Narcissism as literary appreciation

Exactly. Holger Syme, Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto, on David Gilmour’s version of professing literature.

…unlike Mr. Gilmour, who teaches the odd college course, I am a professor of English literature here, and it stung to see his bizarre, reactionary views on literature and teaching associated in the media with my institution, and in particular with its literary scholars.

That’s why I think it’s important to say that David Gilmour is not a colleague of mine (though I speak in this, and in the rest of this essay, only for myself, not for U of T). As far as I can tell from his published comments, he’s not much of a literature professor either. He seems to be fond of authors, and he says he loves their work–provided they are male, white, and very much like him. If they check those boxes, there are few limits to how far Mr Gilmour is willing to go in his passion. Take Proust, whom he loves so much, he’s read him twice.

Right?? Two whole times!

I don’t know if this inane interview bears any resemblance to what Gilmour is telling his students. I rather hope it doesn’t, but he said what he said, and he hasn’t taken anything back in his subsequent interviews. And what he did say, besides the generally offensive stuff, barely reached the level of the average Wikipedia entry.

It certainly didn’t have much to do with literature. I get why David Gilmour might want to do shots with Chekhov, but I have no idea why he would want to read his works. Authors sound a lot like George W. Bush when Gilmour praises them: great guys to have a beer with. Never mind about the writing, or the government bit.

Quite. It’s really not the sexism that has made me so interested in this, it’s the crudity, the shallowness, the lack of any apparent real interest in literature.

It is obviously Gilmour’s prerogative, as a middle-aged writer, to be interested exclusively in other middle-aged writers. It may make him sound staggeringly narrow-minded and parochial, but so what: it takes all sorts. But what this attitude of I-relate-only-to-myself has to do with teaching is entirely beyond me.

Is passion about our subject matter important in the classroom? Absolutely. Is the passion required in teaching typically stirred because the teacher identifies with the author or the text she teaches? I seriously hope not. I can only speak for myself, but I can categorically say that I have never identified with Shakespeare or Ben Jonson.

One of the qualities needed for teaching is surely curiosity. You need to have it so that you can evoke it in others. You need to know what it’s like in order to know what can awaken it.

Gilmour’s right, though, that passion, even love, are necessary ingredients in pedagogy. What he’s got completely wrong is the who and the what of that love. Great teaching requires empathy — the effort to understand things, ideas, and people totally unlike you. Some of those people are your students. Some of those things are of the past. Some of those ideas are the ideas of authors from different cultures than yours, and yes, shockingly, even of a different gender. Engaging with those people, things, and ideas is what teaching is all about. And not coincidentally, it’s also what research is all about, and why research and teaching go well together. Most crucially, engagement with the other is what reading is.

Quite, and that’s where curiosity comes in. Without it you just want more of the same old thing. You don’t need teachers or books or universities.

What David Gilmour professes isn’t literary scholarship or criticism. Never mind that he says offensive things (a big thing not to mind, I know). I’m sure we all say offensive things from time to time. Far more troubling, to me, is his basic failure to grasp why anyone should read literature at all, his stunningly self-righteous elevation of narcissism into the most powerful source of aesthetic appreciation — the infantile pleasure of self-recognition, and ultimately of self-affirmation as the highest, even the only end of reading.

We can argue about whether Hamlet is right or not when he claims that art holds a mirror up to nature. But let’s just say he is. Here’s what Hamlet doesn’t say: that art is a mirror you choose to pick up to see yourself. Art doesn’t give you that choice. If you’re playing along at all, it forces you to look in a mirror; and what you see there isn’t supposed to be your pre-conceived self-image. It’s something strange, or alien, or scary, or ridiculous, or dull; beautiful or hideous; unsettling or vaguely comforting. But whatever it is, it demands engagement, an engagement that can’t ever be entirely on your terms. And sometimes, the mirror reveals something that you realize isn’t strange at all, but is in fact you — but that shouldn’t be a happy realization. It’s supposed to come at a price. It’s meant to matter. And it’s not meant to be as easy to come by as self-love.

If the thing you see when you look into a book looks exactly like what you think you look like, you’re doing it wrong. David Gilmour is most certainly doing it wrong.

Oh yeah.


  1. says

    Absolutely wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing. I can’t imagine limiting myself to only reading authors who are like myself in some way, because that would leave out so many great books.

    One of the (many) things that bothered me about the comments by Gilmour was how he equated himself with other professors who specialize in, say, women’s literature. But it’s one thing to study literature in general and then choose a field to specialize in, while also understanding the quality of works you don’t teach in your specialty course. (I took a class about fantasy literature, and the professor never insulted other genres; it’s just that that was the title and subject of the class.) It’s quite another to insist you are only going to teach authors like yourself and say that they are the only authors you like. It suggests that the person is not well-read and really shouldn’t be a professor, especially not someone who’s teaching literature.

  2. Al Dente says

    I don’t care for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I can explain in some detail why I don’t like the book because I’ve read it. I really doubt Gilmour could explain why he doesn’t like certain books written by authors he doesn’t approve of, like every woman except Virginia Woolf.

  3. says

    Yeah. It just boggles how he’s written off entire swaths of literature as unworthy of his attention. Not just anything written by half the population (except for honourary “just-one-of-the-boys” Virginia Woolf), but, as another example, anything Canadian. I mean, contemporary, man’s man, short literature and he has no time for even Alistair MacLeod? Alistair MacLeod whose collections of short stories were the only ones to make it into the Modern Library Best Novels in English Since 1950 Alistair MacLeod? This is not someone who should be in a position of influencing the young to get excited about literature.

  4. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    So, I really like this criticism of Gilmour. And I think it’s generally spot on.

    I have a quibble, however, that is almost off-topic:

    And it’s not meant to be as easy to come by as self-love.

    It’s this: I hear all the time about how easy is self-love. Unless they’re talking about 20 minutes and a hitachi, I don’t get it, and will likely never get it. I’m struggling for self-love 40 years in.

    To me, this is part of what I find so offensive about the whole thing: yes, it’s all about self-love of the most petty kind, even about solipsism as I doubt that the authors of such texts wrote them as a paean to feeling good about yourself as a middle-age, white guy. But this part about self-love as simply, “Ain’t I awesome? Ain’t people like me awesome?” strikes me as a profound deficiency. Just as loving one’s partner or country or children can and should always include the willingness to discuss the difficult truths and to admit the limits of our knowledge, even when failing to “know” things about our values or our impact or our neighbor’s views of ourselves, loving one’s self should include all those things too.

    This is a profound failure, since if you’re teaching correctly at the college level, every course is a course in critical thinking…just using different examples. I rather think Gilmour is unlikely to be good at this.

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