POLITICAL CRITERIA AND MASTERS DEGREES

I’m more and more baffled by what is happening in Spain and here at home, in Catalonia, regarding the European convergence in higher education. We have ended up with 4-year BAs and 1-year MAs, instead of the more desirable 3+2 scheme, and now, before most of the new BAs (Grados/Graus) have even produced their first graduates, we’re being asked to modify and, in the worst cases ordered to shut down, MAs which have been running for under 4 years. This is madness, particularly if we think that, simultaneously, the tuition fees have sharply gone up making it even more difficult for any of the Bologna-style MAs to survive (and much less attract foreign students). And also, that we face very tough competition from the new MA required to teach in secondary schools. And also… (the list goes on).

Anyway, I have already written about this and before I start sounding like a broken record, let me consider what is new. The novelty these days is that we’re been asked to reform the surviving MA degrees to fashion them as a second cycle degree, a continuation from a BA, rather than a specialised degree. In a way, this would mean going back to the old Licenciatura system which I myself followed and which consisted of a 5 year degree with two cycles (3+2), followed by 1 or 2 years of doctoral courses. In the new proposed scheme, the numbers would be 4 BA + 1 MA +1 PhD courses (yes = 6, as of old), as we’ll probably have to reintroduce teaching at doctoral level to make sure MA graduates can minimally face the challenge of writing a PhD dissertation. Running in circles, I call this. And losing, in the meantime, much of the original intellectual energy of the old-fashioned Spanish degrees. I don’t believe I’m writing this but that’s what I feel right now.

What irks most is that all these decisions are being taken by politicians sitting somewhere at remote Generalitat offices here in Barcelona or even further away in Madrid. The tiny Literature section to which I belong in the English Department at UAB had managed more or less well before Bologna happened, as we used to teach our Licenciatura subjects and a one-year doctoral programme, which attracted between 6 and 10 people each year, most of them finishing their equivalent MA dissertations satisfactorily. Suddenly, the same figures no longer seem good enough for the MA, which is ridiculous as, logically, the market for post-grad degrees in English Literature has not increased. Why should it?

I do believe our MA is good enough, considering our circumstances (we’re a second language Department, an understaffed section and divided into many fields as each of us has to cover at least one for all of English Literature and Cultural Studies). If the product cannot find its niche it’s clearly NOT our fault but the fault of those who pushed us onto a market that we needn’t/couldn’t enter in the first place. We used to be happier, now we’re a frustrated bunch, tired of the whole Bologna nightmare.

There are plans to fuse with the other Department MA, as we should have done from the beginning, to guarantee survival. Yet, this is, as the main opponent against the merger claims, absurd from an academic point of view as MA degrees should be designed to offer specialisation not for simply furthering the general education offered by the BA. I can only say to this that this absurdity doesn’t spring from any of us in the Department but from the remote politicians. These incompetent bureaucrats believe that training less than 10 post-grad students is too expensive but do not see that admitting up to 140 students in an undergrad class (official UAB figures) might be even more expensive in the long run for the nation they seem to care about, ehem, as this reduces dramatically our time for research.

These are indeed bad times for teaching, Literature or anything else.

THE QUIET AMERICAN: GREENE, MANKIEWICZ, NOYCE AND PHUONG

I’m teaching a course on the witness in Vietnam War books and films. This includes Coppola’s overblown Apocalypse Now! with Heart of Darkness, The Quiet American with its two film versions, Ron Kovic’s truly sad memoir Born on the 4th July with Oliver Stone’s memorable adaptation, and Le Ly Hayslip’s moving two-volume autobiography, filmed also by Stone as the underrated Heaven and Earth. This week I’ve been teaching Greene’s novel and the films by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1958) and Philip Noyce (2002) and, well, in a class with a female teacher and only female students inevitably the spotlight has fallen on the main female character, Vietnamese Phuong.

The Quiet American (1956) is celebrated as a good novel and an even better historical insight into the escalation of American intervention in Vietnam. Greene is highly critical of how the Americans betrayed the French to establish a corrupt south-based Third Force that disrupted tragically the anti-colonial war of liberation which the nationalist Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh were waging. Ironically, this anti-American novel became the Bible for many American war correspondents in the 1960s and 70s (see Nolan’s article, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/30/movies/graham-greene-s-unquiet-novel-film-print-quiet-american-still-fascinates.html). They seemingly identified with the jaded, middle-aged British journalist Fowler than with the naive but highly dangerous young Alden Pyle, the quintessence of American blinkered interventionism.

Now, if you strip the novel down to its core, Greene actually narrates a melodramatic sexual confrontation between Fowler and Pyle for the girl Phuong, Fowler’s mistress for two years. There is a clear metaphor here: Phuong is a sexualised representation of all of Vietnam, whereas the men represent two kinds of selfish colonialism: one more or less benign in its non-interventionism but also decadent (1956, when the novel was published, was the crucial year in which the Suez Canal was lost to Egyptian nationalism), the other quite evil in its paranoiac Cold-War approach to Vietnam’s anti-imperialistic struggle. To make the story closer to events, perhaps Fowler should have been French but since he is not, his patriarchal contest with Pyle for Phuong’s body is revealed to be just that: pure patriarchal rivalry, transcending the particular local conflict where it erupts.

Phuong is so obviously the stereotypical Oriental woman –beautiful, uncomplaining, always sexually available but undemanding– that I cringe all through the novel. She hardly reacts while Fowler and Pyle discuss to her face, though wholly ignoring her, whom she should choose. Her uglier sister Miss Hei uses, in the meantime, all her cheeky wiles to palm her off to Pyle and a cherished American future. Another stereotype indeed. The Vietnamese men hardly exist in this alleged war story, which helps present Phuong as a helpless maiden in distress, condemned to street-walking prostitution unless a white man rescues her. The men, of course, do not see that they just want to be her one and only client and fancy themselves, particularly Pyle, as her saviours.

The films do strange things to this Phuong. In the 1958 version she’s played by a pretty, but also pretty bad, Italian actress (Giorgia Moll), with the wrong body language, face and diction. My students, to my surprise, liked her better than the ethnically correct Do Thi Hay Yen of Noyce’s film version, maybe because Moll plays the role with Mediterranean passion and Yen is too close to the original passive Phuong for comfort (though also more of a subtle schemer). I puzzle about Moll’s miscasting, maybe a side effect of the film’s interiors being shot in Cinecittà. My provisional conclusion is that audiences were not yet ready for interracial kissing, though the film proudly announced that its exteriors had been filmed on location in Vietnam. Or maybe an Italian woman was as exotic as a Vietnamese one in the 1950s, for that matter.

The 2002 version has a different, serious problem: put beautiful 20-year-old Yen in bed with 61-year-old Michael Caine (as Fowler) and, no matter how mild the scenes are, instead of love you see a picture of blatant sexual trafficking in Asia, past and present. When Miss Hei declares that Phuong is Saigon’s most beautiful woman, I couldn’t help thinking she could do much better than Fowler –a disgusting thought; this is what patriarchal stories do to women spectators. No matter: such a beauty would have done better indeed in real life, which shows that the Phuong of Quiet American is plainly just Greene’s sexual fantasy (he was 52 when the novel was published, roughly Fowler’s age).

In the end, I’m sorry to say, The Quiet American boils down to the old patriarchal fantasy and is not such a great Vietnam War novel as too many think. Maybe, here’s an ugly thought, American journalists carried it in their bags expecting not to much to understand Vietnam as to catch their own Phuong.

ENGLAND, ENGLAND… AND THE CONSEQUENCES FOR CULTURAL STUDIES AND LITERATURE OF RAISING UNIVERSITY TUITION FEES

A very dear ex-student, Cristina Delgado, emails me a photo in which she appears sitting on the ground in the middle of the street with her boyfriend, surrounded by an impressive human wall made up of police agents. Both are doctoral students in England, just two among the many thousands forced to take the streets by the British Government’s decision to rise tuition fees from a maximum of £3,290 to £9,000.

I won’t pretend to be very well informed about the situation, which, as usual the BBC explains very well (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11483638) My first impression, though, is that of a nation slowly committing suicide, as education is the key to the future, whether individual or collective (for a comparison of England with Scotland, where university fees are still –mostly– free see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11515828).

Discussing this ugly situation with a colleague at Manchester University, just a couple of weeks ago, we wondered about the impact that the much higher fees will have on the teaching of Literature and, more particularly, of Cultural Studies. He worried about having to teach more hours and to more students, as they would demand more classroom presence from teachers –value for money, though we all know that warming seats in the classroom for longer has little to do with quality teaching.

Above all, however, he worried that the only students able to afford a university education would be, like in old times, (upper)-middle-class and upper-class. Coming from a more conservative background, they might avoid degrees with any kind of ideological left-wing whiff, which is certainly the case of Cultural Studies. Cultural Studies was started and is maintained mostly by us, the children of working class families enabled by some small miracle to attend university (in Britain by post-war Labour policies, in Spain by the post-transición Socialist government). Now it seems as if the cycle might be closing, unless a new wave of anti-bourgeoisie young people emerge, as happened in the mythical 1968. Maybe they’re marching in the streets of England, I don’t know.

As for English (that is, Literature) my guess is that fewer students of any background will choose it in Britain, given the limited related job opportunities. In Spain, let’s recall this, we, Literature teachers, teach under the protection of the label ‘Filología’ now renamed ‘Estudios.’ There are no degrees, new or old, just on a particular Literature in a given language. And here, at the UAB, our Licenciatura in ‘Literatura Comparada y Teoría de la Literatura’ was lost somewhere in the misty path towards the new degrees.

It’s hard not to feel depressed these days, whether you are young or not so young, a student or a teacher, in the sciences or in the humanities. Truly, this is the winter of our discontent.

IDEOLOGY AND AESTHETICS (HEART OF DARKNESS ONCE MORE, CONRAD’S AND OTHERS)

I’ve just gone through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness once more, this time to teach it almost simultaneously in my post-grad subject on “The Vietnam War” for our MA, and in my under-grad subject on Victorian Literature. In the first case, I’ve also focused, of course, on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, which seems to me a worse film every time I watch it because of its pretentiousness, although I’ll accept that there’s no better adaptation of Conrad’s masterpiece. Odd, very odd for a writer so interested in making us see.

Anyway, here I am this Sunday afternoon bracing myself for a few difficult sessions on Conrad’s novella, not only because the text is (brilliantly) difficult but also because there is no way one can escape the dilemma aesthetics vs. ideology when teaching it. I already had a very complicated taste of this while teaching The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when a couple of (very good) students showed their discomfort with my queer reading, only to beam at my strict aesthetic reading, which I gave in less than comfort. One can always speculate whether Jekyll was imagined as secretly gay or not but NOTHING can hide the fact that Marlow’s misadventure happens to a white man in colonial Africa. It is, thus, my duty –how Victorian this sounds! – to integrate Chinua Achebe’s bitter criticism of Conrad’s racism and the subsequent reactions, for not doing this to focus just on the sheer beauty of the prose would be simply morally wrong.

Harold Bloom says in The Western Canon (1995: 28) that “If we read the Western canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgement, to read at all.” If that is so, then I’m proudly illiterate, as I believe in teaching students to detect everyone’s ideology, including mine and Bloom’s, a true monster of selfishness if there is one. Can there be anything more narcissistic than claiming that “All that the Western canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality”? We live as we dream… alone, yes, as Conrad wrote, but we are also social, historical and cultural creatures, that is, the children of a particular ideology, as Conrad knew very well, whether he liked it or not.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the last Nobel prize winner, has recreated in El sueño del celta (2010) –which I haven’t read yet but intend to read asap– the astonishing story of the man who inspired Conrad, pro-human rights activist Roger Casement, a hero turned villain as British public opinion about his deeds changed. Vargas Llosa, certainly no leftie, is a clear example of the successful mixture of aesthetics and ideology, for which, precisely, he has impressed the Swedes (and, yes, annoyed many others). Read his novel ignoring why Casement fought, what King Leopold’s Congo was about and why Conrad had to write his masterpiece and let’s discuss only literary aesthetics… at your own moral risk.

THE BOOK OF LIFE (IN MEMORIAM MIA VICTORI)

A very dear Department colleague, Mia Victori, passed away early this week, on November 29, the victim of an unexpected, massive stroke. She was only 44, and died while enjoying with her children and her sister a long-wished for sabbatical in California. We are all devastated, groping in the dark for clues that allow us to understand, if only a little, what has happened. It seems as if she might still return any time from the States and all this might turn out to be just a very sick joke.

My last image of Mia, which is a beautiful one, comes from a chance encounter by the photocopier in mid September. She announced to me then, absolutely radiant as if she had just fallen in love and full of what I can only call pure happiness, that, finally, she was going away, returning to California. Yes, returning. Here’s the appalling irony that makes this sad death even sadder: about 15 years ago, Mia had spent two years there on La Caixa’s well-known scholarship, and this was her chance to give herself and her three children another taste of American life. Somehow, the feeling sticks that she had to go California because this is where her destiny was leading her for this final act.

And so, in the book that was her life, the heroine dies and there is no happy ending. A husband, three young children, the rest of Mia’s family and friends, all her colleagues are left staring at the final page, angry with that bastard of an author –if there is one, I know there can’t be– who has used a cheap deus ex machina to cut short the captivating work. Mia did plenty of value in her 44 years of short life, both personally and professionally but, precisely because she was doing well and doing good, it is hard to accept that she didn’t deserve 44 more. After all, let’s say it out loud, other people who’re up to no good get to enjoy even more years. I simply don’t understand how anyone can believe there is a God. It (yes, it) certainly has not a clue about (poetic) justice.

The obvious lesson to learn from the short book of Mia’s life is that every moment should count as if it were the last one. I personally regret not only her untimely death but missing the opportunity to be more than a Department colleague. As we are civil servants, or aspire to, in Spanish academic life it seems as if people will be around for ever and too often relationships stay shallow. Mia was my own age and she had become a member of the Department also in the early 1990s. There were periods when we’d meet quite often, and enjoy our lunches together –she was always cheerful and warm– and there were others when we hardly saw each other, as everyone is so busy. Now it’s too late. End of the story. End of the book. I’ll miss you.