Are Their Intellectuals Better than Ours?


Photograph by Tolga Musato

by Gregory Jusdanis

What was more dazzling, my view of the Bosphorus with the Aghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque or the conversation? In Istanbul last month I rediscovered what I treasure whenever I go abroad: the well-roundedness and cosmopolitanism of intellectuals in comparison with whom we here appear narrow and specialized. They seem to have mastered their own respective literary traditions, are knowledgeable about American writing, and are well-versed in world literature as well. They make a point of reading in traditions outside of their own.

My own limitations were apparent last year where I spent one month teaching in Bogota and Cartagena. My interlocutors were much more familiar with Greek poetry than I was of Colombian. A law student, for instance, asked me to read Cavafy’s “Ithaca,” a favorite of hers. By comparison, which authors did I know beyond the obvious Gabriel Garcia Márquez? (Can anyone name another Turkish novelist other than the one that immediately comes to mind now?)

I remember being astonished one day in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when a lawyer referred to a book of criticism, a review of which I had read in the flight down from Atlanta. A lawyer had read this before me and in San Juan? But this has often been the case.

Over the years my conversations with Greek intellectuals has revealed to me their command of world authors. They all appeared to read regularly the TLS, New York Review of Books, and often the London Review of Books. And this was even before the web made access to these publications much faster and easier. They subscribed to them and passed their crumpled and highlighted pages to friends and colleagues.

I have often thought about this disparity in interest and command of world literature between intellectuals I meet abroad and my colleagues here in the United States. These experiences have led me to question the facile distinction we make, even implicitly, between margins and center. Who is provincial and who cosmopolitan?

I offer some provisional hypotheses for this situation.

1) Surely one great factor is living in an empire. Throughout history large systems have tended to know less about the rest of the world than the other way around. A lot of hubris and ethnocentrism comes along when you consider yourself number one in the world.

You have plenty of expectations of this world as well, the main one being that everyone should speak your language and read your literature. People in imperial centers don’t feel the same pressing need to learn other languages or have foreign works translated into their own tongues. Complacent in being on top of the world, they don’t experience the anxiety of being late or being peripheral. As a result, they know a lot less of the world than the world knows of them. By necessity and desire, places like Greece and Brazil translate many more works, including literature, than English-speaking countries.

2) The second reason is the emergence of literature as institution and its place in the nation. If people in industrialized countries are not reading world literature it is perhaps they are reading less literature in general. Literature, as an art form, may have lost its prominence in the process by which people fashion their personal and national identities. In comparison, in many parts of the world literature still retains its social mission. Poetry readings, in Cartagena, for example, easily fill an entire lecture hall and verses literally hang on the walls of building, inscribed on tiles. Until recently difficult modernist, even surrealist, poetry drew crowds to stadiums in Greece. Why? Because people conscripted poetry into their fight for political freedom.

(Last year David Orr, the poetry critics of the New York Times published Beautiful and Pointless. A Guide to Modern Poetry. Who took note of this, I wonder, a book by a Times critic published by Harper Collins? Did it foretell its own fate?)

3) Finally we have to look at the professionalization of criticism itself. The more criticism turns into a profession, the less likely it is that people outside of the university will feel able to speak about literature. As the authority to address literary matters becomes appropriated by a trained coterie, the clout for others to speak on literature is reduced considerably. Would the American equivalent of the Puerto Rican lawyer feel empowered to write about literature? If so, what would be the venue? (I will return to this shortly.)

Again the experience of Greece is instructive. Until the last couple of decades there was no marked demarcation between the professional and non-professional critic. Educated (and even uneducated) people took an active interest in literary affairs. They had a platform in local magazines, reading societies, clubs, or often the newspaper. A general education, a keen interest, and preoccupation with literary things were sufficient for a person to enter the world of critics. And there was always an audience.

The accreditation of the literary critic means that these voices are silenced. And criticism becomes another realm of expertise, part of the trend towards functional differentiation – the unceasing compartmentalization of social life into professions. We have the separation of not only academic from journalistic criticism but also the further internal division of academic discourse into different schools and approaches: new historical, deconstructive, ecocritical, feminist, queer, disability.

We are confronted with the dilemma of Bouvard and Pecuchet with the infinite amplitude of knowledge. How can we master another literature or another language when it is hard to keep up with developments in our own field? How can we read a (translated) Thai or Albanian novel when at our conference presentation we are accused of ignoring the post-colonial reading of our text?

Of course, there is now a global push against functional differentiation, yielding what sociologists call de-differentiation. The Web is the perfect forum for the non-professional and the non-credentialed reader. Do you have strong feelings about a book? Write a review on Amazon. Did you enjoy a particular work? “Like” it. The editors of the PMLA rejected your essay for not being sufficiently theoretical? Post it in a blog site. You can’t find similarly-minded people with an interest in Peruvian literature? Join an on-line forum. And finally, that manuscript of yours that has been passed on by all the editors? Now you can publish it on line. In short, you no longer need the professor, the editor, the publisher, or the critic.

The revenge of the non-nerds?

Who knows where this will lead. Will it result in two autonomous worlds, one professional and one non-professional? Or will the two domains converse with another? Will there be dialogue or soliloquies?

The question that terrorizes me is the impact these developments could have on my profession. Would being well-rounded and cosmopolitan mean that academic critics could lose their jobs, going the way of journalists, the dodo, and glaciers?

Piece originally posted at Arcade | Creative Commons License