Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Literary Education and Other Essays, by Joseph Epstein (2014)

Here is a book of deep learning, smart (in both senses of the word) writing, and significant importance: A Literary Education and Other Essays, by Joseph Epstein (born 1937).

Epstein is the former editor of the American Scholar, and has taught English and writing at Northwestern University for many years.  Many of his 24 books are collections of essays.  Epstein is one of our most significant living essayists – few contemporary writers have managed to make take this form as their primary means of expression, and even fewer have managed to be as successful at it as Epstein.  Unlike academics who write mostly “for the trade,” Epstein writes to be read by all, providing insight and context about the world in which we live, and all-too-often pointing out where we have gone wrong as a culture and as a people.

A Literary Education collects those essays that have not yet found a home between hardcovers.  Do not think, though, that this is merely Epstein clearing out the back files – each and every essay in this collection is a delight.

The oldest essay in the collection (about growing up in Chicago) dates back to 1969, the most recent (on the late Hilton Kramer) to 2013.  He writes about his boyhood, his period as an advisor to the National Endowment for the Arts, on Jewish humor and standup comics, academic freedom, the death of poetry, as well as people like Walter Cronkite (not a fan), Paul Goodman (ditto) and Hilton Kramer (whom Epstein seemed to idolize).  What astonishes upon reading them is the range of topics Epstein writes about, and the depth of humor and humanity that he brings to them.

Certainly humor and humanity are the two qualities that can be found in abundance in A Literary Education.  In a culture where much writing about the arts has become arid or politicized or mired in theory, Epstein talks abut aesthetic quality, the importance of distinguishing between high and pop culture, and what art (and experience) means to us as human beings.

Epstein is also a man of serious purpose.  He freely admits that he was not much of a student, and that built a life of the mind for himself through reading, through a love of high art and challenging literature, and through what he calls a higher seriousness.  Higher seriousness, he implies, is meeting challenging works on their own level, thinking about them, and maintaining an adult perspective.  (The latter very difficult in these days of perpetual adolescence, he opines.)  We need more like him.

He is also never less than quotable.  Writing about the various flavors of deconstructionism that have plagued literary studies for the past several years, Epstein muses so many looney tunes, so few merrie melodies.  (This was repeated around Your Correspondent’s household for several weeks.)  Or, better yet, this wonderful sentiment from the essay The Academic Zoo:  Theory – In Practice, which chronicles how arts studies in our universities have really become an intellectual garage sales:

All this might be entirely comical – it’s still pretty damn ridiculous – if it didn’t have real intellectual consequences.  Life without a sense of humor, which is life as it tends to be lived in the contemporary university, is life without any sense of proportion or perspective.  Where laughter has been abrogated, so has common sense, which is why much in current English department studies seems, not to put too fine a point on it, quite nuts.  Thus I read not long ago a batch of student papers in which I learned that “English is the language of imposition for African-Americans, a language of slavery and domination”; that “Shakespeare and [Robert] Coover [what a jolly pairing!] are both products of propagators of a male-dominated capitalistic society and both use their mastery of rhetoric to reinforce the status quo”; and that Joseph Conrad, benighted fellow, shows “ethnocentric androgenism,” which goes a long way toward explaining that Mr. Kurtz’s problem, in Heart of Darkness, is apparently that he failed to acculturate sufficiently with the tribesmen he met up with in the Congo.  “You don’t like my brother,” an old joke about cannibalism has it, “at least eat the noodles.”

Personal story here:  last Christmas I was at a party thrown by an old friend.  I was talking about my boundless admiration and affection for Charles Dickens when a drunken English lit professor (with the worst breath I have ever encountered) descended upon me. 

Drunken Professor sneers and asks how I could admire Dickens.  I respond with his love of humanity, the warmth of his heart, his expansive good cheer.  She turns to someone and says, “Is he serious?”

I go on about how his characters become friends, and that there is the glow of hearth and warmth and love.  Metaphorically patting me on the head, she says that he’s great in a Classic Comics sort of way, and that she used to love Classic Comics, too.

So … I couldn’t help it.  I told her my favorite Classic Comic was Remembrances of Things Past.  “Did they do that?” Drunken Professor asks.

“Yes, it was great.  Visually it was a little boring, because every panel was just this guy in bed.”

“How did they fit it all in one comic?” 

“Oh, it was 45 issues, just this ongoing series.  But my favorite,” I said, “Was the Kafka Classic Comics.”

“They did that, too?” 

“Yes, but they made the mistake of getting Jack Kirby to draw it, so the roach looked like the Mighty Thor.”

Well … I had lots of fun that night.

Back to Epstein: one of the other amazing things about the man is that here is an intellectual who, frankly, loves America.  He also believes, however, that with the advent of the various lunacies of the 1960s, that the nation has been in an intellectual and cultural decline.  Here he is in the essay, What To Do About the Arts?:

Nobody with a serious or even a mild interest in the arts likes to think he has lived his mature life through a bad or even mediocre period of artistic creation. Yet a strong argument can be made that ours has been an especially bleak time for the arts.

One of the quickest ways of determining this is to attempt to name either discrete masterpieces or impressive bodies of work that have been written, painted, or composed over the past, say, 30 years. Inexhaustible lists do not leap to mind. Not only is one hard-pressed to name recent masterpieces, but one’s sense of anticipation for the future is less than keen. In looking back over the past two or three decades, what chiefly comes to mind are fizzled literary careers, outrageous exhibitions and inflated (in all senses of the word) reputations in the visual arts, and a sad if largely tolerant boredom with most contemporary musical composition.

Perhaps my favorite piece in A Literary Education is A Case of Academic Freedom, in which Epstein accounts the denial of tenure to a radical activist professor, Barbara Foley (born 1948) for her role in forcibly preventing a talk by Adolfo Calero, then commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces, all in the name of “free speech.”  Epstein does much to remind us that the adjective Orwellian can be liberally applied to both the left and the right.

A Literary Education comes highly recommended, and will be savored by anyone serious about art, culture and education.

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