Days of Whine and Poses: Literary Types and Academic Conferences

David Solway

Editor’s Note:Starting with this issue, Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest will sometimes be authored by a guest columnist. Our first guest author is professor, poet, and essayist David Solway, who contributed “Desperately Seeking Everett: Some Thoughts on Hermeneutic Reading” to our Spring issue, and who has chosen to depart from our usual format to suit his unusual subject matter.

The garden flew round with the angel,

The angel flew round with the clouds,

And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew

round

And the clouds flew round with the clouds.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Pleasures of Merely Circulating”

On the eve of my departure for the New Writing Worlds Symposium at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, held June 18 to 24, 2005, I received an email from a friend who had been a guest of the university some years before. “Beware,” he cautioned, “you are entering a concrete prison from which you may never emerge.” When I arrived the next day, I saw what had provoked his facetious warning. The heft and layout of the university buildings resembled a vast correctional facility, a complex of massive, louring, Bauhausian blocks scattered helter-skelter that had one promptly devising plans for escape. Its architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, had clearly transformed his Modernist dream of a communal living and working space into a scowling futurist nightmare straight out of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, constructing, as the tale’s protagonist says, “an impenetrable curtain” that was about to cut him off from “this whole beautiful world.”1 I was reminded of Prince Charles’s mordant comment on Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre: “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.”2

Interestingly, the university has recently become front-page news as the home of the Hadley Climate Research Unit (CRU), now under a non-meteorological cloud for having contaminated much of the evidence promoting the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming. I recall pausing before a strange, bartizan-like structure, a kind of Martello tower fused to an enormous ingot of glass and concrete, and wondering what purpose so bizarre an edifice might possibly serve. It was only in the past few months that I learned I’d been standing before the CRU building, described by Ian Wishart in Air Con as “one of the temples of global warming belief,” sheltering a conclave of scientists whose analytic hijinks might have tempted one “to laugh out loud.”3 A couple of years down the road the shady characters inhabiting that antiseptic fortress would be outed as scientific frauds perpetuating a deception on a befuddled world, and its ringleader, Dr. Phil Jones, would be effectively compelled to resign. The CRU building, studded with tiny, machicolated windows from which to pour boiling oil and hurl rocks during a siege, seems an appropriate pile in the current circumstances. Although the university syndics, posing as an “International Panel,” have just released a report attempting to rehabilitate the high priests of “climate change,”4 I couldn’t resist summing up the Hadley contretemps in an admittedly whimsical couplet:

The Lament of Phil Jones

We thought we were onto something, yet sadly

the world still goes on, but not the Hadley.

But more extenuating reports are sure to issue like projectiles from the Hadley oylets in the months ahead.

In any event, first impressions, even of Brutalist architecture, are notoriously unreliable. When the initial shock had worn off, I noticed that many of the petrified slabs that seemed to curtail one’s sense of movement and latitude had begun to yield to the caressing ministrations of climbing ivy, the grim lapidosus gradually turning a rich, warm green as if nature abhorred a Lasdun and time could be counted on to succeed where man had failed. Had Malcolm Bradbury, co-founder of the creative writing department at East Anglia, written The History Man today, with its description of “the local new university, a still expanding dream in white concrete, glass, and architectural free form,”5 the edges of his satire might have softened with vegetal supplements and germinating borders.

Adding to my changing impression was the campus itself, spreading beyond the penal construct of stony confinement in Wordsworthian swards of rolling lawn and gentle slope and victory-signed with innumerable rabbits’ ears. Indeed, I had never seen so many rabbits in my life, the consequence, I was told, of a biological experiment run amok. This laboratory miscarriage, I fancied, had changed a solemn professoriate into a warren of gamboling dons given their freedom at last. I suddenly felt as if I had stepped out of Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” into Watership Down.6

Then there was “The Broad,” an icy, duck-dotted lake quarried out to the south of the campus where one could stroll and take the evening air after a strenuous day in the conference room and too many valedictory pints at the Union Bar. But I was not especially surprised to learn that a number of carousing students had had their university careers cut short in its waters, tragic events that accentuated the paradox of university life and made me think as well in the course of my late walks of that sodality of writers whose trajectories had ended in disaster. Hopefully, some of those assembled at the round table would manage to circumvent such derelictions.

During the time spent shuttling between my lodgings at Nelson Court and the conference sessions in the Council Chamber, I was unable to shake this sense of contradiction, this feeling of internment mixed with intimations of deliverance. In this respect, the venue furnished a befitting frame for the symposium itself. On the one hand, there were the wide-ranging discussions on almost every aspect of literary endeavor, the occasional exhilarating insights of the participants, and the intellectual saunter into realms, if not always of gold, of literary viridian; and on the other, the intermittently oppressive repetition of self-evident themes, the obvious infatuation of some of the participants with the circumscribed self rather than the voluminous world, and the constraints of a politically correct and determined evasion of plain veracity and candor.

This dialectic of scope and bondage, of spontaneity and interdiction, rhyming the surrounding topography of oasis cum penitentiary, was both startling and predictable—startling because intellectual vision and inspiration are always arousing, and predictable because in any group of people, however erudite and accomplished, there is inevitably a hint, and sometimes more than a hint, of the lowest common denominator at work. The interplay of angel and cloud is ineluctable.

Thus, at the first night poetry reading, English poet George Szirtes respected the conventions of performance in delivering a series of beautifully crafted poems, some witty and flamboyant, others darkly meditative, but studiously avoiding those issues that a multicultural audience might find contentious or offensive. Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, on the other hand, sought to politicize the event by reading a long, problematic piece featuring his grandfather’s rooted fist and the incursion of conscienceless bulldozers, indifferent to the fact that certain members of the audience might have a very different point of view and find themselves tempted to respond on a level alien to the proceedings. Szirtes was civil and impeccably courteous, aware of the gradients at work in symposia of this nature; Barghouti was consumed by an agenda and subject to his prejudices, reading propaganda rather than poetry.

Another of the conferees, Israeli novelist and Haifa University professor A.B. Yehoshua, no doubt taking a page out of John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction,7 launched an impassioned address on the necessity for a reawakened moral fervor behind all literary commitment, dismissing the blandishments of theory, the frivolity of merely technical experimentation, and the fashionable preoccupation with the trivial and the mundane. He had no tolerance for the aesthetic Brahmins who legislated against good stories, credible characters, and healthy moral content in favor of partisan concerns or speculative attenuations. A murmur of discontent fibrillated through the room. The impact of his contestation might be controversial but it remains keenly illuminating and demands to be grappled with. His presence was enlivening and much appreciated.

In another session, Lancashire poet and well-known translator from the German, David Constantine, taking a page out of practically everyone else’s book, argued for the particular virtue of literary language as truth-speak, dispelling the occlusions of corrupt description, political euphemism, and hidden agendas. But in demonstrating how meretricious language mystifies what should be obvious, he cited a cluster of illustrations of a distinctly anti-American slant that undercut the purport of his message, forgetting that the choice of examples is no less important than the choice of words. This was mystification by the back door.

While stressing that literary language should cast an intense light on the shadowy assumptions that words will often hide, his examples of disingenuous formulation, which positioned America as the self-interested aggressor in the war against Islamist terror, served to conceal a strong political bias, if not a deep-seated prejudice, associated with current academic thought and jargon—the ideological reflection of Bradbury’s “pious modernismus and concrete mass.”8 As David Lodge writes in Home Truths, another of his brilliant intellectual satires, “you falsify a conversation if you leave out any part of it.”9

After I took the floor to protest Constantine’s casuistical prancing, asking him why he had not included citations from the numerous instances of Muslim doublespeak as well, if only to right the balance, Egyptian academic Leila Ahmed turned and sternly inquired, “What have you got against Islam?” The atmosphere grew decidedly frigid, as was to be expected in so PC a parietal climate when protocol is broken. This was obviously no place for an objection to what amounted to an implicit and widely shared parti pris, a groupthink brought about by a set of staple memes and cognitive bromides diffused through the prevailing pneuma. Few seemed to recognize that Ms. Ahmed had just confirmed my point. I remembered Robert Hughes lamenting in Culture of Complaint that “the academy had gotten too fond of the tags and labels that substitute an easy moralism for thought and judgment.”10 For the rest of the day and evening I found myself non grata, the recipient of disapproving stares and cold shoulders, and briefly considered whether I should cut short my visit. “Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.”11 Not that I was unduly upset, but I was nonetheless gratified when novelist Austin Clarke later approached me and, speaking for a small cadre of silent supporters, said, “You did good, man.” And I felt particularly vindicated when I was rebuked in the TLS report on the symposium as an “awkward poet” who had put certain indecorous questions to David Constantine.

A compliment and an insult had the tandem effect, for me at any rate, of retrospectively puncturing the sanctimonious tone of much of the proceedings. There is elation to be found even in the midst of the lugubrious and some amusement, I confess, to bearding the lions of academic propriety. Even as one engages in the cut and thrust of the culture wars—“A friendless warfare!” to cite William Cullen Bryant’s paean to intellectual battle, “lingering long/Through weary day and weary year”12—one needs to retain a pinch of insouciance. Indeed, what Charles Sykes recommends in A Nation of Victims for the American university and American intellectual life in general applies across the board, and certainly across the pond: “lighten up.”13

***

Early one morning, as I went outside with my cigarette and coffee to think about the day’s planned events, I noticed a gondola balloon sailing by overhead and was put immediately in mind of Yeats’s ringing phrase, “Another emblem there!”14 Here was a great bag of hot air that aptly symbolized every literary and academic conference I have ever attended. At the same time, it is only fair to allow that without the fuel and medium of gaseous exhalations, the panorama unfolding beneath the observation basket would not have been available. Metaphorically speaking, the East Anglia symposium was, for me, that high-wafting bladder, a combination of flatus and elevation, of vapor and loftiness. Indeed, the words “flatulence” and “afflatus” are etymologically related. It seems you can’t have one without the other.

Later on, reflecting on this gathering of disparate minds, I concluded that despite my own contribution of dubious ventilations to the formal transactions—I stood by my informal and plainly objectionable outburst—I had also profited from the altitude afforded by the opportunity to speak and listen, to reflect upon subjects pertaining to my vocation, to agree and disagree, and to meet a number of extraordinary individuals who helped broaden my views on the practice of literature. Among these excellent writers and professors whom it was both my pleasure and profit to have met, I would mention—apart from Szirtes, Clarke, and Yehoshua—the American memoirist Eva Hofmann, the Danish novelist Ib Michael, and the expatriate Turkish fabulist Moris Farhi. One could only be grateful for participants like these, who added an element of authenticity and levity to the laden academic noosphere.

As for most of the others, I regret to say that auditing their depositions was like plunging into The Broad or braving the fetid air of the Hadley building. There were one or two would-be Morris Zapps who would not have been out of place cavorting through the chapters of David Lodge’s Small World, another enigmatic figure characterized by the earnest elusiveness of unintelligible babble who reminded me of Malcolm Bradbury’s Doctor Bazlo Criminale, and even a rather barmy joker who seemed intent on emulating J.P. Donleavy’s Sebastian Dangerfield in The Ginger Man, without much luck.15 The solid cohort of rote phalansterians was, naturally, pro forma, so assured in their ideological convictions and yet, as Hawthorne wrote of the socialist Falanges in The Blithedale Romance, “so very faintly shadowed on the canvas of reality.”16 And of course we had a couple of mandatory poets, aside from the ones I have mentioned, whose antics mirrored P.G. Wodehouse’s Ralston McTodd in Leave It to Psmith, the author of Songs of Squalor featuring lines like “Across the pale parabola of Joy.”17 But at least an approximate balance between incompatibles could be maintained.

Nothing new here. One oscillates between the two extremes of ivy and concrete, of vigorous clarity and moral occultation, of cultivated discourse and rigid fustian, of good humor and bad cess—standard fare, I suppose, for all such belletristic colloquies. My friend was only partly right. The prison was also a greenhouse, and among the literary wardens intent on preserving ideological order, there were just enough gardeners to keep one believing in pastoral.

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