Sunday, June 7, 2015

Paper Clips

I was supposed to have my office at the University cleaned out by May 31, but the department head, Troni Grande, kindly organized a reprieve.  At first, I put my attention to finding good homes for my books, and into reorganizing my bookshelves at home, which were more or less frozen in time the minute they filled up, taking the books that no longer suited my interests or my temperament into the university where I parked them in front of the elevator, and then bringing home the books I wanted to keep.  All of my Anita Brookner went into the university:  her listless heroines no longer appeal to me.  A lot of the American male authors from the 1970s and 1980s found themselves dumped unceremoniously on the floor in front of the elevator:  really?  You thought masculinity was that easy--or you hoped it was?  In turn, I'm bringing home a lot of aesthetics and philosophy.  Craig Melhof tells me that Walter Benjamin thought his library was a kind of biography.  Certainly that's true of me, except that something different emerges when you must pare down.  It's as if retirement is forcing me to choose between my past and my future: between the books I read and taught and the books I want to read during Act III.  When I began, I had three walls of books; I'd say I only have one wall left, so I've done well enough. I'm "donating" what's left  to SK Books (, an independent bookseller on Albert and Fourth.  

I'm still puzzled by some of my choices:  why fewer novels and more philosophy?  Even typing in that sentence forces me to face some uncomfortable truths.  I have told my students many times, in a sentence that's not quite grammatical (because making it grammatical would add too many words and muddy the waters), that they will never writer better than they read.  Maybe the slight ungrammaticality is the point:  the skills that they bring to reading they also bring to writing, and the books they write will never be better than the books they read.  There's a historical dimension to this as well:  you have to know what is happening in literature right now in order to enter the contemporary conversation about the human condition and about the form and content of the art that is reflecting on our humanity, our joys and trials, our energy and defeat, our inventiveness and our blindness.  

When I had the honour to examine dee Hobsbawm-Smith's thesis at the University of Saskatchewan--essentially her first novel (and a very fine one), she made the comment that putting characters in very difficult and extreme situations allows both writers and readers to see what those characters are made of.   I saw her point and was grateful for the observation.  But am I the only reader who balks at many of the plots of critically-acclaimed fiction and its tendency to depend on extreme situations to  do the hard work of illuminating the challenges of being ethical, of being human, of failing or succeeding at either of those important tasks?  I've been reading and writing about E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, so I'm certainly aware of the need for the narrative drive that prompts the reader to ask "And then....?"  But when was the last time you needed to make an ethical decision?  When you were in a parking garage with a gun, shooting a gangster over stolen paintings, as in Donna Tartt's beautifully-written The Goldfinch, or the last time you had to choose between your own need  for a quiet evening and the need of someone you love, someone who's having a difficult time, to go to an action-packed movie?  I'm avoiding modern fiction as Soul Weather percolates, and it puts me in a dishonest position, but one I can't seem to find my way into or out of--whichever is called for now.  Hence the philosophy rather than the fiction.

My second task as I clean out my office is to recycle three filing cabinets of teaching notes.  This doesn't mean simply taking files out of the drawers and dumping them in a recycling bag.  At the very least, I need to pull out the paper clips.  This is a potent, sometimes nostalgic immersion in my past, but also an opportunity to reflect.  One of the things I can see is how my teaching changed over the years, how I shifted from teaching the few things I actually knew something about, like feminist theory, to learning about new things because the discipline changed, literature and society changed, the department's needs changed, or I needed to challenge myself.  Always interested in contemporary fiction, I taught the postmodern Canadian novel in the 90s, postmodern British fiction at the turn of the century before turning back to Canadian fiction written after 2000 for my last CanLit class.  

Early in my time here, I came to the conclusion that I couldn't be a self-respecting feminist critic unless I got a handle on Jane Austen's work, so I foolishly volunteered to teach a class on Austen.  Two years later, Austen-mania arrived, heralded by Colin Firth's Mr Darcy, with his dive into the lake and his wet, sheer shirt.  I used to joke and say that I'd "caused" the plethora of movies based on her novels.  You need to understand something:  in my classes for my B.A.  and M.A. at the university of Michigan, taken between 1968 and 1976, I read no women authors, which is perhaps why women authors and female characters were the focus of my Ph.D. thesis, becoming my first book:  The Callisto Myth from Ovid to Atwood:  Initiation and Rape in Literature.  So if I wanted to teach Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf, I started from nothing but a love of their work and the feminist theory I'd also learned on my own.  Intriguingly, at the University of Manitoba in the late 70s and early 80s, there were no classes in feminist theory, though deconstruction and postmodernism were all the rage.

I was, in fact, hired U of R to teach feminist theory--but how that too changed!  The last time I was asked to teach feminist theory, I came to the conclusion that feminism had to be informed by an understanding of masculinity, so I picked the brain of former Dean of Arts, Murray Knuttila, and offered a class on gender and literature.  Unlike my feminist theory classes, which were usually full, this one had only about 12 students.  I never taught it again, though I don't fully understand why.  Perhaps faced with students' apparent indifference, I didn't think I could reinvent the class one more time.  Were I teaching it now, I would need to reshape it entirely to include things that I don't understand and perhaps don't have the right to talk about, like the missing and murdered indigenous women or the young men who think it socially acceptable to holler sexist and objectifying remarks at female journalists.  (I still don't think we understand masculinity.)  I have long likened gender roles to boxes made for us by society and the people closest to us, boxes shaped by acceptable behaviour, attitudes, and goals.  Why do we put other people in such boxes?  (Perhaps that's why I brought my philosophy home.)  If it's gender we need to understand, then we need to wrap our heads around individuals like T Thomason, the young musician who doesn't feel comfortable with either gender.  How is that, that at this historical moment, gender is both more fluid and more ossified than it's ever been?  All this in a single term?  The task is daunting.  

If Benjamin's biography is his library, mine might be the pile of paper clips above.  Yes, I know, they're empty now.  Once they held ideas about gender, history, and aesthetics, about writers as diverse as Jane Austen and Salman Rushdie, Charlotte Bronte and Michael Ondaatje, James Joyce and Lisa Moore.  I'm hoping that the more illuminating ideas have become part of me so that they can be reconfigured in the writing I hope to do for the next ten or fifteen years.  Just as I'm delighted to have my former student, Cassidy Mc Fadzean successfully launch Hacker Packer and begin to teach at Luther, I'm happy to return my paper clips to the Department office.  The world is unfolding as it should. 

This morning, I was re-reading Robert Pogue Harrison's wonderful book Gardens:  An Essay on the Human Condition.  Perhaps like anyone who sets out to explore the human condition, he quoted Rilke's famous line, "You must change your life."  For once, I did not feel like pushing Twig off my lap to scurry around, changing my life.  I read about the gardens of the homeless this morning, about Socrates and Epicurious and their academic gardens; I've reflected here on my past; in about half an hour, Bill and I will leave for the gym; and this afternoon I will plant my boxes and bake a rhubarb cake.  Tomorrow morning, breakfast with Katherine, and then a week's writing about Virginia Woolf's intriguing essay, "Phases of Fiction."  Perhaps there's not a lot to change at the moment.  Perhaps I also don't need paper clips to hold it together.


  1. It's always fun to comb through the books left on the department floor. I've found some gems that way. Since I'm moving to Vancouver for a year, I'm also thinking about paring down my library at home. I've noticed recently that the nonfiction is overwhelming the fiction. The fantasy novels and children's literature, which once had pride of place, now find themselves on an overflow shelf, while the "popular bookshelf"--which is near the door of my office at home--is mostly nonfiction, with some premodern literature throw in. If our bookshelves are biographies (and I do like this idea), then the electronic bookshelf on my Kindle would suggest that I read nothing but creative nonfiction. So it's interesting to think how our tastes change, and how these collections can sometimes offer us startling information about ourselves. I'm currently reading Kate Bolick's book "Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own," and loving her exploration of the female authors that she calls "awakeners" in her life (including Wharton and St. Vincent Millay). To echo your observation about lack of women's writing in college, I had there same experience, which feels doubly strange during the years 1997-2001. Male professors routinely announced that female writers did not belong on their syllabi, because their writing was inferior. With the exception of a fantastic CanLit course, I read mostly novels, poems, and plays written by men, and it drove me crazy. I would get into arguments with my professors about this (I was scrappy and arrogant back then), and they'd simply cite the canon as a standard that needed to be preserved. I think this imbalance has improved somewhat, but I still frustrates me to no end when the anthology that I'm using has a 70/30 split between male/female writers, excluding talented female writers in every period so that they can include a few more pages' worth of Samuel Johnson.

  2. I love the conversation you create with your comments. I too am reading more creative nonfiction because it more clearly satisfies my need, for right now, to learn more about the world and the people in it.

    If at the end of the twentieth century women were still not being taught, I really would need to change my feminist theory class. First visit might be the CWILA.

  3. One thing I have noticed, particularly in English classes where the students are primarily women, is that male students no longer participate. One of the last courses that I taught had 22 female students and 4 male students, and much of the reading was about gender, so the male students were in some sense "on display." They very quickly stopped talking, and I wasn't sure how to encourage them without singling them out. A colleague observed that, in many English classes, male students are a bit stung by what they feel to be their growing marginality, and they now occupy (statistically, at least) the place of female students about 20 years ago--they're outnumbered. I'd like that to be a learning experience for them, but I think, more often, their response is a sullen silence or willing agnosis when it comes to discussing women's literature (or a patronizing "I'm totally a feminist, but allow me to tell you all what you're doing wrong...." response). I'm still figuring out how to address this.