Sunday, 6 March 2011

Nincompoop

You write a piece.  Then you read one that confirms it, absolutely.

Most literary criticism today is written by academics, a number of whom, perhaps the majority, can only appreciate an original work through the thoughts of their predecessors, mostly other critics from the academy.  It is a world hidden from the general public, which we notice only by accident; if occasionally we get lost, or our curiosity is stirred; catching them in the specialist journals, at the conferences, and in those parts of the libraries where no one ever goes.

If we wander around the university grounds we can see them, reading novels from atop their footnotes, vaguely viewing the shifting sentences as they cross the valleys far below.  If they see us, strange beasts from exotic lands, we glimpse their puzzled expressions as they try to place us in the books they have read…  Sometimes, if we are lucky, we will watch their unease when confronted by a paragraph in brash, bright colours marching through the quiet campus lawns, its brass band loudly beating out some simple tunes.  We watch them writhe; we see them dive into the notes and well worn quotations at their feet, like gravel throwing up its thick dust cloud; and where safe again amongst the windy phrases and convoluted syntax we see them once more at ease as their noses press against the polysyllabic words and page long paragraphs; delighted eyes rapturous on the cloudy wisdom of their godly idols, of aporia, langue and parole…  The band is gone, and when they look up they remember a symphony of anarchic brilliance: of Philippe Sollers on massed violins, Ferdinand de Saussure on damaged trumpets and Lacan on self-made wind instruments; Foucault on the decks, and Ken Dodd quoting Heidegger in sprechgesang.  They remember Marx as he dances, Freud high on ecstasy, and Julia Kristeva dismantling an accordion; and they think and they reflect and they quote Professor Wright on Jane Austen’s influence on the street slang of Lancastrian buskers, and his seminal article on the washboard players of Bolton.

Common sounds are not welcome high up on these mountainsides.  There it is a higher, rarer, vertiginous, world, where experience, built on a century of study, has been refined into a newly manufactured heaven; where concepts float free from the mundane round of daily life; with its strange sounds and arresting sights.

The various words that Mr. Rowe mistakes for the “symbols” of academic jargon, supposedly planted by an idiotically sly novelist to keep schoolmen busy, are not labels, not pointers, and certainly not the garbage cans of a Viennese tenement, but live fragments of specific description, rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion.  The fatal flaw in Mr. Rowe’s treatment of recurrent words, such as “garden” or “water”, is his regarding them as abstractions and not realizing that the sound of a bath being filled, say in the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in Lolita.

Nabokov was writing in 1971 against the critic W.W. Rowe who produced (wrote is perhaps too kind a word) a book that claimed to find hidden meanings buried underneath the novels’ sentences.  Nearly 40 years later another academic seeks to find some more rusty nails deposited in Nabokov’s rich earth:

Every time Nabokov uses the words “associate” or “banal” in Bend Sinister, Naiman finds in them “ass” and “anal”, the clues to a homosexual sub-theme of the book.  Every time in Lolita a word appears with “con” in it, from “constructed” through “connûmes” to “Conrad”, it contains a sexual equivocation on the French con.  He deduces from one passage about Humbert’s erotic “life” that “life” is code for penis everywhere in the novel, and across Nabokov’s oeurve.  In Pnin, a professor called Konstantin Chateau illicitly harbours not only con, of course, but also chat, and therefore pussy – a key to “Pnin’s theme of aquatic pussy.”  When Pnin, dispossessed and humiliated, yields to tears, he angrily mutters he is being “idiotical” – and this, suggests Naiman, hints again at “con”, in its double sense of “idiot” and, then, “cunt.”  And wherever words such as “very”, ”university”, or “discovered” appear in Pnin, they are hints of its perverse dimension.  (Thomas Karshan reviewing Nabokov Perversely, by Eric Naiman in TLS 04/02/2011)

Literature reduced to a crossword puzzle.  It is also dull wittedness of a particular kind.  It reminds me of Mensa; some (most?) of whose members have always struck me as rather stupid; for they have turned life into a mental game, and the world into an endless puzzle book; leaving out all the interesting bits, which they seem unable to grasp.  But unlike table tennis or pinball these games have a certain kudos, or at least in the popular culture; where they, and IQ, the measurement on which membership is based, seems to hold a strong fascination, as do other odd things like ghosts and unexplained phenomena.  It is the circus tent of freaks and outsized life forms, of conmen and magicians; a world where, according to one TV programme, the master mind of Great Britain is the person who can remember all the characters in the novels of Agatha Christie.

Intelligence is like the human mind itself – there are so many facets.  The ability to play chess or do logical puzzles is one.  The skill to read a novel creatively is another; a third is the ability to manipulate people; a fourth is to write and compose; a fifth that of the craftsman…  and on and on.  Each of these tends to use, one assumes, different parts of our mental apparatus, to use, quoting a contemporary model, a different “mental organ”; that is, one of its individual faculties.  This diversity tends to get lost in a debate about intelligence, where everything is conflated into a single idea – intellectual ability, as defined by academic performance.  But consider our other attributes and how they differ.  Think of the varieties of sport, and how each one is individually tested: is a pole-vaulter better than a sprinter, a swimmer superior to a weight lifter?  The question is absurd; and most people will recognise its absurdity.  With the mind, however, it is not so.  Why is this?  Why is so much value placed on one type of intelligence?

I have no idea!  But let’s speculate.  The attraction of IQ is its simplicity, the mind is conceptualised as a complete whole; its capacity reduced to a single rating score.  This suits a scientific-industrial society perfectly, a culture where quantitative measurement has increasingly become the dominant standard by which quality is measured.  The source of the technological foundation of modern life the sciences influence the rest of the culture in various other ways: non-scientists try to mimic its working practices - the number crunching of social scientists and the audit culture in public services –, while others, notably the populists, usually scientists of the second or third order, and thus less likely to be at the creative critical edge, dress up as Hernán Cortes or the Pizarro brothers, would be conquerors who attack domains that do not belong to them; ravaging a rich culture in the name of truth and progress.  Think of Richard Dawkins’ meme as an explanation for the rise of Christianity; and then read Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom to see the uselessness of it as an explanatory term.  Or, if you prefer an easier life, read the following passage from Gibbon, and then replace “its great Author” with “the meme”:

Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth. To this inquiry an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church. (Edward Gibbon, quoted in Ernest Gellner 's The Psychoanalytic Movement)[i]

By explaining the transference of all ideas it explains none – it has no content, though useful as a metaphor.  But like all religious fanatics the metaphor is believed to be literal truth.  Thus the evangelicalism which tries to extend scientific explanations into subject areas where other kinds of cognitive practice are needed; such as in the creative reaches of the hard sciences themselves.  

Given such dominance, both in cognition and in symbolism (the example above suggests how the old God myth has been replaced by a new myth based on biology), and its seamless fusion with the working practices of the large government department and the private corporation, one would expect that the qualities needed to become a work-a-day scientist and bureaucrat would be those most highly valued by such a culture.  For one has to remember there is the actual practice of the hard sciences, which include a range of intellectual approaches, and its reception in the public realm; with the latter creating its own reductive, technocratic image of the original; based on a significant truth, for sure; but also a distortion, in what it leaves out – the speculations, the informed guesses, the intuitive insights of many scientific pioneers.  And as organisations grow in size, and the techniques of statistical and financial analysis have come to play a more important role in the running of the firm, the bureaucrat and the scientist have fused, while there are more of them…  Now, to be a good employee or lab technician certain abilities are preferred, and as they are clearly linked to a particular performance of the mind so they come to be rated as the signs of a high intelligence; rather than just as one aspect of a much richer and more diverse reality. 

The current fashion for psychometric tests for new employers may give us a clue as to what is happening.  The research, we are told, confirms that high scores (particularly for verbal reasoning) are the best indicators of future good performance.  This may be so, but one wonders if this is only part of the story.  For example, such tests don’t measure those who never apply for these posts.  In my own experience I have met many extremely bright people, far cleverer than the directors running the firms where I have collected my monthly pay cheques, but who work in poorly paid, low-skilled jobs.  Their attitudes don’t suit the corporate culture with its fixation on career and control, and they are not interesting in joining them.  Another assumption is about what the tests are measuring: is it intellectual capacity or one’s level of subservience, the ability to follow rules?  As discussed at some length in a previous post the innovative thinkers are those who have more than mere intellectual ability – they have strong perceptions, excellent judgement and deep sensibility.  A problem with these characteristics is that they can often be associated with potential troublemakers; for the people who have them tend to be individualists, who have a tendency to question the assumptions and working practices of the discipline or institution in which they work.  Of course, no company is going to advertise that they want mental servitude, and that obedience is the quality they most value.  Much better to argue that it is intelligence and mental acuity that they are looking for.  In a rule based society, and this is the dominant trend in modern western life, all protestations about creative freedom and individuality to the contrary, the key characteristic that will be most wanted is the ability to understand and follow the rules.  Another characteristic is the ability to work consistently and at regular intervals – the artistic type who works non-stop for a week, and then has a month off isn’t going to be very attractive to Swanage Council or Novotel.[ii]  Creative insight and a mad rush of frenetic output, which produces the unexpected, albeit of high quality, is not what is required in most institutions – they prefer the production of a steady supply of quantifiable work, that is accurate and predictable. 

The outcome is that our model of intelligence is being narrowed down to that of the clever bureaucrat; a model, we are told, we all should emulate, for the benefit both of the society and ourselves.[iii]  However, and an interesting paradox, the higher reaches of science require just those extra “artistic” abilities in order for it to progress.  In the Soviet Union the state recognised their subversive potential, and tried to reduce the sciences to a form of engineering, thus helping to stagnate both the discipline and the society.  We see something similar today, where the government increasingly wants to limit research to technology – the only science that really matters is that which can produce practical results, and thus profits for the multi-national corporation.

Eric Naiman appears the classic example of the bureaucrat who wants to be a literary critic.  More suited to being an accountant or chemistry teacher he became a professor of literature.  Easy today, of course, since the academy conquered the arts, so that the traditional abilities needed to appreciate poetry or paintings – taste, sensibility, creative insight and emotional sympathy - are no longer necessary.  Instead you apply the methods of the social scientist, though instead of a statistical analysis of crime figures or health indicators you pick out words and parts of words, which you get your software program to identify and analyse. 

The technique, as Karshan notes, has a curious result: it produces a product that looks ridiculous.  By reducing Nabokov’s novels to merely a data set he misses the very qualities that give them their uniqueness and value.  This is the stupidity, and it is of a very high order – it is like a swimmer trying to win a race by jumping over the pole vault.  That whole created world of feeling and emotion, of sophisticated arguments and beautiful metaphors; the profound, but subtle, dislocation of reality that all the best art achieves, all is reduced to a simple cipher.[iv]  And one suspects he does so because he doesn’t have a feel for them.  Intellectually he may understand what is going on, but he can only turn them into abstractions – a simple series of symbols to be manipulated at will.  He is in the wrong profession!  Like so many others.  However, an academic is unlikely to admit to this, as Naiman, perhaps, will never accept that his approach could be used on anyone’s oeuvre; from Balzac to Tony Blair.  Nabakov, quite rightly defending the uniqueness of his own works, said it well when he criticized Rowe:

The symbolism racket in schools attracts computerized minds but destroys plain intelligence as well as poetical sense. It bleaches the soul. It numbs all capacity to enjoy the fun and enchantment of art.

A timely warning; destined to be ignored.



[i] See Rousseau III Hiding the Facts for a slightly different interpretation of this passage.
[ii] There is a good example of this in Hilary Spurling’s biography of Matisse.  He seemed to have an almost endless supply of energy, working with little rest for weeks on end; but then would occasionally collapse completely.
[iii] Richard Storry in his history of modern Japan gives a wonderful example of this:
            “[According to the Jesuit Francis Xavier the Japanese] people whom we have met so far are the best who have yet to be discovered, and it seems to me that we shall never find among heathens another race to equal the Japanese.  They are people of very good manners, good in general, and not malicious; they are men of honour to a marvel, and prize honour above all else in the world.” (my emphasis)
            The values by which people were judged were different then, but based on these values this was a rational assessment.  Both the needs of faith and commerce, and of sociability, seemed to have been met by the welcome and the accommodating nature of the Japanese hosts, whose culture could be imagined by the Portuguese in the image of their own.  We now live in a world where intellect has replaced faith and honour in relative importance, and thus the standards have changed accordingly; but the way we really assess them has perhaps not.
[iv] In his introduction to Locke’s Political Writings David Wootton shows that Richard Ashcraft does something similar to Locke’s correspondence.  It is a common trait, that can pop up anywhere in the academic world.  It is the one conspiracy theory that seems to have achieved respectability.

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