Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History is a weird and stimulating little book by Franco Moretti, a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University. It was published a few months ago by Verso. But observation suggests that its argument, or rather its notoriety, now has much wider circulation than the book itself. That isn’t, I think, a good thing, though it is certainly the way of the world.
In a few months, Princeton University Press will bring out the first volume of The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture -- a set of papers edited by Moretti, based on the research program that he sketches in Graphs, Maps, Trees. (The Princeton edition of The Novel is a much-abridged translation of a work running to five volumes in Italian.) Perhaps that will redefine how Moretti’s work is understood. But for now, its reputation is a hostage to somewhat lazy journalistic caricature -- one mouthed, sometimes, even by people in literature departments.
What happened, it seems, is this: About two years ago, a prominent American newspaper devoted an article to Moretti’s work, announcing that he had launched a new wave of academic fashion by ignoring the content of novels and, instead, just counting them. Once, critics had practiced “close reading.” Moretti proposed what he called “distant reading.” Instead of looking at masterpieces, he and his students were preparing gigantic tables of data about how many books were published in the 19th century.
Harold Bloom, when reached for comment, gave one of those deep sighs for which he is so famous. (Imagine Zero Mostel playing a very weary Goethe.) And all over the country, people began smacking their foreheads in exaggerated gestures of astonishment. “Those wacky academics!” you could almost hear them say. “Counting novels! Whoever heard of such a thing? What’ll those professors think of next -- weighing them?”
In the meantime, it seems, Moretti and his students have been working their way across 19th century British literature with an adding machine -- tabulating shelf after shelf of Victorian novels, most of them utterly forgotten even while the Queen herself was alive. There is something almost urban legend-like about the whole enterprise. It has the quality of a cautionary tale about the dangers of pursuing graduate study in literature: You start out with a love of Dickens, but end up turning into Mr. Gradgrind.
That, anyway, is how Moretti’s “distant reading” looks ... well, from a distance. But things take on a somewhat different character if you actually spend some time with Moretti’s work itself.
As it happens, he has been publishing in English for quite some while: His collection of essays called Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms (Verso, 1983) was, for a long time, the only book I’d ever read by a contemporary Italian cultural theorist not named Umberto Eco. (It has recently been reissued as volume seven in Verso’s new Radical Thinkers series.) The papers in that volume include analyses of Restoration tragedy, of Balzac’s fiction, and of Joyce’s Ulysses.
In short, then, don’t believe the hype – the man is more than a bean-counter. There is even an anecdote circulating about how, during a lecture on “distant reading,” Moretti let slip a reference that he could only have known via close familiarity with an obscure 19th century novel. When questioned later -– so the story goes -– Moretti made some excuse for having accidentally read it. (Chances are this is an apocryphal story. It sounds like a reversal of David Lodge’s famous game of “intellectual strip-poker” called Humiliation.)
And yet it is quite literally true that Moretti and his followers are turning literary history into graphs and tables. So what’s really going on with Moretti’s work? Why are his students counting novels? Is there anything about “distant reading” that would be of interest to people who don’t, say, need to finish a dissertation on 19th century literature sometime soon? And the part, earlier, about how the next step would be to weigh the books -- that was a joke, right?
To address these and many other puzzling matters, I have prepared the following Brief Guide to Avoid Saying Anything Too Dumb About Franco Moretti.
He is doing literary history, not literary analysis. In other words, Moretti is not asking “What does [insert name of famous author or novel here] mean?” but rather, “How has literature changed over time? And are there patterns to how it has changed?” These are very different lines of inquiry, obviously. Moretti’s hunch is that it might be possible to think in a new way about what counts as “evidence” in cultural history.
Yes, in crunching numbers, he is messing with your head. The idea of using statistical methods to understand the long-term development of literary trends runs against some deeply entrenched patterns of thought. It violates the old idea that the natural sciences are engaged in the explanation of mathematically describable phenomena, while the humanities are devoted to the interpretation of meanings embedded in documents and cultural artifacts.
Many people in the humanities are now used to seeing diagrams and charts analyzing the structure of a given text. But there is something disconcerting about a work of literary history filled with quantitative tables and statistical graphs. In doing so, Moretti is not just being provocative. He’s trying to get you to “think outside the text,” so to speak.
Moretti is taking the long view.... A basic point of reference for his “distant reading” is the work of Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of historians who traced the very long-term development of social and economic trends. Instead of chronicling events and the doings of individuals (the ebb and flow of history), Braudel and company looked at tendencies taking shape over decades or centuries. With his tables and graphs showing the number (and variety) of novels offered to the reading public over the years, Moretti is trying to chart the longue dure’e of literary history, much as Braudel did the centuries-long development of the Mediterranean.
Some of the results are fascinating, even to the layperson’s eye. One of Moretti’s graphs shows the emergence of the market for novels in Britain, Japan, Italy, Spain, and Nigeria between about 1700 and 2000. In each case, the number of new novels produced per year grows -- not at the smooth, gradual pace one might expect, but with the wild upward surge one might expect of a lab rat’s increasing interest in a liquid cocaine drip.
“Five countries, three continents, over two centuries apart,” writes Moretti, “and it’s the same pattern ... in twenty years or so, the graph leaps from five [to] ten new titles per year, which means one new novel every month or so, to one new novel per week. And at that point, the horizon of novel-reading changes. As long as only a handful of new titles are published each year, I mean, novels remain unreliable products, that disappear for long stretches of time, and cannot really command the loyalty of the reading public; they are commodities, yes, but commodities still waiting for a fully developed market.”
But as that market emerges and consolidates itself -- with at least one new title per week becoming available -- the novel becomes “the great capitalist oxymoron of the regular novelty: the unexpected that is produced with such efficiency and punctuality that readers become unable to do without it.”
And then the niches emerge: The subgenres of fiction that appeal to a specific readership. On another table, Moretti shows the life-span of about four dozen varieties of fiction that scholars have identified as emerging in British fiction between 1740 and 1900. The first few genres appearing in the late 18th century (for example, the courtship novel, the picaresque, the “Oriental tale,” and the epistolary novel) tend to thrive for long periods. Then something happens: After about 1810, new genres tend to emerge, rise, and decline in waves that last about 25 years each.
“Instead of changing all the time and a little at a time,” as Moretti puts it, “the system stands still for decades, and is then ‘punctuated’ by brief bursts of invention: forms change once, rapidly, across the board, and then repeat themselves for two [to] three decades....”
Genres as distinct as the “romantic farrago,” the “silver-fork novel,” and the “conversion novel” all appear and fade at about the same time -– to be replaced a different constellation of new forms. It can’t, argues Moretti, just be a matter of novelists all being inspired at the same time. (Or running out of steam all at once.) The changes reflect “a sudden, total change of their ecosystem."
Moretti is a cultural Darwinist, or something like one. Anyway, he is offering an alternative to what we might call the “intelligent design” model of literary history, in which various masterpieces are the almost sacramental representatives of some Higher Power. (Call that Power what you will -– individual genius, “the literary imagination,” society, Western Civilization, etc.) Instead, the works and the genres that survive are, in effect, literary mutations that possess qualities that somehow permit them to adapt to changes in the social ecosystem.
Sherlock Holmes, for example, was not the only detective in Victorian popular literature, nor even the first. So why is it that we still read his adventures, and not those of his competitors? Moretti and his team looked at the work of Conan Doyle’s rivals. While clues and deductions were scattered around in their texts, the authors were often a bit off about how they were connected. (A detective might notice the clues, then end up solving the mystery through a psychic experience, for example.)
Clearly the idea of solving a crime by gathering clues and decoding their relationship was in the air. It was Conan Doyle’s breakthrough to create a character whose “amazing powers” were, effectively, just an extremely acute version of the rational powers shared by the reader. But the distinctiveness of that adaptation only comes into view by looking at hundreds of other texts in the literary ecosystem.
This is the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Moretti’s project is not limited by the frontiers of any given national literature. He takes seriously Goethe’s idea that all literature is now world literature. In theory, anyway, it would be possible to create a gigantic database tracking global literary history.
This would require enormous computational power, of course, along with an army of graduate students. (Most of them getting very, very annoyed as they keypunched data about Icelandic magazine fiction of the 1920s into their laptops.)
My own feeling is that life is much too short for that. But perhaps a case can be made for the heuristic value of imagining that kind of vast overview of how cultural forms spread and mutate over time. Only in part is Moretti’s work a matter of counting and classifying particular works. Ultimately, it’s about how literature is as much a part of the infrastructure of ordinary life as the grocery store or Netscape. And like them, it is caught up in economic and ecological processes that do not respect local boundaries.
That, anyway, is an introduction to some aspects of Moretti’s work. I’ve just learned that Jonathan Goodwin, a Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech, is organizing an online symposium on Moretti that will start next week at The Valve.
Goodwin reports that there is a chance Moretti himself may join the fray. In the interim, I will be trying to untangle some thoughts on whether his “distant reading” might owe something to the (resolutely uncybernetic) literary theory of Georg Lukacs. And one of the participants will be Cosma Shalizi, a visiting assistant professor of statistics at Carnegie Mellon University.
It probably wouldn’t do much good to invite Harold Bloom into the conversation. He is doubtless busy reciting Paradise Lost from memory, and thinking about Moretti would not be good for his health. Besides, all the sighing would be a distraction.
Normally my social calendar is slightly less crowded than that of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. (He, at least, went out to see the pawnbroker.) But late last month, in an unprecedented burst of gregariousness, I had a couple of memorable visits with scholars who had come to town – small, impromptu get-togethers that were not just lively but, in a way, remarkable.
The first occurred just before Christmas, and it included (besides your feuilletonist reporter) a political scientist, a statistician, and a philosopher. The next gathering, also for lunch, took place a week later, during the convention of the Modern Language Association. Looking around the table, I drew up a quick census. One guest worked on British novels of the Victorian era. Another writes about contemporary postcolonial fiction and poetry. We had two Americanists, but of somewhat different specialist species; besides, one was a tenured professor, while the other is just starting his dissertation. And, finally, there was, once again, a philosopher. (Actually it was the same philosopher, visiting from Singapore and in town for a while.)
If the range of disciplines or specialties was unusual, so the was the degree of conviviality. Most of us had never met in person before -- though you’d never have known that from the flow of the conversation, which never seemed to slow down for very long. Shared interests and familiar arguments (some of them pretty esoteric) kept coming up. So did news about an electronic publishing initiative some of the participants were trying to get started. On at least one occasion in either meal, someone had to pull out a notebook to have someone else jot down an interesting citation to look up later.
In each case, the members of the ad hoc symposium were academic bloggers who had gotten to know one another online. That explained the conversational dynamics -- the sense, which was vivid and unmistakable, of continuing discussions in person that hadn’t started upon arriving at the restaurant, and wouldn’t end once everyone had dispersed.
The whole experience was too easygoing to call impressive, exactly. But later -- contemplating matters back at my hovel, over a slice of black bread and a bowl of cold cabbage soup -- I couldn’t help thinking that something very interesting had taken place. Something having little do with blogging, as such. Something that runs against the grain of how academic life in the United States has developed over the past two hundred years.
At least that’s my impression from having read Thomas Bender’s book Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993. That was back when even knowing how to create a Web page would raise eyebrows in some departments. (Imagine the warnings that Ivan Tribble might have issued, at the time.)
But the specific paper I’m thinking of – reprinted as the first chapter – is even older. It’s called “The Cultures of Intellectual Life: The City and the Professions,” and Bender first presented it as a lecture in 1977. (He is currently professor of history at New York University.)
Although he does not exactly put it this way, Bender’s topic is how scholars learn to say “we.” An intellectual historian, he writes, is engaged in studying “an exceedingly complex interaction between speakers and hearers, writers and readers.” And the framework for that “dynamic interplay” has itself changed over time. Recognizing this is the first step towards understanding that the familiar patterns of cultural life – including those that prevail in academe – aren’t set in stone. (It’s easy to give lip service to this principle. Actually thinking through its implications, though, not so much.)
The history of American intellectual life, as Bender outlines it, involved a transition from civic professionalism (which prevailed in the 18th and early 19th centuries) to disciplinary professionalism (increasingly dominant after about 1850).
“Early American professionals,” he writes, “were essentially community oriented. Entry to the professions was usually through local elite sponsorship, and professionals won public trust within this established social context rather than through certification.” One’s prestige and authority was very strongly linked to a sense of belonging to the educated class of a given city.
Bender gives as an example the career of Samuel Bard, the New York doctor who championed building a hospital to improve the quality of medical instruction available from King’s College, as Columbia University was known back in the 1770). Bard had studied in Edinburgh and wanted New York to develop institutions of similar caliber; he also took the lead in creating a major library and two learned societies.
“These efforts in civic improvement were the product of the combined energies of the educated and the powerful in the city,” writes Bender, “and they integrated and gave shape to its intellectual life.”
Nor was this phenomenon restricted to major cities in the East. Visiting the United States in the early 1840s, the British geologist Charles Lyell noted that doctors, lawyers, scientists, and merchants with literary interests in Cincinnati “form[ed] a society of a superior kind.” Likewise, William Dean Howells recalled how, at this father’s printing office in a small Ohio town, the educated sort dropped in “to stand with their back to our stove and challenge opinion concerning Holmes and Poe, Irving and Macauley....”
In short, a great deal of one’s sense of cultural “belonging” was bound up with community institutions -- whether that meant a formally established local society for the advancement of learning, or an ad hoc discussion circle warming its collective backside near a stove.
But a deep structural change was already taking shape. The German model of the research university came into ever greater prominence, especially in the decades following the Civil War. The founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 defined the shape of things to come. “The original faculty of philosophy,” notes Bender, “included no Baltimoreans, and no major appointments in the medical school went to members of the local medical community.” William Welch, the first dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, “identified with his profession in a new way; it was a branch of science -- a discipline -- not a civic role.”
Under the old regime, the doctors, lawyers, scientists, and literary authors of a given city might feel reasonably comfortable in sharing the first-person plural. But life began to change as, in Bender’s words, “people of ideas were inducted, increasingly through the emerging university system, into the restricted worlds of specialized discourse.” If you said “we,” it probably referred to the community of other geologists, poets, or small-claims litigators.
“Knowledge and competence increasingly developed out of the internal dynamics of esoteric disciplines rather than within the context of shared perceptions of public needs,” writes Bender. “This is not to say that professionalized disciplines or the modern service professions that imitated them became socially irresponsible. But their contributions to society began to flow from their own self-definitions rather than from a reciprocal engagement with general public discourse.”
Now, there is a definite note of sadness in Bender’s narrative – as there always tends to be in accounts of the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. Yet it is also clear that the transformation from civic to disciplinary professionalism was necessary.
“The new disciplines offered relatively precise subject matter and procedures,” Bender concedes, “at a time when both were greatly confused. The new professionalism also promised guarantees of competence -- certification -- in an era when criteria of intellectual authority were vague and professional performance was unreliable.”
But in the epilogue to Intellect and Public Life, Bender suggests that the process eventually went too far. “The risk now is precisely the opposite,” he writes. “Academe is threatened by the twin dangers of fossilization and scholasticism (of three types: tedium, high tech, and radical chic). The agenda for the next decade, at least as I see it, ought to be the opening up of the disciplines, the ventilating of professional communities that have come to share too much and that have become too self-referential.”
He wrote that in 1993. We are now more than a decade downstream. I don’t know that anyone else at the lunchtime gatherings last month had Thomas Bender’s analysis in mind. But it has been interesting to think about those meetings with reference to his categories.
The people around the table, each time, didn’t share a civic identity: We weren’t all from the same city, or even from the same country. Nor was it a matter of sharing the same disciplinary background – though no effort was made to be “interdisciplinary” in any very deliberate way, either. At the same time, I should make clear that the conversations were pretty definitely academic: “How long before hundreds of people in literary studies start trying to master set theory, now that Alain Badiou is being translated?” rather than, “Who do you think is going to win American Idol?”
Of course, two casual gatherings for lunch does not a profound cultural shift make. But it was hard not to think something interesting had just transpired: A new sort of collegiality, stretching across both geographic and professional distances, fostered by online communication but not confined to it.
The discussions were fueled by the scholarly interests of the participants. But there was a built-in expectation that you would be willing to explain your references to someone who didn’t share them. And none of it seems at all likely to win the interest (let alone the approval) of academic bureaucrats.
Surely other people must be discovering and creating this sort of thing -- this experience of communitas. Or is that merely a dream?
It is not a matter of turning back the clock -- of undoing the division of labor that has created specialization. That really would be a dream.
But as Bender puts it, cultural life is shaped by “patterns of interaction” that develop over long periods of time. For younger scholars, anyway, the routine give-and-take of online communication (along with the relative ease of linking to documents that support a point or amplify a nuance) may become part of the deep grammar of how they think and argue. And if enough of them become accustomed to discussing their research with people working in other disciplines, who knows what could happen?
“What our contemporary culture wants,” as Bender put it in 1993, “is the combination of theoretical abstraction and historical concreteness, technical precision and civic give-and-take, data and rhetoric.” We aren’t there, of course, or anywhere near it. But sometimes it does seem as if there might yet be grounds for optimism.
What I remember about that morning was that the black cloud was already overhead when I woke up. It followed me around. My wife wondered what all the sighing was about.
"Today I ruin this guy’s life," I told her. "His department told me he has office hours around noon. He’s going to pick up the phone, and when he does, I’m going to have to ask him questions that will be humiliating. It's going to ruin his life.”
“You shouldn’t look at it that way,” she said. “He did it to himself.”
True enough. I had a dossier of material showing that the professor in question had engaged in plagiarism -- quite a lot of it, actually, and in the very book that had gotten him tenure.
One author he plagiarized from had assembled a document in what seems to be the classic format for such cases. The lefthand column contained paragraphs of her work. The one on the right was from his book, published several years later, copied more or less word for word, with the occasional minuscule tweak of phrase or punctuation -- but without so much as a faint gesture of acknowledgment in the text, the footnotes, or the bibliography.
As I found through some digging, she was not the only author he had expropriated. (It is a safe generalization that plagiarists are always serial offenders.) With the other aggrieved parties, he had come to some kind of quiet agreement -- while the university he worked for remained none the wiser. That was about to change.
I would give him a chance to explain himself, of course. But really there was not much he could say. Plagiarism is one offense where simply presenting the evidence often amounts to conviction.
To be honest, researching the story had involved a certain amount of aggressive glee on my part. There is a special pleasure that comes from establishing an airtight case. (Besides, the superego is a bit of a sadist.) But now, with the prospect of actually talking to the guy looming, it was surprising to feel contempt give way to pity. His luck had run out. In a couple of days, he would be notorious. It felt as if I were serving as his judge, jury, and executioner – not to mention the court stenographer. Oddly enough, I felt guilty.
Besides, the psychology of the serial plagiarist is so puzzling as to be a fairly absorbing mystery. So I’d discovered a few years earlier from Norman Fruman’s book Coleridge, the Damaged Archangel (Brazillier, 1971).
The poet had not simply borrowed a thought or image here and there. Some of the occasional borrowings in his verse might be discounted as, well, poetic license. After all this time, the fact that Coleridge extracted large parts of his theory of imagination from the work of German philosophers seems more interesting than it is shocking. (The notion of intertextuality can be used to excuse a variety of sins.)
But when you learn that most of Coleridge’s prose writings were also copied from other writers -- often from Grub Street hacks of his day -- then it seems that something very odd is going on. And the more you love his poetry, the harder it is to know what to think of his kleptomania. Should you be indignant? Or just perplexed?
As for the 21st century professor .... he was no tortured Romantic genius. He did sound mortified when I called, and deeply regretful. He also managed to blame his graduate student assistant, who, he asserted, was somehow the one really at fault. (Just as the two-column format is the standard way of documenting plagiarism, so, it seems, the grad-student assistant is the standard scapegoat, at least with light-fingered academics.)
That half-hearted acceptance of responsibility on his part did the trick. My ambivalence vanished. A week or so later, the university announced that he had resigned from his position. I felt neither pride nor guilt -- only the mild curiosity appropriate to something that's now really none of your business.
But the topic of plagiarism itself keeps returning. One professor after another gets caught in the act. The journalists and popular writers are just as prolific with other people's words. And as for the topic of student plagiarism, forget it -- who has time to keep up?
It was not that surprising, last fall, to come across the call for papers for a new scholarly journal called Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. I made a mental note to check its Web site again -- and see that it began publishing this month.
One study is already available at the site: an analysis of how the federal Office of Research Integrity handled 19 cases of plagiarism involving research supported by the U.S. Public Health Service. Another paper, scheduled for publication shortly, will review media coverage of the Google Library Project. Several other articles are now working their way through peer review, according to the journal’s founder, John P. Lesko, an assistant professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, and will be published throughout the year in open-source form. There will also be an annual print edition of Plagiary. The entire project has the support of the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan.
In a telephone interview, Lesko told me that research into plagiarism is central to his own scholarship. His dissertation, titled “The Dynamics of Derivative Writing,” was accepted by the University of Edinburgh in 2000 -- extracts from which appear at his Web site Famous Plagiarists, which he says now gets between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors per month.
While the journal Plagiary has a link to Famous Plagiarists, and vice versa, Lesko insists that they are separate entities -- the former scholarly and professional, the latter his personal project. And that distinction is a good thing, too. Famous Plagiarists tends to hit a note of stridency such that, when Lesko quotes Camille Paglia denouncing the poststructuralists as “cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents' generations in Nazi France,” she seems almost calm and even-tempered by contrast.
“It seems that both Foucault and Barthes' contempt for the Author was expressed in some rather plagiaristic utterances,” he writes, “a parroting of the Nietschean ‘God is dead’ assertion.” That might strike some people as confusing allusion with theft. But Lesko is vehement about how the theorists have served as enablers for the plagiarists, as well as the receivers of hot cargo.
“After all,” he writes, “a plagiarist -- so often with the help of collaborators and sympathizers -- steals the very livelihood of a text’s real author, thus relegating that author to obscurity for as long as the plagiarist’s name usurps a text, rather than the author being recognized as the text's originator. Plagiarism of an author condemns that author to death as a text’s rightfully acknowledged creator...” (The claim that Barthes and Foucault were involved in diminishing the reputation of Nietzsche has not, I believe, ever been made before.)
To a degree, his frustration is understandable. In some quarters, it is common to recite – as though it were an established truth, rather than an extrapolation from one of Foucault’s essays – the idea that plagiarism is a “historically constructed” category of fairly recent vintage: something that came into being around the 18th century, when a capitalistically organized publishing industry found it necessary to foster the concept of literary property.
A very interesting argument to be sure -- though not one that holds up under much scrutiny.
The term “plagiarism” in its current sense is about two thousand years old. It was coined by the Roman poet Martial, who complained that a rival was biting his dope rhymes. (I translate freely.) Until he applied the word in that context, plagiarius had meant someone who kidnapped slaves. Clearly some notion of literary property was already implicit in Martial’s figure of speech, which dates to the first century A.D.
At around the same time, Jewish scholars were putting together the text of that gigantic colloquium known as the Talmud, which contains a passage exhorting readers to be scrupulous about attributing their sources. (And in keeping with that principle, let me acknowledge pilfering from the erudition of Stuart P. Green, a professor of law at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, whose fascinating paper "Plagiarism, Norms, and the Limits of Theft Law: Some Observations on the Use of Criminal Sanctions in Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights" appeared in the Hastings Law Review in 2002.)
In other words, notions of plagiarism and of authorial integrity are very much older than, say, the Romantic cult of the absolute originality of the creative genius. (You know -- that idea Coleridge ripped off from Kant.)
At the same time, scholarship on plagiarism should probably consist of something more than making strong cases against perpetrators of intellectual thievery. That has its place, of course. But how do you understand it when artists and writers make plagiarism a deliberate and unambiguous policy? I’m thinking of Kathy Acker’s novels, for example. Or the essayist and movie maker Guy Debord’s proclamation in the 1960s: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress demands it.” (Which he, in turn, had copied from the avant-garde writer Lautreamont, who had died almost a century earlier.)
Why, given the potential for humiliation, do plagiarists run the risk? Are people doing it more, now? Or is it, rather, now just a matter of more people getting caught?
Given Lesko’s evident passion on the topic of plagiarism as a moral transgression – embodied most strikingly, perhaps, in his color-coded War on Plagiarism Threat Level Analysis – I had to wonder if the doors of Plagiary would be open to scholars not sharing his perspective.
Was it worth the while of, say, a Foucauldian to offer him a paper?
“It may be that I’m a bit more conservative than some scholars,” he conceded. But he points out that manuscripts submitted to Plagiary undergo a double-blind review process. They are examined by three reviewers – most of them, but not all, from the journal’s editorial board.
There is no ideological or theoretical litmus test, and he’s actively seeking contributions from people you might not expect. “I’m willing to consider articles from plagiarists,” he said.
That’s certainly throwing the door wide open. You would probably want to vet their work pretty carefully, though.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, the doctrine of “fair use” built into copyright law is one of the most important protections available to scholars, librarians, and students. Every time you quote from someone else’s work, every time you photocopy an article for a student, every time you read a passage aloud to your class, you are technically in violation of copyright.
The reason that an army of publishers and FBI agents aren’t smashing down your office door is that U.S. jurisprudence has long understood that a totalizing approach to copyright would be disastrous. Fair use is the only way we as individuals can together do what is fundamentally a collective endeavor, scholarship, in an information ecology that otherwise lives and dies by the intensely individualizing force of the marketplace.
But fair use has been carrying a heavy load lately, and it’s starting to show its limitations. Over the last few decades and especially amid the recent “copyright wars,” a powerful new philosophy has emerged: Rather than seeing copyright as a careful balance between the interests of private owners and the public, powerful content industries have argued that robustly protecting private interests is always the best way to serve the public. It’s the trickle-down theory of knowledge: Give the power to the producers and get out of the way, and it will eventually get to everyone who needs it. And digital technologies have handed copyright owners further power to regulate the use of their work, to further commodify information in ways never before imagined.
While most of us in higher education are little content industries ourselves, we should not be seduced into forgetting our role first and foremost as the keepers, distributors, and developers of our society’s body of public knowledge. We must fight for the promise copyright made to the public: All these economic rights are only in the service of intellectual progress. However, our rhetorical arsenal in this battle seems to be only to trot out fair use, i.e. the right to violate copyright for progressive reasons. Technical copy protection? Don’t forget about fair use. Restricting peer-to-peer networks? Don’t forget about fair use. Suing our students for downloading? Don’t forget about fair use. Automatic permission systems in educational courseware? Don’t forget about fair use. It’s a wonder the poor statute can barely stand, considering how often it is invoked as defense, criticized as folly.
This dependence on fair use, to somehow safeguard all of the myriad “public interest” elements of copyright’s balance, risks crushing it altogether -- no more so than in the pending battle around Google Book Search.
For those who don’t know, the search engine giant recently announced its aspiration to digitize every book ever printed. To do this, it partnered with the university libraries of Stanford, Harvard, Michigan, and Oxford, and with the New York Public Library. Together they have already begun the process of digitizing works whose copyright protection has run out -- right now, those published before 1924. These books would be full-text searchable and could be read in their entirety online, for free. For more recent books still protected under copyright, Google intends to digitize and make them searchable as well; however, the text returned in response to the search query would only be a short excerpt around the located word or phrase. Publishers who don’t want their work to appear at all can opt out of the system. Links will lead users to vendors where the book in question can be purchased.
To be clear, Google’s project does require making copies of numerous copyrighted books, and an unauthorized copy at that. Google says this copy is a fair use. And in lawsuits brought in September and October of 2005, the Author’s Guild ( complaint) and the Association of American Publishers ( complaint) argue it is a violation of their rights, and an attempt to unfairly capitalize on their work.
Unlike battles around digital music that have occupied the courts’ attention of late, this case will be of vital importance for the academic community. What is at stake is the possibility of a digital database of all written knowledge, and the question of who gets to produce it and under what conditions. Some think this is the Library at Alexandria finally realized; others think it's risky to have just one company running the stacks. But the case will live or die not on the question of the value of such a database to users, but on the narrower legal question of whether Google has the right to scan the books to begin with.
Perhaps this case will settle -- Google certainly has the funds to do so if it chooses. If it does get heard by the courts, what is of greatest importance, I believe, is how well the doctrine of fair use can carry the weight of this particular dispute. Lawrence Lessig has argued that fair use is being stretched thin because copying is so fundamental to the digital environment; uses that never even rang copyright’s bell, because they now require a copy to be made in the process, find themselves under legal scrutiny. I believe this is true. But fair use has already been pulled in too many directions, well before the Internet stretched it to its breaking point.
Fair use has a century-long history in U.S. courts, as a handy way for judges to stave off copyright claims when the use in question is socially valuable. At first, it was a way to protect small amounts of copying for the sake of criticism; as Justice Story noted in Folsom v. Marsh (1841), “no one can doubt that a reviewer may fairly cite largely from the original work, if his design be really and truly to use the passages for the purposes of fair and reasonable criticism. On the other hand, it is as clear, that if he thus cites the most important parts of the work, with a view, not to criticize, but to supersede the use of the original work, and substitute the review for it, such a use will be deemed in law a piracy.”
As such, one of the important criteria used by the courts to judge a use fair has been whether the new work is “transformative,” rather than merely replacing the old. The most famous of these is Acuff-Rose v. Campbell (1994), in which a surprisingly culturally savvy Supreme Court found that 2 Live Crew’s sampling of the Roy Orbison classic “Pretty Woman” was a kind of parody, however crude, and should be protected as fair -- it “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message.”
However, when fair use was finally codified in 1976, the primary motivation was not to protect criticism or parody but to accommodate the increasing use of the Xerox machine, particularly in education. University libraries did not want to risk liability when they made copies of journals and book chapters for faculty and students, and aggressively lobbied Congress for some legal protection to do so. When fair use became law, it included the four factors that had developed through court precedent, but also specified “multiple copies for classroom use” alongside parody, criticism, journalism, and scholarship as the likely contexts for the use to be considered fair.
Making multiple copies of an article for use in the classroom does not claim to produce a new work, in the way that sampling Orbison’s tune does. The value of the use is not that it is “transformative,” but that it is “distributive.” Now fair use is saddled with two aspirations. If the first understands that new work often needs to lean on and borrow from existing work, the second understands that the market mechanisms and distribution technologies that circulate work do not always achieve the scope and access we would like, or that other socially valuable activities require.
The courts have since used fair use in this ‘distributive’ sense, allowing cable TV to retransmit copyrighted broadcasts to audiences who could not otherwise receive them, prohibiting Kinko’s from producing course packets without paying a fee but leaving open the possibility that universities could do so as long as they do not enjoy direct commercial gain, and most notably in Sony v. Universal (1984), granting VCR manufacturers immunity to copyright penalties because some VCR users do make unauthorized copies of protected movies. The court argued that users have the right to record shows in order to watch them at other times, that this in fact “enlarges the television viewing audience” -- even the beloved Mr. Rogers testified that he wanted public school teachers to be able to tape his show and show it in class the next day. Again, these fair uses are not transformative, but distributive.
Is Google’s book search project fair use? This was the question vigorously debated, but by no means settled, at the recent “Battle over Books” debate at the New York Public Library and the blog-off that followed. Most copyright watchers largely agree that, if it makes it to court, the legal answer will come down to a battle of precedents. (See, for example, Jonathan Band’s “The Google Print Library: A Copyright Analysis.”) Google will come out on top if the court sees the case as akin to Kelly v. Arriba-Soft (2003), which allowed an image search engine to copy images from the Web so as to make thumbnail versions available to user queries.
The publishers and authors will likely triumph if the court turns to UMG Recordings et. al. v. MP3.com (2000), where MP3.com was found to be infringing when it made single copies of 400,000 CDs in order to stock a digital locker from which users could stream music they could prove they already owned. Google needs fair use to accommodate an activity that is neither “transformative” in the classic sense, or “distributive” in the Sony sense. Neither precedent did either, and the solutions were work-arounds to force the square pegs of searching and streaming in the oddly-shaped hole fair use offers them.
Let’s give fair use a break by sending in a legislative relief pitcher, one that can better allow for the role search engines play in facilitating the circulation of digital information. If fair use has been protecting both ‘transformative’ and ‘distributive’ uses, today we need a statute that can cover the kind of “indexing” uses that Google is after.
If we recognize that the Internet offers us the chance to make much more of our society’s culture and knowledge available to more people, and we recognize that to make this massive resource most useful requires ways to navigate and search it, and we further recognize that search engines like Google need to make copies of that work in order to make it searchable, then we have a genuine and reasonable public interest in ensuring that that they and others can do so. At the same time, we should also ensure that doing so doesn’t undercut the possibility of selling these works, and ideally should help their sales.
The publishers’ concern is not that Google shouldn’t make books searchable, but that they should have to pay a fee to do so. Such a fee represents the compensation not for lost sales, but to match what they might have earned had they provided this search function themselves. So let’s imagine that they do just that; Harper & Collins has already announced that it will develop a digital database of their books, following the lead of academic journal publishers like Sage. We could decide that this is a reasonable exploitation of one’s copyright, and forbid Google from building a library.
What this is likely to produce is a bunch of different, publisher-specific archives, all searchable under different criteria in different ways, all with different rules for how much text you can view and under what conditions -- and price. Smaller publishers will be less able to afford to do any of this, so once again we will be incidentally privileging those represented by the larger publishers when what we want is all work to be as available as possible.
And all publishers will be in a position to exclude some of their works from public view, for whatever idiosyncratic (or, more likely, financial) reasons they fancy. Perhaps someone would develop a meta-search that could query many of these archives simultaneously and return the results together -- in all likelihood, it would be Google. But this does not solve the systemic problem posed by letting publishers also govern access to their content.
What I think we’re after is something more straightforward, but nearly impossible to achieve. In this dream scenario, every author would make his or her work available in a digital form that is searchable but cannot be redistributed, in a widely compatible format, marked with the same kinds of metadata. We wouldn’t need Google Book Search, because these book “footprints” would all be online and available for searches just as Web sites are. But this is certainly an unreasonable and prohibitive request to make of authors, at least right now. For all intents and purposes, this is what Google seems willing to provide for us, with the promise of some ad revenue in return. As a less than perfect version of that ideal, it’s quite good.
Waiting for fair use to shield this expanding range of uses is slowing the innovation in information, knowledge, and culture the Internet seems ready to facilitate. And every time it does, we risk a court setting a retrograde precedent that cements digital culture into place for good. We need a new statute that acknowledges and accommodates the common sense recognition that search is good, that it requires incidental copying, and that it should not be left to individual, competing publishers to make their work part of the public trust.
In a moment when we are handing content owners much more control not only over the use of their work but over access to it, we need to make a parallel commitment to ensuring and expanding access of a different kind, as an aggregate collection of all things thought and written that can be easily explored. And, we need to let fair use protect the activities it’s designed to protect, instead of letting it fray as it stands in as the only protection against a locked and licensed digital world.
Tarleton Gillespie is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University, and a Fellow with the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.
I knew my life was about to change when a colleague at a recent scholarly conference came up to me at the reception and told me with some bemusement that a fellow academic, whom I did not know, had asked her, “Is Jenny White a lesbian?” After many years of scholarly research, writing and teaching, I had written a novel, a mystery set in 1886 Istanbul that, along with several murders, featured a lesbian relationship. I noted with a bitter smile that no one had (yet) asked, “Is Jenny a murderer?”
Clearly fiction is assumed to be your life, while scholarship operates at a respectable remove. The novel was still two months from publication, but the buzz had already infiltrated my scholarly environment. My colleagues at a recent faculty meeting made lighthearted suggestions that we combine a planned forensic anthropology concentration with a course on mystery writing, and that I endow a chair. Leaving aside the gross overestimation of a novelist’s income, I noted with some anxiety the notoriety and loss of privacy that appears to accompany literary, as opposed to scholarly, production.
Indeed, having spent almost two decades writing grant proposals, doing field research under sometimes difficult conditions in Turkey and Germany, writing two books and many articles, and developing a reputation as a scholar to be taken seriously, I am disconcerted to find that an (as yet unpublished) novel has overtaken all of that effort in the time it takes for a few words to be whispered in the halls of a conference hotel.
Fellow airplane passengers whose eyes glaze over when I tell them I’m a social anthropologist fall right out of their seats with excitement when I mention I’ve written a novel. They want to know where they can find it and if I’d sign it. I admit to great pride in my literary creation (and an embarrassing lust for sales). I did, after all, spend a lot of time researching the historical setting and writing and rewriting obsessively.
But I can’t help but feel sorry for my poor orphaned scholarly books, beneficiaries of so many more years of work and sacrifice, eclipsed by their glamorous new sibling. This, it turns out, is but one of the dilemmas of my new life as scholar turned novelist.
There is the guilt about money. It seems unseemly to want best-seller status after so many years of meager royalties but scholarly glory. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that academics are some of the few people in our knowledge economy expected to make available the intellectual fruit of decades of labor for a pittance, or for free, to publishers, journalists and others asking you -- indeed, giving you the honor of spending hours or days of your time -- to evaluate manuscripts, give information or travel across the country to give a talk. I regularly remind commercial textbook publishers that their offer of a $150 “honorarium” for reading a 500 page manuscript and writing an extensive review is inappropriate for a money-making enterprise.
At first, I gloried in the additional income from the novel, crowing the amount to my friends and colleagues, dazzled by the low five-figure sum (which gives you some idea of my basement-level baseline). When the novel rights sold in nine other countries and the publisher commissioned a sequel, I became more circumspect. It seems unscholarly to revel publicly in income, although permissible to complain about it privately. Serious scholars should look like they work hard with little reward or risk being seen as popular pundits, sellouts, those with wide but less than high-brow audiences. (How else would they be earning all that money?) Suddenly, being a private scholar, rather than a public celebrity (the writer herself as a commodity), seems a safer and more comfortable place. Too late.
There is the anxiety about what in academese is called identity politics. Forget about a non-lesbian author writing about lesbians. What about a serious scholar of Muslim societies writing an Orientalist book full of harems and eunuchs? The fact that I tried to turn the usual expectations on their heads and write a sophisticated book means nothing to publishers who revel in Orientalism as a fantasy that sells.
The American version has a gorgeous harem scene on the cover. I was allowed to work with the artist to get some semblance of historical accuracy (the first sketch reminded me of a woman with a dishcloth on her head sitting in an antique store), but not nix the harem theme. The British publisher sent me a proposed blurb that began “A white woman washes up on the Bosphorus….” The Turks, negotiating to join the European Union, would be very surprised to find they are not “white”. There was also a mention of “colonials” even though Turkey was the colonizer -- the Ottoman Empire. I wielded my red pencil firmly. But my pencil will be defenseless against what I imagine to be serious scholars waiting in the wings to excoriate me for pandering to the hot imaginings of the Orientalist West. To them I suggest a plain brown wrapper.
She doth protest too much, some of you might be thinking. Let me interject here some of the satisfactions of novel writing not to be found in scholarly work. For one thing, you can make stuff up. That is incredibly relaxing. After I wrestled down my scholarly reflexes (everything has to be entirely accurate; you can’t legitimately extrapolate culture backwards in time), the floodgates of pure invention opened and I allowed myself the company of increasingly interesting and genial characters. At times, I felt like a human ouija board, channeling their stories. This has taken on a new dimension as early readers of the novel have begun speaking about the characters as if they were real people with real lives.
The first reviews also have come out, prompting my agent to recommend that I “harden” myself, although so far the reviews have been fairly positive. After all these years of grant proposals and journal submissions, I could wallpaper a room with rejections and have developed a rhinoceros hide, yet I still want reviewers to like my characters Kamil and Jaanan and Sybil, and I feel for them when they’ve been misunderstood.
Another perk of fiction writing is the boutique editing -- an agent and then an editor who go over drafts word for word, numerous times, in addition to proofreaders who minutely comb at least two sets of proofs. This is unimaginable luxury for those of us who publish with university and scholarly presses that more and more do no proofreading at all and sometimes, for good measure, screw up the clean text you send them. It’s fun. I admit it.
But then there are the readings. This is quite a change from scholarly talks of which I have given more than I care to remember and which, I’ve been told, I do quite well. At a novel reading, you really are supposed to read from the text. The first time I tried this out on a friend in my living room, he fell asleep.
This was not promising. First of all, it is hard to pick a part of the text that is full of action. The most exciting parts are at the end, but reading those means giving away the plot. And what about those different voices? I tried a deep-throated male voice and a trilling female one, but felt like I was on “Sesame Street.” Someone suggested I pitch my voice low, someone else that I vary the tone. It all came out ridiculous. My first reading is in February, so I’ve decided to take the (for me) unusual step of not preparing. My plan, if you can dignify it with that term, is to have a drink beforehand and then ham it up. I think.
I’ve developed an unwholesome, masochistic fascination with the sorts of questions novelists are asked during their readings. “How did you come to write this novel?” I don’t honestly know. It kind of wrote itself. “Why did you write a mystery?” It’s a mystery to me. “How much of this is drawn from your life?” Nothing that I can discern. Everything. I’m not used to being asked questions. I am the ethnographer, and the control over the flow of information has until now been in my hands. I know everything about my “informants” and they know about me only what I’m willing to share. I don’t much like being on the other side. But authors are commodities and their lives are part of the package that sells books. My publicist (yes, the press has assigned someone to sell me) wants me to set up a jennywhite.net Web site. My editor tells me not to worry. “They’re just fans!” I worry about getting even more e-mails than I already have to answer every day. I worry about the invasion of my personal life, my privacy. I just plain worry.
And there is that most important and revealing of questions: What to wear? I had expected some exoticism in the world of novelists, only to findthat, while they dress interestingly, it is without the “Sex in the City” flair I had come to expect from watching, well, “Sex in the City.” A perk of the fiction writer’s world is literary events, of which I’ve been to, well, one. But it was in a very posh apartment overlooking the Boston Common. I wore an antique kimono over a black cat-woman outfit that to me conjured up “literary” and “novelist.”
I needn’t have worried. It seems that literary people dress much the way professors do, with perhaps more dresses and fewer beards. And they tend to spend their time gossiping about the trade and about other people, which made me feel right at home. I noticed women wearing 1950s vintage dresses, which look good only on youngsters who don’t remember the 1950s – or even the 1970s. I suppose I could go for the ageless diva look.
I lust for the flair I haven’t had the courage to display at the university, first as an untenured faculty member (given the advice, “keep your head down”), then as a newly tenured faculty member too busy to think about clothes, much less to shop. Female faculty wear solemn, formal clothing to establish authority in the classroom, something our male colleagues seem able to accomplish with some extra facial hair. Twice this semester, I’ve caught myself wearing a sweater inside out, not a promising start for my diva metamorphosis, but the sure sign of a serious scholar. My kind or perhaps somnolent students said nothing to me. (I can only imagine what they said to each other after class.)
Lest you think it superficial to dwell with such earnestness on dress, let me reassure you that what comes out of the closet is a serious matter. In graduate school, an earnest fellow student, passing me in the hall while I was in conversation with someone about her new apartment, without missing a stride threw down this gauntlet, “You’ll never be an intellectual, if you talk about things like wallpaper.” Or clothes. Ever the radical, I practice anti-establishment accessorizing – bright scarves, exotic jewelry, colorful shoes (immediately chewed up by the scholarly brick walkways), turning an otherwise severe outfit into a whisper of defiance.
So as a newly fledged novelist, I have great hopes to break out of my cowardly academic persona, as well as great anxieties. But what should I wear? Why can’t I earn a scholarly award with one book and a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes with the other and still be me? Watch for those Manolos in the classroom next year. Let’s hope I put them on the right feet.
Jenny White is associate professor of anthropology at Boston University. Her first novel, The Sultan’s Seal, is being released this month by W.W. Norton.
Perhaps it’s best to have waited until after Valentine’s Day to think about love. The holiday, after all, has less to do with passion than with sentimentality -- that is, a fixed matrix of sighs and signs, an established and tightly run order of feelings and expressions. That is all pleasant enough. But still, it seems kind of feeble by contrast with the reality of love, which is complicated, and which can mess you up.
The distinction is not semantic. And no, I did not improvise it as some kind of roundabout excuse for forgetting the holiday. (You do not sustain a happy marriage for a dozen years without knowing to pump a few dollars into the sentimental economy in a timely fashion.)
There are times when the usual romantic phrases and symbols prove exactly right for expressing what you mean. The stock of them is, as Roland Barthes puts it in A Lover’s Discourse, like a perpetual calendar. The standard words are clichés, perhaps. But they are meaningful clichés, and nobody has sounded out their overtones with anything like Barthes’s finesse.
Still, the repertoire of romantic discourse has its limits. “The lover speaks in bundles of sentences but does not integrate these sentences on a higher level, into a work,” writes Barthes. “His is a horizontal discourse: no transcendence, no deliverance, no novel (though a great deal of the fictive).”
Well, okay, yes -- that is all true of the early days of a relationship. When you are both horizontal, the discourse between you tends to be, as well. Once you begin to build a life together, however, a certain amount of verticality, if not transcendence, imposes itself; and the nuances of what Barthes called the “lover’s discourse” are not so much lost as transformed. Even the silences are enriched. I try to keep quiet on Sunday while my wife is reading the Times, for example. There can be a kind of intimacy involved in keeping out of the other’s way.
For an account of love in this other sense, I’d recommend Harry Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love, first published by Princeton University Press in 2004 and released in paperback just this year. The front cover announces that Frankfurt, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton, is “author of the best-selling On Bullshit.”
Like the book that established the Frankfurt brand in the widest cultural marketplace, Reasons is a dry and elegant little treatise – somehow resembling the various “manuals for reflection” from Roman or Renaissance times more than it does most contemporary academic philosophy. It consists of papers originally delivered as the Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Lectures at Princeton in 2000, then presented again the following year as the Shearman Lectures at University College London.
The ease and accessibility of Frankfurt’s manner are somewhat misleading. There is actually an enormous amount going on within the book’s hundred pages. Despite its unassuming tone, Reasons is a late installment of Frankfurt’s work on questions of moral philosophy in general, and free will in particular. In a footnote, he points out that precision can be risky, citing a comment attributed to Niels Bohr: “He is said to have cautioned that one should never speak more clearly than one can think.” (With plenty of academic books, of course, the author faces no such danger.)
It is the second of his three lectures (titled “On Love, and Its Reasons”) that seems to me to fill in all the gaps left in Barthes’s account. Frankfurt sets his argument up so that it can apply to love of any kind -- the love of one’s family, homeland, or ideological cause, quite as much as one’s romantic partner. Indeed, the latter kind of love tends to have an admixture of messy and “vividly distracting elements” (as he terms them) that can hinder exact definition of the concept. But if the shoe fits....
For all his lucidity, Frankfurt is very alert to the paradoxical nature of love. It is not really the case that we love something because it possesses a certain quality or value. “The truly essential relationship between love and the value of the beloved,” he notes, “goes in the opposite direction. It is not necessarily as a result of recognizing their value and of being captivated by it that we love things. Rather, what we love necessarily acquires value for us because we love it.”
In that respect, Frankfurt’s understanding of love seems to follow the same lines as the thinking of a philosopher one would otherwise never confuse with him -- namely, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek. For as Å½iÅ¾ek once pointed out, if our regard for another person could be strictly reduced to a list of exactly what we found admirable or valuable about them, then the word “love” wouldn’t really apply to what we feel. And even the faults of the beloved are, for the person in love, not valid objections to feeling love. (They may drive you crazy. But the fact that they do is, in its way, a dimension of love.)
So the value of the beloved, as Frankfurt argues, is an effect of love -- not the cause. And when we love someone, we want the best for that person. In other words, we regard the beloved as an end, not as a means. “The lover desires that his beloved flourish and not be harmed,” writes Frankfurt, “and he does not desire this just for the sake of promoting some other goal.... For the lover, the condition of his beloved is important in itself, apart from any bearing it might have on other matters.”
If this sounds a little bit like the categorical imperative .... well, that’s about half right, if just barely. Kant tells us that ethical conduct requires treating other people as ends, not as means. But that imperative is universal -- and as Frankfurt says, the feeling of love is inescapably specific. “The significance to the lover of what he loves,” he writes, “is not generic; it is ineluctably particular.”
This is where things get complicated. We don’t have a lot of say or sway in regard to love. It is not that love is blind, or that passion is irrational. Sure, that too. But while the capacity to love belongs, as Frankfurt puts it, “to our most intimate and most fundamental nature,” the demands it places on each person is not subject to personal decision making.
“We cannot help it that the direction of our personal reasoning is in fact governed by the specific final ends that our love has defined for us,” writes Frankfurt. “... Whether it would be better for us to love differently is a question that we are unable to take seriously. For us, as a practical matter, the issue cannot effectively arise.”
What makes this philosophically interesting, I take it, is that love blurs the distinction between selfishness and selflessness – between treating the beloved as an end in itself, on the one hand, and the fact that the beloved is my beloved, in particular, on the other.
Quite a bit of ink has been spilled, over time, regarding the question of whether or not it is possible, or desirable, to establish universal principles that could be applied without reference to the local or personal interests of moral agents. “The ambition to provide an exhaustively rational warrant for the way we conduct our lives is misconceived,” says Frankfurt. But that doesn’t mean that the alternative to “the pan-rationalist fantasy” is imagining human beings to be totally capricious, completely self-inventing, or intractably self-absorbed.
Nor does it mean that, like the song says, “All you need is love.” Love simplifies nothing. At the same time, it makes life interesting -- and possible.
“The fact that we cannot help loving,” as Frankfurt puts it, “and that we therefore cannot help being guided by the interests of what we love, helps to ensure that we neither flounder aimlessly nor hold ourselves back from definitive adherence to a meaningful practical course.”
Okay, so Harry Frankfurt is not the most lyrical of philosophers. Still, he has his moments. Roland Barthes wrote that the lover’s discourse consists of stray sentences -- never adding up to a coherent work, let alone anything with a structure, like a novel. But when Frankfurt says that love ensures that “we neither flounder aimlessly nor hold ourselves back from definitive adherence to a meaningful practical course,” it does seem to gesture toward a story.
A recognizable story. A familiar story. (One that includes the line, “Before we met...”) A story I am living, as perhaps you are, too.
Two images of William Jennings Bryan have settled into the public memory, neither of them flattering. One is the fundamentalist mountebank familiar to viewers of Inherit the Wind, with its fictionalized rendering of the Scopes trial. In it, the character based on Bryan proclaims himself “more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.” He is, in short, a crowd-pleasing creationist numbskull, and nothing more.
The other portrait of Bryan is less cinematic, but darker. The classic version of it appears in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948 and still selling around 10,000 copies each year, according to a forthcoming biography of the historian. Hofstadter sketches the career of Bryan as a populist leader during the economic depression of the 1890s, when he emerged as the Midwest’s fierce and eloquent scourge of the Eastern bankers and industrial monopolies.
Yet this left-leaning Bryan had, in Hofstadter’s account, no meaningful program for change. He was merely a vessel of rage. Incapable of statesmanship, only of high-flown oratory, he was a relic of the agrarian past –- and the prototype of the fascistic demagogues who were discovering their own voices, just as Bryan’s career was reaching its end.
Historians have been challenging these interpretations for decades -– beginning in earnest more than 40 years ago, with the scholarship of Lawrence W. Levine, who is now a professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. It was Levine who pointed out that when Bryan denounced evolution, he tended to be thinking more of Nietzsche than of Darwin. And the Nietzsche he feared was not today’s poststructuralist playboy, but the herald of a new age of militaristic brutality.
Still, old caricatures die hard. It may be difficult for the contemporary reader to pick up Michael Kazin’s new book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf) without imagining that its title contains a snarl and a sneer. Isn’t the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity and anti-elitist sentiment always just a disguise for base motives and cruel intentions? To call someone godly is now, almost by default, to accuse them of hypocrisy.
But Kazin, who is a professor of history at Georgetown University, has a very different story to tell. Revisionist scholarship on Bryan -- the effort to dig beneath the stereotypes and excavate his deeper complexities -- has finally yielded a book that might persuade the general reader to rethink the political role played by “the Great Commoner.”
In an earlier study, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995), Kazin described the emergence in the 19th century of an ideology he called “producerism” – a moral understanding of politics as the struggle between those who built the nation’s infrastructure and those who exploited it. (The farmer or the honest businessman was as much a producer as the industrial worker. Likewise, land speculators and liquor dealers were part of the exploitive class, as were bankers and monopolistic scoundrels.)
The producerist ethos remains a strong undercurrent of American politics today. Bryan was its most eloquent spokesman. He wedded it to a powerful (and by Kazin’s account utterly sincere) belief that politics was a matter of following the commandment to love thy neighbor. As a man of his era, Bryan could be obtuse about how to apply that principle: His attitude toward black Americans was paternalistic, on a good day, and he was indifferent, though not hostile, concerning the specific problems facing immigrants. But Kazin points out that there is no sign of nativist malice in Bryan’s public or private communications. Some of his followers indulged in conspiratorial mutterings against the Catholics or the Jews, but Bryan himself did not. At the same time -- canny politician that he was -- he never challenged the growing power of the Klan during the 1920s.
It’s an absorbing book, especially for its picture of Bryan’s following. (He received an incredible amount of mail from them, only about two percent of which, Kazin notes, has survived.) I contacted Kazin to ask a few questions by e-mail.
Q: By today's standards, Bryan seems like a bundle of contradictions. He was both a fundamentalist Christian and the spokesman for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He embodied a very 19th century notion of "character," but was also exceptionally shrewd about marketing his own personality. For many Americans, he was a beloved elder statesman -- despite losing his two presidential bids and otherwise spending very little time in elected office. How much of that contradictoriness is in Bryan himself, and how much in the eye of the beholder today?
A: Great question! The easiest part to answer is the first: for Bryan and many other reform-minded white Christians, there was no contradiction between their politics and their religion. The “revolution” being made by the Carnegies and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers was destroying the pious republic they knew, or wished to remember (slavery, of course, they forgot about). What Bryan called “applied Christianity” was the natural antidote to the poison of rampant capitalism. The rhetoric of Bellamy, the People’s Party, and the Knights of Labor was full of such notions -– as were the sermons and writings of many Social Gospelers, such as Washington Gladden and Charles Stelzle.
On the character-personality question – I think Warren Susman and many historians he influenced over-dichotomize these two concepts. No serious Christian could favor the latter over the former. Yet, the exigencies of the cultural marketplace and of celebrity culture in particular produced a fascination with the personal lives of the famous. So Bryan, who was as ego-obsessed as any politician, went with the flow, knowing his personality was boosting his political influence. Being a journalist himself, he understood the rules of the emerging game. Do you know Charles Ponce De Leon’s book about celebrity journalism in this period?
Q. Oddly enough, I do, actually. But let's talk about the people to whom Bryan appealed. From digging in the archives, you document that Bryan had a following a loyal following among professionals, and even successful businessmen, who saw themselves as part of the producing class threatened by the plutocratic elite. Was that surprising to discover? Normally you think of populism in that era as the politics of horny-handed toil.
A: As I argued in The Populist Persuasion, when “producerism” became a popular ideal in democratic politics, Americans from many classes were quite happy to embrace it. It thus became an essential contested concept. But among a broad cross-section of people, the critique of finance capital was always stronger in the South and West, where Bryan had his most consistent support, than in places like Philly and NYC.
As for the letters -— I enjoyed that part of the research the most, although it was frustrating as hell to find almost no letters that were written during the campaign of 1908 and only a small number from then until the 1920s. If only WJB or his wife had revealed, somewhere, the criteria they used when dumping all that correspondence! That, at least,would have been a consolation. Of course, if they had kept nearly all of it, I’d still be there in the Manuscript Room at the Library of Congress, tapping away.
Q: I get the impression that Bryan might well have become president if women had been able to vote in 1896 or 1900. How much of his appeal came from expressing the moral and cultural ideals associated with women's "civilizing" role? And how much of it was sex appeal of his rugged personality and magnetic stage presence?
A: Ah, the counterfactuals! Bryan’s image as a “godly hero” certainly did appeal to many women, as did his eloquence and good looks (the latter, at least while he was in his 30s and early 40s). His support for prohibition and woman suffrage would have appealed to many women as well.
In 1896 and 1900, he carried most of the states where women then had the vote (in the Mountain West). Although that may have been because of his free silver and anti-big money stands, which is probably why most men in those states voted for him. On the other hand, his radical image could have limited his appeal to women elsewhere in the country. Women voters, before the 1960s, tended to vote for safe, conservative candidates.
Q: Another counterfactual.... What if Bryan had won? What sort of president would he have been? The man was great at making speeches; none better. But could he really have cut it as Chief Executive?
A: As president, he probably would have been a divisive figure, perhaps an American Hugo Chavez -— but without the benefit of oil revenues! If he tried to carry out the 1896 platform, there may have been a capital strike against him, which would have brought on another depression. If he hadn’t, the Populists and many left Democrats would have deserted him. The sad fact is that he hadn’t built a strong enough constituency to govern, much less to win the election in the first place.
Q: Finally, a question about the subjective dimension of working on this biography. Any moments of profound disillusionment? Rapt admiration? Sudden epiphany?
A: I wish I had time to pursue this important question at length -- perhaps I’ll write an essay about it someday. But briefly: I started reading all those fan letters and experienced an epiphany. Millions of ordinary people adored this guy and thought he was a prophet! And he was certainly fighting the good fight -– against Mark Hanna and his friends who were initiating the U.S. empire.
I also was impressed by his ability as a speech-writer as well as a performer. He could turn a phrase quite brilliantly. But after a year or so, I had to come to grips with his bigotry against black people and his general inability to overcome his mistrust of urban pols (although he didn’t share the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of some of his followers).
The problem was, in the America of a century ago, Bryan would not have been a hero to the white evangelical grassroots if he had been as clever and cosmopolitan a pol as FDR. So I ended up with a historian’s sense of perspective about the limits of the perceptions and achievements of the past. In recent speeches, E.J. Dionne muses that perhaps we should ask “What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?” I’m not sure that’s a useful question.
I can’t remember when I snapped. Was it the faculty seminar in which the instructor used the phrase “the objectivity, for it is not yet a subjectivity” to refer to a baby? Maybe it was the conference in which the presenter spoke of the need to “historicize” racism, rambled through 40 minutes of impenetrable jargon to set up “new taxonomies” to “code” newspapers and reached the less-than-startling conclusion that five papers from the 1820s “situated African-Americans within pejorative tropes.” Could it have been the time I evaluated a Fulbright applicant who filled an entire page with familiar words, yet I couldn’t comprehend a single thing she was trying to tell me? Perhaps it was when I edited a piece from a Marxist scholar who wouldn’t know a proletarian if one bit him in the keister. Or maybe it just evolved from day-to-day dealings with undergraduates hungry for basic knowledge, hold the purple prose.
At some point, I lost it. I began ranting in the faculty lounge. I hurled the Journal of American History/Mystery across the library, muttered in the shower, and sent befuddled e-mails to colleagues. I’m fine now. Once I unburdened I found I was not alone; lots of fellow academics agree that their colleagues couldn’t write intelligible explanations of how to draw water from the tap. From this was born the Society for Intellectual Clarity (SIC). We intend to launch a new journal, SIC PUPPY (Professors United in Plain Prose Yearnings) as soon as we find someone whose writing is convoluted enough to draft our grant application. (We’re told we should seek recruits among National Science Foundation recipients.)
Until the seed money comes in our journal is purely conceptual, but upon start-up SIC PUPPY will enact the following guidelines for submissions.
Titles: Brevity is a virtue. Titles with colons are discouraged. Any title with a colon, semi-colon, and a comma will be rejected on principle. We accept no responsibility for doodles and exclamatory obscenities scrawled on the returned text, even if you do enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Style: If any manuscript causes one of our editors to respond to a late-night TV ad promising to train applicants for “an exciting career in long-distance trucking,” the author of said manuscript will be deemed a boring twit and his or her work will be returned. See above for doodle disclaimers.
Audience: Hey, would it kill you to write something an undergrad might actually read? If so, please apply for permanent residency in Bora Bora.
Terminology: If any author desires to invent a new term to describe any part of the research, refer to Greta Garbo’s advice on desire in the film Ninotchka: “Suppress it.” There are 171,476 active words in the English language and the authors of SIC PUPPY are confident that at least one of them would be adequate.
Nouns and Verbs: Among those 171, 476 words are some that are designated as nouns and others clearly meant as verbs. Do not confuse the two. SIC PUPPY refuses to conference with anyone about this. We have prioritized our objectives.
Thesis: We insist that you have one. If you don’t have anything to say, kindly refrain from demonstrating so. We do not care what Bakhtin, Derrida, Jameson, Marx, Freud, or Foucault have to say about your subject or any other. We’ve read them; we know what they think.
Academic Catfights: The only person who gives a squanker’s farley about literature reviews and historiography is your thesis adviser. We request that you get on with the article and reduce arcane debates to footnotes. The latter should be typed in three-point Windings font.
Editing for Smugness: If your article was originally a conference paper and, if at any time, you looked up from your text and smiled at your own cleverness, please delete this section and enroll in a remedial humility course.
No Silly Theories:SIC PUPPY does not care if a particular theory is in vogue; we will not consider silly ones. For example, bodies are bodies, not “texts” and dogs are dogs; they do not “signify” their “dogginess” through “signifier” barks. While we’re on the subject, we at SIC PUPPY have combed scientific journals to confirm that time machines do not exist. We thus insist that human beings can be postpartum or postmortem, but not postmodern.
Privileging Meaning: We believe that sometimes you’ve got to call it like it is, even if that entails using a label or category. We know that some of you think we shouldn’t privilege any meaning over another. To this we say, “We’re the editors, not you, and we intend to use our privileged positions of power to label those who reject categories ‘ninnies.’ So there!”
Citations: We insist that you use the Chicago Manual of Style for all citations. Not because we love it, but because it annoys us no end to see parentheses in the middle of text we’re trying to read. Why we read a theory on ellipses (Bakhtin, 1934) just last night describing how English authors (Wilde, 1905; Shaw, 1924) sought to embed Chartist messages (S. Webb, 1891) into....
Complaints: In the course of preparing a journal it is inevitable that typos will appear, that medieval French words will go to print with an accent aigu where an accent grave should have been, and that edits will be made to what you were sure was perfect prose (but wasn’t). Do not call the editors to complain that we’ve humiliated you before your peers and have ruined your academic career. SIC PUPPY will not waste time telling you to get a life; we will direct your call to the following pre-recorded message: “Thhhhhwwwwwwwpt!”
Satire and Irony: To paraphrase the folksinger Charlie King, serious people are ruining our world. If you do not understand satire, or confuse irony with cynicism, go away. Try therapy ... gin ... a warm bath ... anything! Except teaching or writing.
Robert E. Weir is a former senior Fulbright scholar who teaches at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts.
As a kid, my favorite book in the world was E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics (1937). I must have read it dozens of times by the age of 14. One afternoon, coming home from the library, I could not resist opening the book to a particularly interesting chapter -- and so ended up walking into a parked bus.
With hindsight, certain problems with the book are clear. Bell’s approach to the history of mathematics was exciting, but he achieved that effect, in part, through fictionalization. We now know that embroidering the truth came as second nature to Bell, who was a professor of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology until shortly before his death in 1960. In addition to writing science fiction under a pseudonym, Bell also exercised a certain amount of creativity in telling his own life story – as his biographer, Constance Reid, found out through some detective work.
But another problem with Men of Mathematics only dawned on me recently. I hadn’t thought of the book in ages, but remembered it while reading while reading Letters to a Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart, to be published next month by Basic Books.
The author is a professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick in the U.K. The imaginary recipient of his letters is named Meg -- a nice departure from the longstanding and rather self-reinforcing stereotype of math as a man’s field. The idea that no gender has a monopoly on mathematical talent seems never to have occurred to E.T. Bell. (Nor, consequently, did it cross the mind of a certain young nerd colliding with stalled vehicles during the mid-1970s.)
Fortunately that situation has started to change. And the progress is reflected, in a quiet and matter-of-fact way, in Stewart’s Letters.
A story unfolds, chapter by chapter, as Stewart corresponds with Meg. In the earliest letters, she is still in high school. By the end of the book, she has tenure. It is, in effect, a bildungsroman at one remove. The reader watches over Stewart’s shoulder as the young mathematician turns an early talent into a stable professional identity.
There’s even a moment when, in search of an interesting project to test her abilities, Meg starts trying to find a method for trisecting an angle using only a compass and an unmarked straightedge. This is one of the problems handed down from ancient geometry. People “discover” solutions to this challenge all the time, then become indignant that mathematicians don’t take them seriously. (The proof of why it is impossible involves mathematical tools going way beyond anything available in antiquity.)
But most of the guidance Stewart offers is positive -- and some of it seems useful even for those of us without mathematical aspirations or gifts.
“My usual method for reading a mathematics text,” he recalls about his student days, “was to thumb through it until I spotted something interesting, then work backward until I had tracked down everything I needed to read the interesting bit. I don’t really recommend this to everyone, but it does show that there are alternatives to starting at page 1 and continuing in sequence until you reach page 250.”
The most surprising thing -- at least for anyone influenced by Bell’s romanticized account of the mathematical vocation -- is Stewart’s emphasis on the nuts and bolts of academic life. Letters is full of pointers on academic politics, the benefits and frustrations of collaboration, and how to avoid disaster at conferences. (“Never believe your hosts when they tell you that all the equipment will work perfectly,” he notes. “Always try it yourself before the lecture.”)
E. T. Bell told stories about mathematicians whose lives were shaped, in the final analysis, only by their own creative instincts. They might occasionally win a prize offered by a learned society, or feel driven to some breakthrough by the challenge of defeating a hated rival. But Bell’s men of mathematics were, on the whole, geniuses of the purest vintage. They had inspirations, not resumes. It is hard to imagine anyone trying to give Carl Friedrich Gauss useful career advice.
So does that mean that popularized accounts like Bell’s are something a young mathematician ought to avoid? I contacted Stewart by e-mail to ask his thoughts on the matter.
“I write a lot of books popularising math and science, so I may be biased,” he said in reply, “but when I was in high school I read all the books I could find about the history of math, about mathematicians, and about various topics in math. And those definitely had a significant effect on my interest in the subject. They made it clear that math has a long and fascinating history, that the great mathematicians were real people, not just obsessed geniuses who couldn't tie their own shoelaces, and that there is much, much more to math than the tiny part of the subject that we are all taught at school.”
Well, that’s a relief. There’s something to be said for idealization and hero worship, after all, in their proper season. You then have your whole life to become more realistic, not to say more calculating.
A carefully worded memorandum appearing last week on the Web site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints informs the public that the expression “Mormon polygamist” is now offensive and inaccurate -– no matter what used to happen, back in the day. The occasion for this official statement is, of course, the new HBO series "Big Love," about a Utah businessman and his three wives living behind a facade of suburban normalcy in Salt Lake City.
Not content with making semantic demands, the memo also ventures into the field of applied cultural studies, calling HBO’s program “essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.” (Insert Osmonds joke here.) The show has also met with criticism from anti-polygamy activists in Utah, who worry that "Big Love" will treat an exploitative practice as just another alternative lifestyle.
Based on a viewing of the first episode, I think some of the complaints are premature. There is a formal statement, before the closing credits, that the LDS policy now forbids polygamy. But more, the narrative will clearly be driven by tensions between “official” Mormonism and the splinter sect presented in the series. And there is already more than a hint of violent menace in the character of Roman, the splinter group’s “prophet,” played by Harry Dean Stanton, whose presence on screen always carries the Gothic aura picked up from appearing in the films of David Lynch.
The prophet’s newest bride is 14 years old. Patriarchal authority has rarely looked this sleazy.
But perhaps there is a complaint to lodge about "Big Love" after all. By default, it perpetuates the common notion that the Mormon polygamy was a unique mutation in the history of Christianity. On the contrary, the practice goes back very nearly to the beginning of the church -- and it has popped up again, from time to time, sometimes finding the most surprising advocates.
The pioneers in this were the Adamites, a sect from the second century. Being redeemed from sin, they held, meant being restored to mankind’s original innocence; hence the Adamites worshiped in the nude and practiced a kind of group marriage. This went over with church authorities about as well as might be expected. But the heresy proved remarkably durable, reemerging in various forms throughout the Middle Ages and on into the Enlightenment.
Another way of looking at it would be to say that the Adamites were the original manifestation of the counterculture. Raoul Vaneigem -- whose theoretical writings were an inspiration to student radicals around the world in 1968 -- hailed this dissident current as an inspiration. His 1994 book The Movement of the Free Spirit, published by Zone Books and distributed by MIT Press, is subtitled “General Considerations and Firsthand Testimony Concerning Some Brief Flowerings of Life in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and, Incidentally, Our Own Time.”
But Christian departures from the monogamous norm were not limited to the occasional group of proto-hippies. Following Luther’s challenge to the authority of the established church, some early Protestant theologians argued for a return to the example of the ancient Jewish patriarchs as described in scripture. (Strictly speaking, they were advocates of polygyny, marriage to multiple wives. By definition, the term “polygamy” is more inclusive; it would cover the somewhat rarer practice of polyandry, in which a woman has several husbands.)
Luther himself concluded that it might be doctrinally permissible to be married to more than one woman at a time, at least in theory. Some of the more radical reformers in his wake also considered it a practical possibility. A fascinating account of this tendency in early Protestantism appears in After Polygamy Became a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy by John Cairncross, published in 1974 and now out of print.
The author, a journalist and independent scholar, not only wrote history but made a little. Before turning his attention to Reformation theology, Cairncross was part of the Soviet spy ring recruited among students at Cambridge University during the 1930s.
But the biggest surprise of all, I suppose, is the endorsement of polygamy by another famous British subversive -- a poet by the name of John Milton, who, before writing Paradise Lost, was de facto Minister of Propaganda for the Puritan regime that executed Charles I in 1649.
Apart from his poetry, Milton was a pamphlet-writing machine. John Keats referred to his prose as “delectable,” which is, on the whole, a minority opinion, though one I would endorse. There is no greater defense of the freedom of the press than Areopagitica. And the autobiographical passages in some of his tracts were, in their time, an extremely bold departure from the norm. (His polemical opponents respond by accusing him of egomania and bad taste.)
Only in 1823 did an archivist discover the manuscript known as De Doctrina Christiana, a systematic theological work attributed to Milton. (Controversy over whether or not he wrote all of it has never died.) The text contained a number of surprises concerning Milton’s religious beliefs -- some of which it would take an hour to explain for anyone not up on the fine points of Christian theology.
But the argument of one section is plain enough: “Polygamy is allowed by the law of God,” wrote Milton at the end of his analysis of relevant passages from both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It was practiced by Abraham, Moses, and King David, among others -- “men whose holiness renders them fit patterns for imitation, and who are among the lights of our faith.” And among Christians, it was forbidden only to “the ministers of the church alone, and that not on account of any sinfulness in the practice.” Rather, as Milton argued, having more than one wife would be a distraction from doing their duties. Other than that, polygamy would simply be a form of marriage -- and “marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled.” (The whole section is available online here).
In 1825, the English translation of De Doctrina provided the occasion for a long article in The Edinburgh Review by Thomas Macaulay, who would go on to become the Victorian era’s most prominent essayist. ( This piece, which was much discussed at the time, was actually his debut in a major literary venue.)
Macaulay referred to the section on polygamy only in passing -- but he threw out a line that must have been amusing for readers familiar with the poet’s domestic miseries. In 1642, Milton married a young woman named Mary Powell, who promptly left him. Although they were later reunited, it was a joyless pairing. Milton went on to write a series of pamphlets arguing that there ought to be grounds for divorce besides adultery. In short, total incompatibility should be enough.
As for Milton’s posthumously revealed views on polygamy -- well, Macaulay thought they were cut from the same cloth. “We can scarcely conceive,” wrote Macaulay, “...that any reader, acquainted with the history of his life, ought to be much startled....”
At one level, Macaulay’s comment reflects a “common sense” -- if not terribly sensible -- understanding of why an unhappily married man would prefer polygyny. After all, if things were going badly with one wife, you could turn to another.
On a more serious note, I see that even a scholar who questions whether or not Milton wrote all of De Doctrina believes that the section on polygamy might well reflect Milton's thinking in the matter. Throughout the 1990s, William B. Hunter made perhaps the most exhaustive argument for skepticism, culminating in his book Visitation Unimplor’d: Milton and the Authorship of De Doctrina Christiana, published by Duquesne University Press in 1998. In the course of an almost page-by-page analysis of the original manuscript, Hunter states that “the section on polygamy” and “the pages on divorce” were probably by the same author -- that is, “Milton, in my opinion.”
Well, that’s good enough for me. But assuming that Milton did think polygamy through in this fashion, how much of it was driven by idiosyncratic personal considerations? And how much by the avant garde theological debates of his day? I contacted Michael Bryson, an assistant professor of English at California State University's Northridge campus to pick his brain.
Bryson is particularly interested in the overlap between Milton’s politics and his theology. (And if you have any doubt that marriage is all about politics...) His study The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King was published by the University of Delaware Press in 2004.
His argument is not quite identical to William Blake’s wily notion of how come Satan gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost -- namely, that Milton “was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Instead, Bryson’s thesis is that Milton, while certainly a Christian, challenged the established conception of God. The old image treated the deity as a really, really powerful authority figure. (A human sovereign, on a superhuman scale: a tyrant without limits.) The theology emerging on the other side of this critique is, in effect, rather more libertarian than one might expect from a Puritan.
I asked Bryson how he understood the poet’s thinking on polygamy. “Milton,” he wrote back by email, “was an advocate for throwing off what he saw as man-made restrictions of, or infringements upon, the freedoms that God created mankind with originally.” That, he explained, was a current running throughout his pamphlets defending the English Revolution of the 1640s. It was also “the essential logic of his case for overthrowing canon law regarding marriage and divorce.” And likewise with the defense of polygamy.
“I think,” said Bryson, “that Milton, in general, saw humanity as having been more free in the past (in the days of the patriarchs, in the days before monarchy, in the days of the early Christian church) than they had come to be in his day.”
The effort to recover that lost liberty guided Milton in how he applied the Reformation principle of “sola scriptura,” of arguing strictly from the text of the Bible. In doing so, Milton gave things, “a twist in whatever direction he saw as leading to a lessening of external restrictions on thought and action,” as Bryson puts it. He quotes Milton’s appeal to "the pre-eminent and supreme authority [...] of the Spirit, which is internal, and the individual possession of each man."
And by “each man,” of course, the author meant ... well, ”each man.” The right to variety was, as one says nowadays, a gendered prerogative. (No wild Adamite polyandry on the horizon for John Milton.) The limits to his conception of freedom were the product of his era.
Still, Bryson thinks we should avoid reading too much autobiographical subtext into the poet’s defense of polygamy. “Milton’s ‘life,’” he points out, “was lived largely in the realm of thought. Milton’s physical/domestic life seems to have been much less radical than his theopolitical thought.... Knowing the history of Milton’s domestic life would not necessarily lead us to think: ‘Well, here’s a guy who will probably defend polygamy.’ ”
I suspect, in any case, that he would want to watch "Big Love," because it is interesting to study the practice as well as the theory. Besides, you occasionally feel the hankering for “essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds,” as they say in Utah.