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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Archive for the day “May 22, 2011”

Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right: A Review, Part II

Aside from tampons and contraceptive devices, another thing that the Soviet Union did not have was literary critics. The anti-intellectual tendencies in the Soviet Union started with Lenin who routinely talked about “whining and decaying intellectuals” who are “the  lackeys of capital” and “not the brains of the nation but its shit.” If I were a really mean person, I could entertain myself with imagining what the Soviet regime would have done to a nerdy erudite like Eagleton. It is always very curious to observe how people strive to extol and promote the same regimes that would have killed them faster than you can say “dialectical materialism.”

In 1928, the Central Committee of Eagleton’s dearly beloved Communist Party declared its own right to “exercise guidance over the creative process.” This means that artists who refused to practice the artistic style of socialist realism were banned from making their work accessible to the public in any way. If these artists happened to be non-Russian, they were killed. The only literary critic who was permitted to survive was Bakhtin. He was put in charge of creating a new Soviet canon. Works of the world literature for which Bakhtin managed to find a pro-Communist explanation were included in the canon. This means that the Soviet people were allowed to know that these works existed and even read them if they were so lucky as to find a copy. (I can blog about access to books in the Soviet Union later, in case anybody is interested.)

Rabelais and Cervantes made it onto the approved list. Bakhtin and his school managed to create a theory according to which Don Quijote was a leader of a class struggle who opposed his more genuine values to the ideology of ruthless capitalism that was making its way into Spain. (If you don’t believe me, there is a 1957 Soviet film Don Quixote that embodies this scarily insane reading. It was shown during the celebrations of the 400 anniversary of the publication of Don Quijote, Part I. After the showing, an older specialist on Cervantes who came to our university for the festivities came up to me. “My health is not very good,” he said. “Somebody should have warned me about this because I almost had a heart attack while I watched them destroy Cervantes this way.”) Pretty much no literature from the twentieth century made it through the censors. As I mentioned before, world literature for us stopped at Dickens. I hated literature classes both at school and at the university because they consisted exclusively of scouring Homer, Moliere and Pushkin for evidence of class struggle.

Eagleton, who used to be a brilliant literary critic, has now adopted this style of literary criticism. I could have forgiven him for a crappy propaganda of Marxism. What has me completely disgusted by the book, though, is an attempt to discuss Milton, Shakespeare and Goldsmith as proponents of class struggle. Here is an example of this kind of analysis in Why Marx Was Right:

Take this couplet about a wealthy landlord from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Deserted Village”: “The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth.” The symmetry and economy of the lines themselves, with their neatly balanced antithesis, contrast with the waste and imbalance of the economy they describe. The couplet is clearly about class struggle.

Or, take the following gem on Hardy’s Jude the Obscure:

In Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley, an impoverished artisan living in the working-class area of Oxford known as Jericho, reflects that his destiny lies not with the spires and quadrangles of the university, but “among the manual toilers in the shabby purlieu which he himself occupied, unrecognized as part of the city at all by its visitors and panegyrists, yet without whose denizens the hard readers could not read nor the high thinkers live” (Part 2, Ch. 6). Are these poignant words a statement of Marx’s base/superstructure doctrine? Not exactly. In materialist spirit, they draw attention to the fact that there can be no mental labour without manual labour. Oxford University is the “superstructure” to Jericho’s “base.” If the academics had to be their own cooks, plumbers, stone masons, printers and so on, they would have no time to study.

Not only is this kind of literary analysis boring and reductive, it has also been done to death. I spent countless hours as a Soviet and post-Soviet student copying precisely this kind of drivel from the Soviet alternative to literary criticism. I could not have invented a better way of demonstrating the profoundly anti-intellectual nature of communism if I tried. Eagleton demonstrates to us how an intellectual, a famous literary critic, a thinker is reduced to spouting senseless inanities in his own field of knowledge the moment he attempts to defend an ideology that has proven to be a failure time and again.

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Researching Bloggers

This really cool Stats page that WordPress provides has revealed to me that a reader is busily searching the Internet to discover what my real name is. (“Professor Clarissa Spanish literature real name” Google search tipped me off, in case anybody is wondering.)

I have no idea why anybody would have this kind of curiosity. I now follow almost 300 blogs in my Google Reader. Many of them are by anonymous bloggers. I have, however, done absolutely nothing to research what the authors’ real names are. Maybe it’s because of autism but I don’t see how it is going to benefit me to figure out that somebody I know as “Blogger John” is called “Stephen Smith” in real life.

If anybody is really dying to know what my actual name is, shoot me an email and I’ll relieve your suffering. Now that everybody at my university seems to be aware of the blog and read it, the point of the anonymity is mostly to prevent students from alighting on it by Googling my name. As I said, I don’t want my strong political opinions to impede students’s free expression in the classroom.

When / if this book of mine finally comes out, I will, of course, place it on the blog and extol its virtues, so the anonymity will be shot to hell anyways.

Choosing a Major in College

I know that I don’t have many readers who are at the stage of choosing a college major, but Jonathan just published a really great long post with very useful advice on the subject. As a student advisor, I often meet students who chose a major that sounded cool and prestigious, like “Communications” and who in their senior year have no idea what people who majored in this vaguely defined field do for a living. I have tried to get students to explain to me what “Communications” as a field of knowledge means but all I get in response is a lot of hand-waving and vague, incomprehensible noises. This is not aimed at picking on Communications. Crowds of people go into Marketing, for example, (for personal reasons I am very familiar with the field) only to discover upon graduation that the industry is nothing like what they’d imagined. Here is part of the advice that Jonathan provides:

Beware of “generic” majors like “communications” and “international relations.” I’m talking about majors that attract students that don’t really know what they want to do, so they choose a major that sounds vaguely interesting and popular. There are a lot of communications majors, so what is going to make you stand out, if you chose the major because it sounded vaguely interesting? And everyone else did too? If you have a passion for sociology, go for it, but don’t major in it because that’s what your sorority sisters do.

One thing that I would add to Jonathan’s great article is the following: if there is a field of knowledge that fascinates you, that makes you want to bring a cot and bunk down in front of the department’s door during the weekend, then this is the field you need to choose, even though it might sound completely unprestigious and people keep telling you that you will never find a job if you major in it.

I have a student who loves Spanish. He probably loves it as much as I do, which is a lot. He is constantly hanging around our department, trying to organize Spanish-related activities with other students, coming by my office, using any opportunity to speak the language. I have no idea how he finds time to do anything else since he is always around our department. This student, however, not only isn’t majoring in Spanish, he isn’t even doing a minor in it. He wanted to initially but then he got discouraged by all the “you need to choose something more practical” talk that people kept giving him. There is nothing practical, in my opinion, in forcing yourself into a career that doesn’t make you light up when you think of it. When I first started taking undergrad courses in Hispanic Studies, I once heard my father say to a friend, “I’m not sure I understand what she is doing but I can see that she starts glowing whenever she talks about it, and that’s good enough for me.”

Choosing a major just because you think it will end up bringing you more money than the field you really love is like rejecting a person you are crazy about in favor of somebody you don’t much like because s/he is rich. In the long run, it is never worth it.

Read the rest of Jonathan’s post here.

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