Notebook (school days)

January 3, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dave Smith C

Woolf’s now-notorious remarks on Ulysses – the Yale Modernism Lab has a good reconstruction of her reading – are not simply or merely racist or (straightforwardly, in the limited reading usually given to the category) classist. To rehearse, the diary notes from August 16th 1922: “An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?” What’s buried in Woolf’s dismissal here is not only criticism of an undermodernised education system still labouring under popery – at least as it would compare in VW’s mind w/ that of late Victorian England, wh/ though she didn’t experience firsthand, her father (a near-contemporary of Arnold) & brothers were naturally involved in – nor exactly of the levels of intellectual training that went into the work (Joyce was not, in the strict sense, an autodidact: he attended Catholic private schools & got his degree in modern languages from UCD). Rather Woolf is viewing the book in the light of its relation to a specific formation of learning – the training provided for generations first to the sons of the English aristocracy & then to the bourgeoisie, imbricated in a whole set of social institutions: the public schools, Oxbridge, the church, the military etc. What Woolf wishes for brackets together style & a class’s self-conception: an ideal of smoothness, refinement (also in the sense of discrimination, active shaping & choosing), holistic integration, right intuition or intuitive rightness, in wh/ culture is, in Raymond Williams’ words, “a whole way of life” – everything signified by the word “breeding”, wh/ Joyce, the son of an alcoholic rates collector, apparently lacks. (Woolf knew herself to be one of the gawking bougies signified by the word “snob” – her paper read to the Bloomsbury Memoir Club, ‘Am I A Snob?’, silently trumpets a ‘yes’ to the question throughout.) For Woolf the book has not yet crossed the threshold from nature to culture (symbolised, a la Levi-Strauss, by the cooking of food). Anthropology – &, of course, ideology-critique – answers naturally enough here that what Woolf sees as education itself is only one historically specific formation of learning; “the self-taught working man” is also an agent in his own culture (though one wh/ enough of Woolf’s contemporaries saw as merely inferior copy of culture-as-such – who was it who complained about “paperbacks of Plato”? Pound, Eliot, Leavis?) But those adjectives Woolf appends (carefully? quickly?) to said “working man” still exert a certain kind of explanatory power. When the figure of the autodidact appears again in a sympathetic light, it’s w/ the exact same traits: think of John Reed’s self-portrait in Ten Days That Shook the World, or Philip Marlowe’s uneven interests (poetry & chess but not Proust), or the early publicity image of Dylan Thomas as untutored genius or noble savage (“the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”). For these accounts, the “insistent”, “raw”, “striking” quality is a welcome contrast to bourgeois complacency. But such fetishisation is also a form of condescension: the autodidact allows the seasoned intellectual a taste of the exotic, whilst leaving his system of knowledge as secure as ever.

Certainly that’s how it felt for me. At university being the smartest person in the room (tutors aside, obviously) seemed pointless & unpleasant: as the only person who tended to speak, I was the only person savaged by the academics, even though I didn’t half the time think that what was spilling out of my mouth stood up to scrutiny, or that I believed it. Everyone else in seminars seemed not to care one way or the other: flapping my mouth didn’t lower or raise me in their valuations. The nice fantasy of the nerd, that they will one day find themselves in a place where knowledge, & acting like one has knowledge, is valued, is, it turns out, precisely that. Culture was, for me, precisely not “a whole way of life”, except in the sense that I didn’t really think about anything except books & music. (Those friends who, years later, I learnt were as transfixed by culture as me knew how to hide or sublimate it – part of the long story of cool as it moved across the second half of the twentieth century from lumpen to bourgeois culture.) What Woolf wants as well – & what she, despite her lifelong denials, received as part of her training as a member of her class & milieu – was a certain self-confidence: undemonstrative but adamantine, structuring everything from the presentation of ideas to the bearing & dressing. (One is tempted to wonder if Joyce’s sartorial excesses, at least in the Paris years, had something to do w/ this.) One encounters this again & again, to the point of tiresomeness, in accounts of the academy: the arrogant young men (typically) w/ unshakeable but weightless faith in their statements & ideas. (This is, I suppose, what privilege theory designates by its eponymous noun.) By contrast, the autodidact is forced into the intellectual corollary of a Jackie Collins heroine’s plot: the attempt to beat the class system at its own game. The autodidact must become excessive, indulgent of every intellectual malice, profiting on every intellectual vice. This of course is the secret history of vulgarity: the uncanny Other of aristocratic ‘good taste’, the excluded & frightening part of itself. & yet I’ve never quite felt able to claim vulgarity for myself*, only – like Alan Partridge – stumbling into a disavowed unseemliness out of my apparently natural coarseness.

But I’ve wondered more & more the last year whether this wasn’t part or root of a real loss. The development of the autodidact’s sensibilities along other lines than those of bourgeois culture, w/ all its attendant specialisations (divisions of labour) & compensatory gains (iron self-assurance etc) involves the nondevelopment of other skills & capabilities. More & more since university I’ve worried about my inability or lack of wish to a) specialise** & b) study for extended periods or in particular depth on any one topic. Effectively, I’ve worried for a long time, I’m a dilettante w/out the resources to support the classic dilettante (ie a private income). This is of course also an inability to conform to the standards of ‘research’ in the academy – but behind me stands a whole history of ‘alternative research’ recuperated by this same institution (apotheosised in White Noise‘s “American Environments” department, where one guy “only reads the back of cereal packets”). I was thinking about this again in relation to Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built & Brian Dillon’s (controversial) essay on Barthes. The instability of the autodidact, his inability to take culture w/ the equanimity it deserves, is at once productive – making gains against the internal barriers of both the conservative fraction of the working class & the internal barriers of higher education – & self-sabotaging, precisely b/c it doesn’t, in & of itself, prepare for him for the apparently unending task of ‘proving himself’ against an academy wh/, despite its capture by the liberal discourses of political correctness, hasn’t changed its complexion. Better, perhaps, Bryan Ferry than James Joyce.

* the most obvious figure here who has made such an incorporation is Jarvis Cocker – or at least the avatar of Pulp’s great period, from ‘Babies’ to This Is Hardcore – for whom in ‘I Spy’ “grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag”, but spies “for a living / & I specialise in revenge”, a line that recalls Benjamin’s remark that Baudelaire was “a secret agent – an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule”.

** this is a journalistic as much as an academic problem: the inability to develop a shtick, a persistent angle, a specialist area on wh/ my ‘expertise’ can be called, is a deadly debilitation in the culture press, & very likely the reason why my career as an opinion columnist was short-lived***

*** that & publicly insulting wh/ever sub chose the headlines for my pieces

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§ 4 Responses to Notebook (school days)

  • Sam D says:

    few things – as you say, Joyce was no autodidact, but incredibly well-educated. There’s something going on that quote about Woolf’s own academic exclusion – took some classes at Kings, all within the special ‘Ladies Department’ of course… She was of necessity an autodidact herself. Also by the time of Dalloway with its obvious parallels w/ Ulysses, Septimus (the most unambiguously sympathetic character in the book? another question) is explicitly an autodidact and humble clerk, wo(o)lfing down Shakespeare out of office hours. So something in Woolf’s view shifted…

    and a heavy sigh of solidarity re **

    • dboon147 says:

      As you say, Woolf did have her own experience of academic exclusion – she says in the autobiographical pieces that she more/less taught herself through reading as a school-age child, w/ her father’s approval & guidance, though he didn’t dictate her curriculum. There’s her ambiguous attitude to the part of Cambridge in Bloomsbury (almost all the original -berries being contemporaries of Toby Stephen at King’s): she envies them but finds it ultimately distasteful (too austere, too self-satisfied). That feeling extends to the female students she lectured to (out of wh/ came A Room of One’s Own): they’re noble but rough & clumsy. Will see if I can find the diary entry tomorrow. There’s also the weird point that her main contact w/ “self taught working men” was the period when she lectured at Morley College – even though she had roughly the same level of formal education as them, she was in a position of educational power w/ them wh/ derived more than in part from her class position. Basically I think Ginny protests a bit too much. But yeah she must have seen something of herself in them – even if it was also to push it away.

    • dboon147 says:

      27th October 1928, after a lecture at Girton College: “Intelligent eager, poor; & destined to become schoolmistresses in shoals. I blandly told them to drink wine & have a room of their own…. I felt elderly & mature. And nobody respected me. They were very eager, egotistical, or rather not much impressed by age & repute. Very little reverence or that sort of thing about.”

  • JV says:

    ah yes, I remember getting myself banned in first year from ever being published in the boar again after an outburst at someone who had substituted a new headline for my article, and in the process managed to make 3 factual errors in the space of around 11 words

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