Monday, May 11, 2009

`A Man of Capricious Culture'

In the May issue of The New Criterion, in an otherwise inoffensive review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929–1940, Denis Donoghue writes:

“It has been claimed that Beckett was immensely learned. He wasn’t. He would never have made a good professor; he had no time for method, system, or communication. The writers who meant most to him were Dante, Milton, Swift, and Samuel Johnson. He tried with no success to write a play about the relations between Johnson, Hester Thrale, her husband, and Gabriel Piozzi, whom she married after her husband’s death. I doubt that he ever read the Complete Works of any of these writers. He was an intellectual, a man of capricious Culture rather than of Nature.”

Three things offend: (1.) The claim that Beckett was not “immensely learned.” (2.) The implication that every “good professor” is “immensely learned,” and that a professor less than “immensely learned” could not be “good.” (3.) The suggestion that having “no time for method, system, or communication” disqualifies one from being a “good professor.”

As to (1.): Had Beckett read only Dante, Milton, Swift and Johnson (odd that Donoghue does not include Shakespeare and Joyce), and read them deeply and across a lifetime, he would qualify as “immensely learned.” Of course, Beckett didn’t stop there. Few writers have woven their learning so inextricably into the texture of their work.

(2.): Several of the best, most influential professors I’ve known were intelligent, well-read people with a gift for instilling their enthusiasms in students. Some of them were at least as learned as Beckett, though none was the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters at New York University. “Immensely learned” is a rare quality in any demographic, on or off campus.

(3.): Presumably, “method, system” refers to the secondary business of literature – namely, criticism and theory. Beckett wrote criticism in his early years, the most substantial and useful example of which is his 1930 monograph, Proust. However, when Vladimir and Estragon trade insults, as Prof. Donoghue surely knows, the latter says (“with finality”) “Crritic!” and Vladimir can only answer “Oh!” (“He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.”)

Donoghue’s claims stink of professorial snobbery. That Beckett chose writing over teaching inspires only our gratitude. No one mourns the academy’s loss.


MP said...

I appreciate the quote and your overall point - just want to point out that the professor doesn't give a road map for how to become "immensely learned" (I don't see an implication that reading the complete works of Dante, Milton, Swift and Johnson across a lifetime would have changed anything about Beckett). It seems most clear that Beckett could have chosen to have risen to whatever level would be appropriate to be "immensely learned," and I agree that this doesn't seem like anything to aspire too...

Jared Carter said...

Especially with regard to your final three sentences -- Amen, brother.

Anonymous said...

Yes, one reason i'm glad to have been repeatedly rejected for PhD funding - i just don't have the willpower to read dull books, which is part & parcel of being an academic, that you don't just read Milton but the latest books ABOUT Milton, and of course anything Milton may have read - even if you're only really interested in Milton. i can't do that. i enjoy reading too much to read according to a method, for a set purpose, grinding at the mill. In any case i don't think you need to have read in this methodical systematic way to come up with good work. Indeed, it often seems to help if you haven't.