scholarly personality

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

15.4 (Fall 2015)

 

Academe in Decay

zitkala

Zitkala-Sa, the New Guard’s Jane Austen

 

 

How the Scholarly Personality Warps the Teaching of Literature
John R. Harris

a) teaching the “myth of the victim”

Previously, I examined the type of person who tends to end up teaching literature in college classrooms.   This profile isn’t irrelevant to course content: very far from it. One might indeed conclude that personal experiences of youthful alienation, various qualities of character that invite ostracism and also handle it with introversion, exposure to a strident rallying cry of victimization in college and especially graduate school… that all of these factors, and more of their kind, irresistibly determine what the “newly minted” Ph.D. considers to be the story of life.

Well, so what? We all assess life based—to some degree—upon our own experience and our personality. That seems neither very surprising nor very outrageous, at first flush.

Here’s my objection to such bland generosity. The story, as an aesthetic creation, is intended to purge us of our subjective bias when it functions as art. I do not say that this is any particular author’s intention: I say that it belongs to the species, as feathers to birds. The surmounting of personal prejudice and passing whim is essential to any complex, leisurely fabrication’s aesthetic identity—to its beauty. A person who should consider a prospect of the Grand Canyon to be dull or irritating because the land was “stolen from Mexico”, because the Hoover Dam has disrupted the Colorado’s flow, because a fundamentalist minister was recently heard to declare that God sculpted the scene, or because wanted outlaws were able to hide out in the landscape undetected many years ago would rightly be thought a boor, or even a lunatic. The beautiful object liberates us from such subjective, circumstantially conditioned concerns; or if it doesn’t, then there must be something wrong with us. The ability to appreciate beauty in this disinterested manner, triumphing (if only for the moment) over selfish preoccupations, may well be the best practical measure of our soundness of mind and our common humanity.

Stories, to be sure, are unique in the artistic world. While objects of beauty, they are nevertheless also composed of human actions requiring the reader’s moral evaluation—and that evaluation, of course, hinges upon the reader’s own moral understanding, which in turn has likely been at least somewhat affected by circumstances ranging from parental treatment to school experiences to temperament to… all the rest. But the story, the narrative, forces all such components of moral judgment into a kind of pressure-cooker wherein they must render an accounting of themselves not unlike the premises of an argument brought under logical scrutiny. The narrative, as an aesthetic object, makes one whole from many parts. It enlists restless currents of events in such a way that all eventually flow in a single direction. It produces a complex harmony. If a reader does not perceive this harmony, then the story itself may be at fault. A bunch of castaways on a desert island cannot be saved by the ruthless criminal in their midst just because he picks up an old Bible and reads it for an hour. Villains don’t turn on a dime to become heroes: life teaches all of us that much. We must know more about this dynamic character, and especially about the competing forces aswirl within him. The story must prepare us to see the caterpillar transform into a butterfly.

At the same time, however, the reader who denies the success of the story’s harmony just because the Bible was stirred into its mix must be judged something of a bigot. If no amount of artful preparation and subtle integration can “sell” this reader on a man’s changing his ways after pondering the Crucifixion, then the reader may be wrestling with his or her own bitter memories or resentments, not the story’s weak transitions.

And then again, on the other hand… it’s certainly a sustainable thesis that people never change. To embrace the maxim, “Once a crook, always a crook,” seems pretty cynical. Yet one could refine the proposition to argue that apparent crooks sometimes have a kind of violated innocence within them that seeks vengeance upon the world but hasn’t abandoned decency, whereas truly twisted hearts may hide their corruption craftily and—yes, even piously. Did the unlikely savior of the castaways fall into one of these two categories? Should he have done, and did the tale’s author fail to draw the necessary distinctions clearly? These are questions that draw us back away from the reader’s possible bigotry to the details of story-craft.

My fundamental case, then, against the academic selection and study of literary texts for the college classroom isn’t that stories representing my own beliefs about human nature and the meaning of life don’t crowd the syllabus; it’s that the syllabus is indeed crowded with rival stories—that my Weltanschauung, or yours, or anyone’s not part of the elite circle, receives no notice at all. That’s not entirely true, at least in upper-level, more “theoretical” courses. Here the readings may be quite eclectic—but not in order to emphasize the variety of human experience within which the creative mind has sought pattern and purpose throughout history. On the contrary: the thrust of such neo-linguistic “deconstructive” orgies is to intimate that no narrative of any kind cannot avoid contradicting itself, since the very words of which stories are woven reflect unexamined, irrational prejudice.

More of that literary Pyrrhonism anon. It obviously plagues the graduate much more than the undergraduate classroom. The vast majority of our children, in taking core literary courses—and this is fully true now in high school, as well—have only one gospel preached to them. You might call it the “victim myth”. Women, racial minorities (Americans of African descent, Native Americans, Latinos north of the border), ethnic minorities (Jews in a fascistic setting, Muslims relocated to the U.S.), sexual “minorities” (the homosexual and “transgendered”), the physically stigmatized or challenged (overweight females, sometimes very short males, dwarves, perhaps redheads)… all such “sufferers” share the experience of being brutalized by majority prejudice. They are tragically psyched out and diminished by thoughtless bigotry or deliberate snobbery until they crack; or else (the myth allows for this alternative) they learn to band together, resist the great stupid beast which is the Mainstream, and finally wrest formal concessions from the System. Good guys and bad guys: white hats and black hats, like a Hoot Gibson matinee. It wasn’t much of a plot in the old shoot-’em-up celluloids, and it’s not much of one now. But the story, this time, isn’t being told for its “storiness”. The Manichaean message, not the entertaining twist-and-turn complexity of the adventure, is the justification for a place on the syllabus.

For the academic model of reality is not only constricted in terms of what can and can’t happen to define and solve problems; it is pushed to the exclusion of other models, like the dry propaganda whose meretricious ends it accuses the past’s literary classics of serving. Even when “hostile” texts make a rare appearance in class, they are handled in purely hostile fashion rather than dissected with the impartial rigor that a true aesthetic analysis would demand. They earn a “thumbs down” simply for implying a position on some narrowly defined political issue; the puzzle they advance about life—and the solution to fitting its pieces together—attracts not a glance of serious interest. At best, these classics are grossly misinterpreted so as to make foe into friend, their black hat squinted at till it turns white. The context in which they raise significant issues is ignored. If only a politically “relevant” issue can be identified, then they are construed so as to be its bullhorn in the politically approved manner. We’re back to the Grand Canyon’s being reviled because it appears as a backdrop in an Exxon commercial—or else warmly embraced because it adorns a Greenpeace poster.

I mustn’t simply recycle my discussion from the first article in this series—yet I think specific examples are clearly in order before we proceed. Amazingly, the Norton World Literature anthology of about ten editions (and I don’t know how many years) ago featured a couple of selections from Ariosto’s rambling Renaissance masterpiece, Orlando Furioso. One excerpt presented a climactic moment of the epic romance: Orlando’s discovery of unequivocal evidence that his idolized Angelica has run off with a pretty-boy tyro whom she found on the battlefield and nursed back to health.  Now, the Angelica of the hero’s obsessions was always a fantasy, as immobile as a marble statue. The real Angelica is of Miss World caliber on the outside but just more stool-filler at Bennigan’s on the inside.  Yet Orlando’s loss of his imaginary goddess, far from sobering him up, drives him famously mad.  In his raging wake, he leaves forests overturned, villages devastated, and the seeds of legend widely planted.  What Ariosto fails to say explicitly, deploying only his unique and delicious sense of irony, is that such wondrous, memorable feats compromise the hero’s God-given mission irretrievably.  As Orlando harrows innocent bystanders because reality doesn’t match the airy romance which he has been years in spinning, Charlemagne’s undefended realm—the seat of Christendom itself—teeters on the brink of collapse.  Romantic fantasies can carry a very high price tag.

Well, none of this is actually said by the Norton editor, for whom Ariosto’s wry evasion of overt moralizing is altogether too coy.  (Historically, it has been so for most of his readers.)  No great harm done there.  The real foul is committed in the excerpt preceding this one.  The earlier vignette is humorous, a bit salacious—but again, deeply instructive.  It involves the lovely princess Fiordelisa’s entertaining of the magnificent Amazon Bradamante.  The latter, having had her hair clipped short thanks to a recent wound, looks convincingly like a dashing young gallant when Fiordelisa first sees him/her.  Bradamante soon realizes the error and, in her punctiliously honest fashion, corrects it… but too late.  The Princess has already fallen head-over-heels for the knight she imagined herself to have happened upon.  Later on, Bradamante’s twin brother Ricciardetto hears of the curious mistake and immediately resolves to exploit it.  Presenting himself to Fiordelisa as Bradamante, he is readily able to gain access to her bedroom—whereupon he reveals (in every sense of the word) that he has magically acquired a man’s parts.  The ensuing affair lasts for so long that it almost costs the young rake his life; but he is saved from the stake in the nick of time, and trots away in eager anticipation of his next conquest.

Ariosto’s deceptively mystical romance (for it is really anything but escapist) features all too many examples—in the vein of Ricciardetto—of mighty knights with very pedestrian moral compasses.  Yet we find almost as many characters who build castles in the clouds and then attempt to dwell in them.  The lesson seems to be that no amount of physical prowess suffices to bestow nobility if not guided by principles and ideals—but that these latter, too, can prove false, and even ruinous, if not secured by a firm grip on material fact.  Orlando and Fiordelisa are surprisingly alike in having made royal fools of themselves by clinging to fond illusions.  One would suppose that the Norton editor was commendably trying to highlight such an interpretation by selecting just these two excerpts.

Not so, alas.  The truth, I think, is that Ariosto, though inimitably subtle, also recurs to his underlying themes resonantly—to such an extent that almost any two excerpts would transmit the moral insight that I have described.  Our editor’s interest in the Fiordelisa episode, rather, turns out to be that it portrays “an exploration of alternative sexuality”, as if the Princess had been contemplating a lesbian flirtation with Bradamante.  Of course, she was doing nothing of the kind.  Her sterile misery springs precisely from the irrefragable fact that her guest cannot accommodate her as a cork accommodates a bottle.  To miss this point so completely is to read stupidly; and, since I have never suspected any Norton editor of stupidity, I can only conclude that this one has been led astray by the perceived necessity of identifying trendy, politically relevant issues, even where they do not exist.  The Formula would transform Fiordelisa into a victim-times-two if we could contort her into being lesbian as well as female… and then the tired tome of that “dead white guy” Ariosto might enjoy another renaissance, as well.  Unfortunately, this effort of salvage requires that the original work be castrated.  Even today’s academic propaganda machine must have noticed that the result was dripping too much blood.  The Furioso has been dropped from all subsequent editions of the anthology.

What we have seen in such publications far more often is not a mauling “revisionism” of the classics, but rather an elevation of very dubious works to classical status.  Enter Aphra Benn.  From what little I have been able to learn of this contemporary of Shakespeare’s, there is vexingly little to be learned.  Benn appears to be almost as shadowy a figure as the rumored un-Shakespeare who wrote Macbeth.  A young widow turned spy who also wrote baldly erotic verse and haunted the London stage both behind and (most improperly, for the times) before the curtain, Benn is Gloria Steinem’s Uberfrau.  If she did not exist, modern feminism would have to invent her… and I remain unconvinced that she ever existed, at least as presented in college literary classes.

Her single substantial play, Oroonoko (supposedly based on experiences gathered during her German husband’s sojourn in Surinam), addresses the treatment of subjugated peoples and—let us never forget—was written by a woman; otherwise, it’s pretty un-brilliant.  Benn’s racy verse is also meant to dazzle us with its cut-the-crap avant-gardism.  To me, it is indeed remarkable for ignoring the day’s standards of taste; but, perhaps because I’m a man, I seek in vain for any rare turn of phrase or inspired vision.  It reminds me, rather, of the kind of Hollywood gaucherie that would routinely lay claim to soaring artistic courage a few years back by peppering dialogue with “vagina” and “penis”.  Teachers of early adolescents have known such daring creativity by another name for many decades.

And now I come, finally, to what was one of my saddest classroom experiences in recent years. I was asked to observe the World Literature class of a young colleague teaching her syllabus for only the second or third time. I will not deny that I embarked upon the task with a degree of disgruntlement. I myself had taught most sections of this course for several years, I was very proud of the line-up and presentation that I had refined over so much time, and I knew that—when shuttled to different duties—I was essentially making room for other professors to import their “studies” approach to the survey and offer any damn thing they liked. No more Homer, no more Euripides, no more Virgil, no more Dante, no more Montaigne or Pushkin or Leopardi—or even Baudelaire or Kafka or Dostoevsky. And no Chinua Achebe or Ben Okri; no R.K. Narayan or Soseki. For the Americanist/feminist mafia had simply taken over the whole rubric, offering the rationale that all Americans are immigrants—and hence all American Lit is World Lit. Furthermore, and for good measure, all American women are minorities, all minorities are treated like aliens in the U.S. of A., a hence the female-dominated syllabus might as well be full of Samoans or Lithuanians.

This, you see, is what comes of a grad-school indoctrination into the clever lubricity that words mean anything, everything, and nothing: good old-fashioned “gonna get mine, no matter what” self-promotion and careerism. Meanwhile, we began to produce students who had never read a line of Homer.

Well, that wasn’t this young professor’s fault. She had indeed immigrated herself—and from a society recently torn by violence and privation, where freedom went about as far as the local village’s hooligan-mayor said it did. I wanted her to do well. I’m sure we all did.

That day’s lesson was wholly devoted to the peerless American author, Zitkala-Sa. You never heard of Zitkala-Sa? Neither had I, frankly. Zitkala-Sa—also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, a moniker forced upon her by Western imperialist oppressors—was a Lakota Sioux who penned timeless works about… apparently about her unhappy childhood, from what I gathered in one session. She endured such heartless brutality as being taken from her reservation to a mission school, suffered such inhumanity as being stared at by other children on the train, and submitted to such atrocity as having her long hair cut. Oh, the unspeakable horror! Oh, the diabolical injustice! We (I and a very passive class) were lectured about how the Quaker church bells violated the sanctity of natural silence, and how Zitkala-Sa’s eventual elevation to valedictory heights in her institute was mere tokenism. Have I mentioned the extraordinary literary quality of her reminiscences? Of course I have: she was female, a Sioux Indian, a Christian malgré lui and probably a heathen at heart… three unimpeachable titles to literary excellence. And her story was one event of victimization after another… after another, after another.

I later asked this young professor why she did not integrate some of the many great authors of her own native tradition into her World Lit syllabus. I inferred from her meandering answer that she was quite comfortable doing what she had been prepared to do—by others on the faculty. And indeed, it must be supremely easy to teach texts with such ends in mind. One might as well assign transcripts of Judge Judy—after excising, of course, the harshly insensitive comments of a plainspoken, down-to-earth judge.

Later on, I also probed as discreetly as possible a member of the class whom I already knew. How did he and his fellow students take in all that they had heard? He responded that almost nobody ever read the assignments, since all knew what kind of answer to make whenever a question was asked.

I should think so. In a society which plays the “victim” game almost as relentlessly as Mortal Kombat, everybody knows the answers. For this, we have sacrificed Homer.

b) stroked ego: the dog has his day

I hope that readers can now begin to understand why I insist that most of our college English professors need not be viewed as political ideologues on a mission—as communist “moles”, almost, who received their marching orders from grad-school propagandists like Saul Alinsky.  This, I’m convinced, is a highly romanticized version of the truth.  What we have, instead, is a course of study which draws the over-sensitive introvert and the erudite social wallflower like a magnet.  These maladjusted refugees very readily believe that society abounds in victims, and that the victims are complete innocents ruthlessly targeted for being somehow “different”.  Graduate school rigidifies the stroked psychic feathers of our outcasts into the full metal jacket of a system, endowed with its own insider-jargon and impervious causality.  Students learn the jargon and accept the causality, most of them eagerly; otherwise, they are ejected back into a society that wants them to teach kindergarten or sell used cars.  Still later, in their post-graduate life, they must demonstrate through publications that they have achieved a black belt in their field’s hermetic methods of discussion—its “discourse”—or else they will languish forever in the unenvied ranks of adjunct instructors.  (My section on the publication racket, by the way, was cut from an earlier article in this series due to its length.)

You may say that the latter phases of the professor’s “preparation”, as I have explained them, certainly show evidence of ideological tampering.  I’m not disputing that.  I am seeking to specify, though, that the objects of the brainwash were self-selected and rather willing disciples.  Their egoistic needs responded to the Siren song whose first verse runs, “O, ye suffering victims everywhere!”  The victim mythos, to them, is The Story.  Particular stories need not even recount its sacred sequence in any degree of thoroughness: no attention to an Aristotelian problem, complication, or other structural exigency is required.  For a ragged piece of writing simply to identify its focal figure as a victim—due to gender, race, “sexuality”, and the rest—wins it a protective wrap in the myth’s warm, thick cloak.  A tedious study of some teenager mulling over her first girl-girl encounter after breaking up with the high-school quarterback becomes instantly, and by definition, fine art.  In the same way, a simple dance representing Hercules’ slaying of the wicked giant Cacus, without any dramatic lead-in or denouement, would have sufficed to stir up a pre-literate tribe of Alba Longans.  In the minds of tribal members, the myth is at once accessed in its entirety by a single reference to one of its elements.  Everybody knows and implicitly believes the whole story, in a tribe.

I contend that in academe, as in other venues of our decaying culture, we witness just such a debasement of high art into totemistic heathenry.  I haven’t the time or space to present the evidence of this degenerative process in popular culture; but in academia, what I have just described should put the reader in mind of a tribalist religion.  Every cult has its foundation-myth.  The myth has been thoroughly imbibed by all participating cultists, and they “adore” its truth.  Every event in their daily life somehow evokes a mythic image or narrative segment.  In this case, mainstream culture is a great victimizer, and every victim is called upon to unveil the surrounding forces of oppression and to resist them without that inhibiting compunction engineered by manipulative tyrants.  The professor of literature is living out the mythic arch-sequence of resistance, just by being where she is.  In parsing a Shakespeare play or a Jane Austen novel as victims vs. oppressors, she views herself as indeed revealing the text’s ultimate truth—or as tracing life’s ultimate truth into a text that may or may not offer it an open window.  Nothing else is worth talking about.  Why would it be?  Why talk about silly doodling when you hold the key to the cosmic enigma?

Two points should be remarked in passing. First, any such rigid adherence to an interpretive tool (initiates into the literary lodge’s inner sanctum would be writing “semantic” and “hermeneutical” about now) precludes an artistic experience.  To enjoy art is to see and to wonder.  It is to chase after meaning imaginatively rather than to be delivered any given meaning imperatively.  The great art work makes one feel as though an ultimate meaning or purpose or endpoint exists objectively, there within the work, just waiting to be ferreted out; but it also sways and bobs and evades, forcing one to draw upon a subjective reservoir of inspiration to triangulate the revelation “out there”.  The brutal practice of squeezing every text into the “victim myth’s” mold shuts down pleasant, lively, introspective speculation. It dulls and regiments.  It is the antithesis of art.  This, of course, is one reason why literary academia has shown itself invincibly hostile during my lifetime to any claim that texts should deliver “aesthetic pleasure”.  Such freedom is a patriarchal trick.  It draws the individual away from the cult. “The brainwashers,” we are told by these inflexible programmers, “are distracting you from the program.”

Second point: a few keen readers are sure to notice that the victim is a kind of Christ figure.  That perception is not without truth.  One might even advance the proposition that Christians, insofar as they are invited to discern the Crucifixion’s outline in all they experience, are themselves cultists.  As a Christian myself, I must answer this canny and disturbing observation, though I may appear to digress thereby.  For one thing, I would stress that a difference surely exists between answering persecution with revolution (i.e., counter-persecution), on the one hand, and answering it with forgiveness and willing sacrifice, on the other.  The difference is moral.  The former response comes from the jungle: the latter calls us to a higher objective which we can neither explain nor understand, as we now are.  In that transcending mystery, of course, lies one outlet for the artistic mind.  Yet I think the very determination of what constitutes a “crucifying event” in daily life also enlists the true believer’s individual resources constantly.  Sometimes we are persecuted for having been persecutors: our cross is seldom a very clean one.  We can also not afford to forget, for the sake of our spiritual health, that we retain the latent ability to crucify another tomorrow in our complex nature, no matter how nobly we suffer today.  In the nooks and crannies of the myth’s application are innumerable opportunities for wide-ranging speculation.  Christian art is distinguished by nothing so much as by its affinity for allegory.  I find no parallel generosity in the victim myth, which seeks our identity not in our hidden soul, but in our skin color, our pudenda, our language, and even our food and clothing. The clever phrase “dumbing down” hardly begins to describe the painful compression of mental faculties required by such “analysis”.

Now, I should note in closing this section that what I labeled earlier a “neo-linguistic” approach to literature (most spectacularly embodied in Deconstruction) reduces all narrative of any sort to fraudulence.  Back in the Eighties, those of us who had to stand by and watch the Vandals dismantle our discipline could sometimes find a compensatory amusement in how the “everything’s a fraud” crowd tried to stay out of the way of the “victims’ revenge” crowd. It was like watching a bunch of effete bluebloods sip champagne in the Titanic’s ballroom while looters filled their pockets with all that sparkled; nihilistic aloofness can be hard to preserve when the thug two tables over has just strangled someone.  I shall not attempt to plunge into the recondita of literary theory after having given it up so many years ago.  I have forgotten most of the details, a renewed acquaintance with them would prove unprofitable, and my readers will certainly not welcome so labyrinthine an excursion.  Enough to say, I think, that grains of truth lie scattered through the immense and indisgestible corpus of late twentieth-century theory.  Meanings of words shift.  The innate shiftiness of certain words (i.e., those describing qualities) is such that they can never express truth with full objectivity.  Finally, certain aspects of human life show us to be irrational, or at least to negotiate our social lives along a delicate line between sense and nonsense.  “The soul is an abyss,” as Heraclitus says.

Our social habit of banishing difference from our midst is one of these non-sequiturs, by the way. Perhaps that’s why Christianity and the victim myth have sought to deal with it in competing manners: because it is an ineradicable obstacle to social harmony. At least the Christian option “postpones” the solution (to use a favorite deconstructionist verb) to another dimension. The victim myth imbecilically envisions the integration of all difference into one rainbow-whole after a progressive state is firmly ensconced—and at this point, the thug with his pockets full of jewels would be standing right over the shoulder of our wine-sipping aristocrat. Paul de Man, you know, spun propaganda for the Nazis on his way to becoming a deconstructionist beacon.

I wrote in my original article that the deconstructionist blunders badly in supposing his keen wit capable of “demystifying” life—of taking the stories out of it. He cannot do this because the sane adult human intelligence can no more contemplate the years of life before it without imposing a narrative than human eyes can view a forest without dividing it into trees. Though time in itself may not be purposeful in any objective sense, we cannot—as active beings of freedom—reflect upon future time without arranging it into some kind of purpose. Deconstruction and its theoretical cousins thus prove to be utterly unhelpful in any philosophical sense—and they certainly establish no ground for why they should arbitrate the quality of stories. The occupant of the Titanic’s lifeboat who simpers, “All rowing is futile—we’re doomed, no matter which way we go,” has abrogated his right to vote on which way the boat is finally rowed.

From the self-serving perspective that I have tried to expose in my last two articles, however, Deconstruction actually became quite serviceable for advancing one’s career. Just think of the advantages it offered. 1) In debunking the entirety of literary history, the literary canon, and literary criticism, it liberated its practitioners from having to pursue a deep acquaintance with great texts of the past; 2) mired in opaque jargon, it intimidated the novice from competing, silenced old-school rivals in an “emperor’s new clothes” fear of appearing obtuse, and permitted the adept to pen practically any absurdity that struck their fancy; 3) it was insulated from short-term loss of face, since its many absurd facets so tempting to attackers were always argued as actively, intentionally demonstrating universal absurdity; and 4) finally (though probably not finally—I’m sure there were yet more angles), its efficiency at filtering the number of “scholars” admitted to participate in published discussions ensured that the happy, elite few could always grind out new publications on demand.

Yes, for those who knew how to pan, Deconstruction was an academic gold rush. And it also (though this is a purely impractical, egotistical advantage) allowed them to pose—before others and to their own mirror—as the very brightest of the bright, since they dealt in nothing but airy abstraction. For the kid who had passed his childhood being pushed down on the playground and his adolescence being shoved into lockers, here was the ultimate revenge. He was the Dali Lama, the Supreme Mandarin, the Wizard of Oz.

Has anyone ever noticed, by the way, how few deconstructionist luminaries were women? Having no obvious access to the victim myth (other than going gay), male literary scholars studied to unravel words into senselessness as female literary scholars learned how to read sexist/ racist code into Form 1040 and the Denny’s menu. That means (as I must admit unchivalrously) that the girls were my analogy’s brutal hooligans in the Titanic’s ballroom. Those of us who survived the ship’s sinking will not call that conclusion into question.

But the time has come—I’m delighted to announce—for analyzing a few stories as they ought to be analyzed by people of common sense and a humane interest in living the good life. To that pleasant task I will turn my attention in this series’ final article.

 John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin.

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