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Caleb Crain | The Nation

Caleb Crain

Author Bios

Caleb Crain

Caleb Crain is the author of the novel Necessary Errors, recently published by Penguin Books.

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A legal quirk enabled Samuel Roth to pirate Ulysses. Was Roth a copyright anarchist or a pioneer?

How music plagiarism ruined a composer’s career and literally drove him mad.

For the novelist James Lasdun, being stalked online is like “swallowing a cup of poison every morning.”

The Czech playwright's enduring ideas about politics, truth and human nature.

Do justices feel shame?—the Met found wanting—can Congress feel our pain?—eyewitnesses: not 20/20—a reviewed author objects—Rainbow Rowell’s welfare essay
 

There's more slang than dictionaries can capture, but two new lexicons speak volumes on the riches of language.

As Stevie Smith once wrote, while impersonating God, "I will forgive you
everything,/But what you have done to my Dogs/I will not forgive." About
Dan Rhodes's novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home<

"It's a great mistake not to feel pleased when you have the chance," a rich, disfigured spinster advises a frail, well-mannered boy in The Shrimp and the Anemone, the first novel in L.P. Hartley's Eustace and Hilda trilogy. The boy has won a hand of piquet, and the spinster has noticed that he has difficulty
enjoying triumphs. Miss Fothergill (like many of Hartley's characters, the spinster has an outlandishly characteristic name) foresees that her 10-year-old friend may not have ahead of him many occasions of pleasure to waste.

Rather than disobey Miss Fothergill, I will readily admit that I have felt pleased while reading Eustace and Hilda, and very pleased while reading Hartley's masterpiece, The Go-Between. It was a spice to my pleasure that even though the Eustace and Hilda trilogy was first published between 1944 and 1947, and The Go-Between in 1953, I had not even heard of L.P. Hartley before the novels were reissued recently as New York Review Books Classics.

I blame my ignorance on an academic education. Hartley is not the sort of author discussed in schools. He is in no way postmodern. He is modern only in his frugality with sentiment and his somewhat sheepish awareness that the ideas of Marx and Freud are abroad in the world, rendering it slightly more tricky than it used to be to write unself-consciously about unathletic middle-class English boys who have been led by their fantasies and spontaneously refined tastes into the country homes of the aristocracy. If Hartley belongs to any academic canon, it would be to the gay novel, whose true history must remain unwritten until the theorists have been driven from the temple and pleasure-loving empiricists loosed upon the literary critical world.

Hartley belongs with Denton Welch and J.R. Ackerley. The three have different strengths: Welch is sensuous, Ackerley is funny and Hartley is a delicate observer of social machinery. But all are sly and precise writers, challenged by a subject inconvenient for novelizing: the emotional life of gay men.

They met the challenge with unassuming resourcefulness, writing what might be called fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen was their pioneer, as the first modern writer to discover that emotions considered freakish and repellent in adults could win sympathy when expressed by animals and children. Andersen also discovered that a plain style was the best disguise for this kind of trickery and that the disgust of even the most intolerant readers could be charmed away by an invitation to learn how queer characters came to be the way they are. Thus in Ackerley, Welch and Hartley one finds gentle transpositions--from human to animal, from adulthood to childhood, from health to illness--disarmingly exact language and just-so stories about strange desires. Once upon a time, a man fell in love with another man's dog. Once upon a time, a boy on a bicycle was hit by a car and could not find pleasure again except in broken things. Once upon a time, a boy was made to have tea with a crooked-faced, dying woman, and to his surprise he liked her. The effect is a mood of tenderness; the stories are sweet and a bit mournful.

Hartley loved Hans Christian Andersen, but it was another writer who provided him with a defense of gentle transposition as a novelistic practice: Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose daguerreotype by Mathew Brady is the disconcertingly austere frontispiece of The Novelist's Responsibility, Hartley's 1967 collection of literary criticism. In the preface to The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne had described the novelist's need for a "Faery Land, so like the real world, that in a suitable remoteness one cannot well tell the difference, but with an atmosphere of strange enchantment, beheld through which the inhabitants have a propriety of their own." Hartley quoted the passage with approval.

Lost time was Hartley's fairyland. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," he wrote in the first, and most famous, sentence of The Go-Between. (He may have been echoing the first sentence of A Sentimental Journey, where Laurence Sterne had written, "They order...this matter better in France," which was Sterne's fairyland.) The remembered world could be as rich and vivid as the real one and yet would always stand at a remove. One could visit but not live there. As Hawthorne explained in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, in another passage quoted by Hartley, there is something romantic about "the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present which is flitting away from us."

The Go-Between opens with such an attempt. Leo Colston, a bachelor librarian in his 60s, has begun to sort his papers--apparently in preparation for his death, since he seems to have nothing else to look forward to. He starts by opening "a rather battered red cardboard collar-box." It is full of childhood treasures: "two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing-wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord; and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent: I could not even tell what they had belonged to." At the bottom of the box is a diary, and at first Colston cannot remember what the diary contains. Then he remembers why he does not want to remember it.

My secret--the explanation of me--lay there. I take myself much too seriously, of course. What does it matter to anyone what I was like, then or now? But every man is important to himself at one time or another; my problem had been to reduce the importance, and spread it out as thinly as I could over half a century. Thanks to my interment policy, I had come to terms with life...

A secret naturally arouses the reader's curiosity, but Colston's attitude toward his secret is a further provocation. The events in the diary, he implies, were both inconsequential and traumatic. He preferred a lifelong effort of forgetting over any attempt to come to terms; only by burying "the explanation of me" could he find a way to live. "Was it true...that my best energies had been given to the undertaker's art? If it was, what did it matter?" An unacknowledged wound, a buried definition of the self... The penumbra around Colston's secret is typical of a closeted homosexual, and yet what follows is neither a same-sex love story nor a coming-out narrative.

In the course of the novel, Colston does discover the facts of life and has at least an intuition of his oblique relation to them, but in The Go-Between Hartley was most intensely concerned with his hero's first experiences of sin and grace. This second, more surprising parallel with Hawthorne is the crucial one. Hartley once wrote that "Hawthorne thought that human nature was good, but was convinced in his heart that it was evil." Hartley was in a similar predicament.

Who would have guessed that the Edwardian sexual awakening of a delicate, precociously snobbish 13-year-old would have anything in common with the Puritan crimes and penitence that fascinated Hawthorne? Yet for Hartley, as for Hawthorne, the awareness of sin is a vital stage of education and a condition of maturity. At first young Leo Colston resists it. "It was like a cricket match played in a drizzle, where everyone had an excuse--and what a dull excuse!--for playing badly."

His moral code at the outset is the pagan one of schoolboys; he believes in curses and spells, and in triumphing over enemies by any means except adult intervention. But at the invitation of a classmate, Leo spends his summer vacation at Brandham Hall, a well-appointed Georgian mansion in Norfolk, and there his world is softened by love, in the person of the classmate's older sister, Marian. She is beautiful, musical and headstrong. Leo brings her messages from her fiancé, Hugh Winlove, Lord Trimingham, and billets from her lover, a local farmer named Ted Burgess. With her love comes sin--not because sexuality is evil, though it may be, but because after he has felt its touch, Leo can no longer think of the people he struggles with as enemies. The lovers make a terrible use of him, but he cares most about those who use him worst. In their triangle, he is incapable of taking a side; he is, after all, their go-between.

If you map Hartley onto Hawthorne too methodically, you arrive at the odd conclusion that Leo is part Chillingworth, part Pearl. This is not quite as silly as it sounds. Like them, Leo is jealous of the lovers he observes and is trapped in their orbit; nothing is lost on him, and he is unable to make emotional sense of what he knows. (His apprehension without comprehension is a boon for the reader, who through him sees the social fabric in fine focus.) But unlike Hawthorne's characters, Leo is a boy starting his adolescence, and that process, which he fears will defeat him, is at the heart of The Go-Between. Leo knows that the end of his childhood ought to be "like a death, but with a resurrection in prospect." His resurrection, however, is in doubt.

Like most fairy tales, the tale of how Leo becomes a fairy will not be fully credible to worldly readers. The Oedipal struggle will seem too bald, the catastrophe too absolute. Hartley was aware of this shortcoming. He knew that he found sexuality more awful than other people did, and in The Novelist's Responsibility, he wrote about his attempt to compensate for it while writing the Eustace and Hilda trilogy: "I remember telling a woman novelist, a friend of mine, about a story I was writing, and I said, perhaps with too much awe in my voice, 'Hilda is going to be seduced,' and I inferred that this would be a tragedy. I shall never forget how my friend laughed. She laughed and laughed and could not stop: and I decided that my heroine must be not only seduced, but paralysed into the bargain, if she was to expect any sympathy from the public."

Hartley's friend would probably have laughed at Hilda's paralysis, too. In the trilogy, Hilda is the older, stronger-willed sister of the exquisitely polite Eustace, who grows up in her shadow, a little too fond of its darkness. Their symbiosis in the first volume is brilliant and chilling, but her paralysis in the third is unconvincing. It is implausible that the demise of a love affair would literally immobilize an adult woman. Fortunately, it happens offstage, and a few of the book's characters do wonder if she is malingering.

However, the lack of perspective may be inextricable from Hartley's gifts. His writing is so mournful and sweet because he is willing to consider seriously terrors that only children ought to have, and perhaps only a man who never quite figured manhood out could still consider them that way. The second and third volumes of Eustace and Hilda are as elegant as the first, but not as satisfying, because Eustace's life becomes too vicarious to hold the reader's attention--and because the characters have grown up. Hartley's understanding of children is sophisticated, but he seems to have imagined adults as emotionally limited versions of them--as children who have become skilled at not thinking unpleasant thoughts. As a writer, his best moments are in describing terror at age 13 and the realization at 60-odd that one need not have been so terrified after all. In The Go-Between, artfully, the intervening years are compressed into the act of recollection, and the novel's structure fits the novelist's talents like a glove.

The subtitle sounds bad, but keep in mind that Thorstein Veblen considered subtitling his book on academics "A Study in Total Depravity." The really bad news concerns the title: The term "public intellectual" is practically obsolete.

It's dying young. Although the subject of much hoo-ha lately, it has not been current for very long. Russell Jacoby popularized it in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Jacoby did not coin the term--he quoted C. Wright Mills using it in 1958--but he found a congenial semantic niche for it: to distinguish unaffiliated from college-based thinkers. In the old days, there wasn't any need to make the distinction, because the generation born in and around 1900 doubted that intellectual life could take place in academia. "To be an intellectual did not entail college teaching," Jacoby wrote of the era that formed Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson; "it was not a real possibility." By the time of Jacoby's book, however, contemplative lives were being led on campuses, or so it was claimed, and since the campuses had the dollars to back the claim, the old-fashioned independent intellectuals were marked with the delimiting adjective "public."

Now the adjective is about to disappear, because the independents are on the verge of losing even their right to the noun. In his new book, Richard Posner hints that there is today "a certain redundancy in the term 'public intellectual.'" One would expect Posner to be highly sensitive to the use of the term, because he lives the role it describes. Profiled in Lingua Franca and more recently in The New Yorker, and invited to post his diary on Slate, Posner is a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, a founder of the field of law and economics, and the author of books on everything from the rational-choice theory of sex to the 2000 presidential election.

The term is redundant, Posner suggests, because an intellectual is by definition someone who addresses the public. Writing for fellow experts may take just as much brainpower but is merely academic. For practical reasons Posner is not concerned, as Jacoby was, with the brave last stand of independent thinkers. "There was a time when an intellectual could do as well (or rather no worse) for himself financially by writing books and articles as by being a professor," Posner writes. "That time is largely past. The opportunity cost of being an independent public intellectual has skyrocketed because of the greatly increased economic opportunities in the academic market." Nowadays the term "public intellectual" merely refers to an academic in his capacity as a moonlighter. The qualifier "public" is expendable once all intellectuals have day jobs.

In other words, the short lifespan of the term corresponds to the interval between the decline of "Intellectuals cannot be professors" and the rise of "All intellectuals are professors." About this transition Jacoby was wistful and, in a desperate, Gertrude-Stein-beckoning-the-Lost-Generation way, optimistic. "A specter haunts American universities or, at least, its faculties: boredom," Jacoby wrote, and he quoted a report that found "almost 40 percent [of professors] ready and willing to leave the academy." Posner, in contrast, is resigned and matter-of-fact. He knows the laws of economics. The marketplace of ideas, like other markets, results from the preferences and resources of those who participate in it. If 40 percent of professors say they want to leave the academy, they must have excellent reasons for staying. After all, if nothing were holding them back, their dissatisfaction would not show up in surveys of professors; they would not be professors.

The market has reasons that reason knows not of, and Posner is willing to respect them. "In the main we shall have to live with this slightly disreputable market," he writes. "But what else is new? We Feinschmeckers have to live with vulgarity in popular culture, the sight of overweight middle-aged men wearing shorts and baseball caps, weak coffee and the blare of the television set in every airport waiting lounge. It is doubtful that the public-intellectual market is a more debilitating or less intractable feature of contemporary American culture than these other affronts to the fastidious."

But although a monopoly by academics may be inevitable, Posner apprehends the mediocrity of it, acutely. "The disappointment lingers," he admits. In fact he was motivated to write this book by dismay at what his tenured peers had written and said about the impeachment of Clinton, the Microsoft antitrust case and the supposed moral decline of America. Their commentary seemed so shoddy and silly as to require an economic explanation.

How do you analyze the economics of something so airy? In fact, once Posner sets in, it turns out to be less airy than bloody. Much of the fun in reading Public Intellectuals consists of watching Posner triage the meats for his sausage.

You won't be put through his grinder just because you're smart and pop up in Nexis. Of Nation writers, Alexander Cockburn and Patricia Williams make his list, as do Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel, but Christopher Hitchens inexplicably does not, even though Posner has a footnote to him. John Rawls is out--too, too academic.

Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, qualifies, just barely. Theodore Roosevelt, Newt Gingrich, Winston Churchill, Leonard Bernstein and William Sloane Coffin are excluded because they are better known for nonintellectual achievements. This caution is justified because intellectual celebrity is so easily dwarfed by other kinds. The intellectual most often mentioned in the media between 1995 and 2000 was Henry Kissinger, and yet the 12,570 allusions to him are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as the small dust on the balance beside Michael Jordan's 108,000.

Whether devised by art, science or expedience, the tallies and rankings are where most readers will start, and Posner has strategically placed them in the precise middle of his book, as far from either end as possible, for the same reason grocers put milk at the back of the store. "Consumer Reports does not evaluate public intellectuals," Posner observes, and people like to know the score. It is disconcerting to see Camille Paglia and Oliver Wendell Holmes nearly tied in a ranking by media mentions. It is suggestive that the intellectual most often cited in scholarly writing between 1995 and 2000 was Michel Foucault, and even more suggestive that Foucault's score is nearly twice that of the second-most-cited intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu. (Posner himself comes in tenth.)

Once the air of the horsetrack has dissipated, the reader turns to Posner's analysis. Here is the news, in summary:

If you are a public intellectual, your odds of being mentioned in the media improve if you are not an academic, are not dead, have served in government and are either a journalist or a writer.

At first glance this might look like good news. But the higher profile of nonacademics does not mean that the unaffiliated intellectual is alive and well. It means, rather, that those who have managed to become public intellectuals despite a lack of academic credentials tend to be mentioned more frequently than their academic peers. As time goes by, there are fewer such people. Of the 546 intellectuals in Posner's sample, 56 percent of the dead ones are academics, and 70 percent of the living ones. And as Posner deadpans, "Notice the high average age even of the living public intellectuals"--64 years old. Among actual young people, the rate of intellectual institutionalization is probably even higher.

"Media mentions come at the expense of scholarly citations (and vice versa)," Posner observes. "An academic who wants to succeed as a public intellectual might be well advised to substitute government service for additional scholarly publications!" But if it is posterity you hunger for, think carefully. In Posner's sample, being dead correlates well with scholarly citations, which suggests that "public-intellectual work is more ephemeral than scholarship." The correlation may, of course, suggest other inferences to less sanguine minds. So much for the facts. Although Posner is known as a pragmatist, the most provocative analysis in Public Intellectuals is actually of his own hunches and grudges, and of the social maps drawn by observers like Jacoby and Bobos in Paradise author David Brooks.

Posner thinks that public-intellectual work offers the consumer three goods: entertainment, solidarity and information. The consumer (and the magazine editor or television producer who procures on the consumer's behalf) can usually tell by inspection whether a commentary is entertaining and whether it reassures people that they are on the right team, be it of abortion-haters or deconstruction-defenders. In an age of specialized knowledge, however, only another expert can judge whether the information in a piece of commentary is worthwhile. Its value is what an economist would call a "credence good"; consumers have to take it on faith. By the time you figure out that there must have been a flaw somewhere in that September 1999 Atlantic Monthly article titled "Dow 36,000," it is too late to get your money back.

By now even the writers have been paid.

Most markets in credence goods correct for this uncertainty, in order to keep frustrated consumers from fleeing. Sellers may offer money-back guarantees, advertise heavily to signal long-term commitment to a product, cooperate with a third-party rating system, choose retailers who are reputed to be judicious gatekeepers or consent to government regulation. Even in the absence of any correctives, however, sellers usually refrain from offering egregiously low-quality products, because they want customers to buy from them again in the future. They are deterred by "the cost...of exit from the market."

The public-intellectual market deals in credence goods, but Posner fears that it may be suffering from market failure. Consumers trust periodicals and talk shows to act as filters, but they seem to be filtering for entertainment and solidarity rather than for information. More damaging, the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market is very low. No academic loses his job because he has made a fool of himself on the Op-Ed page. It has therefore become unwise for the consumer to believe public intellectuals. Posner likens them to palm readers: They claim to know the answers to vital questions, but the cost of figuring out whether they really do is prohibitive. The rational consumer responds by discounting the value of the information and consulting them merely for entertainment.

Why is the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market so low? For the simple reason that there is not much reward for entering it in the first place. Here economic analysis converges with traditional lament. The professors have ruined everything. They are obscurantist, pedantic, naïve, exaggerative of the reach of their expertise, theory-mad, timid toward anyone who might put a letter in their tenure file and intemperate toward everyone else, but the real problem is their free time. They have a lot of it, and they are willing to sacrifice almost any quantity to see their names in print. They are, in other words, cheap. They drag the supply curve downward on the dollar axis. The price of public-intellectual work drops, and more of it is produced.

With prices so low, unaffiliated intellectuals can no longer make a living. (At many periodicals, the payment for editorials and book reviews is lower than for other kinds of writing. This is not because they require less effort; it is because an academic can always be found to write them.) Absent a class of people whose livelihood depends on the market, an ethos of quality gives way to an ethos of tourism. "He is on holiday from the academic grind and all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday goer," Posner writes of the moonlighting professor. "Insulated from the retribution of disappointed consumers by virtue of being part-timers," academic intellectuals behave like movie-star politicians.

You're so vain, you probably think this book is about you, don't you? Public Intellectuals is a portmanteau book. The first part consists of the analysis of the public-intellectual market described above, but in the second, the reader is dropped into conversations whose beginnings he has not witnessed. Martha Nussbaum is wrong to think that the moral of The Golden Bowl is resignation to your husband's adultery. (Martha Nussbaum is here? In the room with us?) Wayne Booth's attempt to reconcile the aesthetic to the ethical is doomed. Aldous Huxley predicted the future better than George Orwell, but Orwell wrote a better novel. Robert Bork is disingenuous about so-called partial birth abortions. Gertrude Himmelfarb is unconvincing about the cultural metastasis of the naughty. Richard Rorty may be the heir to Socrates, Dewey and J.S. Mill, but he deploys a rhetoric that passed its freshness date sometime in the 1930s, and as for Martha Nussbaum--did I mention her already? The chapters are informative and at times highly entertaining ("The 'Ode on Melancholy' is not improved by being made risqué, just as a pig is not enhanced by wearing lipstick," writes Posner, in a simile that becomes more disturbing the more it is considered), but they are miscellaneous, and the reader senses that because of a wish to revisit old grudges--or recycle old articles--the tail is wagging the pig. In his conclusion, Posner returns to topic. Academia has diminished intellectual life, but rebellion is futile, because academia is what Tocqueville would call a soft tyranny. Like the Hand of God as described to me in Sunday school, it destroys not by striking the wicked but by releasing them into the danger they prefer, where they must write for in-flight magazines in order to pay their rent.

Accordingly, Posner offers extremely modest proposals for reform: He would like to encourage academics to post their public-intellectual work on websites, deposit printouts in libraries and disclose relevant earnings. He doesn't think the reforms will be adopted, because "the irresponsibility of public-intellectual work is one of the rewards of being a public intellectual." But even if Posner's suggestions were adopted, they would change nothing. The money involved is usually trivial, as he himself admits, and he has overestimated how hard it is to trace what an academic has said in public.

As near as I can tell, only one of Posner's suggestions has even the faintest chance of success: "One might hope that as a matter of self-respect the university community could be persuaded to create and support a journal that would monitor the public-intellectual activities of academics and be widely distributed both within and outside the community." Thus would specialized academics be matched by specialized journalists, and the failure of one market remedied by the development of another. Alas, Lingua Franca suspended publication in November.