The Talented Mr. Student: Books, Class, and “Passing”

(x-posted to The Valve)

It is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Did I know you at Princeton, Tom? I didn’t, did I? –Anthony Minghella, The Talented Mr. Ripley

This post is a sequel to what I wrote here about teaching literature, and the relationship between literature courses and social class. Readers concerned about the fallout from the conversation may want to read the post here.


Over the past months, I’ve written a series of posts that refer obliquely or directly to the theorist Slavoj Zizek — in particular, to the short editorial pieces he has published that, taken together, call for the formation of a radical vanguard capable of forcing political change in the West. My first such piece was probably “Why I’m Not A Radical.” Now, here I am, in response to Dr. Crazy, writing from what commenter metaleptic termed a radical position. That, in a nutshell, is the political situation of scholarship and instruction in literature. We are bound to present radical possibilities to our students — radicalism of all kinds, not only the re-distribution of wealth — and yet every tradition has a celebratory literature. Literary works are often skeptical of political dogma, mass action, sudden change, and the alibi of righteousness. In many cases literature will represent grievances it cannot resolve, or will represent change ambivalently. Luther Blissett said as much in his excellent reflection on Chekhov:

I just finished reading Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for the first time, and upon completing it, I found myself stunned. I couldn’t articulate Chekhov’s message. He seemed to be saying something about the passing of the landed gentry, the rise of the middle class and serf, the end of one period, the beginning of another. But I couldn’t say whether Chekhov liked this or not.

It’s not clear to me, looking over the discussion that has followed my first post, whether “passing” for middle class is a topic Dr. Crazy would want to explicitly raise in the classroom. She did name it as one of her reasons for teaching literature, and other readers found her explanations persuasive. My critique of it summoned a number of defenders, including Sisyphus and Scott.

Put simply, passing is problematic. I am not dismissing it. I am not disputing the fact that the experience of higher education, as a whole, gives students incredibly valuable kinds of social and professional mobility. Literature courses help students become articulate and erudite, and, depending on their personal and professional choices, they might well be able to “cash in” on the possession of those qualities. Still, the discussion has to arrive at two questions:

1. What are the consequences, for the discipline of literary studies, of valorizing “passing” in a way specific to a certain demographic? Might the problems with passing require an ambivalent attitude towards it?

2. What do artworks themselves say about passing?

I believe, responding to the first question, that an unproblematic valorization of passing turns back the clock, leaving us once again on the cusp of the so-called “culture wars.” As for the second question, the best art on passing presents it as a decidedly mixed blessing. Literature courses have the capacity to present it as such. They need not resort to truisms about the privileges of privilege.

Here’s what Dr. Crazy wrote in the original post:

[I teach literature in order to] give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile. Most of my students do not come from families that discuss books over dinner – or art, or advances in science, etc. If they don’t learn how to have conversations about these things, they face a disadvantage when they leave college and enter the broader world. (I should say, I think this may be one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at my kind of institution, as it doesn’t matter what degree one has if one can’t hobnob with people from higher class backgrounds when one is done.)

Here’s my response: Working class people and the poor already have numerous vocabularies for discussing complex things. An uneducated person may not be informed about important current events, or they may feel uncomfortable dealing with certain kinds of useful and complex objects, such as older works of literature. An education is a valuable thing in those respects — does this even need to be said? At the same time, to use a well-established example, hip-hop has a complex vocabulary and a complex meta-vocabulary, and it did not arise as something imitative of white culture or middle class culture.

It’s not that certain ways of representing and describing the world became powerful because they were more competent to represent complexity; they became powerful because they were forcibly imposed. If you don’t make this crucial separation between, on the one hand, the historically contingent vocabularies that signify power, and, on the other, the formal capacity for complexity, then you lose sight of the reason to (for example) teach novels written in the vernacular. In her afterword to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes:

My choice of language (speakerly, aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black-American culture into a language worthy of the culture. Thinking back now on the problems expressive language presented to me, I am amazed by their currency, their tenacity. Hearing “civilized” languages debase humans, watching cultural exorcisms debase literature, seeing oneself preserved in the amber of disqualifying metaphors—I can say that my narrative project is as difficult today as it was thirty years ago.

Now, of course, I can understand all this immediately, without explanation; what I can’t immediately understand is the phrase from the novel, “Quiet as it’s kept,” which, accordingly, Morrison devotes much of the afterword to explaining. And why should I try to grasp it? Understanding that phrase won’t help me hobnob. It wouldn’t help any privileged person get along in the world, or rise to still-higher plateaus of comfort, except perhaps as fodder for hypocritical conversations of concern. Furthermore, it can only tell a person familiar with the world Morrison conjures something they already know. If upward mobility is the goal, this novel wastes everyone’s time.

Sisyphus writes,

Middle-class culture values doing things without an immediate payoff.

My response: not really, if the latest figures on credit card debt are to be believed. But more to the point, if a student is attending college at all, then he or she has some inclination towards long-term planning. Poor students do not need whatever Keats we throw at them in order to recognize the value of planning. If they didn’t know how to plan, they couldn’t begin to manage the schedules that Crazy and Sisyphus rightly attribute to them.

In response to my reference to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Dr. Crazy wrote:

When I talk about my students (themselves, for I have had students who’ve missed class because they were in jail on assault charges as well as domestic violence charges, or their family members or friends) and jail, or my own experience with family members who go to jail, I’m not talking about people who end up becoming activists and fighting the power, who will go on to write “indelible accounts of time spent in jail.” I’m talking about people who expect the person who has “succeeded” to bail them out, lend them money, help them move at least once every two years, and give them rides when it’s inconvenient.

This goes along with what she says about what her students lack:

The reality is that the majority of students who succeed in high school come from families where there is emotional if not material support for succeeding in school.

In other words, if you go on to become an activist, or if your family provides emotional-if-not-material support for your education, you aren’t working class. Whether or not you are poor is a function of whether your family values education; your class background depends on whether you become an activist. Sure, the behaviors and attitudes that Dr. Crazy describes are common enough, and they correlate to class, but to disqualify the alternatives is to distort the very meaning of class. It comes to mean apathy and vulgarity, rather than simply the fact of occupying a certain place in the American hierarchy.

The problematic definition of class continues here:

I’m not trying to make my students “more likably bourgeois” or, in fact, *more* bourgeois at all, as they are NOT BOURGEOIS.

There is a slippage here between the class “bourgeois,” and the attitudes and common culture of that class. The slippage didn’t originate with me — it’s inherent to the argument that by acting like a bourgeois, a person can eventually become bourgeois. Yes, Dr. Crazy’s students are not bourgeois, but she is trying to help them be “likably bourgeois” in their deportment.

Silencing and independence

Sisyphus writes,

There are so many ways to handle said problems, just as there are many different ways to interact with literature — and going off and figuring out some of those meanings for yourself, and working on your writing/argument/project until it seems good quality, those are the important things for students to practice.

Naturally, I’m in full sympathy with this, but it’s quite a different paradigm from that of social mobility. Social ease is about accomodating people — understanding their definitions of quality and figuring out the kinds of meanings they endorse, putting those ahead of your own. It is not a condition of independence.

I am accused of advocating silencing; Crazy writes, “If I try to give them a fighting chance for when someone responds to their perspective with a bunch of allusions to NPR and radical literature, it’s because without that, the only result would be in their silencing.” This is a strange accusation, given that the whole drift of Crazy’s concern with socialization is judicious silencing:

For me, my students should leave my courses able to have new kinds of conversations – not just conversations about their families or their jobs or money or the next project on the house or that the car needs to be repaired or even about which relative is in jail, which are the kinds of conversations that dominated my upbringing and which (it seems) dominate many of my students lives with their families and friends. (from a comment here)

It’s not that those things are superficial, but in a professional context, yes, those [other] conversations are to be avoided if one hopes to get ahead. (from the continuation at the Valve, here)

Authenticity and the limits of mobility

Is it on “delle Croce, just off the Corso”? You’re a quick study, aren’t you? Last time you didn’t know your ass from your elbow, now you’re giving me directions.
–Freddy Miles to Tom Ripley, from The Talented Mr. Ripley

I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong.
The Great Gatsby

[Morel] answered me in a curt, haughty tone. He had become a real ‘poseur’ and the sight of me, reminding him as it did of his father’s profession, was obviously disagreeable to him.
–Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah

Scott writes,

I’m talking about providing students with the tools required to reach the fringes of financial independence—not by aping the pretensions of imaginary middle class ideals, but (as Dr. Crazy wrote) to allow them to pass among its citizens and fool its gatekeepers. It is in this sense that I find teaching literature most subversive: all the supposedly indelible markers of class can be wiped from our souls with a little learning.

Actually, a little learning won’t do it. Differences of background are readily perceptible. Ripley can provide himself with jazz records, but he can’t give himself a whole childhood of skiing vacations. Moving a team of polo horses across the country marks the Buchanans out as aristocrats; spending the same amount of money puts Gatsby under suspicion of bootlegging. Morel can learn to play music, but he can’t get over his love of little phrases that seem impossibly gauche to Marcel. Dr. Crazy seems to think that if she can only provide sufficiently dramatic illustrations of poverty and hardship, the complexities of passing will disappear: the utilities were shut off when the family couldn’t pay! The parents are addicts! The relatives are in jail! In fact, these anecdotes only bring us face-to-face with the actual tragedy of inequality, and do nothing to prove that literature classes can solve the problem.

American literature might be describing as an entire national literature of passing: passing wealthy, passing white, passing straight, passing male, passing Gentile, and so on. The truth is that there are terrible limits imposed on our powers of disguise. Some of these limits are imposed by other people. Whether or not they see through us, they consciously and unconsciously impose tests upon us. The worst of it is that you can’t pass such tests by trying harder; Ripley knows more about jazz than Dickie Greenleaf ever will. Zeal is a result of tensions the natives don’t experience, and so is total disinterest. Allusions are just that — allusions, vague references. I don’t teach my students to make allusions; I have them analyze one play in depth at the expense of all the rest of Shakespeare. What’s more, you can pass with Dickie Greenleaf but not with Freddy Miles. Freddy Miles knows exactly who you are, and he will always hate your guts.

But far more important, really, than external constraints, and perhaps more interesting, are internal ones. You might be willing to move up on the social hierarchy, but are you willing to turn around and condemn the lazy poor? Are you willing, as a person of Jewish descent, to listen to apathetic and dismissive conversations about “letting the Arabs have Israel”? If somebody responds to your perspective with allusions to radical literature, is that engagement or a way of labeling and neutralizing you? In novels like Quicksand, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Invisible Man, the protagonists find that pangs of regret and rebellion seize them unexpectedly, and carry them kicking and screaming out of otherwise marvelous social circles. I say that this is “interesting” because, unlike intolerance and unlike creating gauntlets, it’s valuable. Nobody’s required to have a particular crisis of conscience, but out of these crises of passing have come some of the most important social critiques of our time. These critiques walk the line between different cultures, drawing on both (or all) but rejecting the unequal way the relationship between cultures is constructed.

Etiquette has two faces: it is a form of courtesy, and also a form of policing. Passing is both empowerment and entrapment. If passing was of vital importance to a particular student population, so much so that it became a primary lens for their whole educational experience, I could imagine building a wonderful literature course around it. It would, like any course, perform its share of socialization, and it would comprehend the desire to pass as other, but it would not settle the matter comfortably. That cannot happen until the injustice itself has passed.