A friend who has long since gotten out of the literary scholarship racket was once, briefly, quite intent on writing a dissertation entitled “Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses.” I have a vague recollection that the argument was to involve something about how pirates seem often to lose hands, legs, and eyes, and that along with their inanimate prosthetics (wooden legs, hooks, eye patches – if, indeed, eye patches count), they also have animate ones like parrots and monkeys. I am not quite sure where this argument was going. There was, however, an excellent plan to, at the defense of this unwritten dissertation, have a parrot, on the shoulder of the writer, declaim the defense.Though this dissertation (sadly) remains unwritten, it did generate a list of parrot books. Everyone’s favorite genre! Behold:Flaubert’s A Simple HeartKate Chopin’s The AwakeningRobinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeCharles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Scrooge recalls Crusoe’s Poll in the first stave)Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian BarnesVirgina Woolf’s The Widow and the Parrot (this fable-like tale has been published as an illustrated children’s book)Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (Cap’n Flint)20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (parrot hunting!)Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (Aunt March has a parrot who tells Laurie, “Go Away. No boys allowed here.”)Gertrude Stein’s “The Good Anna” in Three Lives briefly features a parrot.Saki’s story “The Remoulding of Groby Lington”Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (which features a haunting scene of a parrot on fire)Willa Cather’s beautiful Shadows on the Rock (Captain Pondaven’s African parrot Coco, who sings songs and drinks brandy in warm water)Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop (at least, I remember vaguely)
A recent post at Pinky’s Paperhaus entitled “The backwards academic,” muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky’s case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):- Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 – 5-10%- British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) – 25-30%- British Literature 1660-1925 – 25-35%- American Literature through 1925 – 15-25%- American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 – 20-30%Pinky expresses some concerns – both personal and philosophical:To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn’t that I can’t possibly do well on the test (I can’t. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don’t know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we’ve been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?The essence of Pinky’s concern, is the exam’s historical focus – What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions – not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it’s a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.Someone with an interest in the internet’s effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel’s The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary – and we’re still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early “essai” as practiced by Montaigne – coiner of the genre’s name – (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay’s generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature’s history.And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound’s titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot’s profound reliance on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One’s Own for the help they’d inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee’s Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule’s), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as a reading of Howard’s End. Frank Miller’s 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn’t know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.
What to say about Harry Potter that hasn’t been said? One approach, I suppose, taking a page from the New York Times, would be to cover the coverage. I, for example, was delighted by the Times’ hypocrisy in covering as news the New York Post’s and New York Daily News’ early publication of movie reviews of Harry Potter 5 (these tabloids sent their reviewers to the Japanese premier, which took place before the American and European premiers), and then publishing their own early review of an illicitly purchased copy of The Deathly Hallows. It was not a “spoiler” – no major plot details given away – but there was, in the very fact of a review published on July 19th, inevitably and implicitly, a nanny-nanny-boo-boo quality to the piece.I have been rather under-whelmed by the reviews of the book (my own efforts included). One particularly aggravating feature is the gushing – and totally unexplained – lists of high literature to which Rowling alludes. I have seen Kafka and Milton on these lists. I would be beyond delighted to know where Rowling alludes to Kafka or Milton. Please post a comment if you know. The larger problem here is that the business (nay, the responsibility?) of a critic is to show and not tell – or, at the very least, to do both. That’s the business of good writing in general. (Even an editorial has a responsibility to tether the opinions it offers to substantial, justifying fact or theory of some kind.) I have been frustrated at the love-fest quality of Potter reviews generally: substantial observation falls aside for adulatory effusion.The following are a few (I hope) more substantial critical sallies at The Deathly Hallows and the series in general. I also forewarn those who have not finished the book that they read on at their own peril. Substantial details of the final book are discussed.Rowling’s gift as author is her masterful skill as an architect of plot. As she has said, she imagined Harry’s story as a seven-book series from the beginning and each book has been carefully seeded with clues and pre-history that become newly significant in subsequent installments. The Deathly Hallows, more than any of the other books (because it has all of the other books to draw on) achieves a higher degree of plot complexity. It is in this (alone), I would say, that she resembles Dickens: the complex interweaving of individual personal stories into a larger, coherent plot. Though I think that in basic concept, the Penseive (the ability to experience other people’s memories as an unseen observer), consciously or no on Rowling’s part, owes something to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, wherein Ebeneizer Scrooge’s moral and spiritual re-awakening is facilitated by ghosts who squire him, also unseen, through his own past and future and other people’s presents.The Penseive is also Dumbledore’s means, particularly in The Half-Blood Prince, of teaching Harry to read meaning and significance in personal history, a task Harry must undertake alone in the seventh book, with Dumbledore gone. And Harry’s task in the seventh does not just involve “reading” Voldemort to figure out where the Horcruxes are, but making sense of Dumbledore’s own past, and his character and trustworthiness, in light of it. The question of whose version – whose reading – of events you take, and the troubling multiplicity of accounts about a single event, has been dramatized throughout the series by The Daily Prophet and particularly by the antics of the muck-raking Rita Skeeter (who pens a tell-all biography of Dumbledore in the Hallows). Rowling also dramatizes the difficulty and the importance of reading, and reading well, in Dumbledore’s mysterious bequest to Hermione of a copy of the wizarding fairy-tales of Beedle the Bard. When Harry is (rather fantastically) reunited with Dumbledore, Dumbledore again emphasizes the importance of what and how you read: “And his knowledge remains woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing.”While Harry and Dumbledore have taken the time to read Voldemort’s past – to “know thy enemy,” He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has failed to do his homework, which would have involved, very cleverly on Rowling’s part, the reading and comprehension of not only Beedle’s tale, but, in essence, Harry Potter – not the books themselves, perhaps, but some version of Harry’s life history. And one last observation on the limbo scene between Harry and Dumbledore: It reminded me of the final scene in Vanilla Sky, where a similar choice is made in a similarly surreal/psychic landscape. I also felt that the model for Harry’s particular strain of self-sacrifice resembles, in certain structural aspects, the story of Abraham and Isaac, wherein the absolute willingness to make a sacrifice of life, is the thing that frees you from actually having to make it.I applaud Rowling’s clever double-ending. That you think it’s over – are really and truly convinced that it’s over – and then have an even greater joy in finding that it’s not. But I also take issue with those who use the term “adult” too freely in their descriptions of The Deathly Hallows. In the best sense of the word, Harry Potter finishes as it began: as children’s literature. Consider, for example, the dead. Rowling does not kill off a single central character (Harry, Ron, Hermione); nor any from the slightly lower tier including Hagrid, Neville, Ginny, and Luna. The only Weasley she kills off is the one with a identical twin – and we get Percy back, so in total the Weasley numbers remain constant. The deaths of Tonks and Lupin (who appear very infrequently in this volume – so there’s less to miss) allow for the somewhat satisfying emergence of a Harry- and Neville-esque war orphan (their son, Teddy) for the next generation. And it also seems fitting that Lupin – and even Wormtail – join Sirius and James in the Great Beyond. Colin Creevy and Dobby – also possibly Hedwig – are innocents but they were never crucial players so far as character went (and, truth be told, Colin Creevy and Dobby had an irritating spaniel-esque quality that is often the mark of a dispensable minor character). My favorite Death Eater death was that of Bellatrix Lestrange: uber-anti-mother destroyed by ur-mother Molly Weasley. Snape dies, of course, but it’s a kindness given the tragically loveless life he leaves behind. And Dumbledore, who actually is dead, is functionally revived in this final volume by the limbo scene, Snape’s memories in the pensive, the crucial role of his pre-history, and the appearance of his doppelganger-ish brother. You lose no one you can’t live without, is what I mean, and even get a few back through redemption and other means.This is pure children’s lit – though Rowling’s Aeschylus epigraph may have led you to expect otherwise. Good triumphs over evil (if that’s not the crux of a child’s plot, what is?) and this triumph justifies and then eclipses the losses that made it possible. The world is made right and the survivors are not psychically broken by their efforts – they enjoy life again, they thrive. Especially for grown readers, one of the chief pleasures offered by Harry Potter and books like it, is their allowing us to experience – to believe in, however fleetingly or wistfully – the kind of idealism and heroism that most of us lose faith in, willingly or no, in adulthood.My parting thought concerns what I consider one of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s fantasy genre as Rowling practices it: Its striking correspondence to the ancient epic tradition, in all of its un-ironic hero- and nation-making high seriousness. I find it particularly suggestive that epic, a genre that emerged and defined early human civilization, is now relegated to literature for humans in the early stages of life (from infancy to infancy, one might say), though I have no substantial thoughts on what it means about us as a culture. Harry Potter borrows much from the ancient literary traditions of Homer and Virgil – visits to and from the dead, prophecies, fantastic beasts to be slain, enchantresses to be escaped, magical objects, tragic flaws, heroic friends lost in combat, battles, and choices of world-determining import. The difference is that heroism and glory in war are not ends in and of themselves in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, as they are in the Illiad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. All of the sublime feats of daring and self-sacrifice that this last volume offers are done to keep the mundane yet magical manifestations of human love going: friendship, family, marriage, children, education. As the epilogue, with its glimpse of a new generation of Hogwarts students, parents, and teachers, demonstrates unquestionably, the purpose of heroism is not becoming a hero, but preserving the people, places, traditions, and values that gave you the strength to confront death and pain in the first place.As to the lasting power of this literary phenomenon – whether it is one for the ages – I think that cultural studies, at the very least, will see to it that future generations look back at Harry Potter. How and why did it (somewhat like, though far-surpassing, best-sellers of yore Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Sherlock Holmes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin) become such a prodigy? As to literary merit, I think, as I said earlier, that Rowling’s skill as a plotter is tremendous: She has a gift for pacing and suspense, for the deft orchestration of clues and of characters’ plot-functions. She is not a stylist – the best that can be said about her literary style is that is transparent and unobtrusive. Of characterization, I would say that Rowling’s characters have an archetypal appeal (the arch, wise, and serene mentor; the affable and fiercely loyal but intellectually diminished sidekick/best friend; the brainy, bossy, dorky-yet-attractive-in-her-braininess female), but that character development is a bit thin – nowhere near so well done as the plotting.Ultimately, though, I think this will be enough to secure Rowling and Harry literary immortality. We shall see.
The Guardian has a story in which some notable writers suggest what they think kids should be reading. While I don’t agree with British poet Laureate Andrew Motion who proffers Don Quixote, Ulysses and The Wasteland, I love that lots of more appropriate classics are suggested. I’ve long thought that young readers, perhaps having read all the Harry Potters and Lemony Snickets, should be pointed in the direction of classic books which often do not reside in “young adult” sections and thus are not always offered to young readers. Robinson Crusoe (suggested by JK Rowling), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (suggested by Philip Pullman) and Great Expectations (suggested by Motion) are all great suggestions. Nick Hornby, meanwhile, declined to make any suggestions saying:I used to teach in a comprehensive school, and I know from experience that many children are not capable of reading the books that I wanted them to read. If I choose 10 books that I think would be possible for all, it wouldn’t actually be a list that I would want to endorse. I think any kind of prescription of this kind is extremely problematic.