Humiliation, a Lit Department Game

Yue Minjun

Friday

To end the week in a light-hearted fashion, I share the rules of “Humiliation,” a game that appears in David Lodge’s campus novel Changing Places (1975). Later in the post I humiliate myself.

The game is introduced to Euphoric State University’s English Department by British exchange professor Philip Swallow. One of the characters describes it as follows:

The essence of the matter is that each person names a book which he hasn’t read but assumes the others have read, and scores a point for every person who has read it.

All literature professors have works they feel secretly guilty for not having read, so this self-outing is a chance to come clean. Or to humiliate oneself publicly, depending on how one sees it. In the novel, the game presents one faculty member with an intolerable contradiction, ultimately costing him his job:

You know Howard [Ringbaum], he has a pathological urge to succeed and a pathological fear of being thought uncultured, and this game set his two obsessions at war with each other, because he could succeed in the game only by exposing a gap in his culture. At first his psyche just couldn’t absorb the paradox and he named some eighteenth-century book so obscure I can’t even remember the name of it. Of course, he came last in the final score, and sulked. It was a stupid game, he said, and refused to play the next round. “I pass, I pass,” he said sneeringly, like Mrs. Elton on Box Hill…But I could see he was following the play attentively, knitting his brows and twisting his napkin in his fingers as the point of the game began to dawn on him. It’s quite a groovy game, actually, a kind of intellectual strip poker. For instance, it came out that Luke Hogan has never read Paradise Regained. I mean, I know it isn’t his field, but to think you can get to be Chairman of the English Department at Euphoric State without ever having read Paradise Regained makes you think, right? I could see Howard taking this in, going a bit pale when he realized that Luke was telling the truth. Well, on the third round, Sy was leading the field with Hiawatha, Mr. Swallow being the only other person who hadn’t read it, when suddenly Howard slammed his fist on the table, jutted his jaw about six feet over the table and said:

Hamlet!”

Well, of course, we all laughed, not very much because it didn’t seem much of a joke. In fact, it wasn’t a joke at all. Howard admitted to having seen the Lawrence Olivier movie, but insisted that he had never read the text of Hamlet. Nobody believed him of course, and this made him sore as hell. He said did we think he was lying and Sy more or less implied that we did. Upon which Howard flew into a great rage and insisted on swearing a solemn oath that he had never read the play. Sy apologized through tight lip for having doubted his word. By this time, of course, we were all cold sober with embarrassment. Howard left, and the rest of us stood around for a while trying to pretend nothing had happened.

And then the consequences:

A piquant incident, you must admit—but wait till I tell you the sequel. Howard Ringbaum unexpectedly flunked his review three days later and it’s generally supposed that this was because the English Department dared not give tenure to a man who publicly admitted to not having read Hamlet.

Humiliation wouldn’t have the same bite today. Lodge’s novel was written in 1975, when the traditional canon still prevailed. I began graduate school that year and the following summer spent all my time studying for a Masters exam that covered all periods.

Speaking for myself, I’ll admit to not having read Paradise Regained and indeed feel a little shame at not having done so given that it’s in my period (the Restoration and 18th Century). Nowadays, however, I suspect that over 50% of English profs have not read it. Similarly, I suspect few have read Hiawatha. I have but for a quirky reason: as a child, I went in for long, dramatic 19th century narrative poems, like The Wreck of the Hesperus (also by Longfellow) and Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight.

So where might I score points?

Well, I haven’t ever had the courage to read Richard Wright’s Native Son. Nor (as a pun reminds me) have I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I haven’t read Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Jonson’s Alchemist, Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, Gaskell’s North and South, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, or Kerouac’s On the Road. Turning to Shakespeare, I haven’t read Titus Andronicus or Troilus and Cressida. There are authors whose entire corpus I’ve neglected, such as William Godwin, Frank Norris, George Gissing, and V. S. Naipaul. These are just the tip of my unread iceberg.

Sometimes I play internal games with myself. For instance, if I’ve read a single work by a novelist, I give myself a guilt pass. Such is the case with Theodor Dreiser (I’ve only read Sister Carrie), George Meredith (The Ordeal of Richard Feverel), and Nadine Gordimer (Burger’s Daughter).

My guilt has sometimes served as my friend. For a long time, I was haunted by the fact that I hadn’t read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, or The Brothers Karamazov. Now that I have, they are among my most cherished friends.

If I were playing Humiliation with my English department, I’d probably start off with Native Son, The Sun Also Rises, North and South, and Frank Norris’s McTeague (picking up points from all our Americanists). Given how English curriculums having changed, I suspect I wouldn’t get more than one or, at most, two points from Paradise Regained.

I’m now determined to read it, however. Maybe as my Lenten observance. Not for fear of humiliation but because I want to.

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