Close Reading: Thomas Mann

From time to time in this blog, I’ll comment on a line or two of prose I find particularly pleasing or intriguing.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas MannIn his novel Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann offers us the following portrait of a painter in Munich during World War I:

Over the years, the apartment grew more beautiful still, or at least more crowded and color, for Dr. Institoris was a friend of several of those Munich artists associated with the more sober Glass Palace school (his artistic taste being rather tame despite theoretical advocacy of glittering violence), in particular of a certain Nottebohm—a native of Hamburg, a married man, gaunt-cheeked, goateed, and droll, with an amusing talent for imitating actors, animals, musical instruments, and professors; a pillar of those carnival balls that now, to be sure, were on the wane; a man adept at the social technique of ensnaring his subjects and, I may say, an inferior, all-too-smooth painter. (p. 346, John E. Woods translation)

I particularly like the order in which Mann lists Nottebohm’s imitations. We seem to be working down a sliding scale of consciousness—actors, animals, musical instruments—and then—boom!—like a kettledrum going off we get the word “professors.” It makes Nottebohm’s impression of professors seem all the more mincing and ridiculous. The line is much funnier than if Mann had begun with professors, which might have been a more logical choice. But Mann is deft. He doesn’t overlook this opportunity for a bit a carnival humor and a way to enliven his description of this all-too-smooth painter.

NYC vs. MFA: Who lost? The Post-structuralists, Perhaps

As a grad student in the Yale English department, Helen Echlin was surprised to find that her professors held literature in such low regard.

No one has mentioned enjoying a book. . . . In the lift down from the English department, I ask one professor what is on her bedside table. The answer: a bestseller about physics. “No novels?” Her reply: “I don’t read literature for pleasure any more.”

Critics are ranked first, then readers and, lastly, writers. When I try to get graduate credit for taking the novelist Robert Stone’s fiction workshop, my request is refused. After all, I am doing a PhD in literary criticism, not in creative writing. But graduate students are allowed to receive credit for taking a course in any other graduate department. I could take a course in inorganic chemistry and be awarded credit for it, but I can’t take a course in creative writing. The department supervisor, Professor Ruth Yeazell, is unpersuadable. The English department will not accept that a fine novelist such as Stone has anything to contribute to my literary education. Having Stone teach literature is, in their eyes, like having a gorilla teach zoology.

This disdain for literature wasn’t, or isn’t, limited to Yale or even to the East Coast colleges, and it began earlier than the late nineties when Echlin attended Yale. Teaching at Berkeley a decade earlier, Robert Alter, the teacher, critic, and translator, found that his fellow faculty members and their students were suspicious, if not outright contemptuous, of literature. In his book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, Alter remembers a student approaching him after class to say how surprised she was to be enjoying Moby Dick. Two other professors in the department had dismissed the book as “a bore and scarcely worth the effort of reading.” Alter rues recent trends that favored abstract theory to practical reading, and he notes that “literature faculties may be increasingly populated with scholars who don’t particularly care for literature.” At  the MLA conference in 1985, he points out, the big topic was whether or not the study of literature was finished for good.

The picture that emerges from Echlin and Alter’s accounts is pretty bleak. Our best universities are teaching a generation of students to deprecate literature. Authors, it seems, are simply happy-go-lucky simpletons who haven’t read Derrida. Outside of classwork, reading literature can be dispensed with, and creative writing itself seems like a fool’s errand. “The joy of analysis – that’s what it’s all about,” as a fellow student tells Echlin.

Somehow, though, hordes of creative writing students didn’t get this message.

As Chad Harbach points out in an essay published in the journal n+1 and available on Slate here, the number of degree-granting creative writing programs has grown more than tenfold over the past few decades. In 1975, there were 79 such programs. Today there are 854.

So while post-structuralists were grimly cataloging the way poems, stories, and novels deconstructed themselves, and while conservatives were bemoaning supposedly liberal attacks on the canon, the humanist tradition, and the loss of Western values, an ever-growing number of students were enrolling in classes to hone their skills in that craft that has continued for thousands of years: telling stories.

Such faith in story-telling. Who would have thought.