Friday, December 11, 2015

Art Efron: An Ethical Critic

I suppose it would have been some time in 1998 that I was contacted to contribute to a Festschrift for Art Efron, one of my teachers in the English Department of SUNY Buffalo. In my current terminology, Art practiced ethical criticism informed by a strong sense of the natural world. The Festschrift became the final issue of, Paunch, an eclectic journal that Art had edited for years: The Live Creature, Art Efron: Reader, Critic, Teacher, Friend, Paunch 69-70, May 1999.

For Art Efron

I do not recall just when and how, over two decades ago, I first became aware of Art Efron.  By which I mean becoming aware of him as a teacher and thinker with whom I wanted to study. No doubt graduate student chit-chat played a role.  And there is a vague possibility that my interest in him is related to interest he showed in me by staying the course of an embarrassingly long presentation I gave in my first year that ranged rather too-widely and without sufficient discipline [1]. However, I can’t be sure of that because I can’t recall whether I gave the presentation before or after I had taken his course on Radical Approaches to Literature.

So I can only tell you that, in signing up for that course, I wished to challenge myself by dealing with overtly political approaches to literature. While I was not apolitical, my interest in literature had a decidedly formalist and structuralist thrust and I was deeply suspicious of political approaches, which seemed to me all too often to provide excuses for dismissing this or that work on extrinsic grounds. Yet, I could see that intelligent and caring people, people I respected, approached literature in a political way. Given that, and the sensible notion that graduate course-work is an opportunity to explore unknown territory, I decided to challenge my own intellectual bias and see just what there was to political criticism.  I signed up for Art’s course.

At this point, of course, the conventional thing for me to do would be to tell you how Art’s course showed me the error of my ways and changed my intellectual life.  But I’m not going to tell you that, because that’s not what happened. My formalist and structuralist proclivities are in good shape.  I do not do anarchist criticism nor am I a Reichian of any flavor; though, through Art’s offices, I once gave a paper at the Orgone Institute in Princeton. To be sure, I believe our culture and society are in trouble, and for reasons of the sort that Art articulated. We have neglected our emotional lives and our bodies and blind authority is still too much with us. But I did not need Art to teach me those things; I already knew them.

But knowing them is not enough. For life is tough and the best things we know can be dulled and destroyed through the ordinary difficulties of living. If I have remained in touch with Art, albeit sporadically, for over two decades, if I am proud to call him a friend, it is because of the way he lives his life as an intellectual.  He asks tough questions, pursues them honestly, and invites his students to do the same. As I said in the acknowledgements section of my most political piece of work do date, an analysis of the cultural psychodynamics of music in American culture [2], “Art Efron has been an example of a thinker who has been driven to make emotionally tough arguments out of a sense of decency and truth.” This is a simple statement. But living such a life is not so simple. 

I thank Art Efron for showing me that one can live such a life and for accepting me and my interests, different though they may be from his. Having said that I must confess that I do not quite know what it means. I know relatively little about his personal life, nor have I shared much of mine with him. But I do know how the academic world works and so I know that one pays a price for pursuing ideas that run against any of the various traditional and fashionable currents that constitute intellectual life in the humanities. 

Beyond that I want to emphasize Art’s dedication to the truth, and his faith that there is a world out there that we cannot evade merely by pleading our frailty and self-interest.  The meaning of literary texts may not be so simple as the meaning of names and numbers in a telephone directly, but it is not the arbitrary imposition of will by this or that critic, this or that reader.  Texts challenge us, outrun us, and the great ones insist that we are embodied beings.  Having spent a great deal of time reading and thinking about the cognitive and neurosciences and their implications for literary study I am, on the one hand, appalled at the privileging of cognition and representational language over emotion and expressive language and, on the other hand, convinced that a disinterested pursuit of truth in these matters will vindicate Art’s commitment to the body and to our affective lives. 

* * * * *

[1] I believe I talked for an hour-and-a-half or two on primate ethology and its relevance to understanding human behavior, a subject that had interested me since my undergraduate days at Johns Hopkins in the late 1960s.

[2] William L. Benzon (1993) “The United States of the Blues: On the Crossing of African and European Cultures in the 20th Century.” Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 16(4): 401-438.

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