Fakes and Yale

By Echlin, Helena | New Statesman (1996), November 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

Fakes and Yale


Echlin, Helena, New Statesman (1996)


Helena Echlin went to study for a PhD at the most famous English department in America. Once there, she discovered the tyranny - and fraudulence - of literary criticism

I am sitting in a windowless conference room. The walls are lined with sets of leather-bound books with gold-lettered spines. "The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism," a young man is saying. He pauses for along time. Underneath the table, one leg is twisted around the other. A stretch of gaunt white ankle shows between trouser leg and sock. "In order to approach participating in ..." He pauses again, his body knotted like a balloon creature made by a children's entertainer. Finally, in one rush: "The unity which is no longer accessible." My fellow students utter a long, soft gasp, as if at a particularly beautiful firework.

"Brilliant," says the professor. "Very finely put. But I didn't quite understand it. could you repeat it?" I write the sentence down in my notebook, like everyone else in the seminar. The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible. When I have pieced it together, I realise he is talking nonsense. I am struck by the thought that literary criticism -- at least as it is practised here -- is a hoax. And the universities that offer it, and the professors who in America earn large salaries teaching it, are fraudulent, wittingly or not.

I came to Yale to do a PhD in English and American literature. I imagined that an academic career would also give me time to write, and I was congratulated when I won a fellowship. Yale, after all, was the home of the most famous English department in America. Generations of important critics had been nurtured here -- from the New critics to the Yale Deconstructionists, J Hillis Miller, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman and the magisterial Harold Bloom.

Yale sent me a note of congratulation and a fat folder of material. A list of crime statistics was tucked in the back. In 1995, Yale had been ranked, disconcertingly, number one for on-campus burglaries. But I filled one suitcase with books and one with clothes and set off.

The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible. Think about that sentence until your brain hurts (it shouldn't take long). It won't help if you, too, are or once were a graduate student in English, or if you know that the poet in question was Geoffrey Hill. It doesn't make sense -- so cleverly one might have thought it was designed that way. How can one "traverse" a problem, or "participate" in a unity? But at Yale, obfuscation is de rigueur. Sentences are baroque in their lengthiness; suffixes are added, like flourishes in music, to words considered too plain.

On the lips of one Professor, "inert" becomes "inertial". One graduate student substitutes the more rococo "relationality" for "relation". In a class on Thoreau, we turn a noun into a verb, and speak of how he "solitudinised". It is common to speak of "technology" when one perhaps simply means "method".

For some weeks, I listen to people talk like this. I tell myself I'm not stupid. Besides, I was educated to value clarity. My tutor at Oxford wrote "Eh?" in the margin when something I'd written wasn't clear. He taught me that you should be able to present even the most abstruse ideas in language that anyone can understand. At Yale, I begin to say "Eh?", or sometimes "Huh?".

How can we embed this discourse within more gendered parameters? Eh?

Let's talk about the technology for the production of interiority. Huh?

Sometimes, from my peers, I earn a small, shy chorus of agreement. But my professors look at me as if I am the village idiot. It tires me out listening to long sentences that sound like English but lack all meaning. And resistance isn't easy. Where there is no paraphrasable meaning, dissent is impossible, because there is no threshold for attack. …

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