How to Be an Intellectual
Essays on Criticism, Culture, & the University
Jeffrey J. Williams
(Fordham)I recall well when it happened to me. It came in the late spring of 1959, and it came in a rush.
I was working towards my MA in English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, considered to be one of the plummiest graduate schools in the U. S. I was in a class called Renaissance Poetry, taught by Dr. "Chip" Chistle who was famous for his studies in English language relativity: word count, word order, stylistic tics of the poets. That day we were studying Kit Marlowe, and --- inevitably --- that big bore, Shakespeare.
Flint-eyed old Chip had already sneered at a couple of my papers, my most creative efforts, having to do with my version of Renaissance Beauty and Truth. During this class, as the spring morning breezes filtered from the bay into our classroom, which reeked of ennui, Prof. Chistle told us of a computer study --- yes, back in 1959 they were doing "computer studies," computers then being huge hot machines that blinked and sizzled and made too much noise and spit out cardboard cards with rectangular holes punched in them.
In this case, the cards did a comparison of the number of adjectives in Shakespeare vs. the number of adjectives in Donne and Marvell. And the conclusion was . . .
But suddenly it made no difference at all. The classes we had been taking were all in nadirville: no love for the sensational verbal tricks and transpositions and tickles of words and rhyme and rhythm by some of the geniuses of the form. All of these, at the moment of my epiphany, meant nothing.
I recall from back of the beginning of the semester some of Chip's study: the printing history of several different Folios of Shakespeare; a study of the political environment during the times of Andrew Marvell; and research into the concept of culture in Egypt and Europe as represented by "Anthony & Cleopatra."
In other words, all my favorite works moldering there lifeless on the dissecting-room table, blood everywhere.
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This book of essays by Williams brought it all back to me, especially when he quoted some of the titles of "staid articles" from the pedants of our own day. Articles on "Thoreau's Moon Mythology," or "Henry James Rewriting of Minny Temple's Letters," or "Horizontal and Vertical Movement in Robert Frosts's Mountain Interval.
For those of us with the misfortune to be in love with Thackeray or James or Thoreau, literature in general, this pedantic needlework could be enough to send us off the deep end. And for me, instead of sticking my head in the oven (this was near the time when Sylvia Plath took that very exit), I figured out, at last (why'd you wait so long, boobie?) that I had other fish to fry, that it was time to take wing.
Just think, if Chip had not keelhauled me with his studies from PMLA or MLA or his bonky notes on my papers , I might be there still, maiming myself with a daily noodle trellis of literary nonsense. From then on, my life began to take some fascinating twists and turns. Thanks, Chip, you catatonic nitwit.
I now learn from Williams that, in undergraduate school, before I arrived on Berkeley, I had been immersed in something known as New Criticism. The set was simple: "Intentional fallacy," which
rules out talking about the author; rather, one should talk only about the poem itself. An author's intentions are not reliable; rather, what matters is what is manifested in the poem,
The New Critics also ruled out history and politics. They acknowledged their importance but parceled them out to their proper disciplines, to history or to the rising disciplines of sociology and political science.
"A literary critic should properly stick to the poetic qualities of a poem. Its historical quality might have documentary value, but not literary value." But --- and this was what makes me suspicious of Williams and his friends in the present-day English lit biz --- New Criticism "also dispelled the touchy-feely impressionism of much teaching."
Like a biologists with an enhanced microscope, the New Critic zeroed in on the specific features of a poem or a story. In turn, the New Criticism lent a scientific exactness and credibility to literary study.
Mebbe those of us who love the words more than the wordsmiths are in the school of Stanley Fish, who, Williams tells us, argued "that all meaning resided in the experience of the reader." Thus, it makes no difference whether a reader of "To His Coy Mistress" is me or a truck-driver or a high-falutin' English professor at Yale. What we bring to the poem is what we can take out of it, and to hell with the adverbs or the adjectives."A poem [is] not a verbal icon but a revenge plot.I'm not sure where Williams is coming from in this book. He tells us he's a socialist and a student of the politics of higher education. In some of the best chapters of this awkwardly titled anthology, he rails at the politicians and the universities for dumping debt on those who just want to get educated. As we all know, the federal and state governments no longer give major support to students through grants to the school, but, instead, demand that students go in debt to get through college, making current funding "more of an entitlement for banking than for students.
Since the federal government insures the loans, banks bear no risk, and in fact make extraordinary fees from late payments or delinquent loans. Even by the standards of the most doctrinaire market believer, this is skewered capitalism . . . Sallie May, the largest lender, reaps phenomenal amounts (in many years between 30 and 50 percent.)
The golden standard, according to Williams, was the GI bill which not only educated a whole generation after WWII, but paid for itself many times over by giving us a large, self-motivated, industrious generation to contribute to our national intellect and prosperity. By contrast, the new operating system has successfully pauperized students by locking them in for year after year to expensive debt. Williams states that the "current loan system has an uncomfortable resonance with colonial indenture," a form of slavery that built this country three hundred years ago, and was yet another form of slavery that tainted early United States' myth of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
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Williams' heart is in the right place, but he still shows some of those characteristics of the rigid scholar that scared off those of us who went to university to thrill in the knowledge, prose, poetry, the soaring intellectual riot of men's (and women's) artistic thinking. But often Williams seems to be off over there in the drone scholar's corner. He dedicates nine long chapters to interviewing "important' critics, and these chapters are among the least interesting in the book, filled with sentences like "He was pondering Derrida's idea that media is not just a vehicle but 'changes what can be said.'"
That idea again showed him something he hadn't seen, about the way that language itself inflects the possibilities of thought.
As my dear old mammie would say, "Say who?"
There are moments of somewhat heavy chortling here, such as his stories about classes with the great Jacques Marie Émile Lacan, "who did not speak English very well, said 'Let him who agrees with me, rise up the finger.'" Or when the noted psychiatrist and linguist said that he was gong to hold office hours the next day and 'if anyone wishes, they may come to my office at 11:00 tomorrow morning and mate with me.'"
How to Be an Intellectual can best be recommended because of Williams scathing and fact-filled indictment of colleges, in concert with the politicians, who have decided that the education biz is just that: a business. And the poor student who is up to here in debt, and will be there until half of his or her life is over: it's not just. I thought comparing student debt to indentured servitude a bit of a stretch, but it works, because
If you pick up this volume hoping to learn how to be an intellectual, forget it. You don't learn crap like that from a book. Instead --- read this and weep. The hope and dream of our nation, those who have the desire to learn, to make a worthy living, to be part of the future of our country are getting the worst of the deal. It's another plan from you-know-who to murder the middle class.
- The system gives preference to the aristocracy --- how many children of lawyers or doctors (or Senators for that matter) are going to be borrowing from Sallie Mae? Thus "it reinforces rather than dissolves the discriminations of class, counteracting meritocracy and creating a new underclass."
- It's pervasive . . . almost three-quarters of students takes out these onerous loans.
- The numbers are mind-numbing: a quarter of those who borrow from the feds owe more than $30,000.
- Those who want professional degrees often come up with indebtedness in excess of $80,000;
- these debts run for years, typically from fifteen to thirty years. Thus, if you leave graduate school when you are thirty years old, you will be paying off this debt until you are sixty.
- And it's worse than marriage --- it's penury until death do you part: "Contracts for federal student loans stipulate severe penalties and are virtually unbreakable, forgiven not in bankruptcy but only in death, and enforced by severe measures, such as garnishee and other sanctions, with little recourse."
- The who that profit, of course, are those who already have, those who have proven again and again the profitability in being scoundrels.
Students can rightly say that they have ended up working in a dark mine. And those who (already) have get the gold; the rest of us get the shaft.--- Irving Spivak