Alice Walker and the Ghost of Irving Howe

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Though Howe and Hook rarely agreed on anything—they had been fierce adversaries since the 1940s—Howe shared Hook’s anger over the proposed changes. “Those of us who have been or are teachers get these American kids for a short while; they come, most of them, poorly prepared from the high schools; we have a chance to expose them to a play by Sophocles, a few pages of Hume, an essay by Freud, a poem by Keats, whatever it is that’s distinguished and has survived through sheer power of mind and language–and our colleagues tell us that this is imperialistic or racist or sexist or whatever. The kids get short-changed and their parents, paying through the nose to send them to college, don’t seem to know the difference…Socialists have usually said that they wanted a better society so that the poor could get a chance to engage with the culture they had been deprived of. And now that there is an opportunity for this, our ‘radical’ friends prefer to teach them about the Trobriand Islands or to have them read Alice Walker (an atrocious writer).” Would minority students really gain in self-esteem by reading about themselves or their ancestors? Was there not something patronizing in suggesting that variety and multiplicity were suitable for middle-class white students, but not for minority students, whose literary regimen must be racially determined? And since when was the function of the humanities to inculcate self-esteem? For Howe, the substitution of Alice Walker for John Keats epitomized the debasement of public education.

Much earlier, in the late sixties, Howe had entered the culture struggle that called into question the value of literature itself. He savagely attacked people like Louis Kampf, the spokesman for “leftist” English professors who came to provide teachers and critics who never cared much for literature in the first place a rationale for their hostility to literary studies: they were both a result and an instrument of class oppression. Kampf and his acolytes believed that preferring Elizabeth Bishop to Judith Krantz was a sin of the same order as sanctioning the inequality of wealth.

The corpses of the sixties were resuscitated in the anti-traditionalist insurgents at Stanford (and most other “progressive” universities) in the eighties. They thought of themselves as leftists but in fact were animated by a mixture of American populist sentiment and French critical theorizing. “The populism,” Howe observed, “releases anti-elitist rhetoric, the theorizing releases highly elitist language…a stupefying verbal opacity” that arises from and further engenders nihilism, imbuing Raskolnikovs with bombs in their brains rather than axes in their hands. Fortunately for Howe, he did not live to see the specifically anti-American and anti-Israel expression of literary “theory,” as in this apologia for suicide bombing provided in June 2002 by Columbia University’s celebrated tribune of “international feminism,” Gayatri Spivak:

Suicide bombing—and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs—is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing oneself as other, in the process killing others….Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning…you die with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on. Because no matter who you are there are no designated killees [sic] in suicide bombing…It is a response…to the state terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure of hospitality.

This is what Howe’s good friend Lionel Trilling called the language of non-thought, employed to blur the distinction between suicide and murder, to obliterate the victims—”no designated killees”  here!—metaphysically as well as physically. It is what Howe, writing about the trend of literary studies at every level of American education throughout the eighties until his death in 1993, called “the explosive power of boredom.” His voice is much missed today.

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  • Steve

    I have always thought that Alice Walker looks like and would make a good maid. Anyone know if she can cook?

    • Edwin S.

      Racist insult degrades the conversation.

  • Walt

    Ms. Walker is the typical 'progressive' trying to pass herself off as an intellectual. Her opinions are not based on available facts, but on tribal 'lore'. Blacks (as well as progressives) have always hated the Jewish, whether out of envy, jealousy, ignorance, etc. I have no clue – but it is there and prolific.

    While that aspect of black society is certainly disheartening, to listen/read about the opinions of a black pseudo intellectual decry the murders, maimings, atrocities, et al committed by the Israeli's foreign policy decisions is bat guano at best.

    If she wants to deal objectively in 'tribal' gotcha, why doesn't she direct her attention in cleaning up her own mess like the thousands of Black-on-black murders each year, or the 1-in-7 black pregnancies that end in abortion, etc. At least in that case she might be doing she knows a bit about and something for which we could be proud of her.

    Presently, her pathetic lack of knowledge re the Jewish or Israel are almost criminal!

    • A. Keen Observer

      Excellent post and thank you for stating what needs to be said about the historical and ongoing hatred of Jews by blacks. It is of epic proportions. I used to wonder why and then I read on the internet the average IQs of various groups, racial and otherwise: blacks = 80, Jews = 120.

      Re black genocide on blacks: Yes, that is exactly what it is.

      However, her remarks, I believe, are not almost criminal — they are indeed criminal.

      Thanks again!

  • Robin

    The real problem with literary studies is that it allows minds today to interact with the minds from the past. A mental dialogue of ideas that no intrusive bureaucrat can intervene to stop. It nurtures. It defies. It reminds us of the best of human originality and allows one individual to interact with another.

    Both John Dewey and Karl Marx refused to accept rational thought. There could be physical activity which we see today in the emphasis on learning tasks and projects and community experiences. You can communicate beliefs or feelings to others.

    But the idea of an individual mental world of internal dialogues lays at the heart of the unacceptable concept of the individual. And today we are being shoved back into the Soviet idea that everything the individual is or knows is a result of his social interactions with others coupled with his physical environment.

    Keats and Milton and Hume and Locke–all too glaringly magnificent minds that arose apart from the rubbing off from interacting with others. No longer acceptable to encounter such individuals or celebrate accomplishments everyone is not capable of achieving.

    Bomb in the mind–well said given all the current emphasis on emotion being preferable to rational thought.

  • tagalog

    Where did Toni Morrison get the figure of sixty million or more? Where does that come from? Assuming sixty million is something more than an overheated, red-hot, smoking hashish fantasy, who is responsible for those deaths? How many are attributable to Muslims?

    • ebonystone

      Sixty million is the figure usually attributed to the Moslem slave trade out of Africa, but somehow I don't think Morrison is refering to that. She undoubtedly considers Moslems to be fellow "people of color", and thus innocent of any nasty things. No, she's just drastically inflating the number of Africans taken in the Atlantic slave trade — the accepted figure is more like twelve million, about 1/5 her number.
      And the idea of any equivalence to the Holocaust is ludicrous; it was 12 million taken alive as slaves to the Americas, NOT 12 million killed. Slaves were an expensive investment, and slave-traders were not in the habit of killing their valuable "livestock".
      The real Holocaust comparison must be with the Moslem slave trade. The Moslem traders routinely made eunuchs (not just castrati) out of the African boys they had taken as slaves. The operations were performed under terribly unhygienic conditions, and the fatality rate was fantastic — most boys did not survive.
      Also, why does Morrison not aim some of her bile at the African kings and slavers who made a handsome income selling their fellow Africans to both Europeans and Moslems?

      • Questions

        If you read Hugh Thomas' classic book, "A History of Slavery," only about 5 percent of all African black slaves brought to the Western Hemisphere were bound for the American colonies and early republic. Most were destined for the Caribbean, Central America or South America. Alice Walker should do some better picking of reading material.

  • tagalog

    "No designated killees" is code for "random murder." This is not simply non-thought; it is deliberate masking of the real meaning of what one is trying to say, and suggests not only non-thought, but a willing ignorance of what one means. You see this commonly, but more and more these days as you talk to people who will say anything and then when their attention is called to the significance and consequences of what they have said, say the opposite as if that's what they meant all along.

  • cheese_burger

    From the article:

    "Suicide bombing—and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs—is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism"

    My comment:

    Someone should take this mook stupid blob of protoplasm out behind the barn, to be thrashed mercilessly, for offending sane people with both its ideology, and its grammar!

  • BS77

    There is more apartheid in most large urban areas of the US than in Israel. Walker , like most leftists, disregards facts….choosing to embrace lies, fiction and propaganda. Israel is a very diverse nation…yes, it does try to protect itself from terror attacks (last week Hamas fired over 150 rockets into southern Israel), but Israel is the most pluralistic and democratic nation in the Middle East….got that, Walker?

  • Guy

    Actually, Israel is the only state in the Middle East that is NOT an apartheid regime, which is why little Alice wants to see it exterminated.

  • clarespark

    Even before the lit crit assault on canonical English and American literature, the guns were drawn against anyone who supported independent thought. Herman Melville was one victim of the progressive offensive. Too "Hebraic"? See…. "Herman Melville: Dead White Male." His fate at the hands of leading left-liberals show that you don't have to be Jewish to incur the wrath of reactionaries.

    • Sage on the Stage

      Correct; you don't have to be Jewish to incur the anger of reactionaries; but at the same time, there has long been a fairly virulent strain of anti-semitism in American literature. Look at Theodore Dreiser and T.S. Eliot.

      • clarespark

        I could name many more American writers in the canon who have negative images of Jewish characters. So what does it prove? There is more antisemitism than most want to recognize. Melville as Captain Ahab was deemed "a Jew" or "Hebraic" because he challenged traditional authority. Melville himself could be nasty with respect to Jews, especially when they were associated with modernity and capitalism. The point is that black writers have been elevated for reasons that were politically motivated, and many of these share in the general association of Jews with the money power and the determination to control the world.

        • Sage on the Stage

          I wasn't trying to PROVE anything by my comment; and I understood your point quite well. I'm sure you are fairly expert in the field of literature; I've read your blog a few times. However, I have found that many commenters on this site are quite argumentative.

          • clarespark

            Thanks Sage for your elucidation, and for reading my blogs. Peace.

  • ratonis

    I tried to read "The Color Purple" a few years ago, and could only get through about half of it. It was the worst written, most thumpingly boring thing I've ever tried to read, this side of "The Celestine Prophecy."

    It does seem, sometime, that mediocre black writers are applauded all out of proportion to their quality for the same reason that audiences applaud children for singing badly in church. It is the need to feel morally superior through patronizing or "encouraging" the efforts of the immature. The same applies to black artists (e.g. Faith Ringgold), or even doctoral candidates like Martin Luther King (whose plagiarisms were overlooked or justified through contorted apologetics and race-rooted intellectual dishonesty).

    • tagalog

      I'm a bit more cynical than that. I think that mediocre black writers are celebrated by blacks solely because of race, although there may be some element of endorsing some black fantasy, often about whites conspiring against blacks. I think that whites celebrate mediocre black works of art, books et al. because a certain class of whites (1) needs to think its approval of black artists is necessary, and (2) there are few or no good black artists, so whites celebrate the mediocre ones so as to be able to say they support black artistry on the theory if whites support mediocre black artists today, tomorrow better black artists will come forth to bask in white approval.

  • Ghostwriter

    I encountered some of that when I was in high school and college. We weren't allow to wonder what the writer meant himself or just enjoy the darn book. We had to go through a lot of nonsense stuff instead of letting us enjoying it on it's merits.

  • gary fouse

    The old German drinking song…

    "Alice! Who the F— is Alice?"

  • Arnon Segel

    Alice Walker looks like my maid