Monday, January 15, 2018

Embracing The Barbaric Yawp

I've been reading a number of satirical novels about academia lately.  It started by chance, but then a friend, an academic, mentioned another one to me (Robert Grudin's Book), and I began thinking about the genre a bit.  I may or may not write on this topic at length, but I'm near the end of David Lodge's 1975 novel Changing Places now, and found a passage that I feel compelled to quote.

The premise is that two professors of English literature, one English and one American, take each other's places in their institutions.  The story began slowly, but became much more engaging as Lodge developed some entertaining complications.  It even made me laugh aloud a few times, which these novels almost never do.  What I'm going to copy here isn't one of the laugh-aloud passages; it is, I think, more interesting than that.  The Brit, sitting in a coffeehouse toward the end of his American stay, suddenly has an epiphany:
He understood American literature for the first time in his life that afternoon, sitting in Pierre's on Cable Avenue as the river of Plotinus life flowed past, understood its prodigality and indecorum, its yea-saying heterogeneity, understood Walt Whitman who laid end to end words never seen in each other's company before outside of a dictionary, and Herman Melville who split the atom of the traditional novel in the effort to make whaling a universal metaphor and smuggled into a book addressed to the most puritanical reading public the world has ever known a chapter on the whale's foreskin and got away with it; understood why Mark Twain nearly wrote a sequel to Huckleberry Finn in which Tom Sawyer was to sell Huck into slavery, and why Stephen Crane wrote his great war-novel first and experienced war afterwards, and what Gertrude Stein meant when she said that 'anything one is remembering is a repetition, but existing as a human being, that is being listening and hearing is never a repetition'; understood all that, though he couldn't have explained it to his students, some thoughts do often lie too deep for seminars ... [195 of the 1978 Penguin edition].
Reading this passage in the context of the novel, I understood it too.  It's a notably generous insight to give a protagonist in an academic novel, most of which are extended sessions of Ain't It Awful.  Lodge is, unlike most of the authors of such books I've read, smarter than his characters, yet he doesn't look down on them.  He's written more academic novels, and I think I'll end up checking them out too.