Leaving the scavengers

Studying literature at a place like Harvard makes a contradictory impression: on the one hand, everyone is secretly proud of themselves for fighting their way to the top of the little academic mound they’ve chosen as their target, even if they would never be so vulgar as to say so and even if for reasons about which they’re honestly unclear; at the same time, there’s something unmistakably secondary about the role of someone that earns a living from commenting on literature. The old notion of critics’ materials being books and writers’ materials being life is too simplistic by half, but holds an underlying truth; even when writers are pillaging each other’s works shamelessly they generally take care to conceal the theft, or at least that concealment is often intrinsic to the nature of literature. And even when they hardly bother, like T.S. Eliot, the work still somehow transcends this fact; for critics this almost never works. You might claim that the values of our culture are all backwards for demoting the value of the interpreter and the commentator in favor of the “originator” and the declaimer, assuming this even halfway-accurately describes the relationship between critic and writer, but at any rate that’s the way it is, and personally I can’t accept the back-seat role even if it means job security from now to senility, and if that means exiling myself from academia at the exact moment that everyone around me seems to have signed themselves over to it then so be it.

It’s a funny thing, though, this cultural mythology of the writer as some sort of primal creating agent. At the height of the Romantic vogue in the 19th century, when every writer who could afford a black frock-coat and a couple of inappropriate affairs was proclaiming themselves to be a totally unique, individual creative mind, untrammeled by social convention or cultural influence, damned if the images and poses of themselves that they promoted didn’t all seem to look alike: same long hair blowing in the wind, same waterfalls or cliffs to brood over, same rhapsodizing about birds and flowers.

Maybe the same goes for women. For all the talk down the ages about love is a totally singular, unique affinity between souls, I have to say quite honestly I’ve never yet had a girlfriend or other love-interest that didn’t leave me still dreaming of finding one more beautiful or kind-hearted or interesting. You might say I just haven’t met “the One” yet, but then again evangelical Christians say the same thing to us infidels about God. Maybe the one will lead me to the other, as in The Divine Comedy. Or maybe this whole idea of total exclusivity in love is partly to blame, as in the Chinese equivalent for “the grass is always greener on the other side,” which goes (or so at any rate I’ve heard): “everyone else’s wife is more beautiful.” And really, how do you think it would affect your relationship with your best friend if you knew that having them as a friend automatically precluded having any other friends? Well, that’s life. The problem with aspiration as a condition is that, like a sign pointing up, it’s always relative. Once you’ve climbed some height there’s always more.

3 Responses to “Leaving the scavengers”

  1. shonk Says:

    What I find interesting is the apparent dichotomy between your characterization of the academic’s role and my own perception of the same. Not that we disagree; rather that we’re engaged in substantially different disciplines. In mathematics, of course, virtually all of the practitioners are academics and the entire purported goal of the academic mathematician (at least, one with any pretentions to non-teaching pursuits) is to produce something new and creative. To say something like “I can’t be an academic because I need to be a producer, not an interpreter” wouldn’t make much sense in the context of a mathematics department.

    Of course, many writers, even well-known and critically acclaimed writers, pay the rent with checks drawn on accounts into which money is direct-deposited each month by some university’s treasurer’s office, so maybe the disconnect isn’t so great as all that.

  2. Curt Says:

    Yes, it’s true that there’s a major difference between academic disciplines on this issue. I think that in many cases literary studies, lacking a clearly-defined focus, have settled into merely the study of books (aside from various unwelcome intrusions of literary theory). For my part, I have tried to make literature work for me as an approach rather than a subject of study per se. And yes, it’s also true that in the last 50 years “literary” writers have been increasingly drawn to university positions, but some might claim that that is one of the major problems with literature today. Nor would I say that I can’t be a creator in an academic setting, merely that the academic work in my field, is primarily interpretive rather than productive, and as much as I do enjoy reading and engaging with literature, I don’t think it should be my primary, defining work, since I feel the urge to accomplish bigger things.

  3. Helen Says:

    About the relationship between the critic and writer I have to say that they are co-dependent ( which I don’t know it is a real word ) , the writers’s works support the critics to make a living Meanwhile the critics make the writers’ works controversial or being admired which also means gain more attention . For your article I am more interested in the part where you are talking about The One . About the One I would say : If a couple broke up naturally ,because she or he is not the One .If someone dumped me , because I deserve a better one. If I missed the One for some reason , because the best has not yet come . 🙂

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