Listen to the painstaking patient care with which David Milch walks his audience through his teaching materials in this lecture that theorises the themes and characters of the opening episode of NYPD Blue which aired in September 1997. It is the spectacle of a charismatic teacher offering a dense pedagogical act of exegesis that holds in front of us the multi-layered associations of meaning in play, ever attentive to the moment-by-moment responses, allegiances, and moods of its audience, in a deep voice that seems to populate the sparse room and white rectangle of the screen behind him with the voices, forms, and moods of the characters he creates.
Milch taught as he was completing his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s and at Yale while he was a research assistant for his mentors Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks and R. W. B. Lewis. Mark McGurl in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing reminds us of the tension between individual voice and the rituals of the small group workshop that certainly has resonances with the way Milch would later run his writers’ room. Textbooks such as Warren and Brooks’ Understanding Fiction (which Milch helped revise) also encouraged the microscopic close readings we see exemplified here. Like the New Criticism approach they founded, he is adept at finding artistic unity in the apparent fragments, tensions, and discordances of his art. Milch continued to teach writers after he left academia in 1982: as a contributor to Humanitas-organised seminars, at universities in Europe and America, and during the 2007 writer’s strike. In addition, for over a decade Milch has nurtured interns at his production company in Santa Monica, where their induction lecture is a spectacular mix of literary and philosophical knowledge. As David Thorburn has pointed out, Milch’s voice contains strong traces of his characters, and it is instructive to remember how many of them excelled at teaching – think of Andy Sipowicz teaching his son how to be a cop, or Al Swearengen taking Adams, Merrick and Trixie under his wing.
Is this the voice of genius or, as Kant tells us, is the genius unable to teach his art because its source is obscure to the artist?