Along with P.J. O’Rourke, Joseph Epstein is perhaps the only writer to make The Weekly Standard a magazine worth reading. To be sure, they’re both card-carrying conservatives. But conservatism’s most egregious sin is not its desire to preserve the past, the sins of conservatism are of the fanatical variety. There is nothing on the face of the earth more boring than a fanatic, and nothing within the environs of America that invites fanaticism like the modern conservative movement.
No, Epstein and O’Rourke are conservatives of the misanthropic, small-c, “Get Off My Lawn” vitality that hates everything and everyone. Hatred, as we all admit in our best moments, is a lot of fun. This is a conservatism to which non-neanderthals can relate.
So when Joseph Epstein writes about the subjects he loves, I yawn. Even when they dovetail with my loves, like his article extolling the virtues of my favorite writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, it’s just plain boring. I’m waiting, writhing, agonizing for the moment when he shows the sharpened knife. But sometimes it never comes. But when he plunges his knife into the cultural figures he hates: which includes such deserving sacred cows as Harold Bloom, George Steiner...and another one I love.... Saul Bellow, my mouth starts to water. Nobody in America carves a turkey more hilariously.
And this is why his editorial in the Wall Street Journal is such a wet-noodle disappointment. You would think that the subject of The Decline of Literary Studies in America would be the ultimate home run. Does anybody remember an Lit major from college who did not end up in one of the below four categories:
A. Did not come to regret living in a cardboard box?
B. Possessed a single coherent thought?
C. Stifle their own coherent thoughts and the thoughts of others?
D. Murder a dozen people at a post office?
Literature was once thought the bedrock of a well-developed mind that could entertain and console itself even in the drabbest and direst of circumstances. And even if this definition comes from a time when only the super-privileged of the world could study literature...let’s face it. Reading great writing is a privilege. And even if not every revered book (or ‘Great Book’) students were made to study was equally deserving, students could be counted on to find something within their studies of great books that would make worth all those musty, boring texts you have to read in addition. Once upon a time, the whole purpose of literary studies was culture and enrichment. But how anachronistic do words like ‘culture’ and ‘enrichment’ seem today. Perhaps they seem so because culture really is as useless as most people think, and perhaps ‘enrichment’ was always just a publicity word used by your local library. But even if too few students understood why ‘culture’ and ‘enrichment’ are important, at least the high purpose was there for students and teachers alike to grasp.
Today, the purpose is theory. Instead of reading the books themselves, today’s English departments use great and mediocre books as mere pins on which they can hang grand theories. The text of a great book, if it’s even read, is just a pretext for what comes next. It is deconstructed, anatomized, conceptualized, hermeneuticized, paradigmized, dialecticized, textualized, feminized, queer theorized, mythopoeticized, collective unconsciousized, poststructuralized, postcolonialized, semioticized, semiologized, de-eroticized and self-referentialized. It is viewed through the lenses of Marx, Freud, Jung, Barthes, Nietszche, Lukacs, Lacan, Wittgenstein, Durkheim, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Bergson, Momson, Habermas, Levi-Strauss, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Feuerbach and Auerbach. In a raw page count, is it more likely that an average lit graduate has read more by Tolstoy or by Foucault?
Whether or not one thinks that the ‘great books’ should have any application to our lives, most of these books were written to be living texts with which you are supposed to fall in love. But what is there to love about Joycean hermeneutics in the work of Anthony Burgess? No doubt, all of this is supposed to enrich our understanding. But how can literary criticism, however perceptive, enrich your understanding of books which you haven’t read for yourself?
In aesthetics, only one question matters, has ever mattered, and will ever matter:
How Good Is It?
Epstein’s review of the “Cambridge History of the American Novel” starts out well enough. By the second paragraph, we’re gifted with this gem:
‘"In short," though, is perhaps the least apt phase for a tome that runs to 1,244 pages and requires a forklift to hoist onto one's lap. All that the book's editors left out is why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others.’
A little later, we get this stunner:
‘Biographical notes on contributors speak of their concern with "forms of moral personhood in the US novels," "the poetics of foreign policy," and "ecocriticism and theories of modernization, postmodernization, and globalization."
Yet, through the magic of dull and faulty prose, the contributors to "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" have been able to make these presumably worldly subjects seem parochial in the extreme—of concern only to one another, which is certainly one derogatory definition of the academic. These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it,’
And now I’m ready for the usual joy I derive from watching watching Epstein tee-off on the lowest possible par. And for a little while, there is every reason in the world to be elated:
‘"Attention to the performativity of straight sex characterizes . . . 'The Great Gatsby' (1925), where Nick Carraway's homoerotic obsession with the theatrical Gatsby offers a more authentic passion precisely through flamboyant display." Betcha didn't know that Nick Carraway was hot for Jay Gatsby? We sleep tonight; contemporary literary scholarship stands guard.’
OK. The appetizers have been served now. I’m ready, ready, ready for the red meat. But just when we’re ready for the catharsis which only a great hatred session can provide, the loud alarm bells go off.
‘"The Cambridge History of the American Novel" could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.
The study of popular culture—courses in movies, science fiction, detective fiction, works at first thought less worthy of study in themselves than for what they said about the life of their times—made the next incursion against the exclusivity of high culture. Multiculturalism, which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.’
Dearest, darling Joe. We’re now moving away from ‘Get Off My Lawn’ conservatism. You just planted us firmly in the realm of “The World Ended in 1968” conservatism. If the distinction between high and low culture is of such paramount importance, how could you wonder in print about whether or not George Steiner underrates the power of semen?
Let’s leave aside the thought that there’s no cultural value in movies or ‘lower’ forms of fiction. Those are topics for other days. Let’s keep our focus on this now quaint idea that high and low are separable. The thought that high and low culture should be kept separate would come as fox news to Shakespeare - who depended on humor to keep us interested when things got too heady. It would probably come as an equal surprise to Chaucer (all those shit jokes), Cervantes (all that physical humor), Dickens (all those lowlife vulgarities), Homer (all those action/adventure scenes), Joyce (all those guys with perversions), Beckett (all those vaudeville routines), and Rabelais (all that....well...everything).
In fact, let’s be honest here. How many of us, even among we high culture snobs who love great literature and painting and classical music, can stand the people who claim to love the real highbrows - not the high/lowbrows like Mahler and Chekhov who take us from the classroom to the ghetto from minute to minute, I’m talking about the ‘appreciators’ who prattle on with no end about the virtues of Wagner, Milton, Goethe, David et al? The real bores who give us nothing but seriousness with no relief in sight but to stop reading/listening/watching. If high culture isn’t welcome outside the academy, these artists and the people who tout them are as legitimate a target for blame as my generation of cultural philistines.
...But then comes the moment when I begin to wonder if my love of Joseph Epstein is entirely misplaced:
"In today's university, no one is any longer in a position to say which books are or aren't fit to teach; no one any longer has the authority to decide what is the best in American writing. Too bad, for even now there is no consensus about who are the best American novelists of the past century. (My own candidates are Cather and Theodore Dreiser.) Nor will you read a word, in the pages of "The Cambridge History of the American Novel," about how short-lived are likely to be the sex-obsessed works of the much-vaunted novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike and Philip Roth or about the deleterious effect that creative-writing programs have had on the writing of fiction.
With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today. The most lauded novelists in "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" tend to be those, in the words of another of its contributors, who are "staging a critique of 'America' and its imperial project." Thus such secondary writers as Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow are in these pages vaunted well beyond their literary worth."
Whatever one thinks of the writers in question (for the record, love Roth and Cather, never read Dreiser, vaguely like Updike, something like contempt for the rest), the conservatism Epstein espouses here isn’t merely misanthropic anymore. It is an utterly out-of-touch misanthropic conservatism. Whether or not the sex-obsessed authors he mentions are vaunted in the book, the Assistant Professor who brings Roth, Mailer or Updike to the classroom is on a suicide mission. The ‘misogynistic’ writing of those three authors is a guaranteed tenure repellent. Furthermore, Doctorow might be vaunted in creative writing programs, but the entire cache of Ginsberg and Vonnegut comes from the idea that they’re subversive. The academic establishment still holds them in contempt (and rightly so). The fact that Epstein lumps all these writers together shows just how out of touch he is with the subject he’s holding to ridicule.
I have neither a concluding paragraph nor an idea as to what the point of writing this was...but I enjoyed it...