People keep saying this, but it won’t change the simple fact that students are customers. (And their teachers, by the way, are employees.) Perhaps the more insidious cultural problem is the ubiquitous dissimulation of market relations as non-market relations. For instance, Mr. Almond goes on to refer to my favorite term, “literary citizenship”—what is this but the salesman’s cant moralized?: “Subscribe to my magazine or else you’re a bad citizen!”
Much of what Almond discusses in his essay is true enough—our culture is rotten with a cheap, carping, spectatorial negativity. We’ve forgotten that the spectator’s genuinely broader perspective—furnished by the contingency of distance—comes at the high cost of not acting, not creating. Or rather, we haven’t forgotten it, but tried to repress it, and the resentful whine in our tone is the evidence of our guilty conscience: we piss and moan out of powerlessness, corralled in our media pens, and we know it. I was an early adopter of this mode: you should have seen my blog in 2005, it was a pre-Twitter festival of unremitting outrage toward this or that. And then I realized that not only was such a mode useless—worse than useless, in fact, because it was a stealth mode of advertising for what I supposedly thought pernicious, as all censorious discourse ultimately is—it was a waste of energy that could be put into creation of work I judged beautiful, interesting, and insightful. Because making such work would put me into action, I would lose the spectator’s privilege of absolute judgment, but the rewards (the inner rewards, I mean) would be greater, and they have been.*
But…college students—including those in non-funded MFA programs—are still customers, quite literally. None of the foregoing changes that. As a teacher, I handle this ineluctable fact in the following ways: 1. I transparently explain how what I teach will be useful and necessary to them; 2. I try to teach material of broad necessity and usefulness, scorning the tendency to use the courses I am assigned as mere platforms for my own niche interests (yes, professors, we may be aged and weary of Plato, Shakespeare, and Toni Morrison, but there are 18-year-olds who have not read them yet!); 3. I try to avoid making excessive and unnecessary moral judgments (“entitled!”) on students who, if their behavior is impolite, have simply not yet been taught any better. When my students are wrong, I tell them—nothing in the exchange of services for money prevents that. They may not accept my judgment, but that was the bargain made when we went from feudalism to capitalism. Marx and Engels, after all, praised capitalism extravagantly in the beginning of the Manifesto, precisely because it put an end to the cultural coercions of power relations disguised as ethical relations (i.e., master and man as one happy family).
Art is a different matter, in that—unlike education, which may be formalized—it is always an ethical relation between the artist and the world. I believe that art must be shielded from the hasty judgments of the market, at least for a time, usually by the mediation of public or private institutions willing to pay artists for “whatever,” trusting that the “whatever” will eventually prove itself valuable in ways not immediately visible to the money people. To that extent, art must be protected from its customers insofar as they have a consumer mentality. This is because, among other things, mystery is essential to art, the unfathomable is the core of it, transparency is fatal to it. Art, therefore, is anti-capitalist (also anti-socialist, as socialism too is the quantification of the spirit). Education’s rigors lie elsewhere, and while I won’t say there’s no mystery involved in it, the elements of contract, which have no place in literature itself because literature does not deal in fixed quantities, can be respected if one only makes the effort on either side.
* I’m not for a minute coming out against negative reviews; I write them myself—all the time! I’m against ambient negativity, atmospheric sarcasm, a cultural tone in which nothing serious can be discussed. Negative critical judgments are important and essential, as long as they are made with reference to and in service of higher values.
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”—T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” (via liquidnight)
“Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist.”—The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton (via jaded-toddler)
“Appalled now by her fate, poor Dido prayed
For death; she wished to see the sky no longer.
Other things also drove her from the daylight:
Her gifts on incense-burning altars rotted,
Horrible to describe: wine turned to black
And filthy gore the second that she poured it.
No one was told. Her sister did not know it.
There stood inside her home a marble shrine
To her late husband: there she worshiped him,
Spreading white fleece and hanging holy wreaths.
She thought she heard his voice there, echoing, calling.
When the night’s darkness covered all the earth,
She listened to a lone owl on the rooftree
Whose song of death kept trailing into sobs.
Many grim warnings of the long-dead seers
Panicked her too. In dreams a fierce Aeneas
Chased her. She raved in fear or was abandoned,
Friendless, forever walking a long road,
Seeking her Tyrians in a lifeless land.
It was like Pentheus seeing bands of Furies,
And a pair of Thebes, and a sun split in two;
As in a play the son of Agamemnon
Runs from his mother’s torches and black snakes
While vengeful demons lurk outside the door.
Madness and grief filled her defeated heart,
And she chose death.”—Vergil, The Aeneid (trans. Sarah Ruden)
You who in earnest ignorance
Would check the deeds of lawless men,
And in the clash of spear on spear
Gain honour—you are all stark mad!
If men, to settle each dispute,
Must needs compete in bloodshed, when
Shall violence vanish, hate be soothed,
Or men and cities live in peace?”—Euripides, Helen (trans. Philip Vellacott)
I remember my introduction to conceptual art. We were in the tenth grade, and our art class had a student teacher, a feminist raver (this was 1997 or so) from Penn State named Ms. Ziggler or something similar. One day she showed us a slide of Duchamp’s readymade, In Advance of the Broken Arm…
An extended rumination on Knausgaard (also featuring Duchamp, Hegel, and almost every literary modernist you can think of), mainly about why I won’t be finishing his book…
“(Art, to state it beforehand, for I will come back to it sometime in greater length—art, in which precisely the lie hallows itself, in which the will to deception has good conscience on its side, is much more fundamentally opposed to the ascetic ideal than is science: this was sensed instinctively by Plato, this greatest enemy of art that Europe has yet produced. Plato contra Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism—there the “otherworldly one” with the best of wills, the great slanderer of life; here its involuntary deifier, golden nature. An artist’s subservience in the service of the ascetic ideal is therefore the truest corruption of the artist there can be, unfortunately one of the most common: for nothing is more corruptible than an artist.)”—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
“When Heraclitus retreated into the courtyards and colonnades of the enormous temple of Artemis, this “desert” was more dignified, I concede: why are we lacking such temples? (—perhaps we are not lacking them: I was just thinking of my most beautiful study, of the Piazza di San Marco, assuming it is spring, likewise forenoon, the time between 10 and 12.) That which Heraclitus was evading, however, is still the same thing we steer clear of: the noise and the democratic chatter of the Ephesians, their politics, their news from the “empire” (Persia, you understand me), their market stuff of “today”—for we philosophers need rest from one thing before all else: from all “today.” We venerate what is silent, cold, noble, distant, past, in general every kind of thing at whose sight the soul does not have to defend itself and lace itself shut—something with which one can talk without talking out loud.”—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
“…one certainly does best to separate an artist from his work to the extent of not taking him as seriously as his work. He is the end only the precondition of his work, the womb, the ground, the fertilizer and manure on which, out of which, it grows,—and thus in most cases something one must forget if one wants to enjoy the work itself. Looking into the origins of a work is the business of physiologists and vivisectors of the spirit: never ever of the aesthetic human being, the artist!”—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks.
You may enjoy my wide-ranging historical and philosophical (crypt-Schopenhauerean, you might say) commentary on the recent quality-of-Shakespeare controversy over The Millions. Figures making guest appearances in my essay, besides the esteemed Ms. Del Rey, include lesser-known complainers-about-Shakespeare Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and George Steiner, as well as the disturbing defender of the Bard, G. Wilson Knight, and probably more I’m forgetting. Hope you enjoy.
“It seems to me that it is repugnant to the delicacy, even more to the Tartuffery of tame domestic animals (which is to say modern humans, which is to say us) to imagine in all its force the degree to which cruelty constitutes the great festival joy of earlier humanity, indeed is an ingredient mixed in with almost all of their joys; how naïvely, on the other hand, how innocently its need for cruelty manifests itself, how universally they rank precisely “disinterested malice” (or, to speak with Spinoza, sympathia malevolens) as a normal quality of man—: thus as something to which the conscience heartily says “yes”! Perhaps even today there is enough of this oldest and most pervasive festival joy of man for a more profound eye to perceive; in Beyond Good and Evil 229 (even earlier in Daybreak 18, 77, 113), I pointed with a cautious finger to the ever growing spiritualization and “deification” of cruelty that runs through the entire history of higher culture (and in a significant sense even constitutes it). In any case it has not been all that long since one could not imagine royal marriages and folk festivals in the grandest style without executions, torturings, or perhaps an auto-da-fé, likewise no noble household without beings on whom one could vent one’s malice and cruel teasing without a second thought (—think for example of Don Quixote at the court of the Duchess; today we read the entire Don Quixote with a bitter taste on our tongue, almost with anguish, and would as a result appear very strange, very puzzling to its author and his contemporaries—they read it with the very clearest conscience as the most lighthearted of books, they practically laughed themselves to death over it). Seeing-suffer feels good, making-suffer even more so—that is a hard proposition, but a central one, an old powerful human-all-too-human proposition, to which, by the way, even the apes might subscribe: for it is said that in thinking up bizarre cruelties they already abundantly herald and, as it were, “prelude” man. Without cruelty, no festival…”—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)