Lucubrations and Kakapitze

Joseph Epstein has a rather irritating review of Elaine Showalter’s new book on the academic novel. I don’t like Epstein’s writing much. It’s rather stale and uninspired and labored, I think.

The closest thing we have to these ideal anthropologists have been novelists writing academic novels, and their lucubrations, while not as precise as one would like on the reasons for the unhappiness of academics, do show a strong and continuing propensity on the part of academics intrepidly to make the worst of what ought to be a perfectly delightful situation.

Lucubrations. Perfectly delightful. Propensity. Intrepidly. Yawn. Yawn, yawn, yawn. About as fresh as last week’s oatmeal.

And in this review he says silly and very banal and untrue things about what it’s like being an academic. Obviously being an academic beats being a coalminer any day, but the hours are not as short and the vacations are not as long as he pretends. Like so many people (but he ought to know better, being an academic himself) he counts only the hours actually in class, and ignores the time spent preparing, grading exams, in meetings and the like. Yes, still much better than coalmining, but not a part-time job, and it’s anti-intellectual Fox newsy stuff to pretend it is. Plus he’s blithely casually hostile to feminism. In short he’s a pain in the ass, and pompous with it. But he does praise Randall Jarrell’s Pictures From an Institution, good, and also Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, even better. Furthermore, he mentions one of my favourite bits of The Mind-Body Problem, Renee’s idea about the inverse proportion between solidity of findings and concern with presentation of self. So he gets points.

Ms. Goldstein is quoted on the interesting point that at Princeton Jews become gentilized while at Columbia Gentiles become judenized, which is not only amusing but true. Goldstein’s novel is also brilliant on the snobbery of university life. She makes the nice point that the poorest dressers in academic life (there are no good ones) are the mathematicians, followed hard upon by the physicists. The reason they care so little about clothes–also about wine and the accoutrements of culture–is that, Goldstein rightly notes, they feel that in their work they are dealing with the higher truths, and need not be bothered with such kakapitze as cooking young vegetables, decanting wine correctly, and knowing where to stay in Paris. Where the accoutrements of culture count for most are in the humanities departments, where truth, as the physical scientists understand it, simply isn’t part of the deal. “What do you guys in the English Department do,” a scientist at Northwestern once asked me, quite in earnest, “just keep reading Shakespeare over and over, like Talmud?”

No. Not any more. They did once, but now they keep tracing Foucauldian circulation of energies problematised by the hybridization of the performative otherness of the Other – or the same thing only backwards and while wearing a beekeeper’s hat. So obviously they’re going to care whether everyone thinks they’re hip or not.

And Epstein gets another point for kakapitze – much less yawn-inducing than ‘lucubrations.’

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