Wild Orchids and Trotsky

Mark Edmundson
New York: Penguin Books, 1993

Henry Gonshak
University of Montana-Mont. Tech

Whatever side you're on in the current academic "culture wars," it seems hard to deny that so far the right is prevailing in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the American public. The mere fact that by now nearly everyone knows the derisive label "political correctness," and has, at least, a hazy awareness that the term refers to the alleged left-wing politicization of the humanities, is proof of how successful conservatives have been in swaying public opinion. Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages From American Universities, edited by Mark Edmundson, a literary journalist and contributing editor to Harper's, is an attempt by some in the professoriate to fight back.

For all its promise, in the final analysis Wild Orchids and Trotsky is only somewhat successful at "writing back" at Bloom, Bennet, Kimball, Wills, D'Souza, et al. Much of the problem seems built into the way Edmundson has conceived the book. For one, rather than requesting that his contributors respond directly to charges of "P.C." abuses, he's given them the option of providing instead a "brief intellectual autobiography," which could be "quite personal, a chance for some self-reflection" (53). Although Edmundson's editorial decision ensures that the book won't devolve into a reductive tit-for-tat exchange with neoconservative critics, his approach also means that he misses a golden opportunity to organize a unified rebuttal to the onslaught of attacks. True, several contributors do offer direct, often quite spirited defenses of the humanities. In contrast, for example, one major radical critic, Frank Lentricchia (whose fierce insistence on the connection between literature and politics has led him to be dubbed the "Dirty Harry" of critical theory), explicitly refuses even to touch on the alleged "crisis in the humanities," offering instead a rambling, if occasionally charming, look at his present personal and academic pursuits. I can't imagine a topic less germane to the current culture wars than Lentricchia's professed fascination with the monastic life, in particular the work of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.

Edmundson's stated intentions are further undermined by his decision to offer space to a pair of distinguished academics, Harold Bloom and William Kerringan, who are pugnaciously antipathetic to the present direction of literary studies. Bloom cantankerously dismisses the current ideology of the humanities as the "School of Resentment," calling radical pedagogues "gender and power freaks" and "a pride of displaced social workers" (202). Insisting that literature has absolutely no relationship to social reform, and that therefore all critical judgments should be purely aesthetic, Bloom oracularly predicts that in the near future most current politically oriented criticism will be judged tediously passe. In a similar but more developed argument, Kerringan's essay, "The Falls of Academe," concludes: "The deliberate misinterpretation of past literature to make it palatable to politically correct stomachs has to be among the worst of our academic sins" (168).

One reason Bloom's and Kerringan's shared stance is so persuasive is that both have seen countless academic fashions come and go and are thoroughly versed in the intricacies of the contemporary radical trends they despise. As a result, their collective condemnation carries far greater authority than does the often ill-informed sniping of journalistic outsiders such as Kimball and D'Souza. In fact, Bloom's and Kerringan's mutual insistence that popular fears about the current state of the humanities are entirely warranted contains so much wit and wisdom that it nearly overwhelms the pro-humanities position of the book as a whole.

Nonetheless, many of those battling on the other side do get in some good licks. The three feminist scholars included--Nancy Miller, a pioneer in feminist studies, and two younger feminist critics, Judith Frank and Susan Fraiman--collectively make a very persuasive case for the importance of feminism to literary inquiry. In lucid, lively prose, these scholars set forth some basic propositions that seem virtually irrefutable: that, historically, literature by women has been overlooked because the critics engaged in canon-formation were almost all men; that even those women writers whom critics have canonized, such as Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, often have been undervalued because their traditionally female themes, such as marriage and family, were deemed less "universal" than traditionally male ones, such as politics and war; and that a focus on gender, if not carried out monomaniacally, can illuminate literature by both women and men. Feminist criticism appears certain to make a lasting impression on the study of literature.

A less convincing apologia is proffered by the book's spokesperson for gay and lesbian studies, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Sedgwick's essay, "Queer and Now," is problematic less for what she says than for how she says it. The rationale for gay studies is roughly the same as that for feminism, and equally persuasive: that, traditionally, an almost exclusively heterosexual, intensely homophobic intellectual establishment has denied the very existence of homosexuals in Western culture. Thus, "Queer Studies" (though I dislike this needlessly inflammatory term), is simply an attempt to recover the vital cultural contributions of this historically silenced minority.

When Sedgwick writes about the epidemic of suicide among gay and lesbian adolescents, or when she ties her own near-fatal battle with breast cancer to the struggles of gay friends afflicted with AIDS, her words are moving and profound. However, when she explores the important question of the extent to which definitions of sexuality (both gay and straight) are socially constructed rather than biologically determined, her prose wallows in esoteric critical cant.

It's too bad Sedgwick hasn't heeded the advice of anther contributor, the eminent scholar Edward Said, who tells his interviewer, "I [am]...ill at ease with jargons and obfuscations...special private languages of criticism and professionalism.... It is much more important for me that people write in order to be understood" (117). As a member of the Palestinian National Council, Said is the only academic represented in the book who's actively involved in political affairs. Thus, his insistence that effective political writing must communicate clearly to general readers carries real weight.

Without a doubt, the weakest contribution to Wild Orchids and Trotsky is Afrocentric scholar Houston Baker's polemical and disingenuous essay, "Handling 'Crisis': Great Books, Rap Music, and the end of Western Homogeneity." Baker dismisses widespread national concern about rising rates of illiteracy by contending that literacy itself is nothing but a conspiracy engineered by a cabal of oppressive "whitemales." (Baker insists on fusing the two words into a single term, which he never utters with anything but contempt.) Don't worry that Johnny can't read or write, counsels this former president of the Modern Language Association; American youth have left behind such reactionary drivel, charging instead into some futurist telecommunal utopia, where rap and MTV will be "the poetry for the next society," and Johnny can revel in "energetic expressive forms such as postmodern hip-hop, interventionist film culture, and radical scholarship into gender, class and race determinants of power and knowledge in the world we inhabit" (275 & 277). Of course, those most disserved by Bakers's hokum are poor black students themselves, who without basic literacy skills will never escape the hell of our nation's inner cities.

When Baker goes on to try to align rap with gay and women's rights, I've simply no idea what he's talking about. Surely he can't have in mind "2Live Crew's" mega-selling "Nasty As They Wanna Be," whose lyrics routinely sneer at "faggot," while characterizing women as "bitches" and "whores," whose sexual subjugation is celebrated in the most obscenely dehumanizing language imaginable. Similarly, when Baker contends that in rap "drugs and violence are roundly condemned," it's as if he's never heard of Ice-T's "Cop Killer," Public Enemy's "Going to Arizona," NWA's "F---tha Police," or any of the other countless rap songs which exhort listeners to kill any cop--or sometimes simply any white person--they can get their hands on (281). Nor does Baker ever mention the criminal indictments for drug-dealing, rape, and murder which have been issued to quite a few of his beloved rappers.

Nonetheless, Baker's contribution aside, Wild Orchids and Trotsky is well worth reading, not because it provides a concerted defense of the humanities (the unevenness of the collection, and the presence of powerful dissenting voices undermine that attempt), but because it presents an accurate picture of the present chaos in the American university. The contemporary academy, the book reveals, is far too diverse, and far too riven by furious internal disputes, to bear much resemblance to the indoctrinating left-wing monolith conjured up by conservative polemicists. To the deeply vexing question of the proper role of politics in the humanities, the collection, to its credit, offers no easy answers. However, a quasi-definitive solution is set forth by the admirably unclassifiable American philosopher, Richard Rorty. The ideal university, Rorty contends, should be a place in which all absolutes--political or metaphysical--are eschewed in favor of a rigorous skepticism which calls everything into question. Offering nothing "more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings," such an academy would be "a community in which everybody thinks it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters (50). If any one position ever emerges victorious in our divisive culture wars, I, for one, hope it is Rorty's humane, democratic vision that prevails.

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