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Swimming Upstream

The frustrating, enlightening, dizzying career of Stanley Fish.

In literary orbits, to dub someone “academic” is just about the worst thing you can say about him—it means obscurantist and politicizer, an obfuscation expert blind to the beauty, wisdom, and pleasure of imaginative literature, but keen on social agendas, on the isms so in vogue in recent decades. Every corner of the nation needed the overdue social spasms of the 1960s. Literature, however, did not. Literature has always been quite all right just as it is. The complexities and felicities of great fiction and poetry won’t be reduced by theory, but that didn’t keep untold English professors from donning French-made lab coats and smuggling Cultural Studies clichés into their seminars. Those profs attempted social reform by dismantling the canon and succeeded only in dismantling their own relevance.

The above narrative usually forgets to credit the multitude of English professors who every semester infect their students with a much-needed love of literature. Good ideas can come from inside the castellated academy, ideas that enhance rather than impede the pleasures of literature. One such idea came out of Berkeley in 1967: Stanley Fish’s book Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, a dynamo of scholarship that intervened in a long-standing debate about how to handle Milton’s tremendous masterwork.

Before Fish, Miltonists tended to join one of two brigades: Those who, after Blake, believed Milton to be in the devil’s back pocket, and those who, after C. S. Lewis, believed that Milton’s fealty was to God. Anyone can see that Satan is the beguiling hero-bard of Milton’s poem—he’s like a young Brando: You can’t take your eyes off him, and when he’s not on screen, you’re not happy. Milton’s Satan, Harold Bloom maintains, doesn’t speak poetry, he is poetry, a matchless embodiment of the poetical sublime, and not to find him enticing and enlarging “is simply to fail to be have been found by him.” God and his lackeys, on the other hand, come across as supreme dullards who nevertheless comport with what we know was Milton’s own worldview. Fish’s inspired feat was to fuse those brigades by essentially allowing them both to be correct. Satan is a seditious and inebriating heartthrob, yes, and God is a baffling bore, true; but that was Milton’s intent, to have us thinking just that and then catch ourselves in transgression, surprise ourselves by the sin of siding with the devilish insurrectionist and his legion of harmony killers.

To read Fish in Surprised by Sin and How Milton Works (2001) is to commune with a scholar in supreme control of the literature and his own attitudes toward it, a scholar thrillingly authoritative, wholly convinced, giddy with aptitude. This is heaven-sent talent, regardless of whether or not you’re partial to his assessments: You can’t hit the ball like Serena, and you can’t read Milton like Fish. For nearly 50 years, Surprised by Sin has shepherded students and lay readers into the momentousness and mastery of a poet whose only overall better is Shakespeare. When you write a book that forever alters the way we read the greatest poem in our language, you can take the rest of your life off. But Stanley Fish was just getting started.

To read all of Fish’s books in succession is a dizzying endeavor, and not because he is by turns entertaining and incisive and yawningly unintelligible, but because Fish isn’t only one Fish. Fish is, in fact, a whole school of Fish: Fish the Miltonist and theorist, Fish the lawyer and dean, Fish the columnist and cultural critic, Fish of the right and Fish of the left, Fish as Strunk and White, Fish the historian and film aficionado, Fish the religious commentator, Fish the philosopher and polemicist and pundit. 

Across more than a dozen books and in his New York Times column from 1995 to 2013, Fish has written on virtually every vital cultural issue. In the 1980s, he morphed from an astute scholar of seventeenth-century literature (in addition to Surprised by Sin, his early books include a study of the poet George Herbert) into an opaque theorist of “interpretive communities.” His 1980 book Is There a Text in This Class? was a reader-response extravaganza taken seriously by both philosophers and fellow theorists. Human beings, he argues, are never truly free in their thoughts or speech because everything they think and say is a product of their histories, their “communities,” the undulations and vicissitudes of their selfhood. The same notion underpins much of his work on free speech, which he believes “is just a name we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance,” just “a political prize” and never “an independent value.”

With his New York Times column, Fish added the “public” to “intellectual.” That visible platform permitted him to declaim in whatever register he chose, to rankle all whom he perceived as intellectually complacent or ideologically deluded. In his book There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech (1994), published the year before he began his column, he’s clear about his targets: Those who give us “overheated and overdramatic characterizations of our situation, whether they come from the left or the right,” and those who betray what for Fish is a capital crime, a “willful disregard of history.” In the preface to that book, Fish warns: “Neither the defender of the status quo nor the proponent of radical change will find much comfort in these pages.” That nobody’s-safe incensing throughout Fish’s work, the volleys against both left and right, can look a touch like shtick, an overinsistence on his lone-wolf credentials when everybody knows that the career academic must by definition be a conformist: You don’t get very far without getting along. He has crafted himself into that sad marriage of contradictory terms reserved for the few: academic superstar.

Fish won’t traffic in the misplaced idealism that says an academic’s work can “shape the world.” Teachers, he reasons, are powerless to “fashion moral character, or inculcate respect for others, or produce citizens of a certain temper.” Teachers can and should, however, show students how Milton’s poetical majesty functions on the page, how Milton gives you the language for what happens to you while living, and in doing so, teachers can impart a passion for the personal efficacy of literature. In Professional Correctness (1996), Fish’s counsel for those many optimists on American campuses is this: “If you want to send a message that will be heard beyond the academy, get out of it.”

Fish’s new book, Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education, collects nearly a hundred of his New York Times columns, structured into eight blocks of “reflections”: personal, aesthetic, cultural, on politics, on law, on religion, on liberal arts education, and on academic freedom. The titles of his articles are intended to rile you from the outset—“Two Cheers for Double Standards”; “Favoritism Is Good”; “Against Independent Voters”; “All You Need Is Hate”; “Tip to Professors: Just Do Your Job”—while the personal essays are a pumping handshake, a welcome that trumpets all of Fish’s average-guy qualities.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1938, Fish was the child of Polish Jewish immigrants, the first in his family to graduate college. He writes touchingly about his father, Max, a plumber, about his heroes growing up (Frank Sinatra and Ted Williams), and also about his durable obsessions (basketball and Jews). At his most comic and curmudgeonly, Fish gripes about his dread of travel, his aborted efforts at going green, his woes over the proper lightbulbs and paper towels, and the impossibility of winning a domestic quarrel: “You will try to clarify and sanitize your words by producing more words, but of course the more words you produce, the more weapons you provide the person who is sitting across from you at the breakfast table. (And who is he or she anyway? How did I ever get mixed up with anyone like that?)”

Of course our best reader of Paradise Lost would be interested in the public fracas over religion, so look at his take on the New Atheists, four pieces on those vociferous God killers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, and see if you can’t spot Fish’s opinions. “They are the apostles,” he writes, “of the religion of science in its most reductionist form.” The religion of science: Everywhere in his denigrations of Dawkins and company you see Fish equating science with faith so that science may be dismissed by the same means with which faith is dismissed. Dawkins’s evidence for evolution, says Fish, “is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.” Darwin-directed eyes? I defy you to find piffle more thunderous than that. If you have evidence, you don’t need faith: That’s the point of evidence. “Science requires faith too before it can have reasons,” Fish writes. You might make that true only if you overhaul the definitions of science and faith.

Fish does not come close to understanding that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris—“shallow … schoolyard atheists,” he calls them—assault religion on precisely the same grounds on which billions believe it: They don’t bother with the dulling tedium, the meanders and switchbacks of theological argument, because the global throngs don’t bother with them. In Save the World on Your Own Time (2012), Fish rightly asserts that “intellectual work” concerns itself with “the evaluation, not the celebration, of interests, beliefs, and identities; after all, interests can be base, beliefs can be wrong, and identities are often irrelevant to an inquiry.” And that is exactly what Dawkins and company are up to, the evaluation of beliefs as they are believed.

Fish’s views have slapped a bull’s-eye on his back: He’s frequently shot at with the barbs “sophist” and “relativist,” “fatalist” and “radical subjectivist.” In a speech she gave at MIT in 1991, Camille Paglia, with perfect Paglian venom, called him “a totalitarian Tinkerbell.” Terry Eagleton, British Marxist bloviator and anti-pescatarian, once likened Fish to (I’m not kidding) Joseph Stalin and Slobodan Milošević, and worse: “He is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect”—asserted with equal parts brashness and noise.

When someone once accused Lionel Trilling’s politics of being “always in between,” Trilling replied that “between is the only honest place to be,” and Fish would assent to that. The conundrums of human living are too multiform and intractable to be pondered by the dichotomies of left or right, liberal or conservative. For Fish, we are all of us fallen, Adams and Eves bumbling through the postlapsarian cosmos. Original sin is real but not in the way Christianity would have you believe: We are fallen in the guarantee of our human imperfectability, our pathetic inadequacy at the utopian task (utopia, remember, literally means “nowhere”). In The Trouble With Principle (1999), Fish writes: “The main thing I believe is that conflict is manageable only in the short run and that structures of conciliation and harmony are forever fragile and must always be shored up, with uncertain success,” and all you have to do is peek at your own life—your marriage, your friendships, your workplace—to see the oppressive accuracy of that.

Much of Think Again will consternate no one already familiar with Fish’s ideas. “What links the columns … is a relentless internality”—a relentless internality? “My affinity,” he writes, “is for self-contained, highly structured artifacts”—he means art, for God’s sake—“that refuse political engagement and celebrate craft.” Fish’s politics are, he says, “antiliberal” because “liberalism, as a form of thought and a mode of political organization, privileges impartiality,” and Fish, as you know, does not believe in a sprite called impartiality.

At his most astute, he employs a pitiless realism en route to truth, a loathsome honesty about human living: “There is no road from the precepts of high philosophy to the solution of any real-world problem,” and “Personhood is not what remains after race, gender, ethnicity, and filial relationships have been discounted; rather, personhood is the sum of all these.”

You’ve got to be a discriminating Goldilocks when you go to Fish’s house: When he’s too hot, in academic mode, he serves up jargon; when he’s too cold, in everyman mode, he serves up cliché; but when he stirs the best of one porridge into the best of the other, he’s just right—a pithy steward for his intellect and interests. Here he is trying to explain French theory in mangled prose only a French theorist could love: “The ‘I’ or subject, rather than being the freestanding originator and master of its own thoughts and perceptions, is a space traversed and constituted—given a transitory, ever-shifting shape—by ideas, vocabularies, schemes, models, and distinctions that precede it, fill it, and give it (textual) being.” As you can see, each of those words is English, but as you can hear, English it is not.

In How to Write a Sentence (2011), Fish christens himself a “sentence watcher … always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away,” and if he’d spend a minute more watching his own sentences, he might detect some of the clichés that disfigure many of them. Throughout Think Again, Fish relies on at-hand formulations: He’ll go from “out of the blue” to “icy blue eyes” to “icing on the cake”; then there’s “every nook and cranny” before there’s “everything under the sun” and “every waking hour.” But then he’ll unleash a sentence you want to carry around with you: “Strife, in progress or just around the corner, is the default condition of domesticity,” or “What gives someone the high moral ground is that he or she is right, not that he or she is fair.”

Fish might not always pass Nietzsche’s test of being able to dance with a pen, but he escorts his personality to the page, and that’s a welcome antidote to the tranquilizing homogeneity of style among so many American critics and essayists, especially those who come from the overprofessionalized academy. You are not obligated to agree with him and you are not obligated to like him, but if you care about the enlarging necessity of contest in cultural discourse, then you are obligated to read him, not with some magical “open mind”—Fish has no patience for that concept—but with the full force of the mind you have.