Friday, March 28, 2014
Menand is wrong in the NEW YORKER and Leibovitz is right in the TABLET: Horrible Ideas have Horrible Consequences
In its July 11, 2012, tribute to M. H. Abrams at 100 the TABLET with the best intentions put me in the good company of “Jewish professors, critics, and scholars” who starting in the postwar years were “newly acceptable” in academia, but then the TABLET killed me off along with Trilling, Levin, Edel, and Kazin, leaving only Abrams. When I plaintively declared that I was still alive and did not spell my first name with a “c”, the TABLET revised the article to say that Mike (whom I loved not as a contemporary but as a mentor at W. W. Norton) was “one” of the last survivors of that group, not the very last. As another survivor, I comment now on the “Horrible Ideas” which Liel Leibovitz wrote about in the TABLET for March 21.In the review of Evelyn Barish’s The Double Life of Paul de Man Leibovitz says: “For all his darkness, de Man was not the first and will not be the last prominent man to be unmasked as a charming and cruel sociopath. If we choose to read his life’s story as a thriller—‘The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ph.D.’—we’re left with nothing but the pleasure of a good yarn; de Man’s habits tell us no more about his fellow academics than Rob Ford’s do about his fellow Canadian mayors. But there’s another reading of the de Man story, one at which Barish hints and that suggests that the life and the worldview are intertwined, and that even if there’s not necessarily causation there is certainly a correlation between the man perpetually eluding his past and the theory perpetually resisting definitions. It’s in this way that Barish’s book is most illuminating, giving us not only a clearer view of de Man but an intriguing framework through which to understand the sorry state of the contemporary academic landscape he helped shape.”
In the NEW YORKER on March 24 Louis Menand angrily rejected the notion of a correlation between de Man’s Nazi past and his literary practice. Menand starts his defense this way: “De Man may have been a scoundrel.” The “may have been” takes one aback—but Menand has already acknowledged that “for all intents and purposes” (my italics) the record shows that “the young de Man was a fascist.” I’ll start my quotation from Menand again: “De Man may have been a scoundrel who found a career teaching a certain method of reading, but that method of reading does not turn people into scoundrels. Probably ninety-nine per cent of the people who studied with de Man wouldn’t run a red light—forget about altering a transcript or voluntarily collaborating with Nazis.” There is, in short, according to Menand, no correlation between de Man’s past behavior and later theory and there is no correlation between his followers’ acceptance of his theory and their later practice toward other human beings. “As a literary critic,” Menand continued smoothly, “de Man was doing what American literature professors had been doing since the nineteen-forties.” And of course there was no correlation between the New Criticism and bad behavior in the real world. Or was there?
In Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (published in January 2013), I looked at the way the New Criticism could seduce its practitioners into dehumanizing both writers like Melville and writers on him. Relentless adherence to a life-denying literary theory, the New Criticism, I decided, has had deleterious consequences not just on literary criticism and what passes as biography (as in one piece entitled “A Brief Biography” which ignores troves of new documents). Worse still, such a theory ultimately damages the character of its practitioners, because to blind yourself to Melville’s aspirations and agonies, to treat him as an abstract “author figure” or “literary personality” (Charles Feidelson’s term) and not a real man, in the end leads critics to blind themselves to the aspirations and agonies of living people.
When the second volume of my biography was published Richard H. Brodhead damned me in the New York Times (June 23, 2002) as a “demon researcher” with a “single-mindedness worthy of a Melville hero,” a hero such as Ahab, who also ended in wreck. Can this have nothing to do with Feidelson’s calling Melville “a prime example of the demonic writer” (Symbolism and American Literature, 163)? I was a demon researcher but I could not be trusted because I had passed off private surmises as fact, Brodhead declared. According to Brodhead there was no evidence that Melville had finished a book called Poems in 1860. In fact, all scholars had known about Poems since 1922. According to Brodhead it was merely a surmise of mine that Melville had completed a book in 1853. Soon Andrew Delbanco echoed Brodhead, declaring in the New Republic that because I merely surmised the existence of The Isle of the Cross and Poems I should not be trusted anywhere in either volume of the biography. In fact, all scholars had known about the 1853 book since 1960, when the Davis-Gilman edition of the Letters was published, and I had published an article on The Isle of the Cross in the then-scholarly American Literature in 1990.
In accusing me (in the New York Times!) of making unfounded surmises Brodhead had blithely done horrific damage to my reputation. Worse, he had erased the existence of the grand array of Melville scholars who had preceded me. Most immediately and most painfully to me, he had erased the existence of three men, all dead by 2002, who had rejoiced at my discovery of the title The Isle of the Cross in 1987—Jay Leyda, Harrison Hayford, and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. Brodhead’s false accusations about me must be in some way a consequence of his New Critical training and practice, I decided. In sober truth, if your training leads you to dehumanize Melville, to be blind to his agony as Brodhead had been in his commentary on Pierre, how can you not carry your training over to the way you treat real living people, at least people unlike you, such as a fanatic, demonic researcher?
This is worth re-emphasizing in the light of Menand’s aloof certainties: If you think that facts about authors are not real and authors are not real, then you may come to see living people outside your own private circle as unreal. Cut them and they will not bleed, or if they do bleed their suffering can never be of the significance of your own discomforts or the discomforts of your class. Let me offer a maxim: The kind of literary criticism you learn to write and continue to write all your life affects all the rest of your behavior. Some of the behavior of Melville critics who refuse to look at documentary evidence is innate in their character, I assume, but some of their actions, I would think, must be a consequence of lifelong practice of a dehumanizing literary approach, the New Criticism. Their nature is subdued to what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.
Menand is sure that theory cannot turn anyone into a scoundrel. Well, even the comfortable old New Criticism can lead its practitioners to exterminate the achievements of great scholars, to write as if Leyda and Hayford and Sealts never existed. Horrible ideas (even horrible ideas about literature) have horrible consequences. Leibovitz is right.