A friend told me once how his mathematics teacher had staggered into class blind drunk one morning. He’d stood, swaying, with his eyes closed before announcing a challenge in a booming country accent to his mute and terrified congregation, “Which one of ye’s is man enough to get up and fight me?” The pupils were 12, maybe 13 years of age. The teacher was eventually ushered off into indefinite sick leave (‘nervous exhaustion’) and the matter was not spoke of again. There is at least some degree of trembling schadenfreude to a teacher or lecturer having a meltdown, not at the poor bastard involved directly but at the relief that it isn’t happening to us. This, however, is still not the worst example of a lecture I can think of.
Outside of school, I haven’t had a great deal of experience with literature academically; the only third level education I had was a fairly brief and shambolic time mistakenly studying Law at Queens, a vocation which ended so abruptly and catastrophically that it would take a black box recorder and a forensics team to piece together what happened (the pilot was an idiot essentially). Despite my ignorance, I’ve seen enough in the odd lecture and reading I’ve chanced upon to appreciate how badly it’s done by many of its practitioners (with many notable exceptions of course) and, more importantly, how they get away with it.
The real problem with certain academics is obscurantism, a word that, with a hint of irony, commits what it condemns. Being shambolic can be fine, charming even. Being elitist can likewise be amusing or illuminating for all its faults (the art critic Brian Sewell recently had some very valid and entertaining points regarding the BBC’s arts coverage for example). The real problem is the lecturer who specialises in hiding behind arcane language or pseudo-intellectual babble. The latter has become such a cliche that the gibberish produced by the Postmodernism Generator is only marginally more meaningless than some actual essays. There’s obviously a priestly quality to the wielding of the power of inclusion and exclusion through the abuse of language and a gatekeeper position. Often, as with all unquestioned deferences to authority, there’s some grubby ego inflation and attempt at audience submission at the heart of it. It is, you might say, a swindle. Clear language leads to clear thought and vice versa. We should be very careful, as Orwell warned in Politics and the English Language, of those who would fog such a process and their motives for doing so.
When we think however of obscurantism’s supposed opposite – the drive to dumb-down – we get a false dichotomy. It’s perhaps more accurate to think of them as two wings of a pincer movement against the free flow of ideas. Both are attempts to stop us thinking clearly and deeply. Both are saying this type of culture is not for the likes of you, to which a casual ‘fuck you, i’m taking it anyway’ seems the only respectable response.
Nick Mount is a literature professor at the University of Toronto. I’ve included below a lecture he gave on T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land. It’s a reasonably difficult obscurantist subject (though our response need not mirror that), one of the reasons why the poem continues to give us so much, but Professor Mount’s talk neither patronises nor blinds us with inscrutable language. He simply discusses the work with interest, imagination, complexity and, most importantly in this case, clarity. He demonstrates how it should be done, without feeling the need to be slick or pompous.
The result, like his takes on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Nabokov’s Lolita, is an exceptional (largely) bullshit-free introduction to the subject. It’s not perfect of course. I’d really like a critic to challenge the too-easily accepted assertion with Eliot that the murderous cataclysm of the First World War shattered all the old certainties. Perhaps put forward the idea that there never were any old certainties, that they were always confidence tricks and we’ve always been shoring up fragments against our ruin. The mechanised slaughter of a generation in The Great War was just the first time we could no longer live in mass denial, the breaking point of our suspension of disbelief. A collective awakening that we’d always been living in The Waste Land and there was, and will be, no Fisher King. If we are to be saved, we’ll have to do it ourselves. That’s an argument for another day and takes nothing away from Mount’s excellent lecture. I’ll let the man speak, enjoy.