On Pessimism and Misanthropy

Pessimism is the routine expectation that things will happen for the worst (pessimus being Latin for “worst”). Misanthropy literally means “hatred of mankind” in Greek (misos + anthropos)–but in common usage, its tone is somewhat milder, as in “not trustful of people”.

I have been called both of these; and while I certainly haven’t a lot of trust in people, especially in an age where young high school and college graduates are constantly encouraged to “follow their dreams” in idiotic commencement addresses (a recipe for disaster, given the irresponsibility of dreams nourished on video games and Netflix fantasies), I think “the worst” is most often averted when we’re suspicious of our neighbors. The founders of the republic thought the same thing. In my lifetime, it has been the optimists who typically open the door to disaster: the people whose expectations are so absurdly self-indulgent and rose-colored that cynical manipulators run circles around them and create a hell on earth. Then, when the “snowflakes” finally wake up and realize that they’ve been played, they become as naïve in their mistrust as they were formerly in their gullibility. They tend to lay the blame for all that has gone wrong at the doorstep of a certain designated group of villains, in a romantic kind of Manichaeism—good guy versus bad guy—rather than growing up and recognizing that all people have at least latent corruption nestled somewhere within them.

The trouble with optimism is that it can leave those whom it burns stupidly pessimistic. And on their way to getting badly burned, the naïve can get innocent people killed. I won’t repeat my remarks of a few weeks ago about Pope Francis.

Let me toss out just a couple of examples that sailed past my bow this week in illustration of why I don’t feel just all peachy soft and fuzzy about human civilization’s future.

One case stares at me from my Kindle almost every time I fire it up. The murder mystery seems to be to our casual reading public what oats are to a horse. Now, my mother loved mystery novels, and I think most of us enjoy a good crime drama on occasion. I had to give up watching Joe Kenda, however, because at some point I just couldn’t take any more young single moms letting strangers they’d picked up at the bar into their lives and winding up in a dumpster. Real murder, you see, is anything but glamorous. It’s the most squalid crime imaginable. The motive is generally some mix of lust, greed, egotism, and stupidity—with a very strong dose of the last: murderers are almost never evil geniuses. The murder itself is usually a brutal act of superior physical strength asserting itself over a victim screaming piteously, and pointlessly, for mercy. Even the higher predators in the animal food chain show more heart than the average murderer.

Yet nowadays, even as we create safe spaces and trigger alerts to coddle our epidermis-free sensitivity, we willingly accept murder into our amusements as an integral part of escapist fantasy. It’s the sanitization of murder in the pulp romance that gripes me—the degradation of mass taste that is implied in that makeover of human depravity. Joe Kenda’s tales were real enough to leave me mildly nauseated after a while: Joe Kindle keeps insulting my intelligence with teases about the latest “humorous, sexy murder mystery”.

One more quick example: I was looking up the Romanian word for “bull” because I know almost no Romanian whatever, and I needed to make a linguistic point about the modern languages descended from Latin. I’m not kidding you: the first full page of a dozen entries that popped up on my computer screen when I Googled my question offered Romanian street parlance for “bullsh*t”. Seems that we have all forgotten about the male bovine with a bellowing voice and what Jack Falstaff called a “pizzle”. How did we come to the point where coprologisms have more currency among us than basic words for basic realities? What does that say about us?

So, no, I’m not real happy with things. It’s because I can still generate the energy to be upset that the notion of effective action continues to mean something to me. Would we be better off just smiling every time our decadent culture serves us up a dish of “bull” when we ask for bread?

Publishing: The Grandest and Vilest of Occupations

As I prepare to put my association with The Center for Literate Values to bed, after a seventeen-year struggle to make it grow, I’m greatly relieved… but also saddened. A lot of stuff in my life seems to be getting bundled off into memory’s attic at just this time. My son is done with college and busy with a full-time job at a location almost a thousand miles away. Who knows when I’ll see him again? I can’t wait to sell this old house and move into a new one built much more to our taste… but my boy grew up here, and every inch of the property stirs its own recollections. I’m about to begin my professional swan song as an educator, and it’s high time for me to bug out before I have to do everything online in semi-robotic fashion… but I had a few successes as a teacher, and I won’t be having any of those after next April.

The Center—and its quarterly journal Praesidium—shared much with my frustrating academic career. I thought we could reach a critical mass of people and help to keep a taste for classic literature alive; but we were forced to wage this war through a website for financial reasons, and people who surf websites generally don’t care about the proper interpretation of Virgil or Ariosto. It often seemed that I was fighting the spread of kudzu across my lawn by whipping new tendrils with vines of kudzu.

I continue to write and translate, and I know now that I can’t stop. But I also know by now that none of the conventional outlets for “success” is open to the likes of me. My translation of three medieval Celtic romances isn’t riddled with neo-Marxism, feminism, or Gay/Queer Theory, but rather juxtaposes the threesome from the point of view of comparative mythology and Christian allegorizing. Try getting that published at a university press today! A novel I wrote last summer represents through fantasy an eternal punishment for wicked deeds, its vision founded in an “absolutist” (what stupid words we’re forced to use now!) vision of good and evil. Try getting some money and press lined up for that from the “creative” community!

In fact, publishers rarely accept anything in any genre nowadays from someone not previously published and successfully marketed (the same old Catch 22 as, “We can’t give you this job unless you have experience”). Now, if your last name were Clinton or Trump or Kardashian and you were willing to tell all—in broken fifth-grade prose—about the intimate workings of certain households, the rule would be waived. Otherwise, publishers want proof that you can make money. The days of a thoughtful editorial board reading over, heatedly discussing, and taking a chance on an offbeat submission probably died somewhere in the Seventies.

Even academic publishers now require a curriculum vitae (what normal people call a résumé) to be submitted with the manuscript. The reason given for the request is completely disingenuous in an age when you can research “Halifax McGarnicle” instantly on your smartphone and see if he’s all he claims to be. No, the purpose of that somewhat creepy requirement is to ensure that the University of Deadwater Press doesn’t say “no” to Professor Gastropod, the world’s leading expert on gay behavior among narwhals.

I’m more and more attracted, then, to the idea of publishing my own stuff as cheap PDF and EPUB downloads—and the stuff of others who are equally sick of the publishing racket. We would do well to make a few dollars’ profit, but we would perhaps reach worthy audiences. And the investment would be virtually nil, unlike the notorious shakedowns operated by vanity presses, whose architects never report your sales to you honestly (as I know from bitter experience). One of the things I need to find out is if software exists to inform collaborators instantly and automatically of sales—for I would hate asking authors to rely strictly on my integrity.  I’ve known outfits whose marketers do this, and then bristle indignantly if you raise a question. Even if you set a trap and catch them in specific breaches of faith, what are you going to do—pay a lawyer to recover the ten bucks you’ve been cheated out of?  How do you prove that it’s more?

The “information for prospective authors” on my site would read something like this:

Aspiring authors are encouraged to submit their work for processing in inexpensive downloads, for which they may set their own price and for whose sale they will receive 100 percent reimbursement. The objective of this system is to draw potential buyers to a site where they may view works reflecting tastes and values similar to those of the author whom they originally came to seek; so your contribution is assessed in shoppers drawn to visit, not in pennies scooped off your sales.

I hope it works. I’m running out of ideas for saving literacy—and out of years on earth to give them a try.

The Dumbed-Down World of Peak Efficiency

I almost feel guilty, as if I’d been remiss in fulfilling a duty. Some of my best students are among those who haven’t submitted papers on time as the semester shuts down. The deadlines were published in my syllabus four months ago, and I also announced them verbally at every class meeting for the past two weeks… but today’s student tends not to read the syllabus and doesn’t soak up merely verbal comments. If the alert isn’t uploaded onto a “device”, then it will fall on deaf ears (so to speak: allusion to a quaint time when human beings acquired information by listening).

I say I almost feel guilty. I also feel really ticked off at my profession for encouraging—and often even requiring—this shift of focus from responsible reading of published matter and listening to formal utterances to a casual, passive peeking at repeated electronic prods. The latest technology is supposed to allow us to “do this for” our students better than ever next year.

Why should we? Shouldn’t a member of the grown-up world be capable of searching a document for deadlines and then remembering them? If pinging the student every hour like some kind of alarm clock when an assignment is due the next day is to be viewed as producing more efficient results, then wouldn’t yet greater efficiency be achieved if I just did the work for all of them and submitted it to myself? Then I would obtain both a hundred percent submission rate and a hundred percent “pass” rate. What efficiency!

Isn’t this exactly where we’re headed, though, as we approve more and more supplemental hardware and software to make life “quicker, easier, and more successful”? How far away are we from merely inserting chips into tiny portal at the base of the student’s skull with immense amounts of “knowledge” ready to be downloaded?

Is a critical mass of the professoriate still opposed to this kind of thing… or aren’t most of us in the Ivory Tower so enamored of looking progressive and so honest-to-goodness dumbed-down ourselves that we can no longer distinguish between successful regurgitation of “knowledge” and the ability to think?

I’m going to downgrade those few superior but scatterbrained students for being too slovenly to look up due dates and retain them—and I’m going to do so because I want them to prosper as human beings. I hope they will feel ashamed of their oversight when, inevitably, they contact me and demand an explanation for not receiving their A. I hope they’re still capable of feeling such shame. If so, then they may yet have a bright future ahead of them.

One Small Step for Incoherence, One Giant Leap for Anarchy

I used to think that I would eventually get used to student papers littered with sentences like. “Each patient knows their chances are not good,” and, “An author at that time would be rejected if they had no sponsors.” Nope. Ain’t gonna happen.

The third-person plural pronoun referring to a singular antecedent has become a fixture in our postmodern babble. Too bad. Sometimes the result is insolubly confusing. “The applicant who convinces the judges of their argument’s vulnerability from either direction will become a finalist”; “the patient whose doctors understand that they need more sleep is in good hands”; “a coach whose players perform beyond their expectations is very lucky.”

Why must we put up with this skull-mush purée? For it seems that we must; not only do you and I commit such agreement errors all the time in conversation (where misunderstanding can be quickly corrected), but the arbiters in university English departments are increasingly decreeing that third-person agreement gaffes are correct—not tolerable, but the only way to go. One ambitious termigant in my own department has refused to address me civilly in the two years since I challenged her championing of the singular “they” in a public email. I hadn’t realized that the issue was so sensitive. Guess I’m lucky that I didn’t get slapped with a sexual harassment suit.

And that’s what it’s all about, you know. Maupassant once quipped that all stories are about either sex or death, and this one is about both. Our language must die so that sexually specific pronouns may never again be spoken. If the student or patient in our sentence is designated a “he”, then we have just committed a sexist crime; and if we choose “she” to privilege the female, the new god is still not propitiated. In fact, we may have made our situation worse, for our willingness to shift feminine in all generic cases could be misread as a gesture arising from that hotbed of quintessential sexism, chivalry. (Naturally, “she or he” runs into the same quagmire if we try to redeem the offensive order of “he or she”).

Equal time for the genders is no longer what’s at stake. The new objective is the utter annihilation of genders.

I could go on and on about what psychological perversion lies at the heart of such linguistic anarchy… but really, what lies at the heart of anarchy in any of its expressions? “Evil, be thou my good!” cries Satan in the masterpiece of that arch-sexist poet, John Milton. The anarchist desires to see the world helter-skelter. Up must go down, and in must go out. Creation must be undone to the point that no clue of its original design remains. The people who push such counter-programmatic programs have some kind of invincible grudge against life. Since they cannot remake it to be just the way they would have liked, they will satisfy themselves (so they think—for these people are never satisfied) with stealing the sense of life from everybody else. At least they will have accomplished something, merely by doing that. They will have forced everyone to share their single guiding insight as they shout from atop an infernal dunghill, “None of it means sh*t! Nothing! None of it!”

You think this is too far a reach from a single solecism? After all, as the academic advocates of illogic never tire of saying on this issue, Shakespeare also used “theys” with singular antecedents once or twice (as if the Shakespearean corpus were the meticulous relic of a single intelligence writing under minimal pressure and entrusting his work to the capable hands of infallible redactors). Well, you probably don’t watch this sort of degeneration happening every day from a dozen directions, as I do. A brick here, a brick there…. The edifice isn’t going to blow up: that’s not the plan. It’s going to collapse into rubble one fine day when one brick too many is removed from a critical wall.

That day, by the way, may already have arrived.

Why “Gender Studies” Is the Enemy of Women

Without a guiding principle of common humanity, all of the “minority studies” prosecuted on campuses around the nation can only substitute one kind of bigotry for another. Unless we have a coherent, transcending, and immutable value—a moral idea—from which to moor our conviction that disparaging certain classes of people is wrong, the oppressed can only rise up to become the oppressors in a closed circle of insane activity.

This is my conclusion after wading through a semester’s worth of papers infected by feminist ideology. Have women been largely deprived of a voice in the past? They, among others, have tended to be silenced: yes. Should we therefore not study the literature of the past? How much of the tree should we cut away—because any well-trained feminist will tell you that the muted only began to raise their shouts volubly in the Seventies and Eighties of the last century. So no texts should be studied, then, which precede those decades? Or do we study eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts composed only by women? The pickings will be slim, if the feminist claim is correct that few women in the past were allowed to publish, or even to write. We could dig up personal artifacts like diaries and private letters; should we replace Racine, Swift, Goethe, Balzac, Hawthorne, and all the other males with volumes of retrieved billets doux and missives from sister to sister?

Or maybe we should rewrite the male classics so that they no longer offend our newly developed sensibilities… or maybe we should teach them with constant whistle-blowing and lecturing about infractions during lengthy time-outs. Of course, we must not assume that there is anything other than “the gender issue” in these or any other texts that is worth discussing. All the other “values” claptrap”… mere propaganda designed to dull young minds to the subjugation being worked upon the under-class: mere spin to secure the “patriarchy” in its position on top of the socio-political dog-pile.

But if it is wrong for human beings to behave like scavenging jackals, nipping and scratching for first bite at the carcass, then why is it wrong? Why shouldn’t the strong overpower the weak? Why should we be outraged that men have oppressed women, or the majority the minority? Isn’t that nature’s law? And when feminists try to make us trash our male authors and recreate a canon full of female authors, aren’t they just trumping with the guilt card to get what they want—aren’t they just playing the fox’s part rather than the wolf’s in the fable?

The only possible protest against such cynicism is that, no, human beings are not mere animals—that right and wrong do exist independently of cultural conditioning, and that using raw physical power to seal up a soul silently inside a frail body is culpable brutality. The acquisition and appreciation of such higher values would be excellent reasons for reading literature. But if three are no such values—if all literature is only propaganda—then there can also be no cause for any man to feel obligated to extend equal rights to women, or for any tyrant to care about the feelings of his miserable subjects.

The more college literature programs draw us away from seeking basic human values in time-honored texts, the more they condition us to a decadent world where might makes right. The more teachers of literature insist that combing through the pages of the past in search only of “gender relevancy” is what literary specialists do, the more they ensure that gender inequality will come roaring back with a vengeance—inequality, and every other kind of barbarism. To shout above the shouters is to promote a degenerate culture of mindless screaming.

A Dog, a Phone, and a Happy Numbskull

I understand the distractions involved in Spring Break’s approach. As I told someone yesterday, this has been the toughest “easy week” I’ve had in months. I can’t focus. I keep thinking about all I want to do and have to do during my glorious furlough. My students can afford (so they think) to take off early, leaving my classes decimated—or, more precisely, halved (since they’re routinely decimated). It’s irritating… but, of course, it also makes life simpler. I can sit back and chat with those who do show up, and the result is often more educational than anything I could have planned out.

That’s the ideal situation. Then there’s the reality of the more common occurrence: students who come to my class because they have a mid-term in Biology or Chemistry and dare not get a head-start on their vacation… but they’re only putting in an appearance so as to be checked off at roll call. Then they mentally check out. Though physically still present, they become an invincible nuisance to any kind of discussion or lecture. They might almost be manikins poised in various postures of semi-collapse

But a department-store manikin would not sit thumbing a smartphone and leering suddenly as I struggle to piece two ideas together.  You should have that experience some time: stand up before a group of people and try to keep your thoughts straight as several on the front row, without making eye contact with you or otherwise showing any awareness of your presence, all at once burst into a toothy smile and squirm.  One of them who was positioned squarely just in front of me yesterday was so animated that I had to stop and ask her what was going on.  After some hesitation, she announced that there was a cute dog in the adjoining classroom.  Great.  Let’s all go see the damn dog.  I’m sure the professor over there won’t mind.  He has coeds in his class armed with cellphones, a pet with no credentials to be indoors at his collar, and an owner who’s live-streaming the whole thing over the Net.

Where are those students who embarrass their teacher by uploading the class to YouTube?  I should be so lucky!  My students come to class to play on YouTube without making any connection between the two.

I’ve been saying for a long time now that the rising vector of technological progress is bound to collide with the descending vector of human intelligence and energy.  As our gadgets get more and more clever, our own alertness, creativity, comprehension of basic realities, and responsiveness to changes in our environment diminish.  We teachers feed parents the cliché line that their children need the latest technology to “be prepared for the world of the future”… but that world doesn’t much need their children or anyone else’s except to buy its hardware and off-load more and more efficiency and vitality onto “apps”.  Actually, the world of the future appears to need ever duller people in ever-expanding numbers in order to sustain the marketplace of frivolities.  An animal that few kids would have given a second glance on the sidewalk is strangely more interesting and “more real” when it pops up on a screen.  Isn’t that very close to admitting that life offline is somehow not full life, and that those programmed to sense existence in this way will only find fulfillment when they morph into robots?

Meanwhile, when you give these “standard-bearers of tomorrow” instructions for an important assignment and ask if they have questions, one of them invariably asks—after a pregnant pause—“What was the question?”

What Has Math to Do With Poetry? Maybe a Lot!

Some day before I die, I hope to publish my notes about Virgil’s Aeneid. I’m pretty sure that I have uncovered the map to a “subterranean allegory” that runs against the grain of the epic’s superficial, dully propagandistic objectives (the pursuit of which was the basis of the poet’s being commissioned to write the work, in the first place). I am even more sure, however, that the academic establishment will never accept my ideas and that no university press would ever publish them. In academe, “scholars” in the humanities prop each other up endlessly, without much regard for the unconditioned truth (whose very existence most deny in any form). All I have going for me is that my interpretations actually explain dark tinges in the Aeneid that otherwise make no sense, or that must be ascribed to authorial incompetence. The “scholars” will allow Virgil to say nothing that one of his contemporaries would not have said or that one of his predecessors had not already said. They’ve built their entire method on history—and no outsider would be as steeped as they in the historical minutiae of ancient literature, so the game is essentially “members only”. In contrast, my method is to found interpretation upon intratextual coherence. If a symbol with a certain twist gives greater meaning to the entire narrative when traced from start to finish, then the high probability is that the author intended it to have that meaning. A monkey might type “The Old Man and the Sea” once in a blue moon; but a rational person will have to admit that a perspective repeatedly successful at resolving controversial points in a literary text is probably the author’s intended perspective for his or her deepest readers.

“Scholars”, however, are rational only in the space left over after the performance of their tribal duties. The important thing for literary scholars is to insulate their practice from profane intrusion and, indeed, to make that practice so arcane that only the elite can publish and advance their careers. Devotion to the literary art lies cut and bleeding in the ruins of professional egotism.

Here’s an example of a passage in the Aeneid that struck me just last night as readily clarified by the analysis of recurrent, coherent motifs. Aeneas receives a prophecy from the virtuous Arcadians in Book 8 that promises more fighting and bloodshed. All around him are dismayed at the prospect, and he himself is briefly bemused; but then a trumpet-like thunder sounds that all interpret as a propitious omen. In fact, Aeneas recognizes in the supernatural heavenly peal a confirmation from his ever-protective mother Venus: a very odd reading on his part, since the thunderbolt belongs to Zeus throughout Homer. Yet Virgil’s Jupiter is a far cry from the supreme god who manages mortal destinies. His Olympian father seems, rather, an abstracted bungler who amuses himself with grandiose schemes but never bothers about the details. When Venus protests to him at the epic’s opening that his vengeful spouse Juno has almost sunk the Trojan fleet (and would have done, but for the intercession of Neptune, himself roused only because his wet turf has been invaded), Jupiter responds with promises and more promises about a gilded future—about an “empire without end”. Venus knows just what to make of that: she immediately hastens to Carthage in order to weave her own impromptu safety net for Aeneas (which involves, unfortunately, the sacrifice of the unhappy Dido).

At the epic’s end, Jupiter goes so far as to give away most of the transplanted Trojans’ culture—their gods, their language, the preservation of their race from inter-marriage—by conceding one point after another to the ever implacable Juno. His initial forecasts and solemn promises to the wandering tribe lie in smithereens.

Hence the confirming thunderclap in Book 8 that reassures Aeneas, having issued from Venus’s rather than Jupiter’s hand, is correctly read by the hero as a guarantee that he will survive the impending war and overcome the aggressors; yet it is no more than a short-term assurance, not a road to heaven paved in Jovian fool’s gold. Jupiter, who should have been the author of the thundering (as the astute in Virgil’s audience would realize), doesn’t mingle his feckless guarantees in this scene. Instead, he is invoked by old Evander in the ensuing one. About to send his beloved only son away to fight alongside the prophetically celebrated stranger, the trembling king beseeches Jupiter either that young Pallas may return safely or that he himself may die before hearing of his boy’s loss. Neither of these humble requests is granted. Jupiter isn’t grudging or invidious: here, as throughout the Aeneid, he just isn’t taking calls. He’s busy playing in the blueprints with which he strews his Olympian tables.

There is a kind of mathematical precision involved in interpreting texts by indexing their motions to hidden clues within their own narration. Like an equation, the correctly interpreted story balances itself out using values that can be derived from the initially given quantities. Is it pure accident that our collective ability to handle literature with taste and subtlety has declined hand in hand with our mathematical skills? Whether the stuffy classicist with his suffocating layers of history or the cutting-edge neo-feminist with her suffocating layers of ideology, the contemporary “scholar” of literature imports criteria from outside the created text and proceeds, like the mythic Procrustes, to make the prisoner fit the bed by hacking away long limbs or racking and stretching short ones. The art work must be made to validate the ideology, the party line: the latter never gives ground to the former. This is like the arithmetic of the barbarian who, when asked to divide plunder equally among an awkward number of fellow pirates, throws overboard the one who buggers up his counting every time. It’s not the way to balance a checking account… and it’s also not the way to handle a literary classic ingeniously composed under oppressive political conditions.