post and courier

People who know almost nothing else about Pynchon know that The Crying of Lot 49 is concerned with the possible existence of a secret postal service, the Trystero, which is a kind of rival or shadow or doppelgänger of the Imperial Reichspost and its successor the Thurn und Taxis Post, the official postal services of the Holy Roman Empire. Postal delivery in its many different forms, I believe, is a vastly underrated element of the rise and consolidation of modernity — I have written a couple of preliminary posts about it here and here. I hope to give the matter more attention in the future, so I can’t resist writing a bit about Pynchon’s transformation of postal delivery into something like a Theme.

If the chapter called “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral” is, as I have suggested, at the heart of V., is the central point from which the book’s various possibilities of meaning radiate outward, I’d say that the equivalent scene in CL49 is the performance of a (made-up) Jacobean revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy. In fact, a plausible case can be made that The Courier’s Tragedy is in some sense a condensation of the whole of CL49. There are multiple analogues.

For instance, in what remains, forty years after its first publication, the best essay, by miles, on the novel, Edward Mendelson comments that “Until the middle of the fifth chapter Oedipa consistently sees the post horn as a living and immediate symbol, actively present in the daily life around her. From that point on she only hears about its past existence through documents, stamps, books — always second-hand. (This distinction is nowhere mentioned in the book, but the clean break after page 131 [in the original Dutton edition] is too absolute to be accidental.)” So this decisive change occurs about three-fifths of the way through the book; meanwhile, in the intermission of the play, after the third of five acts, “Oedipa headed for the ladies’ room. She looked idly around for the symbol [the muted post-horn] she’d seen the other night in The Scope, but all the walls, surprisingly, were blank. She could not say why, exactly, but felt threatened by this absence of even the marginal try at communication latrines are known for.” The transmissions have ceased. Also noteworthy, in light of Mendelson’s comment and the puzzlement that descends on Oedipa in the latter pages of the book, is this description of fourth-act events in the play: “It is at about this point in the play, in fact, that things really get peculiar, and a gentle chill, an ambiguity, begins to creep in among the words…. It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance. Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage.”

I could go on about this for some time, as I’m sure a number of critics already have. (I’m largely, though obviously not wholly, staying away from secondary sources in this re-read.) The play is put on in a Southern California town called San Narciso; certain events in the play revolve around a statue of Saint Narcissus of Jerusalem. Before attending the play Oedipa has just heard about the deaths of Allied soldiers near an Italian lake; in the play soldiers die near an Italian lake. I’m particularly taken by what the director of the play says about his role (which, by the way, involves altering the text): “That’s what I’m for. To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also.” Pynchon’s self-description? Or what he doesn’t want to be?

As I say, I could go on, but I’ll stop and ask a question: Why is the play called The Courier’s Tragedy? Because one of the main characters, Niccolò, the rightful Duke whose place Angelo has usurped, disguises himself as a courier. Though he escapes death several times during the course of this exceptionally bloody play, he eventually dies its most significant death.

But maybe there’s more to this courier business than a simple disguise. Maybe we should reflect on what a courier is. A courier bears messages without writing or reading them. In that sense couriers are necessary to informational exchange but are outside the communicative circuit. In the fourth act of the play we learn that the dead soldiers, the Lost Guard of Faggio, were in fact ordered massacred by the wicked Duke Angelo, who had their bones burned to charcoal and that charcoal made into ink, which he then employed to write lying messages to those he wished to manipulate or destroy. The Lost Guard had thus become unwilling couriers, transmitters of a message which, being dead, they could not know.

Yet we learn what happened to the soldiers because by an inexplicable miracle the lying words Angelo wrote have transformed into a truthful confession: as through the ink had become conscious and reorganized itself on the paper. The unwilling couriers have somehow become writers, makers of messages. Moreover, this message is found on the body of Niccolò, who thus had in death become not a pretend courier but a true courier indeed. I can’t help thinking here of some famous words from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” — Eliot being a favorite poet of Fausto Maijstral in V., and “Little Gidding” being a poem that hovers over much of Gravity’s Rainbow: “And what the dead had no speech for, when living, / They can tell you, being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

Tongued with fire: earlier in the play one Ercole, a wicked henchman of the wicked Duke, captures an informer named Domenico — Saint Dominic being the founder of the great order of preachers, and the name Dominic being derived from Dominus, the Lord — and, before torturing him to death, cuts off his tongue, sets it on fire, and brandishes it as a torch, crying,

Thy pitiless unmanning is most meet,
Thinks Ercole the zany Paraclete.
Descended this malign, Unholy Ghost,
Let us begin thy frightful Pentecost.

The “zany Paraclete,” the “Unholy Ghost,” does not give the gift of tongues but takes tongues away: poor Domenico has a tongue of fire, but in all too literal a sense, and the flame here destroys the power of communication rather than enhancing and extending it. Ercole and his master Angelo are therefore not anti-Christs but anti-Paracletes, blocking the channels of communication, making people unintelligible to each other.

Two more notes, and then I’ll stop for now. First, the play strongly suggests that this communicative revelation, this restoration of intelligibility, is the work of the Trystero. And second, the day we call Pentecost, the day of the Holy Spirit, the day on which people understand foreign languages as clearly as they understand their own, gets its name from the number fifty — while this book is named for the immediately preceding number, which suggests that whatever revelation is made available here it falls just short of the Pentecostal completeness of understanding.

the unbought grace of the human self

Returning to Edward Mendelson’s essay “In the Depths of the Digital Age”: an essay about technology, some might say, as this is a blog about technology. But we’re not talking today about “technology” tout court; we’re talking about digital technologies, and more specifically digital communications technologies, and more specifically yet internet-connected digital communications technologies, and even more specifically — let’s get to the heart of the matter — that very recent variety of internet-connected digital communications technology that offers free “services” purported to connect us with one another, services whose makers read, sift, and sell the data that we provide them when we use their software.

The question that Mendelson most forcefully presses on us is: What selves are made by submission to these technologies?

The explicit common theme of these books [under review] is the newly public world in which practically everyone’s lives are newly accessible and offered for display. The less explicit theme is a newly pervasive, permeable, and transient sense of self, in which much of the experience, feeling, and emotion that used to exist within the confines of the self, in intimate relations, and in tangible unchanging objects — what William James called the “material self” — has migrated to the phone, to the digital “cloud,” and to the shape-shifting judgments of the crowd.

Mendelson does not say that this shift is simply bad; he writes of gains and losses. And his essay does not have a thesis as such. But I think there is one not-directly-stated idea that dominates his reflections on these books: Neither users of nor commentators on these social-media technologies have an adequate intellectual or moral vocabulary to assess the massive changes in selfhood that we have opened ourselves to. The authors of the books Mendelson reviews either openly confess their confusion or try to hide that confusion with patently inadequate conceptual schemes.

But if even the (self-proclaimed) expert authorities are floundering in this brave new world, what can we do to think better about what’s happening to always-connected, always-surveilled, always-signalling, always-assessing selves? One possibility: read some fiction.

I have sometimes suggested — see here, here, and here — that Thomas Pynchon ought to be a central figure for anyone who wants to achieve some insight and clarity on these matters. And lo and behold, this from Mendelson:

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), an engineer named Kurt Mondaugen enunciates a law of human existence: “Personal density … is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.” The narrator explains:

“Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now…. The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.

The genius of Mondaugen’s Law is its understanding that the unmeasurable moral aspects of life are as subject to necessity as are the measurable physical ones; that unmeasurable necessity, in Wittgenstein’s phrase about ethics, is “a condition of the world, like logic.” You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming “more tenuous.”

And Mendelson suggests that we use this notion of “temporal bandwidth” to think about how investments in social media alter our experience of time — and especially our relationship to the future.

Another example: Virginia Woolf is cited five times in this essay, perhaps surprisingly — what does Virginia Woolf have to do with technology? But — I’m not just a friend of Mendelson’s but also a pretty careful reader of his work — I have noticed that as we have gotten deeper into our current socially-digital age Woolf’s fiction has loomed larger and larger in Mendelson’s thinking. Mrs Dalloway is the subject of the wonderful final chapter of Mendelson’s The Things That Matter — a superb book I reviewed here — and that chapter would make a fine primer for the shaping of a model of selfhood adequate to the world, and able to stand up to models that are reductive and simplistic enough to be bought and sold in the marketplace.

One might not think that Pynchon and Woolf have much in common — but Mendelson thinks they do, and thinks that the visions and portrayals of selfhood they provide are profoundly useful correctives to the ones we’re being sold every day. I’ll close this post with a quotation from a brief essay by Mendelson in which he makes the link between the two writers explicit:

Like all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and, despite their misplaced reputation for high-tech cleverness, all of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, including his latest one, both books point toward the kind of knowledge of the inner life that only poems and novels can convey, a knowledge that eludes all other techniques of understanding, and that the bureaucratic and collective world disdains or ignores. Yet for anyone who has ever known, even in a crowded room, the solitude and darkness that Clarissa [Dalloway] and Oedipa [Maas] enter for a few moments, that experience, however brief and elusive, is “another mode of meaning behind the obvious” and, however obscured behind corruption, lies, and chatter, “a thing there was that mattered.”

the Roman world and ours

So why am I reading about — I’m gonna coin a phrase here — the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? It started as part of my work on Auden.

I first learned about Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture from reading Auden’s review of it, published in The New Republic in 1944. Auden began that review by saying that in the years since the book appeared (it was first published in 1940) “I have read this book many times, and my conviction of its importance to the understanding not only of the epoch with which it is concerned, but also of our own, has has increased with each rereading.” I thought: Well, now, that’s rather remarkable. I figured it was a book I had better read too.

Auden concludes his review with these words:

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

That metaphor — “spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city” — is brilliantly suggestive. (And Auden knew all about benzedrine.)

More than twenty years later, in a long essay on the fall of Rome that was never published for reasons Edward Mendelson explains here, Auden wrote:

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to.

Like the third century the twentieth is an age of stress and anxiety. In our case, it is not that our techniques are too primitive to cope with new problems, but the very fantastic success of our technology is creating a hideous, noisy, over-crowded world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a human life. In our reactions to this, one can see many parallels to the third century. Instead of Gnostics, we have existentialists and God-is-dead theologians, instead of neoplatonists, devotees of Zen, instead of desert hermits, heroin addicts and beats … instead of mortification of the flash, sado-masochistic pornography; as for our public entertainments, the fare offered about television is still a shade less brutal and vulgar than that provided by the amphitheater, but only a shade, and may not be for long.

And then the comically dyspeptic conclusion: “I have no idea what is actually going to happen before I die except that I am not going to like it.” (For those interested, the unpublished essay may be found in this collection.)

Clearly for Auden, the story Cochrane tells was one that had lasting relevance. Elements of Cochrane’s narrative turn up, in much more complex form than in the late-career bleat just quoted, for decades in Auden’s poetry: “The Fall of Rome,” “Memorial for the City,” “Under Sirius,” “Secondary Epic,” and many other poems bear Cochrane’s mark. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’m now reading Christianity and Classical Culture for the fourth time, and it really is impossible for me also not to see the Roman world as a distant mirror of our own. How can I read this passage about the rise of Julius Caesar and not think of Donald Trump?

In the light of these ancient concepts, Ceasar emerges as a figure at once fascinating and dangerous. For the spirit thus depicted is one of sublime egotism; in which the libido dominandi asserts itself to the exclusion of all possible alternatives and crushes every obstacle in its path. We have spoken of Caesar as a divisive force. That, indeed, he was: as Cato had put it, “he was the only one of the revolutionaries to undertake, cold-sober, the subversion of the republic”; … A force like this, however, does more than divide, it destroys. Hostile to all claims of independence except its own, it is wholly incompatible with that effective equality which is implied in the classical idea of the commonwealth. To admit it within the community is thus to nourish the lion, whose reply to the hares in the assembly of beasts was to ask: Where are your claws?

And how can I read about this extension of the Emperor’s powers and not reflect on the recent hypertrophy of the executive branch of American government?

The powers and duties assigned to the emperor were broad and comprehensive. They were, moreover, rapidly enlarged as functions traditionally attached to republican magistracies were transferred one after another to the new executive, and executive action invaded fields which, under the former system, had been consecrated to senatorial or popular control. Finally, by virtue of specific provisions, the substance of which is indicated in the maxim princeps legibus solutus, the emperor was freed from constitutional limitations which might have paralyzed his freedom of action; while his personal protection was assured through the grant of tribunician inviolability (sacrosanctitas) as well as by the sanctions of the Lex Maiestatis. The prerogative was thus built up by a series of concessions, made by the competent authority of senate and people, no single one of which was in theory unrepublican.

But the more I read Cochrane, the more I suspect that we may not be talking about mere mirroring, mere analogies. Last year, when I read and reviewed Larry Siedentop’s book Inventing the Individual, I was struck by Siedentop’s tracing of certain of our core ideas about selfhood to legal disputes that arose in the latter centuries of the Roman Empire and its immediate aftermath. And this led me in turn to think about an ideas that Mikhail Bakhtin meditated on ceaselessly near the end of his life: great time. David Shepherd provides a thorough account of this idea here, but in short Bakhtin is trying to think about cultural developments that persist over centuries and even millennia, even when they have passed altogether from conscious awareness. Thus this staggering passage from one of his late notebooks:

The mutual understanding of centuries and millennia, of peoples, nations, and cultures, provides a complex unity of all humanity, all human cultures (a complex unity of human culture), and a complex unity of human literature. All this is revealed only on the level of great time. Each image must be understood and evaluated on the level of great time. Analysis usually fusses about in the narrow space of small time, that is, in the space of the present day and the recent past and the imaginable — desired or frightening — future.


There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) — they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival. The problem of great time.

If we were take Bakhtin’s idea seriously, how might that affect our thinking about the Roman Empire as something more than a “distant mirror” of our own age? To think of our age, our world, as functionally extensive of the Roman project?

I’ll take up those questions in another post.

Virgil and adversarial subtlety

So, back to Virgil … (Sorry about the spelling, Professor Roberts.)

What do we know about Virgil’s reputation in his own time and soon thereafter? We know that Augustus Caesar brought the poet into his circle and understood the Aeneid to articulate his own vision for his regime. We know that the same educational system that celebrated the reign of Augustus as the perfection of the ideal of Romanitas also celebrated Virgil as the king of Roman poets, even in his own lifetime. Nicholas Horsfall shows how, soon after Virgil’s death, students throughout the Roman world worked doggedly through the Aeneid line by line, which helps to explain why there are Virgilian graffiti at Pompeii but almost all of them from Books I and II. We know that Quintilian established study of Virgil as the foundational practice of literary study and that that establishment remained in place as long as Rome did, thus, centuries later, shaping the education of little African boys like Augustine of Hippo.

But, as my friend Edward Mendelson has pointed out to me in an email, when people talk about what “the average Roman reader” would have thought about Virgil, they have absolutely no evidence to support their claims. It may well be, as these critics usually say, that such a reader approved of the Empire and therefore approved of anything in the Aeneid that was conducive to the establishment of Empire … but no one knows that. It’s just guesswork.

R. J. Tarrant has shown just how hard it is to pin down the details of Virgil’s social/political reputation. But it’s worth noting that, while the gods in the Aeneid insist that Dido must die for Rome to be founded, Augustine tells us in the Confessions that his primary emotional reaction when reading the poem was grief for the death of Dido. And Quintilian doesn’t place Virgil at the center of his literary curriculum because he is the great advocate of Romanitas, but because he is the only Roman poet worthy to be compared with Homer. The poem exceeds whatever political place we might give it, and the readers of no culture are unanimous in their interests and priorities.

In a work that I’ve seen in draft form, so about which I won’t say too much, Mendelson offers several reasons why we might think that Virgil is more critical of the imperial project, and perhaps even of Rome’s more general self-mythology, than Augustus thought, and than critics such as Cochrane think.

First, there is the point that Adam Roberts drew attention to in the comments on my previous post: the fact that Anchises tells Aeneas in Book VI that the vocation of Rome is not just to conquer the world but to “spare the defeated” (parcere subiectis) — yet this is precisely what Aeneas does not do when the defeated Turnus pleads for his life. I tried to say, in my own response to Adam, why I don’t think that necessarily undoes the idea that Virgil snd his poem are fundamentally supportive not just of Rome generally but of the necessity of Turnus’s death. But the contrast between Anchises’ claim about the Roman vocation and what Aeneas actually does is certainly troubling.

More troubling still is another passage Mendelson points to, perhaps the most notorious crux in all of classical literature and therefore something I should already have mentioned: the end of Book VI. After Anchises shows to Aeneas the great pageant of Rome’s future glories, Virgil writes (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation):

There are two gates of Sleep: the one is said
to be of horn, through it an easy exit
is given to true Shades; the other is made
of polished ivory, perfect, glittering,
but through that way the Spirits send false dreams
into the world above. And here Anchises,
when he is done with words, accompanies
the Sibyl and his son together; and
he sends them through the gate of ivory.

(Emphasis mine.) The gate of ivory? Was that whole vision for the future then untrue? But it couldn’t be: Anchises reveals people who really were to exist and events that really were to occur. Was the untruth then not the people and events themselves but the lovely imperial gloss, the shiny coating that Anchises paints on events that are in fact far uglier? Very possibly. But the passage is profoundly confusing.

I continue to believe that Virgil is fundamentally supportive of the imperial enterprise, for reasons I won’t spell out in further detail here. (If I had time I would write at length about Aeneas’s shield.) But he was too great a poet and too wise a man not to know, and reveal, the costliness of that enterprise, and not just in the lives of people like Dido and Turnus. Perhaps he was even more concerned with the price the Roman character paid for Roman greatness: the gross damage Romanitas did to the consciences of its advocates and enforcers.

Another way to put this is to say that Virgil was a very shrewd reader of Homer, who was likewise clear-sighted about matters that most of us would prefer not to see clearly. One must also here think of Shakespeare. Take, for instance, Twelfth Night: the viewers’ delight in the unfolding of the comedy is subtly undermined by the treatment of Malvolio by some of the “good guys.” It seems that the joy that is in laughter can all too easily turn to cruelty. Yes, Malvolio is a pompous inflated prig, but still….

The best account I have ever read of the way great literature accepts and represents these “minority moods” — moods that account for elements of human reality that any given genre tends to downplay — was written by Northrop Frye, in his small masterpiece A Natural Perspective. That’s his book about comedy, and the Aeneid is, structurally anyway, a kind of comedy, a story of human fellowship emerging from great suffering. Frye’s excursus on genre and mood is one of the most eloquent (and important) passages in his whole ouevre, and  I’ll end by quoting from it:

If comedy concentrates on a uniformly cheerful mood, it tends to become farcical, depending on automatic stimulus and reflex of laughter. Structure, then, commands participation but not assent: it unites its audience as an audience, but allows for variety in response. If no variety of response is permitted, as in extreme forms of melodrama and farce, something is wrong: something is inhibiting the proper function of drama…. Hence both criticism and performance may spend a good deal of time on emphasizing the importance of minority moods. The notion that there is one right response which apprehends the whole play rightly is an illusion: correct response is always stock response, and is possible only when some kind of mental or physical reflex is appealed to.

The sense of festivity, which corresponds to pity in tragedy, is always present at the end of a romantic comedy. This takes the part of a party, usually a wedding, in which we feel, to some degree, participants. We are invited to the festivity and we put the best face we can on whatever feelings we may still have about the recent behavior of some of the characters, often including the bridegroom. In Shakespeare the new society is remarkably catholic in its tolerance; but there is always a part of us that remains a spectator, detached and observant, aware of other nuances and values. This sense of alienation, which in tragedy is terror, is almost bound to be represented by somebody or something in the play, and even if, like Shylock, he disappears in the fourth act, we never quite forget him. We seldom consciously feel identified with him, for he himself wants no such identification: we may even hate or despise him, but he is there, the eternal questioning Satan who is still not quite silenced by the vindication of Job…. Participation and detachment, sympathy and ridicule, sociability and isolation, are inseparable in the complex we call comedy, a complex that is begotten by the paradox of life itself, in which merely to exist is both to be part of something else and yet never to be a part of it, and in which all freedom and joy are inseparably a belonging and an escape.


I’m reading the first volume of David Bromwich’s projected two-volume intellectual biography of Edmund Burke, and it’s fantastic. A magnificent piece of scholarship, about which I hope to have more to say. But in my typically perverse way, I’m going to devote this post to a disagreement — though not to be ornery, I promise. I have a constructive point to make.

One of the chief purposes of Bromwich’s book, it seems to me, is to rescue Burke from those who praise him, especially conservatives. (“No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism” — no serious historian, though I fear that serious historians are defined as those who don’t say that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism.) So any of Burke’s statements that might confirm a conservative or generally traditionalist reading get some careful scrutiny from Bromwich, which in general is, I think, a good thing: conventional wisdom should always get doubled scrutiny.

But what about Burke’s religious beliefs? Here’s a noteworthy passage from Bromwich’s “Introduction”: 

Replying once to a question about his religious beliefs, Burke said he was a Christian “much from conviction; more from affection.” The remark is open to various readings. I take it to imply that for him, ordinary feelings such as trust, though they have a Christian correlative, themselves supply a sufficient groundwork of moral conduct. 

Try though I might, I can see absolutely nothing in Burke’s statement to warrant Bromwich’s inference. Burke doesn’t say anything there about trust, about ordinary feelings, about moral conduct or the grounds thereof. In fact, if you look at the original letter (in Volume VI of The Correspondence of Edmund Burke), he’s not even describing his own beliefs per se: the complete sentence is “I am attached to Christianity at large, much from conviction; more from affection.” The context is reflection on the denominational divisions among Christians, something an Irishman could scarcely not have thought about. And Burke’s point is, quite obviously I think, that his “attachment” to Christianity — something distinct from belief in its teachings — is supported in two ways: first by rational conviction, and second, and to a greater degree, through the testimony of his affections. It is a statement about the grounds of attachment, not about the foundations of moral conduct. 

So why does Bromwich read it the way he does? It seems to be a pre-emptive strike against any claim that Burke’s Christian convictions are essential to his thought. If there is a “sufficient groundwork” for morals outside the framework of Christian teaching, then Christian teaching can be largely set aside in an intellectual biography of Burke, even if it provides a “correlative” to beliefs held on other grounds. 

Yet Bromwich concludes his Introduction by quoting another passage from Burke’s letters that seems to cast doubt on this dismissal of Christianity. To a young woman who had protested against his prosecution of the East India Company for its maltreatment of Indians, Burke wrote, “I have no party in this business, my dear Miss Palmer, but among a set of people, who have none of your lilies and roses in their faces, but who are images of the great Pattern as well as you or I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not.” Though Bromwich seems not to notice, Burke is grounding his political action in the Christian and Jewish teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God: even the darkest-skinned people “are images of the great Pattern.” It is his conviction of the universal imago Dei that drives Burke’s attempts to bring gross injustice before the judgment of the Law. 

I think that in this case Bromwich fails to see the importance of Christianity to Burke because he is not especially interested in it himself; whereas I see the importance of it because I am both interested in and knowledgable about the subject. Among other things, this incident should be a reminder of how our own inclinations, our own biases, can lead us to shape writers and thinkers we love in our own image. Though I think I have shown that on this one matter Bromwich has misread Burke and I have read him correctly, if I were to write an intellectual biography of Burke I would run a significant danger of over-emphasizing his Christianity. If I were going to write a really first-rate book about Burke I would always need to be on guard against that tendency. 

Similarly, Edward Mendelson and I have had many conversations over the years about W. H. Auden’s religious beliefs and thoughts, and while we agree on much, we sometimes don’t — and when we differ, almost invariably my reading of Auden bends towards my theological inclinations, while Edward’s reading bends towards his. (Oddly enough, the fact that Edward knows five times more about Auden than I ever will does not incline me to defer to his judgment in these matters.)   

E. B. White once wrote, “All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright” — a lovely line, but it’s not how you’re born, it’s how you discipline yourself that counts. Pulling yourself towards the perpendicular you know you’ll never quite reach requires a constant struggle. I would like to say that I achieve such constancy; but I don’t. 

reading personally

In support of Sarah Werner’s thoughtful comment on my previous post, I’d like to cite this wonderful passage from Edward Mendelson’s book The Things That Matter:

Anyone, I think, who reads a novel for pleasure or instruction takes an interest both in the closed fictional world of that novel and in the ways the book provides models of examples of the kinds of life that a reader might or might not choose to live. Most novels of the past two centuries that are still worth reading were written to respond to both of those interests. They were not written to be read objectively or dispassionately, as if by some nonhuman intelligence, and they can be understood most fully if they are interpreted and understood from a personal point of view, not only from historical, thematic, or analytical perspectives. A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.

Can “identifying” with characters, or reading in order to learn more about yourself, be done badly? Of course. But that would be a poor reason for repudiating such reading altogether. Academic criticism can be done badly too. Or so I hear.

an assignment

In relation to my earlier post on academic genres, here’s an assignment that I’ve been thinking about using: a critical response to a Wikipedia page. Students would be asked to read a Wikipedia page on an author or a book, say, and evaluate it for accuracy and fairness — but then they would also look into the history of that page. Such histories can be very illuminating, because they tell us what’s at stake in the conversation about that author, what debates are common. And one of the really interesting things about Wikipedia pages on literature is that they are edited by both academics and fans: there aren't many places in our culture where those two groups come together, because they so rarely have the same agendas. Here’s an interesting case in point: on the home page of the W. H. Auden Society you may find this message: “A highly accurate, thoroughly revised version of the entry on Auden is now available. This site strongly recommends that online researchers make reference to the archived version of the page, in the link above, rather than to current versions, which may be less accurate or may be subject to vandalism.” (I’m pretty sure Edward Mendelson, Auden’s exemplary literary executor and a brilliant critic in his own right, oversaw those revisions.) So that “officially approved” page could become the standard by which the whole revision history could be evaluated — though who knows? Perhaps an enterprising student would find edits that improved upon the standard. An assignment like this would be an example of what Gerald Graff calls “teaching the conflicts”, but it would have the advantage of going beyond the boundaries of the academy. Yes, it’s a tad meta, and an assignment like this shouldn't replace close attention to the literary texts themselves — but I think it could be very useful.