Space is at a premium in this issue of Academic Questions, so I have decided to mention only short books and pocket-sized items. Candide, Heart of Darkness, Animal Farm, and The Old Man and the Sea, already having received some exposure, will have to fend for themselves. Ditto The Call of the Wild. The shortest book in the Old Testament is Obadiah, which consumes less than a page. Obadiah prophesizes the destruction of the men of Edom for their failure to help their neighbors during a calamity: “Neither shouldest thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress” (1:12). This seems apt counsel for our times, and for higher education in particular.
Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets fit neatly onto seventy-seven pages, each fourteen lines in sequent toil hastens to its end—except Sonnet 126, which dispatches its business in a mere twelve. It is, naturally, a farewell. Shakespeare is moving on from his “fair friend” to his dark lady. “Nature” will “pluck thee back,” he tells the boy:
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
Herman Melville is known for big books, but I commend what is surely his smallest. In 1850 Melville published in Literary World a review of a new edition of James Fennimore Cooper’s pirate novel, Red Rover. Melville, however, ignored the contents of the novel and provided instead a review of the cover, which he found unsatisfactory. He thought Red Rover deserved “a flaming suit of flame-colored morocco, as evanescently thin and gauze-like as possible, so that the binding might happily correspond with the sanguinary, fugitive title of the book.” Melville critic Michael Paul Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (University of California Press, 1985), argues that by reviewing the cover instead of the book Melville was playfully taking up Cooper’s themes of disguise and the misappropriated trappings of authority. The review, titled “A Thought on Book-Binding,” has several times captured the fancy of book aesthetes who have issued it as a miniature book. One version that fills twelve pages can be found dressed in “full black gilt stamped leather” and measures 2 by 2.75 inches.
Irony comes back to bite the ironist.
The greatest brevity, of course, is silence. Once, upon being asked to review a book he thought unworthy, Melville wrote to the editor, “What has Mr. Hart done that I should publicly devour him? I bear that hapless man no malice. Then why smite him?...The book deserves to be burnt in a fire of asafetida, and by the hand that wrote it.”
Several years ago, British physician and essayist Theodore Dalrymple gathered some of his vinegary commentary into a volume titled Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses (Ivan R. Dee, 2007). His mode, to be sure, is balsamic vinegar. Dalrymple is a cultured man who voluntarily exiled himself as a youth to hellish places such as African war zones and third-world dictatorships, and later as a prison physician and doctor to the urban poor.
The reader wonders if he pursued this work in part to purge himself of some lingering illusions about humanity. His great theme is what happens to a society when its elite abandons its cultural responsibilities and descends into egotistical permissiveness—or as he put it, the rule of the “nonjudgmental.” He is aphoristic: “A crude culture makes a coarse people.” And he knows where to begin a paragraph. “It was in Africa that I first discovered that the bourgeois virtues are not only desirable but often heroic.” In an essay comparing “Marx’s crudity with Turgenev’s subtlety,” Dalrymple conjures this indelible image of man’s inhumanity to man: An incident when I practiced medicine many years later on an island in the Pacific reinforced this lesson. Next to the small psychiatric hospital, with its yard enclosed by a high wire fence, was the leper colony. Every afternoon the lepers would gather at the fence to mock the lunatics as they were let out for their exercise, performing their strange dances and shouting at unseen persecutors.
An incident when I practiced medicine many years later on an island in the Pacific reinforced this lesson. Next to the small psychiatric hospital, with its yard enclosed by a high wire fence, was the leper colony. Every afternoon the lepers would gather at the fence to mock the lunatics as they were let out for their exercise, performing their strange dances and shouting at unseen persecutors.
Dalrymple ranges from literary topics (Macbeth, Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, the stories of Stefan Zweig) to commentary on the fallenness of British society (e.g., Princess Diana, “The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations”) to the existential perils facing civilization (terrorism, moral chaos, ennui).
This may seem to vitiate my promise of only short books, but not so. The greatest brevity, as I said, is silence, and Dalrymple tours our cultural maladies with nary a mention of education’s part in sewing the whirlwind. It is an imposing silence. Education too delays her audit, but she will render us.
Women with Brains
This is not to say the fallenness need be dull. As I write, the augmented edition of a Jane Austen novel has achieved best-seller-dom after two centuries. I refer, of course to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Productions, 2009), in which Mr. Seth Grahame-Smith has supplemented the original text with an elaborately integrated tale about the Bennet sisters’ battles against the undead who are ravaging Meryton—and the rest of England. Elizabeth and Darcy admire each others’ swordsmanship on these blood-splattered pages. It is great fun, but a bit disconcerting to think that a fair number of readers will get their introduction to Austen by way of a zombie attack on Netherfield.
Good to the Finich
This issue’s item of academic interest is the release of the scholarly edition on DVD of Popeye the Sailor, 1938–1940. Recall that Popeye too started small, as an incidental character in Elzie Crisler Segar’s (1894–1938) comic strip, Thimble Theatre. The strip started in 1919, but Popeye didn’t walk on until 1929. Within months he stole Ham Gravy’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl. In 1932, the Fleischer brothers, creators of Betty Boop, purchased the rights to bring Popeye to the screen. The DVD captures their sophisticated but gritty animation at its peak.
The standards for recycling favorites of yesteryear’s popular culture, of course, continue to rise—perhaps in inverse proportion to the degradation of yesteryear’s high culture. Jane Austen gets zombies; Popeye gets a “retrospective documentary” and well-researched shorts on the meaning of “Eugene the Jeep;” the family romance of Popeye with his long-lost father, Poopdeck Pappy; the genius of Mae Quesel, voice of Olive Oyl; and a close consideration of whether the Man of Spinach deserves to outrank the Man of Steel as America’s first superhero. I am withholding judgment until we hear from Dalrymple on the matter.