The teat of interpretation

Andrea Long Chu in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital—or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say—in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god.

In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.

The cleansing and deepening of the dispute

Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind, 1952:

Anyone engaged in the study, teaching, and criticism of literature as a university discipline is likely to become at some time or other aware of one fundamental problem raised by his own pursuits, of a difficulty that is all his own and is not, or at least not to the same extent, shared by his colleagues in other subjects. For however sincerely he may struggle against bias and prejudice in his own approach and appreciation, his work will still be very intimately related to his experiences in wider fields. […] and this, he will see, is no shortcoming of his own discipline, to be conquered in scientific campaigns or disguised by scientific masquerades, but is in fact its distinctive virtue. […] thus he would be ill-advised to concentrate exclusively on those aspects of his discipline which allow the calm neutrality of what is indisputably factual and “objective”. His business, I think, is not the avoidance of subjectivity, but its purification; not the shunning of what is disputable, but the cleansing and deepening of the dispute.

Too comfortable in his own skin

Arthur Krystal on Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling:

As students and instructors at Columbia they had only a nodding acquaintance. Barzun, tall, fair-haired, Gallically handsome, was self-assured and interested in history, theater, music, and detective stories. Trilling, shy, intense, on the short side, was keen on Freud, Marx, and American fiction. To a budding and brooding intellectual like Trilling, the young Barzun seemed too comfortable in his own skin; there was no angst, no alienation. “Such awareness as we first had of each other,” Trilling recalled, “was across a barrier which had about it something of a barricade.” Meanwhile, in Barzun’s eyes, Trilling seemed “content to do well, with little exertion, in what he liked and to stumble through the rest.” Upon learning they would be paired up, neither one jumped at the prospect.