Padraig Colman

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Tag: Sarah Lawrence College

Randall Jarrell Part Three

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 1 2015

 jarellcar

Pictures from an Institution

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Jarrell published his only novel in 1954 when he was 40 and teaching at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. The unnamed narrator also teaches at a women’s college, this one called Benton. “If Benton had had an administration building with pillars it could have carved over the pillars: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you feel guilty.” “At Benton they wanted you really to believe everything that they did, especially if they hadn’t told you what it was.”

Benton “reasoned with the students, ‘appreciated their point of view,’ used Socratic methods on them, made allowances for them, kept looking into the oven to see if they were done; but there was one allowance they never under any circumstances made — that the student might be right about something, and they wrong.”

Many assume that Benton is modelled on Sarah Lawrence College where Jarrell taught in 1946 but Jarrell told the New York Times: “Benton is supposed to be just a type … I’ve taken things from real places, but mostly have made them up.”

sarah lawrence

The main characters are the president of the college, Dwight Robbins, Gertrude Johnson a novelist, Gottfried Rosenbaum, a German composer and his wife Irena, a Russian opera singer, sociologists Flo Whittaker and her husband Jerrold.

Many assume that Jarrell modelled Gertrude Johnson on the novelist Mary McCarthy. The two writers did teach together and McCarthy mentions Jarrell in her novel The Groves of Academe. In an unpublished lecture, Jarrell defended himself: “I’ve got used to delivering a little two-minute speech that could be entitled: 59 Overwhelming Differences Between Gertrude Johnson and  -oh, say Senator McCarthy …I’m perfectly willing to have people think Gertrude Johnson me, or part of me- the book’s designed to make them do that; but I’m not willing to have them think my poor ugly mouse is a pretty actual lady novelist”.

Mary_McCarthy_Vassar_1933

Mary McCarthy at Vassar, 1933

President Robbins’s first impression of Gertrude is not flattering: “her features, as far as one could distinguish them, were undistinguished. Then one noticed that she had an obstinate Irish – or, perhaps, an obstinate apish- upper lip”. Gertrude is teaching creative writing at Benton between novels. She does not suffer fools gladly and everyone is a fool. “Gertrude’s bark was her bite; and many a bite has lain awake all night longing to be Gertrude’s bark.”

mary-mccarthy-in-london-1963

Mary McCarthy in London, 1963

President Robbins is a former Olympic diver “who had not evolved to the stage of moral development at which hypocrisy is possible. To him the action was right because it was his.” “Morality, to him, was making a good impression on everybody, selling himself (that accurately ambiguous phrase) to everybody. He praised himself to his face just as he would have praised you to yours, except that he did it more modestly, with a kind of demure grace”.  Robbins has a public speaking voice that “not only took you into his confidence, it laid a fire for you and put out your slippers by it and then went into the other room to get into something more comfortable. It was a Compromising voice.”  “President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins”.

Gottfried Rosenbaum, Viennese composer in residence, kind, witty and Jewish. His wife, Irena, is a Russian opera singer, downscaled by age to lieder. The Rosenbaums are refugees from Nazi Europe and know all about the failed hopes of ends-justifies-means radicalism. He quotes Nijinsky’s epigram “Politics is death”. He lives out a dream of private life without political demands. He composes proverbs of his own, one of which is: “Heaven gives us habits to take the place of happiness”.

Flo Whittaker is a selfless and righteous fighter on all public issues who neither noticed nor understood any private ones. She looked as if she had woken up by chance and “her clothes had come together and involved her in an accident. She lived before Original Sin, and could only make mistakes.” “The skirt looked as if a horse had left her its second-best blanket; the sweaters looked as if an old buffalo, sitting by a fire of peat, had knitted them for her from its coat of the winter before.” Flo was “the least sexual of beings; when cabbages are embarrassed about the facts of life, they tell their little cabbages that they found them under Mrs. Whittaker.” The narrator is, in his fashion, fond of Flo: “If I were a town, there is no one I should rather have by me in a disaster”. Jerrold is “every inch the sociologist” to whom everything “was the illustration of a principle”. “As he spoke, English seemed to have been dead for several centuries, and its bones to have set up a safe, staid, sleepy system of their own, in respectable secession from existence”. The Whitakers had a bulletin board in their house on which they plotted all the activities of parents and children”.

One cannot help feeling that the narrator (and Jarrell) is using Gertrude in a cowardly way.  She is making scabrous judgements vicariously for him but, in between his own corrosive comments, he writes about forgiveness and acceptance. Writing in the New York Review of Books in December 1999, Michael Wood described this odd approach: “Gertrude is effectively given the guilt of the narrator’s cruel jokes, as if she and not he were making them, so that he can trot around the novel in genial and creepy innocence”.

The narrator claims to like Gertrude. He sees good in Flo Whittaker:  “She saw people only in hundred- thousand lots, but she couldn’t help feeling for them sometimes, one at a time- so that I thought once more, in uneasy perplexity: how shall I feel about Flo? That figure of fun, that pillar of righteousness, that type of the age, that index of the limitations of the human being, that human being?.. ‘to someone I am Flo’”.

As I mentioned in a previous article Jarrell developed a friendship with Hannah Arendt the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism. In that book she wrote that society “introduces between the private and the public a social sphere in which the private is made public and vice versa”. She believed that the “perversion of equality from a political into a social concept brought the danger of creating a society where “every individual is ’normal’ if he is like everyone else and ‘abnormal’ if he happens to be different”.

Portrait Of Hannah Arendt

As I mentioned before, Jarrell kept successive drafts of Pictures from an Institution in a folder Arendt had given him, left over from her drafting of Origins. Gertrude’s novel might be expected to expose Benton’s faults in Arendtian terms depicting it as a self-enclosed socio-cultural system.

Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt Scotland 1974

Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, Scotland 1974

President Robbins “had the morals of a State; had, almost, the morals of an army”. A professor who had been away from Benton for several years says that he dreams about being back at Benton the way he dreams he is back in the army. This echoes what Jarrell had written in poems about the regimentation of military life taking over civilian life and academic life.

John Whittaker, the son of Flo and Jerrold, an enthusiast for Science Fiction since he was seven, tells the narrator what he thinks about the inhabitants of Benton: “Haven’t you noticed how they all talk just the same, and dress just alike, and read the same book…? And do you know why?…They’re androids”.

Jarrell uses Gertrude and Irena to convey to us some of his own views on the status of the US in the modern world.  Gertrude says: “Americans are so conformist that even their dissident groups exhibit the most abject conformity”. Gottfried is the character most kindly treated, and associated with everything in art that individualises: “To say that someone is typically anything is an unfavourable judgement. When Gottfried was least his kind he was most Gottfried”.

“Is an institution  always a man’s shadow shortened in the sun, the lowest common denominator of everyone in it? Benton was: the soldiers, as always, were better than the army in which they served, the superficial consenting nexus of their lives that was Benton”.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/fine/item/38660-pictures-from-an-institution.html

Randall Jarrell Part 2

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 15 2015. 

The totalitarianism of everyday life.

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John Crowe Ransom left Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1937 for Kenyon College in Ohio. Jarrell followed him and taught English at Kenyon for two years, sharing a dormitory with other writers who went on to gain some esteem: Robie McCauley, Peter Taylor,  and Robert Lowell. Jarrell went on to teach at the University of Texas at Austin from 1939 to 1942, where he began to publish acerbic and witty literary criticism and where he met his first wife, Mackie Langham, whom he married in 1940. In 1942, he left the university to join the United States Army Air Force.

After the war Jarrell spent a year as literary editor of the Nation, (not the one edited by that other poet Malinda Seneviratne) to whose pages he attracted poems and reviews from many of the best writers in America and England. His own critical pieces were acidly cutting. John Berryman joked with his wife Eileen that many people were holding on to their poems and praying for Jarrell’s early death rather than risk having their work shredded by his acerbic wit.

Jarrell was uncomfortable with urban life and claimed to hate New York’s crowds, the high cost of living, and status-conscious sociability and conformity. He left for the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina where, as an associate professor of English, he taught modern poetry and “imaginative writing.” He also taught at Sarah Lawrence College, which he would later make use of as a model for the mythical Benton College in his satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution (1954).

In his war poems, Jarrell wrote about the individual being absorbed into the machine that was the army. Army training turned boys into interchangeable parts. In “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” he wrote

 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

 

In “Prisoners” he wrote  about captives loading and unloading as they,

 

look unexpectingly

At the big guard, dark in his khaki, at the dust

of the blazing plain,

At the running or crawling soldiers in their soiled

and shapeless green.

 

The prisoners, the guards, the soldiers- they are all,

In their way, being trained.

From these moments, repeated forever, our own

new world will be made.

 

 

Conformity

 

Karl Shapiro’s eulogy for Jarrell said: “our army never melted away…Our poetry, from the forties on, records the helplessness we felt in the face of the impersonal character of the age”.

 

Jarrell  wrote in a review that “when one considers the mechanism of the contemporary states – from the advertising agencies that turn out their principles to the aircraft factories that turn out their practice” one despairs. There were a number of writers mining a similar theme. David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, traces the evolution of society from a tradition-directed culture, to a culture that was “other -directed”.

 

Hannah Arendt

 

 

 

young hannah

 

Jarrell met Hannah Arendt in 1946 and the two became close friends. Her book The Origins of Totalitarianism  was published in 1951 but Jarrell would have been already familiar with her ideas as she had published essays in The Nation. Arendt discusses the transformation of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the non-totalitarian world, and the use of terror, essential to this form of government. Totalitarian regimes seek to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life as a prelude to world domination. Arendt discusses the use of front organizations, fake governmental agencies, and esoteric doctrines as a means of concealing the radical nature of totalitarian aims from the non-totalitarian world. A final section added to the second edition of the book in 1958 suggests that individual isolation and loneliness are preconditions for totalitarian domination.

Jarrell wrote to Arendt telling her that she was his closest possible ally. She reciprocated by writing about Jarrell: “Whatever I know of English poetry, and perhaps of the genius of the language, I owe to him”.

She had written an essay about French Existentialism in The Nation in 1946. In it, she described how the existentialists tried to disentangle people from institutions, from attitudes that cause a man “to think of himself as president of his business, as a member of the Legion of Honour, as a member of the faculty, but also as father, as husband, or as any other half-natural, half-social function.” It was possible resist conformity: “We can rise above specialization and philistinism of all sorts to the extent that we learn how to exercise our taste freely”.

In her reporting of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction.

Institutions and Identity

In  1951, in an essay called “The Obscurity of the Poet”, Jarrell wrote: “The truth that all men are politically equal, the recognition of the injustice of fictitious differences, becomes a belief in the fictitiousness of differences, a conviction that it is reaction or snobbishness or Fascism to believe that any individual differences of real importance can exist”.

As Stephen Burt wrote:”Jarrell’s poetry, criticism and fiction tried to imagine ways to save private life, individual experience. Jarrell’s defences of individuality against institutional or professional interests thus cast themselves a defences of taste”.

It was not just the big corporations that smothered individuality – the academy also corporatized  and imposed conformity and it did so even through the study of literature. Academic critics such as Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye and IA Richards had an ambition to systematise literary criticism. TS Eliot also argued for a view of the literary that excluded the personal. Jarrell wrote to Robert Penn Warren in 1935 “the majority of my tendencies are not at all Eliotish and didactic”. Allen Tate warned in 1940 in an essay called “The Present Function of Criticism “professional ‘educationists’ and… sociologists…have taught the present generation that…the greatest thing is as adjustment to Society (not to a good society). Jarrell feared that Tate’s idea of a good society was one governed by elite professionals like Allen Tate.

This could be a dry sort of argument but Jarrell writes with emotional force about “the specialisation, the dividing into categories, of people’s unlucky lives”. His own criticism is far from that he describes as seemingly written ”by a syndicate of encyclopaedias for an audience of Business Machines. It is not only bad or mediocre, it is dull;  it is, often, an astonishingly graceless, joyless, humourless, long-winded, niggling, blinkered, methodical, self-important, cliché-ridden, prestige obsessed, almost autonomous criticism”.

There is no shortage of such prose in 2015. It is being excreted on a daily basis, not just from universities but from government and business and NGOs. What is sinister about this is not that it is simply a matter of inability to write clearly, or a foolish desire to impress by following a fashion. There is a deliberate aim to obfuscate, to exert power by using an esoteric mode of discourse that the unchosen ones cannot hope to understand. This is bad for democracy. Opacity, false complexity and meaninglessness serve a purpose. Cardinal Newman acknowledged the danger of precision: “Mistiness is the mother of safety. Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of ‘Aye’ and the Charybdis of ‘No’ along the channel of ‘No meaning’.”

Jarrell was trenchant about Stanley Edgar Hyman’s 1948 book The Armed Vision. According to Jarrell Hyman’s ideal critic would “resemble one of those robots you meet in science fiction stories, with a microscope for one eye, a telescope for the other, and the mechanical brain at Harvard for a heart”.

Jarrell wrote only one novel, Pictures from an Institution. Stephen Burt calls it “the most Arendtian of Jarrell’s productions” because it dates from the time of Randall Jarrell and Hannah Arendt’s closest friendship and deals with their shared concerns about “the social”. He kept successive drafts of his novel in a binder she had given him, left over from when she was working on Origins of Totalitarianism.

This does not mean that the novel is dreary and doomy. I have been re-reading it and find myself laughing out loud on every page. More about Pictures from an Institution next week.

Recommended further reading: Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, by William H Pritchard and Randall Jarrell and his Age by Stephen Burt.

 

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