The Grail Code 
John Donne and the Case of the Missing Toilet Paper

<meta name="GENERATOR" content="OpenOffice.org 2.3 (Linux)" /><br /> <style type="text/css"> <!-- @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } --></style> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in">A while ago I was visiting my mother-in-law, a voracious reader of detective novels, and I happened to notice a book called <em><a href="http://www.mysterylovers.com/index.php?target=products&product_id=48285">Critique of Criminal Reason</a> </em><span style="font-style: normal">sitting in her reading queue.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">“Please don’t tell me that’s ‘Immanuel Kant, Detective,’” I said, painfully aware of the literary fad that has turned everyone from Jane Austen to Oscar Wilde to Groucho Marx into an amateur detective.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">She assured me that it was what I suspected. Furthermore, she tells me now that she enjoyed the book, although (having actually read Kant) I still can’t imagine how the dialogue would go. “I know no investigations more necessary for a full insight into </span>the nature of the faculty which we call understanding, and at the same time for the determination of the rules and limits of its use, than those undertaken in the second chapter of the ‘Transcendental Analytic,’ under the title of ‘Deduction of the Pure Conceptions of the Understanding’; and they have also cost me by far the greatest labor—labor which, I hope, will not remain uncompensated.” That’s one of Kant’s shortest and most lucid sentences.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">But I feel a bit ashamed of myself for making fun of people who make famous authors into detectives, partly because the first volume of my own “Thomas Love Peacock Mystery & Mayhem” series is in proof right now, but mostly because these are people who actually love books and the authors who write them, so much so that they can’t bear the idea of not having any more Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde to read.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">And that’s a wonderful thing, because most contemporary literary study is done by people who really, really hate books.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">I am, of course, being deliberately unfair and even abusive. But that’s not anything new, is it?</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">What brings all this up is a <a href="http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article3712980.ece">long and eloquent essay</a> in the Times Literary Supplement, in which Raymond Tallis carefully disassembles the latest fad in academic literary criticism. </span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">He was provoked by an A. S. Byatt commentary in which she tried to apply “neuroaesthetics” to explain why she liked John Donne. It seems that the age of Deconstructionism is drawing to a close; now literary critics are expected to be neuroscientists, explaining the delicate effects of poetry by referring to the various activities of gray stuff in the brain.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Well, they’re not really doing neuroscience, of course. That would involve a lot of hard work. What they’re doing is borrowing some half-digested ideas from neuroscience to make their criticism look all sciencey. And I can’t help feeling that—once again—the main attraction of the theory is its incomprehensibility. Just as with Deconstructionism, the pillar of the theory is jargon. A real neuroscientist would see at once where his science is being distorted and misunderstood, but real neuroscientists don’t live in university English departments. Only an occasional crossover like Raymond Tallis (Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and author of </span><em>The Enduring Significance of Parmenides: Unthinkable Thought</em><span style="font-style: normal">) dares to expose the nonsense, but I have confidence that the academic establishment will be able to dismiss him as a reactionary crank. After all, what does he know about literature? He’s only a scientist.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">What I loved most about this article, though, was that it gave me a new word to describe what’s wrong with every one of the fashionable schools of literary criticism that wash over the academic world every decade or so, leaving only destruction in their wake. It’s not even Professor Tallis’ word, but he gets the credit for introducing me to it:</p> <blockquote> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Approaches governed by very general ideas tend to bypass the individual work or author: understanding is replaced by what W. T. Mitchell called “overstanding”. The capacious frame of reference in which the work is located—evident to the critic but not to the author—places the former in a position of knowing superiority vis-à-vis the latter. The work becomes a mere example of some historical, cultural, political, or other trend of which the author will have been dimly aware, if at all. The differences between one author and another are also minimized. Like hypochondriacs, theory-led critics find what they seek: so Jane Austen and the Venerable Bede are alike in representing the hegemony of the colonizer over the colonized, the powerful over the powerless, or the voiced over the voiceless; or in their failure to acknowledge the fictionality of the bourgeois fiction of the self.</p> </blockquote> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">“Overstanding” is exactly the word I’ve been looking for all these years. It distills exactly what I think is wrong with all the critical fads: they all assume that there is nothing to be gained by reading.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Whether they’re Marxists, Deconstructionists, or Neuroaestheticicsts, the fad critics already know all they mean to know when they open a book. Analyzing a work—and it makes no difference whether it’s <em>Sense and Sensibility</em> or <em>Jane Austen, Girl Detective</em>—is just a matter of showing how it fits the theory. There’s not even the germ of an idea that reading a great book might change the way you see the universe. That’s not on the agenda. We already know how to see the universe; we just have to prove that Homer, Walter Map, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, August Wilson, or whoever it is we’re reading confirms what we, the smug academics who know everything, have already decreed. Isn’t it lucky that we’re so much smarter than Shakespeare these days?</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">In fact, Shakespeare is no better than the telephone book. They’re both just texts. </span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">Neuroaesthetics is even more reductive than that. “</span>Bellowing in a rage when one discovers that the toilet paper has run out, and someone has neglected to replace it, would involve the very same processes Byatt invokes to explain the particular impact of the poems of a genius, if such processes do occur. The mental objects constructed under such irritating circumstances also involve percepts, memory images, abstract concepts, and an extraordinary confection-by-association of them, as one justifies one’s rage and allocates blame, and deploys sophisticated neural algebras that simultaneously locate oneself in an unsatisfactory toilet and a careless world populated with thoughtless people.<span style="font-style: normal">”</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">I’m going to be using that word “overstanding” a lot.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">This approach to literature is full of tragic consequences, and I use the word “tragic” to mean “like something in a play by Sophocles.” The very people who most love books are the ones who get sucked into these academic movements. But fate inevitably leads them to murder the books they love. By denying the very possibility of an author who knows <em>more</em><span style="text-decoration: none"> than they do, the tragic suckers permanently shut themselves off from the objects of their love. But if they see through the nonsense and refuse to have anything to do with it, they may find themselves cut off from the possibility of devoting their lives to literature in the academic world. </span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal"><span style="text-decoration: none">So why do these schools of criticism flourish? Mostly because </span><em><span style="text-decoration: none">nobody understands them. </span></em><span style="text-decoration: none">They are ultimately nonsense. But no one wants to admit to being baffled by what everyone else seems to understand.</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Here’s a joke for you:</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Q. What did the otter say when his friend was swallowed by a walrus?</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in"><span style="font-style: normal">A. “Hey, look! An</span><em> in-ter-net!</em><span style="font-style: normal">”</span></p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Do you get it?</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">Well, of course you don’t. It’s pure nonsense. There’s nothing to get. But have a ten-year-old boy tell that joke to his fifth-grade class at recess, and watch as they all groan knowingly and insist that, yeah, they got it.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal">For a university audience, you have to make the nonsense a little more obscure, but the social principle is the same.</p> <p style="margin-bottom: 0in; font-style: normal"> <p class="postmetadata alt"> <small> This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 15th, 2008 at 10:32 am and is filed under <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/category/literary-criticism" title="View all posts in Literary Criticism" rel="category tag">Literary Criticism</a>. You can follow any responses to this entry through the <a href='http://www.grailcode.com/archives/john-donne-and-the-case-of-the-missing-toilet-paper/feed'>RSS 2.0</a> feed. You can <a href="#respond">leave a response</a>, or <a href="http://www.grailcode.com/archives/john-donne-and-the-case-of-the-missing-toilet-paper/trackback" rel="trackback">trackback</a> from your own site. </small> </p> </div> </div> <!-- You can start editing here. --> <h3 id="comments">3 Responses to “John Donne and the Case of the Missing Toilet Paper”</h3> <ol class="commentlist"> <li class="alt" id="comment-54466"> <cite>Jeannie Dahl</cite> Says: <br /> <small class="commentmetadata"><a href="#comment-54466" title="">November 23rd, 2008 at 9:03 am</a> </small> <p>You would most likely enjoy the work of Herr Doktor Professor B. P. von Korncrake.</p> <p>And excerpt..</p> <p>“I, myself, am complicit in this undertaking, having produced somewhere on the order of 650 academic papers, more than 100 scholarly articles, and fifteen books (none of the latter of which, I am happy to say, remain in print).</p> <p>Of course, I would trade them all in an instant to be able to write a single chapter of H. Rider Haggard, or a single line of Karl May.</p> <p>So yes, I am complicit in this enterprise, but to my credit I have taken the honorable route of making my presentations unusually unintelligible. My papers, when read out loud, are nothing more than 20 mintues of unadulterated tosh, a fact which saves me incalcuable amounts of time in the writing, and confounds my audience into utter silence in the hearing.</p> <p>One would imagine that my listeners would rise up as a body and cast me from the academy as a charlatan, but show me a single academic who is brave enough to say, in front of his colleagues, “I don’t understand,” and I’ll send immediate notice to my friend Diogenes to extinguish his lamp.”</p> <p><a href="http://korncrake.com" rel="nofollow">http://korncrake.com</a></p> </li> <li class="" id="comment-60888"> <cite><a href='http://www.howtoattractmoney.com/Special.html' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>woods</a></cite> Says: <br /> <small class="commentmetadata"><a href="#comment-60888" title="">March 16th, 2009 at 6:46 am</a> </small> <p>love your website, can you show me where to find information on the secret movie? thank you.</p> </li> <li class="alt" id="comment-452540"> <cite><a href='http://www.monclerpeutereypascher.fr/' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>canada goose france</a></cite> Says: <br /> <small class="commentmetadata"><a href="#comment-452540" title="">January 5th, 2014 at 1:26 am</a> </small> <p>With havin so much content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright violation? 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I’d certainly appreciate it.<br /> canada goose france <a href="http://www.monclerpeutereypascher.fr/" rel="nofollow">http://www.monclerpeutereypascher.fr/</a></p> </li> </ol> <h3 id="respond">Leave a Reply</h3> <form action="http://www.grailcode.com/wp-comments-post.php" method="post" id="commentform"> <p><input type="text" name="author" id="author" value="" size="22" tabindex="1" /> <label for="author"><small>Name (required)</small></label></p> <p><input type="text" name="email" id="email" value="" size="22" tabindex="2" /> <label for="email"><small>Mail (will not be published) (required)</small></label></p> <p><input type="text" name="url" id="url" value="" size="22" tabindex="3" /> <label for="url"><small>Website</small></label></p> <!--<p><small><strong>XHTML:</strong> You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> </small></p>--> <p> <textarea 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