This month’s Atlantic includes an essay by Walter Kirn which ranks among the best magazine articles I’ve ever read. Entitled "Lost in the Meritocracy: How I traded an education for a ticket to the ruling class," it tells the story of Kirn’s time at Princeton where, as a middle-class overachiever from Minnesota, he never really fit in. As many people in this situation do, he constructed a false identity for himself, and post-structuralist literary theory gave him just facade he needed. I’d reproduce the whole thing here if copyright laws let me; alas, I’ll have to include just these three paragraphs instead:
I chose to concentrate on English, since it sounded like something I might already know. I assumed that my classmates and I would study the classics and analyze their major themes, but instead we were buffeted, almost from day one, with talk of "theory," whatever that was. The basic meanings of the poems, short stories, and plays drawn from the hefty Norton anthologies that anchored our entry-level reading lists were treated as trivial, almost beneath discussion; what mattered, we learned, were our "critical assumptions."
I, for one, wasn’t aware of having any. Until I was sixteen or so, my only reading had consisted of Hardy Boys mysteries, books on UFOs, world almanacs, a Time-Life history of World War II, and a handful of pulpy best sellers linked to movies (The Day of the Jackal and The Exorcist stand out), which I’d read for their sex scenes. I knew a few great authors’ names from scanning dust jackets in the town library and watching the better TV quiz shows, but the only serious novels I’d ever cracked were Moby-Dick and Frankenstein—both sold to me by a crafty high school teacher as gripping tales of adventure, which they weren’t.
With no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumptions, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas disguised as conclusions that I’d reached myself. The deployment of key words was crucial, as the recognition of them had been on the SATs. With one professor the charm was "ambiguity." With another "heuristic" usually did the trick. Even when a poem or a story fundamentally puzzled me, I found that I could save face through terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as "semiotically unstable."
But Kirn was smart enough to know that it was all a scam, and managed to pull himself together in time to secure a scholarship to do graduate work at Oxford. Moreover, during the summer before he left for England he took ill with pneumonia. Confined to his bed, he started to do something new--he began reading, first The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then Great Expectations, and on and on from there.
I apologize for referring readers to an article that’s available only to subscribers, but I consider this piece alone worth the price of a subscription. If you know someone who has one, try to get a peek at it.