Unreliable Narrator

For a long time, I kept trying to explain to N. why a first-person narrator is unreliable. (If you don’t want to be lectured at all the time, don’t marry an educator. Otherwise, get prepared to being educated in perpetuity.) “But if the narrator is telling his or her own story, they have to know what they are talking about, right?” N. kept saying. “I don’t understand why I should doubt what a first-person narrator tells me.”

Then, we traveled to San Francisco for a conference. Before we set out, N. donned a huge and heavy coat that I’d never seen him wear before.

“We are traveling to California,” I said. “Why the hardcore coat?”

“You know this book series that I love that is set in San Francisco?” he answered. “The main character always complains about how it’s extremely cold there. It’s always foggy and there is this piercing wind. I need to be prepared for that.”

Of course, when we arrived in San Francisco, the weather was lovely. It was warm and sunny. I walked around in my business suit while N. suffered in his coat meant to withstand Siberian winters.

After a day of sweating in the coat, he finally exclaimed,

“Oh, now I get it!” N. suddenly exclaimed. “You should never trust the first-person narrator because he doesn’t talk about how things really are. He just relates his own subjective perception of reality that might be very different from mine.”

And then there are people who say that literary criticism is useless.

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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.

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.

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

In a recent review, I criticized Ernesto Laclau for failing to decide who his intended audience was and writing consistently for that audience. The good news about Terry Eagleton’s new book Why Marx Was Right is that Eagleton is very clear on who he is writing for. His audience consists of hopeless illiterates who have fallen off a pumpkin cart fifteen seconds ago and have hit their heads against the ground really hard in the process. Nobody else would buy into the author’s truly egregious prevarications. I use the word “prevarication” with full understanding of what it implies. Eagleton is a highly erudite person, and it is simply not possible that in this book he speaks out of ignorance. To give an example, at the very beginning of Why Marx Was Right, Eagleton mentions that Marx drew his conclusions on basis of observing the

extraordinarily violent process by which an urban working class had been forged out of an uprooted peasantry in his own adopted country of England—a process which Brazil, China, Russia and India are living through today

The idea of uprooted peasants in today’s Russia is completely bizarre. All of Russia’s peasants were uprooted with the goal of creating an urban working class out of them during Stalin’s industrialization. I know that Marxists are given to wild leaps of imagination but, surely, not to the extent of imagining crowds of uprooted peasants marching through a country that has been heavily industrialized for decades?

Another equally ridiculous statement comes when Eagleton begins to enumerate the so-called achievements of the Soviet Union, a task he engages in with the earnestness of a brainless male cheer-leader:

Soviet Union played a heroic role in combating the evil of fascism, as well as in helping to topple colonialist powers. It also fostered the kind of solidarity among its citizens that Western nations seem able to muster only when they are killing the natives of other lands.

Given that the Soviet Union brought Hitler to power and promoted the imperialist goals of the Russian Empire, this statement sounds, at the very least, disingenuous. Eagleton’s suggestion that it “fostered solidarity among its citizens” is equally confusing since it is common knowledge that the Soviet Union exploded in a mass of ethnic conflicts beginning in 1989. These ethnic conflicts and their attendant genocides are still going on in many of the former Republics of the Soviet Union. I wonder if Eagleton ever heard the word “Chechnya” or asked himself which historical events promoted the feelings of solidarity that are still making the Russians and the Chechens slaughter each other. (In case you don’t know, in 1944 Stalin deported the entire Chechen and Ingush population, consisting approximately of 400,000 people to Siberia. About 30% of Chechens died during the deportation.) One has to be either completely cynical or in the throes of a massive attack of Alzheimer’s to use the word “solidarity” to describe the horrible relations between the different ethnic groups within the Soviet Union.

Eagleton is equally annoying when he pontificates about “the loss of women’s rights” that the collapse of the Soviet Union supposedly brought about. He gives no examples, of course, which is a shame because, as a woman who has lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, I would surely love to hear which of my rights were lost as the Soviet Union fell apart.

Does Eagleton refer to the right to abortion as the only form of contraception available in the Soviet Union, which led many women to undergo dozens of abortions within their lifetime? Abortion is still free and legal in the non-Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. Now, however, people have easy access to condoms, oral contraceptives, IUDs, patches, etc. Absolutely none of this was available to the citizens of the USSR.

Maybe Eagleton is talking about the horrifying sexual harassment that existed everywhere in the USSR and for which there was no legal remedy? It is still present everywhere in the FSU (former Soviet Union), but at least now there are people who have discovered the word “feminism” and are speaking out against it.

Is it possible that Eagleton is talking about the absolute lack of any hygienic aides to menstruation? Now, women of the FSU have the same choice of tampons and sanitary pads as women in all developed countries. And if you think that this is not a big deal, I strongly suggest you go through a single menstruation with no methods of hygiene available to you. (And please don’t ask me why we didn’t just use cotton wool and gauze. It was easier to encounter diamonds growing on fir-trees than buy cotton wool and gauze in the Soviet Union).

(To be continued. . .)

Disqus Sucks Dick

I am beyond frustrated with this stupid Disqus commenting system, people. It either prevents me from commenting at all or attempts to reveal my real name. Which I never in a million years authorized it to do or entered into any boxes connected with Disqus. It simply accessed my private data without my permission and is now attempting to make it known to the world.

Recently, it has become fashionable among bloggers to adopt the stupid sucky Disqus as their commenting system. I, for one, have not been able to find a way to publish comments with Disqus in the format I prefer (one which would link to my blog, so that people know who I am and the blog gets promoted.) This means that I will not be commenting on blogs that have adopted this policy any more.

My advice is: if you thinking about adopting Disqus, think again. I can promise that you will lose commenters. One has to be really desperate to post a comment to subject oneself to the aggravation of this nasty system.