Friday, April 18, 2008

I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet, but the Sky Didn't Come Tumblin' Down: Earthquakes, the Academic Novel, and the Archaic Torso of Apollo

Figure 1. photograph from 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California

I like to think the earth moves beneath my feet, in symbolic fashion, but this morning, at approximately 4:30 a.m., I and my neighbors found ourselves standing outside watching the foundations of our houses tremble and having one of those "is the world ending now?" moments. As it turns out, the world wasn't ending, but something interesting had occurred--namely, an earthquake in southern Illinois, 120 miles away, measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale, and then while I was composing this blog post [not kidding--seriously not kidding], we had another quake measuring 4.5, also in southern Illinois, near the border with Indiana. My house started shaking again and while I'd like to claim that I had a kind of blase--oh, just another earthquake again--kind of reaction, I must admit it's not really fun and it's too early to use the earthquake as an excuse to start drinking, although there is a lovely bottle of Sancerre cooling in the fridge, but no, it really is too early. Of course, one feels the need to immediately do some research and I am not happy to report that I have discovered this morning that I live over one of the mother of all fault lines: the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which caused one the largest series of historical earthquakes [or "seismic bursts"] in 1811 and 1812, one of which even caused the Mississippi River, temporarily, to flow backwards. It was ten times larger, in terms of geographical effects and damage, than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The theory goes that the New Madrid fault exists because about hundreds of gadjillion [I mean, million] years ago, the North American continent tried to rip itself apart at this very place [where I live!], creating a rift in the earth's crust. The resulting depression allowed the Gulf of Mexico to extend hundreds of miles northward into what is now southern Illinois, and as the sea receded, the Mississippi and Ohio rivers formed. In my research, I also discovered that the U.S. Geological Survey considers the area where I live to be at considerable risk in the near future for a "significant" seismological event. Well, we've been talking here, thanks to Kofi's stimulating post, about the relationship between certain geographies and culture, and let's just say that, this morning, I didn't care about the relationship at all. Geography--and more pointedly, nature--trumps culture every time. Well, at least for ten or so minutes, twice, this morning, in this neck of the world.

Despite the somewhat unsettling events of the morning [pun fully intended], I also wanted to share with everyone here a short paper I gave recently on a colloquium panel devoted to the images of professors in literature and film. My friend and colleague Valerie Vogrin [who is a fiction writer] came up with the idea of doing this panel for a colloquium we have here at Southern Illinois every spring in which our faculty and graduate students interrogate together some broad theme [such as Empire, Masculinity, Religion, and Environment, to cite themes from previous years], and this year it was "the University." Valerie was going to concentrate on the image of the creative writing professor in three novels: Richard Russo's Straight Man, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, and Francine Prose's The Blue Angel, and she confessed to me before the panel how dismayed she was at the repetition of certain tired cliches, especially as regards the midlife crises of such characters--which crises, predictably, take on certain shapes and, for the almost-always male leads in such novels, always involve some trope of impotence, both sexual and creative. To which Valerie's response during the panel was, "what else you got?" She remarked, especially, on the ways in which these novels, although they take up the character of the professor [in both senses of the term "character"], they rarely show the professor at work, doing what professors do most of the time: writing, mentoring students, etc. What would it mean, we wondered, to really show the professor at work, and would anyone ever care? Further, if a certain portrayal of humanities professors--as morally bankrupt and always "stupid" as regards matters of "the real world"--is so popular, why is it so popular? What does that reveal about the ways in which the academic enterprises of the humanities are generally regarded, and what does it also mean when these so-called academic "satires" are written by those who can be said to be "on the inside"?

Another of our colleagues was going to focus on the intersection between speech and writing in Willa Cather's novel The Professor's House, and it was fascinating, but what really stuck with me afterward was the absolute sadness of the novel, especially in its delineation of the professor Godfrey St. Peter's long-repressed love for a former student and almost-son-in-law Tom Outland [who is killed in World War I] and the ways in which those repressed feelings lead him to, in a sense, abdicate his life. Another of our colleagues used the panel as an occasion to vent his very deep animosities and bitternesses over the profession of English studies as a whole [in its post-"culture wars" incarnations] through a reading of the oeuvre of James Hynes, who wrote The Lecturer's Tale, and whose novels some of you may know can pretty much be summed up as "vicarious [and not artfully rendered] revenge" against postmodernism and its professorial ilk. My colleague's paper on Hynes's work was, at turns, laugh out loud funny, hair-raising, and then . . . just so hateful you didn't want to look anyone in the audience in the eye, especially our students who, unfortunately, had to hear one of their professors compare an English department to hell.

Needless to say, the "images" of professors offered in these papers--especially of the literature or writing professor--was grim, and what seemed to be emerging in all of them was the idea [that I very much wanted to argue against] that the life of the mind is somehow divorced or estranged from the body [leading the body, in some instances, to rebel in spectacularly inappropriate ways or to simply resign itself to a non-bodily life], and that the intellectual life is one without feeling [or with feelings that are preposterously and narcissistically outsized or misplaced or misguided] and perhaps without ethics, and even further, that somehow the life of the scholar is not really a life at all but some sort of pretension to one. And if you want a "text" that brings the literary scholar and the creative writer together and highlights all of these themes, while also adding the idea of the existential uselessness and inherent self-destruction of the academic and literary artist, go no further than Tamara Jenkins's recent film The Savages. I am also reminded, when reflecting upon this subject, of Michael Haneke's most recent film [before the just-released Funny Games], Cache, the main character of which is George, a Parisian literary critic [who stars in a television show on books] whose emotional repression [he has no idea his wife, played by Juliette Binoche, is cheating on him with a best friend] is a thinly-disguised metaphor for his repression of his relationship, as a bourgeois [western] French intellectual, to a particular historical event in his past: "la nuite noir"--the night of October 17 1961, when hundreds of Algerian demonstrators in Paris were beaten and killed by the police. Although only a child when this happened, the event is intimately related to him through a childhood friend, Majid, whose Algerian parents were farmhands on his family's country estate and who were killed on that night in October. Because our main character, when he was a child, insisted to his parents that they not adopt the son of their former servants [partly out of a selfishness to not share his parents' affections], Majid is sent to an orphanage where, it is implied, he suffered terribly, and he later cuts his throat in front of George, whose reaction is to simply go home, take a sleeping pill, draw his bedroom curtains, and go to sleep. Roll credits. The amnesia and emotional deep-freeze of the bourgeois intellectual, which everyone already agrees is somehow a truth-based stereotype, becomes the perfect structure of character for France's willed amnesia of its violent relationship to Algeria.

I had decided, in my paper, to focus on Woody Allen's film Another Woman, starring Gena Rowlands as a professor of philosophy who, having just turned fifty, is undergoing a sort of mid-life crisis, but one that takes a very quiet series of subterranean "turns" [as opposed to leading to a series of all-too-public escapades of bad behavior as is the typical case in the academic satire--Woody Allen's film is, it must be said, not at all a satire but a drama that takes itself, perhaps too seriously]. Upon re-viewing a film that I had seen many years ago and only vaguely remembered [and which I had chosen because I thought we needed at least one representation of a woman professor to explore], I was dismayed at where it turned out Allen was heading: right back to the idea that the life of the mind requires a forsaking of the body, as well as of art [and by implication, beauty] and other persons, but there were some interesting moments in the film that I thought could lead us in more positive directions regarding the value of the life dedicated to thought, and I share with you here my remarks [through which you will understand why this blog post's title invokes Rilke's poem, "The Archaic Torso of Apollo"]:

You Must Change Your Life: Woody Allen's Another Woman

EDIT 4/19: For those who may be interested, I also append here my colleague Valerie Vogrin's Colloquium essay:

"A Sub-Sub-Genre: The Creative Writing Professor as Protagonist"


Steve Muhlberger said...

Well, it wasn't so long ago that all profs were clerics, eh?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I am very happy that the sky did not topple down ... sounds very frightening, and I'm glad you are OK.

Looking forward to reading your piece when I have the leisure. It's a subject we've seen here before, and I think one that the NYTimes just had an essay on ... so much to anticipate.

Eileen Joy said...

Steve: your comment leads me to consider how the historical figuration of teacher "as cleric" somehow inheres in these portrayals of the professor whose emotional and sensual life has been placed in some kind of deep-freeze of abnegation. But there is a kind of tension that also inheres, isn't there [?], between the idea of a pedagogy that always retains some kind of erotic function [or, excrescence] and a scholarly practice of "thought" that is always assumed to be stripped of the erotic. How can we begin to account for this?

Karl Steel said...

I want to list, again, one of my favorites in this sad genre, Ball of Fire

I thought we needed at least one representation of a woman professor to explore]

There's When Night is Falling, which has the added advantage of being lesbian, but not the added advantage of leaving behind the mind/body split.

Thank you again for your, as always, salutary attention to dwelling in the body (however we want this word to mean), and, as always, the erotics your foreground, which saves your resistance to transcendent metaphysics from, so far as I can understand, Heidegger's mistake. What's that? Well, I'm reading--and by 'reading' I mean 'trying to understand'--Heidegger's "Letter on 'Humanism,'" and, no doubt inspired by Levinas, I can't help but think that the pre-rational, pre-metaphysical, commitment to Being, and all the shared embodiment this implies, never quite touches ground. Your work does, thankfully.

I'm with you about the tired pregnancy thing. I wish Rilke hadn't stepped away from eros and into reproduction here: "a smile run through the placid hips and thighs / to that dark center where procreation flared." Likewise with Allen and the Farrow character: after all, figuring eros as reproduction renders pleasure only a means when, of course, it's much more interesting as an end in itself (okay, if you didn't click through on the link, you will learn here why I prefer Farrow as a name to Hope: did you know that 'farrow' means both 'a litter of pigs' and, when an adjective applied to a cow, 'not pregnant''s also a word that, according to the MED, comes to us from an uncertain place, and, according to the OED, reaches back to the same roots as the Latin porcus, which perhaps unfortunately recalls to me a scene from Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, the bit beginning around 5:25).

Speaking of the desire for pork, and returning to procreation and its discontents, I do think the emphasis on children is a copout for what, as you describe, is clearly a desire of Marion for Hope, and not hope in the abstract, but for this particular person, Hope, who, in the unfulfillment of her pregnancy, evidences a resistance to the exhausted narrative in which she's been called into being. It's not that she needs to fuse her pregnant body with Farrow's intellectual life to form a 'complete person.' The hope here is rather the hope of getting away from Allen. I think, first, of the Chaucer conversation on Wednesday, where I led my students into wondering about the nature of free will of characters trapped in the Nun's Priest's Tale. And I think of the 50s suburban housewife Laura Brown in The Hours (played in the film so well by Julianne Moore), who discovers her desire and her unfulfillment at once and gives up everything but her desire and her life, abandoning the child and husband she loves in favor of her eros.


Well, it wasn't so long ago that all profs were clerics, eh?

Well, yes, but many of these clerics were hardly all creatures of bodily self-abnegation. What we see often is an ascesis that leads to an intensification of pleasures, a discovery of new delights. I think here of Cary Howie's discussion of Iacopone da Todi; no doubt late Middle English mystical writing also suggests itself here.

Karl Steel said...

dwelling in the body

Although that's a stupid way to put it, isn't it? We don't want a metaphor of "being in" anymore than we want the frozenness of being...

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: I wouldn't step away so quickly, if I were you, from the phrase "dwelling in the body"--it doesn't have to mean "being in" in the frozen way you are worried about, I don't think. I'm not sure anything can really "happen" to me outside of my body, but where can my body "take" me--now, that's a whole other matter.

Incidentally, "Balls of Fire" is only one of my favorite all-time movies, and one of my most cherished phone "messages" left on my answering machine about a year ago was when my oldest friend from college, who is straight, called me to say, after watching that movie, that the only woman she would leave her husband for was Barbara Stanwyck. It cracked me up. Well, you have to understand that, in some circles, Barbara Stanwyck is an academic [and other] subject unto herself.

And yes, I know about the film "When Night Is Falling," but other than its cheap erotic thrills, could anything be more blatant, within the lines I sketched out in my remarks on Allen's film, than the opposition of the repressed professor and the circus acrobat? Oh my god: everybody break out a bottle of wine and let's start generating the jokes. Because here we have, in a sense, the most obvious representation of the supposed split, in the intellectual life, between the mind and the body. Of course the movie is a lesbian cult classic, but still . . . . it is to laugh.

But Karl, what I love most about your comments here is your marking out of the "farrow" etymology and your notice of Marion's desire for Hope in the film, which I did not really explore, but now I am thinking about that, especially in relation to what you describe as "the hope of getting away from Allen"--that's brilliant! Thanks, too, for bringing in Mrs. Brown from Cunningham's "The Hours" [by way of Virginia Woolf]. Although isn't it interesting that the "erotic" life that she chooses over family, in both book and film, is decidedly un-narrated [other than the kiss with the essentially unwilling neighbor]: it is the one thing that, for whatever reason, cannot be narrated, or *seen*.

Anonymous said...

Guy Davenport wrote a lot about pedagogue-sensualists in his short fiction.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Steve: your comment leads me to consider how the historical figuration of teacher "as cleric" somehow inheres in these portrayals of the professor whose emotional and sensual life has been placed in some kind of deep-freeze of abnegation. But there is a kind of tension that also inheres, isn't there [?], between the idea of a pedagogy that always retains some kind of erotic function [or, excrescence] and a scholarly practice of "thought" that is always assumed to be stripped of the erotic.

Great point ... and really what Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalot" is all about: his forced choice between the celibate clericism of of the academy, or death-of-the-intellect sexuality (as if those stark possibilities were all there were). Talk about making the choice to dwell in your body or not!

Karl Steel said...

My problem with my 'dwelling in the body' is that it raises the question of what it is that's IN the body, which automatically suggests a soul, a psyche, spirit, whatever, that, even as it's 'at home' in the body, is still in some way separate from it (even if separating psyche from body would kill body, like separating a snail from its shell). Maybe it's just the Heidegger, but that's not really the approach I want to take.

it is the one thing that, for whatever reason, cannot be narrated, or *seen*.
There's a lot of approaches, yeah?, that automatically suggest themselves for that 'for whatever reason,' all of them which derive from 70s French feminism. Don't know if that's the best approach, however.

Problem with The Hours--and, okay, full confession, I've read only bits of the book--is that it DOES seem structured by grief. The 2001 relationship (Clarissa Vaughn's) isn't so hot, for example. Laura Brown escapes, presumably into something better, but we never see her happiness. More lachrymose history (and here I'm reminded of the complete destruction David Ehrenstein meted out against Brokeback Mountain).

Anonymous said...

An excellent exception to this general portrayal of the profession in movies is _The Barbarian Invasions_, a Canadian feature which won best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards a few years ago. I am not the type to be overly emotional at films, but although I've sat down to watch this movie three times, I've yet to see the final minutes - it's too unbearable, and I know that if I look at the screen, I'll just lose it.

The movie begins with, and centres on, an old literature professor who has just found out he's dying. The movie is partly about him reconciling with various figures in his life, and partly a retrospective of his life as old figures from the past come to visit. Completely against the normal representations, this professor has lives a full and fulfilled life - he's seduced many of his students, he has achieved academic renown, made and lost friends, and he lives life with a complete zest that is only intensified by his deep intellect. Even on his deathbed, the vitality of the character shines through - no mind/body, education as eros/detachment split at all, but a complete human being who has lived a life filled with joys, regrets, and the simple boring moments inbetween. In my humble opinion, one of the 100 best movies of all time, and certainly the best representation of a professor I've seen on film.

Eileen Joy said...

Kofi: I love "The Barbarian Invasions"--thanks for mentioning it.