The 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to French writer (and literature professor) Annie Ernaux, already laden with awards. I’d never heard of her, and those who informed me of this award hadn’t, either. I wondered if her books haven’t been translated into English, but it turns out that many of them have been, including The Years, mentioned by the NYT below.
Nobody guessed her in our October 4 contest, so the losing streak there continues, despite people being asked to guess just one winner. Many guessed Salman Rushdie, and I agree that he deserves a Nobel, but the Committee surely knows what would happen if he was given that prize. But if that’s the reason he hasn’t won, they are cowards.
At any rate, it’s time for you literature mavens to give Ernaux a try.
Here’s the announcement from the Swedish Academy (click to read):
The citation and press releases are very short, saying just this:
The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022 is awarded to the French author Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.
In her writing, Ernaux consistently and from different angles, examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class. Her path to authorship was long and arduous.
I presume the video below will tell you more as does this NYT article (click to read):
The announcement was made with her having heard of it! From the NYT:
The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to Annie Ernaux, the French novelist whose intensely personal books have spoken to generations of women by highlighting incidents from her own life, including a back-street abortion in the 1960s and a passionate extramarital affair.
Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which that decides the prize, announced the decision at a news conference in Stockholm, lauding the “courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”
The committee had not been able to reach Ernaux by telephone, Malm said, but he expected her to “soon be aware of the news.” They intended to present her with the prize on Dec. 10.
Ernaux, 82, becomes only the 17th female writer to have won the prize, widely considered the most prestigious award in world literature, since it was formed in 1901. She is the second woman to be given the prize in three years after Louise Glück, who was awarded the 2020 prize for writing “that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
. . . Outside France, she is perhaps best known for “The Years,” which weaves together events from over 70 years of Ernaux’s life with French history. In 2019, “The Years” was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, a major British award for fiction translated into English.
I’ve put up the words of Thomas Wolfe several times on October 1 (he was born on October 3, 1900 and died of tuberculosis at just 37). This is a repost from exactly two years ago. The prose is gorgeous and evocative, and of course appropriate to the day.
No writer has captured the color and feel of America better than Thomas Wolfe. From Of Time and the River:
Now October has come again which in our land is different from October in the other lands. The ripe, the golden month has come again, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling. Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons, and all things living on the earth turn home again. The country is so big that you cannot say that the country has the same October. In Maine, the frost comes sharp and quick as driven nails, just for a week or so the woods, all of the bright and bitter leaves, flare up; the maples turn a blazing bitter red, and other leaves turn yellow like a living light, falling upon you as you walk the woods, falling about you like small pieces of the sun so that you cannot say that sunlight shakes and flutters on the ground, and where the leaves. . .
October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run. The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.
The corn is shocked: it sticks out in hard yellow rows upon dried ears, fit now for great red barns in Pennsylvania, and the big stained teeth of crunching horses. The indolent hooves kick swiftly at the boards, the barn is sweet with hay and leather, wood and apples—this, and the clean dry crunching of the teeth is all: the sweat, the labor, and the plow is over. The late pears mellow on a sunny shelf, smoked hams hang to the warped barn rafters; the pantry shelves are loaded with 300 jars of fruit. Meanwhile the leaves are turning, turning up in Maine, the chestnut burrs plop thickly to the earth in gusts of wind, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.
This is what we were all afraid of. It’s been 33 years since the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, but the rancor remains. He’s had a bodyguard, I think, but somehow the protection was bypassed. An AP report gives sketchy details about his attack in New York. It sounds serious, and the other photos at the AP are not heartening.
Some of the article:
Salman Rushdie, the author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was attacked Friday as he was about to give a lecture in western New York.
An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man storm the stage at the Chautauqua Institution and begin punching or stabbing Rushdie as he was being introduced. The 75-year-old author was pushed or fell to the floor, and the man was restrained.
Rushdie was quickly surrounded by a small group of people who held up his legs, presumably to send more blood to his chest.
His condition was not immediately known.
Hundreds of people in the audience gasped at the sight of the attack and were then evacuated.
Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” has been banned in Iran since 1988, as many Muslims consider it to be blasphemous. A year later, Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death.
A bounty of over $3 million has also been offered for anyone who kills Rushdie.
Iran’s government has long since distanced itself from Khomeini’s decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered. In 2012, a semi-official Iranian religious foundation raised the bounty for Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million.
Rushdie dismissed that threat at the time, saying there was “no evidence” of people being interested in the reward.
That year, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie had used while in hiding.
Here’s a photo. We don’t know who the perpetrator was, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I’m hoping hard that he’ll survive.
Today we’ll have two posts on how the “Elect”—et’s use that instead of “woke”, so as to conform to John McWhorter’s supposedly non-pejorative word—are changing or banning art to both confirm virtue and prevent others from enjoying good painting, dance, and writing. One source will be the liberal media; the other the conservative media. This first post deals mainly with literature, but I’ve put some “racialization of art” stuff at the very bottom.
Let’s start with the liberal media, which of course reports Elect shenanigans less often than does the liberal “MSM”. In this case, however, the Guardian is the source. This concerns Art Spiegelman’s “graphic novel” Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature (the “Special Awards and Letters” category) in 1986.
Before I first read Maus, I was disdainful of “graphic novels,” thinking they were just comic books for adults, made for people who wanted to look at pictures rather than read.
Was I wrong! I first saw Maus at the 57th Street Bookstore soon after I arrived in Chicago, and, knowing the plaudits it got, I pulled it off the shelf. I started reading, and then couldn’t stop. The artwork, I found, added immensely to the power of the book, especially the depiction of all characters as animals, though one wouldn’t expect that power in a book about the Holocaust. I bought it, which I rarely do with books due to my groaning shelves, and it’s now one of several graphic novels I own. (The other two are volumes of wonderful series The Rabbi’s Cat, given to me by a friend.) It’s not just that the books have moggies in them; the attraction is, as in Animal Farm, that messages can be driven home more deeply using animals as metaphors than by straight depiction of human actions.
At any rate, everyone should read Maus (and I also recommend The Rabbi’s Cat). But, according to the Guardian the good (?) people on a Tennessee school board have taken it upon themselves to deprive students of this access—for no good reason.
Click on the screenshot below to read the piece. You know it’s gotta be egregious censorship if the woke Guardian reports it!
Why did the school board, which after deciding to redact the book, find it more practical to ban it outright? Because there was a single depiction of nudity OF A MOUSE and a few swear words that kids hear (and use) every day. An excerpt from the article (my emphasis):
A Tennessee school board has banned a Pulitzer prize-winning novel from its classrooms over eight curse words and an illustration of a naked cartoon mouse.
The graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by New Yorker Art Spiegelman, uses hand-drawn illustrations of mice and cats to depict how the author’s parents survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
The graphic memoir elevated a pulp mass medium to high art when it nabbed a slew of literary awards in 1992 but appears not to have impressed educators in Mcminn county.
Ten board members unanimously agreed in favour of removing the novel from the eighth-grade curriculum, citing its use of the phrase “God Damn” and drawings of “naked pictures” of women, according to minutes taken from a board of education meeting earlier this month.
Here’s the only passage about nudity (OF A MOUSE) in the school board minutes (have a look at the link above):
Mike Cochran- I will start. I went to school here thirteen years. I learned math, English, Reading and History. I never had a book with a naked picture in it, never had one with foul language. In third grade I had one of my classmates come up to me and say hey what’s this word? I sounded it out and it was “damn,” and I was real proud of myself because I sounded it out. She ran straight to the teacher and told her I was cussing. Besides that one book which I think she brought from home, now I’ve seen a cuss word in a textbook at school. So, this idea that we have to have this kind of material in the class in order to teach history, I don’t buy it.
. . .We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there. You see the naked pictures, you see the razor, the blade where the mom is cutting herself. You see her laying in a pool of her own blood. You have all this stuff in here, again, reading this to myself it was a decent book until the end. I thought the end was stupid to be honest with you. A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father, so I don’t really know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff. It’s just the opposite, instead of treating his father with some kind of respect, he treated his father like he was the victim.
We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.
At least Mickey Mouse had the decency to cover his shame with pants!
At first they thought about just redacting the panels with nudity and cussing, but that would lead to copyright violations:
“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” director of school, Lee Parkison, is recorded as saying in the session’s opening remarks.
Parkison continued to say he had “consulted with our attorney” and as a result “we decided the best way to fix or handle the language in this book was to redact it … to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to.”
Board member Tony Allman supported the move to remove the “vulgar and inappropriate” content, arguing: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”
. . . After much discussion over the redaction of words the members found objectionable, the board eventually decided that alongside copyright concerns, it would be better to ban the graphic novel altogether.
Eventually they voted to entirely remove the book from the eight-grade curriculum. Those kids are about fourteen years old, and you tell me that none of them has seen a drawing or photo of a naked woman before, or heard (much less used) the words “God damn”.
But apparently the use of animals was said to”brutalize the Holocaust”, as if it wasn’t sufficiently brutal. Indeed, to bring home the nature of the Holocaust, pictures (either photos or artwork) are essential; words alone are insufficient:
Board member Tony Allman supported the move to remove the “vulgar and inappropriate” content, arguing: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”
“I am not denying it was horrible, brutal, and cruel,” Allman said in reference to the genocide and murder of six million European Jews during the second world war.
“It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy,” he added.
Allman also took aim at Spiegelman himself, alleging: “I may be wrong, but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy.”
“You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”
“We are talking about teaching ethics to our kids, and it starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there,” Cochran said.
“We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”
Here we have a bunch of Pecksniffian parents making the decision that fourteen-year-olds shouldn’t have access to a famous, powerful, and moving graphic novel.
Spiegelman said he was “baffled” by the outcome in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday. “It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’” the 73-year-old author said, adding he thought the school board was “Orwellian” for approving the ban.
Spiegelman’s Jewish parents were both sent to Nazi concentration camps and his mother took her own life when he was just 20.
“I’ve met so many young people who … have learned things from my book,” Spiegelman said. “I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented. There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”
Well of course not all of Tennessee is demented, but there are some school board members who are acting, well, I won’t give my reaction. Let’s just say it’s similar to Neil Gaiman’s:
There's only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days. https://t.co/fs1Jl62Qd8
I don’t know where else to put this item, but it appears that Wokeness Electness has invaded the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I don’t know how far the rot has spread, but readers might check for themselves. We know, at least, that David and Canova, were racists. They could at least have depicted Socrates as a person of color!
When the “Black Lives Matter” slogan was coopted for other purposes—like the “Blue Lives Matter” slogan lauding police or the “All Lives Matter” slogan meant to denigrate its model—the mimic phrases were rightly condemned as “whataboutery.” By using the original words, the other slogans subtly mocked or even repudiated the slogan—and thus the goal—of Black Lives Matter.
This goes for other forms of ideological and moral statements. When one condemns, for example, attacks on Asians, as happened during and after the Florida Spa massacre (not definitely targeted at Asians) and during the pandemic, you should defend the rights of Asians to live in America without fear, and should condemn attacks on Asians motivated by bigotry. To lump in all other minorities at the same time dilutes the solidarity one expresses with a beleaguered group, and thus what solace the group can take. (If you want to condemn all bigotry, then just say that, but it confers more love to defend a specific group under attack rather than just saying, “Can’t we just love one another?”)
This holds for all beleaguered minorities except one. And you know which one that is: the Jews. Although they’re the most frequent victims of hate crimes in the U.S. on a per capita basis, Jews though a tiny minority, are not considered minorities and are not considered oppressed—despite the data I just gave and the increasing tendency of the American Left to tilt towards anti-Israel sentiments and, indeed, anti-Semitic movements like BDS. Lest you fault me for going off on anti-Semitism again, be aware that this is one of the biggest hypocrisies of the Western Left, right up there with the Left’s failure to defend the rights of gays and women that are regularly abrogated in Arab countries. After all, Arabs are considered people of color and Jews are honorary white people.
So, when you hear someone denigrate anti-Semitic attacks, you’ll often hear, right alongside it, denigration of “Islamophobia”. This whataboutery is, I think, almost unique to Jews. You cannot condemn attacks on Jews without condemning attacks on Muslims at the same time. It’s like saying “Black Lives Matter—and so do Asian ones.” It’s not simply an American attempt to be fair, but expresses the uniquely unhappy position of Jews in this world.
At any rate, the failure to include Muslims when condemning anti-Semitism just cost April Powers her job as the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors’ (SCBWI) first “Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer”. All she did was issue a statement condemning anti-Semitism. Her mistake was not only to issue that statement without mentioning “Islamophobia”, but also to defend what she did on Facebook. For that she was fired. The irony is that April Powers is not only Jewish, but black.
This ridiculous situation, so common in Young Adult Fiction—I nominate that field, along with the Knitting Community, as the Wokest area of endeavor in America—is described on Bari Weiss’s site in a nice piece by Kat Rosenfield. You can read it for free by clicking on the screenshot below.
Here’s April Powers, the once Chief Equity and Inclusion officer, hired last year
Below: Rosenfield’s description of the SCBWI. I’ve followed their shenanigans over the years, and they seem to me nothing more than a group of sanctimonious Pecksniffs whose purpose is to ensure that no young adult literature is published that doesn’t conform to their ideological views. They are, pure and simple, a bunch of odious censors.
The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors is an organization for established and aspiring professionals in children’s and young adult literature. The publishing industry is famously left-wing, but the world of children’s publishing makes the rest of the industry look like milquetoast moderates. In the past few years, Young Adult authors have rewritten already published work deemed offensive. They have seen the ratings of a not-yet-released book torpedoed by organized takedown campaigns on Goodreads. They have cancelled their own titles after (often flimsy) allegations of racism, or been compelled to reveal private, even traumatic details of their lives in order to “prove” that they have the standing to tell certain kinds of stories. In one particularly notorious case, Kirkus Reviews retracted its starred review of the novel “American Heart” and issued a new one scolding its “problematic” elements after a Twitter outrage.
It was in that context that the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors put up a post on Facebook that began: “The SCBWI unequivocally recognizes that the world’s 14.7 million Jewish people (less than 0.018% of the population) have the right to life, safety, and freedom from scapegoating and fear.” The June 10 post went on to condemn antisemitism as “one of the oldest forms of hatred,” and asked readers to “join us in not looking away.”
Here’s that post.
Things rapidly got out of hand when SCBWI member Razan Abdin-Adnani (described as the daughter of Palestinian refugees) asked if the organization “also planned to denounce violence against Palestinians.” Powers responded that the statement reflects “recent surges in hate crimes & violence around the world. If we see a surge against Muslims globally as we have w/other groups, expect us to speak up.”
Engaging like that was a big mistake, and the Facebook fracas got hostile. Then it spread to Twitter, which of course is toxic, and Abdin-Adnani demanded a refund of her membership dues.
Rosenfeld describes the downfall of Powers, accompanied by the usual fulsome apologies, including, sadly, one by Powers herself:
You might imagine that this would have been a good time for the organization to take a principled stand, to condemn this member’s inappropriate behavior, and to make a strong statement in support of its employees, particularly its black, Jewish diversity chief.
Instead, SCBWI stayed silent as the controversy continued to blow up online. Both Powers and the SCBWI account blocked Abdin-Adnani as her tweets got more intemperate, contributing to a narrative that she had been “silenced.” Big accounts on YA Twitter signal boosted her complaints. Prominent authors demanded apologies and vowed boycotts.
Then, two weeks after the original Facebook post, Lin Oliver, the executive director of SCBWI, offered a groveling apology. Not to the Jews, for failing to stand by a simple denunciation of antisemitism, nor to a faithful employee, whom SCBWI had left to twist in the wind, but to “everyone the Palestinian community who felt unrepresented, silenced, or marginalized.” The statement went on to acknowledge “the pain our actions have caused to our Muslim and Palestinian members” — pain brought on, it seems, by daring to oppose violence against Jews. “I also want to offer my apologies to Razan Abdin-Adnani for making her feel unseen and unheard by blocking her. She has been unblocked from our feed,” Oliver wrote. (Oliver and Abdin-Adnani did not respond to requests for comment.)
Although Powers insists that SCBWI did not compel her resignation, SCBWI happily took credit for it. The apology noted: “As a remedy to these events, we have taken some initial steps: 1. Effective immediately, we have accepted the resignation of April, our Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer.”
Toward the end of the organization’s apology was an abject note from Powers herself: “By posting an antisemitism statement, our intention was to stay out of politics. . . . I neglected to address the rise in Islamophobia, and deeply regret that omission. . . While this doesn’t fix the pain and disappointment that you feel by my mishandling of the moment, I hope you will accept my sincerest apologies and resignation from the SCBWI.”
What began as a simple denunciation of antisemitism ended with a letter that reads like a hostage video.
Have a look at SCBWI director Lin Oliver’s apology for neglecting to include Palestinians. Here’s a bit of that:
The words fall into the familiar order, “undrepresented, silenced, or marginalized.” All that’s missing is “violence”, “offense”, and “erasure”.
I’m saddened that Powers felt she had to apologize, too, as she had not the slightest reason to. But she is described as being an accommodating and diplomatic person, and didn’t want to make waves. At least she refuses to apologize for writing the statement about anti-Semitism.
Rosenfield ends eloquently, even adding what I see as an allusion to the movie “Chinatown”:
For the moment, at least, Jews are Schrodinger’s victims; they may or may not be deserving of sympathy, depending on who’s doing the victimizing. When a group of tiki torch-wielding white nationalists chant “Jews will not replace us!,” the condemnation is swift. But replace the tiki torch with a Palestinian flag, and call the Jews “settler colonialists,” and the equivocations roll in: Maybe that guy who threw a firebomb at a group of innocent people on the street in New York was punching up, actually?
April Powers naively believed that American Jews should get the same full-throated defense as any other minority group in the wake of a vicious attack, without ambivalence, caveats and whataboutism. That belief cost her the security of a job.
In the words of that unseen videographer: This is America, guys.
Palestinians and Muslims have cowed the American Left to the extent that no denunciation of anti-Semitic violence is possible without including a mention of “Islamophobia”. Asians, Hispanics, and other minorities don’t have the same power.
It took me 60 years to realize this, although I could have seen it all along. I presume other readers have the same experience, but I’m posting this to see if that’s true.
When I read any kind of book with a plot, be it a novel (my latest was All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski; highly recommended) or a non-scholarly book that has locations (the one I’m reading now is Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis), I immediately begin forming images of the scenes. In the case of Davis’s book, he describes scenery in great detail, and I’ve also seen some of the places he mentions, like the Everest region and Darjeeling, so it’s not hard to fill in the details in my head.
But in the case of novels, I realize that from the moment I begin reading one, I form mental images of the landscape, houses, or other places described in the book. When I read Gatsby, for instance, I can see the curtained living room of Tom and Daisy’s home, even though it’s not described in detail. And when I say “see”, I envision where all the chairs, tables, and sofas are located. When Bloom feeds his cat (mrgnkao!) and makes breakfast for Molly at the beginning of Ulysses, I have an image in my head of what his kitchen looks like, even though it’s not described.
And this persists all the way through a novel. Undoubtedly my imaginings have no relationship to what the author imagined, but I find I cannot read a book without doing this.
The curious thing is that my imaginings of what people look like are far less vivid, even if they’re described by the author. As my father used to tell me as a brain teaser, “Jerry, imagine a face you haven’t seen before.” I couldn’t do it! And I can’t imagine a face very well when it’s described in a novel. I can imagine Tom and Daisy’s house and living room, but I can’t clearly imagine what Tom or Daisy look like. I know that Anna Karenina is beautiful and Vronsky is handsome, but all I can imagine is a dress and a uniform.
This also goes for voices. And yet, when I see a movie made from a book, if there’s a big incongruity between what I hear on the screen and what I imagine the voices should sound like, it can be so jarring that I don’t want to watch the movie. (For years I followed Peanuts in the papers and kept a scrapbook with every Sunday comic strip. When they turned it into a cartoon show, the characters’ voices sounded so different from the ones I had imagined, though not consciously, that I could never watch the cartoon.)
Of course this doesn’t cause a problem when I watch a movie before I read the book (The Last Picture Show is one example), because I automatically translate the movie voices into the voices of the characters in the novel.
This is all very strange to me. Yet sometimes I think it’s impossible to read a novel without at the same time running a kind of movie through your head. Is this the case for other people?
p.s. This is NOT what Charlie Brown would sound like. (And what’s weirder is that I have no idea what he should sound like.)
You might remember my post back in February reporting how a Princeton classics professor, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, was trying to dismantle “classics” studies not only because they concentrate on white thinkers, but also, he claims, undergird racism and white supremacy. I objected, as did Andrew Sullivan and many others. But I expect to see further dismantling of “classic studies” on similar grounds as universities throughout the West become more woke.
Classics, of course, involves the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature, and, as I’ve mentioned, ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have a notion of “whiteness”. Yes, they had slaves, but most of those slaves were also white. The implication that the ancients were racists in today’s sense is simply wrong, and a horrible reason to get rid of classics departments.
But go they will. The latest is at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. As the Washington Post reported a few days ago, the University is on the verge of dissolving its Classics Department:
The decision to dissolve the department comes after a three-year review of Howard’s academic programs, said Alonda Thomas, a spokeswoman for the university. Officials determined the classics department, which does not offer a major, could be disbanded and its courses dispersed to other academic units, “which will allow the university to function more effectively and efficiently,” Thomas said.
Is that the real reason? I doubt it. There’s more:
A handful of classes taught within the division will be absorbed into other liberal arts departments, university officials said.
The decision has left students and professors scrambling to save the department, saying Howard is the only historically Black university with a classics department. A spokeswoman for the university did not immediately confirm that.
The department apparently has eight professors, four of them untenured. Those four will be let go, while the tenured profs disperse to other departments.
You can see the department webpage here, and their offerings are not insubstantial. Although there is no major in classics, there are minors in Classical Civilization, Latin, and Ancient Greek, and a fair number of courses. Surely at least half those courses will vanish as half the department is fired. And it’s sad that the only historically black university with a classics department will be depriving black students of the chance to study the ancients. Does it really matter if they were “white”? Isn’t the content of their character more germane?
Among those objecting to the department’s disbanding are Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling the department’s loss a “spiritual catastrophe” (click on screenshot below to read their op-ed). And nobody is going to criticize West and Tate for being white supremacists! Here are their mini-bios from the article:
Cornel West is a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and serves on the board of academic advisers of the Classic Learning Test. Jeremy Tate is the founder and chief executive officer of the Classic Learning Test.
And you probably know that West, who’s black, has long been an anti-racist, Leftist, socialist, and “radical democrat”, and has written extensively decrying segregation and inequality. Tate is white, and the Classic Learning Test is a new test designed to replace the SAT as a standardized test, though all standardized tests of that sort are probably doomed. The staff of the Classic Learning Test looks fairly multiracial, for what that’s worth.
But on to the short editorial.
West and Tate note at the outset that both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. found solace and inspiration in thinkers like Socrates, Cicero and Cato. And then they give their reasons for opposing Howard’s decision. They soft-pedal the white supremacy trope because they’re not trying to be divisive; rather, they want to emphasize why classics is important for everyone, including African Americans:
. . . . today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired Douglass, King and countless other freedom fighters. Amid a move for educational “prioritization,” Howard University is dissolving its classics department. Tenured faculty will be dispersed to other departments, where their courses can still be taught. But the university has sent a disturbing message by abolishing the department.
Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.
Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them.
Note that “Western crimes” is a euphemism, surely, for both racism and colonialism. But they consciously have decided to avoid connecting classics with racism—a wise decision. Although there’s a bit too much emphasis on “spirituality” in the editorial—West is a Christian—the authors rightly decry the utilitarian nature of modern education while at the same time urging blacks to engage with the intellectual rigor of the Classics:
The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation, whether that voice is Homer or students at Howard University. For this is no ordinary discussion.
The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking “What kind of creatures are we?” no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial.
Howard University is not removing its classics department in isolation. This is the result of a massive failure across the nation in “schooling,” which is now nothing more than the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon. Schooling is not education. Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity. It is the maturation and cultivation of spiritually intact and morally equipped human beings.
Students must be challenged: Can they face texts from the greatest thinkers that force them to radically call into question their presuppositions? Can they come to terms with the antecedent conditions and circumstances they live in but didn’t create? Can they confront the fact that human existence is not easily divided into good and evil, but filled with complexity, nuance and ambiguity?
This classical approach is united to the Black experience. It recognizes that the end and aim of education is really the anthem of Black people, which is to lift every voice. That means to find your voice, not an echo or an imitation of others. But you can’t find your voice without being grounded in tradition, grounded in legacies, grounded in heritages.
There’s more, but this is a substantial part of the editorial. I especially like the last paragraph above. Of course education in “heritages” must include black heritage. But given the richness of classical thought, it would be foolish to rule it irrelevant by deeming it racist or colonialist. Kudos to West and Tate!
Adam Gopnik has written his third letter (the sixth between us) in our continuing exchange on the topic shown below (click on screenshot to see all the letters, but then scroll down on the site to “Letter 6” to see Adam’s latest.
You may want to read my last letter (Letter 5) in conjunction with his latest one.
Adam defends his views on Darwin and argues that he’s not, as I suggested, projecting his own views onto writers like Dickens and Trollope. (I didn’t argue that; I said he picked from the smorgasbord of literature just those views that he found congenial to his own, and labeled those as “knowledge”). He then begins what will be an interesting discussion: do music and abstract painting give us “knowledge”? His view is “yes, they do.” I doubt I’ll agree!
I’ll respond after I get back to Chicago, and that will be my last contribution. Adam, in his fourth letter, will get the final say.
Some may feel that this is a futile exchange and the issue can never be settled, and of course I didn’t expect a lot of agreement. But my own view is that there has to be a place where the arguments about “ways of knowing” are collected, and I hope this is one such place.
Today I’m just going to report on things happening in a climate of Wokeness. I hardly need comment on them because they’re similar to things that have happened before. Take today’s posts as a documentation of the balkanization of society—and not just in America.
As I reported on March 1, a Dutch translator lined up to put the poetry of Amanda Gorman—who spoke at the Inauguration—into Dutch had to drop out after critics suggested it was inappropriate for a white person to translate the poems of a young black woman. Even Gorman approved of the translator, who, though they were white (the translator uses plural pronouns), was also “non binary”. Shouldn’t that rung on the oppression ladder count for something in this crazy world? Nope; it’s all based on skin color.
Now it’s happened again. As the Guardian reports, a poet who was to translate Gorman’s work into Catalan was deemed unsuitable because his “profile” (read: skin color and perhaps sex or age) was wrong. In this case the translator was fired rather than quitting in the face of social (justice) pressure.
Click on the screenshot to read:
The Catalan translator for the poem that American writer Amanda Gorman read at US president Joe Biden’s inauguration has said he has been removed from the job because he had the wrong “profile”.
“They told me that I am not suitable to translate it,” Catalan translator Victor Obiols told AFP on Wednesday. “They did not question my abilities, but they were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist and preferably black.”
Look at all the criteria he had to meet: age, sex, race, and degree of activism! If you read Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, “The Hill We Climb“, which is neither linguistically, intellectually complex, nor subtle, you’ll know that what’s required here is simply a sensitivity to poetry and the ability to translate from one language to another.
Not only that, but Obiols had already translated works from English into Catalan, including Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare—writers that are surely more difficult to tackle than is Gorman.
Obois was supposed to translate “The Hill We Climb” into an apparently standalone version, with a foreword by Oprah Winfrey, when he got word that “he was not the right person”. It’s not clear who made this decision. Obois didn’t go gentle, as opposed to the Dutch translator:
“It is a very complicated subject that cannot be treated with frivolity,” said Obiols, a resident of Barcelona.
“But if I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”
Yes, an obvious point, but a good one. Likewise, Ezra Pound would have been deemed unsuitable to translate old English and Chinese poetry into modern English, but he did a fantastic job: those translations are some of his finest work. Read “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”
You could find innumerable cases of translators who differed in ethnicity, age, race, sex, and so on from their subjects, but who did great jobs. Constance Garnett (1861-1946), an English woman, was and is still famous for her translations of Russian literature, and it was through her translations that I became acquainted with the works of Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol (she translated 71 books of Russian literature, and some of them were big ‘uns!). Her work is sensitive and poetic. But she was neither male nor Russian, so fie with her!
There are only two possible reasons for rejecting a translator in a case like this. The first is purely ideological: you have to find a translator that aligns with the writer for reasons of social justice, perhaps as a form of reparations or literary affirmative action. The second has to do with quality: one could claim that political/racial/sexual alignment is necessary to do a good job of translation. I think that reason has been amply disproven, leaving the first reason—the Woke one—as the only plausible alternative.
If you want more evidence, I propose this experiment: find a black female activist Catalan translator (good luck with that!) to translate Gorman’s poem into English, as well as a number of other translators: young Catalan white women, non-Catalan white women, old Catalan black women, Catalan women who are not activists, Asian women who speak Catalan but aren’t activists, and so on. Then put all the translations side by side in a blind study and see if neutral Catalan-and-English speaking observers, judging by the translation alone, can pick out the one poem translated by the wholly “appropriate” translator. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t be able to do it. And if that failed, it shows that you can’t argue that only the properly aligned translator can do justice to the original poem. Clearly, the first explanation: compatibility with Wokeness, is more plausible. It’s also ridiculous.
I have yet to see a full explanation from the Translation Cancelers of exactly why differences in ethnicity, age, race, and sex are necessary for an Amanda Gorman translation. They just use the word “inappropriate”.
As I wrote about two weeks ago, Adam Gopnik, a well-known writer who’s on staff at The New Yorker, is engaging me in an Internet discussion about “ways of knowing” on the “Conversation” site of Letter. I was going to post only when the exchange—which will involve either three or four letters each—was complete, but I decided that I’d let readers know as each letter goes up. I’ve just posted my response to Adam, which is my second letter and #3 in the series at the website below (click on screenshot to read). Each week should see a new letter.
The discussion is mostly about literature, where Adam’s expertise lies, and whether knowledge can be discerned from literature alone. But I won’t go into the specifics, as our thoughts will be laid out for all to see. Feel free to comment below, though, and remember, this is a civil discussion between Adam and me, that we’re friends, and that comments should also be civil—even when critical of either of us.