Nonfiction Novella

Ground Zero in the Culture War, Part II: Descent to Madness

Brock Eldon
September 13, 2023
The purpose of great art and literature is to nourish the human spirit on an individual level. Or so Brock Eldon saw it. What he encountered in graduate school at an elite Canadian university was literature warped into a political tool of intimidation and compulsion, debauching even Shakespeare and destroying nearly everything in its path. Eldon watched the descent of PhD students into angry shouting nihilists and the incipient disintegration of a literature department. He descended a long way himself, fearing for his sanity and for civilization. In the second instalment of his nonfiction novella – published here for the first time – Eldon melds his years spent in East Asia, where he found greater intellectual freedom than in Canada, into a penetrating and original take on the Vietnam War’s centrality to the postmodern/neo-Marxist capture of Western culture and institutions. Part I is here.
Nonfiction Novella

Ground Zero in the Culture War, Part II: Descent to Madness

Brock Eldon
September 13, 2023
The purpose of great art and literature is to nourish the human spirit on an individual level. Or so Brock Eldon saw it. What he encountered in graduate school at an elite Canadian university was literature warped into a political tool of intimidation and compulsion, debauching even Shakespeare and destroying nearly everything in its path. Eldon watched the descent of PhD students into angry shouting nihilists and the incipient disintegration of a literature department. He descended a long way himself, fearing for his sanity and for civilization. In the second instalment of his nonfiction novella – published here for the first time – Eldon melds his years spent in East Asia, where he found greater intellectual freedom than in Canada, into a penetrating and original take on the Vietnam War’s centrality to the postmodern/neo-Marxist capture of Western culture and institutions. Part I is here.
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IV

The reductionist dichotomy between male and female gender normative roles,” the professor of our Shakespeare and Cross-Dressing course began her seminar, “has been debunked for decades: there is no such thing” – she thumped the tip of her index finger down on the table’s surface three times – “as biological sex.”

A vein to the side of my head pounded; I felt like my head was about to explode. While I could concede that, yes, there was a “spectrum” between the biological categories of male and female sexes (or at any rate, what I knew from my limited reading on the subject), I objected to the lack of any distinction at all. Biologists do note that biological sex is complex, and that there is a small percentage of individuals who have one or more biological features of the “other” sex – those with female anatomy allowing for the possibility of pregnancy, for instance, nonetheless possessing male chromosomes. Even given these anomalous circumstances, there very much was such a “thing” as “biological sex” with the statistical vast majority of people, outside of something like 0.2 percent of the population identifying as intersex, something that might once have been called hermaphrodite, I thought it might be pertinent to mention in a course ostensibly about the English Renaissance focused on crossdressing in the period’s drama.

The contemporary Humanities ignore science at their peril.

I’d made a point of observing other students’ reactions to statements such as the Shakespeare and Cross-Dressing professor’s: statements where something was claimed to be a scientific and morally indubitable truth that in fact defied and denied all rationality, common sense and scientifically agreed upon information.

Very much a “thing”: To negate biological sex is to discard scientific evidence accumulated over centuries of studying male and female anatomy, biology and genetics. Depicted: left, inside De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri VII Epitome (The Fabric of the Human Body, Book VII), by Andreas Vesalius, 1543; right, present-day infographic on the development of biological sex, retrieved from Genus, Journal of Population Sciences.

“Desensitized” may not be the right word, but it’s the first that comes to mind: as the semester continued in the English Language and Literature graduate program, students became less and less responsive to such claims. In the first Indigenous Gender Studies class, students still made eye contact. The “sharing stick” was particularly awkward at first: I’d catch the odd glance of discomfort here and there, at least three or four other students looking around to gauge the responses of their peers in relation to the content being presented. Within three weeks, eye contact was avoided.

Eye contact was identified as a potential “trigger,” of course, but it wasn’t only that: sustained eye contact was a form of communication between learners. If anyone had risked returning my gaze, they risked forming a connection, entering into my own frame of reference, which differed from their own. By prohibiting intellectual interrogation, the sole accepted frame of reference for the analysis of literary works became the postmodern neo-Marxist doctrine. It was not only intimidation, and the threat of social shaming: it was indoctrination I was seeing work over the other members of my cohort, who were compelled into silence. No statement was challenged because one could not question the “personal truth” or “lived experience” of another.

Elbow down on the table, massaging my forehead, I jotted down the professor’s statement, trying to determine whether the statement made any more sense in print or if it was simply to be gathered as more “mounting evidence” that what I was doing was as stupid, foolish and unproductive as I suspected.

A student in a contemporary Humanities course can identify or extract a primary list of course preoccupations in a single three-hour lecture or seminar block, as I proceeded to do in our introductory session to that Winter Semester Shakespeare and Cross-Dressing course:

transphobia
cis-
heteronormative
two-spirited
equity
islamophobia
cultural appropriation
internalized misogyny
intersectionality
microaggressions
sexism
privilege
discursive violence
whiteness
trigger warnings
toxic masculinity
safe spaces
decolonization

The list may have grown over the course of the term, though certainly not by much. The hours we spent wasted on these ideas? Incalculable.

***

An exception to the “woke” identity politics that dominated the department – landing in that Fall Semester when I was there – was Eighteenth-Century Manuscripts. It was difficult to politicize the study of authentic historical documents, I found. Here was a course simply about the ways in which various authors from the period had composed their works, based on inferences we could draw from the digital scans of their manuscripts: Aphra Behn’s, Daniel Defoe’s, Alexander Pope’s, Henry Fielding’s, Lawrence Sterne’s, their methods of organization, annotation, and revision all carefully noted with indicators in the marginalia, ink-starred pages, or paragraphs, or stanzas indicating, perhaps, sections that the author, playwright or poet wished to remain intact in future drafts. The typical three-hour primer on Marxism and identity politics simply was not going to prepare a student for the cognitive difficulty of such work, deciphering such materials, often requiring close readings wherein we might, for instance, weigh in on syntactical or lexical choices made by the author between drafts of a chapter or scene.

The Eighteenth-Century Manuscripts course could not have been a “miss” for me in any truly serious way, I knew; this study of the physical book “as book,” rather like the production and appreciation of art “for art’s sake.” An aspiring writer myself, I wanted to study manuscripts and I learned a lot looking over the manuscripts of those Enlightenment-era masters. What was their penmanship like? How did they revise, and how did their techniques for revision differ? Once published, what fonts were selected? Why? (How much freedom did those great authors have in the consumer “packaging” of their work? Who held sway over the publication and distribution of their manuscripts?) What page dimensions were chosen? How many inches were allowed for the margins? How much did a volume cost? How much did it weigh?

A great seminar, an excellent seminar…

It wasn’t exactly popular, though, a mere five of the 12 available seats for the semester taken. Indigenous Gender Studies maxed out a class of 12, as did, of course, The Refugee Crisis and Black Lives Matter. By contrast, only five seats were filled for the Manuscripts course, only five for Old English in Modern Translation, and a pitiful, mere four seats were filled for Samuel Richardson and the Rise of the Novel, purportedly tasking students with an intensive close reading of the 18th-century master’s centerpiece in Clarissa. That there was a pattern at work here was unmistakable. Students were brainwashed in classes to the point that they simply gave in.

Guilty and unforgivable: At graduate school, woke educational propaganda inflicted pathological shame upon students, including the author, who came to feel akin to the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s (left) The Trial. Shown on right, a drawing of The Trial: Offices, by Jarmila Maranova.

Some days I tended to feel that way: waking up in the morning, scratching at my scalp with my fingernails as I shampooed or conditioned my hair, swiping away at the fogged-over bathroom mirror and catching the sight of my own face, and feeling that I was guilty in some unforgivable way, like our unnamed protagonist in Kafka’s The Trial, brought before the heads of the machine of so-called “modern justice,” awaiting the verdict for a crime that he is not even aware of having committed, ignorant even of the basics, never mind details, of his case.

Was it Orwell again?:

“All art is propaganda; not all propaganda is art.”

Weren’t we all taught this, my peers and me as high school students reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World as staples in our public school curriculum in the West, following the events of the Second World War and the ensuing half century that was the Cold War?

At the end of the day, what were we doing that was productive, rather than destructive?

V

“Yeah, but all the Second, Third, and Fourth Wave Feminists (like Judith Butler), the Postcolonialists (Edward Said), the Queer Theorists (Sarah Ahmed),” I began haphazardly at another of those uncomfortable house parties. It was some more formal occasion: Thanksgiving or Christmas. The other students did end up, of course, tuning into Ru Paul but there was no cross-dressing this time at least. I was wearing my suit jacket, plenty buzzed on the wine by now, but no more buzzed than anyone else.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I said, fiddling with my collar, loosening it, tightening it, keeping my hands active. “They’re influential…they’re important (I recognize that for sure), but are they not just derivatives of the French Postmodernists really? Structuralism, poststructuralism…that sort of thing?”

I stopped going to department parties after that night. I’d been more intoxicated than I realized. What was virtually forbidden at events open to all members of the department, was criticism of any contents from the so-called “woke” courses. Holding up one finger for Foucault, and one for Derrida, I added a third: “Foucault, Derrida – Marx! That’s it!” I laughed, shaking my head, fidgeting with my tie still. There was a tension in my grip on the fabric.

“We don’t learn any history”: The erasure of the past has allowed 19th century Marxism/communism to survive its recurring defeats, fester and reappear, generation after generation. Today, university students are force-fed the ideology’s current derivatives, postmodernism and wokism. (Source of photo: socialist.net)

“Come on, it is funny! That’s a good one…No! No, it’s true! It’s true!” I persisted despite the sensation welling up inside my stomach or my liver – some forewarning about the direction that I knew things were going to take from here: an anxiety I brushed aside when I took another drink. I claimed I could have traced the thesis of every reading I’d been assigned all semester in the Indigenous Gender Studies seminar, for instance, to at least one or all three of those thinkers. It wasn’t ignorance I saw in the partygoers’ expressions; it was denial, an unwillingness to engage.

“It’s just a complete takeover of all these different disciplines at once,” I tried to reason, hands raised disarmingly. “The fact that I can attribute all this thought to these three rather recent Europeans is a bit much for me to comprehend, to be honest…I don’t get it. How? We don’t learn any history – because Foucault and Derrida were playing around with Marx a century later, well into the rise of Communism all over the East. They hated history; the whole deconstructionist project is about the erasure of history. I don’t see how we’ve allowed this ideology to fester and become so powerful, honestly.”

Undoing my tie so that it hung around my shoulders, I looked to the floor.

“Yeah, but isn’t that just evolution, human nature?” one of my interlocutors did ask. “Like, different schools of thought and different trends have just dominated over different time periods. It’s nature.”

“It’s not though,” I said. “If it were natural, then why would we have to resort to compulsion? These departments have become very powerful, even if enrollment is decreasing at the moment. Graduates are entering into public office rapidly. It’s guilt that they’re weaponizing, and that they’re using for compulsion, and then the compulsion is the weaponization—”

Too late. Everyone was shut down, looking at their phones. Not one person was listening.

Was it intimidation or was it indoctrination?

It was both.

VI

I can recall it to memory so vividly still: about 18 months before I started the M.A., I was standing at a bookstore in Beijing. (Once more: there is important context in my life as an expat writer.) The bookstore on Wangfujing Street was prominently positioned in the main commercial district where I was staying, easy to find again once found. In the back alleys of the new Beijing, there were still night markets with street vendors selling scorpions, rats, so-called “penis fish” (also found in Korea) on the sticks they’d been grilled on, just as it had been done for decades.

Big selection, heavy on the Marx: In Beijing, Wangfujing bookstore’s philosophy section impressed the author, while adding to his concerns about what could happen if the extreme left-wing ideologies dominating Western universities took over society. (Source of photo: Brock Eldon)

I became an expat because I wanted to step outside the matrix of North American academia, to see where other ideas and day-to-day experience would take me. One of the results of taking this pathway was my understanding of what would happen when the extreme left-wing ideologies dominating our universities came to take over. I was in Beijing before the M.A.; my concern about the rise of neo-Marxist thought in the Western intellectual sphere had arisen while I was living in South Korea two years before, reading about North Korea. The gathering anxiety I felt didn’t climax until later, more than a year after that, then living in former South Vietnam.

Regardless of how it made me feel, there are sites around Beijing that resound the world over – The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square – synonymous in the minds of global citizens with the vast, textural history, as well as testament to and reminder of the brutal command and authority of that nation’s oligarchs to this day, in the third decade of the 21st century.

Every great city is better with a great bookstore.

The philosophy selection at the bookstore on the highly commercial Wangfujing Street was simply outstanding. I was surprised to find the complete fiction of Jean-Paul Sartre in print in English in Beijing. I did not associate Existentialism with any aspect of the People’s Republic of China’s systems of belief. It was strange, flicking through those texts each time I stopped at those shelves lined with nothing but Sartre, that “Pope” of the Existentialist philosophical and literary movement.

Of course, if the complete works of Sartre seemed out of place, the collected editions of the works of Karl Marx were entirely to be expected. It was striking to see those books that comprised Marx’s critique of capitalism and economy in Das Kapital gathered together. It was something. I’d never seen them displayed like that before: at least four copies of each volume, horizontally stacked as individual towers in themselves. It evoked a response akin to my response driving up in my taxi, catching my first glimpses of Tiananmen Square only a few hours earlier that afternoon. All Communist capitals have this in common: their monuments make one feel so small, of such low and little significance, that one feels like an ant scuttling along the face of an anthill before being crushed by a bootheel.

I picked up a copy of The Communist Manifesto instead of Das Kapital – light, inexpensive. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It was printed on cheap, rough paper, like a pamphlet you might still find blown up against a fence in your neighbourhood, advertising some Satanic worship sex tour or a swingers’ party or cult gathering just down the street.

Never to be wiped clean: A sea of students and other peaceful pro-democracy protesters (top) gathered in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on May 4, 1989. On bottom, the aftermath of the massacre, a few of the more than 2,000 civilians murdered by the Communist regime. (Source of both photos: archive.today)

I thought about those killed at Tiananmen Square in 1989: at least 2,000 students or other civilians murdered when their rulers opened fire upon them, gathered in peaceful protest in the People’s Square. I’d just come from there. The blood from that site could never be wiped clean, and I could trace that one mass killing in China (of hundreds, of thousands) to that slim, cheap volume in my hands.

Did I seriously think about buying The Communist Manifesto in China? Of course not. I bought a red, hardbound edition of Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy and the self-selected stories of Alice Munro in Carried Away instead. Politicizing a piece of art, warping it to conform to a political mould, was only to address one of its lesser functions.

You can do anything with art. The political is unidimensional only; and the political is subordinate to the primary purpose of the form, the nourishing of the human spirit on the individual level, our experiences in contact with great works elevating our self-governing consciousnesses to map our own perceptions onto the world so that we might act morally and effectively within it. Daily, from the time I’d first read Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground as an undergraduate, I had drawn upon works of great meaning to draw comparisons, or to make judgements about my own life.

As the artist, you are to allow your imagination to run until some meaning or order (multiple meanings, multiple orders) arises, within a structure, or through a vehicle that is somehow tangible. That was the challenge: the rendering of the abstract into the tangible thing. Many an idea or thought may cross through the individual’s mind at any moment. Lesser works of art came from a vaguer purpose than those works of art that we exalt.

In turn, connection to that tangible work of art reconnects consumers to that divine force fuelling imagination as our central internal system for orienting ourselves in reality, as channeled by the artist, the great poet. It was about that divine madness (theia mania) defined by the Greeks, I chuckled over my glass of wine at a wine tasting event, technically, held in a tent just outside town, where we were of course all drinking.

“No. No, I mean it. It’s something like that. Theia mania…Not fucking Communism.”

How far my mind had wandered from the bookstore in Beijing into that discussion at the vineyard outside of town.

I would end up in Beijing again for a summer English program before wrapping up my more permanent stay in South Korea that year before moving to Vietnam in 2015, in Saigon the year before the program started and in Guangzhou again before it ended.

VII

I started seeing a therapist on campus when I began experiencing what I can only describe as “Blakean half-visions”: images of windows being boarded up, taller buildings in town falling down in heaps, like the pieces of a Jenga tower, atop the smaller residential houses; flickers of the townsfolk begging, weeping victims bracing themselves for the lynchings ahead chained up in front of scaffolds set up before the old campus buildings. Occasionally, through classroom windows, I saw mobs of students rise up to stab or to torture their profs. How many of the students I taught in China had grandparents who’d killed their teachers?

Things fell apart; our social and moral fabric was torn. Fists formed in my pockets, the thoughts running through my mind came to overwhelm me. Brick by brick, the city was gone, reduced to dust, flame, home to dead, empty expanses…

“Hanoi to Ground Zero…Hanoi to Ground Zero…”

VIII

Winter Semester.

The so-called “Renaissance Drama” course, Shakespeare and Cross-Dressing was objectively, on the whole, the worst seminar I attended because it took Shakespeare (the author I’d had the longest relationship with of any author we still studied) and only perverted his great works. We picked at the Bard’s crown jewel-by-jewel; we smashed the pieces down to dust to be equally distributed among us all. Not every writer shone with such lustre, and brightness, so adamantine. I could not go near a single one of Shakespeare’s plays, which I had so loved before, for more than five years afterwards…Even the word-wizard Shakespeare was not safe from cancellation inside the “safe space” of the Literary Studies graduate seminar.

In our weekly meetings, we were assigned the role of “Casting Director,” essentially ushering in a new era of woke Shakespeare productions, doomed to flop of course. It was a banquet of blood in itself, that course. We destroyed a whole procession of his words like the summary execution of the terrified populations of his Roman plays. We covered the comedies, the histories and the tragedies: The Taming of the Shrew, Richard II, Othello, Cymbeline, Twelfth Night. By “swapping” around the races or genders of different characters, students competed in a game to conquer that intersectional hierarchy that was so ubiquitous in our discussions that it was all we talked about in the Renaissance Drama class.

That seminar was the most obvious demonstration of the lengths that people would go to appear as morally virtuous as possible in front of their peers. Whichever casting arrangement conveyed the most about the white, heterosexual, Christian European “toxic masculinity” – the patriarchy – that was the subject of the most attention and the most praise from the professor and other students.

At the same time, I was falling in love with Jane Austen. I was rather “smitten” with her, but not because I had spent so significant a period of time studying her six finished novels in a course at a prestigious university in Canada; rather, in spite of all that. Austen was the first novelist in English to establish the writer as omniscient “god” or “goddess” over their fictional worlds. The course title was Jane Austen and her Contemporaries. What else did I see in her that made me want to run out to her, so brutally berated: cursed, spit upon inside the circle formed by our chairs, my peers standing, shouting in those hallucinations I was experiencing? It was Quixotic, my jumping in as the glorious female author’s knight errant. How fruitless and absurd a quest I was undertaking out of my love for Austen, the writer and the woman; it was as hopeless as The Man of La Mancha’s quest, clashing with windmills, riding his way to his beloved in Cervantes’ masterpiece of the novel form.

Read it once, read it twice, read it when you feel blue: Jane Austen’s profound understanding of human nature and revolutionary omniscient narrative style delivered monumental achievements in the English novel. Shown, an illustration by Hugh Thomson for an 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice. (Source of image: Granger)

For starters, I admired Austen’s ability to “zoom into” and back “out from” the consciousnesses of her characters. It was a monumental achievement in the history of the novel, and I would wager that the novel as we know it today would not exist without Austen’s initial omniscience, deliberately more penetrating than Cervantes’.

What else was it? Admiration is quite a different sentiment from “love,” isn’t it; love is far deeper. What was it?

It was her ability to bridge the gap between men and women in works of art of such delicacy and perfection of form. Pride and Prejudice is not my favourite novel, but it is perhaps the classic book that I’ve read the most – at least four, probably five times. I read it when I’m feeling blue. It’s the novel that makes me happiest. There is an unsurpassable warmth in the novels of Jane Austen.

There was tremendous potential in the other course materials as well. Along with Austen, we would be reading Lord Byron, William Hazlitt and the letters of John Keats. Every student read through at least half of the Austen novels, but nobody really went for any of the other authors: a short poem from Byron here and there, but no one read past the first volume of Don Juan, never mind Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Instead, discussion was restricted to a full-class fulmination over Austen’s own, internalized misogyny. We were also reminded (because Edward Said said it) that it was most likely the case that most, if not all, of Austen’s heroines’ families would have been at least complicit, if not direct beneficiaries, in the trading of African and/or Caribbean slaves, which meant Austen was a “racist author” too.

“What a shame, Jane. You really don’t deserve it,” I wanted to say for Jane’s sake before a backdrop of the British summer countryside around Hampshire. “What a shame, what a crying shame it is. Look at what they’ve done to you…”

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (as much as I had looked forward to that seminar) was no different. I loved Clarissa because I could pick it up and turn to a passage and find something of value and something that was enlightening for me as a writer. Every letter (rather than “chapter”) stands on its own as a complete piece of art only elevated by contact and reference to the surrounding epistles. Austen is a far more familiar face for contemporary readers. The free indirect discourse attributed to her novels, rightly earning them their place in the canon, is nonetheless historically contingent on Richardson’s innovations, allowing us to penetrate into the minds of multiple characters in a single work of fiction.

Writing a century before, riding off the smash hit of Pamela in the mid-eighteenth century, Richardson wanted, it appears, to follow up his first success – a comedy – with a tragedy: of all the novels I’ve read composed in English, Clarissa is by far the most tragic; it’s devastating. The novels share similar plots. Both are written in epistolary form; both novels concern the trials and tribulations of young women who face the threat of sexual violence and the loss of their virtue. Pamela ends with a wedding, Clarissa in a funeral.

In Clarissa, Richardson tells the story of a young woman pursued and seduced by a libertine named Robert Lovelace. “That would be a rape worthy of Jupiter!” Lovelace writes, laying it on thick in frantic correspondence (one of the novel’s 537 compiled letters between characters) with his friend, the ultimately redeemed John Belford, once he (Lovelace) has laid his plans for the young woman’s abduction. As tragedies go, our heroine is raped and abandoned and everyone dies in the end.

Before the Fall Semester started, before I’d ever heard of “identity politics,” I’d known that the material would prove uncomfortable for students. I had not anticipated outright dismissal of the text.

The concepts and the courses began to blend together after a time, a patently stupid, unproductive exercise, but simple enough to pull off – cynically, snidely enough: the demolition of the canon text-by-text. What was easier than trying to persuade a seminar of 23-year-olds that what made Clarissa a worthwhile read (from the very start to the very finish) was fixating on that most despicable embodiment of so-called “toxic masculinity” in perhaps all of English literature in the long moral story’s villain – the rake, Robert Lovelace – and then connecting the misogyny and debaucheries of that character to those of the sitting President of the United States, Donald J. Trump? All that the rather intelligent though evidently jaded professor needed to do was lay down the latest edition of The Globe and Mail or The New York Times, turn to the latest Trump story, and invite one of his woke idiot students to connect it to a quality (or qualities) in Lovelace’s character, with the result that students and professor alike tended to defer to Trump’s alleged sexual transgressions (such as the fake Russian “pee-tape” discussed at great length in class) rather than Lovelace’s in the book. We were only pretending to focus on the book.

“You know, I just realized this,” the professor said at the start of class later that semester. Seated first, he pointed over his shoulder at the “love triangle” he’d drawn on the chalkboard, connecting Clarissa Harlowe, Robert Lovelace and the reformed rake John Belford. “There’s actually a lot of room for a Queer Theory reading here, you know,” he physically winked – yes, he actually did this, and it is worth remarking upon, given that it could be interpreted by this batch of students as some form of sexual assault – then stood, briskly outlining his thesis, setting the tone for the second half of our classes.

Tension and release. I clenched my hands together in my lap, out of sight beneath the table. Unclenching them, I listened carefully, despite that internal alarm bell warning me that I should shut myself off from it all.

We were there to study a very long, very serious work, and to do so with at least some degree of dignity, were we not? The thing about Clarissa is that it’s both the most difficult work to teach in the English Literature classroom due to its length (some versions exceed 1,500 pages; virtually impossible to teach to undergraduates unless you have them working from an abridged version), and one of the easiest texts for students to get away with “cheating at.” One could easily limit their reading to only those epistles referred to directly by their professor in class. It’s not difficult to take any one of the 530-plus letters individually, even at random, and connect the meaning being conveyed in one passage to the work as a whole. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.” We read Clarissa “not for the plot,” as Johnson famously asserts, but for the sentiment.

Nobody was trying to understand that work as Richardson had intended it to be understood. As Margaret Anne Doody writes in her biography of Richardson, the author hoped that his novel would be “a new species of writing, that might possibly introduce a new species of books, and afford more pleasure and instruction than those that were more common.”

The purpose of the novel, for Richardson, writing in serially composed installments, was to “please” as well as “instruct.” There was a voyeurism in our reading of Clarissa’s seduction and sexual assault, providing readers “pleasure” in his own time, which should not come as such a shock given the more recent pop-literary phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey; but there is also warning to both sexes in his work. There is much to learn about the male and the female sex from Richardson’s ultimate masterpiece, Clarissa – a strong contender for the greatest of English novels.

The greatest English Novel? Samuel Richardson’s more than 1,400-page epistolary Clarissa, although admittedly hard and dark, is a masterpiece of historical setting, literary style and human insight. In wokist 21stcentury university courses, however, it is wielded as an ideological weapon against “toxic masculinity,” its villain compared to Donald Trump.

But all meaning was undermined and distorted, as it was in all the other courses. This treatment felt exploitative: some meta, centuries-later reenactment of the rape and death of a novel’s titular heroine against the volume itself, our heroine’s tomb, left desecrated. Why bother? It was far, far easier denigrating a text as deep, as dark and as difficult as Clarissa, in any case, retrospectively turning it into the novel of the Trump and the #MeToo Movement Era than it was teaching and reading such a serious text (a powerful historical document, even readers unable to finish the novel must acknowledge, at the very least) like the “scholars” we called ourselves, and were supposed to be conducting ourselves as.

It tore at me. I cursed myself on the walks home through those old Victorian student residential streets beginning where the university premises ended. I wept.

When I arrived home and opened up the pages of my notebook, all I saw were empty signs – signifiers unmoored, unhinged.

My mind became a blank.

IX

“White men are oppressing people just by breathing,” one of the more outspoken students in the Shakespeare and Cross-Dressing seminar burst out (seemingly in my direction) at the start of one class. I knew she was a scholarship athlete: a star on the women’s rugby or soccer team, I can’t remember which. Blonde hair drawn tightly and bound down in a ponytail, she scrunched her face up so that it glowed red whenever she unleashed on a particular work or an author, meditating on it first, as if she were running over strategy in the all-women’s rugby or soccer huddle.

She looked at me; I maintained my silence. I would let her words speak for themselves. There was a classroom full of other students; anyone could have chimed in.

“White men are oppressing people just by breathing…”

No one did. Here it was: a genocidal sentiment expressed, accepted and validated in a Canadian university context without intervention from the student’s peers as the white, female professor nodded her head, in tears, sharing the sentiment with her student, apparently distressed by the notion of Caucasian aspiration.

Such borderline genocidal statements in seminars and at university social events became so commonplace that they often went unnoticed.

X

What remained in place, and what had triggered the most outrage from those M.A. candidates who (unlike me) wished to continue with the department’s program into their PhDs, was the graduate program’s mandated historical breadth requirements for M.A. and incoming PhD students. At that time, at least, they had to cover a minimum of at least one course across each of the following historical eras: Mediaeval or Renaissance Literature, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century, or Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Modernism or Postcolonial Literature.

Any decision made regarding the breadth requirements was irrelevant to me. Nonetheless, I’d heard of the surrounding controversy from other students and from several of the more radical, disgruntled and outspoken members of faculty. I tuned in with an acute, intent but timid sort of interest.

“So,” the Department Chair opened her concluding Q&A. “Are there any questions about the department’s decision to continue to move forward, for the foreseeable future, with the historical breadth requirements remaining in place? Or – shall we move on to our coffee or tea and biscuits and mingle?”

“Wait! Wait, wait, wait!” the student unfortunately seated to my left at the department-wide meeting started. She was specializing in some combination of science-fiction, intersectionality and sex robots. (“Blow-up dolls and sci-fi,” I shook my head, “who cares?”) It was an amateur, “fangirl” area for study. It did not belong in the Humanities, she knew. There was nothing else that could explain her behaviour; moreover, her constant railing against “the canon” at parties or on commutes to other party destinations out-of-town. I considered myself one of the lucky ones to have been spared her presence and commentary in any of the seminars I’d elected to take in the M.A. in English Language and Literature program.

“Wait a minute! Hold on!” She drove the tip of her pen down into her notebook so that the ink – black – bled out, forming a large, Rorschach-like splotch on the page. She gasped, clutching her chest where her heart would be, driving down the tip of her pen further and further, as if she were falling into a seizure. “With these mandates remaining in place, do the members of faculty realize just what they’re doing, all so selfishly, just to hold onto their fancy, six-figure salaried jobs? It’s disgusting.” She cried next, apparently capable of drawing out tears on command. Arms outstretched, standing, she continued: “All these young, bright, shining students…Queer, Black, Muslim, Hispanic, Asian, Latinx, all those in our society who are oppressed or ‘othered.’ What are we doing, exposing them to such works that only serve to exacerbate the oppression these minorities already feel in their day-to-day, lived experience?”

“Fuck the canon!” The author’s graduate program’s lingering requirement that all students cover literary eras such as the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Restoration and Modernism became highly contentious in the department, triggering a revolt by more radical students.

“Well,” the Chair quickly shot back (evidently having come prepared for some pushback, I read): “If you want to get a job at a credible institution, it should be obvious that a broad range of knowledge in various areas of the canon is preferable.”

“Fuck the canon!” the first-year PhD candidate shouted next: “It’s racist, it’s sexist, it’s oppressive! And what the fuck actual use is it? For fuck sakes! What the fuck does fucking ‘Old English in Modern Translation’ have to do with what I’m doing?”

Cramming my head into my hands (for whatever reason, I’d ended up seated next to “sci-fi girl” at a number of these department-wide meetings; I was concerned, genuinely, about the possibility of the professor’s drawing a social connection between us), I picked away at a spot of sleep in my eye. Many members of her cohort and of previous cohorts were already cheering, egging her on against the professor as I imagined a student might have provoked their lecturers in struggle sessions in Mao’s China.

“Fuck the canon!”

“What the fuck are you doing here?” I thought, applying pressure to my head.

“Well, once more,” the Chair clamped down further. “I’d say that your specialized knowledge of Old English works may serve you quite nicely in the future. You may be required to teach the Beowulf poem in a freshman survey course someday, and wouldn’t that be lovely? With your knowledge and experience? You’d be qualified to teach it!”

But it wasn’t about the professional benefits of the breadth requirements to those students who’d been gossiping about the department decision for so many months: it was a revolution for those students, the faculty giving in, only two years later, dropping said historical breadth requirements.

“It’s Fascism! Fuck the canon! Fuck the canon! Fuck the canon…”

XI

The distance between my environment and me expanded and contracted over time. Visions of ’Nam, as a friend and I used to refer to them: dreams of the same people, life in those same streets of Saigon only the year before, the same countryside vistas in my journey upwards, from South to North.

So much of the success of the Postmodern neo-Marxist movement was almost contingent upon those 10,000 days of fighting in former French Indochina (comprising Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). Foucault and Derrida’s rise to prominence and the immediacy of their influence in the academic realm seem unlikely in any circumstance at all; public intellectuals, or “intellectual celebrities,” are a rarity. Beginning in Literary Studies departments in American institutions such as Yale, the fashionable contemporary Parisian intellects combined to achieve a multi-disciplinary chokehold on the Humanities and Social Sciences in the West. They were paralleled by the German-origin Frankfurt School and their baleful influence across the Liberal Arts more broadly, their loosely affiliated members appearing as assigned readings more often in the Social Sciences than the Humanities, Herbert Marcuse the guiltiest offender in that camp. The French postmodernists were most often assigned in a Literature program.

“Hanoi to Ground Zero”: French postmodernist intellectuals Michel Foucault (left) and Jacques Derrida (right) seized upon the wars in the former French Indochina as an opportunity to shape a revolutionary narrative that would start unravelling various threads in Western culture, leading to a broader assault upon civilization itself. The author lived the results in his graduate university program.

The Vietnam War and its consequences were either still ongoing or a recent and vivid memory. Think “Napalm Girl,” or the photograph and film footage of the execution of Viet Cong captain Nguyen Van Lem, falling over, blood spurting out the hole in the side of his head on the side of the street before the passing traffic of inner-city Saigon. Reports and images like these were still running on national TV nightly and in newspapers all over the world at the time Foucault and Derrida were working towards their ends.

French Indochina…

Following more than six years of bloody fighting prior to French colonial evacuation in 1954, along with division of the land between North and South after the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hanoi, followed by two further decades of bloodshed with the arrival of American interventionist forces, leaving the nation decimated.

The constancy of the flickering images of war on TV screens, and the endless radio broadcasts, turned into an opportunity for anti-establishment intellectuals to destroy elements of their culture piecemeal and then to generalize their claims to damn civilization as a whole. The classification of the West as oppressor and the Vietnamese as purely victims – that one-dimensional narrative imposed on the war by French intellectuals – was the background that evinced the fundamental difference between oppressor and oppressed in Foucault and Derrida’s own philosophy, drawing on Marx.

XII

I was in Hue in April of 2016, about four months before the M.A. in Canada started.

No city in Vietnam attests to the horrors of those 10,000 days of war more powerfully than Hue, Vietnam’s Imperial capital in the 1800s. Located in Central Vietnam, Hue is hardly recognizable to my eyes today, even a mere seven years later. I am happy for the people of Hue, given the development, progress and the flourishing of the arts that I have witnessed, observing that beautiful, ancient city, stopping by as a visitor to Hue now and again.

I remember very clearly though: it was a completely different place from the one it was even seven years earlier. One of the harsher realities the expat learns is that poverty looks the same everywhere you go.

After a two-hour flight from Saigon to Phu Bai International Airport, I stood at a taxi stand and looked at my Lonely Planet guide like a lost and lonely tourist, which (lost and lonely) I was. Which cabs were safe in Hue? I’d learned which taxis were and which were not during my eight months in Saigon. All I had with me was a screenshot of the address of the hotel I’d booked online. I hadn’t even thought to top up my phone for roaming data before leaving from Tan Son Nhat International Airport back in Ho Chi Minh City.

The oppressor-oppressed narrative: (top to bottom) World-famous 1972 photo of 9-year-old Kim Phuc fleeing destruction following a local battle; South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, summarily executing suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem, Saigon, 1968; Vietnamese Communist leader “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh addressing students in Hanoi, 1961. (Sources of photos: (top) AP Photo/Nick Ut; (middle) AP Photo/Eddie Adams, File; (bottom) Medium)

Entering the fifth taxi to pass by me, seating myself, looking over from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s, it was clear from the outset that the driver wasn’t so into talking. He looked out the window, bleary-eyed, head shaven, wearing a loosened white collar and black tie. It was hard to say, in the darkness of that night, on those ancient city streets, whether he was high on something. I thought he was probably drunk. He was sweating a lot. The beads of sweat on his forehead strung down like pearls. Red, bleary, tear-stained eyes.

Where was I going?

Lying on my back in my hotel room, set along the Perfume River in Hue, I scrolled through the more than 1,270,000 search results that came up after I’d entered those keywords preoccupying my mind for the duration of the time I’d spent in the cab from the airport: “The Hue Massacre.”

Even in Communist Vietnam, in contrast to China, where everything is blocked, the truth of the Vietnamese nation’s history is laid almost completely bare online for citizens. It’s a rabbit hole for the overly curious (or paranoid) foreigner. The state has determined that the public has a right to this information. The number of Google Search results is the same even when I turn on my VPN, virtually relocating to America or the UK. As far as I could find then, or can find now, not a single page on Encyclopedia Britannica or Wikipedia connected to the Vietnamese-American conflict is blocked.

“Blowback.”

That was the term that came to mind. It was information that carried with it a hell of a lot of blowback: there came a rattling of machine-gun fire and the stench of napalm burning up the surrounding foliage of the jungle, echoing those sounds.

I never could rise back up from it again. The knowledge of this particular stain in our shared human history haunts me to this day. I fell every time I stood, my knees unbuckling, the muscles in my thighs, shins and calves severed like elastic bands. Then there came (or sometimes comes still) the fatal blast to the back of the head.

“Blowback.”

That was the proportionate level of pressure it applied, a weight upon my chest.

The reality: Vietnam’s former Imperial Capital of Hue before (left) and after (right) the 1968 Tet Offensive, in which Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops massacred as many as 7,000 civilians in Hue alone. (Sources of photos: (left) Saigoneer Heritage; (right) manhhai, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Approximately 80 percent of Hue’s urban infrastructure was ruined in that vicious battle of the Tet Offensive between January 31st and March 3rd, 1968. Death toll estimates range from 2,800 to 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war killed. Victims were killed with rocks held in their executioners’ hands, impaling the skulls of the victims. In the majority of cases, the Communists used dull knives to slit their prisoners’ throats, to save scarce ammunition. Officials working in Hue representing the southern Republic of Vietnam (SRV) were especially targeted, as were Buddhist monks, though so too were intellectuals: university lecturers, doctors, poets, lawyers (the list goes on). Anyone, in other words, with an education and therefore a high enough degree of literacy to object to the Communist doctrine from Hanoi. This was all learned after South Vietnamese forces and U.S. Marines retook the city, the only major urban centre the Communists had managed to seize during their Tet Offensive.

All of life, all of history, is at least a two-way street. Once one realizes this much, it is possible to see the world through an infinite number of lenses. Life, the real world, is not a one-way street…

Peaceful Hue today. (Source of photo: Lê Huy Hoàng Hải, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

XIII

I knew that I needed a week, but that it could be as many as three weeks in total, I told my on-site counsellor. I had to step outside that discursive matrix at the university.

It was killing me. Look at the weight I’d put on: I’d gone to the gym six days a week in Saigon, I’d eaten well; I started out the program in the best shape I’d ever been in; look at what this was doing to my health, my social life, my family life.

In our one-to-one sessions in the Student Wellbeing offices, I described feeling like a fugitive within the academic setting, inside my own country.

Editor’s note: Certain titles above have been altered to protect identities and individual privacy.

Brock Eldon teaches Foundations in Literature at RMIT University in Hanoi, where he lives with his wife and daughter. A graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, he writes fiction and non-fiction and can be followed here on Substack.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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