Post Road Magazine #15

Bennett’s Cheap Catharsis

Evan Lavender-Smith

Editor’s Note: Shortly after our receipt of this editorial, written by one Edward Lamarck Littleton, ABD, of Akron, Ohio, USA, we discovered, to our profound dismay, that its author had died. We resolved to publish his commentary despite a consensus among our staff that it was in dire need of a revision expunging those many odd and seemingly unrelated references to the author’s personal life. Alas, no such revision would be possible; the author was deceased. This is a regrettable problem with which we have, of late, become increasingly familiar, and we hope that our readers will excuse Mr. Littleton’s flights of fancy and/or factual errors—as they have so kindly excused those of other recently deceased authors we have published posthumously—for the sake of his commentary’s general insightfulness. May you rest in peace, Mr. Littleton.


Your decision to publish the late Dr. Arthur Tinsdale’s tedious article in support of the late Dr. F. W. Bennett’s infamous “A Survey of Recent Prodigious Human Memory (PHM) Case Studies: Toward a Narratological Terminology” represents the latest setback in a ridiculous feud between the defenders of ethical scholarship—those who view the Bennett monograph for what it is: a travesty of research methodology—and those who desperately cling to the botched “Survey” for ontological reassurance, as savages may stand in awe beneath some propitious arrangement of stars.

Tinsdale’s alleged reconciliation of those Bennett-related articles published side by side in this journal’s Winter issue—Jordan Mathieson’s deft “The Corrupting Influence of Intertextuality in Bennett’s ‘Survey’” and the late Caroline Bizbek’s inane “The Liberating Influence of Intertextuality in Bennett’s ‘Survey’”—offers little analysis of theoretical, let alone practical, value. Dr. Tinsdale resorts to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a metaphor for the “impossibility of objective research performance” with the puerile zeal of a pimply-faced high school student enumerating to his classmates the many merits of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In taking issue with both Mathieson and Bizbek, in claiming that intertextuality neither corrupts nor liberates but necessarily influences the “performance” of research data (including the simple job of transcribing voices from an audio tape, that “slippery act” by way of which Bennett relates to us his interviews with “Marcel,” “Vladimir,” and “Jorge”), Tinsdale appears so enmeshed in theory it’s a wonder he ever got the cap off his pen. At the zenith of his article’s impassioned climax Dr. Tinsdale calls for the conversation surrounding the Bennett debacle to take a “post-postmodern turn,” the need for a

new consensus among PHM analysts to accept the interviews [in Bennett’s “Survey”] at face value, to no longer worry [themselves] over issues of “transcription,” “translation,” “transliteration,” “transposition,” “paraphrase,” “adaptation,” “redaction” and “plagiarism,” but instead to follow in the footsteps of those brave purveyors of the New Criticism, our brethren from the land of literary theory who—against the grain of post-structuralist, post-colonialist, post-feminist fashion—continue to practice a monastic fidelity to the text in hand, and to it alone.


How, I ask, are we expected to take this argument seriously? If a subject speaks into an audio recording device, “I remember the day my dog Bandit died like it was yesterday,” and the researcher later transcribes that statement as, “I remember the day my [estranged] husband committed suicide like it was yesterday,” how might such an egregious adaptation not represent the total obliteration of that researcher’s ethos? Dr. Tinsdale points to punctuational discrepancies existing among transcriptions conducted by different transcribers of the same recorded interview, how these discrepancies may lead to alternate interpretations of meaning, etc., and one wonders if under his bed pillow the late Dr. Arthur Tinsdale didn’t stash a dog-eared copy of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, harbinger of punctuational revolution in the country under whose bleary skies the good professor Tinsdale, from Cambridge, once slept so peacefully.

I will not sleep so peacefully, however—as I lie in bed alone, my (estranged) wife a thousand miles away—for here in Akron the night skies are quite clear.1

Let us, for the moment, leave aside Tinsdale’s servile ballyhoo—as published in this journal’s Spring issue—and attempt to examine the Bennett paper with fresh eyes.

The elegance with which Dr. Bennett’s cross-disciplinary approach proceeds to arrive at a narratological terminology affording unprecedented descriptive tools for PHM analysts does not deserve our scrutiny: there is no doubt that for many years to come we will rely upon terms such as fourth-person dianoegraphically limited when describing that particular type of narration offered by a prodigious recollector whose faculties are similar to Bennett’s “Jorge”; unconscientiously unreliable and multiperson mnemonically unlimited will find valuable purchase as analysts bicker over the veracity of narration offered by a recollector whose faculties share certain characteristics with “Vladimir’s.” The terminological value of Bennett’s work is indisputable; but even revolutionary ends cannot excuse unethical means.

Consider once again the case of Bennett’s “Marcel.” As Richard Shelley and Wanda Tomlinson describe in their groundbreaking “Fact of Fiction? Intertextual Reference to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in the Testimony of Bennett’s ‘Marcel,’” “Marcel,” the subject of the first of three “Recent PHM Case Studies” that Bennett examines in his “Survey,” shares more than just a first name with the famous early twentieth-century author–literary persona Marcel Proust. Throughout his monograph’s “Marcel” section Bennett strategically litters “Marcel’s” testimony with details appropriated from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.2 What follows is an excerpt from Bennett’s “analysis” and “transcription” of “Marcel’s” testimony, a brief sampling of the author’s penchant for flagrant adaptation.

Recounting detailed events from his childhood, a forty-four-year-old male from Lyon­, France—herein named Marcel3—displays a unique ability to physically reinhabit his memories. . . . In recollection of his eighth birthday he, forty-four-year-old Marcel, stands on the veranda of his childhood home, leans over an iron picnic table and his eight-year-old self, the small birthday cake on the table holding

four pink and four blue candles­, two of which are depressed into the cake farther than the others. I—young {Marcel}, ratherwait until the drops of melted wax from those two lower candles quiver just above the frosting before making my wish, just as bird hunters will take aim at their target as it flies directly overhead but not release the trigger until the luckless ring-billed gull approaches that invisible horizon beyond which it may gain safe passage. . . . I watch myself blow the candles out quickly. What did I wish for? I have often wondered. . . . I, alongside my younger self, sit in the dark with Mother and Grandfather for a little while with only the soft chirping of crickets and the gentle swaying of the large chestnut tree to remind us that our senses are still functioning.


Yet we needn’t spend more time haggling over the specifics of those many intertextual sites—the inclusion of detail blatantly lifted from Swann’s Way—scattered throughout “Marcel’s” testimony and Bennett’s “analysis” thereof, as Shelley and Tomlinson and others have already haggled enough4 to amply demonstrate that Bennett is first a plagiarist and second a researcher. What have as yet remained unhaggled over, to my knowledge, and what do deserve quite a bit of haggling, are those many details appropriated from the late Dr. F. W. Bennett’s own life that have been carefully woven into the narration provided by “Marcel,” “Vladimir,” and “Jorge.”

Through the little window in the attic alcove of our­—of my, rather—house in Akron, one espies a gull’s nest resting precariously upon the branch of a tree. Cheep, go the chicks, cheep, cheep. “Cheep,” I reply, returning to my typewriter. “Indeed. Cheep.”5

With respect to the above-quoted excerpt from “Marcel’s” testimony, along with Bennett’s “analysis” thereof, the first instance of what I will henceforth term the author’s tendency toward authorial projection (or what I privately call Bennett’s cheap catharsis) occurs within the simile offered by “Marcel” comparing the drops of candle wax threatening to touch his birthday cake’s frosting to, of all things, gull poachers waiting to shoot until their prey is on the verge of escape. (As Dismali suggests, this represents “Marcel’s” “second clumsiest attempt at Proustian simile [sic].”) However, and as any reputable ornithologist will concede, barring a sudden three-thousand-mile lurch of continental drift, the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) does not inhabit skies above France; its habitation is native and exclusive to the North American continent.6 How might we account for “Marcel’s” error? Easily: by referring to an entry from the childhood diary of Dr. F. W. Bennett, born and bred in Illinois, USA, the same state that boasts an annual population of more than a thousand ring-billed gulls.

 

Today is my eighth birthday. Papa takes me shooting. He shoots eight ring-billed gulls before sundown, and I shoot one. I take my first shot when it’s right over my head, but I miss. It flies away, in the distance. I take another shot, and then it stops in midair, like it has flown into a drift of icy air and become frozen, before falling to the ground, when Bandit runs off and brings it back in his mouth as my birthday present. Bandit is a very good boy, indeed.

Is it simply a coincidence, then, that the diary entry corresponding to Bennett’s eighth birthday and the “interview” excerpt describing “Marcel’s” eighth birthday contain references to ring-billed gull poaching? And what about that terrible simile “like it has flown into a drift of icy air and become frozen, before falling to the ground”? Does this sound familiar to my ears alone? Can this appear familiarly clumsy only to me? Or could it be that the late Dr. F. W. Bennett’s personal copy of Proust’s opus—which dog-eared copy I have, of late, had occasion to examine—contains on its flyleaf the same nervous, curlicued signature that young master Bennett appended to those books of which he came into possession between the ages of six and thirteen?7 But let us proceed. . . . “Marcel’s inability,” Bennett continues,

to recall his birthday wish indicates a critical flaw in his recollective ability. He would appear to belong to the most common typology within prodigious human memory studies—the prodigious recollector whose recall ability is hampered by a narrative distance inherent in his third-person-limited observer-participant perspective. . . . Marcel betrays the historical ambiguity consequent to the new physical presence—that of his forty-four-year-old self—existing within his recounted memories, thus:


After {eight-year-old Marcel}, Mother, and Grandfather have left the veranda, I sit down in a chair at the picnic table, cut a thin slice of cake from exactly where the cursive {M} meets the {a}, and I look to the decorative plates scattered across the iron tabletop—Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin or the Magic Lamp—finally choosing one upon which a snapshot from the penultimate scene of Casablanca is depicted. . . . The cake smells vaguely of asparagus.. . . The lights are extinguished from the windows above me. . . . I watch {Françoise} wrap the cake to preserve it, and I notice that the slice I cut out earlier has somehow managed to return to its original location—there is no longer a break between the first two letters of my name—and I am suddenly aware of the empty pit in my stomach.


My (estranged) wife and I used to order takeout from a place around the corner every Thursday. I would get moo goo gai pan and the exquisite beef with asparagus; she, always lemon chicken, beef with broccoli. I have not stepped foot in the restaurant since our separation, however; the menu from W——’s still sits on the corner of my desk, next to the phone, collecting dust.8

Casablanca, the Oscar-winning film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, was among Dr. Bennett’s all-time favorite movies. In his last extant interview9 the late Dr. Bennett admits to having watched this film upwards of a hundred times:

 

Interviewer: How many times have you watched Casablanca?

F.W.B.: I . . . I don’t . . .

Interviewer: [. . .]

F.W.B.: The film . . . many . . . many times?

Interviewer: [. . .]

F.W.B.: I have watched Casablanca, which I count among my all-time favorite movies, upwards of a hundred times.


Mere coincidence? It is doubtful. Bennett has not only appropriated details from Proust—“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Aladdin or the Magic Lamp”—he has also co-mingled this appropriation with details from his own life, referencing, via “Marcel’s” testimony, one of his own favorite movies; he is projecting his own life experience onto “Marcel’s.” Bennett concludes his monograph’s “Marcel” section thus:


Forty-four-year-old Marcel has departed from his limited perspective when on the veranda watching Françoise wrap the cake—his younger self, limiter of all previous narration, is now conspicuously absent; put to bed, ostensibly, in one of the darkened rooms above—and his status as that rare breed of prodigious recollector, the central consciousness recollector, is revealed.

 

What are we to make of this? Why would renowned PHM analyst—according to the late Bizbek, “the patriarch of our field”—Dr. F. W. Bennett, alongside the presentation of his epoch-making terminology, so obviously adapt “Marcel’s” testimony to conflate details from Proust’s fiction and Bennett’s own life? (Or, in the case of “Vladimir’s” testimony, from Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction and Bennett’s own life? Of “Jorge’s,” from Jorge Luis Borges’s fiction and Bennett’s life?) The late Arthur Tinsdale’s answer to this question is theoretical gibberish, simply garbage; an answer that, along with Mathieson’s and Bizbek’s, only addresses intertextual, literary appropriation, besides.

The cheeping baby chicks, which I have recently appropriated from their nest outside my window—to the bottom of the wastebasket under my desk—cheep no more.10

“Marcel’s” cake is said to smell vaguely of asparagus. How could Bennett have possibly known that one of the last fights my (estranged) wife and I ever had concerned a cake she made, which I claimed—regrettably, perhaps, yet truthfully—smelled vaguely of broccoli? He could not have. So why, then, do I feel, upon reading this “smells vaguely of asparagus,” that Bennett/“Marcel” is speaking directly to me, directly to my own life experiences/memories? Why do I feel, every time I read this “smells vaguely of asparagus,” that Bennett meant to transliterate “smells vaguely of broccoli,” but at the very last moment decided otherwise, to preserve a sense of ambiguity, to preserve his “authorial alibi,” if you will? Why do I feel, every time I read this impossible “smells vaguely of [broccoli],” that Bennett is making a fool of me? making a travesty of my life? mocking my memories? Why do I feel that Bennett is laughing at the final, most excruciating moments of my marriage?

There should be little doubt that Bennett’s conflation of intertextual allusion and allusion to his own life experience within the testimonies of “Marcel,” “Vladimir,” and “Jorge” is aimed at encloaking his monograph within a haze of extra-textual allusion, a dense fog of reference beyond which the reader is meant to glimpse not the “real” “Marcel”/“Vladimir”/“Jorge,” nor, for that matter, the “real” Dr. Bennett, but instead an image of the reader him- or herself. The suggestion being that Dr. Bennett, who positions himself outside or beyond the ultimately “limited perspective” of “Marcel,” “Vladimir,” or “Jorge,” possesses, uncannily, total omniscience, a brand of unlimited perspective that would include access to even his readers’ life experiences, even his readers’ memories. No wonder so many PHM analysts (especially those favored by this journal) have stood, with such blind passion, in defense of Bennett’s “Survey,” as if their very lives depended on the monograph’s merit: they are unwittingly defending the merit of their own life experiences, their own memories, having been bamboozled into “discovering” themselves within Bennett’s corrupt network of allusion.

What follows is an excerpt from a transcribed telephone conversation between my (estranged) wife and me, conducted only moments ago, in demonstration of the great sway of Bennett’s “Survey”; its ability to influence even those, like my (estranged) wife, who have not had direct contact with it.


J.T.[L.]: . . .here again yesterday asking questions: Bennett, Bizbek, Tinsdale, Longmeyer. They wanted your address in Akron. I thought I told you never to call me again. . . . Are you remembering to feed Bandit twice per day?

E.L.L.: Remember that cake you made, the one I said smelled vaguely of broccoli?

J.T.[L.]: Asparagus. You said, “How do you expect me to eat a cake that smells like asparagus?” You hate asparagus, remember?

E.L.L.: I said the cake smelled vaguely of broccoli. That’s why I wouldn’t eat it. I hate broccoli, not asparagus. I love asparagus.

J.T.[L.]: Love asparagus? You said, “Why would you make me a birthday cake that smells like the one food I hate most in the world, asparagus?” Thursday nights, takeout from W——’s. Beef with asparagus. You wouldn’t go near it.

E.L.L.: [. . .]

J.T.[L.]: You’re deranged, Ed. You’re sick. You need help. Leave me alone.

E.L.L.: Why are you taking [Dr. F. W. Bennett’s] side?

J.T.[L.]: Never call here again.


“Leave me alone!” I call out to the nest of cheeping gulls, which has somehow managed to return to its original location on the branch of the chestnut tree outside my window.11 “Leave me alone!” I turn the wastebasket under my desk upside down; so many crumpled drafts of my editorial fall to the ground. Cheep, mock the chicks. Cheep, cheep.

Cheep quawk-ah! Cheep quawk-ah!

It is a cheap catharsis, finally.12 Bennett has projected—so sneakily, with such cunning, such demonic legerdemain—his own life experience onto his monograph, within a dense network of intertextual allusion, in such a manner to create of his “Survey” a kind of terrible, terrifying mirror; a veritable fun-house mirror in which any careful reader will perceive his or her distorted image, a doppelgänger of his or her appropriated life, peering back, whispering, nightmarishly, for him or her to “come hither! Come hither! Believe! Believe in the profound mystery of life! Believe in the fathomless mystery of Bennett’s ‘Survey,’ corrupt adaptation notwithstanding!”

Am I the only PHM analyst to have felt my precious subjectivity fractured, to have felt it appropriated by Bennett’s monograph? To have felt my own life, my own personality and memory, somehow absorbed and modified by this nefarious “Survey”? Certainly not; but I may be one of the few, perhaps the only one, willing to admit it. Refer to a roundtable discussion in which Dr. Dwayne Longmeyer and Dr. Caroline Bizbek recently participated,13 which included the following exchange:


Longmeyer: I will not [admit] that, under any circumstance. I am simply . . . afraid I cannot [admit] the [truth].

Bizbek: I . . . too [am afraid] to [admit] it.

Interviewer: [. . .]

Longmeyer: My friend, let’s put an end to this before [the truth is revealed]. I have a wife, two young children. Please [don’t ask me to admit what I know to be true; it will reflect poorly on me].

Bizbek: [I have] six cats [and] a nephew. [They will be embarrassed if I contradict myself at this late stage and tell the truth about Bennett’s “Survey.”]

Interviewer: [. . .]

Longmeyer: Very well. You leave me [a] choice [whether or not to admit to Bennett’s heinous misdoings]. It is my believe—belief?—that Dr. F. W. Bennett has, by way of so much veil adaptation of his interviews—vile, I suppose—such dense intertextual frog, attempted to appropriate his readers’ memories. Fog, rather.

Interviewer: Ms. Bizbek? Any final comments?

Bizbek: It is [also] my belie[f] that Dr. F. W. Bennett has, by way of so much [vile] adaptation of his interviews, such dense intertextual [fog], attempted to appropriate his readers’ memories.


My conviction in Bennett’s malfeasance has already extended far beyond these pages, across psychology, English, and comparative literature departments; across states; across continents; across oceans. I have determined to repair what Bennett and his followers have so badly broken, at any cost. This editorial is merely the topping, the unquivering candle on a cake that reeks neither of asparagus nor broccoli. Open your eyes, readers, open your God-fearing ears. Open your Bennett-fearing noses. When you come to find me hanging from the chestnut tree outside my window, directly below the reappropriated gull nest, you might hear something, a whisper, perhaps a distorted version of your own voice, circling round and round my decomposing limbs: “Come hither! Come hither! Smell what we have smelled! Smell what we who maintain allegiance to the objectivity required, the objectivity forgotten of our discipline, have, for so long, smelled! Smell what we smell even today, holding vols. 28–33 of this journal near to our noses! Never broccoli! Never asparagus! Only [ring-billed gull droppings]!”14


1 Editor’s Note: This would appear to be the first of many passages wherein a “present-action” observation is presented that applies to the general concern of the editorial only peripherally, if at all. (What do Akron’s clear skies have to do with Tinsdale or Bennett? We would ask Mr. Littleton, RIP, the same.)

2 Editor’s Note: The late Mr. Littleton seems to have preferred the title of this novel as adapted by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, as opposed to the more recent translation by Lydia Davis et al., In Search of Lost Time, which Shelley and Tomlinson prefer, as do we.

3 I have changed the names of prodigious recollectors and persons referenced in their narration so to preserve the anonymity of those who would be endlessly harassed by parvenu PHM analysts were their true names publicly divulged. This is my sole intention with respect to the inclusion of aliases, despite the opinions of my detractors, who will claim in rebuttal monographs, I’m sure, that no such persons exist or ever did; that my design in making inaccessible these prodigious recollectors’ identities was self-serving. I imagine an editor’s note will one day follow this footnote, indicating some conjecture to that effect.—F.W.B. [Thank you, Dr. Bennett, for the introduction. There is no evidence, beyond their textual presence in Bennett’s monograph, that “Marcel” et al., or whatever their names are, ever existed in the flesh.—E.L.L.]

4 Cf. the late Dwayne Longmeyer’s subservient “The Chestnut Tree and the Iron Table: Transference of Detail from Proust to Bennett” and R. J. Dismali’s monumental “‘Marcel’s’ Long-Winded Similes in Bennett’s ‘Survey,’” both published in this journal’s Summer issue.

5 Editor’s Note: We would advise the reader to skip over this paragraph, another of the editorial’s unrelated “present-action” sections, and move on to the next.

6 Editor’s Note: Not true. Here in our London office, located on the twenty-second floor, there is a flock of ring-billed gulls skittering along the windowsill outside, making their awful, high-pitched squawking sound (i.e., quawk-ah, quawk-ah).

7 Editor’s Note: How did Mr. Littleton obtain a copy of Dr. Bennett’s personal copy of In Search of Lost Time, let alone his childhood diary? We would ask Mr. Littleton, RIP, the same.*

*Neither the American CIA nor the British SIS have reason to believe that Dr. Bennett ever kept a diary. It would appear that the “transcription” from Dr. Bennett’s diary, above, has been fabricated by “Mr. Littleton” and/or the editors of the British journal of psychology Q——, now defunct. Nor do we have evidence to support the claim that Dr. Bennett ever owned a copy of Michael Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.—Ed.


8 Editor’s Note: We, too, often order Chinese from a café around the corner; their menu includes beef with broccoli—which we count among our favorites—but certainly not beef with asparagus. The reader should feel free to have skipped the editorial’s preceding paragraph.

9 Unpublished. Conducted April 8, 2006, Akron, OH.

10 Editor’s Note: We appreciate the gesture, Mr. Littleton, and would do the same to save ourselves from the annoyance of the gulls’ squawking, if only our double-paned windows could be opened.

‡ The windows at the former offices of the London-based journal of psychology Q—— are, in fact, single-paned, as well as openable.—Ed.

11 Editor’s Note: The ring-billed gulls leave us in peace only on those rare days when the window washers come to wash away their droppings. They are always back the following day, though, back to their raucous squawking and interminable skittering. Would that the window washers cleaned our sills with arsenic.

12 Editor’s Note: We much prefer “authorial projection” to “cheap catharsis.” In his designation of Bennett’s alleged projection of events from his (i.e., Dr. Bennett’s) own life onto the testimony of “Marcel”/“Vladimir”/“Jorge” as “cheap,” Littleton would seem to suggest the possibility of an “earned” projection, an “earned catharsis.” (Did Mr. Littleton believe he was engaging in such an “earned catharsis” in the editorial at hand? We would, if we could, take issue. RIP, Mr. Littleton; RIP.)


13 Unpublished. Conducted December 25, 2005, Akron, OH.

14 Editor’s Note: We have taken the liberty, in this case alone, of editorial redaction: the final sentence originally concluded with an epithet (eight-letter synonym for cow dung), which we have here replaced with “ring-billed gull droppings” in hope of preserving propriety, on the one hand, and, on the other, “tying in,” however obliquely, the editorial’s gull motif with those more germane, Bennett-related observations made by Mr. Littleton, ABD, RIP.

Evan Lavender-Smith attended the University of California , Berkeley, and New Mexico State University . His writings appear in recent or forthcoming issues of Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Land-Grant College Review, The Modern Review and Opium.

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