Tuesday, November 17, 2015


According to the online Medieval Bestiary, “In the Christian west, it was commonly believed that the natural world, the so-called "book of nature", had been arranged as it was by God to provide a source of instruction to humanity. This idea was based, at least in part, on biblical verses such as this one from the book of Job: "But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you." (Job 12:7-10). Animals were said to have the characteristics they do not merely by accident; God created them with those characteristics to serve as examples for proper conduct and to reinforce the teachings of the Bible.”
            More recently, humans seem more inclined to follow the verse in Genesis about having dominion over all creatures. But as I discovered in a recent visit to the Maui Ocean Center, some creatures offer examples that humans are so far unable to follow. For example, in the wrasse and some other species of fish who congregate in harems, if the only male dies, the largest female undergoes a spontaneous hormonal change and becomes male. This adaptation would be very useful for any retirement community, especially Sun Lakes singles’ organizations like Cheers and the Sixty Plus Club, to redress current gender imbalance which is so marked that CoEd Singles has refused to admit new women members until someone leaves or dies to try to even the numbers. In this case, humans seem to be unable to learn from the beasts.
            Gender imbalance is only a temporary problem for the reef octopus. The male dies after mating, and the female dies after incubation is complete—often serving as food for her offspring. This may seem a cruel trick of nature, but at least this species does not have to deal with PTA, Little League, and, worst of all, teenagers.
            The Goldring Surgeonfish offers magical results rather than direct lessons, but pre-Christian Hawaiians found a spiritual and eminently practical use for it. They buried one of these fish with the house-posts on the east side of a house. If a priest entered the house and predicted trouble for the family, he would die. Should this actually work, one could make a fortune raising these fish—but only if their salutary effect could be extended beyond priests to include conservative talk-show hosts, talking heads on Sunday morning television, and televangelists who apparently have answered yes to the question posed by the song “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His Television Show?” And maybe everyone who appears in People Magazine. What a wonderful world this would be!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

New Book

Levels of Incompetence: An Academic Life (Lamar University Press) follows the training and career of an English professor from the mid-1950s to and beyond retirement in 2000. Although the book is based on personal experience, that experience is placed in social, economic, and cultural contexts to provide a broader view of the profession and some explanation of the apparently irrevocable changes it has undergone.

The book may be ordered from the publisher or from the major on-line vendors, one of which is

Thursday, October 24, 2013


            In Wandering into Brave New World (Rodopi, 2013), David Leon Higdon uses traditional scholarly methods to reveal the genesis of many elements in Aldous Huxley’s world tour of 1925-1926 that first resulted in Jesting Pilate (1926). Higdon persuasively argues that Huxley combined his experience of the caste system in India with his reading of utopian fiction to form the basis of the predetermined mental and physical divisions of AF 632. Henry Ford’s autobiography, which Huxley read aboard ship, combined with other sources to form the novel’s critique of industrialism, and Huxley’s general knowledge of Freud’s theories lay behind the abolition of monogamy and family structures as well as John Savage’s Oedipus complex, which extended past his mother to what Higdon calls surrogate parents, Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowne.
            Huxley’s brief stay in Los Angeles, where he was more impressed by Hollywood’s special effects than by its banal scripts, is seen as the source for the depiction of media of the novel, and the desire for pleasurable sensation, embodied in the Flapper, pervades the novel and is especially important for the characterization of Lenina.
            Huxley did barely more than pass through New Mexico, never visiting a pueblo, but his reading, which Higdon examines thoroughly, supplemented by some conjectural sources, gave him details about the Hopi Snake Dance (absent D. H. Lawrence’s supposed influence) and Zuni tales, some of which deal with a boy cast out, like John, from his society.
            The final chapter deals with the novel’s onomastics, especially on names connected to the Russian, Italian, and Turkish revolutions but also extending to physical and social scientists, and with the ways in which Huxley avoided libel suits faced by Graham Greene and others.
            The result is an ingenious and convincing study of materials which went into Huxley’s best-known novel. Occasionally Higdon dives so deeply into the background, as in the history of the Santa Fe Railroad’s Indian tours, that the foreground is blurred. And his argument that Lenina is the real rebel in the novel seems a little forced, while the condemnation of Huxley’s misogynistic treatment of her, which “disastrously impeded characterization, theme, and intention” may owe as much to current standards of political correctness as to evidence from the novel. But this is one of the few really debatable points in Higdon’s admirable study of the novel, so old-fashioned that it is original.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Geary Hobson. Plain of Jars and
Other Stories. East Lansing. Michigan
State University Press. 2011. xiv + 245
pages. $29.95. isbn 978-0-87013-998-7
Geary Hobson’s thoughtful introduction
to Plain of Jars cites the influence
of Katherine Anne Porter, but
the collection seems more reminiscent
of Ernest Hemingway’s In Our
Time. Both collections portray “a
particular person . . . involved in
an episode of his or her life . . .
caught, for a moment in a manner
that signals a turning point.” A short
story, Hobson adds, “is a segment,
or chapter, of a person’s life that can
be rendered in one scene or several.”
Roughly two-thirds of the stories
in the collection conform to this
description, and almost all follow the
progress of a Marine from boot camp
until some forty years after the action
(in one case, the ex-Marine is a minor
figure in the background). Although
he has various names—Lawson,
Rollins, Darysaw, Wayne, Steve—
and the episodes are sometimes in
first person, sometimes in third, the
character is identified and identifies
himself as Indian, though as a
mixed-blood he doesn’t look it and
is questioned about why he doesn’t
act like everyone else. He feels the
call of home—usually Arkansas—
but knows, as at the end of “Shin
Splints,” that “it could never be the
same for him as it once was.”
Most of the time, the central
character reacts rather than acts: to
the thoughtless racism in an overheard
monologue that prompts his
decision to return home rather than
go to San Francisco and sample the
white world; to the insistent evangelist
in “The Odor of Dead Fish”
who leads him to abandon the last
vestiges of Christianity; to the martinet
lieutenant who orders the needless slaughter of
elephants, and, on a larger scale, to
the destruction of irreplaceable Laotian
artifacts by the U.S. military that
parallels the Corps of Engineers’
bulldozing of ceremonial mounds
in Arkansas. Both point to “typical
American wastefulness.”
Although the focal character
finds comfort in the rare presence
of other Natives, Hobson does not
further the myth of Indian nobility,
savage or not. In several stories, characters
destroy themselves and others.
One, “the Laguna prima donna,”
dogs the central character until his
new girlfriend backhands her,
“woman to woman.” Apparently this
gets her attention, for in a subsequent
story she is friendly and supportive.
Hobson is particularly critical of professional
Indians, like Wounded Knee
wannabes in “A Christmas Story”
and the drunken, wife-beating pseudopoet
in “Hollow Horn.”
But “Hollow Horn” and what
Hobson calls “fantasies”—all of them
satiric—seem less successful (some
based on premises whose conclusions
soon become apparent) than those
stories involving Marines. And they
lack the precision of language and
feeling of the great majority of the stories.
Those are distinguished at times
by close observation of the natural
world and most often by embodying
a psychological and social world that
exists, if not exactly in our time, in
a sharply rendered and deceptively
modest vision.
Robert Murray Davis
University of Oklahoma
Edward Hoagland. Sex and the River
Styx. Howard Frank Mosher, foreword.
White River Junction, Vermont.
Chelsea Green. 2011. xiv + 247 pages.
$17.95. isbn 978-1-60358-337-4
Those who agree with Edward Hoagland
that Emerson is the “cynosure
of American literature” and have a
taste for a writer who is “by temperament
a rhapsodist” will share
the general opinion that Hoagland
is a major essayist. An argument
can be made for such views. They
account for Hoagland’s undoubted
seriousness, his biophilic concern
for all of nature, including humans,
and the moral stance which mandates
that we “act purposefully but
minimally, and keep [our] reason
under wraps.”
But these premises also explain
the underlying current of self-satisfied
moral superiority exhibited
in batches of reader-nudging rhetorical
questions, often followed
by abstract assertions of principle
that allow no questioning, as in
“anybody winning more of life’s
rewards than we are is probably
selling out to some extent, don’t
you think?” He dislikes the spread
of technology but admits that some
of it has prolonged his life, and he
calls for seniors to make space for
new generations. (That’s rather like
the publisher’s note, which boasts
that 30 percent of the paper used is
postconsumer, saving all kinds of
resources and energy. The logical
conclusion is never reached.)
Hoagland’s Emersonian desire
to embrace “All”—he quotes “All
natural fact is an emanation”—may
account for his inability to end a
series in three elements or anything
near it. Some of his rhapsodies
about nature sound rather like William
Boot’s column “Lush Places” in
Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. The relative
absence of a sense of humor and
a marked irony deficiency may be
traced to Hoagland’s kinship with
what Philip Rahv called “Palefaces”
as opposed to “Redskins” like Mark
Twain. Twain and, later, Hemingway
were able to show us the wonder
of nature rather than (not quite
merely) insisting on it through generalizations
in a style that, in Cyril
Connolly’s terms, is mandarin rather
than plain.
Furthermore, the sense of the
interconnectedness of everything
may relieve Hoagland of the necessity
of imposing a structure on most
of the essays. For most of the book,
the prose is like water from an office
cooler—you can get more, but it
won’t ever have a different flavor,
and the only principle of organization
is provided by the cup.
The most coherent essays in
the book are the travel pieces about
India and China, since they deal
with movement from one place to
another. And to offset overwritten
passages like the one about “one’s
ability to marinate in the spices of
solitude,” there are quite sensible
observations like “Existentialism . . .
was kind of fun, when hedonism
and pessimism still boasted of their
novelty.” His views of his generation—
he was born in 1932—accord
with those of many of his contemporaries,
and his attempts to understand
what happens to us as we age
are often quite sensible, though he
may be wrong about older people’s
being kinder and more forgiving.
Robert Murray Davis
University of Oklahoma
world literature in review

Christopher Hitchens. Arguably:
Essays. New York. Twelve / Hachette.
2011. isbn 9781455502776
Ordinary book reviewers have three
tasks: to determine what the author
set out to do; how well that task was
accomplished; and whether it was
worth undertaking. Here the reviewer
is in a way subordinate to the book. Not
so reviewers given the space to show
their credentials as public intellectuals.
In their work, readers often find it
difficult to discover just what book is
being discussed because the reviewer
subsumes the discussion in a wider
consideration of the topic.
Christopher Hitchens is preeminently
in the second group. He seems
to be as widely read and traveled as he
is prolific—the publicity sheet for the
book notes that Arguably: Essays is his
first collection since 2004, not counting
the six other books he wrote or coedited
in the meantime. This output is
fueled (a word he detests) by consistent
and unvarying opinions. Though
he has a soft spot for the English Reformation
because it destroyed Catholic
power, he dislikes all religions in an
ascending intensity from Protestantism
to Catholicism to Islam.
He is particularly severe on religious
elements in the novels of Evelyn
Waugh and even more in those of
Graham Greene (he refers to the girl
in The Heart of the Matter as Scobie’s
“scrawny and tedious mistress”), giving
unqualified praise to the unreligious
vision of Anthony Powell, whose
clotted and stuffy prose he praises
for inexplicable and unexplained reasons.
But irreligion is not enough
to gain his approval: John Updike’s
“grueling homework” and Somerset
Maugham’s utter stylessness are
severely criticized, with some justice.
George Orwell sits understandably
high in his pantheon for his idiosyncratic
socialism and for the parallels
between Nineteen Eighty-Four and the
English Reformation, and he thinks
more highly of Upton Sinclair as a
social novelist than he does of Dickens
or Zola—a decision hardly based
on aesthetic grounds.
His political views are antiimperialist
and anti-totalitarian, and,
forced to choose, he would go with
the latter. He excoriates practitioners
of any form of jihad, and all regimes
or individuals from the wet Left who
support or excuse it, and almost gushes
about the Kurds.
In reviews and essays on political
subjects, he can be quite caustic,
but he also says that “the people
who must never have power are the
humorless. To impossible certainties
of rectitude they ally tedium and uniformity.”
To lack of humor one might
add the sin of sentimentality. Thus in
dealing with quite serious subjects,
like the near-collapse of the American
economy in 2008, Hitchens compares
Hank Paulson’s attitude of “prayer
and beseechment” to the end of Peter
Pan, “where the children are told that,
if they don’t shout out aloud that they
all believe in fairies, then Tinker Bell’s
gonna fucking die.” And the economy
76 | World Literature Today
very nearly does. He also excoriates
“the moist, vapid effusion that greeted
the death of Diana Spencer” and
the unearned appropriation of grief at
the killings at Virginia Tech as “proof
of how utterly painless all this vicarious
‘pain’ really is.” And his view of the
British royal family can be summed
up in “This is what you get when you
found a political system on the family
values of Henry VIII.” But he is equally
sharp on the failings of JFK.
Although Hitchens can be snarky,
he makes interesting and often valid
points, mostly negative, about the
weakness of Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn
Mauberley,” and his analysis of
Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey
Falcon is both pointed and balanced.
Even when he condemns, as in his discussion
of Waugh, he can see virtues
to mitigate faults.
On the (very great) whole, the
chief impression one might take from
this massive collection is that, given
the willingness of outlets like Vanity
Fair, the Atlantic, and Slate to publish
extended and thoughtful material
like this, the condition of American
journalism and thought might not be
quite as bad as some have feared.
Robert Murray Davis
University of Oklahoma