Essay argues that the humanities are an existentialism

Whether or not the humanities are truly in crisis, the current debates around them have a certain gun-to-the-head quality. “This is why you -- student, parent, Republican senator -- shouldn’t pull the trigger,” their promoters plead. “We deserve to live; we’re good productive citizens; we, too, contribute to the economy, national security, democracy, etc.” Most of these reasons are perfectly accurate. But it is nonetheless surprising that, in the face of what is depicted as an existential crisis, most believers shy away from existential claims (with some exceptions). And by not defending the humanities on their own turf, we risk alienating the very people on whose support the long-term survival of our disciplines depend: students.

One reason why our defenses can have a desperate ring to them is that we’re not used to justifying ourselves. Most humanists hold the value of the objects they study to be self-evident. The student who falls in love with Kant, Flaubert, or ancient Egypt does not need to provide an explanation for why she would like to devote years of her life to such studies. To paraphrase Max Weber, scholarship in the humanities is a vocation, a “calling” in the clerical sense. It chooses you, you don’t choose it. The problem with this kind of spiritual passion is that it is difficult to describe. To paraphrase another 20th-century giant, Jimi Hendrix, it’s more about the experience.

It’s not surprising, then, that when we humanists feel (or imagine) the budget axe tickling the hairs on the backs of our necks, we don’t have ready-made apologia with which to woo or wow our would-be executioners. And because a calling is hard to explain, we turn instead to more straightforward, utilitarian defenses -- “but employers say they like English majors!” -- which, while true, don’t capture the authentic spirit that moves the humanities student.

There is of course sound logic to this approach. Government and state funding is a zero-sum game, and politicians are more likely to be receptive to practical arguments than to existential propositions. But in the long run, it takes more than state and university budgets to maintain the health of the humanities. It also takes students. And by constantly putting our most productive foot forward, we may unintentionally end up selling ourselves short (disclosure: I, too, have sinned). The fundamental reason why students should devote hours of their weeks to novels, philosophy, art, music, or history is not so that they can hone their communication skills or refine their critical thinking. It is because the humanities offer students a profound sense of existential purpose.

The real challenge that we face today, then, lies in explaining to a perplexed, but not necessarily hostile audience -- and perhaps even to ourselves -- why it is that the study of literature, anthropology, art history, or classics can be so meaningful, and why this existential rationale is equally important as other, more utilitarian ones. This line of argument stands in opposition to proclamations of the humanities’ uselessness: to declare that the humanities are of existential value is to affirm that they are very useful indeed.

So how might we go about defining this existential value? A good place to start would be with existentialism itself. A premise of existentialist philosophy is that we live in a world without inherent meaning. For atheists, this is often understood as the human condition following the death of God. But as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” even believers must recognize that they ultimately are the ones responsible for the production of meaning (in fact, many early existentialists were Christians). Abraham had to decide for himself whether the angel who commanded him to halt his sacrifice was genuinely a divine messenger. In Sartre's memorable formulation, man is “condemned to be free”; we have no choice but to choose. While it may feel as though a humanities vocation is a calling, you still have to decide to answer the call.

The realization that meaning isn’t something we receive from the outside, from others, but that it always must come from within us, from our conscious, deliberative choices, does not make us crave it any less. We are, existentialists insist, creatures of purpose, a thesis that psychological research has also confirmed. 

Now what does this have to do with the humanities? It’s not that obvious, after all, how reading Madame Bovary, the Critique of Pure Reason, or The Book of the Dead can fill your life with purpose. At the same time, we also know that some people do find it deeply meaningful to peruse these works, and even to dedicate their careers to studying them.

What is it, then, that lovers of literature -- to consider but them for the moment -- find so existentially rewarding about reading? In a recent book, my colleague Joshua Landy argues that one of the more satisfying features of literature is that it creates the illusion of a meaningful world. “The poem forms a magic circle from within which all contingency is banished,” he writes apropos of Mallarmé’s celebrated sonnet en -yx. The order we discover in literary works may be magical, but it isn’t metaphysical; it comes from the sense that “everything is exactly what and where it has to be.” Art offers a reprieve from a universe governed by chance; what were merely sordid newspaper clippings can become, when transported into artful narratives, The Red and the Black or Madame Bovary. Landy suggests that fictions produce these illusions through a process of “overdetermination:” the ending of Anna Karenina, for instance, is foreshadowed by its beginning, when Anna witnesses a woman throwing herself under a train.

If art offered only illusions of necessity, it would hardly satisfy existential longing. Pretending that everything happens for a reason is precisely what the existentialists castigated as “bad faith.” Yet there’s an obvious difference between enjoying a novel and, say, believing in Providence. We don’t inhabit fictional worlds, we only pay them visits. No lover of literature actually believes her life is as determined as that of a literary heroine (even Emma Bovary wasn’t psychotic). So why does the semblance of an orderly universe enchant us so?

Well-ordered, fictional worlds attract us, it seems, because we, too, aspire to live lives from which contingency is kept at bay. Beauty, wrote Stendhal, is “only a promise of happiness.” As Alexander Nehamas suggested, in his book of this title, the beautiful work of art provides us with a tantalizing pleasure; beauty engages us in its pursuit. But what do we pursue? “To find something beautiful is inseparable from the need to understand what makes it so,” he writes. Behind the beautiful object -- sonnet, style, or sculpture -- we reach for the idea of order itself. The promise of happiness made by art is a promise of purpose.

But a promise of purpose is still a bird in the bush: it can disappear when you put down the book, or leave the concert hall. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, art only provides us with an empty sense of purpose; or as he put it, in his distinctively Kantian way, "purposiveness without purpose" (it’s even better in German). 

It’s true that few existential crises have been resolved by a trip to the museum or the download of a new album. But Kant may have underestimated how the sense of artistic purpose can also seep into our own lives. For instance, as Plato and every teenager know well, instrumental music can give voice to inexpressible feelings without the help of language. These emotional frameworks can convey a potent sense of purpose. When my youngest daughter spent six weeks in the neonatal ICU with a life-threatening condition, my mind kept replaying the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony to tame my fears. Its somber, resolute progress, punctuated by brief moments of respite, helped to keep my vacillating emotions under control. As in films, sometimes it is the soundtrack that gives meaning to our actions.

The promise of order found in beautiful works of art, then, can inspire us to find purpose in our own lives. The illusion of a world where everything is in its place helps us view reality in a different light. This process is particularly clear -- indeed, almost trivial -- in those humanistic disciplines that do not deal primarily with aesthetic objects, such as philosophy. We aren't attracted to the worldviews of Plato, Kant, or Sartre, purely for the elegance of their formal structure. If we’re swayed by their philosophies, it’s because they allow us to discover hitherto unnoticed patterns in our lives. Sometimes, when you read philosophy, it seems as though the whole world has snapped into place. This is not an experience reserved for professional philosophers, either: at the conclusion of a philosophy course that my colleagues Debra Satz and Rob Reich offer to recovering female addicts, one student declared, “I feel like a butterfly drawn from a cocoon.”

So where art initially appeals to us through intimations of otherworldly beauty, a more prolonged engagement with the humanities can produce a sense of order in the here and now. One could even say that Plato got things the wrong way around: first we’re attracted by an ideal universe, and then we’re led to discover that our own reality is not as absurd as it once seemed. And while particularly evident with philosophy, this sensation of finally making sense of the world, and of your own place in it, can come from many quarters of the humanities. In a delightful interview (originally conducted in French), Justice Stephen Breyer recently exclaimed, “It’s all there in Proust — all mankind!” Other readers have had similar responses to Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and many more.

But exploring the humanities is not like a trip to the mall: you don't set off to find an off-the-rack outfit to wear. Proust can change your life, but if you only saw the world through his novel, it would be a rather impoverished life. Worse, it would be inauthentic: no author, no matter how great, can tell you what the meaning of your life is. That is something we must cobble together for ourselves, from the bits and pieces of literature, philosophy, religion, history, and art that particularly resonate in us. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T.S. Eliot wrote at the end of The Waste Land. No poem offers a better illustration of this cultural bricolage: Shakespeare answers Dante, and the Upanishads disclose what the Book of Revelation had suppressed.

So here we find an existential rationale for a liberal education. To be sure, the humanities do not figure alone in this endeavor: psychology, biology, and physics can contribute to our perception of ourselves in relation to the world, as can economics, sociology, and political science. But the more a discipline tends toward scientific precision, the more it privileges a small number of accepted, canonical explanations of those aspects of reality it aims to describe. If 20 biology professors lectured on Darwin’s theory of evolution, chances are they’d have a lot in common. But if 20 French professors lectured on Proust’s Recherche, chances are they’d be quite different. The same could be said, perhaps to a lesser extent, for 20 lectures on Plato’s Republic. The kinds of objects that the humanities focus on are generally irreducible to a single explanation. This is why they provide such good fodder for hungry minds: there are so many ways a poem, a painting, or a philosophy book can stick with you.

In his diatribe against the way the humanities have been taught since the '60s, Allan Bloom harrumphed, “On the portal of the humanities is written in many ways and many tongues, ‘There is no truth -- at least here.’ ” But the point of a liberal education is not to read great works in order to discover The Truth. Its point is to give students the chance to fashion purposeful lives for themselves. This is why authors such as Freud, whose truth-value is doubted by many, can still be a source of meaning for others. Conversely, this is also why humanities professors, many of whom are rightfully concerned about the truth-value of certain questions or interpretations, do not always teach the kinds of classes where students can serendipitously discover existential purpose.

There are more than existential reasons to study the humanities. Some are intellectual: history, for instance, responds to our profound curiosity about the past. Some are practical. To celebrate one is not to deny others. The biggest difficulty with defending the humanities is the embarrassment of riches: because humanists are like foxes and learn many different things, it is hard to explain them to the hedgehogs of the world, who want to know what One Big Thing we do well. The danger is that, in compressing our message so it gets heard, we leave out precisely the part that naturally appeals to our future students. Yes, students and parents are worried about employment prospects. But what parents don’t also want their child to lead a meaningful life? We are betraying our students if, as a society, we do not tell them that purpose is what ultimately makes a life well-lived.


Dan Edelstein is a professor of French and (by courtesy) history at Stanford University. He directs the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute.

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Review of Salinger book and trailer (essay)

I’ve just finished Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and all I can think of is the eulogy that Owl Eyes offers for Gatsby: “The poor son-of-a bitch.”

Robert Boynton: “And then there’s this crazed paparazzi, investigative-reporter approach” (qtd. in Chapter 14 of Salinger, “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”)

This “official book of the acclaimed documentary film,” presents enough contradictions to keep us busy until the publication of those new Salinger works promised in the final chapter. The title of that last chapter is “Secrets,” which sums up the tawdry tabloid-like endeavor of book and film combined. If Shields and Salerno had stopped with two-thirds of the material on World War II, they might have produced a slim book of value. Meanwhile, this quasi-oral-biography — it’s closer to a pastiche — just goes on and on; it’s a fine example of what Joyce Carol Oates, who is quoted here, along with other critics, actors, nursemaids, and lovers, would call pathography.

J. D. Salinger: “I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me . . .”

But not, apparently, Salerno, whose writing credits include "Armageddon," "Alien vs. Predator," and "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," or Shields, who is probably best-known for his 2010 book, Reality Hunger, a collage “built from scraps” about what people really want from literature.

Michael Clarkson: “I started thinking. . . . He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.”

Who, you may ask, is Michael Clarkson? The introduction promises 12 “conversations with Salinger,” — “revealing encounters” that will “place the reader on increasingly intimate terms with an author who had been adamantly inaccessible for more than half a century.” The first conversation features Michael Clarkson, who wrote a 4,000 word-essay about his hounding of Salinger and whose previous 15 minutes of fame involved a People magazine story about his “encounters with Salinger.” The second and last encounter started with the uninvited Clarkson staring in through the glass doors of Salinger’s home and inventorying the contents.

As he told Salinger, “Jerry, I wouldn’t have bothered you — I wouldn’t have barged in like this — if you’d answered my letters.” Clarkson feels perfectly justified: “He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.” Really? What about those four books?

This book is riddled by these sorts of unquestioned contradictions. First there is the form and nature of the book itself, a companion to a film that was based largely on another book (Paul Alexander’s Salinger: A Biography; Alexander’s voice is just one in the chorus here). So we have a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in scraps.

Salerno and Shields point out that Salinger would have hated this book; they assert, repeatedly, that Salinger’s absorption in Vedanta Hinduism destroyed his writing (also variously referred to as “work” or “art”) and then they — or at least Salerno — list a series of forthcoming manuscripts. (Salerno’s absurdly wordy “Acknowledgments” section ends with “I look forward with great anticipation to reading the work Salinger diligently produced from 1965 until his death in 2010"; Shields isn’t as excited — the work may be “genius” or it may be “inchoate” (Chapter 20, “A Million Miles Away in His Tower”). In this book, Salinger can’t get a break.  First he’s slammed for “writing for the slicks” and for wanting to publish in The New Yorker; then he’s slammed for not publishing. (And Shields calls Salinger “completely contradictory” and “hypocritical”! See Chapter 19, “A Private Citizen.”)

Billy Collins: “He actually made you feel that you weren’t alone. . . I think he had the best influence on my sensibility. And I think it helped me kind of pursue that sense of being different, being an individual.”

Wait, that’s Collins talking about Jean Shepherd on the back cover of Eugene B. Bergman’s Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. It’s Edward Norton and John Cusack who say similar praiseworthy things about Salinger and Holden Caulfield. Playwright John Guare, however, thinks that there is cause to be “very, very troubled” by the fact that “three people used [Catcher] “as the justification for killing somebody” (see his entries in the print companion and his featured scene in the sensationalistic trailer). That’s three readers of a book “that has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide,” according to Salerno in an earlier chapter. Salerno continues: “And if 65 million people have bought the book, that means that hundreds of millions are likely to have read it” (Chapter 10, “Is the Kid in this Book Crazy?”). You can, however, read all about those three people here in a lengthy chapter called “Assassins,” and in which you’ll learn that Mark David Chapman also liked "The Wizard of Oz" and the Bible.

Holden Caulfield; “I hate the movies like poison.... The movies can ruin you.”

Shields and Salerno note several times that Holden Caulfield (named for two movie stars -- just one of a number of connections they miss) says he hates the movies but is in fact drawn to them. The movies, of course, aren’t real. Have you seen the trailer for Salinger? It looks like the sequel to "Armageddon."

Shields and Salerno: “What he wanted was privacy” (Introduction, Salinger, “The Official Book, etc.)

But really, according to Shields and Salerno, echoing Paul Alexander, Salinger wasn’t a “true recluse”; it was just a ploy to get attention. And so on the book goes, rehashing not only news stories and faux news stories but the stories of Joyce Maynard, Margaret Salinger, and Ian Hamilton, along with accounts of legal proceedings, speculations about Salinger’s first wife, and detailed accounts of snacks (popcorn), meals (“Birds Eye frozen Tiny Tender Peas, not cooked, but with warm water poured over them,” for breakfast and the $12 roast beef plate at dinners at the First Congregational Church), and beverages (hot chocolate and urine). The tone of the book veers from gleefulness to somber proselytizing; it exhorts and chastises; it often seems angry.

Buddy Glass: “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet”

In contrast to Salinger’s style, the writing here is over the top: The “main impulse” of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” “is to protect [Salinger’s] death-dealing soul” (Introduction to Chapter 14: “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”). Other examples of overwriting include describing Catcher as “an assassination manual”(Introduction to Chapter  18) and Salinger’s life as “a slow-motion suicide mission” (Shields and Salerno, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion”). We’re told that  “Salinger walked into a concentration camp and never walked out” (Salerno’s line: one he likes so much that he repeated it on "The Colbert Report"), and that “The cure never took, because he was the disease” (Chapter 21).  And then there is Shield’s exegesis of Nine Stories, “Follow the Bullet” (Chapter 12), which is just too depressing to revisit.

Holden Caulfield: “You mean to go a psychoanalyst and all?... What would he do to me?”

Much of the limited information is repeated several times, culminating in the penultimate chapter, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion,” which offers a précis of the preceding 590 pages, a sort of guide to the guide. Taking a quote from one of Salinger’s letters, “I’m a condition, not a man,” Salerno and Shields list “10 conditions”, beginning with “Anatomy” and “Oona” and ending with “Detachment” (“War” comes in at third place, “Girls” at eighth).  One condition that seems overlooked is generational: men and women of Salinger’s generation just didn’t talk about “it.”

Shane Salerno: “There is no question that the manuscripts exist. The question is, What are they?”

An informal survey of the breakfast crowd at the Seaview Restaurant in Wickford, R.I., where I finished reading Salinger: The Book, revealed some interesting alternate predictions for the contents of the vault:

Thousands of blank pages beneath a single cover sheet that reads: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Silence.”

Copies of hundreds of pulp fiction stories and crime-noir novels published between 1965 and 2008 under pseudonyms that include Elmore Leonard and Stephen King.

Thousands of pages filled with the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Thousands of pages filled with “Praises to the Buddha, or something like that.”

30 pristine typed copies of The Catcher in the Rye.

“Just [a] cigar, in a small nice box. Possibly with a blank sheet of paper enclosed, by way of explanation.”

Shane Salerno: “Finally, I want to thank Jerome David Salinger for living such an extraordinary life and one that I devoted nearly a decade to telling honestly” (“Acknowledgments”).

Holden Caulfield: “I felt like I was disappearing.”

The title alone of D. T. Max’s new book on David Foster Wallace -- a phrase that Wallace liked so much he used it several times -- seems more insightful about Salinger than do the 500-plus pages between the covers of Salinger: “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.”

I mean, Jesus H. Christ, enough already.

Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emeritus of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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MLA delegates vote on CUNY, adjuncts, gun control

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Delegates vote in favor of increased gun control and more information on adjunct working conditions, and against CUNY transfer system.

Essay on Gore Vidal's relationship with Harvard

Gore Vidal, who died in July, was one of our greatest novelists and essayists – and yet he never went to college. In a 2007 interview I asked him why not.

"I graduated from [Phillips] Exeter,” he explained, “and I was aimed at going to Harvard. Instead I enlisted in [the Navy] in 1943. When I got out, in '46, I thought, 'I’ve spent all my life in institutions that I loathe, including my service in the [Navy] of the United States.' I thought, 'Shall I go for another four years?'

"My first book was already being published" — it was the novel Williwaw, and it got good reviews. "I said ‘I'm going to be told how to write by somebody at Harvard.’ I said, 'This is too great a risk.' "

The audience of 2,000 at a book festival at the University of California at Los Angeles laughed and applauded.

"But I did go there to lecture," he added. "This was about '47 or '48. There was a big audience, and many of them were my classmates from Exeter, who were overage juniors and seniors in what looked to be their mid-forties. I came out cheerily, as is my wont, and I've never felt such hatred radiating. They’d all predicted my total failure, because I was not to go to Harvard and meet a publisher or an agent -- which is, I think, why they went."

But what about getting a college education? "I graduated from Exeter, and you really don’t need any more education after that," he replied, "unless you’re going to be a brain surgeon. I had read Plato and I had read Milton. I had read Shakespeare. I had had fair American history. And a lot of Latin. That’s all you need."

At another book event, this one on the University of Southern California campus, he arrived wearing a Harvard athletic letter jacket. He opened the event by explaining "I didn’t go to Harvard, but I have gone on, as you can see, to be a professor of Harvard. I was in a terrible movie in which I played a Harvard professor.”

The "terrible movie" was the 1994 film "With Honors." In it, a student finishing his senior thesis — Brendan Fraser -- finds it being held hostage by a homeless man — Joe Pesci — who ends up teaching him "a thing or two about real life." Vidal played the student’s faculty adviser, a conservative professor of government.



Sample dialogue:

Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from?"

Vidal as the professor: "At Harvard we don't end our sentences with prepositions."

Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from, asshole?"

The New York Times reviewer Caryn James called it "a half-baked movie" with a plot that "shouts cliché." However, James, added, "Gore Vidal is absolutely on target as Monty's priggish mentor.”

Two years earlier Vidal had gone to Harvard to give the prestigious Massey Lectures, for which he wrote a memoir about his early love of film. Vidal later recalled that, "When I gave the Massey Lectures at Harvard, I had mostly graduate students in the audience, Very bright. A great many Chinese from mainland China, who know a great bit more about American civilization than the locals know. So it was quite a treat talking to them.

"But I noticed something interesting whenever I took on a class at Harvard, undergraduate, postgraduate, whatever: no one ever mentioned a book, or a poem, or anything to do with literature.

"I finally broke the ice with my Chinese friends. I said, 'Has anybody here seen 'The Doors?’ " (The Oliver Stone film starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.)

"Well the whole room fell apart. Everybody had seen 'The Doors.' I got away with an hour without having to do anything while they told me about 'The Doors.' "

If the student audience wasn’t engaged with the lectures, the critics loved the book of the lectures, which Harvard University Press published in 2004. The Atlantic called it "witty and sweepingly disrespectful." Michael Kammen, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described it as "vibrant" and compared it to Eudora Welty’s "wonderful" memoir One Writer’s Beginnings. And in the daily New York Times, reviewer Herbert Mitgang called the book "a small gem."

"On almost every page there is an observation worth admiring," he wrote, "whether it is about Hollywood and television, politics and history, or the paranoia and hypocrisy of the commercialized American dream."

In the 1960s Vidal had donated his papers to the University of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, at a time when he was working primarily in theater, television, and film But in 2002 he transferred those papers and the rest of his archives to Harvard’s Houghton Library. That collection consists of 394 boxes, cartons, and film reels, and includes "drafts of GV's novels, theatrical plays, television scripts, screenplays, essays, poetry, short stories, and speeches," as well as legal records including files on the lawsuits William F. Buckley v. Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal v. Truman Capote.

So although Vidal did not start out at Harvard, his work, and the record of his life, ended up there.

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and teaches history at the University of California at Irvine. The essay is adapted from I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics - Interviews with Jon Wiener (OR Books).


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Essay on Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan

Intellectual Affairs

In the early 1980s, I became friends with a student from the People’s Republic of China who was in the United States to do graduate work in English. He was roughly a decade older than me by the calendar, but a lifetime older in experience. He started school during the Cultural Revolution, when the curriculum had been “Mao in the morning, math in the afternoon.” Possibly it was the other way around, but that was the combination. As an adolescent, he was, like everyone of his generation, “sent down” to the countryside to “learn from the peasantry.” What he mainly learned, it sounded like, was not to idealize the peasants too much. “Some of them were really mean,” he said, without elaborating.

For there was only just so much he was willing to discuss. There was nothing gloomy about him, but he seemed to be making up for lost time. When we met, he was about halfway through reading every word Thoreau had ever put on paper -- an enterprise he pursued with admirable discipline, although (beginning at some point in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) diminishing enthusiasm. One day he seemed very excited by something, and it wasn’t Transcendentalism. He had been reading about some novels that were stirring up discussion back home. One of them was about some chapter in Chinese military history, which the author had narrated with more realism than certain critics thought healthy.

Others were defending the new spirit in the arts -- taking courage, presumably, from a recent official resolution on the country’s history that seemed to justify criticism and re-evaluation. My friend was on their side, as much as anyone could be while toiling in a grad student carrel for 80 hours a week. The sparks flying over theory in our seminar interested me a lot more than they did him. Even so, I knew that the stakes were a lot higher in the debates he was following. Everything about American literary culture was decidedly small beans by comparison.

Last week, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan, a novelist who began publishing in the early 1980s. It’s possible -- if not likely -- that he was one of the authors my friend was so excited by, almost 30 years ago. The early- to mid-1980s are now sometimes called a golden age or renaissance of Chinese literature. Mo Yan and my friend were born within two or three years of each other, at most, and the novelist describes throwing himself into writing fiction with what sounds like the absolute concentration that his peer was bringing to 19th-century American literature.

In China, Mo Yan's publisher has announced plans to bring out his collected works in 16 volumes. We’ll have a seventh volume of his fiction in English when the University of Oklahoma Press brings out his novel Sandalwood Death in January. Mo Yan is the first Chinese citizen to receive the award; the response within China is an understandable mixture of pride and irritation.

An article from the official news agency Xinhua quotes Chinese academics who identify a number of authors who ought to have won it in decades past. They exhibit a healthy disregard for the Swedish Academy as arbiter of an author’s world-class significance. (The Swedish committee’s choices for the literature award have at times been as dubious as its omissions are criminal.) Xinhua cites the argument of Zhang Hongsheng (dean of the literature department of the Communication University of China) that Mo Yan’s blend of “hallucinatory realism with folk tales … is more appealing to the taste of Western readers than the styles adopted by many of his peers.”

That may be, although Mo Yan has also enjoyed another great advantage over his colleagues that we’ll consider shortly. And whatever the reasons for his appeal abroad – beginning with the international acclaim for Red Sorghum (1987), a film based on his early novel of the same title – the award has only enhanced Mo Yan's reputation at home. After the announcement last week, his most recent novel jumped from 560th to 14th place on China’s Amazon site, and his work is selling out in stores there.

The only book by Mo Yan that I’ve read so far is Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of short fiction, while it’s his novels that are supposed to reveal the author in all his epic sweep. Even so, Mo Yan’s stories do corroborate Professor Zhang’s point about the Nobel laureate’s sensibility. While Mo Yan denies being influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the grounds for comparison are obvious. But it is -- to rework one of Deng Xiaoping’s expressions -- “ ’magical realism’ with Chinese characteristics”: the folkloric elements and supernatural events unfold in a landscape marked by real and recognizable political upheavals.

Mo Yan’s vision has a touch of the grotesque. There are vivid sensual descriptions (smells and textures defined so clearly that they seem real from half a globe away) and surreal twists, sometimes involving elements of visceral horror. A character in one story learns that his mother’s cataracts might improve if treated with the extract of an animal’s gall bladder – though he’s also told that one taken from a human body is much more effective, according to tradition. He is able to perform his filial duty thanks to the state execution of enemies of the people. But the result is something from an O. Henry ending.

But foreign influences or resonances only count for so much. Mo Yan’s tale seems to echo the work of Lu Xun -- perhaps the most canonical of 20th-century Chinese writers -- whose story “A Madman’s Diary” has a similar mixture of dark humor and grim irony. Or so it seemed to me, taking what amounted to a shot in the dark, given that my knowledge of modern Chinese literature is mainly limited to Lu Xun’s prose and Mao Zedong’s poetry. That guess seems confirmed by Shelley W. Chan’s A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan (2010), which its publisher, Cambria Press, calls “the most comprehensive exposition of Mo Yan’s fiction in any language.” It is certainly the only book-length study in English, bringing together enough biographical and historical background to anchor its treatment of Mo Yan’s formal experiments and thematic preoccupations.

She notes that Mo Yan has often been called an experimental or avant-garde writer (even a postmodernist: in one novel, a character named “Mo Yan” hears from a half-crazy Ph.D. candidate in liquor studies who seeks help in publishing his short stories about certain horrific matters) but that he is not usually understood as a satirist. But in keeping with the outlook of satire at its most savage, Mo Yan creates a world in which all the absurd, cruel, or vicious parts of everyday life that we try to downplay are magnified and intensified until they become inescapable.The effect can elicit laughter or disgust, or both. It is a natural means to expressing social criticism, and Mo Yan's use of it calls to mind Jonathan Swift as well as Lu Xun.

Mo Yan combines this satirical outlook with one of “nostalgia for the past,” Chan writes, “complicated by his strong and sometimes scornful criticism of tradition.” Nostalgia is also complicated by the record of carnage left by foreign invasion, civil war, famine, and ideological campaigns. He is left “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present.”

The Nobel laureate must embody everything that worried the conservative Chinese critics whose articles my friend described in the early 1980s. No doubt there are still readers in China who turn away from his work with a sense that it represents the spiritual contamination created by foreign influences. But being “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present” is the default mode for modern consciousness once sufficiently overwhelmed by available information about how things are. If Mo Yan is emerging as a figure in world literature, that may be part of it.

But as mentioned earlier, Mo Yan enjoys one benefit that has certainly helped him find a transational audience: the dedication of Howard Goldblatt, professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame from 2002-211, who has translated a great deal of contemporary Chinese fiction, including a number of Mo Yan’s novels.

A dozen years ago, World Literature Today (an indispensable journal published by the University of Oklahoma Press) published a special issue on Mo Yan that included the transcript of a talk he had given while visiting the United States. “Friends of mine who know both Chinese and English have told me that [Goldblatt’s] translations are on a par with my originals,” he said. “But I prefer to think they've made my novels better.” There may be more to that statement than exaggerated appreciation: an article in Translation Review points out that Goldblatt has, in consultation with the author, sometimes tightened up his novels with judicious editing, which Mo Yan himself has then incorporated into later editions of his work in China. When Goldblatt's translation of Sandalwood Death appears early next year, I hope we can run an interview in this column.

Until then, there is an off-chance that someone out there may know the whereabouts of my friend of three decades back. At last report, he had become deeply involved in support for the student movement in China, which meant that he lost his stipend after the Tiananmen Square massacre while also being unable to return to China. There seems to be no trace of him in the U.S. after 1989. It seems best for me not to give his name, but it would be great to get back in touch. Someone said that he translated "Civil Disobedience," and I'm hoping that's true. 


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Essay on teaching world literature in Istanbul

“Why have you come here to study world literature?”

The answers are as diverse as the 100 participants in this month-long summer school. A philosophy student from New York wants to study literature through the lens of world-systems theory. Two Turkish students hope to look beyond the nationalist curriculum they were taught in college. An associate professor from Lisbon has been charged with starting a world literature program and needs institutional advice. An American student has become weary of postcolonial studies and is looking for alternatives. A Chinese postdoc based in Canada believes that studying literature across cultures will generate a new humanism. They may not agree on what world literature is, but they speak about it in a tone of authentic urgency I have not heard in a humanities context in a long time.  

They are in the right place: Istanbul. Although the term "world literature" was coined by Goethe in 1827 in the small duchy of Weimar, it was developed in Istanbul during World War II by German Jews such as Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer who were seeking refuge from Hitler. After the war, they moved to the United States and took their version of world literature with them. It was in the United State that world literature took root during the Cold War, slowly turning a humanities education centered on the Western canon into a more global undertaking.  

Having imported world literature, American institutions are now exporting it to the rest of the world, including Istanbul. Which is why we are sitting here, at Bilgi University at the end of the Golden Horn, under the auspices of a World Literature Institute, which is loosely anchored at Harvard University. We, that is, an international faculty originating in places like Romania, Brazil, Germany, and Cyprus, but based in American institutions or their global satellites, such as NYU-Abu Dhabi. Bilgi University itself is an example of a similar process. Originally a private university financed by a Turkish businessman with ties to leftist dissidents, it is now part of a U.S.-based for-profit company, Laureate Education, that runs educational programs worldwide.

World literature isn’t just something that Istanbul imports, of course. The two chairs of comparative literature here at Bilgi University, Jale Parla and Murat Belge, have been stalwarts of a non-nationalist approach to literature, often against much opposition.

But the star of the summer session is Orhan Pamuk, something of a poster child of the new world literature. His international success, crowned by the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, catapulted him into the rarified stratosphere of global authorship where novels are published simultaneously in many languages and distributed to a global readership. This success has led to a nationalist backlash, with some Turkish readers fearing that he no longer writes for them. Pamuk is irked when accused of writing for a global authorship only, just as he is irked when his novels are approached as postcolonial literature. "Turkey has never been colonized," he pointed out to Gayatri Spivak in Istanbul in 2009, and reminds everyone of the history of the Ottoman Empire, whose demise modern Turkey still mourns. All this is tailor-made for the new world literature studies, which focuses on global prizes, distribution, and translation, as well as a deep history of empires, including non-Western ones.

Although Pamuk had to leave Istanbul for a number of years because right-wing thugs were threatening to kill him for defaming Turkishness, he has since returned to his home city with a vengeance. As if to make an indelible mark here, he has just opened a museum near his office apartment in a bourgeois-bohemian part of Istanbul. "The Museum of Innocence is not an Orhan Pamuk museum," he tells the summer school participants during a dialogue with David Damrosch, the school’s founder and my Harvard colleague. Instead, he explains that it is an extension of the fictional universe created in his last novel by the same title, in which an obsessive lover collects objects belonging to or associated with his beloved and exhibits them to the reader as if giving a tour of an imaginary museum.

We are taken on a tour of the actual Museum of Innocence by Pelin Kivrak, one of the many artists, artisans, and assistants who have helped Pamuk realize this museum over the course of many years. Some of the objects came from his own collection of '50s memorabilia, others had to be bought at antique shops. Made-up brands had to be manufactured especially for the museum. The objects are displayed in removable wooden cases that are artfully stacked, reminiscent perhaps of Joseph Cornell boxes. Except that here, you are wandering amidst objects and scenes animated by a novel, which in turn is animated by the idea of a museum. In fact Pamuk conceived of both, the museum and the novel, simultaneously; the museum just took much longer to complete. “Writing a novel is difficult,” Pamuk observes in a conversation with me, “but it is nothing compared to creating a museum.”

Now that it is finally finished, the museum is reshaping the city. The most visible sign of this are the six or seven street signs placed across Istanbul pointing to the museum, in both Turkish and English. The museum is hidden away in a maze of small streets, without a large banner on the outside. The signs actually don’t help much in finding it, but they announce its presence elsewhere in the city. In addition, the museum radiates outwards to the fancy neighborhood in which the novel begins and where Pamuk grew up. Kirvak, the assistant who helped finish the museum, has started to offer tours in which events from this and other novels by Pamuk are explained. The museum, the signs, and the city tours are ways for Pamuk to take back the city that he had been forced to leave, imposing on it his own type of world literature.

Pamuk plays a significant role in the summer school, but the best seminar session focuses on Goethe. To say that Goethe coined the term "world literature" is perhaps an exaggeration: he dropped it casually in conversation late in his life. By that time he had been doing world literature as a reader, translator and writer for decades. One of the Chinese students had studied his engagement with Chinese novels and his translation of a poem embedded in one of them: “an active re-creation,” she called it. A professor of German was interested in the ways in which Goethe used older literary forms, culled from world literature including the classical Sanskrit play Shakuntala by Kalidasa, the framing encounter between God and the devil from Job, and Greek tragedy. We talk about his “West-Eastern Divan,” the poetry collection that Goethe considered his literary response to his “brother” Hafez.

The most important ingredient of Goethe’s practice of world literature, however, was travel. In his late thirties, he undertook his two-year long trip through Italy, which culminated in Sicily. Goethe was drawn to the remnants of the classical past, but he also studied rock formations, the river system, and soil conditions. Traveling to Sicily, he noted in his travelogue, was the best commentary on Homer.  

World literature needs to be studied on location, Goethe is telling us, and this is what we are doing here, in Istanbul, the city that keeps haunting world literature to this day. If traveling to Sicily is the best commentary on Homer, then traveling to Istanbul is the best commentary on world literature. Thanks to Pamuk, the museum, and the city tours, as well as the international participants, Goethe was right.

Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English at Harvard University and general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature. He is at work on a travel book about world literature.

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Report finds literary research an inefficient use of university money

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A new paper by an English professor argues that literary research, much of which is rarely cited, is not an efficient use of university resources.

Study says colleges pay a price for humanities support

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Study suggests that private colleges with many such programs may pay a price in tuition and research revenues.

This I (Somewhat) Believe

What is so fraught as the choice of the freshman reading selection -- the one book that must engage and inspire all incoming students? The single defining text that says, "Welcome to your new world -- a world of joy and sorrow, of new experiences, of possibility." The one book that representatives of anywhere from four to 40 disciplines, in hours of meetings, must agree upon. The one text that will encompass all aspects of the oft-revised mission statement and will guarantee an unprecedentedly high rate of retention.

First-year committees might be tempted to take a page, or freeze frame, from a neighboring college of mine, and choose a film for the required text, but that just seems wrong, and so on we go, in fear and trembling, confident that this time we will find the one perfect book.

We had tried this once before, several years ago. The initial goal was to agree upon a book by a woman about women (we are a women’s college -- at least by day); the final compromise was A River Runs Through It: a novella by a man about two men and fly fishing.

After abandoning the idea of a common reading experience for three years, the college decided to try again. The first-year program was high on the list of projects in the new(est) strategic plan, and the search for the perfect book was at the center. This time, the selection was to encompass five areas: leadership, civic engagement, global awareness, health and wellness, and career choices. After many lengthy debates on texts ranging from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed to Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones to mythology (“The subject is WOMAN,” its advocate proclaimed), the winner was announced: Our students’ reading experience would be This I Believe.

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women is a compilation of radio essays from both Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s program and NPR’s revival beginning in 2005 -- the authors/readers are a mix of “famous” and “ordinary.” My school isn’t alone in this choice: This I Believe may soon, if it hasn’t already done so, overtake Mitch Album’s Tuesdays With Morrie. Another positive point for this choice is that careless young students may inadvertently purchase not Jay Allison and Don Gediman’s book but instead Carlos Fuentes’ memoir, This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life.

I don’t have anything against the book. I enjoy reading short prose pieces and listening to them on the radio. (But then I also read around 100 full-length books each year, as well.) And it’s difficult to argue with a sample premise like “I believe in empathy” -- the line is from Azar Nafisi’s “Mysterious Connections That Link Us All Together” -- which is certainly important; besides, it would be churlish -- and downright unempathetic -- not to agree.

But why not put Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, with all of its connections -- instead of this radio spot -- into our students’ hands? It’s possible to argue that such a compilation exposes students -- quickly -- to a whole chorus of voices. And that is true. There’s a cacophony of voices here, on a wide range of subjects -- from the pizza dude to God; from the virtues of morning prayer to the virtues of barbecue. And any one of these entries can be consumed and digested in far less time than the 15 minutes of fame that Warhol prophesied for everyone. Skimming the table of contents is like surfing the web.

Now, not only do I enjoy reading short prose pieces in between longer works, but I also enjoy writing them and have even written and read one for the local public radio station, for a spot called “Change Is in the Air.” The biggest challenge in writing that particular essay -- a valentine for my students -- was cutting my material down to 350 words. The subject of brevity came up very early in the list of reasons that the co-chair of the committee had for choosing This I Believe: as she reminded us, our students don’t like to read.

The response here should be twofold: (1) Ah, but college is just the place to disabuse them of that notion, and (2) I have years of observational evidence to support the idea that you can help students learn to like reading. The other two reasons were the book’s emphasis on leadership, the definition of which we have struggled mightily with ever since it appeared in the mission statement (oh, for the relatively uncomplicated days of critical thinking -- and for the even earlier days preceding the mania for mission statements), and the idea that it would lend itself to a writing assignment that asks students to write their own “This I Believe” pieces.

But what I believe is that there are far better writing exercises. Indeed, if you teach freshman writing classes, or any upper-level writing classes, you are already aware that most of your students will do their best to wrench any topic around to the subject of just what it is they believe. No, a much better exercise would be to attempt to understand what someone else believes.

And a much better reading choice would be a novel or a full-length work of nonfiction. Why not make a sustained reading experience the first lesson of college? There is something engaging, enthralling, and perhaps even transforming about the experience of being swept away by the arc of a sustained narrative.

If we are going to use the freshman text to teach anything, perhaps it should be this: let’s help students realize for themselves what Mel Rusnov says at the end of her entry in This I Believe, “The Artistry in Hidden Talents”: “I believe we are transformed and connected by the power and beauty of our creativity.”

There’s another reason to choose a full-length work. With cuts in classes -- cuts in humanities courses that served not just English majors but all majors -- students have fewer and fewer opportunities for exposure to literature. If the first-year experience is going to be not only the first, but perhaps one of the last, sustained reading experiences our college students have, then let’s not allow the dialogue to end here, with bytes and mantras.

In the meantime, I have, I believe, found the perfect text for the entering students of fall 2012: Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It’s by a woman -- one who has succeeded in an area that has been far tougher for women than men to break into. It’s 273 pages, but it does include a good number of photographs, which should satisfy the advocates for brevity. It’s very funny -- and reminds us that we can make serious points without being solemn; it’s a nice model of autobiographical writing that isn’t solipsistic; and it even has some (very) wise advice about being a leader, which begins, of course, with hard work.

Carolyn Foster Segal
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Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor of English at Cedar Crest College.

Fueling Creativity

In his autobiography, Henry Adams recounts the impact of visiting one part of the Great Exhibition held in Paris in 1900. A friend took Adams to the hall where the new motors were displayed. They were interesting enough, and the prospect of automobiles going 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) per hour certainly worrying to contemplate. But what really absorbed Adams’s attention was the sight of a dynamo.

For his mechanically minded friend, “the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight….” The impact on Adams, by contrast, was something like a religious experience.

Writing about himself in the third person, the historian says: “[T]o Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring….” At the cusp of the 20th century, Adams was becoming aware of new energies being summoned -- radioactivity, electromagnetism, who knows what. “He lost his arithmetic,” Adams writes, “in trying to figure out the equation between the discoveries and the economies of force.”

What part does literature play in our own efforts to reckon with “economies of force” now? In her editor’s column for the new issue of the Modern Language Association’s flagship journal PMLA, Patricia Yeager poses the question as a program for a new sort of cultural analysis. (Or a renewed sort, I suppose, if you grant that Adams was way ahead of things.)

“Instead of divvying up literary works into hundred-year intervals (or elastic variants like the long eighteenth or twentieth century),” asks Yeager, “or categories harnessing the history of ideas (Romanticism, Enlightenment), what happens if we sort texts according to the energy sources that made them possible?”

Here, the expression “energy sources” is not a metaphor for social or psychological factors, but quite literal. Following the opening reflections by Yeager, who is a professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, PMLA runs half a dozen short articles by contributors looking into the fueling of textual machines -- the role of wood and tallow in Shakespeare, for example, or that of coal in any Milton, Zola, and Orwell.

The symposium appears just as gas prices are going down – a development no poet laureate is likely to celebrate, and not just because they are bound to go back up again. The use of fuel seldom comes up, as such, as the central concern of the literary imagination. (A notable exception being Upton Sinclair, whose novels include King Coal and Oil!) References to energy are more often woven into narrative and imagery of a text, rather than foregrounded. Only through close reading do they come into focus as carrying assumptions or implications that may resonate with the more overt concerns of a literary work.

A good example is Caliban’s first line in The Tempest. When summoned by his master Prospero, he responds, with irritation: “There’s wood enough within.” (In other words, "Don't tell me to go fetch wood. I already did and you have plenty.") In a short piece called “Wooden Slavery,” Vin Nardizzi unpacks the implications of this line if we read it as part of the final period of “the age of wood” – an expression from environmental, not literary, history. The age of wood, Nardazzi says “names a swath of time that stretches from prehistory to the second half of the eighteenth century,” after which “coal generally replaced charcoal (an energy source plucked from the ashes of cone-shaped piles of lumber that had been charred) in industrial iron making and fuelwood in homes.”

While critics in the 20th century became very interested in the dynamics between Prospero and Caliban -- reading them as archetypes of the colonizer and the native -- it was also a “power” relationship in another sense. One uses a fuel source necessary for the functioning of everyday life. The other accumulates it. (Caliban’s role as wood-gatherer is also stressed in later scenes.) Furthermore, the seemingly casual references to wood take on greater significance given the energy crisis of Shakespeare’s day. “Prices for this staple good were accelerating when The Tempest was first performed,” writes Nardizzi, “and polemics describing an unremedied shortage predicted ecopolitical collapse. In a pamphlet contemporaneous with the play, Arthur Standish articulates the potential fallout: ‘no wood no Kingdome.’ ”

Apart from its role as fuel, of course, wood was necessary for building, say, theaters and ships. (But not, as you might expect, for papermaking, which mostly involved recycling old rags. It would be another two centuries before wood was used.) This naturally raises the question of how Shakespeare’s audience would have responded to the image of an island in the New World where the resource was plentiful. (A fuel for colonial desire, so to speak.) In an endnote, Nardizzi, an assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia, mentions that he is at work on a manuscript called “Evergreen Fantasies: Shakespeare’s Theatre in the Age of Wood.”

Historicizing explicit references to fuel in a text is one way to thinking about literature and energy. Another is to consider how abundance is taken for granted. In her column, Yeager notes that she became interested in the topic while reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, that classic American novel of picaresque cross-country adventure in the age of big cars and low gas mileage.

Thirty years since reading it, my recollection is that Kerouac’s characters were preoccupied with getting high and getting laid, rather than with getting a fill-up. Fuel, at least, was easy to come by. This is one of many things about the book that make it look less like a challenge to the postwar American cultural mainstream than its hepped-up underside. “Certainly Kerouac’s characters are gasoholics,” writes Yeager. “Oil dependency created their world; each city, suburb, truck stop, and bite of pie depends on Standard Oil, Shell, Mobilgas, or Phillips 66.”

But the novel also contains images of plentiful resources turning into pollution, as when Kerouac’s narrator evokes “the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent; somewhere far across [which], gloomy, crazy New York was throwing up its cloud of dust and brown steam.” Encountering an abandoned filling station while on an empty tank is no source of wild kicks. “Is there an energy unconscious at work in this text?” the critic asks. “Are the gas station’s empty pumps a premonitory metaphor for resource anxiety….[o]r is an empty gas station just am empty gas station -- the halted traveler’s bad luck, the writer’s reality effect?”

At the end of her column, Yeager calls for essays and proposals for “a book on literature, energy, and the ways in which thinking about energy sources might transform our notions of literary periods.” She is editing with Imre Szeman, a professor of English and film studies at the University of Alberta. The symposium in PMLA is intended as something of a catalyst.

The whole enterprise intrigued me -- for one, as a reader of Henry Adams, as well as his brother Brooks Adams, who developed his own distinctive analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations as a matter of the concentration and diffusion of energy. It also seems in keeping with the spirit of the American thinker Kenneth Burke (a pioneer of ecocriticism) who defined literature as one form of “equipment for living.” I prefer to think of literary texts as motors plugged into a power grid, rather than as “monuments of unaging intellect.”

Unable to reach Yeager after reading the symposium, I did have a discussion by e-mail with Szeman. They don’t have a publisher for the book lined up, but he doesn’t seem unduly worried about finding one.

The main thing I wondered was how serious they were about using energy sources as a basis for cultural periodization. It might work as an initial, more or less heuristic approach to rethinking how we look at the embeddedness of the literary imagination in society. One book on Shakespeare and the Age of Wood might be interesting, but two would probably represent an unfortunate trend.

For some reason, I kept imagining future sessions at the MLA convention full of people like you sometimes run into at the Library of Congress snack bar -- the ones clutching notebooks full of evidence that the Cold War was about the control of potassium deposits. Critical pluralism is a fine thing, but you do worry sometimes.

“I think we're more interested in the thematization of energy in literature and culture than in periodization,” wrote Szeman in reply. “When we use centuries, periods defined by monarchies, national divisions, etc., we make a claim on what we imagine organizes and shapes cultural expression. Our question: if, in the last instance, the kinds of forms of energy to which human communities have access shape cultural expression, and if our literary analysis was therefore organized around energy, how would this change how (and why) we analyze literary expression?”

Reading the spontaneous human combustion of Mr. Krook in Bleak House as part of the Age of Tallow -- as Laurie Shannon does in her PMLA essay -- would be an example of what Szeman calls “a thought-experiment on an alternate way of organizing literary analysis in order to challenge existing presumptions about periods and to point to what might be missing in the (still) accepted temporal and spatial taxonomies.”

The whole enterprise is also a byproduct of a kind of reversal. Henry Adams strained to imagine the incredible expansion of the “economies of force” about to overtake the world. He could hardly foresee the growth of appetite for that energy -- let alone, as we must, the prospect of exhausting it.

I am writing this article, and you are reading it, on streams of electricity. Most of us think about electricity only when the circuit goes dead. The rest of the time, it is an invisible necessity -- increasingly presupposed by literary culture itself, at least in what is sometimes called the world’s “overdeveloped” economies. And in a way, this may be the next step for the critical project of analyzing literature’s “energy unconscious”: thinking about what happens to reading when the written word itself depends on raw power.

Scott McLemee
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