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Fawell, John. The Globe-Trotting Professor: David Lodge's Romance of the Modern Literary Critic. The Midwest Quarterly.

Volume: 37. Issue: 2, 1996, pp. 183-189.

The globe-trotting professor: David Lodge's romance of the modern literary critic.
by John Fawell David Lodge updates the minor genre of the academic novel in his 1984 work, Small World, by pondering two relatively contemporary aspects of Academics: the influence of modern technology and the malaise of the contemporary critical theory scene. In his prologue he asks what Chaucer must think as he, like his hero Troilus, looks down from the eighth sphere of heaven on "This little spot of erthe that with the se / Embraced is" and observes all the frantic traffic around the globe that he and other great writers have set in motion--the jet trails that criss-cross the oceans, marking the passage of scholars from one continent to another, their paths converging and intersecting and passing, as they hasten to hotel, country house or ancient seat of learning, there to confer and carouse, so that English and other academic subjects may be kept up. Lodge is fascinated by the way in which technology has created a sort of international scholarship or global campus. "There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years," says the brash American deconstructionist, Morris Zapp, "jet travel, direct dialing telephones and the xerox machine" (50). Zapp, pondering the jet streams cries-crossing the sky, compares the modern scholar to the knight-errant of old, wandering the ways of the world in search of adventure and glory" (72). This sense of the scholar as an errant knight and of the conference as his quest is further reinforced by the contemporary critical conception of reading as a form of quest, a search for a meaning that is endlessly deferred. Interpretation of a novel, says Zapp, is not possible because of the nature of language itself, in which meaning is constantly being transformed from one signifier to another and can never be absolutely possessed. To understand an essay is to decode it. Language is a code. But, and this is Zapp's mantra, "every decoding is another encoding" (28). Zapp expresses the same ideas differently in his racy lecture "Textuality as Striptease," in which he parallels the act of reading to the act of watching a stripper:
The dancer teases the audience, as the text teases its reader, with the promise of an ultimate revelation that is infinitely postponed. Veil after veil, garment after garment is removed, but it is the delay in stripping that makes it exciting, not the stripping itself; because no sooner has one secret been revealed than we lose interest in it and crave another.

(30) Reading, to Zapp, is a quest for meaning that is always deferred, always lays tantalizingly outside our grasp. The novel's central narrative concerns the young hero, Persse (short for Percivale) McGarrigle's search for a woman, Angelica, that he has met at the first conference in the book. Beautiful and intelligent, Angelica represents the twin pleasures of the academic conference--sensuality and intellectuality. Lodge conceives of the conference as a kind of modern pilgrimage that "allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. Angelica is a kind of conference muse and she has always just left whatever conference at which Persse arrives. Like Zapp's stripper, Angelica is ungraspable. In fact, Persse never does track her down (though he comes close, sleeping, in the end, with Angelica's twin sister, Lily, who is as sensual and satisfying as Angelica is elusive and frustrating). What is it, Lodge asks in his book, that we are looking for in reading, but also, what is it that the scholar is looking for at the conference? Contrary to our expectations of an allegory of the Arthurian tales, none of Lodge's professor/knights are inspired or spiritually enlivened by their quests. Lodge's knights resemble Tennyson's in "The Holy Grail," spreading themselves across the globe in a vain search for spiritual understanding that is best found by fulfilling the duties they have abandoned in Camelot. Like Tennyson's Percivale, they dissipate themselves in a search for an ungraspable phenomenon when there is real work to be done at home. Lodge has said that he thinks literary studies 183

are in a demoralized state, partly because of increasing specialization and the use of highly technical language. "Compared to the 40's and 50's," he told The New York Times Book Review, "when a Lionel Trilling or an F.R. Leavis was a major figure, there are few giants today. Those working at the coal-face are unintelligible to the general public. Those who are intelligible often have nothing to say" (7). Lodge often seems to suggest, in Small World, that the sharpest minds in literature are wasting themselves in the arcane games of psychoanalytic and poststructuralist literary criticism while those who do not become involved in this game and stick up for the old concept of the man of letters do so only because they are frightened of the new stuff and lack the intellectual breadth and confidence of a Trilling or Leavis. At any rate, Lodge's characters in Small World run the gamut from deconstructionists like Zapp, who are clever but unintelligible to bellelettrists like Zapp's old friend, and nemesis, Philip Swallow, who is intelligible but really has very little to say. Small World is encyclopedic in its treatment of the varieties of literary theory. Robert Towers wrote in the New York Review of Books that he could almost imagine a hard-pressed graduate student relying on it to answer an "`identify and briefly explain' exam question on Textuality" (26). In addition to the deconstructionist Zapp and the traditionalist Swallow, there are the multimillionaire Italian Marxist Fulvia Morgana, the gay French narratologist, Michel Tardieu, the Jessie Weston disciple and mythic psychologist, Sybil Maiden, the computeraddicted linguist, Robin Dempsey, and the mysterious reading response specialist, Siegfried von Turpitz. Each of these theorists hurriedly scurries his ideas around the globe but each does very little to advance the appreciation of literature. Lodge is particularly successful in parodying the modern scholar's preoccupation with sex. There's Sybil Maiden, of course, the Jessie Weston disciple, who finds fertility cycles everywhere she looks, even in the children's pantomime "Puss 'n Boots" ("It's a wonder they allow children to see these pantomimes," says Persse, after Sybil explains the play to him). But she's a bit of a stock character in academic novels. More original and up to date is Lodge's portrayal of deconstructionist and psychoanalytic critics, such as Zapp and Angelica, who-not only find sexual content in literature but interpret the very act of reading and writing as a form of sexual displacement. We have to laugh at the calm presumption in Angelica's voice when, while speaking at an MLA conference, she states that tragedy is the genre of castration, and then adds parenthetically, "we are none of us, I suppose, deceived by the self-blinding of Oedipus as to the true nature of the wound he is impelled to inflict upon himself, or likely to overlook the symbolic equivalence between eyeballs and testicles." Persse, the virginal hero of the book, who worships Angelica and is listening to her paper, is indeed deceived by Oedipus' eyes and likely to overlook such symbolism. He is shocked by Angelica's theory that the epic is a phallic genre and the romance a vaginal one, characterized not by one climax but by many, a multiple orgasm of sorts. "Persse listened," writes Lodge, to this stream of filth flowing from between Angelica's exquisite lips and pearly teeth with growing astonishment and burning cheeks, but no one else in the audience seemed to find anything remarkable or disturbing about her presentation. The young men seated at the table beside her nodded thoughtfully and fiddled with their pipes, and made little notes on their scratchpads. One of them, wearing a sports jacket of Donegal tweed, and with a soft voice that seemed to match it, thanked Angelica for her talk and asked if there were any questions. Watching this lecture through Persse's eyes, we are astonished by the contrast between the x-rated material and the bland conference routine, the shocking nature of the material and the blase attitude of the listeners. The questions are as absurd as the lecture. What's funny about them is that the audience knows how to play the game also. They are completely non-plussed by the nature of Angelica's lecture and jump in with an equivalent ardor. One person asks Angelica if she would agree that the "novel as a distinct genre was born when the Epic as it were fucked romance." Another asked if the organ of the epic was the phallus, of tragedy the testicles, of romance the vagina, what was the organ of comedy? "The anus," Angelica responds instantly with a bright smile, "think of Rabelais" (366-67). Lodge plays subtle games with this theory of literature as a displacement for sexual energy, turning the theory against its practitioners. Zapp, for example, though presenting himself as some kind of sexual-literary guru in his paper, "Textuality as Striptease," has not been interested in sex for years. He admits to Swallow of having given sex up in favor of the pleasures of scholarship. Another principal character in the book, the great English critic Rudyard Parkinson, is a virgin, "not," writes Lodge, "that you would guess that from the evidence of his innumerable books, 184

articles and reviews, which are full of knowing and sometimes risque references to the varieties and vagaries of human sexual behavior" (109). Parkinson is sexually sophisticated on the page, but not elsewhere. The fecundity of his mind correlates to a physical sterility. Parkinson has displaced his sexual energy into writing. Writing to him, Lodge tells us, is "an assertion of will, an exercise of power, a release of tension. If he doesn't write something at least once a day he becomes irritable and depressed--and it has to be for publication, for to Rudyard Parkinson unpublished writing is like masturbation or coitus interruptus, something shameful and unsatisfying" (110-11). Most of Lodge's scholars have displaced their sexual energy into their work and have anemic lives to show for it. Rodney Wainwright, an anonymous, struggling professor in England, tempted by a swimming outing with a young woman student, banishes the idea by recalling that "the effects of twenty years' dedication to the life of the mind are all too evident when he puts on a pair of swimming trunks, however loosely cut; beneath the large, balding, bespectacled head is a pale, pear-shaped torso, with skinny limbs attached like afterthoughts in a child's drawing" (95). Lodge's professors are a sickly crew. Most of them have messed-up sex lives. There is a sterility in Lodge's literary kingdom just as there is in Arthur's when the knights are off chasing the grail. Lodge's vision of the sterile professor renders Zapp's and Angelica's evocative lectures absurd. Never has fertility been so much on the mind of the scholar, never has scholarship been so barren. The rest of the critics in the book are characterized by the same impotence, the same inability to find fulfillment in literature. Fulvia Morgana, the Marxist, is only playing along with the bourgeios spectacle of the literary canon until the revolution comes. Zapp at one point politely asks Fulvia how she reconciles living like a millionaire with her Marxism. Fulvia describes that as a very American question and explains that those are the very contradictions characteristic of the last phase of bourgeois capitalism, which will eventually cause it to collapse. By renouncing our own little bit of privilege we should not accelerate by one minute the consummation of the process, which has its own inexorable rhythm and momentum, and is determined by the pressure of mass movements not by the puny actions of individuals. Since in terms of dialetical materialism it makes no difference to the historical process whether Ernest and I, as individuals, are rich or poor, we might as well be rich, because it is a role that we know 'ow to perform with a certain dignity. Whereas to be poor as our Italian peasants are poor, is something not easily learned, something bred in the bone, through generations. (145-46) This speech is remarkable both for its hypocrisy and its eloquence. It is not a totally farcical explanation and yet it is also an absurd rationalization. Lodge has a unique talent for rendering the scholar at once eloquent and hypocritical (there's a lot of sense to Zapp's and Angelica's x-rated lecture as well). Lodge has said himself that there is something inherently funny about people, such as scholars, who are committed to excellence and standards and yet continue to make fools of themselves. Roger Rosenblatt, noting this kind of humor in Lodge's book in his review for the New Republic, has remarked similarly. "In reality," Rosenblatt writes, "professors may often be whiny, prissy, cheap and second-rate but certainly the world of thought with which they deal is none of these. One feels a tension say between the laughable moral pipsqueak who lectures on Emerson and Emerson himself." Lodge capitalizes well on this tension, drawing his scholars as, at once, acutely perceptive and ridiculous. Lodge, however, does not attack the modern, trendier theorists alone. He saves some salvos for the traditionalist also. At one conference, a couple of humanists "feel intimidated by the literary jargon of their hosts, which they both think is probably nonsense, but cannot be quite sure, since they do not fully understand it" (270). The traditionalists in Lodge's world are tentative thinkers. They don't have the brashness or confidence of a Morris Zapp. There is a wonderful comic interplay between the confident modernist Zapp and the rather fuzzy-thinking belletrist, Philip Swallow. Swallow has labored seven years over his first book on William Hazlitt, only to see it consigned to oblivion upon release. Zapp, on the other hand, has written his seventh book in five years, another throw-away on critical theory. "It's called Beyond Criticism," he chirps to Swallow, "neat, huh?" Of course, it's acclaimed. There is a righteous indignation to Swallow with which we can identify. Sometimes he seems the only critic in the book who faces the onslaught of modern critical theory with some backbone. "Theory," he says at one point, "that word brings out the Goering in me, when I hear it I reach for my revolver" (28). But there is also a lack of diligence in Swallow's thinking. As Lodge said, his point is to satirize, not only the unintelligible, but the intelligible who 185

have nothing to say. Swallow cuts off one of Robin Dempsey's linguistic binges by remarking that he could "never remember which came first, the morphemes or the phonemes and one look at a tree-diagram makes my mind go blank" (26). Swallow here effectively snubs the excessive scientific Dempsey but also reveals a certain superficiality in his approach to literature, a kind of dilettantism characteristic of the traditional humanistic scholar. Perhaps Swallow's humanist approach to literature is most undermined by his approach to life. There seems to be no consistency between the two. As Zapp notes, "For a man who claims to believe in the morally improving effects of reading great literature, Philip Swallow takes his marriage vows pretty lightly" (282). There are dangers in preaching morality in literature and Philip Swallow doesn't quite seem to have the stature to stand up to his ideas. Despite his acute parody of the jargon of modern criticism, Lodge seems to prefer his brazen American Zapp to his wishy-washy English Swallow, whose life seems to be as hazy and unfocused as his literary theories. Unlike Swallow, Zapp is not caught in a contradiction between an elevated conception of literature and a less elevated lifestyle, because Zapp doesn't find much elevated about literature to begin with. He doesn't really believe in literature. He is a sort of literary nihilist. As he tells Fulvia Morgana, deconstructionism is exciting because it is "the last intellectural thrill left. Like sawing through the branch you're sitting on" (134). There is an anarchist freedom to Zapp. Like Fulvia, he seems to believe that literary appreciation as we know it is coming to an end. But he doesn't offer any proletariat utopia in the future as Fulvia does. Zapp has no such ideals. Rather his nihilistic attitude frees Zapp to approach literary criticism in a practical way, as a means of gaining power and advancing his career. Zapp represents a fusion of European theory and American careerism that is rather common on today's campuses. Swallow asks Zapp after Zapp's lecture on striptease, "what is the point of our discussion of your paper if according to your own theory we should not be discussing what you actually said at all, but discussing some imperfect memory or subjective interpretation of what you said?" There is no point, Zapp responds blithely, "if by a point you mean the hope of arriving at some certain truth. But when did you ever discover that in a question-andanswer discussion. Be honest, have your ever been to a lecture or seminar at the end of which you could have found two people present who could agree on the simplest precis of what had been said?" What then, as Swallow, is the point of it all. "The point," concludes Zapp, "is to uphold the institution of academic literacy studies. We maintain our position in society by publicly performing a certain ritual, just like any other group of workers in the realm of discourse--lawyers, politicians and journalists. And as it looks as if we have done our duty for today, shall we all adjourn for a drink?" (31-32) Zapp is unflappable because he is not burdened by any of the normal pretensions of the literary world. He approaches literature like an industry and he puts all of his effort into streamlining his job, being more efficient. He is not, for example, weighed down by any moral imperatives in regards to conferences. He tells Persse that "the first rule of conferences is never to go to lectures, unless you're giving one yourself of course. Or I'm giving one" (21). Zapp always gets the maximum use out of the minimum work. When Angelica tells him that his striptease paper applies to her ideas on romance Zapp replies, "Naturally, it applies to everything" (34). Later he brags to Persse that his paper is "wonderfully adaptable. I plan to give it all over Europe this summer" (136). Zapp has found his ticket abroad. The attraction of the conference circuit, writes Lodge, is that it is "a way of converting work into play, combining professionalism with tourism, and all at someone's expense. Write a paper and see the world! I'm Jane Austen--fly me! Or Shakespeare, or T.S. Elliot, or Hazlitt. All tickets to ride, to ride the jumbo jets" (262). Zapp has the art of translating work into playtime down, of using literature to make someone else foot his bills. Zapp's ultimate goal is to obtain the UNESCO chair, a "purely conceptual chair," as one academic in the book describes it, that pays 100,000 dollars a year and carries with it no academic responsibilities. To Zapp this is the inevitable conclusion to his career which has always been dedicated to a continuous reduction of responsibilities. To Zapp, the beauty of the academic life is that to those who had, more would be given. All you needed to do to start was to write one really damned good book, which admittedly isn't easy when you are a young college teacher just beginning your career, struggling with a heavy teaching load on unfamiliar material, and probably with demands of a young and growing family as well. But on the strength of that one damned good book you could get a grant to write a second book in more favorable circumstances; with two books you got promotion, a lighter teaching load, and courses of your own devising; you could then use your teaching as a way of doing research 186

for your next book, which you were thus able to produce all the more quickly. This productivity made you eligible for tenure, further promotion, more generous and prestigious research grants, more relief from routine teaching and administration. In theory, it was possible to wind up being full professor while doing nothing except to be permanently absent on some kind of sabbatical grant or fellowship. Morris hadn't quite reached that omega point, but he was working on it. (172) Zapp's goal is to reach an academic omega point, a state of permanent absence. It's an appropriate goal for a deconstructionist and one that parallels the deconstructionists's conception of the reading experience. Zapp, in his theories of the academic industry, seems to be a spokesperson for Lodge. In his narration, Lodge suggests that the purpose of conferences is not the program of papers and lectures which has ostensibly brought the participants together, and which most of them find intolerably tedious, but the informal contact that surrounds these lectures. Each academic subject group, he notes, has its own jargon, pecking order, newsletter and professional association. Lodge emphasizes the social-hierarchy of conferences. He tends to describe conferences as later versions of high-school with everybody jockeying for position on the social/professional ladder. At the first conference of the book, a horrible, provincial affair in the muddy town of Rummidge, England, the accommodations are miserable, the furniture is stained and broken, the closets have no coat hangers, the beds are narrow and sag dejectedly in the middle, deprived, Lodge writes, "of all resiliency by the batterings of a decade's horseplay and copulation." Conference-goers have to walk down labyrinthian hallways to find vast institutional washrooms that provide sinks and toilets in abundance but little privacy. But the real source of depression as the conferees gather together for sherry the first night and squint at the little white cardboard lapel badges on which each person's name and university are printed is, Lodge writes, "the paucity and it must be said the generally undistinguished quality of the numbers. Within a very short time they had established that none of the stars of the profession was in residence-no one, indeed, whom it would be worth traveling ten miles to meet, let alone the hundreds that many had covered" (4-5). One of the conferees remarks that the trouble with these conferences is that "the chief speakers tend to bugger off as soon as they've done their party piece. Makes you feel like a besieged army when the general flies out in a helicopter" (17-18). It is this kind of awareness of social hierarchies that really characterizes the academic conference. The conference is a sort of academic playfield where scholars start, gauge or advance their careers, a cocktail party where, both inside and outside the lecture hall, scholars try to break into the conversation of their superiors. This then is Lodge's world of the modern literary academic. Roger Rosenblatt has observed that Small World is appropriately sub-titled an academic romance and not a satire since satire would indicate not only the desire for, but the possibility of, improvement. Lodge offers no solution to the uninspired state of literary criticism. Nor does he really mourn that state. He enjoys taking higher education down a few pegs and he takes a real pleasure in the anarchistic Zapp, who has no pretensions as to the relevance of literary criticism and who plays the game of the modern industrial academic beautifully. Romance, Rosenblatt goes on to say, is really a wild party in prose and that is exactly what Lodge offers. He likes to sit back and watch the jet streams criss-cross in the sky, to see the lines of each ridiculous school of literary theory crossing each other across the globe. There may, however, be one hopeful note towards the end of the book when Zapp, kidnapped and nearly killed by Italian terrorists, survives his experience but loses his faith in deconstructionism. "Death," he tells Persse, "is one concept you can't deconstruct. Work back from there and you end up with the old idea of an autonomous self. I can die, therefore I am. I realized that when those wop radicals tried to deconstruct me" (373). A spiritual note creeps in to the end of Lodge's book, a call for critics that recognize the validity of the self and the transcendent meaning of a book. But the whole book suggests that the really great and clever minds are going to have to abandon their sexual and mathematical games in order to explicate this meaning. It can't be left to the likes of Philip Swallow. BIBLIOGRAPHY Lodge, David. Small World. New York: Warner Books, 1984. Rosenblatt, Roger. "Professorial Chic." New Republic, April 15, 1985, 30. Rosenthal, Michael. "Leading Three Lives." New York Times Book Review, August 15, 1985, 7. Towers, Robert. "Moveable Types." New York Review of Books, August 15, 1985, 26. 187