Summer of Proust and Public Humanities

Marcel Proust's reconstructed bedroom in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (My photo, ca. 2011.)

Marcel Proust's reconstructed bedroom in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (My photo, ca. 2011.)

Earlier this summer, I saw a writer on Twitter suggesting that she would hold a “Summer of Proust” – an organized effort to read (at least) the first 200 pages of Swann’s Way. Published in 1913, it's the first of seven books in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time saga. I jumped in, volunteering to organize a chapter for my city, twisting the arm of my best friend until she joined up and tried to recruit people as well. When we had a small but mighty cohort of people, we began to read and scheduled our first meeting.  Ok, great.

Choosing Proust is not exactly like choosing a friendly, mainstream book club book—witness the book choices of any public library system that tries to do a “one community, one read” program. They usually choose books that are more straightforward in structure and plot, whereas Proust is a dense pile of run-on sentences and ethereal prose that's hard to pin down, an exercise in extreme aestheticism bordering on phenomenological theory.  It's hard to follow even if you're invested in it. Reading it as a collective exercise intrigued me because I, a person with an actual French degree and an established specialization in French art history, managed to never read any of it prior to this summer.

At some point during this process, during a summer replete with my own occupational soul-searching, it occurred to me that exercises like Summer of Proust are, however, the very point of the public humanities—finding ways to bring people to great literature, or art, or music, or philosophy, so that they can experience it on their own terms.  Terms that, because they’re set by the participants with minimal guidance from the organizer, are even more valuable than whatever the supposed gospel truth of the cultural import of the text might be.

Related: I’ve been struggling for weeks to write a blog post about Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette comedy special on Netflix and how it uses art history.  Her jokes are deeply well-informed and glorious in their confrontation of dangerous suppositions about canonical artists. She clearly knows much factual information about art history, and will hopefully inspire more people to seek out clarifications and truths about their artistic idols. However, another piece of historical commentary struck me to my core.  With the frame narrative of this special being her threats to give up comedy, she asks what she’ll do if she does.  She says, even with an art history degree, she can’t get a job in a gallery or a museum because they’re “too high class,” and “look at me!"

When people think anything in related to art, art history, or the humanities is “too high class” for them, we’re all doing our jobs wrong. Full stop. The staffs of institutions that deal in presenting arts and humanities content to the public should mirror the public they want to serve, which should certainly apply to museums, if not commercial galleries. Any person should be able to pick up Proust if they want. Maybe, because of what I know of late nineteenth-century French culture, I might laugh a little harder than another person at the scene where the narrator, as a child, meets a Nana-style courtesan for the first time (see, I read Zola instead...) and has to process that through his little brain. But that doesn’t mean that the other person enjoys the text any less.

We should be vigilant of the fact that the humanities, when public-facing and democratic, can offer strength and solace and grounding.  Where people disagree on politics or religion, or whatever else, they may find useful discussion in a humanistic text. There’s a reason that thousands upon thousands of people who’ve never read Swann’s Way know that madeleines are synonymous with nostalgia and memories—everyone has had the experience of being triggered to remember something of their past by a smell, taste, sight, or sound. Since we started our Summer of Proust group, we've found one Proust reference in an article on condiment mascots used by the Cleveland Indians and another in a podcast hosted by MSNBC host Chris Hayes.

Much like Proust spun an entire world from the taste of a madeleine, we must put ourselves in the way of experiences that expand our world views.  We must resist gate-keeping of difficult and supposedly "elite" humanities content and offer it to all who would be interested.  And so, in our little Midwestern city, my friends and I meet in coffee shops and apartments to discuss the words of a long-dead French author and his conceptions of social class that are as deeply puzzling as our own society’s frequently are. 

Reviews with snark and Salem Witch Trials

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit. At the time, I was living in New Jersey, and though my apartment, car, and other possessions mostly escaped damage, I was among those who were left without electricity for days afterward. The day immediately afterward, especially before we were sure what was safe and how far we could venture without tempting danger, I had only books to keep me company. So I grabbed a pile of books I had been meaning to read and then huddled up, wrapped in a blanket, near the living room window with the best light.

That day I read two full books. One was a Dave Eggers book that I should probably re-read because I liked it and remember nothing. The other book was called The Beginners, and it purported to be a contemporary coming of age story with historical parallels to the Salem Witch Trials. I had seen a recommendation for it in one of the online literary magazines I used to peruse frequently. In other words: exactly the kind of book I would, more often than not, relish.

the beginners - rebecca wolff.jpg

But I hated it. After that day of reading, while guessing that classes would be cancelled for awhile and seeing that electricity probably wouldn't be restored soon, I got in my car and drove to my parents' house in Ohio. And I proceeded to log on to GoodReads and torch the book.

My review reads:

"I want to go back and find the person who recommended this book to me before I bought it a year ago and shake them. SHAAAAAAAAKE.

Reasons I bought the book (on deep discount, in a going bye-bye Borders): promise of ghosts, promise of New England coming of age for a bookish ginger girl, promise of history re: Salem Witch trials (my fav!).

Now... the ghosts and the Witch Trials are in peripheral bits that are not followed through on at all throughout the book, and the "coming of age" part is steeped in tremendously weird and, I felt, gratuitous sex, that also happens to be somewhat amoral, confusing, and (possibly) criminal. So... the book basically doesn't make any sense at all.

It's also one of those books that clearly is trying to seem literary- it sounds poetic. And sometimes this works for it. Sometimes the prose is beautiful. Other times, it's clunky and awkward because it's *so* obvious and deliberate. 

I could go on and on about the inconsistencies in the plot- if I had written this before I went to bed last night, I might have given it two stars, but now I've had time to sort it out and realize that nothing connects."

Somehow, that snarky, terrible, horrible, no-good review is the GoodReads review that keeps on living. Nearly five years later, I still get notifications that someone has "liked" it. I don't think I had ever really reviewed a book in print before, and I cringe when I read that review now. However, it's funny to me that other people keep reading it and finding it apt.

I can't remember much of anything about the plot of The Beginners now. Especially with things like mystery stories and magic/occult/mystical stories, so many of the details swirl together in my head. I am a person who can confuse an episode of Charmed with an Agatha Christie novel before my brain sorts it all out. What I vaguely remember is that the author did a bait-and-switch on her reader - the super sexy couple that entranced the teenage girl, teasing her with new experiences and also hints of witchcraft, just turned out to be crooked. Nothing mystical about them.

There's a part of me that wants to be the person who writes the truly great modern Salem Witch Trials novel, and the rest of me sympathizes with those who try, but fail, to get it right. The Beginners isn't the only attempt to bring the Salem Witch Trials into contemporary literature that I have read... and also hated. Yet The Beginners attempted to be more direct than the abstract, hysteria formulations in some of those other novels. 

In sum: it's not so much that I regret writing that review as that I might do it differently today.** I might talk about how disappointed I was that the author punted on the history she intended to evoke. Or why the Witch Trials resonate with women today - perhaps a comparison! A meditation on why I cannot spare the emotional labor necessary to watch The Handmaid's Tale. Or, I could write a memoir-ish post about why people like me remain fascinated by the Puritans and the culture that led to those events. I could talk about my visit to Salem, the peculiar bookstore there and the magnificent candy store, and the palpable feeling of place that transcended all the commercialization of that history.  But sometimes... sometimes there just needs to be some snark.


**unless there has recently been a terrifying hurricane, and I am super anxious and annoyed.

New Beatrix Potter, or: The Tale of the Wrong Illustrator

As soon as I read that an unfinished Beatrix Potter story would be released this week, I emailed my mother a link to the news story I had seen.  When I was a very little girl, it was my mother who read me all the tales of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and so on.  She also made a point of driving me to Cleveland for the day to see an exhibit of Potter’s work at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  I remember this trip clearly, even though I was only a small child then.  My mom knew that I loved wild animals, and I think we both loved Beatrix Potter’s illustrations because the animals looked like the ones that ran amok all over our yard.  Peter Rabbit, for example, looked exactly like the bunnies perpetually causing my father anxiety over the state of his garden.  And, if these creatures truly needed to wear clothes, they at least looked quite dignified in their Victorian fashions.  So that is why I immediately sent my mother the news article discussing the upcoming posthumous release of The Tale of Kitty-In-Boots

The response I received was one word: “Interesting.”

I can’t be sure if the skeptical response of “interesting” was geared toward the posthumous condition of the new release or the part where Kitty-in-Boots is, apparently, a female cat with an aristocratic-seeming name who crossdresses and leads a double life during the night.  That plot, potentially unfinished, seems a touch more convoluted than the usual Potter capers.  The other complication with the posthumous publishing is that Potter never finished her illustrations.  Only one watercolor illustration of her own survives, and it is clearly a sketch, lacking the clean lines and clear finish of her other creations.  The publisher, seeking to “complete” the book, commissioned Quentin Blake, an English artist most famous for illustrating the Roald Dahl books, to do illustrations for Potter’s text.  Blake, a tremendously skilled illustrator in his own right, is, in truth, an “interesting” choice.

One of Blake's illustrations for  The Tale of Kitty-In-Boots .

One of Blake's illustrations for The Tale of Kitty-In-Boots.

Blake’s characteristic style is frenetic.  The lines in his drawings don’t connect to make concrete forms, and the colors go past their lines or blotch and bleed within their spaces.  The eyes of his characters look anxious.  All of this is perfect for the sinister Dahl stories—the macabre and sadistic fates of the children in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, for instance, benefit from and are smoothed over by Blake’s brightly scattered drawings.  For Potter, however, the style complicates the near revolutionary simplicity of her approach.

The World of Peter Rabbit, as drawn by Beatrix Potter.

The World of Peter Rabbit, as drawn by Beatrix Potter.

Potter’s drawing style resembles that of a scientist more than a children’s book illustrator, which makes some of her illustrations seem quaint in their attention to substance over style.  Before I reached adulthood, I did not entirely understand what it meant that she was, in fact, a naturalist driven to document flowers, animals, and other aspects of the landscape near her home in England.  Naturalist drawings and watercolors, like Audubon’s images of birds, for example, are meant to capture every precise detail of the specimens they portray.  A good naturalist illustrator will produce drawings so precise that they could be passed on to scientists to study.  This mattered considerably, even through Potter’s lifetime and into the twentieth century, since photography had not yet reached the point of being able to produce reliable documentation in full color.

The effect of Potter’s naturalist illustrations on her books for children—the act of dressing actual rabbits in tiny clothes—is that they feel more real to the children who read them.  Scholars have often noted that Potter's stories are based on the actual observed behaviors of the animals they represent, and they are not so much charged with communicating a moral as they are with providing a little bit of mischief appropriate to nature.  As if the children who read them are entitled to make a little mischief themselves.

And so I am glad to see another Potter tale.  I may even buy it for my adult self to examine.  But I wish the illustrations matched the whimsical precision in the ones that Potter herself might have provided.  I’m sure, however, that The Tale of Kitty-In-Boots will be, at minimum, “interesting.”