Archive for June, 2012

Literary Bicentenary: Goncharov



Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov was born on 18 June 1812 (adjusting for the vagaries of the Russian calendar). Today is his 200th birthday.

Goncharov wrote Oblomov, and Oblomov made Goncharov’s reputation forever. Very few writers in world literature have been so identified with a single iconic character. In fact, very few literary characters have become so iconic. Not being Russian, I can’t begin to understand the depths to which Oblomov (and his life-philosophy, Oblomovshchina or “Oblomovism”) have become entwined with Russian culture. But as a vicarious fan of Oblomov in translation, I have some sense of a few things that Oblomov means.

Oblomov is a deeply inertial character. It takes him several chapters of his own novel to get out of bed, and once out, he is always in danger of slipping back in. One can interpret his inability to rouse himself from a number of perspectives. To read him through our own century, he’s simply depressed. Indeed, Oblomov is a wonderful character study in depression, in the way your mind works when you hesitate to take out the trash because there will just be more trash tomorrow, when there’s no point even in microwaving some miserable leftover or punctuating your sentences and you watch one reality show after another because the remote is too far from your couch. The psychological realism of Oblomov is sometimes so fresh and so contemporary that it seems to belie social constructionism. Despite our immense distance from Oblomov in socio-economic circumstances, culture, and language, we can read him as directly as if he were sprawled on the sofa next to us. And why not? His creator was born only 200 years ago – two long human lifetimes. Being depressed can’t be all that different now than it was two lifetimes ago.

But of course, the intervening history of Russia is about nothing if it’s not about social constructionism. The Soviets believed that people took the forms that economic relations dictated to them. They read Oblomov as an indictment of an aristocracy made soft by its dependence on serfs. For that reason, Oblomov was one of the Russian classics that did best under the Soviet regime. In such a reading, Oblomov is not just somebody whose brain chemistry has let him down. He becomes allegorical for an ancien regime, brutal and lazy, that is heading for a fall.

And there are other ways of reading Oblomov that are less partisan, if just as political. One can see him as emblematic of a deep, corrupt indolence in the Russian national spirit. He can also possibly stand for positive values of tradition and community. He’s not infinitely malleable, though. He cannot stand for energy, progress, Westernization, or anything-ization, really. He has no project and no aspirations. He does have a tender side, though, and readers instinctively like him (though Goncharov may not have intended them to). He is diffident, and so ends up losing the woman he loves, Olga Sergeyevna. As heartless as his indolent defection may seem, one gets a sense that he really does leave her because she won’t be happy with him. Olga wants to change Oblomov, to get him moving. Instead, he stays right where he is, and eventually marries his distinctly declassé landlady, Agafia Matveyevna. Much like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, Oblomov realizes that what matters is not how much he loves, but how much he is loved by others. Agafia loves him just the way he is.

That Oblomov is harder to allegorize, and a richer character than the one of Soviet (or anti-Soviet) criticism. Perhaps in spite of himself, Goncharov created a character that we can’t help but enjoy and identify with, despite his fecklessness. Indeed, he’s the ancestor of a line of feckless literary heroes, as various as Nabokov’s Pnin and John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly.

Oblomov is by many orders of magnitude Goncharov’s most famous work. I tried to read his first novel The Same Old Story in the UTA Library’s copy recently, only to be told that the grim little Soviet volume did not circulate. But I was able to read his third, The Precipice, which deserves a wider audience – if only for its fallen women who emerge from the novel unaffected by arsenic or passing trains, determined to keep living their lives despite a fate, in the 19th-century novel, that is conventionally worse than death.

I know little of Goncharov’s life. He was from the upper classes, though not a nobleman, and he became a bureaucrat (in the Tsarist literary/cultural establishment, at times in his life serving as a literary censor). He knew the world populated by many a character who would appear in his own novels, or those of Tolstoy and Turgenev. He seems always to have wanted to do something else, though, no matter what he was doing. He was no Oblomov, though he may have felt like one. He seems to have been more like the protagonist of The Precipice, Boris Raisky, who wanders from one profession and artistic calling to another. Like Oblomov, Boris doesn’t get the woman of his dreams. But worse, he doesn’t get any woman at all: he wanders off into perpetual dilettantism. Oblomov, with his widowed landlady bringing him breakfast in bed, may have chosen the better part.

Published in:Tim Morris |on June 18th, 2012 |2 Comments »

The Flow of Research

The phone rings again, and for the second time this month, it’s my old mentor Lars Abraham, Professor of English Semi-Emeritus, calling from his office at Seattle State.

“Lars!” I said. “Twice in a row! How are things at Seattle State?”

“Not so good,” said Lars. Five seconds pass.

“Do you want to elaborate?”

“I am going to teach more next fall, Tim – more classes, same pay. But it is my choice.”

“That’s awful, Lars. I can’t imagine teaching any more than you absolutely have to.”

“Now you sound like a Dean,” said Lars. “But are you at all interested in my thought process?”

“Let ‘er rip,” I said.

“It happened like this. For years I have been teaching three courses in the Fall and two in the Spring. You know that I have a certain standing in my field.”

Do I ever. Lars Abraham is author of A Pop’rin Pear: Fruit and Sexuality in Shakespeare (1969), Hot i’th’ Mouth: Symbolic Spiciness in Shakespeare (1978), and Vile Jelly: Shakespeare’s Tragic Desserts (1984).

“Now Seattle State is moving to a differential-teaching-load policy,” said Lars. “They tell us that a 3/2 teaching load has actually been a ‘reduction’ all these years. We have to start proving that we deserve a reduction down to the 60-hour weeks we work now.”

“Yes, we have that at UTA, too!” I said. “It’s the best way to ensure that research-active faculty can concentrate on production, while others pursue their first love, teaching.”

“So I understand,” said Lars. “Clearly no one can do both. That is sarcasm, in case your detectors are off, Tim. In any case, to stay on my 3/2 teaching load, I must produce peer-reviewed research at the rate of one major project, two minor projects, or four mini-projects in each four-year span.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Tier One Universities need a constant flow of research productivity from their core faculty.”

“A constant flow of something, at any rate,” said Lars. “But I told them no: let me teach 4/3 and the research, forget about it.”

“But I don’t understand, Lars,” I said. “You are still producing a steady flow. Work is streaming out of you like soft-serve fro-yo. Why, just next month, you’re fixing to present your new conference paper “‘The Wild Thyme Blows’: Inferior-Quality Herbs in Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies.”

“Wait a minute, all this talk of flow makes me want to visit the little boys’ room.” Five minutes later, Lars picked up the phone again.

“Tim, are you there?”

“Hanging on the telephone, Lars.”

“As I was saying, I am not going to take the ‘research reduction,’ though why they call it that since it is the same teaching load I have had for 16 years, I do not know. And hear me out, Tim. Why do people work in the humanities, do you suppose?”

“It’s to generate citations! When we produce peer-reviewed results that get cited in our peers’ peer-reviewed results, we’re giving the university bang for its research buck!”

“Your head, I should bang against a drawer, Tim. That is the phoniest nonsense I have heard lately, and I have been reading memos from the Provost’s office all week. Tim, the reason that people do research in the humanities – and not just ‘research,’ as if that were the only thing that matters, but bibliography, criticism, creative writing, book reviewing, even just plain reading and learning – is to establish their ethos as intellectuals. We cultivate our brains, Tim – those of us that have brains, which I am not sure of in your case – so that we can become better teachers and so that the traditions of learning that make life worth living can survive.”

Oh, great, I thought. There’s nothing like an old liberal turned reactionary humanist. “So why not just do more research and get the lower teaching load?” I asked.

“Because they will make me show my work. Every year I have to report on my plans and goals, and I have to maintain a rate of flow that … excuse me again … [flushing] … that justifies my research-active course reduction.”

“And quite right, too, Lars! The state of Washington wants to know that it’s getting steady flow from its taps of research.”

“If you mention flow one more time I will fly to Texas and pee on your shoes.”

“Lars, is this one of these ‘Do you know who I am?’ snits that you senior tenured dilettantes like to engage in?”

“Call it vanity if you will, Tim. I have nothing to prove to anybody. What I do not have to do is to submit my homework to the Assistant Dean for Research Quantification. I am a rather elderly man, as Melville would say.”

“Who?”

“Shut up and listen, Tim. I am a very foolish fond old man, and I have worked hard all my life to prove that I know something about literature and language. I do not have to publish an article every four years to prove that I have brains. I have been publishing articles since before there was a Designated Hitter. I have edited a journal, I have read hundreds of manuscripts for journals and unversity presses, I have been on ten dozen thesis committees. Tim, I am peer review. So perhaps I want to learn Estonian next year. Perhaps I want to write my memoirs. Perhaps I want to re-read Henry James. Being pressured to publish some article in some journal is not going to make me a smarter person. And what if I bow to that pressure and my articles are rejected? Then I have experienced all kinds of tsuris and will still be put on a higher teaching load. It is not good for my ulcer.”

“I don’t know, Lars. If Seattle State wants to reach Tier One, then they need to undam their research fl… I mean, they need to ramp up faculty productivity. And if you’re not producing peer-reviewed results, how do I know you’re current in your field?”

“What, have I exhibited second childishness and mere oblivion in this conversation? Tim, I am older than soil, but I am still in my perfect mind. And English Literature is not computer science, nor is it this popular music you children listen to, with some new MTV thing every week. Hamlet is still Hamlet, Tim. And from Hamlet, I know.”

“Well, have it your way, Lars.”

“My way is about the only thing I have left.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on June 11th, 2012 |No Comments »

The University as Crunchyco

So the phone rings, and it’s my mentor and old friend Lars Abraham, eightysomething Professor of English Semi-Emeritus at Seattle State University.

“Lars!” I said, feeling bad for not having called him since the late 20th century. “How are you doing? How’s everything at Seattle State these days?”

“Not so good,” said Lars. “Budget cuts . . . you know, state support for state universities is down everywhere.”

[Lars didn't actually link to that story as he was talking to me. But I could hear it in his tone of voice.]

“That’s no problem at UTA,” I said, “we’re Mavericks. We’re an emerging Tier One institution.”

“We are trying for Tier One, also, but right now we are more like Tier Three-and-a-Half,” said Lars. “Really, ’state’ schools have just become private universities with better parking. We got an e-mail from our Provost saying that the English Department must find some private funding, or we will lose our graduate program and our major, and we will all be reduced to teaching five sections of grammar and composition to freshmen, in which briar patch I was born, so it affrights not me.”

“Well, you’ve got to get your brand out there, Lars. Like UTA: our brand is UNBRANDED™. Get it? Our identity is that we can’t be pinned down to an identity. That way, everyone knows exactly what to expect from us: the unexpected.”

“Such postmodernism makes my head spin.”

“Lars, you see, you’ve got to re-invent English so that you tap into the market. Serve the new generation of tech-savvy visual and virtual learners! Majors will flock to the English department once they see how the communications skills we teach will make them desirable to corporations.”

“Tim,” growled Lars, “businesses will keep hiring business majors even if English majors learn to stand on their heads and Twitter out of their tuchus.”

“But, Lars –”

“And for another thing, I am too old to re-invent English. Do we need more vowels? Am I supposed to add a fifteenth line to the sonnet? English is what it is, as you infants say.”

“OK, keep teaching sonnets, Lars. But you have to admit, you need to sell sonnets to the discerning student consumer. Studying literature teaches you to learn how to learn, an essential skill for earning a living in today’s business world!”

“Literature has nothing to do with earning a living. Literature is what makes living worth living. Though with my prostate, I sometimes have doubts.”

“Well, maybe your administration can raise some money for the humanities.”

“No, they are leaving it up to the departments to come up with marketing schemes. Universities are like junk-food companies anymore, Tim. Did I tell you about my nephew Sven, who used to work for Crunchyco? They would pit one division against another. Pretzels would fight popcorn for market share. They were told to ‘cannibalize’ the other units’ sales. The suits would go to Sven and say, ‘Sven, potato chips are a drug in the market. If you don’t turn your department around, we’re going to sell you to Frito-Lay.’ That is what liberal-arts departments are told now, Tim.”

“I’m glad UTA isn’t like that. It does sound bad.”

“It is worse than it sounds. At least Sven is an MBA, a smart man, my nephew. He knew how to sell potato chips. What our administration is doing is like going down to the floor of the potato-chip plant and saying to the line workers ‘Your chips stink on ice! Design a better chip or you’re all out of a job! And don’t slow down the line, either – in fact, work longer shifts while you’re coming up with these new products!’”

“But Lars, education really is like marketing. You have to respond to student demand.”

“Responding to demand is all well and good when we are talking about potato chips. Tim, think of this: if snack foods fight it out for shelf space, what happens to kale and broccoli and cauliflower?”

“Nobody wants cauliflower, Lars. Bye, bye, cauliflower!”

“And if departments at a university cannibalize one another for students, what happens to languages and anthropology and philosophy?”

“Bye, bye – no, wait, I don’t like the way this argument is going.”

“Tim, a university is not a buffet. At some point, someone has to take the lead and insist that students get good nutrition. And if that means subsidizing cauliflower with the profits from cookies, then so be it.”

“So you’re saying that central administration needs to attract outside funding, take overhead from those grants and gifts, and apply it strategically to strengthen liberal-arts education.”

“Outside funding, now that you mention it, they have attracted a lot. Private money is pouring in. And for what? They have built a basketball stadium with it.”

“March Madness! Go, SSU! Nothing builds a brand like getting that 65th play-in spot. Bracketology!”

“Tim, you are a nincompoop. Seattle State finished eighth in the Puget Sound Conference last year. They cannot give away tickets. Last winter the cheerleaders outnumbered the fans. Everybody who went to the games got a personal assistant coach to sit beside them and explain the Xs and Os. Which I am happy to say I never will understand. Too much running in basketball. Too much waving your hands in the other man’s face. Give me baseball any day.”

I remembered that Lars loves baseball.

“So, how are the Mariners doing?” I asked.

“Not so good.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on June 4th, 2012 |3 Comments »