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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Balls to the wall

Joseph Epstein has an essay in this week’s Weekly Standard, and it honestly isn’t very good.  What do I mean by “not very good”?  Do I say such a thing because I don’t like Epstein, or because I disagree with many of his remarks in the essay?  Not at all.  I say it because the essay isn’t very good as measured by the standards one applies to “essays” that are “good.” For example, in his fourth paragraph, Epstein introduces his subject—he’s writing a review essay on Elaine Showalter’s new book, Faculty Towers:  The Academic Novel and Its Discontents—in the following manner:

An early entry in the feminist sweepstakes, she is currently the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton, a past president of the Modern Language Association, a founder of “gynocriticism” (or the study of women writers)—in other words, guilty until proven innocent. She has also been described—readers retaining a strong sense of decorum are advised to skip the remainder of this paragraph—as “Camille Paglia with balls,” a description meant approbatively, or so at least Princeton must feel, for they print it on princetoninfo.com, a stark indication of the tone currently reigning in American universities.

The drawing-room prose is full of little drolleries—feminist sweepstakes, indeed!  jolly good, Joseph old boy!—guilty until proven innocent! oof! a snort of brandy for the merry fellow in the bow tie, sir!—before settling down to serious matters, advising “readers retaining a strong sense of decorum” (the word “retaining” is key, of course) that we are in for yet another shocking little demonstration—nay, a “stark indication”—of how degraded is the standard of discourse at American universities.  Yes, even Princeton now speaks of “balls.” Surely it is only a matter of time before Princeton offers a named chair to 50 Cent.

Except that Princeton happens to be innocent of this little transgression.  Epstein’s drawing-room prose may get its chuckles and its sputters of righteous indignation, but every once in a while, it behooves a writer to get out of the drawing room and onto the Internets.  Go ahead, Google “Camille Paglia with balls.” I’ll wait.  My own search took all of 0.2 seconds, and turned up this item from princetoninfo.com.  At the top of the page you can read the following: “This feature profile by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 14, 1997.” “Princetoninfo.com” is in fact U.S. 1’s website, and has no connection whatsoever to Princeton University.  As for the testicular-Paglia reference, you have to read for a bit more than 0.2 seconds to find that even the U.S. 1 newspaper didn’t call Showalter “Camille Paglia with balls”; in fact, Nicole Plett quite clearly held the phrase at arm’s length, no doubt out of a sense of decorum:

The six-page profile of Showalter, featured in the April-May issue of Mirabella, raised the critic’s public visibility enormously. The author, who shadowed Showalter for four days through routine classroom lectures, chats with professors, and a swank, alumni-hosted literary dinner party, rewarded the maverick feminist with yet another dubious moniker: “Elaine Showalter is Camille Paglia with balls.”

A stark indication of the tone currently reigning in American universities, indeed. 

Now, why does this matter?  Hell, Michelle Malkin, Ben Shapiro and the entire Clownhall.com crew do this kind of thing every day.  Ah, but Joseph Epstein is not usually considered a third-rate hack.  He is more often considered a master of the genre of the personal essay—so widely that at one point in the 1990s I began to wonder whether Epstein had secretly copyrighted the phrase and had had it contractually sutured to his name in some way (you know, Michael Jackson took “King of Pop,” and Epstein took “master of the personal essay”).  So it is especially surprising to find this piece of third-rate hackwork in one of his essays.  It’s almost as if he’s not trying anymore.  Either that, or someone at the Weekly Standard doesn’t like him, and left this gaffe untouched in order to discredit him.  But that wouldn’t explain why Arts and Letters Daily (which is, after all, a website, and tends to be read by people who have computers) saw fit to link to it.  No, I think Epstein just got lazy, and reached for the nearest club at hand, safe in the assumption that readers retaining a strong sense of decorum would never bother to check up on him.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t like the rest of the essay, either.  It really does sound to my ears like a tired old rant, and, like so much of Epstein’s recent work, it tries to make a virtue of its tired-oldness:

In the 1970s, I was invited to give a talk at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. I arrived to find all the pieces in place: On the English faculty was a black woman (very nice, by the way), an appropriately snarky feminist, a gay (not teaching the thing called Queer Theory, which hadn’t yet been devised), a Jew, and a woman named Ruthie, who drove about in an aged and messy Volkswagen bug, whose place in this otherwise unpuzzling puzzle I couldn’t quite figure out. When I asked, I was told, “Oh, Ruthie’s from the sixties.” From “the sixties,” I thought then and still think, sounds like a country, and perhaps it is, but assuredly, to steal a bit of Yeats, no country for old men.

When readers with a newly-minted sense of decorum get over all the distracting things about this paragraph (did he say “a gay”?  the black woman was “very nice”?  and what’s that Jew doing there?  was he—or she!—one of the pieces, too?), they should ask themselves, wait a second—Epstein is citing “Sailing to Byzantium” about the 1960s?  Was Epstein old in the 1960s?

Well, dear decorous readers, not literally: he was born in 1937, so in chronological time he entered the 1960s in the full flower of youth.  But in Gerontion Time, he was about seventy, and there he has remained ever since, scolding the youth in the voice of an old man in a dry month even when he was a young thing and the youth in question were actually ten or twenty years older than he.  Look for instance at his essays about how “out of it” he is—the essays in which he writes with pride of having never read this contemporary novelist or heard of that current fad (yes, he’s written more than one—it’s like he has to keep updating us on how steadfastly out of it he is).  Or look at his habitual citations to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one of which can be found (sure enough) in this very essay.  It’s like finding the “Nina”s in the Al Hirschfeld caricatures, and it would be good fun, except that Epstein has (by some estimates) accounted for over sixty percent of all the Prufrock allusions in the world, and has left the poem with only five or six uncited words for future generations. 

I’ll say just a few things about the substantive claims of the essay.  These are tired, too.

Theory and the hodgepodge of feminism, Marxism, and queer theory that resides comfortably alongside it, has now been in the saddle for roughly a quarter-century in American English and Romance-language departments, while also making incursions into history, philosophy, and other once-humanistic subjects. There has been very little to show for it—no great books, no splendid articles or essays, no towering figures who signify outside the academy itself—except declining enrollments in English and other department courses featuring such fare.

The bit about “no splendid articles or essays” is a judgment call, of course, and needless to say, I disagree with it.  But the bit about “declining enrollments” is—and I really am getting tired (tired, I tell you!) of saying this—factually wrong.  Let’s start where Epstein starts, twenty-five years ago.  In 1980, English accounted for 3.5 percent of all B.A.s awarded in the country, 32,541 degrees in all; in 2001, the most recent year for which I have figures, we awarded 4.13 percent of all B.A. degrees, or 51,419 in all.  You can make any judgment call you like about English departments and their hodgepodges, but you actually can’t accuse “theory” of driving away undergraduates.  You can’t do it, that is, in the sense that it is “untrue,” just like saying “Princeton University trumpets the fact that Elaine Showalter has been called ‘Camille Paglia with balls’” is untrue.

Last but not least, there’s the complaint that nobody writes for nonscholars anymore.

All that is left to such university teachers is the notion that they are, in a much-strained academic sense, avant-garde, which means that they continue to dig deeper and deeper for lower and lower forms of popular culture—graffiti on Elizabethan chamber pots—and human oddity. The best standard in the old days would have university scholars in literature and history departments publish books that could also be read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars. Nothing of this kind is being produced today. . . .  The bad old days in English departments were mainly the dull old days, with more than enough pedants and dryasdusts to go round. But they did also produce a number of university teachers whose work reached beyond university walls and helped elevate the general culture: Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Ellen Moers, Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Ward, Robert Penn Warren. The names from the bad new days seem to end with the entirely political Edward Said and Cornel West.

OK, so it’s the new, inclusive nostalgia—look!  two women!  (But no human oddity, now.) Still, this is at once tired and tiresome.  First, note the unsubtle switching of the dice: we start off with the proposition that no one is writing books that can be read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars, and we finish with a dismissal of two of the people whose books are read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars, on the grounds that they are “entirely political.” As for Epstein’s giants who no longer walk the earth, well, that’s a fine list of names, but really, I’ll put Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Menand, Gerald Early, Ann Douglas, Mark Edmundson, Elaine Scarry, and Henry Louis Gates up against ‘em any old time.  Say what you want about their work, or about Said’s (Cornel West does not actually teach in an English department); but you really can’t pretend that these people aren’t read by nonscholars.  And even though I don’t always love everything written by these folks, I want to point out that these are all quite distinguished and serious people who are widely reviewed and generally acclaimed.  They aren’t just cranks with blogs, now.

But I return to my earlier point.  Joseph Epstein is not, in fact, a hack.  He’s capable of much better than this.  Even his most tedious essays have flashes of genuine wit and grace, and I’ve found his best work thoroughly entertaining even when I don’t care for its propositional content.  The problem with this ubi sunt genre of lamentation, in this respect, is that it’s inevitably self-aggrandizing: you don’t have to scratch the surface of the text very hard to find that its subtext is no one writes well for the general public any longer—except me, the way I’m doing right now.  And when you’re working in that genre, you’d better get your “Camille Paglia with balls” passages in order, or you’ll wind up looking very foolish.

Posted by Michael on 05/03 at 12:23 PM
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