Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ruth Padel quits Oxford post

Explains tipping reporters to Walcott’s past

Padel: “I’m sorry

Oxford calls for “period of reflection”

Clive James wants the job

The surprise is not that the School of Quietude is ruthless in its practice of power politics. That has been its hallmark forever – beginning with a century-long pretense that it represents the whole of poetry, rather than just an anti-modernist / premodernist sliver within a far larger spectrum. No, the surprise is that the SoQ is so very bad at it. The charge against Walcott was that he abused his power as a professor & as the canonic comprador poet to the British Empire. But a misuse of power is exactly what brought Padel down. Instead of quietly arranging to have a third party inform the Oxford electors of Walcott’s past indiscretions, she sent emails to reporters, which is not only outside of the circle of Us v. Them, but traceable. It was that last detail that likewise tripped up Oliver North with regards to Iran-Contra, and it is worth noting that nobody has learned anything in the past 25 years.

Walcott represents the tail end of a generation in which more than a few senior professors of poetry simply presumed grad students (and some junior faculty) were sexual chattel.¹ He got entangled in the change of cultural practices & standards as women students, encouraged by feminism, insisted on the right to control their own bodies, which included the subsidiary right to choose with whom they would or would not fuck. His problem lay in presuming that it was 1965 when it was not, a classic SoQ mistake, the literary movement untouched by the 20th century.

Padel’s mistake was in thinking that an email to a reporter was, in fact, “quietly arranging” for third-party intervention. To the degree that SoQ customs mime those of old school Britain (and it is hard to get much more old school than Oxford), going outside the circle is unseemly and isn’t done. For one thing, it looks like competition, which of course is exactly what it is. But just as “amateur” athletics was treated for decades, if not centuries, as though it represented a higher, more pure form of competition than its professional counterpart, when in fact its primary function was to keep people from the “wrong” colors, classes, accents out, the premise that poetry likewise represents some higher calling – above gutter politics – is constructed on a whole chain of notions, every one of them a lie.

The great innovation this time was to have been that Oxford, after 300 years of mostly irrelevant choices (Christopher Ricks!?), was going to go outside of its own “time-honored” tradition & choose a subaltern. The sole question was whether this Other would be female, black or of South Asian heritage. This of course had all the charm of a street gambler proposing the old shell game, which we should note is not so much gambling, but a confidence trick.

If all of this looks every bit as tacky as the GOP’s attempts to “reach out” to the previously excluded, it’s no accident. This isn’t to suggest that Walcott is Oxford’s equivalent to Michael Steele or Padel its Sarah Palin, nor Arvind Mehrotra its Bobby Jindal. But, hey kids, how are these processes not parallel? The interesting distinction is that the GOP Triumvirate of Difference have shown themselves to be more decorous & less of an embarrassment.

Maybe that term should be School of Ineptitude after all.


¹ Not all of these professors were male, though most were, simply because most literature professors were men.