Professor Morris Zapp and Jane Austen, ca. 1969-1970

Three passages

The following passages come from a novel by David Lodge, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (London: Secker and Warburg, 1975)

  1. Pages 34-37:

  2. At the age of forty, . . . Morris Zapp could think of nothing he wanted to achieve that he hadn't achieved already, and this depressed him.

    There was always his research, of course, but some of the zest [34-35] had gone out of that since it ceased to be a means to an end. He couldn't enhance his reputation, he could only damage it, by adding further items to his bibliography, and the realization slowed him down, made him cautious. Some years ago he had embarked with great enthusiasm on an ambitious critical project: a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them. The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it; so that when each commentary was written there would be simply nothing further to say about the novel in question. The object of the exercise, as he had often to explain with as much patience as he could muster, was not to enhance others' enjoyment and understanding of Jane Austen, still less to honour the novelist herself, but to put a definitive stop to the production of any further garbage on the subject. The commentaries would not be designed for the general reader but for the specialist, who, looking up Zapp, would find that the book, article or thesis he had been planning had already been anticipated and, more likely than not, invalidated. After Zapp, the rest would be silence. The thought gave him deep satisfaction. In Faustian moments he dreamed of going on, after fixing Jane Austen, to do the same job on the other major English novelists, then the poets and the dramatists, perhaps using computers and teams of trained graduate students, inexorably reducing the area of English literature available for free comment, spreading dismay through the whole industry, rendering scores of his colleagues redundant: periodicals would fall silent, famous English Departments be left deserted like ghost towns. . . . [authorial ellipses; nothing is omitted here]

    As is perhaps obvious, Morris Zapp had no great esteem for his fellow-labourers in the vineyards of literature. They seemed to him vague, fickle, irresponsible creatures, who wallowed in relativism like hippopotami in mud, with their nostrils barely protruding into the air of common-sense. They happily tolerated the existence of opinions contrary to their own--they even, for God's sake, sometimes changed their minds. Their pathetic attempts at profundity were qualified out of existence and largely interrogative in mode. They liked to begin a paper with some [35-36] formula like, "I want to raise some questions about so-and-so", and seemed to think they had done their intellectual duty by merely raising them. This manoeuvre drove Morris Zapp insane. Any damned fool, he maintained, could think of questions; it was answers that separated the men from the boys. If you couldn't answer your own questions it was either because you hadn't worked on them hard enough or because they weren't real questions. In either case you should keep your mouth shut. One couldn't move in English studies these days without falling over unanswered questions which some damn fool had carelessly left lying about--it was like trying to mend a leak in an attic full of dusty, broken furniture. Well, his commentary would put a stop to that, at least as far as Jane Austen was concerned.

    But the work proceeded slowly; he was not yet halfway through Sense and Sensibility and already it was obvious that each commentary would run to several volumes. . . . [Moreover,] He would not publicly acknowledge . . . that he was finding it a strain to hold his students' attention as the climate on campus became increasingly hostile to traditional academic values. His style of teaching was designed to shock conventionally educated students out of a sloppily reverent attitude to literature and into an ice-cool, intellectually rigorous one. It could do little with students openly contemptuous of both the subject and his own qualifications. . . . [36-37] Jane Austen was certainly not the writer to win the hearts of the new generation. Sometimes Morris woke sweating from nightmares in which students paraded round the campus carrying placards that declared KNIGHTLEY SUCKS and FANNY PRICE IS A FINK.

  3. Page 38:

  4. In Morris Zapp's view, the root of all critical error was a naïve confusion of literature with life. Life was transparent, literature opaque. Life was an open, literature a closed system. Life was composed of things, literature of words. Life was what it appeared to be about: if you were afraid your plane would crash it was about death, if you were trying to get a girl into bed it was about sex. Literature was never about what it appeared to be about, though in the case of the novel considerable ingenuity and perception were needed to crack the code of realistic illusion, which was why he had been professionally attracted to the genre (even the dumbest critic understood that Hamlet wasn't about how the guy could kill his uncle, or the Ancient Mariner about cruelty to animals, but it was surprising how many people thought that Jane Austen's novels were about finding Mr. Right). The failure to keep the categories of life and literature distinct led to all kinds of heresy and nonsense: to "liking" and "not liking" books, for instance, preferring some authors to others and suchlike whimsicalities which, he had constantly to remind his students, were of no conceivable interest to anyone except themselves (sometimes he shocked them by declaring that, speaking personally on this low, subjective level, he found Jane Austen a pain in the ass).

  5. Pages 194-196:

  6. [Morris] leaned back into [his chair] . . . , put his feet on the desk and lit a cigar. "Well now," he said to the three dejected-looking students. "What are you bursting to discuss this morning?'

    "Jane Austen," mumbled the boy with the beard, shuffling some sheets of foolscap covered with evil-looking handwriting.

    "Oh yeah. What was the topic?"

    "I've done it on Jane Austen's moral awareness."

    "That doesn't sound like my style."

    "I couldn't understand the title you gave me, Professor Zapp."

    "Eros and Agape in the later novels, wasn't it? What was the problem?"

    The student hung his head. Morris felt in the mood for a little display of high-powered exposition. Agape, he explained, was a feast through which the early Christians expressed their love for one another, it symbolized non-sexual, non-individualized love, it was represented in Jane Austen's novels by social events that confirmed the solidarity of middle-class agrarian capitalist communities or welcomed new members into those communities--balls and dinner parties and sight-seeing expeditions and so on. Eros was of course sexual love and was represented in Jane Austen by courtship scenes, têtes-à-têtes, walking in pairs--any [194-195] encounter between the heroine and the man she loved, or thought she loved. Readers of Jane Austen, he emphasized, gesturing freely with his cigar, should not be misled by the absence of overt reference to physical sexuality in her fiction into supposing that she was indifferent or hostile to it. On the contrary, she invariably came down on the side of Eros against Agape--on the side, that is, of the private communion of lovers over against the public communion of social events and gatherings which invariably caused pain and distress (think for instance of the disastrous nature of group expeditions, to Sotherton in Mansfield Park, to Box Hill in Emma, to Lyme Regis in Persuasion). Getting into his stride, Morris demonstrated that Mr. Elton was obviously implied to be impotent because there was no lead in the pencil that Harriet Smith took from him; and the moment in Persuasion when Captain Wentworth lifted the little brat Walter off Anne Elliot's shoulders. . . . [authorial ellipses; nothing is omitted here or immediately below] He snatched up the text and read with feeling:

    " . . . she found herself in the state of being released from him . . . Before she realized that Captain Wentworth had done it . . . he was resolutely borne away . . . Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles with the most disordered feelings. How about that?" he concluded reverently. "If that isn't an orgasm, what is it?" He looked up into three flabbergasted faces. The internal telephone rang. . . . [195-196]

    "Where were we?" he said.

    "Persuasion . . . "

    "Oh, yeah."

    The telephone rang again. . . . He covered the mouthpiece with one hand and said to the students, "Just read through that scene in Persuasion will you and try to analyse how it builds up to a climax. In every sense of the word." He leered at them encouragingly. . . .

Go to John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse