Links: Russian formalism and the terrible education at Eton

Since I started writing more on my website / newsletter / blog I’ve been taking the time to write draft posts in my Apple iNotes app. It’s been good I guess, except now I have seven draft blogs I’m not that into that I don’t want to post! Stupid selectivity. You know I’ve always wanted to do that thing where the person links to other articles they’ve found online that they like, but I am terrible at taking notes about and remembering things. But I think I’m gonna do it. This is gonna be my year.

The only post I can think of recently that I liked was this review of a book I’d never heard of by a literary critic I’d never heard of. I’ve gotten very interested in the literature of the Soviet Union lately, and what’s fascinating is that in the first years of the Soviet Union, before Stalin came to power, there was an efflorescence of avant-garde art. In some ways there’s always been a natural alliance between the left-wing and the avant-garde, because the avant-garde solves the typical problem of the left-wing artist, which is how can I maintain rigorous ideological orthodoxy to whatever is the current left-wing viewpoint without producing art that’s completely boring. One way of doing this is to concentrate on the formal elements of the art and to try to innovate using those elements. I knew that early Soviet Russia gave rise to structuralism, which is the idea that all art is a collection of structures that refer to and interact with each other, and that the artistry is a function of how the structures interact, rather than the content of the structures–this idea had a later influence on literary theory that can still be felt today, and it can be echoed in the repeated insistence by some writers that literature is words and nothing but words and that if you seek beauty at the level of the line, a story will emerge. Structuralism is nonsense (imho), but not complete nonsense. Fertile nonsense, let’s say. Thought-provoking nonsense! Am interested in reading this book, but who knows if I’ll ever get around to it. ( (Victor Shklovsky, On The Theory Of Prose)

Searching for that link took so long, though, and in the process I had to read so many tedious article titles. I swear to god, every article these days is like, “Transforming Whiteness: Politics In A Post-Racial Calcutta”. And you just instantly know you’re not gonna read that article. Like, it could be good or bad, but you’re just not gonna read it. Literary criticism is just a shockingly awful in its disregard for the time of its own audience–maybe I’d be doing a better service to humanity if I _didn’t_ aggregate these links. 

Oh here’s another link. So I wrote in my essay “Myth of the Classically Educated Elite” that elites in 19th century England didn’t actually get a great classical education. But then the Antigone Journal (a great Twitter accnt) sent around a photo of a test you had to take at Eton to get into the First Hundred, which was the top three forms of the school, and I was like whoah, this test is pretty serious stuff, was I wrong about what they taught at Eton?

So I looked it up, and it turns out that test was actually a result of educational reforms in the late 19th century. Until then, you basically just did a rote cram of the Iliad. That was it. That was your entire education. And for Latin you did the Aeneid. Terrible. This exam was instituted in 1868 to ensure that kids admitted to the first hundred (essentially high school) actually knew some Latin and Greek.

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