“Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.”

Arts & Letters Daily sent me to this piece, by Mark Bauerlein, about the study of literature in American universities. It made particular sense of way that the descent into wokeness was not one single process, but a series of processes.

Quote, from near the end:

Fifty years ago, a university couldn’t call itself “Tier One” unless it had a renowned English department. No more: Abysmal enrollment numbers in the humanities at such universities prove the irrelevance of literary study. My colleagues around the country bemoan the decline, but they blame the wrong things. English did not fall because a bunch of conservatives trashed the humanities as a den of political correctness. It didn’t fall because it lost funding or because business leaders promoted STEM fields. It fell because the dominant schools of thought stopped speaking about the truth of literature. Once the professors could no longer insist, “You absolutely must read Dryden, Pope, and Swift — they are the essence of wit and discernment”; when they lost the confidence to say that nothing reveals the social complexity of the colonial situation better than Nostromo; if they couldn’t assure anyone that Hawthorne’s sentences showed the American language in its most exquisite form, they lost the competition for majors. Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.

Meanwhile, outside of universities, the internet has made it massively easier to study literature, and also have a life beyond and beside that, not least because it’s now so much easier to get hold of whatever books you want.

I’m sure, if it’s taught inspiringly, that it’s much more fun to study literature in the face-to-face company of like-minded enthusiasts. But it’s not essential, the way it is if you want to become something like a structural engineer. And if you do want to meet up with fellow enthusiasts, the internet is good at arranging that also. I have organised monthly meetings for nearly half of my life and the admin for this got a lot easier when email, and then the internet, kicked in.

My spell checker says “enrollment” in the above quote ought to be “enrolment”, but I’ve left it as was.

Today Patrick and I had another conversation about World War One

We had already decided that our chat today would be about what kicked off World War One. However, as part of my homework for this, I listened again to this earlier conversation we recorded about World War One, way back in 2017, and I was reminded that we’d already had quite a lot to say about the causes of World War One. This was the very first of these conversations of the most recent clutch, and I was agreeably surprised by how much sense it made, and by how relatively little irrelevant tangenting and general repetition and waffling I inflicted upon Patrick.

All of which meant that we needed to steer the chat towards things we hadn’t said in that previous one. We went into a bit more of the detail this time, about how Russian military reaction to defeat in 1905 by Japan might have made Germany nervous. And we also talked more about how Britain was, in the years before World War One, threatening to tear itself apart over how to answer the Irish Question, which meant that in 1914 Britain consequently seemed very weak, compared to how strong it eventually turned out to be.

I also added some attempted generalisations, about how nothing on its own can cause anything else (I blamed and have long blamed Sherlock Holmes for immortalising the error that consists of contradicting this fact), and for how a multipolar world made that world vulnerable to a cascade of escalating declarations of war, all of them restrained, but not restrained enough, by the fact that this huge war was actually much feared, but not feared enough. Which is all quite orthodox, but I feel I understand all this stuff a bit better than before. However, I did digress rather wildly into giving this book about Brexit a plug, because it illustrates well how the cleverest people can react to events really quite intelligently, and still get, for them, a very bad result.

No apology for returning to this vexed subject. I mean, historically, could there be a more important question?

This latest effort will arrive at Croziervision, whenever it arrives, presumably accompanied by the very helpful notes that Patrick now likes to introduce these conversations with. Nothing we said can’t happily wait a couple of weeks, or whatever the wait turns out to be.

Diabolical Davies

I’ve just been catching up with my Facebook lurking, and therefore have only just come across this:

I started listening and didn’t stop until it did. And I learned a lot.

I really like how Davies writes, and am particularly looking forward to reading his book about the history of the horse, which I trust is still happening.

Paperbacks

I only watch a few of the videos that the Quotulator likes to put up at his excellent blog, but I just watched this one and enjoyed it greatly:

What I find so entertaining about this chunk of history is how this new way of selling and consuming books oscillated wildly between Very Low Art (“Penny Dreadfuls”) and Very High Art (classic (hence out of copyright) novels, Shakespeare, etc.). Low Art created the format. High Art discovered that it could use the format.

My Dad collected Penguins before and after WW2, and probably also during. I still have some of those. None of them were Penny Dreadfuls.

Also interesting was the claim that paperbacks are now thriving, better than ebooks are. My suspicion about that one: give it time.

Thoughts on giving away the ending … or not giving it away

I am a lazy person. And I just sent an email to my niece Roz Watkins, who writes of crime fiction. Some of this email was personal and private, but a couple of bits seem to me to be worth recycling here, to save me the bother of having to think of something else to put here today:

I do so very much admire the writing you have been doing. The reason I don’t write about it more admiringly, and more often, is that in my part of the internet, we don’t fret about giving away endings! For instance, I am now reading a book about human evolution, to what extent human mental habits are genetically evolved, what sex differences are and are not, and so on. When writing about this book, I do not hesitate to quote any of the author’s conclusions that strike me as interesting. But if I reviewed a book of yours by discussing the convincingness of who finally turns out to have done the deed, naming the murderer, well, … that’s not allowed! So I need to learn a whole different way of writing about books like yours. Basically, I guess, you concentrate on the state of affairs at the beginning, and from then on keep it vague.

And, I realise that writing about famous books from the past is also not like writing about your books when they have only just come out. I’m not going to be denounced if I discuss the details of how Mr Darcy finally marries Elizabeth Bennet, because almost everyone who cares already knows what happened. If you don’t know how Pride and Prejudice ends and don’t want to until you’ve read it for the first time, then it’s up to you to avoid being told.

I think that the Pride and Prejudice point there is an especially good one. Great works of literature, almost by definition, are things we are allowed to discuss all aspects of, including the endings, without being accused of giving anything away. If I tell you the ending of Roz’s latest Meg Dalton book (that’s her lead detective), I’m breaking the rules. But if I reveal that Hamlet dies at the end of Hamlet, that’s okay. If you did not know this and wanted to be surprised by how Hamlet ends, that is entirely your problem. Which means that works of Great Literature become like some of the great facts of our culture, not that different from real events or real arguments about real events. We can freely discuss all aspect of the great works of literature with one another, definitely including the endings. And thorough discussions of great facts, especially how these facts turned out or ended, are, for me, one of life’s great pleasures.

This is one of the reasons I do like (some) great literature. It enables me to have thorough conversations with strangers. I think the social benefits of shared cultural objects are often missed. See also, sport and celebrities. It’s the universality of these experiences that bind us together as a society, however we may disagree about many other things, and for that matter about sport or celebrities.

Great literature is books that are celebrity books.

Carrie-Anne Brownian: Having to pretend to be a man is not the same as actually being a man

Carrie-Anne Brownian:

For much of recorded human history, even into the twentieth century, women who wanted to serve in combat, travel or live alone, work in most professions, get published, compete in sports, or conduct research felt compelled to disguise themselves as men. That didn’t make them transmen; it made them girls and women with no other options in a patriarchal, androcentric world. No one would have, for example, published George Eliot, or taken her seriously as a writer, had she used her birth name of Mary Ann Evans, just as Kathrine Switzer had to sign up for the Boston Marathon as K.V. Switzer as recently as 1967 because women weren’t allowed to compete.

This may be hard for liberal Westerners under the age of twenty-five to comprehend, but women have historically been denied access to positions of power, most careers, education, legal protections, politics, combat roles, club memberships, athletic competitions, and so forth, solely on the basis of being female. Women even had to fight for the right to use their own names on legal documents, instead of being forced to sign as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name, or to do anything of importance without a husband or father’s co-signature or permission. By anachronistically pretending all these brave, trailblazing women were truly men, the historical realities of institutionalized sexism and male privilege are written out of existence, and impressionable young people will be led to believe women haven’t played any kind of important role in history.

Quoted by and linked to by favourite-blogger-of-mine Mick Hartley.

A techno-prophecy from one of Rebus’s drinking pals

While channel hopping of an evening, I recently realised that episodes of the television version of Rebus are now being shown again. Having already read most of the books, I have found these Rebus TV adaptations to be frustratingly simplified and compressed. The books are complicated odysseys taking many days, and often weeks or even months, to unfold. They certainly take me several days to read. But these TV shows are brisk evening strolls by comparison. I paid less attention to the John Hannah episodes because he seemed to me wrong for the part of Rebus, and presumably also to many others because he soon made way for Ken Stott, who can say some innocuous line like “Is that right?” and send a shiver down your spine. And in general, I find the casting and the acting of the Ken Stott shows to be excellent. It’s just that convoluted stories like these need a decent number of hours and episodes to have their effect. You can’t do books like this justice in an hour and a bit for each entire book.

So, I’ve now been going back to the books to find out all the things that happened in them, as opposed to merely watching the highlights in the evening. Here is the very latest Rebus, which came out at the beginning of this month. But meanwhile, not wanting to buy a hardback of that latest one, and provoked by the TV version of Let It Bleed, I recently re-read that in the original. I’m a slow and easily distracted reader but I sped through it, having totally forgotten everything from when I first read it a decade or more ago.

I was especially entertained by a little snippet early on. The time is the mid-nineties, and Rebus is in the pub with his drinking cronies, one of whom is called Salty. Salty has an on-and-off career as an IT guy in “Silicon Glen”, and Salty is to be heard holding forth on the future of the internet and related matters (pp. 35-36):

‘So what I’m saying is, you can go anywhere on the superhighway, anywhere, and in future it’ll be even bigger. You’ll do your shopping by computer, you’ll watch telly on it, play games, listen to music … and everything will be there. 1 can talk to the White House if I want. I can download stuff from all over the world. I sit there at my desk and I can travel anywhere.’

‘Can you travel to the pub by computer, Salty?’ a drinker further down the bar asked.

With the wisdom of hindsight, we now know that there was more to all this than merely sitting at a desk, the way I am now. Computers have now gone miniature and mobile. Your computer won’t (yet) actually take you to the pub, but you can now take it to the pub with you.

So what does Salty say next?

Salty ignored him and held his thumb and forefinger a couple of inches apart. ‘Hard disks the size of credit cards, you’ll have a whole PC in the palm of your hand.’

Not bad for 1995, which is when this first came out. I had a vague recollection of Ian Rankin having been some sort of IT guy himself, before he got stuck into doing Rebus books, which would have explained his foresight in these matters. But no, there is no IT work in his bio, other than writing Rebus books on his own computer. He got all that stuff about the “superhighway”, and about mobile phones, from just picking people’s brains in pubs. (Which I am convinced was something that Shakespeare also did.)

When I recently encountered that TV version of Let It Bleed I didn’t give it my full attention, but this little pub scene is just the kind of thing that would probably have got cut from it. Doesn’t drive the plot forward quickly enough. Just background. But strip out all the “background” and the foreground becomes a dead and drearily predictable skeleton, which not even Ken Stott can save, rather than the complex living creature that you get hooked on when you read one of the books.

Maybe one day, televisual justice will be done to and for Rebus.

Has television rotted brains?

When I did education blogging, this was one of the opinions I acquired, that television may not exactly rot the brain, but it does, shall we say, interrupt its development:

One very specific factor, however, could have led to the stagnation of intellectual performance in the United States in the 1950s. It was then that television entered the lives of families and individuals, rearing them to some extent away from written culture. By 1958, there were 287 television sets per 1,000 inhabitants in the United States. I mentioned earlier that intensive reading before puberty made Homo sapiens more intelligent. It comes as no surprise that an abandonment of intensive reading reduces the effectiveness of the human brain.

It’s not, that is to say, just a matter of teachers getting worse.

So, does this mean that, what with all the texting that the kids do nowadays, that the kids will resume getting cleverer? To find out the answer that that being yet one more reason why I’d like to live to three hundred, instead of just for about another decade or so.

The quote is from Lineages of Modernity (pp.211-212), by Emmanuel Todd, which I am now three quarters of the way through.

Incoming from Amazon

All of these arrived today, from Chateau Samizdata, where nobody cons their way past the front door and nicks stuff:

Looking forward to reading this one especially. It has been warmly received.

The C.S. Forester one I never knew existed, until Tom Hanks made a movie based on it. I wonder how it’ll compare with The Cruel Sea. Both central figures and commanders in these books had German sounding names, Krause in the Forester, and Ericson in The Cruel Sea, I recall some German trying to make a joke about Ericson’s name. Ericson was not amused. I wonder if Krause will be subjected to similar banter. Guess: yes.

The Blitz book is because I’ve always wanted to know more about that. John Ray’s book on the Battle of Britain was a very interesting read, so this one made good sense. And I seem to recall it having been very cheap, what with it having been published a while ago.

Following the chat we had yesterday about France and its various armies, Patrick Crozier and I will be discussing the Industrial Revolution. My core text will be the book on this subject by Steve Davies, but I’d be surprised if Ridley’s book on innovation doesn’t also get several mentions in our conversation.

The education book is by this guy.

Neema Parvini is someone I’ve been noticing for a while now. That’s because he’s a classical liberal and a humanities academic. Such persons must be cherished. Also, I do love Shakespeare.

The South Bank (red) Lion

There has been lots of photo-reminiscing here lately, so here are some photos I took much more recently. Well, in May of this year anyway:

Yes, it’s the lion at the South Bank end of Westminster Bridge.

This South Bank Lion has quite a history, the strangest thing being that it used to be red. I was going to show you the “photo” of the lion when it was red that I found here, until I realised it was faked with Photoshop. But that link is worth following.

The lion hasn’t always perched on the bridge. His first home was on top of the Lion Brewery, a booze factory once based on a site now occupied by the Royal Festival Hall.

I bet the brewery would have made a better concert hall than the accursed RFH.

This photo, on the other hand, of the lion with men and scaffolding is genuine:

The photograph above was kindly shared by Nick Redman of London Photos, whose grandfather (second on the left) was one of the scaffolders who helped move the lion from the soon-to-be-demolished brewery.

I found that here. Also well worth clicking on.

I assume this must be why so many pubs are called “The Red Lion”.

Apparently Emile Zola was very fond of this lion. Blog and learn.