Friday, February 28, 2014

Literature or Academia, or Both?

Not long ago a friend of mine, who happens to be an English professor, directed me (and several hundred other Facebook friends) to an article in which another professor, Kevin Dettmar, offers a good-natured defense of literature as a profession against the seemingly vapid (but “deeply seductive”) vision provided by the film Dead Poets Society. Here’s the link.

He hates that film, and we can tell by the vehemence of his criticism that this feeling goes far beyond what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.”

In fact, the film horrified Dettmar. He felt—and continues to feel, a quarter-century later—that the world it portrays has nothing to do with genuine literary study.

I don’t remember the film well enough to argue any differently. I saw it when it came out and seem to recall that it was slightly manipulative and preachy. (When is Robin Williams anything but?) I might mention here, before I forget, that a far better portrayal of the world of advanced literary study can be found in the Curtis Hanson masterpiece, Wonder Boys.

Dettmar claims he’s a fan of passion in the classroom. But he finds the lessons Robin Williams teaches in the film to be full of sloppy reasoning. And although Williams advocates “thinking for yourself,” he never lets his students do that.

How odd, then, that Dettmar speaks approvingly of two lines Harvard poetry professor Helen Vendler uses in the classroom.

“What we have loved, / Others will love….and we will teach them how.”

“That’s how I teach, or hope to teach,” Dettmar says. Well, Mussolini might have espoused the same formula. We will force you to love what we love.

In fact, a close reading of Dettmar’s article exposes quite a few instances of sloppy analysis. For example, he opposes “feeling” a poem, which we derive from the sound of words, with actually reading it, which allows us to analyze it carefully. This is a false opposition; the feeling we derive from a poem is just as likely to derive from its imagery and patterns of organization as from its mere “sound.” The feeling comes from the reading.

Then again, he accuses Mr. Keating, the hero of Dead Poet’s Society, of offering a jejune interpretation of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In the film Keating remarks: “Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’”

Dettmar is here to tell us that Frost said no such thing. It’s a character in the poem who makes the remark. And according to Dettmar, this character lays so many qualifications on his choice that we would be justified in believing he never stepped off the well-beaten path at all. Dettmar concludes that Keating’s “use of those closing lines, wrenched from their context, isn’t just wrong—it’s completely wrong. The result, according to Dettmar, is that Keating arrives at a moral point "entirely different from that of Frost’s poem.”

I have no trouble believing that instructor Keating has missed some of the underlying irony and ambiguity of Frost’s message. But if his moral point is completely wrong, I was eager to learn what the moral of “The Road Less Taken” actually is. But Dettmar doesn’t produce any such judgment. And in fact, his own analysis of the lines in question is more seriously flawed than Keating’s.  

He notes that the road as Frost describes it was “grassy and wanted wear,” but observes that the narrator presents a series of qualifications that “contradict” the description—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same…both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.”

Here Dettmar is way off base. The qualifications don’t contradict the initial assertion. Not at all. They merely suggest that the difference was slight. At the end of the poem (I just now went down to the basement to fetch my Modern Library edition of Frost’s poems) the narrator is still asserting “Two roads diverged in the yellow wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by…” 

Once all the qualifications have been offered, the narrator returns to his original description. Obviously, the distinction still holds.

Dettmar compounds his error by committing the most grievous sin an academic can make: he puts words into the poet’s mouth arbitrarily. He presumes that the narrator equates “the road less taken” with “the exceptional road.” But where in the poem does that word appear? It doesn’t. This interpolation is entirely unjustified.

The steady back-current of the little soliloquy of which the poem consists is that the two roads are hardly different. This fact draws our attention to the poem’s most important line—the last one:  “And that has made all the difference.”

Difference how? What has been the difference? We don’t know. Probably not a good one, in so far as the narrator offers this judgment “with a sigh.” But the judgment is hardly more than a speculative musing, to be delivered “somewhere ages and ages hence.” I wouldn't call the poem light-hearted, but neither is it in any way seriously distraught.

The moral of the poem, crudely put, is this: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Instructor Keating’s interpretation is not entirley accurate--less subtle, more inspirational than Frost intended. Dittmar’s is deflationary, nihilistic, and sloppily reasoned. The poem has none of the “hollowness” Dittmar imputes to it. I give his reading a C -.

In the spirit of literary camaraderie I ought to mention that although I received degrees in anthropology and history as an undergraduate, I also took plenty of English courses—almost enough to bag a triple-major. (I even took a course from a professor who claimed Frost as a personal friend. He kept referring to him as "Robert" with an affectionate Bostonian twang.) I loved literature then and still do today. But studying literature proved difficult—just as teaching it is—because the values it transmits are so basic and so important that very few academics find it possible to refer to them without embarrassment. Honor? Justice? Love? Zany merriment? “I didn’t get a PhD just to talk about that.”

And as far as I can tell, things got much worse when the New Critics were replaced by literary sociologists who considered literature merely a source of data regarding various symptoms of societal injustice. 

Dittmar approves of the rise of Continental literary theory in the 1980s, but he doesn’t tell us why. Perhaps he approves because their poses are analytic and “professional,” rather than sentimental and axiological.

To his credit, Dittmar ends by admitting that Dead Poet’s Society has considerable charm. But he’s wrong to suggest that the “sentimental humanities” portrayed in that film present a challenge to genuine academic methodology and rigor, or somehow undercut its dignity.

It's worth noting, I think, that the most insightful books about literature are usually written for the general public, not the academic community. I’m thinking, for example, of Michael Dirda’s Readings, Tim Parks’s Hell and Back, Javier Marias’s Written Lives, Frank O’Connor’s The Mirror in the Roadway

And how about Borges’s This Craft of Verse, Kenneth Rexroth’s brilliant series Classics Revisited, Robert Hass’s What Light Can Do, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Czeslaw Milosz’s Visions of San Francisco Bay, Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, Sven Birkerts’ An Artificial Wilderness, Roger Shattuck’s Candor and Perversion, to name a few? These are books about literature that are also works of literature themselves. Few of them come out of universities--though several were originally lectures delivered at universities. None, I suspect, were written primarily with academic readers in mind.

And in the end, Dead Poet’s Society is about high school kids, after all. Would Keating have served his students better by suggesting that all roads are the same, and it doesn't matter which one you take? I don't think so. The film's “feel-good” approach to the humanities, which Dittmar feels threatened by, continues on into adult life in the form of impassioned works that are no less well-reasoned for being direct, personal, honest, and full of feeling. In such works the peccadillos of academic dispute have been left far behind. No one is attempting to win tenure, score a generous grant, or  defend their professionalism here. What’s at stake is to expose the beauty and misery and liveliness and mystery of living—to expose it, defend it, capture it, celebrate it.

Friday, February 21, 2014


It was a beautiful snowfall, though it doubled Hilary’s drive time coming home from Prior Lake. I had a fire going when she got home, and we were soon enjoying left-over spicy pork stew (orange peel, eight cloves of garlic, leeks, thyme) over new potatoes. Soon she was deep into a Ruth Rendell mystery. I had a stack of New York Review of Books to work through.

I’d retired to the computer room when I heard Hilary exclaim: “John!” in that tone of voice often hinting that a deer is standing just outside the window, nibbling on the arbor vitae. Or an owl has alighted on the streetlight pole.

“What?” I replied.

“I think Stephan is blowing our driveway. You should go out and thank him.”

“Well, I’ll go get some more wood from the garage, and thank him along the way.”

But Stephan (our neighbor across the street and two houses down), wasn’t blowing our driveway. Brendan (our neighbor across the street) and Jamal (our neighbor to the north), were having a snow-blower convention out there. It’s a wonder they didn’t knock each other over with their fountains of new-fallen snow. It sounded like a airport runway.

By the time I got outside, they were turning off their machines.

“Thanks, gents,” I said. “I appreciate it. Big time.”

“Well, you’re the one who helped me get this machine going,” Jamal said. “I’d sunk $200 into this thing and all it needed was some fuel stabilizer.”

“Well, all the same, you guys are swell.” I opened the garage door and lifted out my own little Toro pup. 

“You’ve got those big two-stage throwers,” I said. “This little darling just throws the snow a few feet straight ahead.”

Brendan told us how he’d purchased his own humongous blower, we rehashed the weather. I brought out my ice dam stories—I guess the only thing missing was a pint flask of whisky going around in the dark. I think we all enjoyed the camaraderie. 

This morning I was up at 5:30. The coffee was brewing, and I had it in mind to scan a few choice pages from The Platonic Renaissance in England by Ernst Cassirer. I retrieved this book from the off-site stacks of the downtown Minneapolis Library a few weeks ago, and  once I return it I’ll probably never see it again.

Then I heard the noise again. A snow-blower. Our driveway? Yes. Someone was clearing off the ridge created by the plow sometime deep in the night. Was that Jamal or Brendan? Whoever it was, a few minutes later he was down cleaning up the entry to Stephan’s driveway.

I think that may have been Stephan himself.    


Monday, February 17, 2014

Valentine Weekend - Little Falls and Beyond

The good news is that The Seven States of Minnesota is now in its third printing. A generation of outdoor enthusiasts, vacationing families, and armchair travelers has enjoyed the book since it first appeared in 2007. 

In this thoroughly revised and updated version, I’ve removed outdated material (the bakery in Faribault, the bookshops in Stillwater, etc. etc.) and introduced new facts and references about every corner of the state, including notes about a printing press museum in Montevideo, Touch the Sky Prairie just north of Luverne, the Scandinavian folk festival in Nisswa, and unusual restaurants in Wadena and Park Rapids. Minnesota’s newest state park on Lake Vermilion receives notice, along with long-established but out-of-the-way parks such as Bear Head Lake and Scenic State Park.

I bring readers up to date on recent changes in Red Wing’s pottery industry, the art galleries in Fergus Falls, the autumn swan convocations on the Mississippi near Brownsville, mining controversies in Babbitt, Alexandria’s new pedestrian-friendly downtown, the challenging mountain bike trails north of Crosby, and the ever-changing discovery center in Chisholm.

And to top things off, the new edition has full-page sidebars devoted to Lake Superior’s South Shore (not in Minnesota, I know) and The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.

But wouldn’t you know it: no sooner is the book out than I come upon more wonderful stuff that perhaps should have gotten in.

Hilary and I were headed north to Itasca (again) this past weekend, and we decided to duck into Little Falls along the way. At the visitor’s center we were given heaps of information about the city by director Khristina VonBerge. But what impressed us especially were the two buildings sitting on a small bluff closer to the Mississippi. These were the homes of Charles Weyerhauser and Richard Musser. 

I give them a full paragraph in the book, but visiting the site again, I’m wishing I'd emphasized that although northern Minnesota abounds with mock lumber camps, there is no better place than Little Falls to conjure the atmosphere and lifestyle of the barons who ran the industry. (Except perhaps Taylors Falls?)

During our chat with Kristina we also learned that the train station in Little Falls was designed by Cass Gilbert, and that Crowler’s gas station, on the north side of town—open since 1938— may be the oldest in the state that’s still selling gas.

Is that important? I don’t know. Anyway, we’ll catch it in the next edition. (But first, I’ll have to find out if it’s true.)

We stopped at Morey’s in Motley to pick up some smoked fish, and I asked the clerk if Morey’s operated the huge Trident factory next door.

“We have nothing to do with that,” she replied. “All they make there is mock crab legs. They work three shifts, around the clock. And they’re expanding.”

“Well,” I replied. “The Lund Boat Works in New York Mills is building a new addition…and I believe the Tuffy Pet Food plant in Perham is expanding, too.”

“It’s nice to see some prosperity returning to the region,” she said, as she scooped up some herring in horseradish sauce and plopped it into a plastic pint container.

At that point we were just a loaf of bread shy of a fine Valentine dinner in the bosom of Itasca State Park. 

As we were passing through Menahga I seemed to recall hearing about a co-op in town. I’d met an organic potato farmer in Wadena who told me about it. Turn right at the Orton’s station, then another right one block to the east. 

We’d passed the Orton station but turned right, and having made the turn we immediately spotted a little bakery on the corner. We went inside and bought a loaf of Finnish flatbread, very flat, with a little hole in the center, and I asked, “Is there a co-op around here?”

“Co-op? No.” The woman shook her head. Then she said: “Oh. You’re thinking of the organic grocery—half a block down, other side of the street.”

So we wandered over to A Clean Plate, which looks very much like a co-op inside. Organic sweet potatoes in a bushel basket on the floor. Ginger salad dressing with a cute name on the label for $6 a bottle.
When the proprietress emerged from the back room, I said, “I asked at the bakery if there was a co-op in town and they had no idea.”

“We’re not a co-op,” she said. “We don’t want members. We want to keep control for ourselves.”

So we talked a bit about distribution. “We get a lot of the same things the Wedge gets,” she told me. “But around here, it seems everything has to go to Moorhead, and then we buy it and get it back.”

OK. “So, is that a Finnish bakery across the street?” I asked.

“Not really,” she replied. “They sell a few Finnish items.”

I felt I was in the land of Jean-Paul Sartre, where things are what they are not, in the mode of being them. And then I remembered the large statue of St. Urho alongside the highway on the edge of town—the Finnish “patron saint” whom people in Finland have never heard of, created by a department store clerk in Virginia, Minnesota, in 1956. St Urho drove the grasshoppers from Finland. Or so the story goes.

A Clean Plate is housed in a wooden building dating back to 1891 (presuming the plate at the apex of the roofline is real). It does have an attractive façade.

Someday I’d like to try the potatoes. But we were headed for a little two-room suite in a log cabin at Itasca--where twenty miles of ski trail start right outside your door--and we were already well-provisioned with Valentine lobster tails and fresh asparagus…and a loaf of fresh St. Urho Finnish flatbread.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Winter Getaway - La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

If you’ve been holed up for a few weeks with a cold, like I have, perhaps there can be no more effective break-out than a trip down to St. Anthony Main to see La Grande Belleza, Italy’s entry into the Oscar race for best foreign film. The film takes place almost entirely in sunny Rome, with its quiet streets lined with low-rise buildings bordered by orange trees and steeped in ochre and umber, it’s tidy evergreen gardens, and its lavish parties attended by the city’s “beautiful people.” No, this is not Pasolini’s Rome, nor Rossellini’s, nor even Fellini’s, though director Sorrentino has often been compared to that master.

Anyone looking for antecedents might consider that the world of La Grand Belleza resembles Antonioni’s world, with this difference: Antonioni’s characters are full of existential angst in the face of life’s evident tedium and meaninglessness. Sorrentino’s characters, though equally attractive, wealthy, and spiritually adrift, simply want to party on.

The film follows a few a days in the life of Jep Gambardella, who, as the film begins, stands at the heart of the social scene. Well, it’s his 65th birthday, and the first fifteen minutes of the film are devoted to a party held in his honor on his terrace overlooking the Coliseum. It’s a wild, colorful, Euro-disco, bump-and-grind affair, jarring in its effect, and viewers may begin to wonder where all the ruminative scenery they saw in the trailers has been stashed.

Things quiet down soon enough (though they erupt again intermittently) as Jep wanders the streets of the city the next morning, running into friends seemingly at every turn. He attends a avant garde dramatic performance staged on the ruin of an antique monument set in a grassy field outside the city (I think I saw Roman Polanski in the audience), and later he interviews the actress, who seems also to be a fortune teller. This is the only time during the film that we see Jep do anything productive.

Yes, Jep, is a writer. As a youth he wrote a popular novel—an Italian Catcher in the Rye, perhaps—but has written nothing substantive since then. People ask him from time to time, “Why don’t you write another novel?” but he brushes such queries aside. “I’m having too much fun doing nothing,” he seems to say. Or perhaps it's just: "I really have nothing more to say."

But Jep (Toni Servillo) doesn’t seem to be having that much fun. He carries an expression on his face somewhere between flickering amusement and incipient gloom. 

Two events tip the scales more serious downward.

One evening after a party, Jep brings a lovely woman from Milan home with him, and after they’ve made love, she offers to show him some photos of herself she’s posted on Facebook. “Sure, I’d love to see them,” Jep says, feigning enthusiasm. He stands out on a balcony surveying the city while she runs off to find her laptop, and makes a vow of sorts: “I will no longer agree to do things that I don’t want to do.” By the time his companion returns, he’s gone.

Jep’s world is more seriously rocked when an old friend whom he hasn’t seen in decades arrives to tell Jep that his wife has recently died. Elisa had broken off with Jep before marrying the friend, and now, decades later, the man has discovered by reading her diary that she never really stopped loving Jep. Jep’s reaction, as usual, is muted; naturally he’s more concerned about his friend’s grief than his own might-have-been. But from time to time we see dream-like flashbacks of a very young Jep, swimming off a craggy shoreline somewhere in the Mediterranean (ala Antonioni’s L’Vventura). Elisa is sitting on shore along with three other ravishing but somehow innocent-looking teenage female friends.

But it would be a mistake to suggest there is any kind of narrative thread to be found in La Grande Bellezza. For the most part the movie simply flows. Jep and a small circle of friends often sit on his terrace at night talking about nothing, and in time we get to know a few of them slightly. One, a hapless dramatist who’s never cracked the big time, finally decides to return in defeat to his home town.

“In all of Rome, you’re the only person I feel like saying goodbye to, Jep,” the man says, underscoring an important point. The success of La Grande Bellezza rides on the fact that Jep, though just as dissipated as anyone else in his crowd, in also vaguely humane and certainly well-liked.

A saintly nun with no teeth, an eleven-year-old avant garde painter, a cardinal who’s good at exorcism though what he really likes to do is cook, a forty-year-old stripper with a mysterious malady, a magician and his giraffe, a Marxist busybody, a lame man who has the keys to all the old villas and monuments in Rome. The cast sounds Fellini-esque but the tone is entirely different. The cinematography is lush, the editing slightly jumbled. Along with the parties and the Euro-disco, we have haunting scenes backed by Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Górecki, and the Kronos Quartet.

Come wander with Jep through the streets of the holy, imperial, eternal city.  


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Finnmark - Beyond Sleep – W. F. Hermans

When I purchased a copy of the novel Beyond Sleep by Willem Frederik Hermans I had no idea what the book was about. I was just killing time, combing the bargain bin in a little bookstore in Wadena, Minnesota, while some friends checked out the Ben Franklin across the street. I suppose the odd Dutch spelling—Willem Frederik—caught my eye. The blurbs on the dust jacket by Nooteboom and Coetzee didn’t hurt.

The bio on the inside flap began: “Hermans is considered one of the most important Western European authors….” I could easily finish the sentence myself. “…one of the most important Western European authors that no one has heard of!

I brought the book up to the sales counter and waited patiently while the clerk answered the questions of a man in a plaid shirt, down vest, and unlaced Sorels who was looking for some thriller by an author named Lee Child. “He has twelve books in the database … we carry only one … we don’t have it right now.”

Many buttons were pushed during this search, and it took quite a while.

Finally my turn arrived and I handed my find across the counter. “I got it on the $2 shelf,” I said. 

He took one look and said, “This isn’t a $2 book.”

Frowning, I replied, “Well, that's where I found it. 'Buy three and get the fourth one free.'” I pointed  toward the corner shelf near the entrance to the restaurant behind the shop.

“It was mis-shelved,” the man said in a tone of mild indifference. (Yet as he held it aloft I noticed the book did have a tell-tale remainder slash across the bottom of it.)

“I really don’t care," I said. "Let’s forget it.”

There was a long pause. “OK. I’ll give it to you for two dollars.”

“It doesn't matter. Really, I never heard of the guy.”

“No. I’ll ring it up at $2.” Once skeptical, now he was determined.

“Thanks, I appreciate it. I can assure you no one else is going to buy it.”

I probably shouldn’t have said that. Just because I’ve never heard of W.F. Hermans doesn’t mean that no one in Wadena will have heard of him.

I imagined Beyond Sleep to be a dark, introspective, psychologically knotty work on the order of Hermann Broch or Thomas Bernhard. Only later did I notice that the image on the cover, though clothed mostly in shadow, shows a naked foot silhouetted by light penetrating the wall of an old-fashioned canvas tent. The blurb under the dark silhouette, by Roddy Doyle, says: “The language is dry; the socks are wet; the compass is lost. A masterpiece.”

True to such hints, Beyond Sleep is mostly a book about camping. The narrator, one Alfred Issendorf, is a Dutch grad student eager to make a real impact in the world of science—unlike his father, a botanist who fell into a crevasse and died before he was able to distinguish himself in any way. Alfred was seven at the time, and he’s been haunted ever since by the notion that a spectacular discovery will somehow reunite him with his father and also dissipate the  cloud of depression under which he often labors.

On the suggestion of his advisor, Alfred heads to Norway to join a small team of trekkers heading north to the largely barren hills of Finnmark, where the mosquitoes are thick and the sun never sets from mid-May to late July. Before meeting up with the group, he plans to obtain some aerial photographs of the region in Oslo from a professor-colleague of his advisor. Here he meets the first of many obstacles that will try his patience and test his fragile sense of self-worth throughout his expedition.

Alfred’s self-appointed task is to locate craters in Finnmark that were created by meteorites rather than glacial ice, but without the photos his quest becomes a more or less random investigation. His three companions are all Norwegian (Alfred doesn’t speak the language) and they all know the country they’re traversing well. Though they’re courteous, Alfred has trouble keeping up, lacks the proper boots for crossing streams, and is often left with nothing to do as his colleagues make and break camp, catch fish, gather fuel for fires, and all the rest. Though he bungles his knee badly during a river crossing, Alfred soldiers on, determined not to become a laughing stock. I WILL NOT BE LAUGHED AT, he says to himself at one point. They must speak highly when my back is turned.

The foursome engage in some interesting conversations about the origins of the universe, both scientific and theological, as they sit around smoking cigarettes after a long day of hiking. They also take up the issue of how difficult it is in modern times for anyone to distinguish himself—to do something that will be remembered. 

There are some good descriptions of the unusual countryside, and Alfred spends quite of bit of time describing the relentless attacks of flying insects both inside and outside the tent. A herd of reindeer pass. Heavy rains descend.

For much of the book, however, the overriding tone is one of hardship, desperation, and a sense of unworthiness. Yet the prose has a degree of lightness and abandon to it, too. Here’s a typical passage.
Reaching the other side of the stream I have a sense of sinking deeper into the moss with each step I take. The moss gives way to black mud. I am entrenched among polar willows that come to my waist. Arne’s already climbing up the other side. How did he get there? My shoes fill up with water. I have to raise my legs higher and higher to make any headway in the bog, which is knee-deep. I can feel the seat of my trousers getting wet. But what can I do? My camera and map pocket, which I’m wearing round my neck, must not get wet so I hold them aloft, but then I have to drop them again as I need both arms to steady myself. I have to speed up, raise my legs even higher now, because staying in the same place for even a second means sinking an extra ten centimeters. My upper body is drenched too, not with water but with sweat. The mosquitoes attack my face, get into my eyes. I am panting so heavily that they get sucked into my mouth; I can feel them on my tongue, on my epiglottis. I don't shout for help because there isn’t any. As a last resort I let myself flop forwards, across a thicket of willows. They bend under my weight, forming a web. Slowly I extract my left foot, manage to place it on three flattened willows, then pull the right foot loose and stand up straight.

The tale takes a turn for the worse when Alfred discovers that Mikkelsen, who joined the party at the last minute, possesses the aerial photographs that he needs for his research. Having been largely deprived of sleep for days, due to the ever-present sun, the bugs, and his colleague Arne's snoring,  Alfred begins to spin weird, paranoid scenerios about what’s really going on.

It could have gone like this: Sibbelee sent Nummedal a letter telling him about the research I planned to do, at which Nummedal thought: Aha! Now’s my chance to get back at Sibbelee for having contradicted me at that important conference all those years ago….It would be bad form for a professor flatly to turn down the request of a colleague, but Nummedal is too crafty for that anyway. More devious. He summons his pupil Mikkelsen and proposes an interesting little research project for him to undertake—my research.         
I don’t want to give away every twist and turn of the plot. Nor would it be fitting for me to say anything about how the domain “beyond sleep” to which the title refers fits in. Suffice it to say that Hermans’ little novel, first published in 1968 but only translated in 2006, makes for a good winter read.