9780393321111 / 0393321118

Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts (Norton Paperback)


Publisher:W. W. Norton & Company



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About the book:

In Candor and Perversion Roger Shattuck carries on two conversations. The more strident of the two, deceptively titled "Intellectual Craftsmanship," takes up the first section of this collection of essays and reviews. Here Shattuck engages in verbal fisticuffs with those who would mire the study of literature in the byzantine politics of identity and the arcane language of theory. Insisting that he's not a conservative, he instead gives himself the coy title of "conservationist." "Some of us," he writes, "have come to believe that it is possible, even necessary, to be liberal in political matters and conservationist in cultural matters." Shattuck lays bare the perceived dangers besetting the traditional literary scholar, and insists on the primacy of canonical texts in our universities: "In order to have a common frame of reference within which to reason together, I would argue that there are books everyone should read." Lest anyone think him extreme, he follows up quickly: "And we should never stop discussing which ones those are."

Ironically, Shattuck does more to support his position in the second half of his book, which is devoted to the practice of criticism. In two dozen book reviews and essays he engages in a passionate, learned, and imaginative conversation with the greats of Western civilization. This is a scholarship of compulsion: Shattuck returns again and again to key touchstones, such as Virginia Woolf's statement that "on or about December 1910 human character changed." His enthusiasms spawn new forms of criticism, such as his delightful fairy tale "The Story of Hans/Jean/Kaspar Arp," which tells of a child "born in Strasbourg with bright eyes, nice big ears, and a wonderful egg-shaped head. All his life, he liked egg-shaped things--clouds, pebbles, jars, fruits." Shattuck here is so worked up over Arp's art that he struggles to find a new critical shape to contain his joyful interest. Such lively writing does more to make his case for studying the so-called dead white males than all his polemics. --Claire Dederer

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