Friday, July 5, 2013

Pictures From an Institution

At Kramerbooks some weeks ago, I happened to notice that Pictures from an Institution is back in print, part of the University of Chicago Press's Phoenix Fiction series. I was glad to see this, though I won't just yet be buying a copy--the hardback that I bought forty years ago is in good shape.

Pictures from an Institution is thought by some to be the classic academic novel. It is set at Benton College, a lightly disguised version of Bennington: the students are all women, the curriculum progressive. Most of the novel involves a handful of people: the president, a novelist brought in to teach, a sociology professor and his family, a couple of European emigres. Flannery O'Connor wrote to a friend that she considered a chapter of it in the Kenyon Review to be "good Randall Jarrell but not good fiction", and it is true that not much happens.

Most of the interest in the book is in the writing, largely the descriptions of the characters. There is the president
About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the President of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs and lo! the two were one.  (Do you remember, as a child without much time, turning to the back of the arithmetic book, getting the answer to a problem, and then writing down the summary hypothetical operations by which the answer had been, so to speak, arrived at? It is the only method of problem-solving that always gives correct answers--that gives, even, the typographical errors in the back of the book.)
and his wife, South African born but English raised
For her mankind existed to be put in its place. She felt that the pilgrim's earthly progress is from drawer to drawer, and that when we are all dead the Great Game will be over. Mrs. Robbins poured tea as industrial chemists pour hydrofluoric acid from carboys.
Benton has brought in the novelist Gertrude Johnson to teach creative writing:
Gertrude pointed at the world and said, her voice clear and loud: "You see! you see!" But as you looked along that stretched shaking finger you didn't see, you saw through.... People who were affectionate, cheerful, and brave--and human too, all too human--felt in their veins the piercing joy of Understanding, of pure disinterested insight, as they read Gertrude's demonstration that they did everything because of greed, lust, and middle-class hypocrisy. She told them that they were very bad and, because they were fairly stupid, they believed her.
She is the second teacher of creative writing after the old, Southern, genteel Camille Turner Batterson, who
was a diffused, Salon photograph; and yet she must have had in the depths of her wistful soul a Gift or Daemon that once or twice a year awoke, whispered to her a sentence she could repeat--to the world's astonishment--and then turned back to sleep. Dr. Rosenbaum had first been aware of this Daemon when Miss Batterson retorted, to a colleague's objection that all Benton students read that in high school: "There is no book that all my students have read. Dr. Rosenbaum knew that it is in sentences like this, and not in the pages of Spengler, that one has brought home to one the twilight of the West. He gave a brotherly laugh and agreed: "Ja, dey haf de sense dey vere born vidt."
Gottfried Rosenbaum, a composer, and his wife Irene, a retired singer, have a house that
was full of the works of man: there were, badly arranged on its rarely dusted bookshelves, books in English, German, Russian, French, Latin, Greek--all the languages of he earth, Constance felt; and there were printed scores, photostats of scores, sores in manuscript, scores in Esperanto, almost. In the living room, over the fireplace, there was a copy of Cro-Magnon painting of a buffalo: Gottfried said that it showed how American they had become.... There was no end to the confusion and richness of the house. Constance felt that it was in some strange way the world: that just as there are Sea-Cucumbers and Sea-Anemones and Sea-Horses, so there was at the Rosenbaums' the shadow of everything in the world.
There is Art Night, with Gertrude laying waste to the professors of art and to the guest speaker. The painter is second to get the treatment:
To Gertrude's extended, unfavorable, but really quite brilliant comparison of his jungles with those of Max Ernst and the Douanier Rousseau, he retorted: "I'm not interested in other painters' paintings."
Gertrude looked at him with delight, and said: "You're from the West Coast, aren't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, aren't you?"
"How did you know?"
Gertrude said modestly, "Oh, I just knew."
And yet at the end, the sculptor who came in for similar treatment has produced an impressive piece of art. "And yet" is a refrain with Jarrell--he insists on seeing not through but all around, and leaving it open to question whether he has seen all round.

As fiction, Pictures from an Institution is slight. As a document, it is plausible, but the academic world of the early 1950s has disappeared as thoroughly as if it had been the 1590s. Still, Jarrell's writing makes it worth reading and rereading. I am pleased to see that the University of Chicago Press has brought it back into print, and I will try to find someone to buy it for.

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