[lit-ideas] Re: Picking a few bones with Edmundson's English Major

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 18 Aug 2013 15:10:15 -0400 (EDT)


In a message dated 8/18/2013 2:44:42 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, 
_lawrencehelm@roadrunner.com_ (mailto:lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx)  
quotes from Edmundson's online link he had previously referred to.

Edmundson had written:

“The English major is, first of all, a reader. She's got a book  pup-tented 
in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late  into 
the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people  who 
read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and 
 risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass 
of  chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as 
rich as  the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to 
see the  world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become 
other people.  What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? 
What is it like  to be them at their best, at the top of their games?”

Helm comments:

"When I first read his article I wanted to agree with him, but as of  this 
morning, I can’t quite.  He says “there are readers and there are  readers.”
  Does he mean to break all readers into two categories, those who  read to 
anesthetize themselves and those who read to become other people?   I do a 
lot of reading but don’t identify with either of these  categories.   To ‘
read to become someone else’ is his preferred  category but doesn’t this 
smack of schizophrenia?"
 
---
 
Well, you have to understand that there's a delightful implicature in
 
"There are readers and there are readers".

As McEvoy should note, alla Popper, the best formalisation here  is:
 
"There are readers-1 and there are readers-2"
 
Note that MY favourite slogan is not alla split schizophrenia, but  triple:
 
"There are readers and there are readers and there are readers"
 
and so on ad infinitum.

Helm:

"I wonder if Edmundson has read Collingwood.  Collingwood says  that the 
historian (and presumably the reader) should take stock of himself and  strive 
to set his preconceptions aside as he studies his subject, but  Collingwood 
doesn’t mention the self-gratification; which I gather Edmundson  assumes 
when he describes the blessings of living multiple lives through  reading.  
Surely most good historians are going to enjoy their work, but do  any of 
them “become other people”?"
 
And then there's Whitman, who contained, he said, 'multitudes', but  
apparently, read little.
 
---
 
Helm continues:

"My wife has always loved to read biographies but I never saw any  
indication that she had become any of the people she read about.  In my  recent 
study project, the American Civil War, I read a lot of biographies but  never 
had the slightest inclination to become any of the military figures I read  
about – not even the generals I admired."
 
Well, it's different when _I_ read Grice.
 
I think Ortega & Gasset calls this a sort of 'synchronic' type of  approach 
to stuff. But I should double check. There MUST be some sort of empathy  -- 
or 'sympathy' if you prefer.
 
Helm goes on:
 
"I admired Sheridan, Longstreet, and John Hood for example, but each one  
had flaws, and in a history forum when my admiration for these generals 
became  clear, I was pounced upon (figuratively) because of those flaws.  I 
would 
 argue that their virtues overshadowed their vices, but this was not 
something  someone who read about these generals but didn’t like them as much 
as I 
did  could agree with. ... But maybe Edmundson has only literary  figures 
in  mind."
 
Yes, it may be different with historical 'characters' (a misnomer if ever  
there was one) or philosophers. Grice does speak of 'introjecting into your  
philosopher's shoes" but then, he was thinking of vocabulary issues. One 
reads  Plato today and understands what he means by 'idea' only if one 
understand what  HIS intention behind the use of 'idea' was. 
 
--- 
 
Helm goes on:
 
"However, in looking at the three figures Edmundson mentions, I wonder how  
one would set about becoming Jane Austen."
 
I'll double check which the other two figures are.
 
I would adapt that to become J. L. Austin.
 
John Austin (the Oxford philosopher that went by "J. L."), to echo Austen,  
would give lectures on "Sense and Sensibilia", rather than "Sense and  
Sensibility". He thought that was funny, and if I become Austin, I will,  too.
 
It's a pity that "John Austin" means ANOTHER philosopher, an  utilitarian.
 
Helm continues:
 
"One of her biographers, Jan Fergus, wrote that information about Jane  
Austen is “famously scarce.”   Typically, her biographers provide the  sketchy 
information available and then draw conclusions from the characters in  her 
novels.  So shall Edmundson’s reader live Austen’s life through the  
sketchy biographical information or through her novels?"
 
I guess the first step is to join The Jane Austen Society. There is  one 
for each major literary figure: The A E Housman Society, the Rupert Brooke  
Society, the Charles Dickens Society, etc. -- 
 
This does not just apply to literary figures. Dennis Potter has a film,  
"Moonlight on the High Way", about the Al Bowlly Society -- worth  checking!
 
Helm continues to quote from Edmundson:
 
Edmundson writes:
 
"English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people 
 who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, 
sharper, more  alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds 
and 
hearts with  Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to 
the world than you  had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, 
more tragic and  intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought."
 
OK. So here are the other two figures: Proust and James.
 
I never understood James, or James. My favourite James is of  course 
WILLIAM James. They are certainly revered up in Harvard/Boston, and  I can well 
understand someone who wants to become one of the Jameses.
 
"William and all the Jameseses".

They had the right sort of style about them.
 
----
 
Helm comments on the above quote by Edmundson:

"I don’t agree with this either.  Harold Bloom wrote a couple of  books 
that touch upon this, The Map of Misreading comes to mind.  The  reader, but 
perhaps only the creative reader, reads critically and thinks he can  do 
better if he chooses to.  Bloom someplace sites artistic works that were  
demonstrations of a creative reader choosing to “do better.”  Perhaps not  
every 
English Major would do this, but those in Edmundson’s “ideal” category  
would at least feel this to the extent that they are not intimidated by what  
they read, and this is a long shot from wanting to live it."
 
The reference to Bloom's MISREADING is very apt. Then there's Pound on  the 
ABC of reading. Note that Edmundson, when he starts his thing with  a major 
having to be a 'reader', when I _did_ read that, I  thought he was using 
Oxonian parlance, as when we say,
 
"I read philosophy"
 
cfr. "lecturer", vs. "reader". In Old English, to read was to guess a  
riddle, too.
 
In Latin, 'lectio' has a fascinating etymology, too.
 
Helm continues:

"I have more appreciation for some of the other things Edmundson  says, for 
example his response to Heidegger’s “language speaks man”:    “. . . Not 
all men, not all women: not by a long shot. Did language speak  Shakespeare? 
Did language speak Spenser? Milton, Chaucer, Woolf, Emerson? No,  not even 
close.”  I’m not sure where this Heidegger quote came from, but  Heidegger 
didn’t believe language spoke for all men either – especially not  himself."
 
G. Ryle, the Oxonian philosopher, wrote an early review of Heidegger. HE  
(Heidegger) was ALL WAYS misread at Oxford. Grice goes to the point to use 
him  as a bad joke in his "Logic and Conversation": "Heidegger is the greatest 
living  philosopher".

I think Edmundson's quote refers to the 'later' Heidegger, when he  started 
to overplay with expressions. Note that 'man', in German, is the  
indefinite pronoun -- and Heidegger's pun may be misread in translation, if not 
 
'gotten' lost.
 
Helm goes on:
 
"[Heidegger] made up words to convey what he believed was his unique  “
speech,” i.e., philosophy.  But in general I take Edmundson’s  meaning.  Most 
people, most likely, have no reason to be dissatisfied with  the limits of 
language.  Creative people like those he mentions (including  Heidegger) never 
feel constrained by the limits of language.  They get out  of it more than 
the common reader thought was there – a bit more, perhaps, than  Wordsworth’
s ‘often thought but ne’er so well expressed.”"
 
Ryle criticised Heidegger. And as Ryle was Ayer's tutor, Ayer continued  
with this. And he (Ayer) would conclude that things like
 
"Language speaks man"
 
or 

"Nothing noths"
 
are nonsensical, rather than insightful quotes.
 
---
 
Helm goes on to quote from Edmundson:

"The English major wants to use what he knows about language and what  he's 
learning from books as a way to confront the hardest of questions. He uses  
these things to try to figure out how to live. His life is an open-ended 
work in  progress, and it's never quite done, at least until he is. For to the 
English  major, the questions of life are never closed. There's always 
another book to  read; there's always another perspective to add."
 
and comments:
 
"My most recent example of this is the American Civil War.  I believed  it 
was the single-most formative event in U.S. history but I had never 
seriously  studied it – until recently.  This was a “hard question” for me, 
that 
is,  the war itself was extremely complicated.  One must study the major  
battles, read biographies of the important military and political figures,  
struggle through the important issues still being debated and then draw, or at  
least I drew only tentative conclusions.  But none of this pertained to how  
I lived my life."
 
Excellent points. Again, perhaps we should distinguish between the FOCUS of 
 an English major (in Edmundson's idea of the 'ideal form' -- an otiosity 
if ever  there was one?) and other focuses: like history or philosophy...
 
Helm quotes from Edmundson's conclusion:
 

"What we're talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at  least 
a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major?  
To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of 
pious,  prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite 
simply,  in becoming a person. Once you've passed that particular course of 
study—or at  least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe 
you're ready to take  up something else."
 
and comments brilliantly:

"My stepfather, a truck driver, advised me  to major in Engineering.  I 
rejected his “prudent advice” and majored in  English.  Ironically I abandoned 
the course being urged upon me by college  advisors, i.e., to get my PhD 
and teach, and instead became an engineer.   But would Edmundson say that my 
step-father was not a human being?  No one  else in my family was an English 
Major or any other kind of a major – except one  cousin who majored in 
nursing.  Were none of these human  beings?   I don’t think Edmundson intends 
to 
be an elitist, but it is  possibile to see a hint of that: the best thing 
one can achieve in college is to  become an English Major.  Those who do not 
become English Majors let  language speak through them and have only “one 
life to live.”  I’ve never  watched the soap by that name but actors seem to 
be better examples of living  other people’s lives.  Some actors devote major 
portions of their lives to  being someone else.  I think of David Suchet 
being Hercule Poirot for  example.  Did Suchet consider it a waste of time to 
spend so many years  being Poirot?  I don’t have that impression.  He seems 
to have been  happy doing being him.  ...
I wonder if Tom Selleck is happy being Jesse  Stone.  Stone suffers from 
depression but manages to solve crimes in spite  of it, but perhaps Selleck 
finds it appropriate to end his acting career on this  depressed note.  
Perhaps he realizes that acting, becoming another person,  isn’t a very 
admirable 
thing to be."
 
--- and I'll get back to this point at some later stage, I hope.
 
Meanwhile, 
 
cheers,
 
Speranza
 
 
 
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