Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
797-1873 East Mall
Vancouver, BC
Canada V6T 1Z1

jon.beasley-murray@ubc.ca

This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission

 


Review

A Review of Malcolm K. Read, Educating the Educators: Hispanism and its Institutions. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003. ISBN 0-87413-840-X.

 

The literature by "scholarship boys" is voluminous. Theirs is by now a familiar story, its tropes easily recognizable. From a relatively underprivileged background, the narrator works hard at school, often finding solace only in his studies. Still his teachers predict for him a life of manual or at best clerical labour, though one kindly master may believe in and encourage his nascent ambitions. Against all odds he makes it to university, but feels socially awkward and is chronically unable to make friends, so buries himself all the more in his books. Returning home at the holidays, however, he discovers that he is no longer at home among his family and former friends, of whom he cannot help but feel somewhat ashamed. At some point he reads Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy and feels a rush of recognition in Hoggart's classic analysis of the scholarship boy syndrome. In time he, too, feels the need to write about himself and his condition.

Malcolm Read's personal narrative follows this pattern and then some. Read is anxious to tell us that he is not even a scholarship boy: he failed his eleven plus, so his academic ascent was all the more arduous and unlikely. Moreover, Read tells us that he is still awkward, and in some senses proud of it. His intellectual mode is what (following the Critical Realist Margaret Archer) he terms "competitive contradiction": pointing out, rather than glossing over, underlying social tensions and invoking a Marxist analysis that never (he claims) quite fits within the staid confines of British Hispanism. One chapter of his book is devoted to a comparison of his own career and work (described, and often excoriated, in the third person) with the work and trajectory of Paul Julian Smith. It is hard to know who comes off worse in this exchange: Smith, who is portrayed as an unprincipled, shallow careerist, or Read, whose one-sided dialogue (because Smith "has refused to respond to Read's direct provocations" [74]) smacks of lonely, if high-minded, ressentiment.

Read glosses Hoggart's characterization of the scholarship boy as someone who has "an unusual self-consciousness and tendency to self-dramatization" (38). This book's structure, interleaving personal memoir and institutional critique, is certainly self-dramatizing. Read offers himself, his career, his battles, and his achievements and disappointments, as symptoms of Hispanism's unusual combination of complacency and crisis. His is also an extraordinarily self-conscious book, which inscribes its own failure from the outset, with its Acknowlegements that reveal that "successive versions" of the manuscript "were submitted to Liverpool University Press, and held by it for several years, before being rejected on the grounds that the Press suddenly found itself 'overcommitted'" (i). Read attempts to insulate himself from the failure that he anticipates by serving as his own worst critic. "It is hard to know," he tells us at one point "which was more astounding, my naïveté or my arrogance" (108). Indeed the book ends with the charge that his own "compulsion to self-destruct has been totally overwhelming. For in truth where would be the logic in 'succeeding,' after having come so far, when the opportunity is there to 'fail,' and to keep failing, until the blessed end?" (164). Yet there is ambivalence even here: Read at first distances himself from notions of "succeeding" and "fail[ing]" by using quotation marks, only then the second time to invoke "failing" without any textual sign of distance or irony.

It is hard to review a book that, by baring its marks of self-flagellation, dares you to dismiss it, and so to exclude (once again) both its author and its content. Indeed, Read often focuses on the ways in which book reviews, particularly in field-defining journals such as the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, use strategies of "condescension and infantilization" (2) to condemn approaches that seem novel or threatening. I would have liked to have seen more analysis along these lines. The review is certainly a marginal, and so often overlooked, mode of scholarly production, but is for that very reason often employed to police the discipline's margins. Read is also perceptive about the origins of Hispanism and its early ideological uses, the ways in which Spain served as the image of "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). But there is a tension here, which Read never fully resolves or even addresses, between the notion that Hispanism has been wedded to a mythic pre-modern conception of "God, King, and Country" and the contrasting argument, put forward at other points in this book, that Hispanism propounded a (neo-Kantian) vision of the bourgeois individual, hostile to the notion of broader social or communal forces.

Similarly, Read often suggests that Hispanism has been somehow functional to capitalist reproduction, serving first "the middle class in its capitalist exploitation of Third World Countries" and later "that section of the middle class based in industry and commerce" (28). But he equally often argues that Hispanism is one of the academy's "secluded backwaters" (140), long "largely insulated . . . against the outside" (139), its feudal structure ensuring that it was unprepared for the demands of Thatcherite modernization. Of course, Hispanism may indeed be a contradictory intellectual and institutional formation, but too often here it is simply damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.

Finally, this book leaves the over-riding feeling (and it is a book very much concerned with feeling and affect) of a profound loneliness. Sometimes this isolation is imposed; at other times, however, it is wilfully embraced, as Read retreats into research or nostalgia. Who now is more attached to individualism or the values of the past? The tragedy of the scholarship boy is that his ascent is individual; he is allowed social mobility at the price of losing any sense of belonging. Read rightly believes that individual resistance "can assume forms tragically even more damaging and self-destructive than acts of accommodation. People's energies are better employed collectively, in my view" (107). But Read himself seems never to have built or participated in any collective projects within academia, or between academia and other social struggles. In 1980, at a conference of British Hispanists, Read sees a group of graduate students: "I also wondered briefly whether I might have something in common with these younger Hispanists, if only a sense of marginalization.   But as I looked at them . . . any thought of collaboration quickly dissipated" (112). Can one be so surprised if younger Hispanists bought into notions of individual competitiveness, when self-declared radicals among the professoriat refused to offer any models for collaborative and collective work?

 

 

 

JON BEASLEY-MURRAY
University of British Columbia

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last updated July 30, 2005