Alison Lurie and the way we were

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There is something peculiar and unsettling, about Alison Lurie’s novel, ‘Love and friendship’. It is peculiar because her book is set in a time in which I once lived  – and despite that time being more than half a century ago it all seems very familiar; in many ways I still live with and through the ideas of that time. It is unsettling because the realities that Alison Lurie describes show the necessities for cultural change. In ‘Love and friendship’ she evokes deep and enduring features of East Coast North American culture. I think she does this exceptionally well and profiles not only the way a certain class of white educated people spoke to each other but also she identifies the firmly established attitudes of both sexes in relation to their opposite sex. She published her novel in 1962 and it plainly reflects the beliefs, manners and even some of the cultural norms of the late 50s and early 60s: She shows us the life and outlook of both women and men; it is the women who are more or less condemned to a life of ‘support’ and ‘mothering’ and all the old cliches depicting the ‘second sex. And she also points to the fact that the men can ‘get away with it.’ For example, one central character is a philanderer, womaniser, heart-breaker and all-round self-indulgent chap – but who is accepted in the community as if it doesn’t really matter. He enjoys ‘playing’ with the fairer sex and in the culture of the times it was somehow, ‘OK’. She also makes explicit the nastiness facing gay people – people who love but ‘dare not speak its name.’ Gay liberation was still on the horizon.

Alison Lurie’s book is excellent because it really does succeed in bringing to life the conversations, private thoughts and the intellectual deliberations of her subjects. In so doing she not only lays bare the endemic sexism of the times but she also pinpoints an essential problem facing ‘the intellectual.’ She does this by reprising their long established worry – a worry made explicit in some of the following remarks – written in letters to a friend by one of the faculty members of the un-named New England university college. In those letters the author writes:

Really: Does any kind of intellectual argument or process have more than the most superficial effects? Sometimes I’m tempted to regard the whole enterprise … with immense indifference. [The local people say that] ‘They talk a lot up at the College’ – but life is going on somewhere else.’

In another letter the same author:

The College is not a microcosm of the world. The world … is a disorderly dirty scrapheap. The College, on the other hand, is a botanical or zoological garden, where each flower has its cage, each beast has its metal identification tag.

This latter observation is one that particularly troubles me. I used to work in a college and one of the charges levelled against it by perhaps a majority of the mature students was that it ‘wasn’t reality.’ It was, in fact, an unusual piece of reality – one that was set apart from the ‘dirty scrapheap’ of life. And the question that forced itself upon me was simply this: Did anything we did really make any difference? Did it (as the author of the quote above notes) have only the most ‘superficial’ effects?

For many of our students the effects were at best temporary: the real issues for them lay in the realities of the practical world.

And this leads me to a broad criticism of academic courses that think they can enhance practice: What is lacking in all those courses that are supposed to enhance practice is a good theory of practice itself. Practice takes place in the realm of felt experience – and this experience is significantly different from that generated within the academy. Practice is about dealing with power, the a-rationality of others – and always entails improvisation. Practitioners have to be strategic and sense how best to respond to dynamic situations. They cannot rely on the application of rationally derived rules. They cannot rely on the exhortations of the academic.

I have read some of the criticism (that is mainly very positive) of Alison Lurie’s book and although the critics agree that she provides a marvellous portrayal of a culture and society that has gradually given way to something apparently more equal and a trifle less sexist the critics seem to miss the point about the entirely different games that have to be played in order to succeed or be effective in the different realms of practice. The College environment is a kind of ‘botanical garden’ – a world within which complex games are played; it enjoys luxuries that do not apply in those other ‘outside’ worlds. But those other worlds are themselves laced with moves and counter-moves, feints, deceptions and endless hurdles to overcome. The world is a scrapheap and the rose garden is the exception.

Overall though, the emergence of the Me Too phenomenon underlines the fact that the sexism and exploitation which Alison Lurie highlighted in 1962 is still obviously manifest in western society. It’s plainly worse in many other cultures. And this shows just how slowly a culture actually changes. Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977) theory gives an excellent account as to why this is so.

Post script: My friend, the writer and thinker Peter Villiers, also worked with me in the same College. He would argue that one of the best ways of effecting progress towards rationality and justice was through the methods that we did actually use: thus, day after day, we provided our students with the opportunity to discuss their professional problems and their varying solutions with each other. And what emerged was an appreciation of difference – and a recognition that there were always alternative ways of securing worthwhile ends. In a sense they were ‘comrades in adversity’ and, with a bit of luck, we helped them consolidate their values through the process of debate and discussion.

1 thought on “Alison Lurie and the way we were”

  1. Well done Rob
    Thought provoking.
    I shall have to read the novel by Alison Lurie.
    The 60s were a time of optimism and hope – or so everyone says.
    Were they? I’m not so sure. There was a lot of drug abuse at Essex University, and students died as a result – but we only learned of those deaths by chance. There was also a lot of talk of the revolution, but that never happened. And there were USA students avoiding Vietnam. A very curious time, indeed!
    Keep it up

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