ON THE BENEFIT OF LETTERS

17 Mar

nabakov's notes

In the early 1950s at a presitigious university in western New York, students studying Tolstoy would receive the following question on their exam papers:

xi. Describe the wallpaper in the Karenins’ bedroom.

The university might have been prestigious but the scholar who set that question had believed it to be in a state of decline. The Russian Lit school employed people who didn’t speak or write Russian. How could you teach Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Pushkin or Gorky if you hadn’t read them in the original. He had high standards this guy. About 99% of the Western Canon was, to him, a catalog of mediocrity.

Describe the wallpaper? I would’ve failed as an undergraduate having been hit with this question. I always paid attention to the grand sweep of things. And with all the political theory running thru everything I got away with it. Describe the wallpaper. It seems trivial but think about it, you would truly have to have studied Anna Kerenina thoroughly to answer this question because it’s a minor detail. And, if you had, you would have made some easy marks. If you hadn’t, you would be exposed as a fraud. You couldn’t fake it.

Thankfully there were courses as harsh (but nowhere near as poetic) as Vladimir Nabakov’s at my university. The rising faction in the faculty had realized that the Humanities was being challenged for its very validity. They realized also that the basics of education in the Word had been eroding sometime. Nowhere near as bad as today, we’d actually learned grammar, but still. What they did was design courses that corrected this, that forced you to deploy high levels of skill in reading, writing, speaking – in the use of language. It’s to them, and others with such high standards, that I owe my skills with the word.

In this scientistic universe it’s automatic to ask: what good is someone who reads fiction well enough to describe the wallpaper man? Get with the real world dude: a place of textmessage and formfiller. It’s more important to know brands then some dead Russian guy a million years ago. The harshest objection come from the engineers: this is not knowledge. It’s fiction.

In reply the thing that comes to my mind is another work of fiction.

John Le Carré has expressed certain forebodings about the marginalization of the Arts in his books; quietly of course, he’s an Englishman. But it’s there. At the climax of the The Russia House, Barley Blair our hero, is about to betray his country. He’s being monitored from a remote station by a mixed MI5/CIA crew who believe he’s picking up vital secrets for them. But he doesn’t care about that. He’s in love with the Russian girl who’s supplying the secrets.

Before, she’d made contact with a dissident Russian physicist using a payphone at a hospital. They have a code and there’s something the physicist’s to say if the secret police have arrested him. She calls, he answers and says it! They’re busted. In the Soviet Union this meant torture and death. When she hears it, she hangs up right away and, understandably, breaks down. Barley has to get her out of there. He gets her to the car and drives her home.

And then, in exchange for her life, he makes arrangements to betray his country.

Fast forward to the climatic moment. The MI5/CIA crew are listening. They don’t realize that the KGB have sprung the physicist and his beautiful friend. They have no idea that Barley is going to hand something vital to the enemy and not take something vital from them. Everything looks normal. No-one’s been arrested ’cause Barley’s made his deal. But one of the English guys keeps thinking about it. Why? Why did he drive home from the hospital. And he snaps. He says: call it off. Don’t give Barley the package.

Well the CIA are running the show and they laugh it off. He insists and they threaten to have him removed from the room. And then Barley goes into the contact building and disappears forever. The English guy was right.

One of Le Carré’s themes is concern about the increasingly scientific and rationalized mode in which espionage (and everything else) is carried out. This is particularly due to the CIA’s hegemony in the field. The way Americans do things. They have know-how sure, but something is missing. Something the Brits did better in the glory days before Philby; before the long decline. Something to do with classical education. Learning Greek and Latin. Reading Ovid, Catallus, Virgil and Homer in the original. Some aspect of the human mind then so cultivated, now neglected.

What? Rationalization mislikes anything that cannot be described clinically or reduced to a formula. But to notice a peripheral, minor detail in the theatre of human interaction, to recall it, to question it and to finally realize a significance is not a skill that gets taught in a Math class. If you can describe the wallpaper in the Karenins’ bedroom you will remember what is forgotten because seemingly unimportant. You will recall it the moment it suddenly becomes vital.

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3 Responses to “ON THE BENEFIT OF LETTERS”

  1. Peter Patton March 19, 2011 at 2:44 am #

    Hi Adrien

    Ah, so finally the long promised response to Cultural Studies. Look fantastic, and very grown-up brainy. Just quickly, on Anna . You say

    Describe the wallpaper? I would’ve failed as an undergraduate having been hit with this question. I always paid attention to the grand sweep of things…

    So much of this is serendipity. Through pure luck, I had a fantastic K-6 education. My parents moved to an area, packed with baby-boomers, and their young families. So my local public school had something like 2,000 students from K to Year 6. By 6th class, there were 10 classes, which were streamed into 2 A (Advanced) and 8 P (normal) classes of 30+ kids each.

    Fortunately, there were no obvious self-selection dynamics, that would otherwise have simply created a ghetto with a large public school full of ghetto kids. So through the sheer size of the population, there had to be a reasonable number of kids at the [very] smart end of the bell-curve, and of course the obvious corollary, which became obvious once we got to High School. While this would be the case at any school, the sheer number would be much smaller. Because of the streaming, I shared the same class of 30 kids almost from 2nd grade to sixth.

    By sixth grade, as a class, we were pretty advanced, both within the school, and compared across the state. Every Friday morning, we had a Maths test, a Spelling Test, a Reading Comprehension test, and a Writing test. One of the writing tests, I have never forgotten:

    To his 6A1 class, Mr. Allan wrote on the blackboard.

    Describe the sensation of peeling an orange.

    Time: 30 minutes

    What this taught all of us, is the confidence that others thought we were capable of such a gut-wrenchingly impossible task; secondly, we all wrote on average, at least one page. Random answers were shared with the rest of the class, especially the best and the worst. Some of them were freakishly sophisticated. I can still remember bits of them today. Thirdly, it taught us that we actually were capable of attempting anything put before us, and no matter how seemingly unprepared or unskilled we thought we were, chances are we’d produce something to the very right of the bell curve.

    To this day, I have not been set a more daunting test than that one.

    The wallpaper in Anna Karenin’s bedroom? Pig’s ass. That’s for the spazzes in 6P8. For one, they were more than orange! 🙂 Try

    Describe the sensation of touching/lying-on the wallpaper in Anna Karenin’s bedroom. 🙂

    • AC Stewart March 21, 2011 at 7:32 am #

      The test you describe is the basis for creative IQ testing. The one I had was to write down ever use you can think of for a brick. You get five minutes or something.

      Some people with very high standard IQs score quite poorly on creative tests and vice versa.

  2. AC Stewart March 21, 2011 at 7:33 am #

    I’d much rather describe the sensation of touching/lying on Anna Kerenin myself. 🙂

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