Today we are featuring a guest post from Wm. Samuel Bradford, who runs The Method Reader, where he examines the line between reality and fiction.
Disclaimer: What follows is a critique of feminism. I’m aware that getting a white guy to maneuver the intricacies of oppression is like one of those blind cave newts trying to cross a highway. Nonetheless, my goal is an impartial, balanced account, with all bloviations pierced and deflated, all privileges checked at the door. The last thing I want is to resemble recent Republican commentary on the issue of women’s rights, reminiscent of a pileup on the freeway. The force of impact from a chain reaction of bizarrely inaccurate remarks on the subjects of rape and basic anatomy results in near-fatal insertions of foot into mouth such that Q-tips have been issued to undergraduate political interns for the gentle swabbing of toe jam out of synaptic pathways.
The following story is true. I changed the names, and despite the inevitable interpolation in recalling decade-old dialogue, the gist is still there.
My first two semesters of college, I took Dr. M’s 17th and 20th century French literature courses. Twice a week the rest of the students and I sat around a Harkness table and fumbled through conversations in a language we didn’t know that well about a book we didn’t understand (or read to begin with). The perfunctory fumbling petered out after about twenty minutes, and the rest of the hour was mercifully filled by Dr. M, who, with impeccable French spoken in a long, unapologetic middle-Georgia accent, parsed the tenets of Cartesianism from a photo of one of Louis XIV’s chairs.
When Dr. M was awarded a research grant, he chose me from a pool of applicants for a research assistant position (my only distinguishing credentials included the ability to stay awake in class and once recognizing Irene Papas from a clip of Iphigenia). Dr. M. had dedicated thirty years of his life to the Mélusine manuscripts of Jean D’Arras, which is a medieval legend about a French fairy woman who could turn into a dragon. My mother, who wanted me to be a dentist, later bought me a butterfly net so that I could “go catch medieval fairies in the woods with Dr. M” as part of my “research” (her implied quotation marks).
He had already done the grunt-work: trips to French monasteries, bargaining with librarians, amassing a small mountain of microfilm slides printed from photocopied manuscripts. He had a draft of his book, which was to be a critical bilingual edition of the legend. The problem was that the printed microfilm photos of the manuscript were too small to decipher. He had a system of arranging two magnifying glasses in front of the paper in order to proofread his transcriptions. We had to be careful not to work in direct sunlight, for fear of fire. He wanted me to align the magnifying glasses while he read.
You should have seen his face when I brought him a poster-sized copy of a manuscript page from the Xerox machine. His eyes looked like they still had the magnifying glasses in front of them. So after a couple of hours in the copy room I was able to save him a few months of eye-strain. For my efforts, I was given two things: 1) a shout-out in the acknowledgements: “For his valuable assistance in solving problems related to manuscript access, I wish to express sincere thanks to my research assistant, William S. Bradford” and 2) a level of trust that granted the opportunity for completely open discussion.
I remember discussing Hinduism, Lorca, Cervantes, his time serving in Vietnam, the pettiness of academia. He told me how he met his wife. He got me into Proust, and I remember him reading this long passage where Proust chronicles the hues of ripening asparagus for the entirety of a page.
“You see how it matters?” he said. “It all matters with Proust. Everything is important.”
I had a vision of the purple-green asparagus with a scintillating halo of St. Elmo’s fire. Everything was important. That page was a challenge to the reader – an aesthetic rebellion. Admittedly, it’s not hard to blow the mind of a nineteen-year-old. My reaction was something like this:
The semester ended, and we stayed on good terms. Every once in a while we met up for supper.
My senior year of college I briefly dated (three months) a girl — let’s call her Genevieve — who was a triple major in psychology, religion, and women’s studies. I’m pretty sure she ended up graduating summa cum laude, but I don’t know because we graduated at different times. She was also a feminist, and not the everyone-should-care-about-equality garden variety, but more the symposium-attending-Vagina-Monolouging -may-or-may-not-have-held-up-a-banner-on-the-steps-of-the-capitol variety.
“So what are you doing tonight?” she asked me one evening. This was early in the relationship, the part where you are respectful of the other person’s freedom, but already affecting it by virtue of the Observer Principle.
“I’m going to dinner with Dr. M.”
“The French professor?”
“Yeah. Did you have him?”
“Ugh. Yes.” I am in no way trying to belittle this woman, even though this is the weird situation of describing a former liaison. Keep in mind that she won a scholarship, had written a novel while in high school, and now speaks, I’m pretty sure, a few different languages. All that aside, however, I think I remember her making the “gag me” face when I mentioned Dr. M’s name.
“Why don’t you like him?”
“He made the most sexist remark that I’ve ever heard.”
I couldn’t imagine him saying anything insensitive. The man was sensitive enough to induce epiphanies from asparagus.
“Gosh. What did he say?”
“You know how he always made us speak French in his class?”
“Well I was trying to answer his question once, and he cut me off in the middle of my answer. He told me I was too timid. That I needed to be bold with French.”
“And that’s sexist because he’s presuming that you’re timid —”
“No, Sam. C’mon. I haven’t gotten to the sexist part yet: he told me that I needed to elocute like harlots on a piano.”
“Harlots? As in, like, two of them?”
“Yup. On a piano.”
“Wow. That’s quite an image.” I imagined some sweaty, gap-toothed saloon girl sprawled across the top of an upright. “He never talked to me like that.”
“Well, you’re a guy.”
“Yeah, I guess that is pretty sexist.”
“You guess? It’s horrific.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I wrote about it on the course evaluation, but naturally the professors never read those, so I took it to Dr. O’Brien-Stuart.” Dr. Pamela O’Brien-Stuart. That’s not her real name, but I want you to know that I’m not taking a cheap-shot; her initials really are P.O.S. Anyway, she’s a professor in the women’s studies department, and would later serve on Genevieve’s thesis committee.
“What’d you say to her?” I asked.
“I told her what he said.”
“What’d she do?”
“I don’t know. She took it seriously. She’s on a lot of committees and everything.”
“I had no idea Dr. M said things like that.”
“Well, he does. So enjoy your dinner with him.”
At dinner that night, we entered the familiar and lovely trance of jumping from esoteric idea to esoteric idea. We measured out the time in bathroom breaks from all the post-dessert coffee. Dr. M was in rare form – his book, the culmination of his career, was very well received in France. He glowed like asparagus.
But I still couldn’t shake the image of the harlots.
“I started dating a girl,” I told him. “I think she’s a former student of yours.”
“Who is she?”
I told him. He squinted at the ceiling, and after a moment, started to chuckle to himself silently.
“What is it?”
“I remember her. She wrote the most curious thing on my course evaluation.”
“She said I told her to elocute like harlots on a piano!”
“Why, no, Guillaume. That’s the funniest thing I ever heard. I told her to have confidence – elocute like Horowitz on the piano.”
Vladimir Horowitz, the pianist bruited for his bold, percussive interpretations of Chopin.
Dr. M’s southern accent was so impressive, Horowitz glissandoed into Harlots.
“I hope you two are happy together,” he said, thumbing a chuckle-induced tear from his eye.
This kind of sentence makes for bad writing, but the truth of it is so rumbling and pervasive that I cannot strike it: I sighed in great relief.
“And how are you doing?” I asked.
“Well, Guillaume, I have to tell you. I’m not returning to school in the fall.”
“My performance was up for review, and they didn’t grant me tenure.”
“I can’t believe it! But, your book! People like it!”
“It is what it is. I’m too old to keep fighting for it, so I’m retiring early.”
He picked up the tab while I was in shock. The consummate genteel liberal arts scholar. What about fairies? What about asparagus?
Dr. P.O.S. carries a lot of weight on the faculty. Now, I’m not saying that Genevieve’s complaint is what caused Dr. M’s tenure to be declined, but I am saying that it certainly couldn’t have helped things. I’m also not saying that this whole thing is what caused our breakup not too much later, but I am saying that it certainly couldn’t have helped things.
Wordsworth has that line in Tintern Abbey that gets at what I’m trying to get at: “of all that we behold/ From this green earth; of all the mighty world /Of eye and ear,–both what they half create,/ And what perceive.”
Perception is not just perception. We half-perceive and half-create.
I’ve done it. When I was writing my thesis on Old English riddles, I could walk down the street and gurgle out tomes describing how every fluttering pigeon, every piece of trash, every “eat more chicken” advertisement related directly to this one particular manuscript from ten-and-a-half centuries ago. Foaming with zeal, I wondered how no one else could see the connection. Graduate school is a unique form of madness.
Just consider what’s wrong in half-creating something that has the potential to condemn. My wife keeps up with the feminist blogosphere, and her segue into that portion of our conversation, which has become a running joke between us, is always “And the feminists are outraged again.” I want to suggest that pointing out the good must play more of a role because Wordsworth leaves room for the opposite to be true as well: look for good, and you will half-create it.
As a teacher, I do that all the time. If a student is off-task, I act aloof and comment on something good that the kid is doing. If I continually point out an error, the kid will start to identify him/herself with being the bad kid, which is only a stone’s throw (and just consider who’s throwing the first stone) from not caring that he/she is a bad kid. I want the students to associate themselves with being well-behaved and thoughtful. In most cases, the student will feel guilty and auto-correct the bad behavior, because now bad behavior is not part of who he/she is. I’d like to see more of that in feminist rhetoric. Perhaps, for example, there could be a blog that chronicles exemplary instances of people not being sexist. If that sounds like a toothless approach, you have to ask yourself: are you seeing something, or are you seeing what’s been on your mind a while?
I’m worried that people will read this and their faces will tug into smug smiles and they’ll say “oh, those crazy feminists!” and dismiss it. Don’t do that. If you think about it, this is not just a critique of feminism; it’s a critique of the general mindset of politics. Republicans and Democrats fall into this same Wordsworth Romantic Idealist trap. If anything, they want to up the percentages on the half-create side. Take this example, where one side hears “It takes a village to raise a child” while the other side hears “The villagers are going to take your child away from you and raise it.”
I can forgive Genevieve’s blunder because she was unaware of what she was doing. In that case, a conversation, a blog post, or an ecumenical David Foster Wallace Youtube video about awareness can improve things. In fact, I did explain the whole situation to Genevieve the next day, and she was stunned into silence (whether her conscience was pricked enough to attempt fixing her error — or at least apologize — is another story on which I don’t have the details). At the very least, she became aware. But what is moderately frightening is when the Wordsworth Phenomenon becomes a deliberate political tactic: it behooves the party to purposefully misconstrue a statement in the way that is as detrimental as possible to the other party because a certain percentage of people will take what you say at face value no matter what. This becomes a higher priority than critical reasoning. Cut your losses with the few followers who take context into consideration and are subsequently appalled by you.
The universal complaint regarding politics is that one side never listens to the other side, right? On the contrary, it ironically requires an almost monastic level of devotion to the other side in order to make such a calculated miscalculation. Take the Republican pronoun-antecedent obliteration of context in Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech as an example (that = the business owner’s business vs. that = the roads and bridges). Targeting such an innocuous phrase is like plucking a fly from the air with a pair of tweezers. The Republican response was not an innocent grammar error, and no remedial lesson in pronouns is going to stop that kind of thing from happening.
Look, feminism isn’t to blame. Sexism is there. It’s real, and it’s a huge problem that needs a lot of attention. I’m not denying that. But a concern I have is that passions can become hallucinations, and the greater concern: political parties exploit that potential. And if that’s the case, Proust’s asparagus is reduced to a phallic symbol. Horowitz becomes at least two harlots.
 Wordsworth was not the first to forge this idea. Between laudanum hits, he and Coleridge read a lot of German idealist philosophy, including Schopenhauer and Schelling.