Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Unexpected "The Unexpected Professor"/Brideshead

I have finished reading The Unexpected Professor, which challenged many of my ideas, but was nevertheless quite enjoyable if, ultimately, unconvincing. I am all for grammar schools and merit over the inherited privilege of the children of the rich, but he lost me when, on page 310, he admitted to having had Anglo-Saxon made optional for first-year Oxford students of English Literature. Not only does this seems like an outrageous dumbing down of Oxford and of students of English Literature, it is a posthumous slap to  the woman who so kindly praised his Viva examinations: the great Anglo-Saxonist Dorothy Whitelock.

I was named (in part) for Dorothy Whitelock, and my father began his career as an Anglo-Saxonist, so perhaps I am taking this too personally. On the other hand, when I contemplate my rich, crazy, agonized year at the Graduate School of English at the University of Toronto, the courses I did that seemed the most scholarly and least subjective were those in Anglo-Saxon. 

(I am suddenly reminded of the superiority of Christian Latin to all other classes when I was attempting a PhD in Theology.) 

Starting a serious study of English Literature without Anglo-Saxon strikes me as ridiculous as beginning a history of Canada with Confederation in 1867 or of the United States with the Declaration of Independence or of Scotland with Kenneth McAlpin. 

Anglo-Saxon is English without the French; it is the source of our most basic everyday language--house, roof, child, kin, sheep. It tells the English and Lowland Scots who we are, deep down in our cultural cells: not French but Germanic--and Christians, to boot. Those of us who have forsaken Christ worship not Venus on vendredi but Freya on Fridays. Chaucer's English is a linguistic compromise with a foreign oppressor. Wyrd bith ful araed.

The other revelation to which I strongly object is a disbelief in objective standards for art. Benedict Ambrose is tremendous well-read in the philosophy of aesthetics, and I am not, but even I know there is such a thing as "techné", or craft. 

I am willing to believe that anything anyone puts together deliberately for display is "a work of art", but not that it cannot be dismissed as trite, cheap, or even a bullying, exploitative demand for attention. I am also willing to believe that "conceptual art" is art, for any expression of a new idea is a creation. However, you can sign a urinal only once: you can paint the "Coming of the Magi" any number of times, and when you do, training, hard work and technique really matter. 

Thinking about Brideshead Revisited again--whose attitude toward Oxford and privilege Professor Carey indirectly and  unconsciously condemns--I see it as a paean to Youth, written by a man who was so desperately unhappy when he left Oxford, he attempted suicide. Its nostalgia and us-against-Hooper snobbery is so potent that it sets up the too-young reader to look upon university not as an apprenticeship to professional life but as a superior social club where one lives one's best days. 

Charles Ryder, as much as any girl going to Franciscan U. for the M.R.S., goes to university not to be trained in a discipline but to fall in love. He becomes a painter in spite of, not because of, his Oxford education. The same can be said for Sebastian Flyte and all their friends. Charles' cousin, whom we are invited to mock, and Charles' former pal, whom we drop when Charles does, actually enter into college life instead of using it as stylish backdrop for their social lives. In terms of the realities of university training, Brideshead Revisited is Animal House for the bookish. (Be sure to cite me when you quote that)

That said, it provides excellent lessons in sensitivity to surroundings and celebrates the ardours of youthful friendship. Anthony Blanche recites "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock" through a megaphone, and sometimes when I was an undergrad I drank deeply of the vine and strode through the St. George St campus declaiming the same poem with my best friend. I also founded an all-female poetry club: we met in each other's rented apartments, drank a lot, read a lot of poetry, annoyed a shared ex-boyfriend. Some of us were pro-life Catholics (including two ex-Muslims), others were deep-dyed pro-choicers: we all thought of ourselves as feminists, naturally. I admired the dappled sunshine, pouring through leafy trees, by day, and I wrapped myself in the electric-starred darkness by night. Brideshead promised aesthetic experiences for those who sought them, and I found them. 

However, swimming about in aesthetic experience is not enough to achieve good art, as I discovered when I tried to write funny stories. My mistake was to try to write about Catholicism and lampoon Catholic feminism instead of writing prose about the student world I was living in. It's a pity, for my landlady, the late Mrs P, could be the basis for a great comic character. 

Mrs P was very suspicious of her upstairs renters, and I eventually discovered she feared catching AIDS from us via the house plumbing. In short, she thought we were the most awful sluts, but eventually she discovered that I was a Nice Catholic Girl and, after some tragedy in my personal life which I have since forgotten, she tried to comfort me with dry little Portuguese biscuits and a photo album of life back on Sao Miguel. I have rarely spent such a boring afternoon.

But to return to The Unexpected Professor, John Carey has considerable writing techné himself, and so I heartily recommend reading this autobiography and look forward to grappling with What Good are the Arts?

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