Some notes from my Ivory Tower

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.

– Gustave Flaubert, from letter to Ivan Turgenev, November 13th 1872

There are times when a piece of music circles endlessly around the mind. Earworms, I think they’re called. It can happen also with lines of poetry. Of late, these few lines by Auden have been battering consistently at my inner ear:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

There’s been a lot of drivel gushed lately, from various ogres’ lips. Possibly no more than usual, I suppose, but I am, for whatever reason, noticing it more these days. I shall not list here the various idiocies I hear every day from politicians and from political commentators of every shade: this is not a political blog, after all, and it’s best saving my political rants for my drinking cronies on a Friday evening, who are by now quite used to me and my ways, and don’t mind my ranting as long as I buy my rounds on time. But, as this is a literary blog, a few literary rants aren’t, I trust, out of place.

However, in this instance, I don’t much feel like a rant: I write with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger. And in any case, one develops after a while what may be termed “rant fatigue”. Let the whole world go hang, it’s tempting to feel, as long as I have my own library to retreat into. But, much though one may wish it, one cannot, as Flaubert observed, remain ensconced in one’s ivory tower: there is always this tide of shit eating away at its foundations.

The latest tide of shit comes in the form of a headline: apparently, Russell Brand and Dizzee Rascal are to appear on the A-level reading lists for English. Admittedly, I had never heard of Mr Rascal: it may well be that the Collected Works of Dizzee Rascal are well worth studying for English literature. But quite frankly, I can’t be arsed to find out. Rant Fatigue has set in too deeply, I suppose.

Reading through the comments below the line in the Guardian, and elsewhere for that matter, is generally a pretty depressing experience: there is little that dissipates so quickly one’s faith in humanity. But I do gather from some of what I read there that the works of Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal and Caitlin Moran or whoever, are not intended as set texts for English Literature: rather, they are examples to be studies as part of the English Language course, as students need to learn to analyse various uses of the English language in various different contexts. Fair enough, I suppose. Any old excuse will serve for bringing in the mindless trivia and ephemera of the célébrités du jour into the classroom. Let us, by all means, analyse drivel so that we can see it’s drivel. But the problem is that we are so inundated with the stuff, that after a while we become inured to it: far from recognising it as drivel, we exalt it.

So it’s back to the ivory tower for me. And I intend staying there till the tide of shit actually does wear down the walls.

(Incidentally, now that the joke in the title of this blog has worn off somewhat, I am wondering whether it’s best to rename this blog “Notes From the Ivory Tower”.)

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8 responses to this post.

  1. There are so many things I might add to your post but I will attempt to disprove my Yahoo origins as an American and refrain from throwing things, actual or metaphorical.

    First, I like to think that my weblog (A Celebration of Reading) is actually an extended rant about the destructiveness and stupidity of the world (and especially the oh-so-special USA) and although my continuing cheerleading for reading and books regularly exposes my need for intellectual stimulation, perhaps this is a reaction to the American distrust for anything cultural … anything that suggests the extreme effort of thinking.

    My sad anecdote on the state of my tower is apocryphal: Not that long ago I was active in a reading group which, like most other reading groups, complained about having to read too many classic novels and not enough Stephen King or Harry Potter; but the owner of this group would also regularly suggest that we read bad books so we could then discuss what made them so bad. Although wanting to read bad books and wanting to read more Stephen King might be seen as the same thing.

    Maybe if we’re really lucky more bad authors will churn out more bad books so we can concentrate our efforts on whatever it is that makes them bad … or as Buck Tolstoi (Lev’s brother) wrote: “All good books are alike; each bad book is bad in its own way.”

    Reply

    • Hello Mike,
      I am often accused of disliking anything that is popular, but it really isn’t so: only recently, I wrote a post about Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, which are tremendously popular (on this side of the Pond, at least), and also, I think, superb novels. The popular arts can and should be of a high standard. This is why it is all the more depressing to see the popular market awash with so much tripe. And attempts to bring all this into the classroom are deeply depr4essing.

      Anyway, I’ve got that off my chest now: what’s a blog for if you can’t sound off once in a while? Now – back to writing about King Lear

      Reply

  2. Posted by alan on May 12, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    For some reason I am reminded of that old feminist slogan: “The personal is political”.
    I don’t see how you can possibly avoid politics in a literature blog – I think that you are in danger of protesting too much. Perhaps you mean that you want to avoid party politics. If so, then perhaps that is because in party politics you have no choice but to compromise your beliefs, whereas here you have a bit more freedom.
    As to a title change – I think that ‘Notes from’ is an overused prefix and since you have an established ‘brand’ then it is best to stick with it. Maybe you just need to change your tagline. How about ‘Avuncular musings’, or ‘Names dropped that you’ve never heard of’, or ‘Anything less than 5000 words is just clearing the throat’.

    Reply

    • “The personal is the political.” Indeed. But if that’s so, there can be nothing that isn’t political. In which case, I cannot be taken to task for not writing about politics.

      Whjen I say I don’t want to write here about politics, I mean that I don’t want to write about the annexation of Crimea, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the growth of Hindu nationalism in India, the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma, international Jihadism, Scottish independence, the horrendous civil wars in Syria, etc. etc. Not that these aren’t important matters, and not I don’t have opinions on them; but there are many people writing on these matters who are far more knowledgeable than I am. Of course, there are, equally, many writing on these matters who are even less knowledgeable than i am, but why add to the cacophony? I restrict myself to writing about things that I feel I can write something about without, hopefully, making too big a fool of myself.

      You’re right about the “Notes From…”: ever since Dostoyevsky started the trend, that kind of title has been overused. (I have done it myself in the post above.) As for the tagline, “Because I’m worth it” was – and possibly still is – the advertising slogan of some cosmetics company (L’Oréal, I think), and when I started the blog, it seemed to me quite funny. But I suppose those who do not get the reference may take the tagline seriously. But yes – “Avuncular Musings” seems rather good. I’ll think about it.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Dizzee Rascal for English language seems to me eminently reasonable, particularly his earlier works. His more recent stuff is pretty much pure pop (though effective pop), but his earlier grime material is lyrically dense and he became famous in large part because he was a more skilled wordsmith than his peers. I don’t think drivel’s a remotely fair term for him.

    I don’t like Caitlin Moran’s work, but a lot of people find it funny and interesting so you could do worse for English language studies.

    Russell Brand, eh, I’ve got nothing there.

    Are you falling into the trap here of ranting against something that’s not actually happening? Your rant was triggered by the idea that a musician, comic writer and comedian’s work was to be used as set texts for English literature. I can see why that would be irritating. but as you say, it’s not trueThey’re being used instead as examples of English language usage which is precisely where you’d expect to see contemporary casual usage being studied.

    If I heard Dizzee Rascal was being studied in a poetry class I’d see that as idiotic, he’s a lyricist which isn’t the same thing as a poet at all. If the truth was though that he was being studied as part of a music class, well, that would make a lot of sense since he’s been in the past a prime proponent of one of the UK’s most innovative musical scenes.

    I’m not opposed to ranting, but if the target doesn’t actually exist, if you’re ranting against a headline that was simply misleading, well, there’s a risk of moving from elitism (which I applaud) to snobbery (which I don’t). The wrong thing here was the newspaper headline, not the work of say Russell Brand (not that I have any love for him).

    Reply

    • Hello Max, and thank you for that.

      I have no illusion that anything I may write in this relatively obscure blog will have even the slightest impact in the outside world. I often use this blog merely to let off a bit of steam when I feel particularly angry about something. And of course, when one is angry, one sometimes does end up tilting at windmills, at imaginary ogres. I am, I confess, guilty of that at times. But in this particular instance, the ogres I am tilting at are not, I think, entirely imaginary. Please allow me to expand.

      If it is true that the tweets of Caitlin Moran, the testimony given by Russell Brand, etc., are to be used not in the teaching of literature – we can agree, I think, that that would be foolish – but in the teaching specifically of language in order to explore its various different modes and usages, then it is not merely the headline of that article that is misleading: there is nothing in the article itself to indicate this. However, since shoddy journalism is not so rare that it should surprise us, let us assume that this indeed is the case, and move on.

      The argument is that language changes, and that, therefore, the teaching of language should change also to keep pace. I have no problem with that. In particular, the argument continues, tweeting and texting have introduced new ways of using language that merit study; that the various abbreviations, elisions, and new kinds of syntax required to keep the number of characters to a minimum are taking our language into new directions. Now, while I go along with the general concept, I don’t know that I accept every particular of this argument. The abbreviations, elisions, etc. that are required for tweeting and texting seem to me by no means new: people have been doing just this for one and a half centuries and more when writing telegrams. However, no-one thought then that the kind of English used in writing telegrams merited study: now that, I think, is new.

      But let us assume that past ages were mistaken in thinking this did not require study. Let us assume that the language of tweeting and texting is indeed worthy of study, as it is an important aspect of usage. Even assuming all this, I am struggling to think of a reason why the tweets of a particular celebrity should be considered more worthy of study rather than the millions of other tweets posted by non-celebrities every day. And I cannot think of any possible justification – other than the originator of these tweets being a celebrity. Similarly with Russell Brand’s testimony: even if we accept that this is to be taught in language classes rather than in literature classes, is it really the case that Mr Brand’s use of the English language is of such import that it is worth studying in the classroom? In short, is there any justification to bring these things into the curriculum at all, of language or of literature? Does this achieve anything at all other than yet more pandering to celebrity culture?

      Please do not get me wrong: I have nothing whatever against either Russell Brand or Caitlin Moran. I do, however, object to determining the school curriculum of the basis merely of celebrity status.

      On Dizzee Rascal, as I said in my post, I have no knowledge of his work, and, given my background, my tastes, and my sadly advancing years, I am unlikely to appreciate it even if I were to try. I am happy to accept your estimation of his work, and am further happy to retract with apology my implication that it is “drivel”: I plead guilty to having got somewhat carried away. That he was bracketed with others who were there purely for their celebrity status led me, I fear, to suspect the worst: I do accept, however, that mere suspicion without knowledge is a poor basis for criticism. In this instance, the ogre is indeed imaginary.

      But not all ogres, sadly, are. The teaching of English in schools in UK is, as far as I can see, in a desperate state. We are living in times when the head of English of a prestigious private school can write into the Times to say that even his 6th form pupils, aged 17-18, despite having been pre-selected for that school, despite having studied there for several years, and despite, presumably, having chosen English literature for their A-levels, would not be able to understand Middlemarch, and would be merely “bored” by it. This he considers a good reason for not teaching it at all. He goes on to say that he would be happy to teach them Twilight, although what there is in Twilight that merits teaching he does not specify. (I cannot link to this letter as the Times is behind a paywall, but if you have access to the archives, it appeared in the edition dated 14th May 2013.)

      Our daughter, currently sitting her A-levels in science subjects, passed with flying colours her GCSEs in English language and in English literature two years ago, despite, in my view, having barely been taught either. Now, I don’t want to have a go at teachers: they get a tough enough time as it is from pupils, from parents, and from the government. I do know that there are a great many very devoted teachers who are passionately committed to their calling, and who get little thanks for it. Nonetheless, I do have to report that, for year after year, I used to see our daughter’s essays returned after marking, each with an encouraging line such as “Keep up the good work” at the end, and each filled with grammatical errors that had not even been pointed out, let alone corrected. (And I’m not talking here about subtle or intricate points of grammar: these were very basic things.) Up to one year before the GCSE, she had not been required to read a single book from cover to cover; in the final year, she had to read only two books: Of Mice and Men, which is a fine book but relatively straight-forward, and which she could easily have read some 5 or so years earlier; and About a Boy by Nick Hornby. That is all. As for the teaching of poetry, the situation was even more dismal. And Shakespeare wasn’t even touched . Now, you could say that all this is based just a sample of one, and that we have probably just been unlucky; yet this school has been consistently praised in OFSTED reports, and its GCSE results in English are outstanding. So yes, I am angry: I am angry both as a parent, and also as someone who loves literature, and who thinks it important to propagate our literary values on to future generations.

      This is the context in which I read that report. Far from any acknowledgement that anything is broken and needs fixing, all this proposed new curriculum seems to offer is further pandering to celebrity culture. I may, I admit, have been somewhat carried away in my response; but my anger is, I believe, entirely justified.

      Reply

      • I don’t think I disagree with anything you just said. That head teacher’s remarks are shameful, and to get to GCSE English without being asked to read more than what’s pretty close to a children’s novel and a piece of popular fiction is to be done a disservice by your education. For many school is where they discover literature, which is why surveys of the nation’s favourite poets are always dominated by those taught at school. What’s the point of studying English literature without reading it? It would be like studying French but never speaking it.

        For a child with an educated and interested parent it’s likely not too bad, because there are other routes to discovering art and culture. For a kid like I was though, from a working class family with few others interested in that kind of material, if your teachers aren’t helping introduce you to it who the hell is? My teachers challenged and stretched me, and I’m grateful for that because nobody else was going to.

        As for Dizzee Rascal, thinking further I do have a slight fear that his inclusion may not be by reason of his pioneering work in early Grime music, but rather by reason of his later mass-celebrity after he crossed over into commercial pop.

        Schools I think can be overly concerned with relevance. It’s profoundly wrong to think that say Macbeth can only speak to us if translated into our own specific context – that a child on a London council estate (as I was) can only enjoy it if translated into street gangs or whatever else they might patronisingly think falls within my sphere of recognition.

        Great works, like for example Macbeth, transcend their particulars. Even though my estate was remarkably short on witches, thanes and Scottish kings the story had power and resonance for me. I loved Marlowe at school, despite knowing few sorcerors who had unwisely sold their souls for power. John Donne changed my view on the potential scope of poetry even though the language was unintuitive and everyone involved long dead.

        I spoke well just then of my own teachers, and perhaps unsurprisingly I remember those who taught me English Lit pretty well and they were pretty good. The curriculum even then though sometimes painfully tried for relevance. I recall a version of a famous speech from Macbeth (hence my use of that example) which rendered it into Jamaican patois – “Macbeth him dread” it opened, it’s stuck in my mind ever since. That was patronising crap. It’s not the plot that makes Shakespeare worthwhile, it’s the language. There are Jamaican poets and writers of note, by all means teach them, but don’t insult them and everyone else by turning Shakespeare into cod-Jamaican. In trying to be relevant they gave us something that we all found absurd (black kids and white both), and which with hindsight I consider somewhat racist (given as I say they could simply have set an actual Jamaican writer who wrote in the vernacular, the rather wonderful Sam Selvon springs to mind).

        I think we fail children when we don’t stretch them. We fail in preparing them for later life, and we fail because we keep from them their own heritage. I said before that I applaud elitism. I do that not because I want to exclude, but because the best enriches us and to be denied access to it (even if just by not being told of it) instead diminishes us.

      • Hello Max,

        As a quick glance through the blog archives is likely to show, I very much share your views and your concerns. Culture is important, and, as the very word “culture” implies, it cannot survive unless it is cultivated. We as a society seem increasingly to think that literature, music, philosophy, and, indeed, the humanities in general, are but a luxury for the idle, and that, generally, we can get by without it all. We have all but removed it from the mainstream: it is certainly not around me as it used to be when I was growing up. (I say all this as someone whose academic background was in physics and mathematics, and whose current work does not involve the arts in any way.)

        I too am immensely grateful to my teachers (I went to a comprehensive school just outside Glasgow). I am of immigrant stock, and Western culture was largely a closed book to my parents – although they respected it, and there was no short of parental encouragement on that score. It was in the classroom that I first became acquainted with literature – and, indeed, with many other things that remain valuable to me.

        It strikes me as curious that whenever we discuss texts suitable for English literature classes, objections to the inclusion of classic canonical works are invariably raised on the grounds that students will find them boring. Such objections are never raised in any other subject. We do not object, say, to the teaching of trigonometry in mathematics classes, or to the teaching of the Industrial Revolution in history classes, on the grounds that students will find them boring. If we are to restrict what we teach in classes on this basis of what most students are likely not to enjoy, we are likely not to teach anything at all! Of course, we hope that students – some students at least – won’t find these topics boring; but even if they do, you go to theme parks for amusement and for entertainment; you go to school to be educated. That the argument “students won’t like it” is repeatedly applied to the determining of texts in English literature classes, but not in any other subjects, rather indicates to me that English literature is not taken as seriously as those other subjects.

        And in any case, I didn’t find English literature boring in school; neither did you; neither did a great many of us. Why prejudge students in this manner, and expect the worst from them?

        And nowadays we have a Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, who, on being appointed to the role, made some horrendous public statements to the effect that when she was reading books as a child, she felt “invisible” because black people were not “represented” in the books she read. She went on to warn us that if black and another non-white people did not get adequate “representation” in literature and in history classes, they will be turned off literature and history altogether. It is hard to know which is more shocking – that a Children’s Laureate can say such things, or that what she says is greeted with enthusiasm across the entire range of newspapers, from the Guardian to the Telegraph. (To my knowledge, only Howard Jacobson objected to this in the British press, but, if I may blow my own trumpet a bit, I beat him to it by a few days.) Well, I suppose if you no longer read literature for literary merit, you might as well read it for other reasons; and assertion of one’s identity on racial terms is, I guess, as good a reason as any. But this sort of thing is strikes me as immensely patronising, and harmful to the very people it claims to speak for. The implicit assumption that works of literature are not capable of “transcending their particulars”, as you put it, betrays a profound lack of understanding of what literature is, and it is frightening that people who misunderstand literature to such an extent should have a say in what goes into the literature curriculum. By all means, let us study the works of C.L.R. James, Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, Sam Selvon, etc. But let us all study them because they are good writers whose work is of value to everyone. Let us not relegate them merely to props for identity politics.

        I’d better stop here before this comment develops into another rant!
        Cheers for now, Himadri

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