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Not So Much of a Scandal in Bohemia

with 6 comments

Every once in a while, things come together sort of serendipitously, and oddly enough, they seem to have today.

Let me start with  John’s question about whether “people who are good at English are also good at math,” or maybe the other way around.   It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is how you’re defining “good at.”   If you’re defining it in an absolute sense, then no–it’s very rate that people are “good at” both  the humanities and the mathematically-dependent hard sciences.

But relatively is another matter.  Ask any of my friends who are good at math–I actually have two who are full time mathematicians, one with something of a reputation–and they’ll tell you that my math abilities are ludicrously weak.

But  I managed to pass–respectably–two semesters of college calculus and a semester of differential equations.  Next to even most of the girls in the private girls’ high school I attended, I was “good at math,” and in honors math courses and the Math Honor Socity {Mu Alpha Theta, no less). 

Relative to the student population of a takes-all-comers public high school, I would have looked very good at math.

Robert, I think, misinterprets what Nozick is saying about intellectuals being “the smartest” people in their high schools–he’s not saying that they actually are smarter than everybody else, but that they spend four years in a system where “smart” is defined as “good at school,” and they’re very good at school. 

The only experience they have of a situation in which “the people” decide who gets status and who loses it is the clique system in their high schools–and that system definitely denigrates the hell out of who they are and what they’re good at. 

But being “good at school” gets you a lot in this society.  First, most of the people Nozick is calling “intellectuals” here would not be government employees of any kind, unless they signed on as White House speechwriters. 

Professional status for academics in the United States is firmly in the hands of private colleges and universities.  Only a very few public universities count as “first class” in job prestige for academics.

And first rate private universities pay their professors a lot of money–lots and lots of it.  A tenured professor at a Harvard or at Amherst will make an easy six figures.  A tenured prfessor with seniority will make a healthy six figures.

As to high-end journalists, etc, the best indication that a kid is going to end up with a national career in the media these days is where he did his undergraduate work.  In other words, yes, these are the people who were “good at school.”

And literary writers in the U.S.  are not getting poor and are not doing something even loosely akin to vanity publishing.  In fact, quite the contrary.   Every major New York house makes a point of publishing at least some literary fiction, and they are considerably more patient with their literary writers than with their popular ones.

There’s also an interlocking systems of awards, committees, writer in residence jobs, magainze and journal publication, and CATs (course adoption texts), that mean these people make significant money and have significant audiences, even if some of those audiences are captive.

In fact, if you want to make a living as a writer, you’d do much better to be “good at school,” go to an  Ivy  League college, get an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s workshop, and then do a year or two at Granta or The Wilson Quarterly.  Most “popular” writers won’t make half the money you do, and they won’t get anywhere near the prestige.

I think Nozick has a point–if you’re “good at school” in a country where being so means you spend four years of your adolescence being denigrated and humiliated by your peers, and where all your rewards come from a top-down centrally planned system of merit, and you then enter the real world to find that your greatest sucess comes when you stay within just such a top-down centrally planned system of merit, you’re going to end up thinking that top-down centrally planned systems of merit are a good thing.  In fact, the only good thing.

But that still doesn’t quite make sense of what’s going on, because it’s been going on longer than the present system has been in place, and it is clear in the lives and works of hugely popular and successful writers and intellectuals as well as dismissed and marginalized ones. 

You can say anything you want about Byron and Shelley–and I think they were worse as poets than we’re usually allowed to admit out loud–but they were not marginal.  They were more like their era’s version of rock stars.  They made tons of money, were more famous than most figures in government, were followed around by what can only be called groupies, and constituted a solid social class of a particular and often highly venerated kind.   At least, venerated by the public, if not by officialdom.

So let me turn this around and ask the question that’s been bugging me for several years now–why is it that intellectual work, and not only the arts, seem to correlate so highly with socially irregular behavior.

I feel like a Victorian mother here–“socially irregular behavior.”  But  I don’t know what else to call it.  Why are artists, writers and musicians expected to be “Bohemian”?

When  I was first thinking about this, it occurred to me that it might be simply a matter of correlation.  If your stock in trade is originality, if you can only do your best work if you do something new, then maybe whatever makes it possible for you to see other ways to write a novel or compose a symphony than the ones you’ve been brought up with might also make it possible for you to see other ways to live.  Whatever compels you to “originality” in one area may compel you to “originality” in another. 

I finally decided that this wouldn’t do, for at least two reasons. The first is that Bohemian originality is not particularly original.   If you’ve grown up upper middle class in New England or California, for instance, you’d do a great deal more to epater les bourgoisie if you moved to  Mississippi, got born again, and settled down to work in a lube shop and have six children than by running way to Paris to sleep with sexually ambiguous African revolutionaries.  

The second is that, in some quarters, the Bohemianism seems to be a settled social role, part of what is expected of certain people in certain walks of life.  For all the rhetoric of “transgression” and revolution, your standard American Bohemian today is an organization man.

That’s the real issue behind literary fiction in the US as we speak–the problem isn’t that it’s divorced from everyday life, or doesn’t speak to a wide audience, or is composed of people who despise their audiences (that last one is true of lots and lots of writers, including some very popular ones who claim to be conservatives).

The problem with literary publishing today is that it’s precisely a system–you enter it the same way you get a job in a Wall Street law firm, by being “good at school” (which means being not too independent in what you say and write, among other things), and then carefully fulfilling the requirements to get degree after degree until you’re finally “officially” a writer.

I mean, for God’s sake.  No wonder all that stuff sounds the same. 

Right now, I’m just going to make a suggestion.  Go see if you can find a collection of essays by Tom Wolfe called Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine.  In it, there’s an essay–I think it’s the title one, but I’m not sure–that’s a satirical look at the kind of intellectual Nozick was talking about. 

In some ways, it’s more useful than Nozick’s article in outlining the problem–but it’s also very funny.

Wolfe has no patience with this kind of thing, and the last line of the thing is hysterical.

Written by janeh

July 22nd, 2009 at 7:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Not So Much of a Scandal in Bohemia'

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  1. Necessary or expected? I’d say ‘expected’ – at least since Byron etc. There are certainly too many people who have either crippling or flamboyant mental and emotional traits and no creative genius at all for me to doubt the rather specious claims that genius and madness are inseparable. They may be for a few individuals; I don’t think they are as a general rule. Their presentation is encouraged by our culture, though, which tends to assume that unless someone has thorougly epater-ed the bourgeousie with behaviour that makes them, what’s the phrase, mad, bad and dangerous to know? they aren’t true geniuses. There’s some appeal to the lifestyle that drowns out questions about whether or not the doomed genius could have achieved even more had he gotten his demons under control, or why so many people who aren’t geniuses at all demonstrate exactly the same behaviour.

    I’ve been watching a lot of old DVDs recently, and I notice sometimes that a name comes up again and again – there are talented composers and actors (and presumably writers, painters and other artists) who spend long creative lifetimes at their crafts without dramatically self-destructing. I don’t think it’s necessary to be mad to be a creative genius even if some creative geniuses have been mad.


    22 Jul 09 at 9:06 am

  2. But the lube job wouldn’t fulfill any romantic fantasies! That’s no fun.

    Lee B

    22 Jul 09 at 11:00 am

  3. I’m beginning to think that Jane owns stock in Amazon. :)

    The public library here does not have any books by Tom Wolfe. The university library has a few but not Mauve Gloves.

    Ah well, Amazon to the rescue. And I applied a gift certificate so it didn’t cost me.


    22 Jul 09 at 2:12 pm

  4. Point taken, but Nozick didn’t say “literary” novelists. It did occur to me (today) that I knew something of the life of 75-90% of the novelists in the Bookcase of Exile, and that very few were academic success stories of the type Nozick described–but also that very few of them were the political type described. Of course, Jane’s description effectively makes the literary novelists government employees, dependent more on taxpayer money (through a cutout or so) than on sales to the general public. And a government employee endorsing the growth of government is not a phenomenon which requires further explanation. (I was thinking more of the poets as being on the edge of vanity publishing, publishing in tiny subscribtion journals. Or is there a support network for leftist poetry too?)

    I should note that “my” intellectuals aren’t notably “socially irregular” for that matter. Again, it might be worth having one person pick out the intellectuals while another one judges social irregularity.

    As for Cheryl’s point, working where I’m best qualified–military history–I’d say nine times in ten or more, you need a good solid professional. But every now and then all a professional will do is lose very slowly with a minimum of fuss. If you have to win under such circumstances, you need a real genius–someone capable of kicking over the table and starting a fresh game. And those people do tend to be original to the point of eccentricity or madness. Sadly, there are a lot more madmen than geniuses.

    And I refuse to be drawn into a discussion of 20-weight oil and romantic fantasies. “Dignity, always dignity!”


    22 Jul 09 at 2:18 pm

  5. John – Inter-Library Loan. I’m sure they have it in Australia!

    I was actually able to find the book in our university system, although at a site a good few hundred km from where I am. I may be able to get it through the internal document transfer service, although they and I have a history – they seem to be convinced that since I am physically on campus, I must use the main library and not the one in the same building and on the same floor as my workplace! They’ve got this odd idea that I’m still at the same location I was many years ago, although they’ve been repeatedly informed of the fact that I’m not.

    Robert – still not convinced. There are brilliant people who are generally quite nice people, unless you get them started on their pet subject or professional rivals. And there are lunatics and downright eccentrics who can’t manage to organize their own food and clothing. You can’t claim madness is an essential part of genius when only a few geniuses appear to be mad and most mad people are quite clearly not geniuses.


    22 Jul 09 at 4:00 pm

  6. I’m not sure that there is any real relationship between creative genius and bohemianism and/or public eccentricity, beyond the superficial. From what I can see, with comparatively rare exceptions, there are people with artistic pretensions whose bohemianism and eccentricity is far too studied and self-conscious to be anything more than a pose. They display their bohemianism and eccentricity as a strategy to gain recognition/acceptance by and within the community of like-minded artistic poseurs. Again, with rare exceptions, the genuine article is, in my limited experience, well above or oblivious to that sort of posturing.


    22 Jul 09 at 10:02 pm

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