|VOLUME 20||THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE | GRADUATE SCHOOL||NUMBER 1|
Student of the Human Experience
Comparative Literature reflects on teaching, research, literature, and famous
authors, as well as life, travel, and the essence of education.
Postmodernism, an elusive cultural and literary concept emerging in the postwar period, can perhaps be defined as rejecting the perceived tendency for society to categorize and generalize. It is a post-ideological sensibility, trying to rework relations between the local and the global, between pragmatic applications and universal concepts.
Among the earliest developers of postmodernist thought was Ihab Hassan, UWM's Vilas Research Professor of English and Comparative Literature since 1970. Many aspects of Hassan's life have resisted generalization and belied assumptions, much like the concept he identified. "Since childhood," he wrote in Out of Egypt: Fragments of an Autobiography, in 1986, "I loved deep-sea fish and far-out swimmers, and creatures that drive themselves to the limits of their nature, there where nature waits to be remade."
Growing up in Cairo in the '20s, '30s and '40s, Hassan knew he would not be content to follow the traditional, limited path of success for good students in his country, and resolved to emigrate to the United States, which he did in 1946 after earning a bachelor's degree with High Honors in electrical engineering at the University of Cairo. After a master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, Hassan immersed himself in his true passion, literature. Following another master's and then a Ph.D. in English at Penn in 1950 and 1953, he rose at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., from instructor to Benjamin L. Waite Professor of English from 1954 to 1970, directing several departments and programs along the way.
Besides his professorships at Wesleyan and UWM, Hassan, an avid traveler and student of the human experience, has visited countries throughout four continents and delivered over 300 lectures on modern culture and literature.
Throughout his professional career, where many of his colleagues have preferred research over instruction, Hassan has always embraced teaching and interaction with students. In 1994, he received the UWM Alumni Award for Teaching Excellence. "As a research professor," he said, in accepting the award, "I never wanted to segregate research from teaching, writing from speech." Indeed, many of his 13 books, dealing with postmodernism and other literary and cultural trends, have been inspired by exploration of new ideas in the classroom.
Hassan has also published over 170 literary articles and reviews, and accepted over 25 fellowships, honors, and awards from institutions in the United States, Europe, and Asia. His works have been translated into 12 languages. In 1996, the University of Uppsala, Sweden's oldest, conferred on him an honorary Doctorate of Letters. He recently took time in his Curtin Hall office to talk with Anne Siegel.
to English and comparative literature?
In Egypt, where I grew up - and this is true of many developing countries - if you are a good student, you must do one of three things: take up medicine, science, or engineering. My parents thought it was very foolish for me to go into literature. I did go into engineering, but my logic was different from my parents'. My logic was that going into electrical engineering would get me a scholarship to study abroad - much easier than trying to do this with literature. And this is exactly what happened. I got a five-year Egyptian Government fellowship to study in America.
Once I got here I found out that I was really interested in literature and writing and I was determined to stay in America. These were the big shifts in my career.
My father had a considerable library of books in French, English, and German. I was a reader. This is a mysterious thing; we don't know what makes a boy or girl a reader. My father and I shared a love of literature.
Some of the researchers we profile in the magazine have spent their entire careers pursuing a highly specialized area. By contrast, your work is incredibly broad in scope. How does this reflect your interests, your personality and the evolution of your career?
It reflects it closely. There is a famous philosopher at Oxford, Sir Isaiah Berlin, who said there are two types of researchers: the hedgehog and the fox. He was half joking, but only half. The hedgehog burrows deep and knows one thing very well, and the fox knows many things all over the place. In that sense, I'm a fox. Again, it's very difficult to understand how one person becomes a specialist, and another becomes a generalist. In my case, I've always been interested in many things. I'm interested in science, and I've written about it because of my background in electrical engineering. I'm interested in art. I'm interested in dance, opera, literature, music. I'm not gifted in music - I can't carry a tune - but I'm interested in it.
If there is any focus to my research, it's modern and postmoderculture. Especially postmodern because, if I may say so, I was involved in developing the concept of postmodernism very early. But postmodernism has become sterile or kitschy lately, and I am turning to more spiritual questions now.
There have been many changes in the last three decades. The changes at UWM reflect the changes in American culture. I wrote about some of these shifts in a book called Rumors of Change(1995), containing essays from the 1950s to the 1990s. The book shows how variations in the cultural climate are reflected in the particular approach we adopt in the classroom.
Let me illustrate with two or three tendencies in the last three decades. First, education has become more democratic. America has always been a democratic country, and a higher percentage of Americans go to college than anywhere else in the world, except perhaps Canada. As a result of the 1960s and the demands of the student movement, however, the classroom has become more open to a variety of voices, texts, methods, authorities. Simply put,there's more discussion--and perhaps more conflict.
The second trend I see - and I don't feel as positive about this trend as I do about the first - is the growing politicization of the curriculum, particularly in the humanities. Perhaps the trend isn't as visible in engineering and science, but it is clear in the social sciences and the humanities. More and more, political questions creep into the center of the intellectual or educational enterprise. People are more interested in whether this "thing" - an idea, a book, an author, whatever - is "left" or "right," than in analyzing it or understanding it. Finding out if it's true or if it's beautiful, if it's useful or if it's interesting on its own terms - all that becomes irrelevant. So everything becomes politicized in terms of "left" and "right." This narrows the mind terribly and discourages inquiry.
Every period has its fashions - we re-invent our ancestors, you see - and some authors will drop out of sight and then reappear. William Faulkner, for instance. He's dropped from sight and is now returning. This summer, someone is teaching Faulkner and Hemingway again. Another example is the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. I taught a seminar on Yeats last fall and it was oversubscribed; it was also the best graduate seminar I had in my whole career. It was wonderful because the students made it so, without tendentious ideological wrangling.
Still, the debate about authors continues and you can see it particularly in relation to a discussion we had on campus about Great Books. There are a number of students and faculty members who resist the idea of a Great Books program on political grounds, because it's "elitist," because it's about dead white males. They think a Great Books program symbolizes a tradition that they socially and politically reject. They don't question the ideas or the great books themselves; they question the symbolism of a Great Books program on a campus like UWM. Recently, we had a speaker, Charlie Sykes, who took a lot of questions about the program - and a lot of heat. Others, though, will argue, "If you have a Gay Studies program, why can't you have a Great Books program?" The issue is not educational any more; it's political and ideological, emotional.
Having said this, I should add that these "cultural wars" are on the wane. Many of our discussions now in the department and in the classroom are more literary and pedagogical than purely political. It's simply not true that "everything is political."
Again, cultural fashions, or maybe backlash; it's difficult really to tell. If you study a necessary movement like feminism-and there are several kinds of feminism - you find that it has gone through several transformations, several waves. You observe generational shifts as well as cultural fashions; you see Oedipal struggles between generations as well as refinements and elaborations that express new needs, new social situations.
I think a third trend is a product of demographic and technological changes. For instance, e-mail and instructional technology are changing a lot of things in the classroom - but also trivializing the act of communication. Moreover, the workforce and the economy have changed. We have moved from an industrial to a service, consumer, and information society, at once local and global. This shift has created a different type of student who's looking for a different type of experience in the classroom. Students want to know what they're going to do when they graduate, how they're going to be trained to deal with this unstable and insecure economic environment.
As a result, the liberal arts - the study of knowledge for its own sake - become questioned because they don't promise immediate results when the job market is highly competitive. But at the same time, the liberal arts continue to attract a sizeable minority of students who are especially devoted to knowledge, self-realization, the quality of life, and don't care about the immediate payoff. They are oriented that way because they intuit that's what education is really about, and they're right. Learning is our human mission in this universe, as many artists, scientists, and thinkers believe. Look at the work of the Santa Fe Institute in biology, information systems, brain research, chaos and complexity theory. It all comes to focus in an incredibly complex process of learning and coding.
Yes and no. They are justified if you consider only expediency, the short-range view of the matter. But they are not justified if you consider education as a continuous process, forming a mind, shaping a citizen, developing a unique human personality, rather than preparing a person for a specific job that he or she will do for the rest of their lives.
Personally, I don't embrace the vocational approach, nor do most faculty members in the College of Letters and Science.
Is there a place for what you are describing?
The life of the mind is not restricted. It's in every board room, every hospital, every army, every lab, everywhere. It's a way of thinking clearly and humanely about yourself and other people and the universe. It's right there when you are addressing astrophysics, or ecological issues, or medical ethics, or legislative procedures. It's everywhere, thank God, and not just in the Philosophy or English Departments.
What happens is this: I become interested in a set of problems, a set of issues. I don't know exactly why. Then I say, "I want to give a course on this topic, I want to hear what others have to say about it." I begin to discuss it with students and colleagues, and the concern takes shape. Teaching gives direction to my writing.
For example, I wrote a book about travel and quest, called Selves at Risk (1990), because I looked around and said, "Why are all these people traveling? Why are these people from wealthy countries going to poor countries? What are they looking for? How do they affect the societies they visit? Do they bring back something valuable? Do they really "discover themselves"? Then I gave courses on travel and cross-cultural interactions and personal quest. The book emerged from these courses.
Many people are looking for authenticity, or for some Edenic place that they cannot find in New York or Chicago - not anywhere in the civilized West. Their journeys are a form of self-criticism. But this primal innocence, this unity of being, can be found nowhere. We think technology has polluted us, and we go to Africa or Asia and find they're more polluted there. And if you lecture developing countries about ecology, they may respond, "Oh, you want to keep us down, you don't want us to develop economically. We don't care about pollution. We want to raise our standard of living." You're in no position to argue. Most important, though, is the inner transformation in the individual seeker--and that's too complicated to talk about here.
There is no doubt in my mind - and I've taught in 10 and lectured in maybe 30 countries - that the best educational system and the best students are in America. There's an openness in the classroom, there's an active interchange here, that you rarely encounter elsewhere. Books are actually available to students in libraries, not just locked up there. In most countries I have visited, the emphasis is on passing exams, and the relationship between teacher and student is distant. Teaching in America has been the most positive experience for me. The least positive experience has been in Japan. The Japanese are still very hierarchic, though also exceedingly polite. It's considered rude to have an active discussion. Moreover, there is the problem of a thick language barrier - Japanese students and even faculty rarely speak English well.
Of course, there are countries like Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia - partly because of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of democracy, partly because English is the native language - that come very close to the American experience.
Let me say something about Australia specifically. The educational climate there is like America's a few decades ago. Australians are curious; they are a touch naive; they are decent and fairly stoical, more stoical than americans, who tend to be impatient. And Australians are even more democratic than we are - they reject what they call "tall poppies." (The derogatory term describes people who stand out above other people, and need to be "cut down" to everyone else's level.) In this they sometimes go too far.
But our attraction to Australia is not limited to the classroom. My wife and I think Sydney is the most beautiful city in the world. There are cities like London, Tokyo, and New York that are immensely interesting, but they aren't beautiful like Sydney. Then there's the vast, awesome Outback. And of course, there'sAustralian literature, which has a very distinctive character, and about which I want to write.
But I'm digressing. Let me return to the nature of my Vilas Professorship. I think I would not have been able to do any of the things I have done without this remarkable professorship. It has allowed me to do research, to lecture abroad, to attend conferences. This has been good for me, certainly, but also good, I hope, for UWM, carrying the university's name to far places, and bringing back something to it.
To be candid, no offer could really compete my situation here. Also, we like to live in Milwaukee. I spent my early life in America on the East Coast. My years in Philadelphia were not particularly pleasant; my years in Connecticut were more enjoyable. When I came here, it seemed like so much open space was available, physical space, human space, intellectual space. And we don't mind the cold at all - except in April.
Right. And I hate hot weather.
In retrospect, as I look at it, it's very valuable to have a long-term relationship with a university. Not only do you develop a kind of loyalty to the place which is reflected in the classroom and in human relations, but the institution is also more loyal and supportive of you. William Halloran, former dean of Letters and Science, has been most supportive through three decades. Besides, the more you travel, the more you need a steadying center. For us, the center at Milwaukee holds.
This summer, I'm going to Germany, where we have a "sister" relationship with the University of Giessen. I'll be teaching there on an exchange with a professor who will come here. He'll live in our house and work out of my office, and I'll work out of his. And so there's an exchange involved, not an escape from UWM. The university here gets another professor who brings a different background and a different perspective. It's important for the university to avoid provincialism. I also know that Letters and Science Dean Marshall Goodman is very interested in the international aspect of research, in bringing talent to UWM as well as carrying UWM talent abroad. The world has become more interactive, more "global" intellectually than it has economically. Researchers cross-fertilize one another without any regard to nationality, especially in the sciences, and cultures borrow from one another continually, especially from America - despite all the talk about the new nationalism and tribalism.
Yes, I've known many of them. Almost all the ones you've mentioned. Cheever and Malamud before they died. Saul Bellow without a doubt is the most important living American writer. I like particularly his work in the last two or three decades because he has become more interested in spiritual issues, and I am interested in those issues. In the 1960s I was interested in Norman Mailer because his style was so vivid and so lively, but then I became somewhat disappointed by his antics. Still, he's an immensely gifted and daring writer.
Toni Morrison is a truly fine writer. When I visit Sweden, I often hold informal discussions with some members of the Nobel Prize Committee. When they asked me for a report on American literature, I spoke about Toni Morrison as worthy of the prize. Like many others, I made the nomination, but the committee is extremely knowledgeable and independent, and it does its own choosing.
There are two types of critics, and I'm joking, of course, when I say that, because there are a million types. One type likes to become friends with the writer, and another prefers to stay away and concentrate on the written work. I don't like to be involved personally with the people I'm writing about. Inevitably, you do meet them at conferences, publishers' parties, and the like. But I think it's best not to get too close. Writers are passionate people, complicated people, and it can all get messy. "Why didn't you say this, why didn't you do that." I've had some unfortunate experiences with a writer, now dead, and since then I've maintained my distance.
I also wanted to talk about your long professional relationship with Iwao Iwamoto. I see he translated one of your books, an you've had several opportunities to teach together.
He translated my first book, Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel (1961), into Japanese. He came to see me in Connecticut in 1966, and we discussed problems of translation, and our relationship has richly endured. Since our first meeting, we've gone back and forth between the U.S. and Japan many times. We've taught four undergraduate Honors Seminars together at UWM, on Japanese and American literature. We'd have a cultural dialogue in class, not just about literature but about how people behave and think in these very different cultures. Furthermore, I've lectured in Japan many, many times, and have written a book called Between the Eagle and the Sun (1996), about literary and cultural contrasts between the two countries. The book will be published in Japanese translation this summer.
I have no idea. It's a personal book, written from a personal point of view. It's one man speaking about his experiences in Japan. There are so many things that are positive in Japanese society, but also some negative traits that I honestly discuss. Of course, the Japanese are exceedingly sensitive to criticism. I can't help it; I try to be as fair and polite as possible. Besides, there are some very warm portraits of Japanese individuals in the book - some friends, some strangers - as well as an affectionately humorous section called "A Dictionary of Japanese Culture," which begins with "A" for Apology and ends with "Z" for Zen.
London in May. I am participating in two BBC programs, one on Postmodernism, the other on American Intellectuals. Then Germany in June and July, to teach at the University of Giessen in the exchange I mentioned earlier. There are also some lectures in Sweden and an exchange with the University of Rabat in Morocco next year. And down the way . . . ah, but we mustn't presume on the gods.