Gloomy Monday in Santa Barbara Brightened by Lunch at Fresco and Musings on the Literary-Critical Landscape of UCSB English in the 1990s (Another Victorian Chick Ars Critica)


Grilled chicken with Provolone, roasted red peppers, avocado and Caesar at Fresco

Gloomy gray days don’t bother me; I find them oddly comforting and generally energizing but not today. I am loving the Trader Joe’s mango Greek Yogurt, 5.5 ounces and 120 calories and will go for a big swim and weights workout at 8 PM tonight. This is the first weekend I’ve been here on a Sunday in weeks, so I don’t have the Wall Street Journal or New York Times book reviews to comb. But I go to LA tomorrow after my Perlane at Montecito Aesthetics Institute, my first time there due to a Living Social coupon, two syringes for the price of one ($650). I got a confirmation about my appointment with Dr. Chang and I am very excited!

I want to pick up the new Christopher Benfrey book at Chaucer’s, our wonderful bookstore my review of which on Philadelphia Junto, along with my writing on Victorian Chick, got me two pieces in The Weekly Standard when the literary editor, Phil Terzian, said he saw much of his young self in my teen incarnation. Benfrey wrote a spectacular work of philosophical criticism about Emily Dickinson in 1984: Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others. Now he has written a non-traditional memoir about his far-flung family, which is German and Jewish on his father’s side (“scholars, jurists, aesthetes”).

The book is structured around ceramics, a trope through which Benfrey reflects on art and family.  Benfrey’s Dickinson study dwells in the Stanley Cavell philosophy/literature orbit of criticism, the orbit within which I envisioned myself working even before I understood its conceptual underpinnings, much of which took shape in the 1980s during the near cottage industry of Henry James criticism (Martha Nussbaum, Cora Diamond, Frederick Crews, among others). It was the point of departure for my paper on Dickinson for Richard Brodhead (then Dean of Yale, now president of Duke) and UCSB gave me a five year graduate fellowship partly on the strength of that paper. So the book has a special place in my heart. (Who knew it would be such a goddamn disaster?! Of course free graduate school is never bad, even if my parents supplemented the yearly stipends or payment for teaching.)

Stanley Cavell of course moved from philosophy into literary criticism proper, first with his excellent book on Shakespeare (Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare, 1987) and then In Pursuit of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (1988). He ventured into film criticism earlier than that with the wonderful Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981), a book I love (particularly the chapter on It Happened One Night), though I would not at all characterize myself as a Turner Classics fanatic or aficionado like my parents and many Facebook friends.

Cavell, a student of J.L. Austin, the Oxford philosopher who founded ordinary language philosophy, made a name for himself in 1969 with his first book of essays: Must Me We Mean What We Say? The book was the first of many to take skepticism or the problem of other minds as its organizing and central theme. A major topic was the “privacy of pain” and a chief antagonist or at least interlocutor for Cavell was Norman Malcolm. The extent to which one can ever verify, much less enter, the minds of others is a perennial philosophical problem on which one might say Cavell built part of a career. My first mentor and chair at UCSB was Kay Young, whose dissertation at Harvard Cavell directed, along with Phil Fisher in English. As I have said before, the problem with UCSB was never the caliber of professors who taught me.

It was UVA’s Richard Rorty (now dead), I believe, perhaps the most famous American philosopher at the time along with Cavell, who joked that skepticism was for Cavell what logocentrism was for Derrida. Cavell’s most influential book remains the 1979 The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Tragedy, and Morality. I had always thought this Cavell milestone was 1984. 1979 was a huge year in philosophy with Paul Guyer’s Kant and the Claim of Taste, Henry Allison’s Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, and Robert Pippin’s Kant’s Theory of Form and in England, Eva Schaper’s Studies in Kant’s Aesthetics, all bursting onto the scene. For people familiar with literature and philosophy in the last half-century, this brief rehearsal of titles and critics/philosophers explains more succinctly and precisely than anything else perhaps, why the UCSB English department was such an nightmare for me!

Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, Solidarity was my favorite text on the General Theory M.A. reading list (listed under the rubric of “pragmatism”) and I will never forget talking to a girl named Kate (a smart, pretty, but sanctimonious married Midwesterner) about the list which she was reading as well. I said, when I ran into her at a coffee house reading Bocaccio for her Medieval list, how much I loved Rorty and she said that she found it very difficult (and by implication, unpleasant). Yet she had no trouble, I take it, with the difficult and undeniably unpleasant Zizek or Deleuze. Telling.  Honorable mention for unpleasantness goes to Francois Lyotard for his Postmodern Condition and to Horkheimer an Adorno for anything, though when you get Adorno by himself, some of it is tolerable. Horkheimer is never tolerable.

Kate came to work with Carol Pasternak, a wonderful, tenured Jewish professor from the Palisades and quite a bit more traditional than Louise, who taught Old English, history of the English language and Beowulf. But Kate was a Lacanian and I think she worked more with Louise Fradenberg, our other famous Medievalist.  I was told by Roze’s boyfriend (both about four years ahead of me) that Louise died her blonde hair partly green in 1996 for a brief period and walked around South Hall with a walkman and headset. Very odd but brilliant lady.

Louise, who eventually changed her name to Aranye as some sort of declaration of her newfound identification with her Jewish heritage (again, odd as she didn’t seem very religious) is a hardcore Lacanian. In fact she is best friends with Julie Carlson, my brilliant ex-chair who hates me.  She drives a Volvo station wagon with a “Question Reality” bumper sticker, which I find slightly irritating for a tenured professor of English. Of course she’s a staunch liberal but that’s not the annoying part. And I’m just as socially liberal–gays and abortion–as everyone else in the department. That was never the problem; the problem was the insistence that literature be infected (my word) or imbued (their word, if they thought long enough to identify it) with political assumptions, frameworks, or ideologies.

N.B: any book of criticism which includes “ideology” (or “patriarchy” for that matter) in the title is not a book I’m going to enjoy.  None is worse than Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic. Eagleton is a British Marxist and Phil Terzian and I were quite in agreement about all these matters which is partly why, I think, in spite of being a registered Democrat, I fit right in at The Weekly Standard, at least in the back section (“Books and Arts”).

I was not the only (but certainly one of the few) to note the irony of one of our Marxist professors living in Montecito, though he was actually a traditional (and Irish) scholar with a wonderful spirit. (At least Alycee was relatively poor!) I wish I had taught for Enda Duffy, however, or taken his course on modernism which I never studied in a seminar, just individual modernist texts in more niche seminars. Enda was a professor who could teach a straight survey without pushing his particular theoretical orientation and commitments and I would have learned a lot, plus he was just a really kind man.

I don’t know that Louise would characterize herself as a Marxist critic but certainly she was attracted to all that French shit, as I thought of it, very far to the left on the theory spectrum.  But the bumper sticker struck me as stupid. First of all, other than a decal from one’s college or graduate/professional school, I don’t like bumper stickers period.  And hers was just so reductive and cloying, the sort of “Simplify” bullshit one sees at our pretentious, overpriced knockoff of Whole Foods which was the only game in town before 2009. (We are about to get a Fresh and Easy on Milpas which is lovely.) I find it absurd and a bit unseemly that a professor armed with the theory and philosophy background Louise is, had a bumper sticker a crunchy granola yoga vegan in tie dye might stick on an old VW bug or God forbid, a van.

I saw Louise, who looked older but not that much different, at the vet last year when I took Emma in for what turned out to be harmless but sounded ominous: reverse sneezing. She didn’t recognize me but she’s very socially awkward. I’m not saying she has Asperger’s but she’s just not a friendly person. I forget what kind of dog she has but it wasn’t all that cute either, and I’m not just saying that because Emma is like a show lab (and the mommy of two AKC champions)!

Danny Karlin, however, a Victorianist and one of the world’s foremost scholars of Browning, got to know Louise at University College London around 1996 I think, when she was there for a quarter. He said she is very nice once you get to know her though she’s heavily into theory which he said in his wonderfully British way, was “not his bag.” Danny and I lost track of one another but his five person seminar on Victorian poetry as a visiting professor was a highlight of my time at UCSB, with no mean or irritating grad students and thus a seminar I actually looked forward to attending.

I can think of only one other seminar about which I felt that way. Even Elizabeth Cook’s Restoration and 18th-century Women Writers, a course whose content I adored (plus she’s amazing and brilliant both personally and intellectually), was often unpleasant for me, though not as bad as Alycee Lane’s Black Political Fiction, which I took only to fulfill a distributional requirement. Robert and David were both in that class and I was moved to tears twice. Bob Erikson’s 18th-century seminar was no better and yet again I had to endure that ill-tempered Alabaman.

Alycee, a tall, attractive, lesbian, African-American Marxist and very good basketball player, is gone both from UCSB and the academy. She went to law school and now practices in the Bay Area. She was okay though. She knew we inhabited different universes but she read and graded my 25-page seminar paper on the ethical/aesthetic intersections of Chester Himes’ Lonely Crusade fairly and I got an A in the class even though I didn’t write something ideologically compatible with most of the theoretical readings she assigned. As a person, she was affable enough.

My second year of the Masters, I knew a girl named Denee, very smart, who came here from Arizona State with a Masters (her thesis was on Keats and “Le Belle Dame Sans Merci”). She TA’d an upper division Chaucer seminar for Louise (along with Kate and Robert, that odious bald Alabaman I’ve mentioned before, who came from money and whose parents sent him to the military to make him less odious–which didn’t work at all by the way). Louise did more Zizek than Canterbury Tales, a fact which would no doubt sicken my friend and scholar neighbor in Pacific Palisades, Clare Spark. She was also big on Deleuze and Guattari.

Denee was one of the few girls in the department I liked and had I been in less pain or a slightly better place, I think we would have been social friends. We taught Milton together the spring of 1998 for the late Richard Helgerson (a major New Historicist, along with Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose etc), the quarter we both took the M.A. exam and the pressure of that quarter was overwhelming. Unfortunately for me, Robert, at UCSB to study with the great Richard Helgerson and a straight up New Historicist but one of the smarter kids in my year (disproving the theory that great or potentially great literary scholars are imbued with an essential humanity) was also TAing for Richard that quarter.

Robert actually behaved slightly better than normal and we didn’t have many TA meetings so I didn’t have to deal with him much. Kate and Robert got on swimmingly (not romantically,  as she had a cool young husband who had followed her after her Masters to UCSB) because Robert respected her and kept the asshole quotient to a minimum. Robert despised me as the rich bitch from Yale and would go on and on about his poverty, all the while spending God knows how much on coffee and espresso. He also wore a Rolex so really he was pissed his parents were stingy and withholding and that mine were generous and supportive, even when we didn’t get along or speak. Maybe the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and his parents were just awful. But maybe, just maybe, they were financially withholding because he was a complete dick. I’m going to go with the second option but as I said, there is a possibility option one was the source of his ill humor.

Robert wasn’t all that nice to the sweet Jewish Wellesley girl a year ahead of us who roomed with his uber-uptight, mousy but very fit girlfriend with a tight bun from University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. But she was not exactly svelte and I always thought that if I had been a large girl, who wore no makeup and dressed for shit, I would have fared better in the department.  The incoming graduate class of 1996 was just so dreadful and snotty. I’m not even getting to the militant heavy lesbian with combat boots who had a sense of humor and actually came to study at my apartment once. I don’t know why but after that one study date, she decided I was the enemy and rude to me forever after. From Baltimore, she came with a Masters and grew progressively more militant as the years progressed, both about feminism and sexual orientation issues.

As usual, this turned into a longer rumination than I had intended and I will close with pictures of Fresco, a restaurant I just love in the Five Points mall. I used to go in the late 1990s and then not again till last year as that was one of the areas of Santa Barbara “haunted” by miserable grad student memories. Truthfully, about 90% of Santa Barbara was haunted for me for about seven years. It’s 25 years old and I would love it even if it didn’t have free corkage. You order at the counter, which keeps food worthy of a fine dining restaurant quite reasonable. The only thing I don’t like is the pizza and it’s closer to “faggy” than traditional pizza (which I am allowed to say as I know gay men who say this also and I’m as pro-gay as they come).  The Margherita is oily and boring.

My favorite new dish is the grilled chicken sandwich on sourdough with Provolone, avocado and roasted bell peppers. Fresco has a great Caesar which could only be improved by anchovies. The soups are all excellent, as are the desserts, including the famous berry pie with fresh whipped cream. I have not tried many of the desserts but all look wonderful. They have giant cupcakes which can serve as dessert for three and which I have occasionally brought my father, who lives for treats! (Come to think of it, this makes him a lot like Emma, J’s lab, though Dad is more temperamental than this angelic creature!)

Once or twice a week there is live acoustic music and it’s a large family-friendly restaurant which will please parents with sophisticated palates without breaking their budget (or creating the stress of bringing small children to a fine dining restaurant which takes an hour or more to eat). A shot of the second room (where WiFi reception is much stronger).

Some of the local, rotating art at Fresco in April, 2012.



I prefer the tables to the booths which are so upright I feel like I’m almost leaning forward as I eat. The tables are closer together but far more comfortable.


A view of the sandwich from the side.

Half of grilled chicken sandwich

Happy Monday!

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