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« Fighting fear with fear | Main | The Return of the Mommy Wars- Mother's Day 2012 (Sujatha) »

May 08, 2012


I don't follow Stanley Fish, but once in a while I read one of his pieces. As before, I can't distinguish the level of his work from a student writer for a college newspaper. He is the epitome of everything that I saw in the decline of the NY Times, from the end of the 1980s to the present. The entire fifth paragraph is supposed to be the gold core of his thinking in this essay. Here it is:

"Food, however, is a metaphor in the trilogy for another kind of sustenance, the sustenance provided by an inner conviction of one’s own worth and integrity. (Man cannot live by bread alone.) The hunger to be an authentic self is a basic constituent of the game we call life, and the difficulty of achieving that state — Polonius tells Laertes “to thine own self be true,” but forgets to provide the how-to manual — is intensified for the “tributes,” the name given to those selected by lot to be contestant-competitors who must exercise the twin skills of deception and violence if they are to survive. How can one maintain integrity in a context that mandates aggression and betrayal?"

I always thought that " inner conviction of one’s own worth and integrity...," was an outcome, not the input. The nourishment is provided by the love and caring of our parents, the values we internalize, experiencing the trials of life, our own hard work and study, and learning from our sufferings and disappointments. We are counseled to "...cast our bread upon the waters...," not our self-worth and integrity.

It is probably true that Fish thought he was being clever and insightful. After all, he quoted Polonius' advice to Laertes, and then found it wanting. However, a stew of aphorisms does not, necessarily, reflect clear thought and analysis. "To thine own self be true...," does not need a manual of instructions anymore than "Go West, young man...," needed a train schedule and map.

Your market-view essay was far more interesting, and revealing.

Ha, ha, Norm! My thoughts, exactly. Wait till Dean sees this :-)

Sujatha, thanks for unearthing the rare B&W photos of India taken a hundred years ago and found to be in tip-top shape. They are lovely! Most seem to have been taken in or around Kolkata and I suspect even those marked "unknown location" are probably in Bengal. What is interesting is that even though many of the photos are clearly period pieces and would be immediately recognized as such, some of the pictures could be from 2012 instead of 1912. Things have changed a lot culturally and structurally in India, particularly in urban areas. Yet the photos of the washermen on the river bank and people sitting around on roadsides are still familiar images of India that could be transported across time without seeming quaint.

I don't think Fish meant this as anything more than an essay describing the thought swirl unleashed in his 'overeducated adult' head, on reading a Young Adult novel meant to cater to a younger demographic. We all come to the reading with the baggage of our lives, after all.
I tend to be naturally skeptical of any major book releases, and it is sad in a way, because I may have lost the capacity to merely lose myself in the prose and enjoy it for what it is, without seeing through to the conflicting goals of author, publisher, et al.

The photographs are indeed largely from Kolkata and the surrounding villages, as well as a few of Orissa (Odisha, as the name has now been changed). Yes, there are so many photos which could be practically timeless, with the locations looking exactly the same one hundred years later.

Huge Fish fan here. And, too, fish fan, I suppose. (Clever, no?) But I barely made it through this latest Fish column, as it is among those works of his, both scholarly and journalistic, that spring from popular culture. He writes not infrequently, for instance, about movies, which with few exceptions I avoid, television--I'll never read his recent book about The Fugitive--and baseball, yawn. I knew there was a "Hunger Games" something or other going on: a movie, a book, or something. My excitement over a new Fish column fully deflated when I saw the topic.

Unlike Norm, I'd say Fish's column is one of few remaining reasons to turn at all to the NYT. The letters and obits are good fun, too. But even if he too often caters in that forum to οἱ πολλοί, and even if he spends the twilight years of his career only resting on laurels well earned in a profession of literary studies mostly ignored, when not scorned, by his current audience, I can't accept that he's writing college level journalism. Metaphors are more subtle than your example assumes, Norm. If you always thought a sense of self was exclusively an outcome, well, then Fish illustrates how that might not be the case. That he doesn't confirm your prior understanding doesn't mean he writes like a sophomore. Obviously, Fish doesn't literally wish Shakespeare had followed up the Polonius maxim with a bullet-point list of practical steps. I thought Fish was ironically praising Shakespeare for highlighting the "easier said than done" advice father gives to son. After all, Polonius didn't exactly follow it himself. In sum, the example points out how troubled is the process of being true to oneself, of knowing oneself. Doing so requires no instruction manual, not because how one does it is self-evident, but because no list of instructions would do the trick.

You accuse Fish of mere cleverness, but can't the same be said for your troping of the food metaphor? Fish (and, if he's accurately portraying the books, their author) plays off of a figure of food as sustenance, not merely input. Are your examples--values, hard work and study--also merely input?

Dean, thanks.

Apropos of this discussion, I just came across the following: "Be yourself. Everybody else is taken." --Oscar Wilde

This may make small difference to some, but I need to correct one sentence. It should read, "We are counseled to "...cast our bread upon the waters...," not the INNER CONVICTION of our self-worth and integrity."


Since this post is an assortment, I would like to add to the collection. Regarding Captcha, I was congratulating myself for the high rate of success as a decipher clerk. I've concluded that my keen eye is not what I thought it to be. Therefore, I am offering a theory to success with the present form of Captcha. Of the pair, the one that is easy to read must be reproduced perfectly. The other one - the one that causes eye strain and mental fatigue - need only be 'close enough' for a successful post. I suppose that the idea is to make it more difficult for automated OCR, but not impossible for us mere mortals.

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