Monday, March 29, 2010


Gil Roth over at Virtual Memories is an excellent linker (look at this, for example), something of which I do not do very much. I had wanted to comment on several items he had posted about in the past few weeks but when, as usual, I was unable to do so either succintly or quickly, I thought I would just do my own post of some of these items.

David Shields

There was a link to a new book by this guy which I can't find now, the premise of which is that Shields thinks the novel as we have think of it is essentially dead and a new approach to writing about the kinds of subjects that have in recent centuries have been dealt with by novels, updated to the consciousness and thought processes of our contemporary times, is demanded. The book got some attention for a week or two and then, as usually happens, everyone quickly moved on. My comments weren't going to be about the subject of the book--as far as I have an opinion, it is that novels succeed or fail largely based on how compelling their voice is, and while innovation often proves to be the means for a compelling voice to emerge, I think the innovation is more likely to emerge out of the needs of the voice than vice versa--but because David Shields was one of the professionals at the writing conference I attended and I was going to write my observations regarding his personality.

At this point I paused to consider whether this sort of impression was something one ought to write about a living person whose level of fame and sales are probably not all that much higher than mine are. It is not quite the same thing as saying that one once met, say, Salman Rushdie and thought he was a jerk (for the record, I have not met him). There would not be much of a likelihood of him or one of his friends reading my commentary, nor of his being affected by it one way or the other. However, seeing as Shields evidently is pleased to offer himself as a provocateur of significance with more than the usual edge to him, one would suppose him either far above the level of being capable of having his feelings hurt by the likes of me, or at least flattered by the attention.

So David Shields, when I had the opportunity to observe him pretty near to hand, was around 50 years old but looked much younger, at least six foot three with a shaven pate, and he appeared to be relatively fit. Combined with the attitude he tried to affect, one would suspect him to convey an air of authority, but he did not do this. What he did convey was an odd combination of self-loathing, part fairly blatant frustration at not having achieved the literary success even of people like Jonathan Franzen, let alone the likes of Flaubert and Mann whom he had imagined himself contending with as a young man, and part largely, it seemed, centering around the incovenient circumstance of his undeniable whiteness, which I will expound upon below, and an air of "but I'm still better than you" aimed at the placid, mostly white people who doubtless constitute the overwhelming majority of his university students and whatever audience he has. At the time he had just published an earnest, respectful book about the culture of the NBA--he had spent a season covering and travelling with the Seattle Supersonics I believe, and he was still very much in thrall to the dynamism of black culture and the wondrousness of black physicality, especially when set against the polite, bloodless, sexless worlds of university English departments and writer's conferences which gave him his living, but towards which he appeared to feel an ambivalence that flirted mightily with revulsion and contempt. So the minute I read about this new book I was immediately reminded of all these things.

The Great Books

The second link was to an article about a book about the Great Books (author: Alex Beam), which included a visit to my alma mater, St John's College. Most of the reviewers of the book seem to have thought the college came off badly in this section. Since I admit to a curiosity about what the mainstream educated society makes of the college, because by extension it is largely the same as what it must make of me, I got the book from the library and read the chapter on St John's. I thought the school actually came off rather well. The depiction of what it is like seemed more accurate to me than what is usual in these kinds of accounts, and my experience and point of view being what it is, the impression made on me was a positive one. This is not evidently how it reads to people without connections to the college however.

St John's is, I suppose, an odd place, quaint, always behind the times, populated by people with whom it seems to be supposed by most reporters his readers at this stage of historical development must have very little in common. It is sort of like the Gibraltar of the American college system, which tiny colony sophisticated visitors frequently describe as being in all the worst ways as like being in a provincial British town in the 1950s and basically feeling incongruous with life as it is supposed to be in the 21st century. And it is true that the typical class, especially lab class, on a day-in, day-out basis is not very scintillating. Very rarely does one walk out of any class with some specific, measurable morsel of learning that will belong to him forever henceforth and be directly practicable in a multitude of circumstances. Sometimes things that are said or that one reads lodge somewhere in the mind and then years afterward the meaning or significance of them become somewhat more clear. This conception of the educational process is not something in which the modern world as a whole has much trust, and perhaps for those at the far right end of the cognitive spectrum, largely rightfully so. Much of the tangible learning that does go on is admittedly of a basic nature, the progress of intellectual history, the nature of language and translation, the very basic fundamentals of music, introduction to major books (Homer, Plato, Dante, the Bible, etc.), the sorts of things one arguably should have learned in high school; most people of course, even bright ones, don't learn them in high school anymore however. History and writing are considered by many people both in and out of the college to be two major areas where the curriculum is weakest, though personally I found them to be among the subjects where my understanding advanced the most during my time there. Most of the people in a bad lab class are people who would probably never have taken any kind of science class had they gone to another college, which might be taken into consideration before denouncing it as having no value, for the students are intelligent enough that three years of attendance, exposure, writing papers and so on gives them some greater, if still amateurish, understanding of the subject compared to what they had before. I suppose that the argument I think is, for $50,000 a year, that's not enough, and besides all the Great Books, even Plotinus, are available online for free now if you really want to read them anyway. Obviously one has to put his own value on what things are worth. In spite of all my shortcomings and what would be perceived by most people to be my unimpressive income and career accomplishments, I think the improvement in the overall quality of my life compared to if I had never gone there, or somewhere pretty similar, justifies the expense accrued by me and my family certainly (which, as I attended 20 years ago and received aid, the direct cost to me was not anywhere near the amount quoted above). The case that the expense borne by the taxpayers for my education was wholly worthwhile is perhaps harder to assert, though I am comfortable in asserting that I think the national economy has, or will have, recovered its investment where I am concerned. Only the college itself has yet to reap either financial dividend or the satisfaction of basking in any reflected glory from my accomplishments commensurate to the generosity they showed towards me. I think it is true that people with world class talent in some area where cultivating that talent requires rigorous study under the tutelage of the very top professionals in the field or even who already have an advanced level of proficiency in Greek or mathematics or physics beyond what St John's can contribute to need to seek a place that is suited to their particular requirements. I suspect this is a very small portion of even the most brilliant (top 2% or so) of eighteen year-olds.

I was going to comment as well about the Gamma Male phenomenon, but as this post is already so long, the subject is such a large one and so peculiarly suited to my particular expertise I am sure I will have many opportunities to return to it in the future.


Gil Roth said...

Is this the David Shields article you were thinking of?

mm45 said...

It is. In fairness I should note that I meant to include in my depiction of him that he is a good public speaker and reader of his work, as I think the fact that I have some memory of what he said some years later will attest.