsha as she strode purposefully into the crowd of last-minute arrivals, who parted before us. When we reached the ticket-taker, Marsha brandished Vic's ticket, tapping it significantly on her watch on her other wrist. She then pointed at Vic and me with the ticket as she held up three fingers of her other hand, smiling generously as she did so to indicate that we would spare the attendant the need to hold things up on our account.

    The ticket-taker hesitated for half a second; it was enough. Marsha swept us in with her, as new people engaged the attendant's attention. Marsha cordially waved an usher away, and we settled into a half-empty row of seats.

    "Do you think the ticket-taker really thought she saw three tickets?" I whispered.

    "Are you kidding?" Marsha answered. "She thinks she took our tickets and gave us back the stubs! Stick with me, kiddo, and you'll do okay."

    This was a side of Marsha I hadn't known about. Happily, no one came to demand our seats and have us ejected from the theater, and I gradually began to relax and enjoy the play. An unusual version of Hamlet indeed, written at the turn of the century by an early comparatist who hoped to reconcile East and West through creative dramaturgy. I had some difficulty following the action, partly because no translation was available, but also because the same actor played both Hamlet and Ophelia. Still, the play reached a forceful climax when Hamlet committed ritual suicide by ordering Horatio to cut off his head. I found myself moved by the solemn final scene, in which the new ruler, Fortinbras, set the severed head on a shrine in honor of Hamlet's dead father. Was the director making a subtle point, or simply saving costs, by having Fortinbras too be played by Hamlet-Ophelia?

    As we left the theater, Vic proposed going out for sake. Jet-lagged, I declined. Tired though I was, I noticed that neither of my companions urged me a second time. Returning alone to my modest business hotel—a far cry from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hilton where Vic was staying—I called my wife and children back in New York, now starting their day as I was ending mine. I then looked around my room. I could almost touch both side walls at once, and the room extended only a yard or so beyond the end of the narrow bed. Still, ingenious cabinets, trimmed in mahogany, ran under the bed to hold clothes, and compartments in the paneled end wall opened magically to reveal TV,, VCR, CD player, and mini-bar. Perhaps under Vic's influence, I found myself thinking of my surroundings not as a budget single room but as sleeping quarters on a trim cruising yawl. Through my small, porthole-like window, I could see the stream of traffic eddying along the road below. It could be all right, exploring this new culture with my new friends, always assuming they could spare some time for me. But did we have enough in common ever to get beyond the transient intimacy of a conference trip? Could the conference itself provide a substantive counterpoint to our extracurricular activities?

    I was still wondering about this the next morning, when I arrived for our panel a few minutes early and found only Dov in the room. He was already seated on the rostrum, scowling slightly as he jabbed at a draft (mine or Marsha's, I didn't really want to know) with a red felt-tipped pen. A handful of thrill-seekers wandered in over the next few minutes and subsided quietly into chairs. They almost disappeared from view, dotted about in a room meant to hold a hundred, their faces suspended in that strangely garish half-light peculiar to hotel conference rooms the world over.

    I joined Dov on the podium, and then we waited. Finally, at ten past nine, in came a tanned Vic and a sunburned Marsha. "Sorry we're late," Marsha whispered as she settled down beside me. I gave a noncommittal smile and motioned to Vic, who went to the lectern. I could see in his hand some notes jotted on a sheet of Tokyo Hilton stationery.

    "How do disciplines die?" he began. "Can any historical signpost point the way for the modern literatures as they plunge, lemming-like, down the steep slope of undergraduate enrollments, as business majors boom and literature falls off the charts? I propose to you the melancholy, monitory example of Classics, queen of the disciplines a hundred years ago—hated dominatrix of the college curriculum in the students' eyes, to be sure, but mistress of their professors' hearts. In those distant days, the study of the classics was the great source of mental discipline and of public morality alike. Not only could you not major in English, you'd be lucky to find a single course in English literature! This was the natural order of things, had been for the longest time, and no classicist in 1875 could have foreseen how swiftly the modern rabblement would dethrone their queen. The revolution took just a decade or two, and classics has declined from half the curriculum to a tiny fraction of it now. Blame the barbarism natural to American culture if you like, or take the classicists themselves to task for circling their wagons, for their defensive reliance on the greatness that was Greece and the glory that was philology. Yet know that the writing is on our own walls today, its message conveyed by the very fact that scarcely a soul in this room can read the Greek in which it is written!"

    Rather melodramatic, I thought; still, he had gotten the audience's attention. Vic went on, leaning forward on the lectern, speaking more quietly now.

    "I would not have you think I am here to mock Classics or even most classicists. If the signpost pointed only downward, what point would there be in pausing to decipher it? It took the classicists a long while to regroup, but regroup they have, and we should attend to the examples they are setting by their innovative efforts at outreach. They are far ahead of most modern disciplines in developing lively new grammars, interactive databases, links to high schools—not shrinking even from recourse to billboards and toga parties: methods not to be despised! There are lessons for us all in their current recovery; and there is a positive message in the long decline itself, if we can have the courage to face it. In many ways, that tectonic upheaval at the fin-de-sièle is the best thing that ever happened to Classics. How utterly perverse it was, really, to enthrone classical civilization as the embodiment of nineteenth-century European values, once technology began to triumph over theology and the colleges decided to distance themselves from their sectarian roots! Bronze-Age warriors with Iron-Age values somehow magically preserving `sweetness and light,' in between yesterday's rape and tomorrow's conquest? What would these slave-owning, pagan bisexuals have thought, if they returned to earth in 1890 and found themselves made into poster boys for the highest aspirations of a bourgeois, Victorian, Christian, homophobic, industrial capitalism? Horribile dictu!

    "What a relief, really, for the committed classicist, to be freed today from the obligation to find sermons under every stone of the Acropolis. No need now to dress Homer and Euripides in proper Victorian garb, to fit them into patterns their limbs never knew, bending and folding them like paper dolls to serve—let's say, in honor of our hosts today—as the fons et origami of modern culture! No wonder the older classicists let their specious centrality fade away with little regret: devotees of the modern literatures should do so too, refuse any servitude to the pietas of state culture, whether the middlebrow moralism of the right or the middlebrow multiculturalism of the left."

    Vic went on in this vein for several minutes more, in terms that will be sufficiently familiar from his book, especially the opening polemic on "The Futility of Utility." He argued that only in a marginal position can literary studies do justice to literature's paradoxical embodiment of cultural values and its dislocation of them, especially its undercutting of the cosy half-truths in which social values typically—I think he actually said "inevitably"—filter down into classroom presentations. On my right, Dov was shaking his head and writing furiously. To my left, Marsha seemed to be restraining herself from interrupting each time Vic made a disdainful reference to popular culture or cultural studies; I thought I even saw a flush spread across her neck, though this may only have been an optical effect of fluorescent lighting on her sunburn. Vic continued:

    "Classics can point the way for the modern literatures, if only because the compromises that tempt all professors in search of an audience look so ludicrous in the case of antiquity. It is a mistake to make Milton popular, but it is a mistake that some cannot resist, trying to trade in the poet's `fit audience, though few' for an unfit audience, but many. This is scarcely a good bargain, dear friends, and it is a game for which Theocritus and Anaximander make poor pawns. But do not suppose that I mean to evoke the classical writers as standard-bearers for an elite culture! Virgil may have been, Euripides most emphatically was not, but the ancients' values, popular or elite, only sporadically connect to ours in any event. We should not study such writers for their closeness to us and our egotistical concerns—their value lies precisely in their distance from us, their foreignness. Spare me the Christian reading of Aeneas and the feminist reading of Medea alike! It is not for us to appropriate such magnificent, enigmatic characters, it is for them to appropriate us. Ezra Pound had his reasons for urging us to `make it new,' though his famous phrase looks less provocative now than he meant it to be, more in rune with the demands of a growing consumer capitalism." Vic cast a glance over at Marsha, who didn't look amused. He raised an eyebrow ironically, and went on.

    "For us today, the challenge is quite the reverse: to make it old. We must allow the work the freedom of its utter estrangement from us, setting the stage for the liberation that comes when we are taken a while out of ourselves, disabused of our pieties and our vanities. We return to our world shaken, drained perhaps—surely the point of Aristotle's medical analogy to cathartic purgation. 'Be old! Anew!' as Joyce so beautifully says in Finnegans Wake: `We are once amore as babes awontering in that chill childerness which is our true name.' A literature department must be more than a little inglenook where we sit and take the chill off our modern culture, dreaming of a nostalgic past—or else fantasizing the radical social change our young charges will enact just as soon as they finish their term papers on Fanon and graduate. We should resist the superficial satisfactions that come from acting the part of scholarly Jack Homers, pulling little social plums out of our textual puddings. The death of literature as an institution may mean the rebirth of a more vital literary experience; as scholars and teachers, it is our task not to mourn but to celebrate the death of Tim Finnegan the solid citizen, to assist in his resurrection as a shape-shifting, larger-than-life, life force."

    Marsha leaned over to me as Vic sat down. "Mind if I go next?" she whispered. "I just can't let all that go by." I agreed, secretly relieved not to have to follow such a rhetorically charged performance. Marsha went to the lectern.

    "What my esteemed panelist is peddling here," she began, "is the worst sort of retrograde bullshit."

    Maybe I shouldn't follow Marsha either, I thought; maybe I should have stayed in bed that morning.

    "If I was independently wealthy," Marsha continued, "I too could maybe afford to sit outside the institutional arena, making fun of the students who are looking to literature to give them some guidance in their lives, as they struggle to make sense of the racially and economically divided society around them. A society, after all, whose leaders would be quite happy to have all of us in literature confine ourselves to parsing grammar and syntax, topping our programs off with a little artistic polishing. Vic Addams may think he's taking a stand in favor of literature's lofty purity, but he's either kidding himself or he's kidding you. What he's really doing, like it or not, is playing into the hands of the right, the people who attack any questioning of the status quo as `political correctness.' The idea of basing an appeal to artistic independence on Milton and Virgil! Can you imagine two more politically engaged writers? I'm happy to spare you the Christian reading of Virgil, and you can spare me the Christian reading of Milton too, as far as that goes. But I can't imagine a viable reading of Virgil that didn't begin from his celebration of the Roman Empire, or a reading of Paradise Lost that ignored Milton's despair over the collapse of the people's republic he thought Cromwell had created. Didn't he start that epic right after the restoration of the monarchy he hated so much? Doesn't that hatred fuel Satan's fury at the `tyrant' in heaven?"

    Vic was shaking his head; the corners of his mouth turned down in a fleeting smile at the words "Virgil's celebration of the Empire." On my right, Dov was writing as furiously as before. I could see a few words: "People's republic! Milton the Maoist?" Marsha went on.

    "Literature deals in ideas; let's face it, it deals in ideologies. All art does, though you may not see this so clearly in the more indirect cases like music. With literature, it's as plain as the words on the page. Writers take positions in their works, and then their publishers and reviewers and readers put them into ideologically charged positions of their own. It's part of our job as critics to locate those positions, and take a stand toward them ourselves. If you want to persuade me otherwise, my dear"—Marsha turned and addressed Vic directly—"you'll have to give me some better examples than the ones you gave just now."

    She turned back to the audience. "The most exciting thing in academic study today is the exploration of the social and cultural grounding of all forms of art, popular and elite, and part of the point is for us to clarify our own situations in the process. Let me give you a concrete case of what I mean. My example was supposed to introduce the topic I was going to present, before I was kind of derailed by Vic's presentation. I've called my talk `Where in the World is Virginia Woolf?' The idea was to focus on Woolf to talk about the evolution of our discipline. If all politics is local, it's because it's localized in time as well as in place. The politics I want to reflect on is ours more than Woolf's, or rather, it's the way we keep reconfiguring Woolf's politics, and how our reconfigurings can give an index to our own shifting situations."

    Marsha paused and put on the pair of purple-rimmed glasses that had been hanging on a cord around her neck. About to begin reading, she set her pages down and continued speaking directly to the audience, now with a hint of apology in her voice.

    "I really don't object to aestheticism itself—who could fall in love with Woolf and not feel its attraction? When we read her, we get seduced by that dreamy language, that rolling swell of sentences with their whitecaps of semicolons. We do get caught up into her world, I'll grant Vic that. But I want us to remember that Woolf always attached her webs of words to the real world—`with bands of steel,' as she put it in A Room of One's Own. The detached aestheticism that Vic's proposing might be possible, who knows; it's just that in actual fact, that kind of `detachment' has usually turned out to serve the politics of the status quo. Woolf is my example of this; again, I'm not talking about her own position, but about the politics her aestheticism was yoked up with until quite recently."

    Marsha cast a look over at Vic, who seemed to be listening with interest, an impression not everyone could create while also using a bent paper clip to dislodge sand from beneath his fingernails. Marsha glanced at her own fingernails, and continued:

    "But let me give you some of the actual talk you crossed all those time zones to hear." She picked up her papers, set a couple of pages aside, and began to read. "I'm sure that many people have become feminists by reading Woolf. Not me: what did the trick was reading the article on Woolf in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This was in the late seventies, when I was a junior in college at Minnesota. I'd started doing a lot of literary theory, which meant structuralism, Freud, even some Lacan already—Minnesota was a pretty hip place—but feminism just wasn't on the map. This was still the Lacan of fathers and phalluses, `Dads and Dongs,' as we called the course. And in my literature classes, you barely ever read a woman writer, and never, ever did you read her as a woman.

    "That's just the way it was, and I wasn't the twenty-year-old who'd be savvy enough to see the problem on her own. It took the encyclopedia to teach me. I was trying one day to remember the dates of one of Henry James's late novels and one of Woolf's early ones—I was wondering if she could have read The Golden Bowl, I think it was, before she wrote some scene in The Voyage Out. So I checked into the Britannica in the reading room. This was when they'd just come out with their division into two sets of volumes: the `Micropaedia,' for short entries, and the `Macropaedia,' for the really major stuff.

    "You can probably guess where this is heading, but believe me, I didn't have a clue in 1977; after I found James in the Macro, right where he should be, I innocently looked for Woolf there too. Nothing doing. But the real shock came when I tracked her down in the Micro. It wasn't just that Henry had nine times the column inches Virginia had: it was what those inches said. Everything in Henry's entry was about `mastery'—I think they used that word about six times, all about his impact on the history of the novel, his cross-cultural insights, his elegant, ornate prose—the whole number. But Virginia? Weakness, insecurity, madness that her loving husband couldn't control; despair and suicide at the end, after which loving Leonard published her final novel for her. And her writing? Technical experiments with stream of consciousness, in between those bouts of madness. Every damn paragraph in Henry's article made you feel like an incomplete human being if you didn't go out and read six of his novels right away. Not one line in Virginia's entry would make you think you really needed to read her at all. Ever.

    "I got mad, and I started looking around. I got myself over to the French department, and I got into film studies. In both places, a couple of untenured people were starting to teach things that could channel my anger and help me go somewhere with it. There was even a Marxist in Philosophy, though he was fired not long after that, and I started putting things together."

    Marsha glanced at her watch. "I see I'm already running out of time. I was going to use this little story to set up a discussion of stages in postwar feminist criticism. As you can see, because of my age and the accident of where I was, I kind of missed the classic sixties and early seventies feminism that was working to redress the balance between Virginia and Henry. I went right into the high theory mode of late-seventies feminism, and that kept me busy for a good ten years. I was planning to go on to say something about the new stage we've entered now: less abstract and abstruse, more activist and angry—Three Guineas as our new model Woolf text, not A Room of One's Own. As my time's about up, though, I think it's just as well if I keep the focus on Virginia and Henry's adventures in the Encyclopaedia Patriarchica. The sixties generation began to set that balance right, and that work still needs doing today. It's no denigration of the beauty that Vic and I would both find in Woolf to say that the old stress on her style-for-style's-sake was one way of keeping her out of the Macropaedia."

    Marsha looked over at Vic, who put a hand over his heart and shook his head, as if to assure her that he was certainly not trying to exclude Woolf himself. Marsha gave an impatient shake of her head and addressed him directly, apparently forgetting the audience in front of her.

    "Look," she said, "the old high aesthetic line just isn't wearing too well these days, not even for James. He and Woolf are together at last in the latest edition of the Britannica, but not because we've gotten Virginia promoted to the Macro. No such luck! Poor Henry's been demoted to the Micro. Of course, he still has three times the space Virginia does, at least for now, but we're going to have to find more compelling ways to present all our favorite authors before they disappear altogether."

    Marsha looked around, apparently remembering that she was standing at a lecturn; she resumed speaking to the audience. "To read Woolf or James today, we need to do more than pile up more close readings of their novels, whether they're the earlier celebrations of Mrs. Dalloway or the more recent unpackings of deferrals and gaps in Orlando and The Golden Bowl. We need to read our authors themselves as social texts, with all the messiness that entails. Vic Addams is welcome to his catharses and his purifications, but if we leave Woolf floating in some exquisite stratosphere, she's useless to us here and now. The Woolf who struggled to make her way in the world, the Woolf whose books are still struggling to make their way, is the Woolf we can take our bearings from today."


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File created: 8/7/2007

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