Bristlecone, again

I know we shouldn’t complain too much.  It’s bad for digestion, and distracts from delight.  But I have to grouse about the fare offered just down the hall.  I happen to love Dickens, Dickinson, Hemingway, Eliot, Donne, and even the non-canon: Kerouac and W. E Sebald.  I thought I knew where I could find a colleague to share my amateur’s appreciation.  But clearly I was misinformed.  I paused at the directory of colleagues, and their interests, sharply etched.  This is what I could expect to chat about, were I to knock on one door or the next.  English Lit ?  I must have taken a wrong turn.

  • Conceptual histories of the body, disease, imagination, subjectivity, melancholy, the occult, science, medicine, natural history, natural philosophy, and the literature of discovery and contact.
  • Transnationalism, globalization, imperialism, and the history of the book.
  • Historiography and historicism; gender studies; human/nonhuman animal studies; material, political, and print cultures; and public feelings.
  • Interracial intimacies in Anglo-India, gender dissonance in Victorian fiction, female authority and medicine in 19th-century women’s first-person narrations, the emergence of the culture concept in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the tourist gaze in Victorian England.
  • New media, interactive fiction and narrative, digital games, avant-garde film and video, television, temporality, spatiality, and code/software studies.
  • Ethnic and minority studies, post-colonial and transnational studies.
    nascent capitalism in the interregnum; race and colonialism in early modern drama; illiteracy and the early modern stage; and women and magic.
  • Utopianism, Globalization, Primitive Accumulation, and the Politics of Space, Cultural Studies or Marxist methodology.
  • Gender and Sexuality Studies, Queer Theory, Reception Studies.

I recently wrote a paper in which Thoreau figured as a weather-beaten, wind-twisted Bristlecone Pine, high in the Sierra, rather apophatic.  I wanted to make sure I paid him proper respect, didn’t domesticate him too much, kept him austere, someone who could still teach ancient wisdom, a Diogenes or Socrates.  But I suspect the folk down the hall are not even interested enough in him to housebreak him.  He wrote literature, and that, I guess, is passe.  Not him, and not Chaucer, not Shakespeare, not Melville, not Emerson, not Stevens.

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9 comments on “Bristlecone, again

  1. dmf says:

    it’s been that way since the 80’s, that’s why all the writers like Tobias Wolff jumped ship, what’s worse is that by and large all of those ‘theory’ folks don’t have the philosophical training to properly do theoretical work so they are not teaching lit and are selling sound-bite secondary sourced weak tea. That’s largely the state of the humanities these days, too many PhD’s too little philo-sophia, I for one won’t mourn the coming end of the modern public ‘research’ university.

  2. j. says:

    yeah, i don’t see what any of those things would have to do with thoreau

    • efmooney says:

      Ah, good question requiring a very long answer. Of course I had in mind much earlier posts, some of the first on the blog, on the fate of Thoreau in a university setting, and the large question, pertinent to those of us teaching in the academy, and perhaps teaching Thoreau, of what he would think of academics in the humanities today. I suppose it’s also a way of thinking about his view that there are no philosophers to be found, only teachers of philosophy, and the implication that its teachers are liable to go as far away from philosophy as the interests of these teachers I cite have gone from literature of the sort Thoreau bequeaths . . to what? I also had in mind (too much, I’m afraid) my essay “Thoreau: Mourning Turtle Doves: An amble from Concord on out” arriving in Zeteo: The Journal of Interdisciplinary Writing in November. My post is a footnote to that effort roaming the slopes of Kaatdn some distance from Walden.

      • j. says:

        i question just how your post is a way of thinking about those things. to me it’s a gesture with a long and unhealthy history, trying to trivialize the work and the seriousness of scholars in other disciplines for either not having remained the preserve of certain values, conceived in certain ways, or for having arrogated to themselves resources to which other disciplines had previously laid claim. as a gesture it says something like, ‘look at all these crazy topics! does anyone just read books anymore?’. but it seems to derive its effect from pretending as if at least half of those themes would not be quite pertinent to study of thoreau, and from pretending that they are much studied by other disciplines like philosophy who share responsibility for the academic study of thoreau. the english scholars i know certainly read books, and would probably be glad to talk to people about them. but i’m not sure they would be eager to start the conversation with a gesture that denies that they have anything to contribute to it.

  3. efmooney says:

    J. My thought is not to assert that my colleagues have nothing to say. It’s largely a response to a mode of self-advertisement, a published self-conception that hard to miss. I would hope to avoid entering a conversation with an unfounded preconception of what my colleagues are willing to discuss. I was responding to their self-presentation, their way of introducing themselves to me, which, to tell the truth, caught me off guard. I’m sure if we got behind the odd outer wear, I’d discover that in fact they DO read and enjoy literature. I know this is true. Yet there seems to be a fear of saying “I love Dickinson AND approach her with these concerns . . . ” Not a single literary figure or text was mentioned in the self-presentation I happened upon. I see their outer wear confirming strong currents that encourage the new, ever new, as if the newest tools could replace the world tools address, letting us become, as Thoreau say, tools of our tools, and quite without history, too. As if a philosophy department’s members listed as their interest only current puzzles and positions with out a nod to figures living, or texts published, before 1990.

    • dmf says:

      too often such fields of endeavor render their subjects into mere examples/illustrations for their pet theories, there is little to no being swept away by amour or much else besides the ill gotten gains of identity politics of various stripes and the related trends in the markets.

  4. Anita Michels says:

    I see your point here. Oftentimes, the deeper, under-examined, undiscovered “thing” is best understood in the form of novel, prose, allegory, etc. Not only for the point, but for the complexity and multidimensional characteristics of the points. The political, with all of it’s specialized jargon is still better understood in narrative, where language is personality and feeling and also perhaps less obviously “useful.”
    I learned about stoicism and objectivism from texts- could even personally identify with the thinking. But it wasn’t until I read authors like Camus and Rand that I was able to really conceptualize the thinking-being trends as living philosophy…. and see them at work with nuance- adaptive and evolving, resurfacing traits, personae.
    Also, literature explores the truth-value/cost-benefits of thought patterns with its freedom of exposition, having far less limitations than textbooks and historical summaries, which better resembles reality or the actualization of the concept itself.
    I am thankful for the exposure…
    Le Moyne profs., Delia Popescu and Julie Olin-Ammentorp…You will find them kindred folk.

    • efmooney says:

      Oftentimes, the deeper, under-examined, undiscovered “thing” is best understood in the form of novel, prose, allegory, etc. Not only for the point, but for the complexity and multidimensional characteristics of the points. The political, with all of it’s specialized jargon is still better understood in narrative, where language is personality and feeling and also perhaps less obviously “useful.”

      Thanks, Anita, I like the idea that narrative brings out ‘the hidden’ this way,and especially the idea that words have personality — yes, yes.
      And I’ll looks these Le Moyne neighbors up.

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