Thursday, July 28, 2005


I'm about a quarter of the way through Read's book. It does have some virtues, not least in retelling some of the early history of British Hispanism. Those were very much the days of the gentleman amateur, a continuation of the eighteenth-century "grand tour." Apparently the founding editor's contribution to the first issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies (in 1923) was entitled "Literary Pilgrimages in Spain" (20). I buy Read's argument that, at least in these heady days before the Spanish Civil War, the Northern Hispanist found in Spain "an organic, pre-individual, pre-capitalist community, comparable to the 'merrie England' of contemporary English critics such as F. R. Leavis, but in the case of Spain, refreshingly real, surviving, that is, into the 20th Century" (20).

Two points, however:

First, if academics are always torn between two fantasies, either of their vital importance as the new "unacknowledged legislators" of the world, or of their marginality and insignificance, mere spectators of the real theatre of power, Read insistently plumps for the first illusion over the other. His particular inflection is a Marxism of a fairly vulgar variety. Hispanism is endlessly found to act in the service of either capital or the state, often both. "Thrown into relief," for instance, "is Hispanism's ideological role in the (re)production of the whole social order" (14). Indeed he even presents the possibility that the fate of social reproduction is at stake in the choice of syllabus in specific courses: "the control of the content of Golden Age courses served the purposes of a conservative elite, anxious to defend the prevailing relations of production, just as surely as the superannuation of those courses is related to the need to expand the forces of production" (27). Moreover, the influence of the humble junior lecturer expanded far beyond the confines of national boundaries: "the traditional Hispanist . . . served the middle class in its capitalist exploitation of Third World Countries" (28). And in rather predictable vulgar Marxist fashion, the fact that the professoriat refuse to realize their true role in global oppression is the coup de grace of outraged critical dissection: "Needless to say," Read strangely feels the need to say about the above founder of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, "it escaped his attention that the capitalist extraction of surplus value from workers involves a form of legalized robbery, that the freedom of these workers is constantly infringed by cut-throat managers, and that dominant classes have, throughout history, enjoyed a fuller life at the expense of those who serve them" (36).

Yes, there are moments when Read's excoriation of Hispanism invokes the second academic illusion, when he wishes to suggest that his forbears and colleagues were so dismal that they weren't even able to ensure the continuation of legalized robbery on the part of the British bourgeoisie. At these points, Hispanism turns out to be a "quietly conservative, marginal discipline" (26). Indeed, Read even contemplates the possibility that the Humanities in general may inadvertently resist capital expansion: "Their knowledge, over the ages, has generally been 'useless,' to the extent of holding back the development of the forces of production" (52). But the scare quotes around the word "useless" here indicate, I think, not so much that Read contests prevailing utilitarianism, as that he is reluctant to relinquish the notion that Hispanism must still somehow be a vital link in the chains of capitalist imperialism.

Second, Read's book is, well, embarrassing. Interleaved with his analyses of Hispanism as an institution are a series of autobiographical essays. One of these compares his own career with that of Paul Julian Smith (professor at Cambridge and probably the most prominent figure in contemporary British Hispanism). I haven't reached that chapter yet, but even the thought of it makes me wince. (Apparently Read writes about himself in the third person; which if anything makes it even worse.) It is very clear that Read has been advised multiple times to tone down his book, revise it, and make it less personal, less confessional, less full of.. well, of ressentiment. Read glosses Richard's Hoggart's famous description of the "scholarship boy" as characterized by "an unusual self-consciousness and tendency to self-dramatization" (38). This description seems to fit Read to a T. (Read, however, will claim that he is not even a scholarship boy, as he failed his eleven plus.) The book's acknowledgements refer to the fact that one of its constituent essays was essentially rejected by the Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, and also to the fact that the book as a whole "was submitted to Liverpool University Press, and held by it for several years, before being rejected on the grounds that the Press suddenly found itself 'over-committed'" (i). Further, the book's preface reports the reaction of a series of friends and colleagues who had read the manuscript: Michael Sprinker "was significantly guarded in his response" (iv) while other colleagues "obviously felt that I had gone over the top in terms of political rhetoric and ad hominem criticism. More painfully, others failed to respond at all, as if embarrassed by the whole enterprise" (v). Frankly, no wonder.

So what to say about such a book that a) is not clearly (and even more excruciatingly) anticipated within its own pages and b) is not, indeed, a class condemnation of the scholarship boy for not fitting in, for being gauche, for not living up to the decorum of academic convention?

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