Meetings of the Mind

David Damrosch
Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000
217 pages, $39.95 hc

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

Though a work of fiction, David Damrosch's Meetings of the Mind has as its narrator, in an act of postmodern genre-blurring, the author himself (a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia). Completing the main cast of characters are four other academics: Marsha Doddvic, a radical feminist film theorist who staunchly believes in the power of criticism as an agent of social change; Vic Addams, a gay Wildean aesthete who prefers parasailing and buying antiques to attending academic conferences; and, the group's most interesting member, Dov Midrash, an Israeli-born cultural studies bigshot who jets back and forth between Endowed Chairs at Berkeley and Geneva, and who's busy at work on a self-help book, pitched to a popular audience, based on the philosophy of Hegel (For instance, how can Hegel help us choose a menu?).

Thanks to the zeal of the narrator, who proposes and implements the idea, the four profs form a floating academic session which circles the globe, appearing at comparative literature conferences held at a variety of locales (with each chapter of the book devoted to a particular conference): Tokyo; Bloomington, Indiana; Chicago; and (in the novel's last and best chapter) Puerto Vallarta. Scenes shuttle between depictions of the conference sessions and of the occasionally agreeable but mostly acrimonious discussions that transpire during the foursome's after-hours socializing. A diligent but rather prosaic academic (a London Times reviewer dismisses his study of academic culture as "vacuous"), the narrator, whose conciliatory nature usually makes him the peacemaker during his colleagues' countless disputes, often feels intimidated by his friends' intellectual firepower, at the same time as he recognizes their frequent follies and pretensions. But, at heart, he views them all with deep affection. As they spend more time together, the group becomes more personally revealing, with Vic confessing that his ex-partner is dying of AIDS, Dov admitting the estrangement from his family that's resulted from his jet-setting lifestyle, and Marsha lamenting the lack of intellectual rapport she experiences with her husband, an organic gardener. Ultimately, the group does transcend its differences and connect--in a surprising final twist that offers a lively slant on postmodern "death of the author" theory.

Though I wish Damrosch had explored the subject further, the book does convey some sharp insights on the problematic culture of academic conferences. While professors commonly attend conferences hoping to find an enthusiastic understanding of their work not found on their own campuses, Meetings of the Mind (whose title is, on one level, deliberately ironic) suggests that the collaborative intellectual community that conferences theoretically offer rarely occurs in fact. Instead, conference organizers typically divide the hordes of participants into sessions virtually at random, with the result that the papers presented at panels often have little, if any, thematic connection. As a result, audience participation is usually desultory (if the speakers leave time for discussion), and when audience members do speak, it's often less to address specific points in the papers than to seize the opportunity to deliver some spotlight-grabbing mini-presentation of their own. Indeed, the narrator organizes his on-going panel in an attempt to create an antidote to the isolating fragmentation that characterizes most academic conferences.

Also to its credit, some passages in the book are extremely funny. For example, when the narrator worries that holding a conference in a tropical paradise like Puerto Vallarta might mean that conferees will skip sessions, Vic reassures him:

Consider, dear boy, how much fun can academics stand to have? I use the word "fun" advisedly, to suggest something different from high-toned cultural enrichment. Put professors in a major city, replete with museums, plays, and second-hand bookstores, and you may never see them again after the first session is over. But how many of our colleagues can really bear a beach for more than half an hour a day? They are far too compulsive just to lie there; they have to bring a book. And of course nothing resembling "beach reading," heaven forbid! Probably a late Henry James novel or some sparkling little potpourri of essays on Kafka. They'll be back indoors within the hour, looking for a session to attend. (136)

Ultimately, however, I found Meetings of the Mind less entertaining and edifying than I'd anticipated. First of all, the novel's satire rarely displays the deliciously savage bite found in the satiric academic novels of David Lodge or Kingsley Amis. Instead, the satire here is gentler, often bordering on the flaccid. Granted, there are good comic novels about academe whose authors depict their flawed professorial characters with clear-eyed but sincere compassion, such as Jane Smiley's Moo and Richard Russo's wonderful Straight Man. But those novels are largely realistic, creating three-dimensional characters whose personal lives are as fleshed out as their professional ones, and as a result, the authorial sympathy seems earned. In short, Meetings of the Mind doesn't really work as a satirical novel since the satire is too muted, and it doesn't really work as a comic realistic novel since the characters are insufficiently developed.

Given these shortcomings, there is only one way Meetings of the Mind could have succeeded: if the dialogue of the four profs, both in and outside their sessions, had been consistently brilliant, eloquently exploring a gamut of academic issues from a range of fresh and fruitfully clashing perspectives. But it is precisely here that the book most falls short. True, on occasion, one or another of the group displays an intriguing insight. For example, Dov provocatively compares the burgeoning field of cultural studies to a religious cult with deceased saints such as Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, along with disciples who parrot the requisite far-left dogma (and, of course, apostates). Moreover, in places, a particular prof unearths some neglected work which it is persuasively argued deserves more critical attention. For example, Vic elucidates the long-forgotten but haunting poetry of the 13th century female Christian mystic, Mechthild von Magdeburg. And Marsha discourses on the powerful "confessional criticism" of the obscure Chicano lesbian essayist, Gloria Anzaldua, whose writing, Marsha claims, "goes far beyond the paralyzing dichotomies of solipsism versus group identity.... The point is to see how we can use our lives--and our life histories--to build a more vital social and intellectual community" (152). (As an aside, Marsha delivers her paper without a hitch on a patio outside the Puerto Vallartan hotel, even though a raucous volleyball game is in progress directly behind her!)

But, alas, most of the book's dialogue is far less scintillating. Instead, too many discussions are of the arcane, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin variety that give academics a bad name, with members of the group making some excruciatingly esoteric reference, which he or she then pontificates endlessly and convolutedly, replete with strained puns and tired bon mots, only to provoke another in the group into even more Jesuitical hair-splitting. For example, Dov and Marsha debate for pages whether or not the pseudo-Gothic architecture found on the campus of Indiana University is aesthetically superior to the equally pseudo-Gothic architecture found at the University of Chicago, with Dov insisting that "in downtown Chicago, the danger is that the fiction [of the architecture] gets naturalized, taken literally.... But here is more like Las Vegas, a fantasy amid a cultural wasteland, in a setting that reveals its fantasy at every turn" (73). Come on, guys, who cares? If Damrosch's intention had been to send-up academic pomposity and narcissism, this might have been funny (if a bit excessive). But, unfortunately, I suspect the author means the reader to react to this interminable blather with the same awe expressed by his alter-ego narrator.

Moreover, the dialogue regularly remains on such a rarefied intellectual plane that more concrete academic concerns get largely ignored. For example, for all their verbosity, the profs say next to nothing about teaching--e.g., their pedagogical approaches, the nature of their students, interesting courses they've taught. As with the academics' generally pretentious discourse, I suspect this striking omission is inadvertent rather than deliberately satiric, revealing that the author is as caught up in the "publish or perish" flight from teaching as are his characters. Moreover, save for a brief mention of Marsha's temporary unemployment after she's fired from Bennington (following the college's abandonment of tenure), there is little discussion of the bread-and-butter issues that obsess most real-life academics: e.g., the shrinking job-market in the humanities, the dwindling of state support for public colleges, the growth of exploited adjunct faculty. Although such issues may sound too somber for a humorous book, they have been well treated in seriocomic fashion in other academic novels; for example, in Straight Man, the protagonist, a burned-out English prof at a third-rate state college in rural Pennsylvania, threatens to murder a duck from one of the campus ponds on the local TV news unless the legislature increases its funding levels. (Given the indifference of Governor Martz to the chronic underfunding of the MUS, faculty members at units with duck ponds might consider this strategy!)

In short, Meetings of the Mind, while periodically engaging, ultimately fails, despite its creative format, to live up to Gerald Graff's back-cover blurb extolling it as "a sparkling comedy of ideas."

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