Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Scholars in Love: What the Nation Needs from A. S. Byatt's Possession

In Possession, mismatched pairs meet in opposition to each other and end up in love.  We're in the world of romantic comedy, fresh and fun as it was for Shakespeare's ardent lovers in Arden forest.

Yet Byatt's real subject is the world of scholarship, where passion for documented and precise truth is a driving force as potent as erotic attraction.  I write from experience.

Byatt's novel is a layered delight. At base is the love affair between two fictional Victorian poets. One, R. Henry Ashe, highly celebrated in his lifetime, was married to Ellen; the other, Christabel LaMotte, modestly successful, lived in seclusion with artist Blanche Glover.

The next layer is made up of what they made up. Ashe wrote verse monologues and epics, a la Browning. LaMotte published dark tales of mermaids and witches, verse replete with Dickinsonian dashes, and her foray into the masculine realm of epic poetry. They and those close to them also wrote letters, numerous, allusive, and lengthy.  Of course, these are all A. S. Byatt's labors of love, appropriate to the 19th century, fitting to the personalities, and inter-textually woven with threads of her story.

At surface is the outwardly civil community of literary scholars, ca. 1986. Roland Michell, a graduate specialist in Ashe studies, comes across a letter drafted in Ashe's handwriting that seems to make  overtures to a woman who was a fellow house guest at a country home. Naturally, appropriately, professionally, Roland investigates.

But he conceals his find from his boss, Professor Blackadder, and he is soon deep in ever-closer contact with the up-and-coming world expert on LaMotte.  Now we see what's under the surface of "scholarship," the ambition, resentments, back-stabbing, and bribery.  By the novel's end, rival scholars representing different nations, generations, and sexual orientations have converged for a finale as packed with action as a bunch of pasty-skinned paunchy professors can muster.

Scholarly pursuits are so intense for the characters that romance is a relief.  Planning a getaway with Roland, the LaMotte expert Maud confesses she wants just to get away: "I just want to look at something, with interest, and without layers of meaning" (291).

I know what that's like.  My advisor at Duke set me up with Professor Irving Holley, promising, "He'll make a scholar of you."  Did he!  (Read my memories of him, "The Essence of Education".)  So deeply was I immersed in uncovering the origins of the drama program at Duke that I recall the thrill of finding a box of playbills from the 1940s more vividly than most classes or relationships in four years there.  Even more than my essay, I remember the excitement of writing "content" footnotes to explain arcane details from Duke's drama club performances in the early and middle decades of the 20th century.

A year later, I worked obsessively on a Senior thesis about Henry James.  For months, I read every novel, many novellas, many stories, and the Master's prefaces to late editions.  Studying at Oxford for the summer, I felt a rush of affection when I recognized him from across a vast hall at the National Portrait Gallery.  When my friend Bess gave me a book about Ibsen's influence on Henry James, I devoured the book, and digested its contents in my final draft.

Yet I felt a bit sheepish.  I'd spent two years tracing James's use of the  word "no" in his novel The Ambassador.  Offered a chance for a PhD, I demurred.  Enough of scholarship, I thought: let's try real life.

The other way to look at my work, though, is to see how very much there is to know about even a very small topic.  Professor Holley used to say that we were digging deeply into territory the size of a postage stamp.

Now I wonder if the nation is suffering for lack of understanding what scholarship entails.  Sure, it's easy to make fun of the nit-picking and esoterica that comprise scholarship, but the whole machinery of the academic world is designed to build our store of truth.  Scholars document sources, check provenance, avoid jumping to conclusions.  How arrogant people are who presume to know enough about big things, such as immigration policy, climate change, or Islam, while they dismiss the work of the scholars possessed with a passion for precise, hard-won truth.

1 comment:

George said...

I really enjoyed this post, Scott. Byatt's novel sounds interesting (plot seems reminiscent of Stoppard's "Arcadia"); I learned something about your undergraduate career I didn't know (you realize, of course, that the "PhD" you decided not to pursue could well have been on the use of "no" in the entire James canon--just sayin'!); and I loved the last couple of paragraphs on, um, recent (and no doubt, continuing) events.