On Geoff Dyer’s anger; or, how to kill Rilke to dust

The following is an excerpt from Geoff Dyer’s book, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (New York: North Point Press, 1997), 99-103. Dyer’s rant—and it is a rant, in a very self-conscious vein—reminded me of my desire to vomit upon listening to a public discussion that was neither public nor a discussion, a something or other ostensibly but not actually about fiction and philosophy, an event (yes, a better word this) that was held at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, New York, on January 30, 2011. As Dame Professor Avital Ronell and her colleagues were simulating the act of speaking over each other and around their attendees about how one must call into question the very act of making generic distinctions between ‘literature’ (so-called) and ‘philosophy’ (so-called), I grew increasingly irate, so irate in fact that I would have walked out then and there had I not made the sophomoric mistake of arriving early and wedging myself in the back corner. Deep in the back corner I stewed and snorted, listening to academics pontificating still–still–in poststructural jargon 40 years after it emerged on the academic (I almost wrote “intellectual”) scene. Such bloodless, toothless casuistry; such ironic, self-conscious self-mockery; such wretched, nonsensical grotesquery. I’m not sure whether I was more put off by my too-lucid understanding of the game being played—abhorred and disgusted by my too-long immersion in much of this—or by the audience’s lack of familiarity and cowed anxiety with any of it.

The problem with provocation? It’s so fucking boring.

(And now the excerpt, as promised.)

In my final year at university [my guess is that this would have been in the late 70s or early 80s–AT] there was a great deal of fuss about course reform. Instead of ploughing through everything from Beowulf to Beckett, academics like Terry Eagleton were proposing a ‘theory’ option. I didn’t know what theory was but it sounded radical and challenging. Within a few years ‘theory’, whatever it was, had achieved a position of domination in English departments throughout Britain. Synoptic works of theory were pouring through the presses. Fifteen years down the line these texts still appear radical and challenging except in one or two details, namely that they are neither radical nor challenging.

[…]

Hearing that I was ‘working on Lawrence’, an acquaintance lent me a book he thought I might find interesting: A Longman Critical Reader on Lawrence, edited by Peter Widdowson. I glanced at the contents page: old Eagleton was there, of course, together with some other state-of-the-fart theorists: Lydia Blanchard on ‘Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality’ (in the section on ‘Gender, Sexuality, Feminism’), Daniel J. Schneider on ‘Alternatives to Logocentrism in D.H. Lawrence’ (in the section featuring ‘Post-Structuralist Turns’). I could feel myself getting angry and then I flicked through the introductory essay on ‘Radical Indeterminacy: A Post-Modern Lawrence’ and became angrier still. How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at any more, but I didn’t because telling myself to stop always has the effect of urging me on. Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would seem them pulling each other off. Oh, it was too much, it was too stupid. I threw the book across the room and then I tried to tear it up but it was too resilient. By now I was blazing mad. I thought about getting Widdowson’s phone number and making threatening calls. Then I looked around for the means to destroy his vile, filthy book. In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it.

I burned it in self-defence. It was the book or me because writing like that kills everything it touches. That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch. I recently met an academic who said that he taught German literature. I was aghast: to think, this man who had been in universities all his life was teaching Rilke. Rilke! Oh, it was too much to bear. You don’t teach Rilke, I wanted to say, you kill Rilke! You turn him to dust and then you go off to conferences where dozens of other academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Rilke and turning him to dust. Then, as part of the cover-up, the conference papers are published, the dust is embalmed and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dustyard of graves. I was beside myself with indignation. I wanted to maim and harm this polite, well-meaning academic who, for all I knew, was a brilliant teacher who had turned on generations of students to the Duino Elegies. Still, I thought to myself the following morning when I had calmed down, the general point stands: how can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?

Now, criticism is an integral part of the literary tradition and academics can sometimes write excellent works of criticism but these are exceptional: the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of books by academics, especially books like that Longman Reader are a crime against literature. If you want to see how literature lives then you turn to writers, and see what they’ve said about each other, either in essays, reviews, in letters or journals—and in the works themselves. ‘The best readings of art are art,’ said George Steiner (an academic!); the great books add up to a tacit ‘syllabus of enacted criticism’. This becomes explicit when poets write a poem about some great work of art—Auden’s ‘Museé des Beaux Arts’—or about another poet: Auden’s elegy for Yeats, Brodsky’s elegy for Auden, Heaney’s elegy for Brodsky (the cleverly title ‘Audenesque’). In such instances the distinction between imagination and critical writing disappears.

[…]

Scholarly work on the texts, on preparing lovely editions of Lawrence’s letters is one thing but those critical studies that we read at university… Research! Research! The very word is like a bell, tolling the death and the imminent turning to dust of whichever poor sod is being researched. Spare me. Spare me the drudgery of systematic examinations and give me the lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover ground thoroughly or reasonably.

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