Friday, February 26, 2016

The Anger of the Academic

 Perhaps it is the election cycle, perhaps the increased intensity of my own research—whatever the cause, I’ve become far more aware over the past few months of the amount of anger in academia.

I’m not referring to the anger of students, to the dangerous absurdities that most often make the news, but to the anger of the academics themselves.  It is, fortunately, not nearly so universal a trait as (to choose a quality at random) the habit of carrying one’s own dry-erase markers; but it is common enough to be noticeable—remarkable, in the etymological sense of the word—especially in the humanities.

All professors in the humanities are inclined, by profession as it were, to make professions—indeed, to commit what are referred to coyly in the Catholic world as “professions of faith.”  As with all good faiths, these professions involve negative and positive elements.  A Catholic rejects sin and Satan, and embraces Jesus Christ; a biologist rejects cancer, and embraces health.  The Catholic may study sin (indeed, a great many of us are walking human experiments in the subject, making it well-nigh irresistible for the eager student), but that hardly suggests that the Catholic is in favor of sinning.  Likewise, the biologist may study cancer, but only with the purpose of contributing to its eventual eradication.  His focus, like the peccatologist’s, may be on the evil he sees all around him; but the evil is evil precisely because it is destroying some good.  His anger may be severe, but it is an anger ultimately based on love of something beautiful.

The oddity in the humanities is that this does not always appear to be the case.  Within literature in particular, there are certain scholars who seem to take delight in studying things which make them angry, things which on some level they regard as evil—but with no apparent consciousness of the good or the beautiful in the background.  They are professors whose profession appears to be fundamentally negative.

Chinua Achebe’s famous essay on Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is a classic instance of the phenomenon.  Achebe’s argument, in brief, is that Conrad’s portrayal of Africans makes them the real dark centers of the story.  For decades readers focused on Kurtz’s corruption and the irony that of corruption, given the purportedly “civilizing” influence of Europeans in Africa; and finding in the story, if anything, a lesson against supposing that one’s race or culture is a guarantor of one’s virtue.  But Achebe argues that, despite the superficial appearance of cultural humility, Conrad’s work is essentially culturally imperialistic, inasmuch as it highlights the superiority of European culture to African again and again.

A counter reading of the novella might emphasize the role of the narrator, his prejudices and his disenchantment, more than Achebe does.  But be that as it may, Achebe is correct to observe that the portrayal of Africans in the story displays prejudice.  And given the correctness of his observation, there is nothing surprising about his anger.  Nor is it surprising that he should write an entire lecture fueled by that anger.

It is not even surprising that his is not the only scholastic effort bent on tearing to shreds a previously well-accepted piece of literature.  If artists can be prejudiced like anyone else, they are capable of writing things that are offensive; and naturally, if everyone goes around lauding such works to the skies for their artistic merit without noticing that there is offense in them, the situation ought to be rectified.   I, personally, have always found Ulysses offensive, and (if I ever get around to actually reading it) may someday write a scathingly brilliant essay against it myself.

But I doubt I will ever actually write the essay.  For one thing, Ulysses is a very long book, and I have plenty of other things left to read.  There are so many good books that it seems a waste of time to gorge on one which (based on the excerpts I’ve encountered and the descriptions I have read) would be profoundly antithetical not only to my aesthetic taste but also to my moral principles.  A work of genius I have no doubt it is.  But again, there are even so many works of genius in existence that it is probably more worth my time to read Moby Dick (for example) than Joyce’s equally oversized saga.

(I know, I know—it’s scandalous that an English PhD student
hasn’t read Moby Dick.  I didn’t get around to Crime and Punishment
or Anna Karenina until a couple years ago.  And I still haven’t read
Timon of Athens.  Consider this my Lenten abasement for the week.)

The world is so full of a number of things (observed Stevenson), I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.  There’s no reason to spend time on books that one doesn’t enjoy.  And there’s certainly no reason to make them the focus of one’s academic career.  And yet, people do.  People do dedicate their academic careers—not simply to works by men who are flawed (all of us are); nor even to works that themselves show the dark side of the era in which they were written (few, I suspect, do not); but to works that they consider the embodiment of everything that they don’t like about literature.

Now there is a way in which this approach is similar to that of the biologist with cancer.  The biologist wants healthy people, and therefore he focuses on eradicating a disease that kills billions of them.  In the same way, perhaps, the feminist literary scholar who despises pre-modern portrayals of women is certainly a proponent of women, and of their accurate portrayals.  But literature does not work like medicine, or even like philosophy.  In medicine, if enough people study a bug for a long enough time, the bug generally gets licked.  Even in philosophy, the theory is (or was) that if enough people argue about a bad philosopher for a long enough time, his errors will become apparent and his influence, therefore, will be destroyed.  In literature, however, the more people study a work—even a morally questionable work—the more of a life the work seems to have.  One does not kill prejudice by angry academic writing; one perpetuates it by extending its voice.

The real solution, if a work is sufficiently morally iniquitous to make one angry, is to ignore it and to study or write something else, something more morally worthy of attention.  Scholars here could stand to learn a practical lesson from politics: giving air time to an opponent is usually a strategic mistake.  But scholars, like politicians and people in general, sometimes let their anger get the better of them, and spend endless reservoirs of time and effort and influence trying to dismantle a canon they perceive as problematic and, in the process, reminding the rest of us of its existence.  Wiser would be the man (however wrong) to argue that Samson Agonistes is a work of terrorist literature, and leave it at that.

But the real oddity of the angry literary scholar is not even his impracticality—scholars are, after all, stereotypically bad at realizing how their ideas will affect those around them.

No, the real oddity of the angry literary scholar is that in a field which is purportedly devoted to delight, they have determined on a course of study and work which will keep them perpetually miserable.  The entire point of an aesthetic representation is, after all, to give pleasure to its readers.  Whether or not it is also to contain some elements of truth is disputed.  I myself would argue that a great deal of the pleasure is in seeing the truth—in seeing that the way this character acts in this moment is eminently true to life, in the sense that that sort of man would indeed act in just that way in that sort of moment.  But whether the pleasure comes from the truth of a depiction or from something else or some combination of things, pleasure is at the heart of reading, and at the heart of creating an object to be read.

It is odd, then, that those who are professionally dedicated to the study of things designed to give delight are so adamantly determined not to enjoy themselves.  It is odd that they should choose to attach themselves to works which are so morally iniquitous as to anger them.

But then again, there are a great many desiderata that other people enjoy which I, in my saner moments, regard as odd: power, heels from Prada, and hang-gliding, to name but a few.  But there are darker moments when the appeal of being angry, really, righteously angry at something, and being known to be angry at it, and respected for it, does appeal to me.  There are also moments when the idea of standing on four-inch calf enhancers sounds exciting, not to say daring.  I gave my heels to Goodwill a long time ago; I have yet to eradicate the remains of empty righteous indignation from my life.  Probably the job of doing so will go on until my life is over.

But in the meantime, someone somewhere is writing an essay about how T.S. Eliot or Dickens or Milton or Shakespeare is evil, and they are angry.  I can only hope that, on some level, they’re enjoying it.

“It is consequently my degrading duty to serve this upstart as
First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief,
Lord High Admiral, Master of the Buckhounds, Groom of the Back Stairs,
Archbishop of Titipu, and Lord Mayor, both acting and elect, all rolled into one. 
And at a salary!  A Pooh-Bah paid for his services! 
I a salaried minion!  But I do it!  It revolts me, but I do it!”

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