The place of English literary studies in the dickens of a crisis.
Distinctions, naturally, have to be drawn. One can imagine how economic recovery might be facilitated by research in engineering aimed at developing new technologies, improving competitiveness, etc. etc; or by research in some of the sciences with a more or less immediate application to industrial growth; or by research, even, into the economy itself, with a view to finding new and improved models of business activity, financial strategy and social equity. But what contribution can literary studies make to bringing an end to the crisis nearer? More particularly, in Spain (or in any other continental European country), what claim can English Literary Studies have on the public purse when five million people are unemployed and 1.6 million households are officially without income of any kind? In a country where the only growth sectors are pawn broking, debt collection and house eviction (oh, and luxury goods), in a country witness to the obscenity of the victims of that eviction bailing out through their taxes the embezzling and pilfering banks that evicted them, what right had I to ask for the same twenty or thirty thousand euros that might make the difference between a family keeping up with their mortgage repayments for another couple of years or finding themselves next Christmas sleeping under the same bridge as the young Josiah Bounderby in Hard Times? When basic staples such as rice, pasta and eggs are running out at the charity food kitchens, will those Spanish families standing in the queue be much nourished or otherwise satisfied by the intellectual luxury of my researches into, say, (English) early modern travel writing or allusion in contemporary (UK) fiction?
What ultimately underlies this bout of "shouting in church" (2) is the hoary old question of the role of the arts in contemporary society and, within the arts, of literary studies, that runt of the humanities litter which was born with an inferiority complex and has only survived so far by dint of its enviable capacity to constantly reinvent itself in order to adapt to constantly changing cultural configurations. Searching around for illumination on this point, a few months ago I fastened hopefully on an issue of the magazine Oxford Today, which is distributed free of charge the length and breadth of the world to former students of the University of Oxford. Much of the issue was devoted to addressing the question "Whither the humanities?", the preciousness of that interrogative pronoun boding ill for its attempts to salvage an education in the arts for the twenty-first century. A glittering trio of Oxford luminaries had been assembled to reflect on the matter, and for reasons of guild loyalty I turned first to Jonathan Bate's 2011: 31) contribution. He had approached ten colleagues in search of their justification for the public funding of humanities research in the midst of recession. Answers ranged from the preening and flippant ("If you believe knowledge is too expensive, try ignorance" or, on the translation of a work of philosophy into Arabic, "Given the billions that the military option wastes, wasn't I more economically efficient?") to the utilitarian ("there would be no Oxford English Dictionary" or "Literature offers public benefit in the arena of healthcare" or "Bertrand Russell's philosophical investigations [...] paved the way for the artificial languages essential to computer science" or "questions about 'Britishness' and cultural identity [...] can only be answered properly by humanities research") to the hackneyed ("Humanities research engenders and fosters critical thinking"). The preening, flippant and hackneyed can be safely ignored, so too the utilitarian: life is conceivable without the OED; bibliotherapy for terminal patients is all well, good and relatively cheap, but give me a healthy shot of morphine (even if it means coughing up 10 or 20 euros by way of co-payment); and are the answers of "humanities research" to those questions about "Britishness" and "cultural identity" really any more "proper" than the bartender's gut feeling or the novelist's metaphors? Bate himself offered little better, apart from (also hackneyed) "the humanities are there to teach us what it is to be human and what is to be valued in civil society" and (utilitarian) "students of the humanities are among our foremost interpreters of the past. A little historical perspective might have been welcome amidst the moral panic of [the London riots of] August 2011." Welcome indeed, but more welcome still ways of predicting and preventing such riots in the first place--but that seems not to be on the humanities' curriculum. In short, little illumination from the dreaming spires but a good deal of do-it-yourself grave-digging.
Part of the reason for the inability of the humanities and, more particularly, of literary studies to muster a half-decent argument in its own defence is, I think, its built-in sense of other-worldly superiority, of august, immaculate loftiness--of, in a word, elitist self-sufficiency. Fired perhaps by their deep-seated inferiority complex, the humanities have reveled in the arts versus sciences debate and equipped themselves with a vainglorious siege mentality born of an aristocratic disdain for the mechanical, hands-on, anti-establishment character of science and industry. For, as often happens in dear old Blighty, matters of taste, differences of opinion and intellectual leanings soon become class-signed and potentially divisive of society; and Dickens was as aware--and guilty--of this as anybody else. Some of his characters often fall into one or other of the following pair of mutually exclusive categories, the feckless dilettante and the diligent plodder. The former are usually members of the decadent aristocracy, minor gentry or hangers-on, and the legitimacy of their social pretensions is only matched by the ineffectuality of their artistic ones: a case in point is Bleak House's Mr Turveydrop, Master of Deportment, who reclines on his sofa "like the second gentleman in Europe", pines for the Regency, and gives his son the name of Prince--his exploited, sickly son whose mission in life is to ensure that "deportment is not wholly trodden under foot by mechanics" (ch. 23). The diligent plodders are often precisely that, "mechanics", engineers or industrialists. A case in point is Robert Rouncewell the self-made "iron master", whose successful industrial career is met with the haughty contempt of Sir Leicester Dedlock and the incomprehension of his own brother George, who prefers a life in the service of the obsolescent feudalism Dedlock represents to a position in Thomas's foundry somewhere up north, that vague, grim and grimy locale which the English popular imagination still associates with dull scientists and engineers. (3)
Of course, all of this has a ring to it of C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures (1959). Rightly so, for Snow's diagnosis is still essentially correct. One may take exception to much of his analysis--his crude application of the categories of religion and politics, for example (though he himself admitted his blunt polarities were more rhetorical device than scientific procedure); one may point out too how the scenarios he depicted never came to fruition, or that the solution he recommends is overcompensatory in its emphasis on a scientific education; but the basic division of English society he puts forward and the prejudices on which it is founded and which it perpetuates is still applicable. As Snow suggests, "traditional culture" is "unscientific" when not plain "antiscientific", and "intellectuals", particularly "literary intellectuals", are "natural Luddites" (1959: 11-12, 23). Oddly enough, society at large still sets a premium on intellectual culture over scientific culture: to use Snow's own example, greater value is still attached to having read a play by Shakespeare than being familiar with the Second Law of Thermodynamics (1959: 16). Snow argues that the emergence of the two cultures was a byproduct of the process of industrialization, the consequence of what he calls the "crystallization" of social forms when "economic inequalities" are "iron[ed] out" (1959: 18).
Again, I think he is right, as long as the roots of industrialization are traced back far enough to reach the second half of the sixteenth century and the whole of the seventeenth when the divorce proceedings between wit and science, so uneasily joined in wedlock by John Redford (The Marriage of Wit and Science, 1561), were set in motion. For where the humanists had prized wit as affording a means to secular mortality, converting the pseudo-Virgilian tag "vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt" into an article of scientific and artistic faith, later generations transformed it into a sign of social status which set apart those who sheltered beneath its aegis from those others who followed the more demeaning pursuits of industry. Indeed, wit's debasement is marked by the metamorphosis of the grand aspirations encapsulated by the Latin tag into the cheapjack resourcefulness connoted by its English translation, "to live by your wits". And those who did live by their wits also came to be known by the colloquial sobriquet of "knights of industry", the ironic point of which is that hard graft is not always a precondition of success, as proven by the idler members of the aristocracy for whom industry was a dirty word.
It is fascinating to see how in Little Dorrit (1857) Dickens insinuates English society's division into Snow's two cultures through his recurrent deployment of the very cliches we have just discussed, not least when Blandois/Rigaud boasts to Mrs Clennam as, the novel reaches its climax, that " am a Knight of Industry" (Dickens 1985: 837). But the French blackmailer and wife-murderer is only one of (at least) four "knights of industry" exposed by the novel. There is, of course, Dorrit himself, who lives quite ably by his wits as the maudlin' sponger of the Marshalsea, before slowly losing his wits when the financial windfall ensconces him among the foremost idle rich of Europe. There is, too, Henry Gowan, whose bon disant cynicism is symptomatic of the landed, leisured class fallen on hard times and who admits to Sparkler that he has to live by his "mother wit" (561). Most remarkable, perhaps, is Mr Merdle (the French root of whose name should not be overlooked), the giant fraudster who amasses extraordinary wealth and attains to the loftiest of positions quite simply by living by his wits. Sadly, more than a century and half later, the Merdles keep floating to the top of societies worldwide, when not otherwise sinking their economies. Even a criminal like Blandois/Rigaud is not unaware of the pernicious hold the establishment's knights of industry have on society. As early as the opening chapter, he regales his Marseilles cell-mate Cavalletto with an autobiographical sketch which doubles as instruction in the ways of the world: "I have been treated and respected as a gentleman universally. If you try to prejudice me by making out that I have lived by my wits--how do your lawyers live--your politicians your intriguers--your men of the Exchange" (48).
In contrast to these four "knights of industry" the novel presents us with Daniel Doyce, "the originator" (Dickens 1985: 239) and representative of scientific culture. The England of the Circumlocution Office, institutional incarnation of "traditional culture" has no room for Doycean inventiveness; refused patents, this "public offender" whose crime is his wit as a Renaissance humanist might have understood the term ("he has been ingenious, and he has been trying to turn his ingenuity to his country's services" ) is forced to take his inventions out of the county and seek contracts and success abroad, more precisely in France, that "barbaric power", as the narrator puts it with irony (735); and Doyce was not the only inventor to be spurned by his own countrymen. (4) When at the very end of the novel Meagles reports back from France that Doyce is "medalled and ribboned, and starred and crossed, and I don't-know-what-all'd, like a born nobleman" (891), we cannot be quite sure if he speaks figuratively or not. But his words hold out the possibility that Doyce's mechanical wit has squared the industry-nobility circle--that he may even have become a true knight of industry, or at any rate a French chevalier, a title which reminds us of the French origin of the English sobriquet (OED "knight", 12.c).
Dickens had little to say about the university system. Indeed his silence on the matter is only matched by the clamorous haziness of his descriptions of the industrial base. Probably the very idea of "English Studies" would have baffled him completely: after all, its non-existence--creative writing courses and all--had done him no harm, and he would have deplored, when not lampooning, our modish technospeak. But if English Studies and, more generally, the humanities, is to survive the present crisis, I think it should do some pretty serious thinking about what it has to offer and how best to offer it. And I am convinced that the solution to those questions demands the bridging of the two cultures defined by Snow and textualised by Dickens. This is why, finally, the answers of Bate and his friends are wrong and may, in their self-serving introspection, prove to be dangerously misguided when Ministers of Economy in countries like Spain are casting about for the next victim of their scissors. Bate's contribution to the humanities debate in Oxford Today was sandwiched between those of philosopher of law Martha Nussbaum and neuroscientist Colin Blakemore. Nussbaum (like Snow before her) identified premature specialisation as one problem of the English university system and pointed out how US undergraduates "are required to maintain a broad focus and several 'minor' subjects" during the first two years of their degrees, which means mathematicians can appreciate poetry and poets admire science (2011: 29). Whatever else it may have done, Bologna did little to broaden the interdisciplinary scope of undergraduate degrees and, therefore, to enforce the literary intellectuals to come out of their ivory towers and start communing with scientists and engineers. According to Nussbaum, one advantage of the US system is that when, years later, engineers and businessmen have made their fortunes, their nostalgia for the "great texts" they read at university may make them reach for their pockets when straitened English departments need funding. Blakemore, too, implies that the humanities need to find their justification in the context of a more universalist system of university education where scientists and artists rub shoulders, inspire each other mutually and share the same "devot[ion] to the totality of scholarship" (2011: 33). The high-sounding ideas of Nussbaum and Blakemore, which evoke long-dead ideals of the Renaissance man, are unlikely to cut much ice with Ministers of Education; much less with Ministers of Economy. And if they really hold water, it seems that those who worked out the details of Bologna have quite simply missed the boat.
Nor do they help me as I try to justify asking the Spanish Government for a little more money to help me tend my little plot of English Literary Studies. Yet, as Nussbaum concludes, academics "owe the public a broad and sustained account of what they do and why" (2011: 29). As a lecturer and researcher of English Literature based in Spain, I'm afraid I cannot offer my public any such account. Our colleagues in the UK may still, at a pinch, talk about preserving the national cultural tradition; and colleagues at the most privileged and/or privately funded institutions may still be able to invoke that "training of the mind" so jealously arrogated by Classical Studies and revamped (I suppose) as the post-Bologna competence of "critical thinking" that we stick into our course guides to fill them out a bit. But how can I and other English literary academics based on the wrong side of the English Channel justify our continued sponging off cash-strapped states? If you can't help me out with the Second Law of Dynamics, at least a few answers to that question would be welcome. And if none can be found, then "God Bless Us, Every One!"
Bate, Jonathan 2011. Finding Public Value. Oxford Today 24.1 (Michaelmas Term): 30-31.
Blakemore, Colin 2011. Fearful Asymmetry. Oxford Today 24.1 (Michaelmas Term): 32-3.
Dickens, Charles 1971. Bleak House. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Dickens, Charles 1985. Little Dorrit. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Nussbaum, Marta 2011. "Not for Profit". A conversation with Richard Lofthouse. Oxford Today 24.1 (Michaelmas Term): 28-9.
Shelston, Alan (ed.) 1985. Dickens: Dombey and Son and Little Dorrit. A Casebook. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Snow, C. P. 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: CUP.
Uglow, Jenny 2002. The Lunar Men. The Friends Who Made the Future 1730-1810. London: Faber.
Vianu, Lidia 2011. Review of C. George Sandulescu, The Joycean Monologue. The European English Messenger 20.2 (Autumn): 75-79.
(2) This piece picks up the gauntlet, and the expression, thrown down by L. Vianu (2011: 75-6).
(3) When I was an undergraduate, there was no creature on the ladder of all God's creation lower than the "northern chemist".
(3) Doyce's footsore companions in fatigue include the likes of James Watt and Matthew Boulton (see Uglow 2002) and, around the time Little Dorrit was being written, Sir Rowland Hill, originator of the penny-post, Chief Secretary of the Post Office, and bone of contention in the spat between James FitzJames Stephen of the Edinburgh Review and Dickens himself (see Shelston [ed.] 1985: 118-23).
Jonathan P. A. Sell
University of Alcala, Spain
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|Title Annotation:||Research; Charles Dickens|
|Author:||Sell, Jonathan P.A.|
|Publication:||European English Messenger|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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