|Cover of Small World
Meantime I have discovered some facts that throw a light on what we consider to be our failing memories. As I mentioned yesterday, no human mind can handle the amount of information we force into our brain day by day, where it is rapidly forgotten.
I began to take notes on my reading and watching in mid-December, and yesterday I discovered that in 12 days I had watched some 18 films, or extended TV shows, and had read five books. Already, the memory of most of these has begun to fade.
But one that is still fairly lively and ticking over for me is a book called Small World, by a writer called David Lodge, a hilarious satire on the world of academia and its habit of spending its summers at academic conferences. This is right up my street, for there is, hidden away deep in the far recesses of my mind, such as it is (one might call this the dark underbelly of my thinking), a belief that we have too much education. This has led to my persistent suspicion of universities and their brain-washing function, by which they prepare their students, from whatever background they might arise, to undertake the governing functions in our society, but always in such a way as to serve the interests of the wealth-owners, whose creatures the Gods of academia are. Okay with this in mind, Lodge’s book is a barrel of laughs that should appeal to almost anyone, except those --- hundreds of thousands of them at any one time --- who have a vested interest in the university system.
Lodge creates and follows a rich variety of academic characters, spread around the globe, but they are people who meet frequently because they are always going to the same conferences. People like Persse McGarrigle, a naïve young Irishman who is one of three tutors in English at a poorly-funded university in Limerick, a man so naïve that even in the overheated world of academia where professors are always finding each other as love partners, or screwing their senior students, Persse remains strictly virginal. His specialty is the influence of Shakespeare on T.S. Eliot; but in a moment of madness, when under stress, he mentions that he specializes in the influence of T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare, which brings one of the academic publishers who attend such conferences to his side, whispering that it is a very interesting concept, and he would like to see it when Persse is finishing developing the idea, with a view to publishing a book on the subject.
Persse is not really at home in the world that takes seriously Chaucerian metrics, or the universality of sexual symbolism, or the influence of continental theorizing on the English novel, all of them samples of the sort of subjects discussed at the endless conferences in Norway, or Tokyo, or Darlington, England, or Rome, or wherever. But when a beautiful American blonde that he runs across at the beginning of the book expresses a profound interest in symbolism, and tries to inveigle Persse into attending a lecture on “Animal Imagery in Dryden’s Heroic Tragedies,” Persse finds himself hopelessly in love, and spends the rest of the book desperately trying to catch up with her as she circumnavigates the globe, from conference to conference, always just out of his reach.
Then there is Phillip Swallow, who was rumoured in a previous year to have had an affair with the wife of Morris Zapp, as Morris had concurrently with Mrs. Swallow. Both are now divorced, and Morris, a cigar-chewing American, has the ambition to become the highest paid English professor in the world. Long behind him are his philandering days. Now he marches up and down across the platform, chewing on the cigar, and apologizing for his mistaken and abandoned belief that the goal of reading was to establish the meaning of texts. “You see before you,” he declaimed, “a man who once believed in the possibility of interpretation….I used to be a Jane Austen man…..I think I can say in all modesty I was the Jane Austen man. I wrote five books on Jane Austen….” His aim now to comment on Jane Austen so exhaustively than there would be nothing further to say on the subject.
“To understand a message is to decode it,” he said, coming to the nub of his current outlook, “Language is a code. But every decoding is another encoding….”
With this hilariously meaningless mantra, he was now out to demolish his competitors as they all struggled to catch the eye of the German professor who was to make the choice for the occupant of the newly-establish UNESCO Chair of Literary Criticism, which promised to be the sinecure to end all sinecures, located in no one city, requiring no specific work, hugely paid and monumentally influential. The trouble seemed to be that the arbiter of this appointment was an expert in Rexeptionsasthetik and not everyone could meet that obscure standard, or even understand what it was.
I hope readers have got the picture. The book is a reassure-trove of jokes satirising the pretensions of academics and their often overblown meaningless concepts. At one point Morris is kidnapped by Italian terrorists, but when they get in touch with his divorced wife Desiree, with their demand for $100,000, her response is, “How much do I have to pay to make you keep him?” He is eventually released for a pittance: he just wasn’t worth much to anybody.
The book ends with the biggest conference of all, the annual beanfeast of the MLA, the Modern Language Association of America, that attracts no fewer than 10,000 academics, doing their stuff in 600 separate sessions on such subjects as “Readability and Reliability in the Epistolary Novel of England, France and Germany,” or “Problems of Cultural Distortion in Translating Expletives in the work of Cortazar, Sender, Baudelaire and Flaubert.”
This is meat and drink to them, and only the occasional academic contemplates suicide in face of his or her inevitable failure.