Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Eternal Dilemmas

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Eternal Dilemmas

Article excerpt

In his latest book, Self and Soul, Mark Edmundson pits the idealism of Homer and Plato against the pragmatism of Shakespeare and Freud, with the aim of providing fresh insights into how we might choose to live our lives. Here, he talks to Matthew Reisz

Right now my students see two options," says Mark Edmundson: "Smoke a lot of weed or go to law school."

One choice means "going to university, getting a good job and having a family, and striving in a middle-class way - and I participate in that life". The other means "saying, 'Screw it all!' and trying to enjoy yourself as much as you can - and I respect that, too". Yet his new book, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, is an attempt to "provide a sense of a third option".

Now university professor of English at the University of Virginia, Edmundson has long been viewed as an exceptionally stimulating and wide-ranging cultural commentator, often drawing on his own life. He has written books about the conflict between poetry and philosophy and the last phase of Freud's life, but also about what he learned from a particularly charismatic schoolteacher, from American football and from "the kings of rock and roll".

In Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic, published in 1997, Edmundson explored how "horror plays a central role in American culture. A time of anxiety, dread about the future, the fin de siècle teems with works of Gothic terror and also with their defensive antidotes, works that summon up, then cavalierly dismiss, Gothic fears." The book has explicitly personal roots in the fact that "several years ago, for no reason I readily discerned, I began watching horror movies...What was I doing teaching Shelley's rhapsodic Ode to the West Wind by day, then by night repairing to the VCR to watch Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2?"

It goes on to build striking links between high culture and vast tracts of popular culture, from vampire novels and daytime television to media coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial. It also includes an intriguing digression on the presence of Gothic motifs in much "contemporary intellectual analysis", where power and patriarchy are sometimes treated like ghosts that just keep on popping up, possessed of "a supernatural vitality and resourcefulness that makes it virtually impossible to defeat" them.

But Edmundson has also produced broader polemics on higher education. In Why Read? (2005), he regrets that "universities have become sites not for human transformation but for training and for entertaining". He also describes how "critical thinking" often amounts to "the art of using terms one does not believe in (Foucault's, Marx's) to debunk worldviews that one does not wish to be challenged by". Far from being radical, it helps develop "instrumental reason" and so provides "good preparation for doing work in a corporation in which you look only at means and not at ends".

In last year's Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, Edmundson goes even further. Books by professors of literature may be "full of learning, hard work, honesty and intelligence that sometimes in its way touches brilliance", but they are also, unfortunately, "usually unreadable". A particular bête noire is what are known as "readings". These, Edmundson explains, are "the application of an analytical vocabulary - Marx's, Freud's, Derrida's or whoever's - to describe and (usually) judge a work of literary art...the problem with the Marxist reading of [William] Blake is that it robs us of some splendid opportunities. We never take the time to arrive at a Blakean reading of Blake, and we never get to ask whether Blake's vision might be true."

Edmundson is equally forthright when he meets me for lunch during a short trip to London. Literary studies today, he argues, are often "a technique for preventing students from being influenced by the texts in front of them. …

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