Saturday, December 31, 2011

Michael Leddy’s Brooklyn


The prettiest girl I ever saw
was sipping Hoffman's through a straw, give or take
a word.  Right from the can.

A tree grows from that can, in the nervous house
I live in, it's transparent as soda.

In a nearby city,
make that nearly.  Kids, it's nearly dinner.

That’s a poem by Michael Leddy, which we published in the old Samizdat magazine a dozen years go.  I really liked it then, and I really like it now.  I think I know why: you can read this one as casually or as intently as you want, and be happy with it either way.  Read intently, it makes for a very interesting set of propositions — about language, about poetic tradition, about the association of ideas in the stream of consciousness, and about the passage of time.

If you are the sort who thinks, with Wordsworth, that “we murder to dissect,” or who wants interpretive certainty, rather than the exploration of a set of interpretive possibilities invited by the text, you might want to go do something else instead of reading the rest of this post, which will just make you want to type an angry comment, perhaps in capital letters.

Okay then.  Let’s start at the beginning, which is to say, let’s start with some very traditional poetry, since the poem begins with rhyming iambics, slightly disguised because the second rhyme word isn’t at the end of a line, and because the metrics invite a little play in how one performs them:

The prettiest girl I ever saw
was sipping Hoffman's through a straw

We’ve got the full rhymes, and a scansion which is almost:


“Prettiest” is three syllables, of course, but depending on where you’re from, it’s likely to elide either a little or a lot, “prit-yest” being sort of clipped and Britsy, and “prit-ee-est” being flat-footed Nebraskan.  Take it any way that makes you happy.  I like to take it as a little stutter in the smoothness, thrown in there to make us conscious of what’s going on, and maybe to show us that Leddy doesn’t take the iambic line for granted.

Already there’s a lot here: the whole long tradition of iambic rhyming poetry about women, and about innocence, and about nostalgia, is all sort of packed in there, evoked suddenly and quickly.  And then something really cool happens.

With “give or take/a word”  we move from talking about the girl with the soda to talking about the representation of her in language.  She was sipping Hoffman’s soda “give or take a word,” a very odd statement, difficult, even impossible, to take literally.  I take this turn in the sentence, in all of it’s casualness, to make a statement something like “my poetic representation of the girl is close, but words distort, you know it and I know it — but let’s not make a big deal out of that, we can make communication work.”  I like the statement about language, and I really like the sudden elision from the girl to language, from memory to medium. The enjambed nature of the sentence, which leaves us hanging for a moment between “give or take” and “a word,” helps the shift from scene-painting to metalanguage come as a nice little surprise, I think.  And since the opening is so thoroughly, yet subtly, traditional, I like to take this little elision as making a kind of statement about the tradition of lyric poetry: that it distorts, but that, for the moment, we’re going to be okay with that.  This is what I’d call an interpretive possibility, held open by the text, but not as anything firmer than that.

And then suddenly, with “Right from the can,” we’re back in the little memory-scene, as if nothing had happened.  Except that we might not be.  That is, we might be back to seeing the girl sip from a straw that’s in a can, but the language is ambiguous, and possibly contradictory — we can take it to mean “the straw went into the can,” (though why would we need to hear that?) but we can also take it to mean “she was drinking from the can,” which would contradict the earlier statement about how she was drinking her soda from a straw.  Everything that seemed so accurate, right down to the obsolete, mid-Atlantic-specific brand of soda, is thrown into a bit of doubt.  But it doesn’t really cause any huge interpretive crisis, since so little is at stake, this being just a little memory.  We’re in the realm of  “language is wobbly, but workable,” the realm of “give or take a word.”

In the next stanza, we get something that looks a little surreal: “a tree grows in that can.”  It’s here that the title becomes important, because in a poem called “Brooklyn,” the phrase “a tree grows” brings to mind A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the 1943 novel turned into a move by Elia Kazan two years later.  But so what?  So this, I think: firstly, we get a kind of Proust’s madeleine effect: Hoffman’s soda becomes evocative of a whole world of early 20th century New York immigrant struggle and perseverance (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn deals with Irish immigrants in the then-squalid tenements of Williamsburg), so there’s a kind of sense to the bizarre phrase “a tree grows in that can.”  But there’s more than that.  One of the main themes of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the importance of bending the truth: the protagonists can succeed only if they lie about where they live to get a child into a better school.  So the poem’s theme of the distortable nature of language is re-enforced here.

Another thing I like about the poem is how rapidly it starts to accumulate a little catalog of all the kinds of things a poem can do: it gives us meter and rhyme, and the tradition of the poem about the glimpsed but distant female, it gives us the tradition of nostalgia for innocence, it gives us metalanguage, and now it gives us intertextual allusion.  I especially like that the text to which it alludes is never named, and that it’s impossible to know if it is the movie or the book that is being invoked: this, again, adds to the “give or take a word” theme of language that distorts, but that’s good enough to work.  I mean, the allusion works whether it’s the movie or the book that comes to mind.

What about the whole couplet, though, beyond the subtle, oblique allusion?

A tree grows in that can, in the nervous house
I live in, it's transparent as soda.

A tree, it seems, grows in the nervous house in which the speaker lives.  It’s not an image that demands to be taken literally, especially not after the image of the tree growing in the can.  So let’s not take it literally.  Me, I like the notion of the tree being like the tree in Elia Kazan’s movie, which is a symbol of endurance despite travail.  Taking things this way, we move from the innocent world of the speaker’s memory, where he saw a girl drinking soda, to a more difficult, tense present world — but it’s not a desperate world, not entirely, there’s hope if, like the characters in the novel, one holds on and does one’s best. 

This takes us as far as “the nervous house I live in,” but then there’s “it’s transparent as soda.”  Here again we’re in the realm of ambiguous or distorting language, the world of “give or take a word,” since the referent for the pronoun “it” is unclear: does it point us to the tree, or to the house?  If it’s the tree, then we could say that the hope that redeems the nervousness is invisible, is something not readily apparent.  But if “it” refers to the house, we’ve got a special kind of “nervous house,” one in which all of the nervous unhappinesses are on display to the world — as they would be in the tightly-packed tenement world of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  The issue is undecidable, as the old deconstructionists would say, and I like having it that way, which really means having it both ways, since both possibilities are suggested.  And, of course, the soda image brings us back to the girl and her world of innocence, so distant in tone from the fallen world in which the speaker now lives.

“In a nearby city” starts to launch us on a new narrative, moving us in space, but then there’s a little slip, moving from “nearby” to “nearly.”  I like that the speaker is correcting himself: he puts us once again into the world of approximation, the world of “give or take a word.”  And what follows shows us that we aren’t going to move in space, we’re going to move in time: to dinner time, in fact.  But the fact that the speaker now is clearly a father shows us that the real movement in time has been through decades, as the speaker grows up.  Hoffman’s soda hasn’t been around since the 60s, and this poem was written in early 2000, so we’ve gone from the childhood of the speaker to his adulthood.  His role has changed, and now he’s looking after his own children.  Which is wonderful for the poem, since when we begin with a memory of lost beauty and innocence and end with an adult who is accompanied by those who still experience the world innocently we’ve walked right into the heart of Romanticism, into Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”

What I really like about the poem is that it doesn’t just give us the life-cycle of the speaker, from youth to age.  It also gives us something like the poetic history from Romanticism to now: it gives us the rhyming, iambic, nostalgic invocation of innocence gone by — but then it gives us everything since Romanticism.  It gives us interpretive suggestion, rather than definiteness, such as we had in late nineteenth century symbolist poetry (“to suggest, that is the dream,” said Mallarmé), it gives us complex allusion, as the modernists did, and it gives us postmodern-style metalinguistic playfulness.  It’s a hell of a lot to put into an old soda can, but it fits.

You can find the poem, along with another little piece by Leddy, over at the still-incomplete Samizdat archive.

Friday, December 23, 2011

10,000 Poets: The Problem of the Multitude in American Poetry

Not long ago the poet Alfred Corn noted that “Year’s Best lists are strewn all over the print and electronic media. One publication I saw asked three perfectly plausible deciders to list the top ten poetry books of 2011. They did. And there was not a single overlap. The same thing happened to me years ago when myself and two other poets more or less in the same ballpark were asked to judge an annual prize. We each submitted ten names. There were no overlaps.” Corn then went on to ask a deceptively simple question: “What to make of this?” It’s tempting to answer by saying something about the infinite variability of taste, to sort of shrug and mutter "de gustibus non est disputandum."  It’s even more tempting, if one is in a foul mood, to say that the differences probably have their root in the different tribal loyalties of the poetry demimonde, to shrug and mutter something about the folks at Foetry, with their documentation of poets giving prizes to their students and lovers, having been right all along. But neither shrugging-off of the question really takes it seriously enough. What are we to make of the lack of consensus about the best books of poetry? What does it say about the conditions under which American poetry is produced and consumed?

The dissensus about poetry is linked to another phenomenon people have been talking about lately: the sheer bulk of American poetry. Two of the most voracious poetry readers I know, Stephen Burt and Mark Scroggins, have both noted the enormous bulk of contemporary American poetry and the chatter—promotional, critical, gossipy—that surrounds it. “Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it’s even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines… to be au courant, I should keep up. And I can’t keep up” says Burt on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. “It feels like there’s been an exponential explosion of poetic activity out there, so much being written & published & written about that no-one, but no-one, is able to grasp more than a tiny fraction of it,” says Scroggins on Facebook. And it’s not just people I know who’ve been feeling the enormous weight of America’s poetic output. When I attended the ALSCW conference in Boston this fall, Mark Halliday gave one of the best-attended talks, a lecture called “10,000 Poets,” in which he addressed what we might call American poetry’s problem of the multitude. The term (mine, not Halliday’s) shouldn’t be taken to imply that it is a bad thing that so many poets are writing and finding their way to publication—only that this particular cultural situation, like all others, presents its own unique set of challenges and conundrums, along with its positive qualities. And I believe some of the problems Halliday outlined give us a way to answer Alfred Corn’s question.

Halliday began his address to the crowd in a big, dark Boston University auditorium by noting that Alexander Pope’s England had some five million inhabitants, while the United States of our own day has some 300 million people, half of whom had MFAs in creative writing. He was joking, of course, but the point was made: those of us concerned with American poetry today must deal with gigantism of scale in both population and education. Defining a poet as someone who has published a book, or aspires to do so, continued Halliday, we might conservatively estimate the number of American poets at 10,000 (“or,” he added, “30,000 — when I’m in a bad mood”). But is the number of poets really a bad thing? Isn’t it an embarrassment of riches? So what if no one person could possibly read all of the worthwhile poetry? From one point of view, this isn’t bad at all—and what would one do to change it? Repress poets? “But this isn’t an ambitious poet’s point of view,” said Halliday, “and I have been ambitious since 1971.”

Ambitious poets, according to Halliday, are bothered by the multitude of poets, and those who say they are not are merely pretending to a serenity they do not in fact possess. But what is the response of the ambitious poet to the problem of the multitude? What do poets do with their agitation and frustration? According to Halliday, the situation generates five behaviors among ambitious poets:

1. A Proclivity for Ignoring. If there are too many poets with whom to keep up, one response is simply to rule out whole swathes of the poetry landscape. Online poetry? One can tell oneself it’s not serious stuff. Journals with small readerships? Not worth reading. Alternately, one might tell oneself that journals with large readerships are compromised and unworthy of attention. Or one could simply label whole schools of poetry as unworthy of attention, kicking them into the dustbin with a hostile label (“School of Quietude,” anyone?). It’s not just poets who do this: when Helen Vendler recently opined that there can’t possibly have been 175 American poets worth reading in the entire 20th century, she was revealing a fairly strong proclivity for ignoring. [The examples here, I should note, are mine and not Halliday’s—I was taking notes quickly in a small notebook in a dark room, and didn’t manage to get all of his explanatory detail down].

2. Dependence on Mutual Praise Networks. Whether it’s the crowd with whom one went to graduate school, or a group with stylistic affinities, or just a set of people with a habit of blurbing one another’s books, there’s a strong tendency for poets in the age of the multitude to seek not safety, but recognition, in numbers. People in the tribe are bound to end up editing a decent journal, or a magazine review section, or heading a writing program, or handing out prize money, or editing an anthology. Best, thinks the ambitious poet, to stay on their good sides, and praise the other poets proleptically and profusely. If you’ve ever been at the AWP convention, you’ve actually seen these networks in their re-enforcement phase, like some primitive mating ritual. And if one combines this network-oriented way of operating with a good dose of ignoring whole swathes of American poetry (see item one, above), one can begin to think that recognition from one’s tribe is the recognition of the world. “Corruption of the soul,” said Halliday, “lurks for the writer of blurbs.”

3. Buzz Susceptibility. In the great deluge of poetry, one comes to passively accept the importance of some other poet simply because of the publicity buzz his or her work has generated. “Jorie Graham, Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Seamus Heaney—even if you don’t care, or have ceased caring, for their work, we desperately want someone to be famous,” said Halliday, and we’re willing to take it on faith—faith in publicity buzz, rather than our own judgement, since judgment implies comparison, and there’s no way of comparing any one poet with the whole of the enormous poetic field.

4. Quickie Responses. When confronted with new poetry, one relies on email or brief conversations to make a judgment: there’s no time, in the great deluge, to give any broad selection of new work our serious consideration. Under these conditions much bad work gets praised, much good work ignored, and much subtle work misunderstood.

5. Self-Mythologizing. “If you love the idea of greatness and are ignored,” said Halliday, “self-mythologize. Suppress any sense of humor about yourself. You may imitate self-deprecation, but you may not mean it in earnest. Act like someone whose greatness is about to be recognized. This will create an aura for you and, much more importantly, for your favorite students, who will be young enough to believe it.” These students will then bear your name out into the world and onto the syllabus, where others among the young and naive will come to see you as a great poet. [In the margin of my notes to Halliday’s talk I have scribbled something that looks like “Warhol’s ‘famous for 15 minutes’ is now ‘famous to 15 people.’”]

So, to return to Alfred Corn’s question about dissensus: “what to make of this?” With the exception of buzz susceptibility, the behaviors Halliday describes can all be seen as contributing to the critical dissensus Alfred Corn noted on prize committees and “best books” lists. When there is so much to read, many people will simply tune out certain presses, journals, styles, schools, forms, or even generations. With no way to keep track of the multitude of new books, many will come to rely on their own closed networks for advice. Fast responses will lead to a failure to appreciate complex or subtle work outside one’s own network, further reinforcing closure to voices outside one’s own idiosyncratic network. The self-mythologizing process, which sends acolytes into the world to create more acolytes—in the manner of the critic F.R. Leavis, who literally kept a map with pins indicating where he’d planted disciples—creates little cults of personality, invisible from the outside. All of this adds up to individual insularity, to a world of top-ten lists without overlap.

Of course many things have led us to this place. Technological changes make publishing more accessible and books more affordable; the spread of education has created a huge number of people who want to write poems, and can (we are only a few decades beyond a time when the big disputes in American poetry were disputes among Harvard classmates).  I believe that overall, the scale of American poetry is a good thing. But it does create certain problems for the kind of poet who wishes for recognition. Such poets (the ones Halliday calls “ambitious”) react to the situation with a set of defensive behaviors that have as a side-effect the sort of critical dissensus described by Corn. We see this across the poetic spectrum. If Helen Vendler, with her refusal to believe there could possibly be 175 poets worth reading out of the untold thousands of 20th century American poets, suffers from a kind of “proclivity for ignoring,” so also does Kenneth Goldsmith, who has argued that his kind of poetry is more “relevant” (to what, one wonders?) than other forms, which presumably no longer have any claim on our attention.

The multitude is the condition of American poetry in our time. The problem of the multitude, though, exists only for poets ambitious for recognition, and readers who wish to feel they can read everything worth reading.

*Update December 28: D.G. Meyers at Commentary magazine takes a different view of the issue.

*Update January 3: Johannes Göransson takes yet another view of the issue.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Rita Dove Anthology Dust-Up Continues!

Rita Dove's Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry continues to generate controversy.

Here are a couple of articles that mention my own contribution to the contretemps: one from The Chronicle of Higher Education and one from The Guardian.

*Update, Dec. 23:

Michael Leong has some interesting thoughts on the anthology at Big Other.

My original post is here.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"It's Too Much": Norman Finkelstein and the Poetics of Contemporaneity

One of the most notable things about contemporary poetry is that there's so much of it.  If one were tempted to keep up with it all, one might say there's so damn much of it.  This is the starting point of Norman Finkelstein's "The Poetics of Contemporaneity," a long reviw of Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher's book The Monkey & the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, a review just now out in Contemporary Literature.  It starts with reference to a little Facebook discussion in which I played a part:

In a recent post on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog entitled “It’s Too Much,” Stephen Burt declares, only half-jokingly (I think), “Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it’s even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines… to be au courant, I should keep up. And I can’t keep up.”  Burt continues in this vein for another couple of paragraphs, and though he keeps it light, he manages to touch a nerve.  In my little corner of Facebook, Robert Archambeau linked to Burt’s post, eliciting twenty-eight more-or-less anxious comments.  Mark Scroggins picked up the post and responded at some length on his blog, Culture Industry: “Man do I sympathize. With the expansion of the internet as the primary medium of poetry, & of the endless chatter of poetry-promotion & poetry-discussion – of pobiz, in short – it feels like there's been an exponential explosion of poetic activity out there, so much being written & published & written about that no-one, but no-one, is able to grasp more than a tiny fraction of it.”

Finkelstein's review goes on to discuss how the various pieces in the book address, or fail to address, the contemporary situation.  Finkelstein has some particularly kind words for my own contribution, and I'm not above repeating them:

…the two best essays, by, as it happens, Robert Archambeau and Stephen Burt, take the longest view and are most fully informed by an acute literary historical awareness. Archambeau’s “The Discursive Situation of Poetry,” which leads off the collection, alone is worth the price of admission.  Archambeau is one of our smartest poetic sociologists, and in this essay, he tackles the biggest problem facing poetry in our time: the dwindling of its audience and the growing divide between poets and a mainstream literary readership, however the latter may be construed.  Archambeau considers an ideologically varied group of critics, including Dana Gioia, Joseph Epstein, Charles Bernstein, Thomas Disch and John Barr, all of whom complain about poetry’s loss of public attention as poets gradually migrate to academia and graduate-level creative writing programs proliferate.  A corollary to this complaint is the notion that at some time in the not too distant past (say the 1940s or 1950s), poets were more responsive to the needs and desires of a middle-class readership, editors published them more frequently in general interest magazines with wider circulations, and market forces, rather than the rarefied aesthetic views of a literary elite or bohemian coterie, determined poetic success.  Archambeau demolishes these notions, but at the same time, identifies a period further in the past—the mid-Victorian period—when the “discursive situation of poetry—that is, the conditions of writing, publishing and reception” (13) was such that poets really did speak to, of and for the values of a growing middle-class reading public.  “This class,” notes Archambeau, “growing into unprecedented political and social dominance in a rapidly changing and industrializing society, felt understandably dislocated” (15).  The British middle class found the guidance for which it sought in “men of letters” such as Ruskin, Thackery, Mill or Tennyson, “because men of letters, including poets, were drawn from, and remained a part of, the same social class as the reading public, and as such they articulated that class’s own views, anxieties and values” (15).  The preeminence of these figures, however, proved relatively short-lived, as on the one hand, literacy spread to the working class, and on the other hand, the middle class itself, intermarrying with the aristocracy, formed “a newly confident class that developed an ethos of self-interest, utilitarianism, and conspicuous consumption….They were decreasingly in need of buying what the mid-Victorian poets were selling” (19).  By the end of the nineteenth century, the poets had moved from middle-class drawing rooms to the garrets of bohemia, which they bequeathed to their modernist heirs.
Unfortunately, Archambeau never explicitly links the situation of Victorian England to that of the United States, where the class structure, without an aristocracy in the European sense, developed along somewhat different lines.  Concomitantly, the figure of the poet as cultural arbiter differed as well.  Perhaps the Fireside Poets played a similar role to the British men of letters, but the advent of Whitman and all he came to represent proved a definitive break.  In any case, Archambeau is still correct: when the utilitarian and consumerist values of the middle class solidified, and the poets moved first to bohemia and then to academia, the loss of a general readership for poetry was inevitable.  As Archambeau puts it, “Professionalized literary studies and bohemianized poetry were close cousins, both products of broad shifts in economics and culture that took poetry and the broad reading public in different directions” (20-21).  Furthermore, the changes that might realign poets and average readers are not particularly desirable.  Where, after all, does poetry really count in the modern world?  Basically, under conditions of political oppression.  Thus, “just as we would not wish to return to mid-Victorian levels of literacy and social development just to see the rise of a new Tennyson, we would not wish to fall victim to colonization just to have our own Celtic Revival.  Those of us who live with discursive conditions that keep poetry unpopular may count themselves lucky” (24-25).  Meanwhile, as Archambeau observes, “the encroachment of market values on the previously semi-autonomous academic system is well under way, and is probably irreversible,” a development that is bound to affect “[t]he oversupply of academically credentialed poets” (25).  How many unemployed or under-employed MFAs in creative writing do you know?  Unfortunately, I know quite a few.

Finkelstein is completely right about my failure to address the American situation in the late 19th century.  And he's onto something when he says the Fireside Poets (Longfellow, Whittier, et al) played an important role, analogous in some ways to the role of Tennyson in England.  But I haven't really done enough research in American poetry to say much more than that.

If you have access to Project Muse at a university library database, you can check out Finkelstein's article online.

There's a pretty spirited discussion of my own essay, and related issues, at John Gallaher's blog.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"La Transhumance du Verbe, Incanted René Char": John Matthias' Shorter Poems

Rejoice!  John Matthias' Collected Shorter Poems, vol.2, is now available from Shearsman Books.  Covering Matthias' work in shorter forms from 1995 to 2011, it showcases both the breadth and the consistency of Matthias' achievement.  No small part of that achievement is the wedding of the lyric self to the historical world beyond that self.  Matthias has a term for this, and uses it as the title of one of the poems, “Kedging. ” “Kedging’s all you’re good for,” he writes here, in an address to himself that invokes his image for the kind of poetry that reaches out beyond the self into historical and literary allusion.  The image is nautical in origin: to kedge is to move a ship forward by sending out a launch to drop an anchor at a distance, then winding in the anchor line to pull the ship forward.  For Matthias, this most strenuous form of locomotion mirrors the process by which a certain kind of poet writes.   “Poets, too, may cast an anchor well before them, “ he writes in a modified dictionary definition of kedging, “pulling forward when attached to something solid, only then to cast their anchor once again.”  It’s the “something solid” that’s important here: for Matthias, the poet needs to latch on to something beyond himself to make any progress, catching his anchor in a solid mass of history or literature before he can make any headway.

This casting out for an anchorage figures in even the most personal and anecdotal poems of this collection.  Consider “Francophiles, 1958,” a memoir of a high school senior year in Ohio.  “La transhumance du Verbe, incanted René Char,” it begins.  Right away we know there’s going to be precious little Norman Rockwell Ohioiana to this Buckeye childhood.  Instead, the anchor’s been flung out far, catching in the solid mass of midcentury French history and culture:

                        Hell was other people
we’d proclaim, pointing out each other’s mauvaise foi.
What was not absurd was certainly surreal, essence rushing
headlong at existence all the way from Paris to Vauclause.

Or again:

We went to bed with both Bardot
and de Beauvoir.  Fantastic volunteers of Le Maquis, we
knew about Algeria, about
Dien Bien Phu...

What comes across most strongly here is the power of our connection to world beyond self: to wars, poems, philosophical ideas, to the spectacle of mass-media, to history as it (often tragically) unfolds.  So strong are the connections one begins to wonder if there really is a separation between the self and the world beyond.  Would those Ohio boys have become who they became without French intellectual chic?  Would their daydreams have been the same without Brigitte Bardot?  Certainly Dien Bien Phu would come to mean a great deal for the class of ’58 in the turbulent decade ahead.  The culture that seemed so attractively remote and exotic turns out to be the very stuff of who we are, or who we become.

One of the points of a poetry like this is to show our interpellation or situatedness in history and culture.  This certainly seems to be what Matthias is getting at in some lines from the poetic sequence that closes the book, “Kedging in Time,” where he writes:

kedging’s all you’re good for
with a foot of water  under you, the tide gone out, the fog so thick
you can’t see the lights at Norderney but enter history in spite
of that by sounding in its shallows with an oar

To enter history — or, at any rate, to see that one has always already been a part of history, and that the self and the historical other are in some sense one — that’s the gist of any ars poetica Matthiasiensis.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How Did We Get Here? Politics in the Age of the Koch Brothers and #OWS

Here’s a video shot at the University of California-Davis. It shows Lt. John Pike of the UC-Davis police sauntering up to students associated with the Occupy movement and pepper spraying them, before backing slowly away in a heavily armed phalanx while demonstrators and onlookers chant “shame on you”:

I take this moment as emblematic of our current political situation. It is a situation in which about 2/3 of Americans sympathize with the Occupy movement's call for greater economic equality, but only half that number approve of the protests themselves, and no political party does anything to address the growing inequality. It's a situation, too, in which administrative leaders at all levels seem happy to tolerate police violence, which the right-wing media, led as ever by Fox News, presents as necessary and even heroic.  The people are angry, but they're wary of those who demonstrate on behalf of their interests, and the political elites prefer to address the situation with violence rather than reforms. How did we get to this sad state of affairs?

The answer, I think, has to do with changes in the attitudes of our various elites over the past few decades.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when elites from various fields — politics, business, finance, labor, journalism, religion, academe — would gather together and attempt to ameliorate whatever social and economic problems seemed of pressing importance. And they would gather in something like a spirit of enlightened self-interest, if not exactly of disinterest, trying to take a look at problems from a point of view other than that of immediate self-advancement. This, anyway, is what George Packer claims in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Knowing a little bit about the history of social elites and their relation to the notion of disinterest or impartiality, I’m inclined to agree with him. Here’s what Packer says about the various American elites in the postwar era:

…the country’s elites were playing a role that today is almost unrecognizable. They actually saw themselves as custodians of national institutions and interests. The heads of banks, corporations, universities, law firms, foundations, and media companies were neither more nor less venal, meretricious, and greedy than their counterparts today. But they rose to the top in a culture that put a brake on these traits and certainly did not glorify them. Organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee for Economic Development, and the Ford Foundation did not act on behalf of a single, highly privileged point of view — that of the rich. Rather, they rose above the country’s conflicting interests and tried to unite them into an overarching idea of the national interest. Business leaders who had fought the New Deal as vehemently as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now fighting health-care and financial reform later came to accept Social Security and labor unions, did not stand in the way of Medicare, and supported other pieces of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. They saw this legislation as contributing to the social peace that ensured a productive economy. In 1964, Johnson created the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress to study the effects of these coming changes on the work force. The commission included two labor leaders, two corporate leaders, the civil rights activist Whitney Young, and the sociologist Daniel Bell. Two years later, they came out with their recommendations: a guaranteed annual income and a massive job-training program. This is how elites once behaved: as if they had actual responsibilities.
This establishment really does represent an accommodation of different elites to one another: business and finance came together with leaders of what Chris Hedges has called “the liberal class”: a group consisting of “the media, the church, the university, the Democratic party, the arts, and labor unions” (his book on the fate of these elites, The Death of the Liberal Class, makes chilling reading). Together, the moneyed elite and the liberal class worked out ways of sharing wealth and solving social problems that, however imperfect, kept the fabric of society together. The liberal class could feel it had delivered some justice to the disempowered, and the moneyed interest could rest assured that, with enough soup in every bowl, radicalism had been headed off.  Indeed, as Hedges notes, one function of the liberal class has been to “discredi[t] radicals within American society who have defied corporate capitalism and continued to speak the language of class warfare.” With the great mass of people placated, radicals discredited, and the position of business and finance secured (at a moderate cost) a social compact was maintained. This is not to be sneered at: the years prior to the war had shown the world (especially Europe) what the failure of social compacts, and the legitimization of certain kinds of radicals, looked like. No one wanted to go back to those days.

The postwar arrangement, Packer notes in passing, didn’t deliver for everyone: if you were African-American, or a woman, you’d probably find those postwar years something less than Edenic. I’d add other groups to Packer’s list, especially gay people, who are only now beginning to gain something like equality and something like a public voice. But for many people, the establishment seemed to deliver a decent life, with relatively secure employment and relative egalitarianism, with inexpensive public universities, and wealth far less polarized than it is today (we’ve gone from a postwar 40:1 CEO-to-worker pay ratio to a ratio of more than 400:1).

(If you are interested in the first modern instance of an amalgamation of different elites and their cultivation of an ethos of relative disinterestedness, you might want to read the bits about Addison, The Spectator, and the class dynamics of eighteenth century England in this post).

In Packer's view, the old establishment, with its alliance between moneyed and liberal elites, came to an end for two reasons: the "youth rebellion and revolution of the 1960s" and the economic troubles of the 1970s, brought about by "stagflation and the oil shock." Here, I think, he's only partially right, and very light on detail. It's certainly true that the student and New Left movements of the 60s (and, I would add, the 70s) challenged the old establishment. But Packer neglects to say why: it was the draft and the war, certainly, but it was also the coming into the public sphere of all the social groups the old establishment had left out: African-Americans, women, gay people, and others. They rightly questioned the representativeness of the old elites, and they rightly saw that, whatever degree of disinterest informed elite decisions, it masked a preference for whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality. The demands of repressed groups for representation, though, led to a backlash, as the established elites, and many of the non-elites benefitting from the old social compact, felt threatened. The moneyed elites that already felt they'd been asked to share a great deal resented being asked to share with even more people ("What! First the G.I. bill and now urban renewal on top of that?!"), and the hard-working white male non-elites sensed that their small privileges were under threat. This, I think, is the nature of the undermining of the old establishment during the 60s and 70s. When the oil shock came along, further undermining confidence in the old compact, it simply presented an opportunity for already existing cracks to widen.

As the fissures in the old compact widened, elites lost faith in the process of working together in relative disinterest for the good of all, and America began to resemble something more like the Hobbesian state of nature, with the war of all against all. Here's how Packer describes the oil-shock era and the subsequent end of a relatively disinterested establishment:
[The oil shock] eroded Americans’ paychecks and what was left of their confidence in the federal government after Vietnam, Watergate, and the disorder of the 1960s. It also alarmed the country’s business leaders, and they turned their alarm into action. They became convinced that capitalism itself was under attack by the likes of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, and they organized themselves into lobbying groups and think tanks that quickly became familiar and powerful players in U.S. politics: the Business Roundtable, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Their budgets and influence soon rivaled those of the older, consensus-minded groups, such as the Brookings Institution. By the mid-1970s, chief executives had stopped believing that they had an obligation to act as disinterested stewards of the national economy. They became a special interest; the interest they represented was their own. The neoconservative writer Irving Kristol played a key role in focusing executives’ minds on this narrower and more urgent agenda. He told them, “Corporate philanthropy should not be, and cannot be, disinterested.”
Among the non-disinterested spending that corporations began to engage in, none was more interested than lobbying. Lobbying has existed since the beginning of the republic, but it was a sleepy, bourbon-and-cigars practice until the mid- to late 1970s. In 1971, there were only 145 businesses represented by registered lobbyists in Washington; by 1982, there were 2,445. In 1974, there were just over 600 registered political action committees, which raised $12.5 million that year; in 1982, there were 3,371, which raised $83 million. In 1974, a total of $77 million was spent on the midterm elections; in 1982, it was $343 million. Not all this lobbying and campaign spending was done by corporations, but they did more and did it better than anyone else. And they got results.
If you remember the Carter administration, you remember what the end of the establishment looked like: bipartisanship came to an standstill in Washington, and it remains stuck in that mode today. And the moneyed elites ceased to see their well-being tied to that of the nation as a whole: their interest was self-interest plain and simple, without the amelioration of any enlightenment. There's a sad irony to all of this, in that the break-up of the old elites, and the airing out of their smoke-filled rooms, didn't lead to greater egalitarianism. "Getting rid of elites..." says Packer, "did not necessarily empower ordinary people." Indeed, when "Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and Walter Wriston of Citicorp stopped sitting together on Commissions to Make the World a Better Place" and began "paying lobbyists to fight for their separate interests in Congress," says Packer, "the balance of power tilted heavily toward business." And there it has stayed, as indexes of wealth distribution and worker productivity and tax policy make plainer and plainer every day.

The massive, well-organized deployment of enormous sums of money by the business and (especially) the financial elites have in large measure made American politicians, regardless of party, into the tools of the wealthy elites: Bush cut taxes on the very rich to near-historic lows, and the right-wing Roberts court more or less legalized political bribery in the Citizens United decision, but it was Bill Clinton who began the deregulation of Wall Street that led first to massive profits for the few, then to an terrible crisis for the many, and it was Democrat Chuck Schumer who kept capital gains taxes so low that most hedge fund managers pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries. The Koch brothers and those of their ilk don't consider themselves stewards of national well-being, not really: they consider themselves people who have a right to buy the means to rig the system ever-further in their favor. For them, this is simply their prerogative. Acting on this presumed prerogative has made them very wealthy, but it has also made their whole class less and less legitimate in the eyes of the public, despite the constant drumbeat of political advertisements and the far-from-disinterested vision of events presented on Fox News and other corporate media platforms. 

The liberal elites — mainline churches, universities, elements of the media, labor leaders — have been complicit in these sad developments. Unable to ameliorate the naked self-interest of financial and corporate elites, they have clung to their own small privileges while no longer serving a useful role.  They simply do not deliver for the broad population as they used to do, and in failing to do so they have become despised by many in the working and middle classes. As Chris Hedges puts it,
The liberal class has become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power. And as corporate power pollutes and poisons the ecosystem and propels us into a world where there will be only masters and serfs, the liberal class, which serves no purpose in the new configuration, is being abandoned and discarded. The death of the liberal class means there is no check to a corporate apparatus designed to enrich a tiny elite and plunder a nation.... It ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and middle classes will find expression outside the confines of democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.
That's a difficult pill for many of us to swallow, but it does explain some of the most notable political developments of our time. It explains the urges behind the Tea Party (which saw itself as an outsider movement, at odds with all elites, but was co-opted almost from the start by the moneyed elites). And it explains what's been happening these past two months in New York, in Oakland, in Chicago, and in towns and cities across the country. The Occupy Wall Street movement can be seen as several things. It can be seen as a desperate move for political expression by those who see the failure of all elites to even try to stop the erosion of the social and economic position of the vast majority of Americans. It can also be seen as an attempt to wrest the old liberal classes away from their complicity with the now-completely-dominant moneyed elites — to revitalize a liberal class on its deathbed. It can also be seen in a less charitable light: I recently saw a nephew of mine and his friends disparage the Occupy movement as "a hipster convention" of people who looked like they were "in line for the latest iPhone." I think this is wrong, but I see where it comes from: it comes from the correct perception that the old liberal elites ("a hipster convention" signifies this class) have been more concerned with their petty privileges ("the latest iPhone") than with delivering for the millions of Americans whose relative position has been steadily degrading for decades. I like to hope that the Occupy movement can both give expression to the political needs of the many, and can give the old liberal class the backbone it needs to stand up to the ever-expanding domination of American life by a tiny financial elite.
If we don't have this hope, what's left?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Letters of Blood

Letters of Blood and Other English Works, by the late, great Swedish poet and critic Göran Printz-Påhlson is just about to hit the presses, and you can now pre-order the book at the publisher's website.  

Printz-Påhlson is not as well known in the English-speaking world as one might expect, given the scope of his achievement and his distinguished career at Harvard and Cambridge.  But he will, according to the English newspaper the Independent, "...go down in history as the author of some classic poems… and one of Sweden's most learned, innovative and sharp-witted literary critics. He was a prodigy, introducing a generation of Swedish writers to European modernism in his early study The Sun in the Mirror, and was one of the founders of the Lund school of poetry, a movement based in the ancient university town of Lund in the very southern tip of Sweden.  He was a scholar of enormous range, and the current volume includes a series of important lectures, "The Words of the Tribe," on the nature of poetic language (he treats linguistic primitivism, linguistic reductionism, the materiality of language, and the political elements of diction in detail).  He was also a prolific translator, and managed to put the works of John Ashbery into Swedish, a task for which he had exactly the right sensibility: erudite, attuned to pop-culture, musical, and wry.  You can learn more about him here, in the Guardian.

Here's the publisher's statement about the book:
This collection brings together for the first time works in English by the major Swedish modernist poet and critic Göran Printz-Påhlson. It was Printz-Påhlson who introduced poetic modernism to Scandinavia, and his essays and poems delve deeply into English, American, and continental modernist traditions. 
As well as Letters of Blood, the collection includes the full text of "The Words of the Tribe", a major statement on modern poetics, in which Printz-Påhlson explores the significance of primitivism in Romanticism and Modernism, and the nature of metaphor and literary materialism. The collection also includes essays on style, irony, realism, and the relationship between historical drama and historical fiction, as well as studies of American poetry. Printz-Påhlson’s poetry in English continues to explore these themes by different, often surprisingly innovative, means.
It was an honor to meet the man a few years before his death, and a privilege edit this book of his works in English.  I hope it will bring Printz-Påhlson's poetry and critical writing to an Anglo-American audience, for whom his concerns are startlingly relevant.

Sous les Pavés, les Poèts

Oh hey.  The new issue of Sous les Pavés is out, featuring work by Susan Howe, Mairéad Byrne, Amiri Baraka, Kent Johnson, and a host of others, including some guy called Archambeau.  You can read an online version by stopping in at the SLP blog and clicking on the link to SLP #5/6.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why You Are Not a Gentleman

I'm giving a talk to a gathering of some of the faculty of Lake Forest College this Wednesday.  It's called "Why You are Not a Gentleman," and it goes like this.


Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for coming here today for the last faculty luncheon discussion of the semester.  Could we begin with a little of what our friends in administration call "self-assessment"?  Could we have a show of hands from those who consider themselves ladies or gentlemen?  Perhaps we can come back to the reasons (legitimate or otherwise) why you consider, or don't consider, yourselves as falling within those categories.  But for now I'd like to confess that I am no gentleman.  I know because I've read Faulkner, and his greatest novel, The Sound and the Fury, contains this exchange:

"You're not a gentleman," Spoade said…
 "No, I'm Canadian," Shreve said.

Having confessed to my own low and provincial status, I should begin with the low and academic moves of providing definitions and hedging one's bets.

Up until the 14th century, gentil homme meant "nobleman," and nobleman meant "a man of aristocratic birth."  Certain behaviors and attitudes, including the martial virtues, were associated with gentlemanly status, of course, as we know from many records, including Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale," where we read:

Loke who that is most vertuous alway
Prive and apert, and most entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he can
And take him for the gretest gentilman

But this didn't generally pertain for those of low status: the fine deeds of the swineherd did not, in most cases, result in social elevation.  So, while the borders of the term "gentleman" have always been a bit contested, and seem to blur whenever there is social mobility, it is birth — legitimate, high-status birth — is near the center of things gentlemanly for a very long time.  Even when Shakespeare wrote, it is clear that Edmund, in King Lear, who dressed, spoke, and behaved as well as his legitimate brother Edgar, was no gentleman, or at best a gentleman with an asterisk after his name, in the manner of baseball's Roger Maris.

Gradually, cultivation increasingly supplemented birth, and in some measure nudged it aside, cozying up next to it at the center of what gentlemanliness was about.  We can see this begin to happen when, in the 16th century, the clergyman William Harrison claimed that "gentlemen be those whom their race and blood, or at least their virtues, do make noble."  The phrase "or at least" is interesting, isn't it?  Without high birth one can be a gentleman, of sorts, at least of a junior varsity kind.  This relative liberalism was picked up in the 17th century by the English public schools (what we in America would call private schools), which emphasized the idea that cultivation makes the gentleman—but then again, they would.  I mean, those of us who work for expensive private educational institutions are not without an awareness of how such institutions make the strongest possible claims for the value of the services they peddle.

I should also mention that definitions vary not only over time, but by locale.  Americans make much of the idea of the southern gentleman, but I won't speak of Americans.  Even after 20 years in this country, I do not understand their mysteries.

Anyway. When and where the notion of the gentleman as a creature of cultivation, with certain behaviors and attitudes, came to displace the notion of the gentleman as a creature of high birth (who might well also be cultivated, but wasn't necessarily so) is a debatable matter, and of course there is no single defining watershed.  But let me follow a true gentleman in locating the largest shift in the 18th century.  Here is how Thomas Babington Macaulay (that's Lord Macaulay to you), looked back on the English gentry of the 17th century from the vantage of the 1848.  The English gentleman before the 18th century, says Macaulay,
…was compounded of two elements which we seldom or never find united. His ignorance and uncouthness, his low tastes and gross phrases, would, in our time, be considered as indicating a nature, and a breeding, thoroughly plebeian. Yet he was essentially a patrician, and had, in large measure both the virtues and the vices which flourish among men set from their birth in high place, and used to respect themselves and to be respected by others. It is not easy for a generation accustomed to find chivalrous sentiments only in company with liberal studies and polished manners to imagine to itself a man with the deportment, the vocabulary, and the accent of a carter, yet punctilious on matters of genealogy and precedence, and ready to risk his life rather than see a stain cast on the honor of his house. It is however only by thus joining together things seldom or never found together in our own experience, that we can form a just idea of that rustic aristocracy...
Perhaps we could visualize such a character thusly:

This is not, of course, an actual photograph of a boorish 17th century gentleman.  This is Johnny Rotten, formerly of the Sex Pistols, in fancy clothes, but I hope it makes the point.

So what happened in England in the 18th century to make the idea of cultivation essential, rather than accidental, to gentlemanly status?  The shortest possible answer is this: the rise of the financially-oriented bourgeoisie and their assimilation into the existing, landowning elite.  Well, perhaps that's not the shortest possible answer.  Perhaps the shortest answer is: lowborn people getting rich.

I know what you're thinking: "poor Archambeau, he's gone native in America after all, confusing money with class."  Not so!  Bear with me, while I, a humble poet, seek to take you into the murky waters of the late 17th century English financial revolution, and its consequences for gentlemen.

At the end of the 17th century England was developing a mercantile society as vibrant as any in Europe, with fortunes being made in the trade of textiles, paper, and metals, but it was the Financial Revolution of the 1690s that really allowed a new elite group, based on trade and finance rather than land, to emerge.  The 1690s saw the founding of the stock market, the Bank of England, and the national debt, the last of which gave unprecedented power and influence to investors in public credit.  Unlike some other countries in which a moneyed faction arose, though, England did not see a direct clash between moneyed and landed interests.  This relatively peaceful accommodation of the rising bourgeois wasn’t due to innate English virtue so much as it was made possible by the England’s lack, of formal legal privileges for the gentry (there were privileges, certainly, but in typical English fashion these were more matters of tradition than of law).

Looking back on England’s early and relatively peaceful amalgamation of moneyed and landed classes from the far side of the French Revolution’s gore, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that England had been unique in “the ease with which it had opened its ranks,” and in how this merging of landed and moneyed classes created a more powerful, amalgamated elite: "With great riches, anybody could hope to enter into the rank..." of gentleman, or above.   As the historian David Castronovo puts it when comparing England to another country with a more bloody history of class conflict, “The Russian merchant was a merchant in law, forbidden to buy land; the English merchant was the man who could become an eminently respectable man ... a gentleman.”

But how could it be done?  England began the century as a country of rough squires proud of their pedigrees, on the one hand, and grasping, penny-counting London moneybags, on the other.  What would bring them together as a single elite of cultivated ladies and gentlemen?  Those of us in the English department can take great pride in saying that a good part of what did it was reading.

Consider the great flowering of magazines in the English 18th century.

At first glance, conditions in England at the dawn of the eighteenth century might not seem propitious for the founding of journals, particularly journals devoted in large measure to literary discussion.  Rates of literacy had actually fallen since the period of the Civil War and the Commonwealth in the prior century.  But if the country did not yet clamor with avid readers, it soon would: censorship and the taxing of periodicals was relaxed, periodicals blossomed.  Daniel Defoe started his Weekly Review in 1704, and in 1709 Richard Steele founded the more literary Tatler.  Two years later Steele joined with Addison in launching another literary/cultural journal, the Spectator.  The last two publications were widely imitated, and both the number of journals published and the reach of their total circulation rose dramatically throughout the century.  As the former editor of a cultural journal, I must emphasize that this phenomenon, the actual popularity of a cultural journal, you bears investigating.  Why, we may wonder, would such notoriously difficult-to-market commodities as cultural journals become viable in the marketplace at this particular place and time?

The answer lies in the way these journals provided a way to redefine gentlemanly status, decoupling it from birth and linking it more strongly to cultivation.  People wanted to form a new elite, bringing old prestige and new money together, and these journals, the Spectator in particular, presented them with a model for a new kind of gentleman, and also provided an arena in which to perfect one's new, gentlemanly cultivation.

Let's look, first, at how the Spectator offered a model for the new kind of gentleman.  The most famous issue of the journal presents us with an imagined "Mr. Spectator," the fictitious "author" of the various articles in the magazine, and his friends in the imagined "Spectator Club."  Here they are in the frontespiece to a collected edition of the journal:

Mr. Spectator, the model of the new kind of gentleman, embodies a combination of the social types that went into forming the new elite.  His origin, as he tells us in the first issue of the Spectator, lay among the landed gentry:
I was born to a small hereditary estate, which, according to the tradition of the village where it lies, was bounded by the same hedges and ditches in William the Conqueror's time that it is at present, and has been delivered down from father to son whole and entire, without the loss or acquisition of a single field or meadow, during the space of six hundred years.

Despite Mr. Spectator’s mother’s early hope that he take up the profession of law and become a respected judge, he has instead taken to habituating London’s coffee houses, where, if he has not exactly joined the bureaucratic and financial classes, he has become indistinguishable from them in their various haunts:
There is no place of general resort, wherein I do not often make my appearance; sometimes I am seen thrusting my head into a round of politicians at Will’s, and listening with great attention to the narratives that are made in those little circular audiences. Sometimes I smoke a pipe at Child’s, and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Postman [a newspaper], overhear the conversation of every table in the room.  I appear on Sunday nights at St. James’s Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little committee of politics in the inner room, as one who comes there to hear and improve.  My face is likewise very well known at the Grecian, the Cocoa-Tree, and in the theaters both of Drury Lane and the haymarket.  I have been taken for a merchant upon the Exchange for above these ten years, and sometimes pass for a Jew in the assembly of stock-jobbers at Jonathan’s...

So this new kind of gentleman was ubiquitous, and could be a creature of the country gentry or of the newer worlds of city finance and politics, at home with gentry, clergy, and merchants alike, watching the world but—and this is crucial—not pushing for his own interests, not out for his own gain, at least not in any overt way.  The gentleman, suddenly, isn't someone passionate about pedigree and the vengeful cleansing of blots from the family escutcheon. He has become a man of what we have come to think of as typically English reserve, of dispassionateness, of impartiality and disinterest.  This ideal runs throughout the cast of characters we see in the Spectator.  Indeed, the attitude of disinterested reserve is the common thread uniting the characters, and is, really the essence of this new kind of gentleman.  What this has to do with cultivation and the liberal arts lies ahead of us—first, lets put some flesh on the bones of Addison's fictional gentlemen.

The cast of characters in Addison and Steele’s fictitious Spectator Club — in many ways an idealized version of the audience for their journal, and for the amalgamating English elite — is something of a showcase of polite disinterest.  Here is the first of them, a country gentleman of the old school named Sir Roger DeCoverly.  He's important, because we're told he has changed, after a disappointing love affair.  Take note of the differences between his youthful behavior and his present behavior, and you'll get at a great deal of how the idea of the gentleman is being redefined:

The first of our society is a gentleman of Worcestershire, of an ancient descent, a baronet, his name Sir Roger de Coverley. His great-grandfather was inventor of that famous country-dance which is called after him. All who know that shire are very well acquainted with the parts and merits of Sir Roger…. It is said he keeps himself a bachelor by reason he was crossed in love by a perverse beautiful widow of the next county to him. Before this disappointment, Sir Roger was what you call a fine gentleman, had often supped with my Lord Rochester and Sir George Etherege, fought a duel upon his first coming to town, and kicked bully Dawson in a public coffee-house for calling him youngster. But being ill-used by the above-mentioned widow, he was very serious for a year and a half; and though, his temper being naturally jovial, he at last got over it, he grew careless of himself and never dressed afterwards. He continues to wear a coat and doublet of the same cut that were in fashion at the time of his repulse, which, in his merry humors, he tells us, has been in and out twelve times since he first wore it. It is said Sir Roger grew humble in his desires after he had forgot his cruel beauty... He is now in his fifty-sixth year, cheerful, gay, and hearty; keeps a good house both in town and country; a great lover of mankind; but there is such a mirthful cast in his behavior, that he is rather beloved than esteemed. His tenants grow rich, his servants look satisfied, all the young women profess love to him, and the young men are glad of his company. When he comes into a house, he calls the servants by their names... I must not omit that Sir Roger is a justice of the quorum; that he fills the chair at a quarter-session with great abilities, and three months ago gained universal applause, by explaining a passage in the Game Act.

What was this man in the past?  Passionate, a dueler, proud of his ancient family, and reader to avenge any insult with violence.  But what is he now, reformed?  Indifferent to impressing others by his appearance, sociable with all, more-or-less without selfish desire, and (unlike so many judges in his time and ours) without much by way of a judicial axe to grind.  He has stepped back from passionate family honor as an ideal, and become much more reserved, disinterested, and detached: qualities important to the new gentleman — and qualities, it should be noted, less of bloodline than of attitude.

After Sir Roger, we meet another gentleman of the Spectator Club, an unnamed lawyer.  Reading his description, I wonder: would you want him as your attorney?  In what context would it be good to know him?

The gentleman next in esteem and authority among us is another bachelor, who is a member of the Inner Temple, a man of great probity, wit, and understanding; but he has chosen his place of residence rather to obey the direction of an old humorsome father than in pursuit of his own inclinations. He was placed there to study the laws of the land, and is the most learned of any of the house in those of the stage. Aristotle and Longinus are much better understood by him than Littleton or Coke. The father sends up every post questions relating to marriage-articles, leases, and tenures, in the neighborhood; all which questions he agrees with an attorney to answer and take care of in the lump. He is studying the passions themselves, when he should be inquiring into the debates among men which arise from them. He knows the argument of each of the orations of Demosthenes and Tully, but not one case in the reports of our own courts. No one ever took him for a fool; but none, except his intimate friends, know he has a great deal of wit. This turn makes him at once both disinterested and agreeable. As few of his thoughts are drawn from business, they are most of them fit for conversation. …. He is an excellent critic, and the time of the play is his hour of business; exactly at five he passes through New-inn, crosses through Russell-court, and … has his shoes rubbed and his periwig powdered at the barber’s as you go into the Rose. It is for the good of the audience when he is at the play, for the actors have an ambition to please him.

What do we notice about him?  About what does he care? Although this gentleman plays in the high-stakes world of London law, he also shows a remarkable degree of emotional distance from the world of power-interests.  More inclined to connoisseurship than the fray of the law, he spurns legal matters for his true love, the theater, and devotes himself not just to literary theory, but to most formalistic literary theory: to questions of genre and aesthetics, rather than to the political or social or religious aspects of literature.  One might not trust the man to protect one’s money or land in court, but it is his very removal from such practical matters that makes him so eminently “disinterested and agreeable” to Mr. Spectator and his friends, for “as few of his thoughts are drawn from business, they are most of them fit for conversation.”

The next member of the Spectator Club is Captain Sentry, a representative of the military officer class.  What virtues does he have that we have seen in the other gentlemen?

Next to Sir Andrew in the clubroom sits Captain Sentry, a gentleman of great courage, good understanding, but invincible modesty. He is one of those that deserve very well, but are very awkward at putting their talents within the observation of such as should take notice of them. He was some years a captain, and behaved himself with great gallantry in several engagements and at several sieges; but having a small estate of his own, and being next heir to Sir Roger, he has quitted a way of life in which no man can rise suitably to his merit, who is not something of a courtier as well as a soldier. I have heard him often lament that, in a profession where merit is placed in so conspicuous a view, impudence should get the better of modesty. When he has talked to this purpose, I never heard him make a sour expression, but frankly confess that he left the world because he was not fit for it. A strict honesty and an even regular behavior are in themselves obstacles to him that must press through crowds, who endeavor at the same end with himself, the favor of a commander….The military part of his life has furnished him with many adventures, in the relation of which he is very agreeable to the company; for he is never overbearing, though accustomed to command men in the utmost degree below him; nor ever too obsequious, from an habit of obeying men highly above him.

Again, reticence, a lack of concern with overt self-interest, and a kind of self-possessed reserve are the attitudes of the new gentleman.  We hear much the same about a clergyman, and about an old rake named Will Honeycomb, who is also a disinterested an honest man, "where women are not concerned."

If disinterest is the defining ideal of the new gentleman, then another kind of member of the arising elite presents particular difficulties: the merchant.  Merchants, after all, are by definition creatures of self-interest, their individual greed leading (if Adam Smith is to be believed) to a general improvement for all.  How can they be assimilated to this new gentlemanly ideal?  Here is Addison's example of the merchant gentleman, Sir Andrew Freeport:

 The person of next consideration is Sir Andrew Freeport, a merchant of great eminence in the city of London; a person of indefatigable industry, strong reason, and great experience. His notions of trade are noble and generous, and (as every rich man has usually some sly way of jesting, which would make no great figure were he not a rich man) he calls the sea the British Common. He is acquainted with commerce in all its parts, and will tell you that it is a stupid and barbarous way to extend dominion by arms; for true power is to be got by arts and industry. He will often argue that, if this part of our trade were well cultivated, we should gain from one nation; and if another, from another. I have heard him prove that diligence makes more lasting acquisitions than valor, and that sloth has ruined more nations than the sword. He abounds in several frugal maxims, amongst which the greatest favorite is, “A penny saved is a penny got.” A general trader of good sense is pleasanter company than a general scholar; and Sir Andrew having a natural unaffected eloquence, the perspicuity of his discourse gives the same pleasure that wit would in another man. He has made his fortune himself; and says that England may be richer than other kingdoms by as plain methods as he himself is richer than other men; though at the same time I can say this of him, that there is not a point in the compass but blows home a ship in which he is an owner.

He's different, isn't he?  Do we see in him any disinterest or reserve?  Perhaps his nationalism makes him seem less selfish, and his “natural and unaffected eloquence” makes him strong in his conversation at the club.  But, as any acquaintance with English history shows, the assimilation of those in trade to the ideal of the gentleman remained, and in some quarters remains, imperfect.

If the fictional characters of the Spectator were representative of the emerging elite, so too were its very real readers.  When Spectator #269 announced that prior issues were to be republished in a somewhat expensive octavo edition, buyers, both male and female, came forth in droves from the aristocracy, the professions, and the mercantile world.  So strong was the response that a somewhat less expensive duodecimo edition was announced almost immediately, in Spectator #278, for a readership composed of those aspiring to membership in the elite.  When the name of Addison was heard in the bookseller’s shop, both the actual elites and their striving emulators reached for their wallets.

But what does cultivation have to do with this new kind of disinterested gentleman?  Long story short, it's this: one gains these attitudes of disinterest and dispassionateness (according to Addison) from the contemplation of art and literature.  Although Kant had yet to batter the German language into the spikes and sharp edges of his unreadable, ponderous, and wonderful aesthetic theory, Addison had learned from such English philosophers as Shaftesbury to think of art and literature as things contemplated for their own sake, and to see such contemplation as a kind of training ground for attitude toward life in which one steps back from the pursuit of one's self-interest.  It's fascinating to read the literary criticism in the Spectator, because it asks you to look on literature as a purely formal matter of beauty, and of the decorum of part to whole.  When the Spectator discusses Milton's Paradise Lost, for example, it's all about whether the language is appropriate to the sentiment, and about what kind of beauties the poem holds.  The fact that the poem was a political and religious statement—and a particularly wrathful and bitter one, to boot—goes unremarked.  We're not concerned, here, with partisanship: we're concerned with developing an attitude that will help potentially clashing factions of an elite get beyond partisanship, and club together.  It worked.  England's old elite, unlike that of France, did not end up on the wrong side of a guillotine blade at the century's end.  And in no small measure their survival had to do with the redefinition of the gentleman as a creature of reserved impartiality.  (I should stress that this was an ideal, not an actuality).

The notion of the cultivated, disinterested gentleman morphs and mutates and changes in any number of ways over the course of the 19th century, but there's one version of the gentlemanly ideal I'd like to mention, because it has some bearing on who we are and what we, as educators, do.  This is the ideal of the educated gentleman as a kind of impartial figure mediating between, and being an honest broker among, the various classes of society as they come into conflict with one another.  Think of the critic, poet, and educational administrator, Matthew Arnold, and what he said in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy.  Writing at a time of serious social conflict, he outlined a special position for cultivated individuals.  These people, whose origin could lie in any class, would by virtue of the disinterest they developed through liberal education become "aliens" to any class: impartial, and open to reason and "the free and fresh play" of ideas.  In a world of people seeking their conflicting self-interests, these people would be above the fray and, in Lionel Trilling's phrase, serve as a kind of "umpire class."  They would make sure the others played fair.

This Arnoldian notion—of the most educated taking on the kind of virtues associated with the 18th century gentleman—is still with us.  It is often present when we hear that liberal study will make one a better citizen, or give one the ability for critical thought.  It is certainly present in some of the theories of what intellectuals and teachers are for.  As Alvin Gouldner, the greatest sociologist of intellectuals ever to have treaded through the stacks of a research library, put it, "As teachers, intellectuals come to be defined, and to define themselves, as responsible for and 'representative' of society as a whole."  Rather than representing their self-interest, such creatures, in this view, try to adjudicate matters with disinterest, approaching the gentlemanly ideal, albeit without the good tailoring, and with an aesthetically dismaying number of PBS tote-bags on display.

Why, then, are you—educators, devoted to the liberal arts—not necessarily all gentlemen (or ladies, although I confess to knowing remarkably little about the historical evolution of the idea of the lady)?

Long story short, it's because of these people:

The damn dirty hippies.  Well, not exactly.  But it is something did happen, beginning in the 1960s, to challenge the idea of the higher education as a redoubt of gentlemanly disinterest.  Perhaps the best way to begin is with a little anecdote that our former poet laureate, Robert Hass, gives in a memoir of his days at SUNY-Buffalo.  Here we see a gathering in which the younger generation confronts an educational establishment that clearly sees itself as representing the Arnoldian ideal of disinterest, impartiality, and the free and fresh play of ideas:

The year must have been 1969; the room was packed with students and faculty dressed, as the style was, to their archetypes: Indians, buffalo hunters, yogis, metaphysical hoboes, rednecks, lumberjacks, Mandingo princes, lions, tigers, hawks, and bears.  Everything the American middle class had repressed lounged in that room listening to speaker after speaker with beatific attention.  Which took some doing.  I remember in particular a graduate student from the Progressive Labor Party who read an exceedingly long essay on the parallels between Bob Dylan's career and the growth of political theory in the New Left….When he finished, Edgar Friedenburg, the sociologist, rose to speak.  He is a dapper man and he wore a light gray suit with a striped broadcloth Brooks Brothers shirt.  His glasses sat low on his nose, his hair was tousled, and he looked amused.  He only managed one sentence: "I have been reflecting this afternoon that we are patient beings, and that, though popular culture deserves our most urgent attention, it requires from us a good deal less credence and more clearwater."  Some of the audience laughed; and a student in the front stood up, jabbed a finger forward, and said, "Friedenburg, it took twenty fucking years of repressive fucking education for you to learn to talk like that."

It's a standoff , isn't it?  And a standoff, specifically, between a representative of Arnoldian, gentlemanly disinterest (more clear water, the free and fresh play of ideas; less credence, the simple acceptance of ideas most appealing to our self-interest), and someone who clearly believes that ideal to be deeply flawed.  But flawed how?  Flawed, I'd venture to say, by being both smug and a sham, by pretending to an impossible objectivity, rather than admitting to one's own self-interested agenda and fighting it out fair and square in the public sphere.  It's a New Left idea—that the pretext of disinterest is only that, a pretext—that has in decades since become a neo-conservative idea.  It's an idea that underlies the notion that public affairs should be discussed by representatives of "both sides" of a debate, even when the debates (such as that over the existence of climate change) don't have what disinterested people would see as two rational sides.  It's also an idea that, as the children of the sixties undertook the long march through the academic institutions became, a large part of how some academic disciplines, particularly in the humanities, operated.

This is not the time to rehearse the theoretical and methodological disputes in the humanities in the 1980s and 1990s.  In fact, having lived through those disputes, I don't think I could bring myself to revisit them in all their acrimonious tedium ever again.  But I will point to one article, quite influential in my field, by the scholar William Spanos: an enormous 1985 effort called “The Apollonian Investment of Modern Humanist Education.”   Here Spanos maintains that inquiry aiming at disinterest is, necessarily, going to serve as a screen for received prejudices.  Advocates of disinterest, says Spanos, merely reaffirm “the abiding ‘touchstones’ of the logocentric humanistic mind - ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ (by which, as the omission of reference to any other makes clear ... means the Western world).”  With language echoing that of Culture and Anarchy, this is very much a shot across the bow of the H.M.S. Matthew Arnold.  According to Spanos, the Arnoldian ideal is bankrupt, and thinkers committed to disinterested inquiry will always end up seeking a cultural “re-centering,” a “restoration of a common body of knowledge” based on old ideas and unexamined biases.  In its stead, Spanos offered an ideal of  “understanding as antagonistic dialogue”—the kind of public clash that the student from Hass' anecdote called for in a rather less articulate way.

If this combative, interest-group-specific model of inquiry is what you believe in—if, that is, you consider self- or interest-group advocacy a part of what you, as an academic, may or may not be right.  But (and perhaps this is something you will hear with pride) you are no gentleman.