Van Doren Award

Remarks upon receiving the Mark Van Doren Teaching Award

May 8, 2013

It goes without saying— but, as a former colleague of mine was fond of commenting, it goes better with saying— that the Mark Van Doren Teaching Award is an extraordinary honor.  I think there are very few if any such honors that cut so directly to the heart of why we do what we do; it’s a humbling award in the very best sense.

It’s particularly humbling because of the department I’ve belonged to for the past fifteen years.  For the past two of those years I’ve worn the rather galling harness of a department chair, and most days in that harness can leave you remarkably demoralized about the state of higher education, the dismal effects of even very small amounts of power, and the superior foresight and tactical acumen of one’s smarter colleagues who have managed to avoid taking that bit in their teeth.  But there is one thing even a chair can’t turn into an occasion for dismay: the remarkable, entirely sincere, even strenuous commitment to teaching of my departmental colleagues.  As bleak as the vista from the chair’s office can be, there is always the consolation that out there, in seminar rooms and lecture halls, the real work is being done and done brilliantly.  (If I can indulge myself in a bit of team chauvinism, I might add that English actually leads the all-time departmental league table of this award now.  No small part of my pleasure in this award is to find myself in such varied, and impressive, company.)

But there’s a surprising amount of self-reflection that comes with being so honored— about why one teaches, what one teaches, and how one got to this place after all.  Because nostalgia is both a predilection and a scholarly interest of mine, I immediately thought of the teachers who had a significant impact on me.  I suspect that any teacher’s classroom habits and pedagogical theories are a curious mixture of remembered and adapted techniques, filched from one’s own teachers, and some unusually strong, abiding memories of what it felt like to be a student.  For my part, I remembered the moment that may have set me on the course to having the strange job I have: being someone who reads, writes about, and teaches novels for a living.

I was sixteen, precocious in my snobbery if not in much else, and being marched through Moby-Dick for the first time.  At some point I had one of those typically false ‘Eureka’ moments about Melville— those moments are often called ‘intoxicating’ for a reason— and in a fever of inspiration I wrote a paper explaining in some detail that the novel was an elaborate allegory of the life of Christ.  I was eagerly awaiting my deserved praise when my English teacher summoned me to a conference—a rather unusual step.  Of course I felt this could only be in order to thank me for my insights in privacy, away from the envy of my peers.

My teacher, I already knew, had been a doctoral student at Yale during the early days of deconstruction there; it was from her that I first heard the names Derrida and Harold Bloom; and there was some unexplained but hinted relation between deconstruction— which she once tried vainly to explain to us— and the reason for her not having finished her dissertation.  To me it seemed as if what the Yale School had given her was a particular kind of pessimist’s dedication to teaching, as if most things and people would turn out badly, but it was still your rather melancholy duty to see to it that a few things turned out otherwise.  She instilled in me an image of New Haven as a Gothic landscape where grad students lived in damp, gloomy, book-filled basements and were gradually robbed of any consoling illusions.  I’m afraid it all seemed very enticing.

As it turned out, she handed my paper back to me with something of a glum sigh, which clued me in to the fact that I hadn’t actually written the last word on Melville.  Then the words I still recall vividly: “This sort of thing was all the rage in the 1950s.  Back then people were finding Christ allegories everywhere.”  She fixed me with a rather firm stare and then said by way of ending the conversation: “These days nobody finds that very convincing— or very interesting.”  I don’t, as one of course never does, remember the grade.

I should’ve been crushed by this; I had an adolescent’s typical, easily wounded ego; but somehow I wasn’t— somehow I was intrigued, even slightly elated.  She’d done me the compliment of talking to me like an initiate, someone who needed to know that there was a world out there— a big, contentious one— where people had already thought these things through, a world that would disenchant me as much as it would include me.  But more importantly, she somehow allowed me to understand that great works of the imagination weren’t puzzles to be figured out, or ciphers to be decoded.  Cleverness wasn’t enough.  Some other use of one’s intellect— something more vulnerable, more open, even more naïve— was necessary.  What she started to cure me of was my interest in the secret key, the perfectly resolvable problem, the esoteric solution. (I still can’t determine if this was a rebellion against her poststructuralist training or an homage to it— I suspect it was a rebellious homage, which would be the properly deconstructive thing to say.)

I say ‘started to cure’ because that particular conversion took time; like all genuine bits of intellectual revelation, there were plenty of occasions when I had to learn it all over again.  It wasn’t as if I lost overnight my habit of reading as an esoteric game, where literature functioned like a more culturally dignified version of the board game Mastermind: a contentless demonstration of mastery.  In my callowness I continued to gravitate toward writers and artists who gratified a desire to be made to feel smart.  (I owe it to my ignorance of the Oulipo back then that I wasn’t more insufferable than I already was.)  The profoundest education I received always tended to restore something close to wonder: a sense of the immense density of works that don’t seem to present a difficult surface.  Masterpieces, Flaubert wrote, are bête (stupid, dumb); they have a tranquil appearance like the very products of nature, like large animals or mountains.  What he neglected to add was that the stupid face of the masterpiece is a mask for its almost imponderable complexity.

For me personally, that meant my conversion not just to a different attitude to literary art but to a different set of objects: to novels.  Late in college at Washington University in St. Louis, and then in graduate school at Harvard, I was lucky in my teachers, and found myself entranced first by the special alchemy of academic thinking— that open-ended, omnivorous drive toward understanding, which has no particular goal in mind and no hard boundaries to what it can take in.   And suddenly writers I’d previously thought of as beneath notice, particularly the earnest, technically unflashy, embarrassingly capacious great novelists of the nineteenth century, captivated me.  I became, that is, a student of the novel, and later a scholar and teacher whose work centered around that resolutely sloppy, all too popular, always compromised form. I lost my snobbery about Dickens’s sentiment, or Austen’s plots, or George Eliot’s moralizing— not to mention Thackeray, or Stendhal, or the Brontës, or Trollope, or, sloppiest and most capacious of all, Balzac.  It meant being awakened to what can seem ordinary; it meant asking questions about what you’ve learned to take for granted, what seems too obvious to need comment.  (Characters; plots; sentences and paragraphs; chapters.)  It meant risking a certain ridiculousness; at times it felt a bit like asking, of a television program, how those little people got inside that box.  But it was also the opening of a world; over time I saw the remarkable resistance to our intellect that this humble and chaotic form, the novel, could produce.

While not myself at all a Lawrentian, the novel is for me, as DH Lawrence called it, the one bright book of life.   That’s a funny creed to have, somewhat comic and melancholy at once: a belief in fiction, but only the kind of fiction that takes ordinary life as its subject.  There’s little exalted or heroic in that, and as a faith it doesn’t seem to offer much.  My students know my fondness for quoting André Breton’s recollection of Paul Valéry’s famous remark that he could never write a novel because he could never bring himself to write the sentence “The marquise went out at five o’clock.”  They know that I relish Valéry’s insight and yet will defend that boring sentence to the death; of sentences like that— with its banality, its quotidian precision, its sense of intimate daily time— novels are made.

What my own teachers somehow opened up for me was that, once one read past one’s jadedness, premature or excessive sophistication, knowingness, or emotional or intellectual self-protection— one’s subjectivity, in fact— the novel opened up a world that at first was strange, and then recognizably, if peculiarly, one’s own world.  The poor novel is always, of course, condemned to be about something: not just, say, the demise of agrarian communities or the failed revolutions of 1848 or the onset of finance capitalism, but maturation, gratitude, jealousy, resentment, nostalgia, boredom, infidelity, and (always, always) loss.  The novel has always seemed to me the best place to think through the connection between self and world, between different ways of being “about” something.  That sense is what I’ve tried to evoke in the classroom: the stubborn way novels have of being our world and not our world at once.  Of not promising any solutions.  Of being, like experience itself, far more complicated and canny— far more structured— than they let on at first.  And of pushing back at us when we think we’ve mastered, or summarized, or exhausted them.

* * * * *

One thing I’ve learned from studying the history of the novel is that gratitude is also never as simple as it seems: beware of the person who says thanks or asks for thanks.  At least in my present case gratitude means being thankful for things you’ve either stolen or may not deserve.  I mean here my colleagues, particularly those who work on post-Enlightenment materials, who’ve been a fund of inspiration and example that I’ve dipped into ruthlessly.  I even mean Columbia, since I can scarcely imagine a place where the teaching opportunities are freer and richer than they are here.  But I also mean my family: my wife Kathleen, my son Stephen, and my daughters Isobel and Penelope, who’ve forgiven me my outbreaks of unnecessary pedagogy, who live in a landscape of books, and who don’t hold it against me much when the books take precedence.  My children in particular are slowly learning what a peculiar job their father has (you read stories for a living?) and the allowances that have to be made for that peculiarity.  And of course gratitude to the committee members who have, as Joe Gargery from Great Expectations begs his adopted son Pip to do, overlooked shortcomings.