P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
3.4 (Fall 2003)
Special Issue: Romanticism
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (Executive Director)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY
Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University
Kelly Ann Hampton
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Spring 2003) may be viewed by
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Literate Values of Tyler, Texas (2003), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
Pensée de la Saison
"Nothing is more natural for man than to be at war with his nature."
Special Issue: Romanticism
The romantics and the classicists dueled for two centuries, but their differences may now be academic.
Daggerpoints and Loggerheads: Intellectualism and the Decline of the West
John R. Harris
In the final essay of this three-part series, the author suggests that the artificial sense of "intellectual" belongs especially to the past two centuries and is inextricably linked to the rise of technology.
"And From Our Correspondent In…"
A short, wry poem from a diehard admirer of truth.
To the Prophets: An Essay on Romanticism
John D. Wright
If romanticism is understood as an openness to the novel and the imaginative rather than as a pedantic scholarly distinction, then a heavy infusion of its vigor is needed to resuscitate our literature.
Postscript to Essay on Romanticism: Author and Editor Trade Thoughts
John Wright and John Harris
The author of the foregoing essay and Praesidium’s editor exchange views about romanticism and art generally, often with mild disagreement.
Translated Excerpts from Pierre Lasserre’s Le Romantisme Français
French scholar Pierre Lasserre turned the Sorbonne inside-out with his assault upon the romantics’ moral, intellectual, and spiritual poverty. These excerpts recover his most stunning insights from moth balls.
Life Via Electron: "Da News" and "Prayers from Belgrade" (poetry)
Professor Carlson reflects further upon the wire-and-wave-transmitted feelings of contemporary life.
* * * * *
A Few Words from the Editor
The "special issue" topic for this quarter took me quite by surprise. I had known for some while that my young contact through an Internet writing group, John Wright, wanted to compose an essay for the journal about romanticism. I had no early hints, however, that his subject was not any certain collection of historically designated romantics (or Romantics, in other words), but the romantic tendency itself. I therefore went about building my own essay on the Western intellectual’s rise and his culture’s decline in blithe ignorance: little did I know that, in a way, I was also writing about the rise of the romantic influence! Or rather, I knew this well enough, naturally—but I would not have chosen (and in fact did not choose) to link our culture’s decline with the romantics tout court. The degenerative forces at work, in my opinion, were far greater than those which produce a new literary or artistic epoch. At most, romanticism was as much victim as villain in the piece. It was the all-but-inevitable response (for is anything in human events really inevitable?) to the West’s increasing disparagement of imaginative and spiritual realities and its increasing valuation of the materially viable and useful.
Now, Mr. Wright will surely cry foul at the stingy charity of my "as much victim as villain" remark. He has chosen to define romanticism in a way which identifies it virtually one-to-one with imagination, spirituality, and—in short—our lately victimized humanity. He shows himself fully aware that academic definitions, with their emphasis of historical causality, their incessant dropping of names, and their dense jargon, are out of step with his method; yet he prefers to be out of step and risk the sacrifice of clinical precision, and he makes an appealing case that such precision reduces vital forces to stale corpses. No one who has toiled through the gulags of graduate school or has reeled amid fumes of coffee and doughnuts at some endless Conference on Literary Signifiers and Signifying Literature can fail to share this impatience with pedantry. At the same time, I personally believe that there is enough of the historically conditioned about the romantic phenomenon that the "r" word makes me fidget as a synonym for all things bright and beautiful. John and I go round and round this maypole in our series of e-mail exchanges which I present as a postscript to his essay. It doesn’t seem to me that we resolve any of our differences—but it occurs to me that a resolution is difficult for the very reason that, behind our widely divergent understanding of terms, we agree upon so much.
If my view of the romantics is uncharitable, then French scholar Pierre Lasserre’s was ruthless. I have been fascinated by Lasserre since I was first exposed to him; and, for almost the same amount of time, I have been hounding Ms. DiRoberti to translate some excerpts for the journal. I confess that I find myself in the front row of the Lasserre cheering section when the great man lays into Rousseau and Hugo, both of whom I have always thought as insufferable in their moral arrogance as they are brilliant in their rhetorical dexterity. Hugo, especially, possessed one of the greatest gifts for metaphor that I have ever encountered: if only he had confined himself to the worship of nature in verse! I believe it was Auden who called Tennyson the "stupidest of the great poets". I must conclude, after a long dose of Hugo, that Auden had only English poets in mind.
Ironically, Lasserre is very hard to translate for what might well be called a certain romanticism of style. No classically cadenced cola and lucid phrases for him! His writing is suffused in metaphors almost as arresting, sometimes, as Hugo’s, and in lists which work themselves into such a fever-pitch that they appear to forget where they started. Gianna is to be highly commended for having comprehensibly rendered so many apostrophes and denunciations of such insistent hammering or all-points-covered irony. I know that she is distressed at having translated only about half of the passages she had marked for presentation. A scholarly exhaustion overtook her, however, at just the right moment, since a longer submission could not have been accommodated in this issue. I have confidence that we will see the second half at another time.
As usual, we also have unusually fine poetry and fiction to offer. Ralph Carlson knows that I am always awake to the ironies of literary endeavor in an electronic age (since I am still not entirely convinced that an online literary journal is not a contradiction in terms). His three poems remind us not only that the various screens around us are compressing and reducing our experience in brutal ways, but that, on occasion, they also make human exchanges possible which would have been impossible a few years ago. Blessings in this life are generally mixed, and so are curses. Perhaps Ivor Davies’ latest short story may be said to embellish that same point, since his typically jaundiced view of the Ivory Tower has lingered this time upon a somewhat redeeming character. (I have not as yet extorted an answer from him about whether that character’s name, Sauter, is a deliberate evocation of the Greek word for “savior”, σωτήρ.) In any event, this seems a distinctly realist kind of story, just as the subtle paradoxes of Ralph’s poetry scarcely suggest an earnest romantic effusion: so the special theme stops short of including our creative pages this quarter.
Or does it? Isn’t the notion that the human heart can, after all, find a channel through technology, or that the most embittered of hearts can still not suppress new hope, a romantic one? A stretch, perhaps—but John Wright would approve of that stretch! ~J.H.
Daggerpoints and Loggerheads:
Intellectualism and the Decline of the West
John R. Harris
In my second essay about the increasing division of modern life into simplistically, truculently opposite points of view, I indicted both fascism and communism for exploiting ill-educated masses. The rank and file became a force to be reckoned with only in the latter nineteenth century. Before then, it was often little more than cannon fodder, beholden to ruling élites for a bit of land, a small break on the rent, a portion of grog at festival time, and relative security from ransacking brigands. Several forces converged, however, so as to liberate common people from their "contented squalor" about a century and a half ago. The Christian recognition of every soul as equal in God’s eyes had long fermented in the West when the printing press made a more widespread literacy possible and allowed the common man actually to lift his intellectual and spiritual cultivation above common levels. The Reformation had already shaken the rigid hierarchy imposed upon Christendom for centuries, and the Enlightenment had extended the ordinary man’s right to choose for himself into the political realm. Yet such amelioration of Everyman’s lot was visited upon just a few, in reality, as long as food had to be grown through intensive, back-breaking labor. The Industrial Revolution, for all the novel urban miseries and nightmares it concocted, took common folk off the land in great droves and resettled them where they had constant contact with printed documents and literate interpreters, even if they themselves could scarcely sign their name. This new throng of impoverished laborers could be instantly informed of shocking occurrences or ambitious undertakings. It could be fanned like a flame, and it could be more or less directed like a flame carefully ignited when the winds are right. In the hands of skilled demagogues, it could bring down governments, suspend a nation’s economic life, or launch a war to which individual minds under no duress would never have consented. Still cannon fodder… but now "the people" believed that they were asserting themselves.
The tight similarity between fascism and communism in this regard is seldom remarked (or perhaps often suppressed). Both systems relied on the expert, cynical manipulation of the masses by demagogues who shrewdly used the popular press and later (as in Hitler’s case) electronic amplification and radio. In neither movement do we find those "victims" who are urged to rise up indignantly being urged, as well, to go home and search their souls. On the contrary, the individual’s exercise of conscience is now a selfish indulgence to be avoided and, in persistent cases, punished. French novelist Georges Duhamel has left us a minutely accurate sketch of typical left-wing activism in post-liberation Paris, its rhetoric now fully purged of any pre-World War One pacificism except, precisely, as rhetoric. Duhamel’s protagonist, highly reputed physiologist Patrice Périot, indeed attempts to chasten such outbursts by affixing his august name to innumerable petitions for judicial clemency and global justice (though the text of these petitions often mysteriously changes before publication). Yet it is the author-journalist turned political hopeful, Gérin-Labrit, who always seems to carry the day. Addressing a large audience in a steamy room one evening, this sinister warrior-of-words almost ignites a riot:
The self-contradictions in Gérin-Labrit’s algarade are almost ostentatious, as if he were exhorting his faithful, "To hell with thinking, and with all who think!" The good of the collective is all—and it is best identified, of course, by your humble servant behind the microphone, who has devoted his life to leading you—with all the selflessness of Il Duce or Der Führer. Duhamel’s Gérin-Labrit also styles himself, from the spectrum’s far-left end, as among "those who accept to lead the multitudes toward a better life."2 The messianic vanity of the ambition is clear; indeed, Gérin-Labrit’s closing images spring (ironically, since he is an atheist) from the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Revelations. These shepherds intend to guide their sheep from darkness as Moses led the children of Israel from Egypt. Not that a Hebrew reference would have been evoked by either camp any more deliberately than an evangelical one (and let us not forget that Stalin also persecuted Jews later in his glorious career): the operative image is that of being a holy prophet—of being, indeed, the new god in an age when God’s death can no longer be denied.3
Obviously, the ghastly upheavals of the twentieth century are not the direct result of individualism, since all of them expressly denounced genuine free-thinking in deference to The Leader’s absolute will. What happened, rather, was that the trend toward individualism was hijacked. Great masses of people who had been newly awarded with political power on the assumption that they were individuals and would think responsibly for themselves fell prey to incendiary rabble-rousers. No doubt, progressivists should have anticipated the coup. Speaking for myself, I honestly don’t know if any vast group of people, no matter how literate and educated, can resist the herding of master manipulators. My own observations of people on college campuses do not leave me sanguine. Catholic historians and commentators like Jacques Barzun and Thomas Molnar who charge the whole long sequence of individualism’s rise, therefore, with ruining our civilization may well be correct to the extent that the individual’s absorption into the mob was inevitable.4 It must surely be admitted, though (as I wrote in my previous essay), that the western nations which best resisted the extremes of both fascism and communism were those whose masses had grown most literate and had been most liberated from servile drudgery. An enormous rural peasantry was in fact still toiling away in near-medieval numbers and conditions where communists scored their greatest political successes with the rhetoric of progress. Even in Germany and France, fascist parties prospered mostly among an economically distressed petite bourgeoisie with no sense of history to leaven the facile myths it was fed.
I have written my fill about the demagogues, and also about the crowd-baiting journalists who served (often unwittingly) as their bull whips and outriders. What I wish to ponder in this final essay is the role of the intellectual during the past century of moral and spiritual decline. After all, if more and more day laborers were being given the vote, taught to read newspapers, and introduced to a world of abstract ideas about freedom and justice, it must be because more and more teachers, scholars, and thinkers were fueling such change. The elevation of the masses can hardly be called a disingenuous ruse or a fiendishly clever conspiracy even by the most cynical observer. Lest we romanticize the pastoral days which preceded widespread public educational ventures, we should always have in mind such scenes as Tomás de Paor recalls of his grandfather’s generation in latter nineteenth-century Ireland:
Superstition can murder mind and soul as brutally as ever did the hammers of a hellish urban foundry or assembly line. The work of nineteenth-century reformers to educate the peasantry was, to be sure, sometimes incomplete, sometimes inflexible, and almost always tinged with arrogance. It was largely well-intentioned, however, and it certainly poses no very credible gateway to the era of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
No, the question which advances itself as one contemplates such mass migration toward calamity is very nearly the opposite: not, "How did those evil luminaries do it?" but, "Where were all the teachers, all the educated men and women of good will?" In my preceding essay, I suggested that the most knowledgeable minds of Western culture were often to be found retreating meekly into their narrow specializations during this critical period. The explosion of scientific learning had turned geologists mute on matters involving botany, heart and lung experts timid on matters involving the brain, and so on. How much more reluctant would such intellects trained in empirical rigor have been to issue a formal, public pronouncement on art or politics! The Age of the Specialist left the twentieth century deprived of the kind of well-informed counsel—and, even more, the kind of humane counsel—which Queen Elizabeth once enjoyed from Francis Bacon or Queen Christina from Descartes. Thoughtful people whose prestige in certain areas might have translated into moral capital chose, instead, to concentrate upon those specific areas. The soap-box tirades and fist-shaking marches of democratic politics frightened them, and so they kept their heads low. Or perhaps, in many cases, they held their heads high and also turned away. In Roger Martin du Gard’s epic chronicle of the Thibault family, Antoine, a learned man of medicine who intends to make his mark in children’s psychology, has this to say about his brother’s warning of an imminent war. "A man who has a métier to practice shouldn’t allow himself to be distracted from it so that he can run off and play fly-on-the-wall in matters about which he understands nothing." Antoine doesn’t believe the rumors: men do not ascend to lead nations, he muses, by being careless warmongers. As Martin du Gard confides, "He had an innate respect for specialists."6 Even on the eve of The Great War, as the latest headlines ring with alarm, such sentiments do not fail him entirely: "‘One must entrust oneself to the people of the [diplomatic] métier,’ interrupted Antoine nervously. ‘They ought to know better than we what the proper move is.’"7
The reader may exclaim, "Well, things have surely changed in a few decades!" I believe this is quite true. Fifty years ago, there was no equivalent to Peter Singer of Princeton, the "bioethicist" who is eager to be widely quoted making Procrustean pronouncements on delicate issues related to genetic engineering. By contrast, when Alfred Kinsey undertook to liberate the West from its bourgeois hang-ups, he rigorously but secretly screened and primed his staff, loaded his surveys with unidentified samples drawn (it turns out) from convicted sex criminals, and otherwise cooked the books.8 One might say wryly that Kinsey had the decency to cloak his indecent crusade in respectability. It would be more accurate, of course, to say that he abused the specialist’s formidable jargon and statistics to smuggle across conclusions which spoke for themselves. Nowadays, a scientific celebrity of Carl Sagan’s stature who knows (like Mussolini) how to look good in front of the camera has little to fear from the shunning of his more methodical colleagues should he uncork an airy declaration on the comparative merits of Christianity and Hinduism. In the world of electronically manipulated mass sentiment, a suave television appearance is good public relations, and good PR means more funding. If an Ivy League school could convince its trustees to waive the requirements disqualifying a Hollywood actor or sports star for a Political Science position, who seriously doubts that we would see a new kind of "heavy hitter" in the professorial line-up?
In other words, the mass media have come so to dominate Western culture over the past fifty years (and we are talking, of course, primarily about television) that a handsome or pretty face which can play the part of the specialist need no longer have much specialized knowledge to be permitted sweeping judgments on the most delicate social or moral issues. A talk-show host of my generation regularly described his frequent guest, psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, as "my favorite redhead". Comely Bettany Hughes is now narrating the sort of historical documentaries for the BBC which Sir Kenneth Clark once hosted; and however sound the former’s credentials, she lacks that venerable experience of life which was once assumed to be mandatory for pronouncing verdicts on the ravages of human vice and ambition. Local TV stations everywhere currently employ well-groomed, verbally fluent medical doctors to present segments on health issues. Today we indeed inhabit a different world from the tight-lipped, lab-coated technician’s. As our intellectuals respond to it, their necessary qualification is more and more a certain "entertainment appeal" and their level of competence more and more open to negotiation.
The truth is that as we become a post-literate society, we are also becoming a post-intellectual one—or at least post-reflective (for the meaning of the word "intellectual" is problematic throughout this paper). The days of the professional thinker are numbered, if they have not already passed. Like politicians and jurists, teachers are turning into performers. Rather than a theory or philosophy, they have a "shtick". It is tempting to blame television for all this—and I have just proposed, I grant, that the downward trend of close analysis rapidly accelerated with the rise of TV. I shall no doubt surprise those of my readers who have observed my irrepressible distaste for the "idiot box" when I attempt to absolve TV from some of the culpability. I believe, in fact, that our curious modern beast, the card-carrying intellectual, has been a latent thespian from the start, and that television merely lured his love of melodramatic posturing to the surface in surroundings where no stones from streetcorner hecklers need be feared.
By no means am I implying that all scholars and learned practitioners are wildly gesturing prime donne… but then, the word "intellectual" has rarely been applied to men and women who do research with sterilized hands. The empirical creed of the chemist or physicist, after all, has specific and visible application. Such sages replace hearts or split atoms. They may be called "mad scientists" from time to time, but they are spared the "i" word. To this day, most of them continue to flee the public spotlight: the Carl Sagans and Stephen J. Goulds among them compose an extraordinary minority. As for the Kinseys and the Dr. Joyces… well, lab coat or not, the "science" of the human psyche remains something less like spectral analysis of stars than symbolist poetry.
For it is precisely within the humanities—literature, philosophy, history, the social "sciences"—that the concept of the intellectual has evolved. Even within these strictures, the intellectual was a long time coming. There was virtually no one in the Middle Ages, for instance, who would have filled the bill. Augustine an intellectual? Thomas Aquinas? But they were churchmen, and theologians. In their day, their work was regarded as more tautly indexed to reality, perhaps, than our cardiologists’ and epidemiologists’. We may scoff at such a claim now, but the point is that in their milieu they were not thought of, nor would have thought of themselves, as theorists or visionaries. One reason for this was that everything written by such scholars was meticulously referenced to the past. They were not inventors of ideas: they analyzed received knowledge and wisdom in search of neglected relationships and lost emphases. While they did not disdain universal human reason as a tool in this search (Aquinas, indeed, found in reason a clear sign of God’s beckoning paternal love), they were thereby certainly not attempting to withdraw into meditations inaccessible to most. On the contrary, since reason was a gift of God to all people, its revelations about the material world were objective. To call such revelation intellectual because the mind had midwifed it might be accurate in some narrow sense, but it would also be otiose. To insist upon a distinction here would be to say that a staircase does not actually lead upward—that ascent is a product of working legs.
The objective use of reason was later so emphasized in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, however, that ties to received wisdom began to snap. Descartes dryly confided in his Discourse on the Method that he derived very little profit from studying respected precedents in school. In the Meditations, he would clear his head even of sacred teaching lest it prejudice his judgment; and though he claimed at last that reason had led him right back to Church doctrine, the orthodox clergy remained extremely uncomfortable with the whole experience. No doubt, it divined in the wings the ruthlessly methodical figure of Kant. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone refused to have anything to do with unnerving miracles, blindly accepted dogma, and abjectly revered hierarchy. Far more than Luther (though far less lucidly), Kant insisted that the Christian faith could be truly practiced only by those who chose to subordinate their will to an inwardly vital principle of perfect goodness.
If such formulations are beginning to look more plausibly intellectual, they are still redeemed from the taint of subjectivism by the heavy stress they lay on rational objectivity. Say if you like that Kant’s categorical imperative unjustifiably elevates whimsy to objective law: many have said so, though with little evidence of having read Kant closely. The fact is in no way altered that Kant, like Aquinas, saw himself as appealing to universally valid rules of thought (in ethics, the rule of honoring what could be thought universally), and he made a stupendous, voluminous effort to engage those rules. An honest assessment of his undertaking would recognize that he sought precisely to purge religious faith of subjective indulgence: emotionally overwrought responses to rare events, dislocation of moral obedience from a prodding conscience to a "we’ll fix it" clergy, and so on. This is an attempt to meet hard, bare moral realities head-on. If assuming full responsibility for one’s actions if to be reckoned intellectualism, then would that both the Third Reich and the chic campus revolutionaries of the sixties had been thus intellectual!
Even the poets of these centuries were scarcely constructing fantasy worlds from their daydreams. Throughout the Renaissance, poetry remained a true poiêsis—a craftsmanly construction strictly governed by precedent. Herbert’s pious meditations and Du Bellay’s melancholy reflections stand out for their candid intimacy when we view them against their day’s standard, but we must finally admit that something like a universal human sentiment remains their target and that conventional form is very much their vehicle. As we near the eighteenth century, an author’s feet are still both firmly fixed in what he considers reality—in what is widely considered reality, we may say. No great changes are envisioned by the artist yet, no radical restructuring of the world after a blueprint entrusted only to a brain throbbing with prophecy. As famous a fantasy as Thomas More’s Utopia was viewed as a meander through the impossible (just as its title—No Place—implies) rather than a serious political manifesto. More’s ramble is somewhat less burlesque than Cyrano de Bergerac’s États de l’Autre Monde, yet it stands in the same tradition of smiling at human gullibility. In the European outlook of this era, only a madman would become so engrossed in idealistic crusades as to forget the raw facts of human nature—an Orlando driven insane by love, perhaps, or a Don Quixote reduced to a second childhood by too many silly romances of yesteryear. This, bear in mind, is what writers of books had to say about the bookish!
In fact, up until this time, very few artists and thinkers had any motive for what we might call idle speculation. Boccaccio, as he revealed in his preface, was fully aware that he was writing mostly for aristocratic ladies, as were all of the romanciers of the Middle Ages. (Hence Don Quixote’s grave error: his reading matter was not intended for the active gender!) Poets like Sydney and Charles d’Orleans were themselves immersed in the exigencies of the courtly life, and versified with the same commitment which they brought to the practice of fencing and horsemanship. The bourgeois secular author wrote for a specific audience from which he expected specific rewards, and his blue-blooded counterpart wrote to imitate Castiglione’s portrait of the perfect courtier. These were all thoughtful people, and many of them must have been outstandingly intelligent. There was no general perception, however, that they had devoted themselves specially to the intellect or sacrificed their role in public affairs to chase a Faustian star. Contrast Marlowe’s Faust with Goethe’s, for that matter, and you will observe that only the latter is an intellectual in our current sense. Faustus, instead, is an ambitious, malign scholar determined to pervert his great knowledge toward worldly, material, even carnal ends. He is not trying to crack the riddle of life: he is trying to pluck the fruit of power.
Dr. Faustus reminds us, too, that science was already acquiring that "nuts and bolts" practicality which spares it today from the stigma of intellectualism. If Bacon was a purposeful dabbler, Descartes was the father of scientific method and Newton (with his keen application of mathematics to physical questions) perhaps the first fully modern scientist. Reality was assuming a more material form: the day was at hand when one could not claim to be hot in its pursuit while writing of immaterial events or "noumena" (the reason, no doubt, why Kant’s endeavor is so often mismeasured: i.e., because his giving preeminent authority to moral duty defied his day’s empirical bias). Note that, of the three early scientists named above, only Bacon might also have been called a literary artist. Descartes was probably more interested in music and painting than poetry, but of sound and color he has left us only essays on the physiology of perception. Newton had no belleletrist pretensions whatever. A cleft was opening between the realms of matter and spirit. As new technology burgeoned upon the ground of "pure" scientific research throughout the late eighteenth century, the specialization discussed earlier grew ever more exaggerated; and as young men (and women—but especially men) found ever greater rewards for applying their minds to practical problems, they found ever more paltry ones for turning their minds to the arts.
The intellectual, I contend, first appears on the scene as this chasm between matter and spirit becomes unbridgeable. Religious answers to his questions are still broadly available; but orthodoxy has discredited itself by opposing science in a series of humiliating debates (about the solar system, about the earth’s age, etc.), and formal religion is implicated, besides, in corrupt regimes and brutal sectarian fighting. As for education, it goes without saying that this new breed of creature has read belles lettres and written poetry rather than apprenticed under a watchmaker and studied systems using cogs and springs. He is young Werther, not young Eli Whitney. His class origins are probably haut bourgeois: a prosperous merchant father or uncle must have had enough money to "waste" on sending him through years of school and, perhaps, of foreign travel. Chaucer and Boccaccio came from such origins, too. In their day, however, a well-educated young man unattached to the clergy was a sufficient rarity that he was much sought after for important secretarial assignments. This sensitive spirit of the eighteenth century, in contrast, has few opportunities. In Britain or France or Russia of a few decades later, he would have found enormous—and ever growing—civil service machines quite capable of dispatching him to the Far East or burying him under reams of paper in the capital city. Grim as such a fate proved to many ardent men, it was at any rate an existence, a way to survive. By the late eighteenth century, there are as yet no bureaucratic monstrosities plugging away like shiny new engines, and neither is there much interest in a youth without the brilliance to be an engineer.
Add to these factors two others: an unstable economy and the proliferation of printed matter. Two investment "bubbles" in 1720 (one English and one French) had left a great many prosperous European families suddenly destitute. Even the aristocracy was beset with debts—more so than other social classes, in fact. A pool of very literate but almost penniless young people whose preparation for life was widely regarded as worthless was rapidly welling up. That the overflow should be expressed in print as essays, poems, and novels was another phenomenon one would not have witnessed earlier. The reading public was now more ample than it had ever been (though its size still did not remotely approximate universal literacy), and its members were close enough to the spiritual crisis that they responded electrically when a Rousseau or a Foscolo recorded his anguish. (Books were actually published on a subscription basis sometimes: Foscolo had to secure five hundred subscribers to his Dante commentary while exiled in England before his work went to press.) The living to be obtained thereby was meager, indeed—but the author occasionally enjoyed the compensation of being celebrated for every plaint or moan he could pen.
It should be observed, too, that the situation must really have seemed a disconsolate one, not just to unemployed men of letters, but to every thoughtful person with a classical education. After all, even if beauty and goodness are universal, their appreciation requires as much of an apprenticeship as watchmaking. It may well be that more young people than ever were receiving such a liberal education. What this expanding audience of literati was reading of a vernacular, contemporary genre, however, said that doom was descending upon the life of fine sentiment. Changes were in the wind, announced eloquent prophets of decline like Goldsmith and Cowper. The cultivation of letters and feelings was fast growing irrelevant. Literate people throughout Europe would not have perceived, perhaps, what Blake was observing north of London: that natural beauty was under frontal assault from smoke stacks belching toxic fumes. The aristocratic among them would have noticed, rather, that the horse and saber were yielding to gunpowder, that a code of honor undergirded by dueling was yielding to labyrinths of tawdry political influence, that grand old names were perishing, that ancient estates were toppling.9 The haughty atavism of Chateaubriand and Vigny often trumped Rousseau’s petulant progressivism in the early going. Even aspirant bourgeois like Werther pined after chivalric ways as much as they seethed over being denied a respectful nod or a chance to die defending their honor. (What else was Walter Scott about?) The rude snubs dealt to Werther in the second half of Goethe’s tragic novella stem from class conventions, to be sure—but the anguish they cause the young man is that of being denied admittance to intimate, delicate exchanges. The delicacy was old-fashioned, though the defense of it from educated "interlopers" was improvised. Where we see a social revolution now, many at the time saw access to transcending sympathies cut off by an outbreak of coarseness. Long before the Industrial Revolution had defiled horizons and trashed great cities, this generation sensed that the past’s charms were being suffocated by changes which held esprit and gentillesse in no esteem whatever.
Actually, a Chateaubriand or a Vigny may have been too tightly implicated in the ancien régime (in its manners if not its politics) to represent our proto-intellectual. As fantastical as their sumptuous portraits were of things lost and gone forever, they seem to have deceived themselves as much as others on questions of substance. (Chateaubriand had most certainly read Werther before writing René, by the way: it was indeed spiritual alienation, not social revolution, which he mined from Goethe.) In their own view, these would-be courtiers of the Sun King were not living a daydream when they wrote: they had just been born too late to live. My definition of the intellectual requires that he be fully, even triumphantly aware that his mind has created an alternative world to the one before him, and that he seriously and earnestly choose to live in this "alter-cosmos".10 (Hence Baudelaire’s sardonic invocation of the "artificial paradises" to be found in wine and hashish disqualifies him, too, from the rank of self-anointed visionary.)
It is Rousseau who deserves the dubious honor, I think, of being the grandsire of the twentieth century’s caviling, contradicting, opinionated intelligentsia. Clearly quite intelligent and educated beyond the needs of any practical employment he was likely to find, motivated with alarming equality by both a passion for justice and a lust for self-promotion, Rousseau made no bones about the probable subjectivity of his visions. "I am made like none other whom I have seen," he writes with obtuse pride in his Confessions, "and, I dare to believe, like none other who has ever existed." Montaigne had explained his apparent self-preoccupation as a way of entering the hearts of all men; Rousseau, though addressing all men with what should certainly be universal concerns, wraps himself in enigma. Gone is the appeal both to received wisdom and to common sense. Descartes and Kant had de-emphasized the former to elevate the latter, but Rousseau will have nothing to do with either. That his most compelling passages (such as the Swiss Vicar’s profession of faith in Émile) are really rationalist commonplaces does not awaken him from his infatuation with subjectivity; for at other points he lurches ahead with little apparent regard for coherence, as in his prize-winning essay, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men.11 For Rousseau, present disarray in any form—the non-sequiturs of his writing, the irresponsible whimsy of his personal conduct, the ludicrous inconsistency of being both lonely outcast and darling of the Parisian literati—left him as unaffected as the proverbial duck’s back is by water. If he was implausible or unfaithful, it was because a decadent world had forced him to be so. His true being lived in a golden vision of the future, which lived in his fertile imagination: the worldly being which bore his name and went about contradicting and perjuring itself was the present world’s layer of soot, subject to complete removal with a good wash. This brilliant man was as immune to guilt as ever any Gnostic zealot.
And his progeny, of course, have proved the same. Hegel with his future riding high on an imperial white horse, Marx with his impending revolution to end Original Sin, Nietzsche with his supermanly triumph over moral scruples, Heidegger with his impenetrably mystical fulfillment of being… all of these minds unapologetically rejected the truth before their eyes to strain after a vision of their own fabrication. Marxist footsoldier Ernst Bloch even pledged his allegiance (in a fashion which has become routine of all contemporary politicians) to dreams! Over the past two centuries, such treacherous beacons have drawn the bright, brooding intellects of young poets as flames draw moths. For the modern intellectual, in the final analysis, is a poet. He creates fanciful imagery and calls it an agenda for social reform, or at least (most often) borrows the images of his favorite creator. "Disciplines" like philosophy and literary studies have long abandoned any regard for either convention or objective reason, courtesy of Rousseau’s heirs. As disciplines, they have ceased to exist. History and political science remain scenes of bitter in-fighting due to the clear basis of one in circumstantial fact and of the other in moral consensus, but the retreat of the objectivist phalanx has been steady. Metaphor has prevailed on all fronts. To be captured by a utopian daydream is sufficient cause to undermine mores, foment unrest and riot, and even to look away from (if not quite, for most, to participate in) bloody mass murder.
This, at last, is intellectualism. It styles itself idealistic: it contemptuously reproaches its opponents for having no vision of progress. But true idealism, as I have been at pains to stress throughout the present paper, must be intricately connected to realism.12 It must have as its goal the illumination of an ever-available human choice to strive after higher, less selfish levels of performance. Christian writers from Augustine to Kant, however many and severe their disagreements, fully understood that perfect goodness is not of this world. It was because they faced the reality of human nature that they so vigorously urged resisting that nature’s lower motives. For freedom is a reality: it is, indeed, the supreme human reality.
The modern intellectual, on the other hand, has offered us a false idealism indexed to a material state, a fanciful Never Never Land. This idealism is false precisely because it disengages moral responsibility, wherein our only true ideals reside, to pursue a material arrangement. The pseudo-philosophers I mentioned just above—the poets of imminent earthly paradise—fueled the rhetoric of both fascists and communists throughout the twentieth century. (Sometimes, as in the case of Hegel and Heidegger—and perhaps Nietzsche—they could indeed fuel both machines at once.) As the genocidal tendencies of the two juggernauts have been left progressively bare above history’s rubble, even for those whose eyes were shut most resolutely, we have become better able to appreciate that the ultimate enemy of the intellectualized ideal is none other than moral idealism: that is, freedom, the faith that people might choose the better way if dissuaded from following trend, blind prejudice, and selfish impulse. Instead, fascist and communist alike merely supplanted a set of mores with a straitjacket of drills, complete with specialized armbands and special salutes. Like pieces on a chessboard, "citizens" were given their marching orders in strict accordance with the newly dominant allegory’s demands. Indeed, once these experiments in scripted living reached the lock-and-load stage, the intellectuals who had rabidly instigated them were often re-deployed—with consummate cynicism—to argue in journals and universities that all culture has always been mere metaphor, anyway. Try telling that to the assembled multitudes in Red Square or the Berlin Sportpalast!
But, of course, the underlying nihilism of the modern intellectual has always been his dirty little secret, acknowledged only to subvert rival idealists of a genuinely moral bent. Rousseau for the masses and, perhaps, for one’s personal vanity: Voltaire (that other face of the intellectual) for the educated opposition. Roger Martin du Gard’s sinister leader of a Swiss revolutionary cell, Meynestral, expresses the nihilistic core of his universe in such dramatic terms that one of his ingenuous entourage repeats the exchange to Jacques all aglow with admiration:
I suspect that few of our intellectuals are capable of such candor. Their egotism will not withstand so forthright an admission of their moral vacuity. My observations of graduate students steeped in deconstruction and similar "theory" over the years have never caught a single one confessing that, since all knowledge is a mere game of metaphors, his own lofty scorn for bourgeois hypocrisy can only be a sneaky trick to steal kingship of the mountain. On the contrary, intellectuals can be appallingly thoughtless when their own hypocrisy is involved. We are all made pretty much the same, after all—but what a sordid place to re-discover our universal brotherhood!
For anyone who might desire a locus classicus which sums up the persistence of human arrogance, a casual search would quickly turn up several. This from Seneca would work: aliena vitia in oculis habemus, a tergo nostra sunt—"The vices of others stand directly before our eyes, our own stay behind our back." Far more fascinating than aphoristic generality, however, is the appearance in print—two thousand years ago—of just the kind of self-deluding nihilism, derisive abroad but indulgent at home, so common in the modern intellectual. Our contemporary sage’s brooding earnestness where his private fantasies are concerned is quite unique to recent times, as far as I can tell; but his easy mockery of rival positions in a bid to render fantasy less discredited is, it turns out, as old as the hills. The following remark from second-century (AD) Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus shows that the moral anesthesia of relativism had been discovered long before Jacques Deridda.
The self-serving, disingenuous character of this endeavor is so patent that one wonders how it could escape any keen mind. The seeker is really no seeker at all: he is an enemy of seeking, tout court, who wishes above all to be relieved of worries. He stumbles upon a rhetorical strategy which secures for him the same blessed sense of detachment as, say, a joint of marijuana (or a lobotomy). Mission accomplished. Sextus continually turns the deaf ear to the note of bad faith which rings throughout his long treatise as it does here. He employs with unconscious irony the word δεόντως, "necessarily", over and over in order to establish why no conclusions can be necessary ones. I am reminded of a child I once knew who fell in love with the phrase, "not necessarily", as a way of interdicting adults. What a delightful pair of words! For of the few things that really are necessary, how many of them do the clever cavilers of the world allow us to behold in stark nakedness? Only the necessarily-not-necessary!
I suppose what all this indicates about our modern intellectual (other than that one side of him is not so modern, after all) is that, once again, he is more in love with the poetry of utter transformation than in league with transformatory death squads. No doubt, this is a faintly redeeming tribute to his humanity (if not to his fidelity—nor, indeed, to his thoughtfulness). That is to say, he is quite happy scoffing at the status quo à la Voltaire and talking revolution at wine-and-cheese parties à la Rousseau, but so quickly blanches at the sight of a gun that he has acquired a facility for blocking out such dissonant images. For this reason, the intellectual has remained and must always remain a minor player, and a rather contemptible one, in real-life upheavals. The strong men stroke his ego as they stockpile weapons, allowing him to win over young listeners with his Shangri-La stories, to embarrass the bourgeois establishment with his acid diatribes, and to intoxicate wavering academics or bureaucrats no less astute than he with a world-weary aporia. He has his reward, and his handlers have theirs. For him, a delicious, sustained, and not wholly unjustified illusion that he is indeed undermining a culture which turned its vast back on him; and for them—the strong men awaiting the moment to break out their weapons—the eradication of an unprepared rival. Yet should such a strong man vault into the saddle, the intellectual will discover that he has undermined himself as well as his culture—that he has held the stirrup for a philistine no less unjust than a robber baron, and quite a bit more sanguinary. His happiest outcome, then (as one would have thought any deconstructionist could figure out), is the revolution’s indefinite postponement. The illusion of laboring toward a New Jerusalem may thus be sustained throughout a lifetime—his lifetime—which is all the intellectual really ever wanted: the prolonging of the idyll on Keats’s Grecian Urn, the renewing with poetry’s opium of a fantasy along Xanadu’s corridors. I would not be the first to do so if I remarked here the affection of intellectuals for rigid, non-negotiable political platforms which cannot possibly win a plebiscite. Such defeats are new leases on life. They show that the "struggle" must continue, and they delay yet further any sobering collision with the narrow limits of human existence.
Surely it will be apparent now why the intellectual of our time is constantly dramatizing conflicts and drawing lines in the sand—why he is forever at daggerpoints and loggerheads with his adversaries rather than open to compromise. To allow compromise is to commit treason: it is to vitiate the poem’s thrilling metaphor with some bland cliché. Martin du Gard’s reluctant communist Jacques is raked over the coals by one of the faithful for just such rational susceptibility to bargaining:
Obviously, this type of hotspur (who would have me shot for pondering his words as I am) is caught up in a kind of frenzy. He would not only rather die than bargain over the elements of his cause: he would rather die than scrutinize them—for to think about them, after all, would be to face the necessity of apologizing for them.
Whence the frenzy—why the zeal for flinging one’s body on the barricade? The "pure" intellectual views himself (and more than ever these days, herself) as having been foully betrayed by society. Because he has no head for complex mathematical formulas and is bored stiff by the Periodic Table, he is offered means of survival which all involve prostitution of his gifts. He can persuade people to but things they can’t afford, don’t need, and will probably suffer from over the long haul. He can entertain them in various ways, all of which require suppressing his own taste and training in favor of a Punch-and-Judy vulgarity. He can pledge himself (if he is uncommonly brave) to a life of grinding, perhaps servile or menial labor in order to keep his mind completely free. Or he can tutor the children of those who have prospered far better than he to occupy those professions which he disdained, trotting out his poetic insights to the sound of their titters and yawns as long as some benign bureaucrat still grasps how a bit of poetry—a very little bit—might not be an altogether bad thing. After all, poetry can sell cars, vacations, and satellite dishes.15
If I seem to write on this subject with a certain fervor, it is because I know it from the inside. Which of us with an advanced degree in the humanities does not? I know the frustration of feeling oneself an albatross in a culture without cliffs or winds, where only swarms of starlings survive. I know the smoldering fury that builds up—the utter disgust, not so much with vulgarity and stupidity, but with their overweening pride at having prevailed. Be vulgar and prosper: be of dim wit and reach vast audiences! To be virtually unemployed, or under-employed, for year after year with your degree in ancient languages while some drone who connects cables or feeds disks to a machine lives like a prince is a challenge to any person’s soul. Werther already knew the feeling well; and Rousseau, though he managed to parley it into a modest success far exceeding any genuine effort he had invested, must have wrestled with such alienation, as well. One does not willingly cut deals with the dark fires of outrage in one’s heart. Or rather, since one is rarely offered any deals to begin with, one makes oneself diabolical promises sometimes to take no prisoners should the option ever arise.
In the academic world, naturally (where intellectuals collect in "purest" form), deals are cut all the time, and the alienated firebrands of the more poetic fields must either accede or face the abyss of unemployment again. They compromise more often than not; but these repeated wounds to their pride and (let us be fair) to their principles do not heal over. As they watch the Philosophy Department shrivel up to a speck or see English "adopted" as a technical-writing appendage of Communications, the old fury is more alive than ever. "The coarse fools!" they brood, "the greedy consumerist pimps!" Such remarks are not aimed just at administrators and trustees, but at an entire society—at the entirety of Western capitalist culture. For thirty pieces of silver, the finer things of life must go pandering for students as electives while a new computer requirement eats up precious hours. The people who feel this kind of resentment—the people I once worked with, and with whom I can deeply sympathize—are not temperamentally aggressive, for the most part. As bright, sensitive spirits with active imaginations, they are mostly introverts. They are not much given to pushing and shoving. When they find a chance before their classes, therefore, to vent this immense frustration with a crass, venal world, they release into it all the force which more brutal beings might have expended in punches. They hate the pimping, they hate the consumerism, and they hate the forced compromise. They ring down damnation on the whole system as they see it—as Rousseau and Marx and their other favorite arch-poets saw it: the capitalist system, the system which places a dollar sign on everything and allows it to sell or rot at the fish market.
I do not suggest that all of the professoriate is distinctly leftist—but it is a readily observed and much documented fact that humanities professors are so as a group. Literature teachers, linguists, philosophers, historians, social scientists ranging from psychologists to economists… most of these people would encounter severely restricted opportunities for satisfying employment outside of the academy or public-sector bureaucracies. (Even there, competition is fiercely intense for positions of mediocre stability and income.) "Humanities" types are well aware that their society does not prize them as it would medical doctors or "rocket scientists", yet they are as devoted to their calling as anyone else. Furthermore, and at the very crux of this matter, more than a century has seen their counterparts of earlier generations struggling with the same sense of unmerited slight. The West has not considered immersion in humane letters to be essential to the good life since, probably, the Victorian Age’s gray dawn, when writers were actually put on trial sometimes (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Wilde) to answer for their corruptive influence. Britain’s classically educated élite could not recall enough Fifth Form Latin to communicate through it during the Boer War. (The assumption was that veni, vidi, vici would leave the Afrikaners baffled—but the bafflement proved far more general!) Dickens and Hardy, who were widely popular at about the same time, never received such an education (much as Hardy coveted one); and Balzac and Maupassant, no less popular in France, were little better versed in Plato and Cicero. The Great Tradition was virtually dead even for some of those whose names we commonly enroll within it today. Art was growing more mundane, more "realist", more gritty... and, inevitably, more "useful" as historical documentation or moral exemplum. It was turning into journalism, autobiography, and sermon—this, I repeat, by the mid-nineteenth century. Those who insisted upon cultivating the arts for their own sake were bohemians, gypsies, madmen… and revolutionaries. They were no use. They lived upon society’s fringe, and right-minded people periodically demanded that they be ridden out of town on a rail.16
Ironically, it was fascism which displayed far greater interest in preserving the arts—if only for their salutary effect on morale—in the mid-twentieth century. While Walter Giesking was playing to full houses in Hitler’s Germany, Sergei Prokofiev was being bullied for not composing like a peasant in Stalin’s Russia. Yet the modern intellectual seems to contemplate more calmly the exile of such as he to penal colonies by the revolution than the patronizing absorption of his labors by the bourgeois system he so detests. I cannot reiterate often enough that the "liberal arts" have shifted, one and all, toward an apocalyptic genre of poetry in a time of dead souls. They no longer free mind and spirit, these glorious studies: they intoxicate the caged psyche with vengeful ecstasies of contradiction and annihilation which may well include its own demise. Recall the "comrade" in Martin du Gard’s novel who furiously indicts Jacques’s rationality.
A seething contempt for reason, of course, is painfully familiar to any close observer of the current academic scene. I could write reams about it, and cool heads like John Ellis and Alvin Kernan have devoted excellent books to it.17 Here I only underscore, however, the poetry of the response. It has all the headstrong, spirit-possessed rapture of a painter living for days without food or sleep as he finishes a canvas… or of a zealot speaking in tongues, perhaps, or a paranoid lunatic fleeing down corridors visible only to himself. For true art, after all, stops this side of lunacy. Though it elicits powerfully subjective responses, it also achieves a kind of objectivity by manifesting its power almost universally (or universally indeed, one might say, among sane adult people). The modern intellectual insanely mistook his canvas by supposing that he could philosophize at whimsy and then use human blood for the fantasy’s pigmentation. When he chose a new history from his dreams which would be fulfilled by a new political science of mass execution and titanic mendacity, he severed the most basic cords of conscience which restrain us from cheating, reviling, beating, and killing our neighbor. He became a sort of creator whose epitome, perhaps, is not Robespierre or Lenin, but Charles Manson. He fell sick, and his art was sick; or rather, his ethics and politics and new "sciences" were sick because they all claimed the license—the immunity to real-life consequences—of art.
I have already conceded that a great many leftist intellectuals do not in practice go so far as to countenance mass murder. In fact, they develop a special talent for overlooking incidents of carnage as rightest propaganda. Some are more caught up than others in the whirling-dervish crescendo of their symphony. Hence the array of intellectual responses to the twentieth century’s most appalling moments. Many scholars retreat into their copious notes and verifying documentation just as their less "intellectual", more pragmatic colleagues in white coats retreat to their laboratories. Others equivocate. The scandal of deconstructionist standard-bearer Paul De Man’s youthful collaboration with the Nazis is only the best-known (and most execrated) of several such tales. Thomas Mann managed to skirt deftly (or evade abjectly, depending on your level of moral expectation) any theme which would have brought him in conflict with fascism. Even Sartre somehow found subjects which never ran afoul of the fascist censors in occupied Paris, though he was writing abundantly at the time. An aging Gabriele D’Annunzio allowed Mussolini to stroke his ego and manipulate him into a figurehead. Poetry, if its guiding metaphors must remain chaste, is nevertheless capable of tolerating myriad interpretations. A man who lives only for a set of images can always finesse one signification over another. Stalin himself was quite cozy with Hitler for a couple of years.
Hence I would emphasize (as I begin to conclude another long essay) that the modern intellectual’s pronounced leftward tilt is less properly a commitment to any clear agenda than to "progress", and that this progress is less properly a moral response to the underclass’s material hardships than a misplaced poetic wooing of that which can never be reached. One might argue that as much is true of all the political Left nowadays—that leftism is precisely an "intellectualizing" (i.e., a fantasizing) of the facts to create a breathless drama with key roles for all partisans. I am not prepared to carry the present discussion so far. I limit myself to the intellectual, and I say of him that he has sadly failed the twentieth century. When he might have alerted the gullible, uneducated masses to their exploitation at the hands of demagogues, he aligned himself, instead, with the demagogues who railed most tumidly against the status quo. He allowed his personal sense of having been slighted, cheated, and derided to overrule a holy obligation to seek truth. The emptiness which had been created in his life by a vulgar, material culture cried out to be filled. Rather than filling it by pursuing things of the spirit—by handling the pieces of our material world with supreme regard for what they may mean beyond this world—he fell into the obvious trap of prizing things as his enemies did. They were vulgar, those capitalist ruffians: the thought of a hard-riding Hun someday trampling them under thrilled his heart. They were materialistic: the thought that he himself might someday have their titles and offices raptured his soul. Poetry, it turns out, is a very poor substitute for dry, blank, do-or-die ethics. If it can lift the imagination to heaven, it can also degrade heaven to earthly squalor. Sealed up with a vengeance which he fondled like a lover, the intellectual has inverted the whited sepulcher of bourgeois hypocrisy. Within his vision all is resplendent, but it intersects the world in a mass of rotting corpses.
Why such grave misjudgment? Why have our intellectuals not been more intelligent? Surely the fatal error is as old as Rousseau. The essay on The Origin and Basis of Inequality had laid all the blame on human greed, and had considered technology only an accelerant in the decline of human nobility. But this attribution has all the Manichaean arrogance of fanaticism. Every human being is greedy at various times, and always has been and will be. To extract the evidence of greed from human society, you would have to execute one half of the population and hold the other half at gunpoint—which, of course, has often been the revolutionary game plan. Even then, do not your epic slaughters indict a certain greed about your zeal to end greed? Or is maniacal hatred (if you prefer) any less evil than hunger after possessions? If you render life so miserable to your subjects that they are content innocently to starve and dream of something beyond death, wherein do you differ from a cultist who hands out hemlock and proposes a toast to the heaven of anti-matter?
No, the truth at the bottom of all this arrogant lunacy lay precisely in the acceleration of misery. It was not greed, but technology, which had driven poetry from human existence. As a fact of human nature, greed could be cajoled, chastened, denounced, and otherwise held in check as the need arose. One might even observe that the durable presence of such sins as greed perdurably calls forth rare forms of selflessness and moral insight. The practical ramifications of the scientific revolution, however, were changing the material terms of human existence to a degree and at a rate never witnessed in history. At several points in this essay, I have spoken rather anachronistically of "unemployment". The truth is that the Industrial Revolution created the whole notion of employment as a critical decision facing most adults in their struggle to survive. Few people of any class before about 1800 did not merge seamlessly into the livelihood—farming, soldiering, cobbling, cartwrighting—which had sustained their forefathers. If they had been deprived of choice before, they had been compensated with the security of intimate collegial networks and the satisfaction of intricately refining age-old techniques. Now they were "freed" in some sense—but in what sense? Freed to leave the land for a factory or a dock? Freed to scrawl out the paperwork or to chat up the dubious investments which inevitably trooped in behind technological innovation? For the liberally educated, especially, the ever-tightening focus on cutting cost, time, and labor squeezed out those concerns about the meaning of life and the virtue of work which had echoed throughout two millennia of Western tradition. It looked to them as though the world had gone mad with greed… yet the madness was triggered, not by a congenital flaw in all of us, but by the artificial "drugs" which now suppressed our equally natural immune system.18
When poetry died, the intellectual should have fought to revive it rather than seeking to graft it grotesquely onto the scientific passion for progress. Men and women of good will should have resisted the wholesale transplantation of a rural peasantry to the cities (in the pursuit of which evacuation the two-million-soul holocaust misnamed the Potato Famine occurred in Ireland). They should have resisted the wholesale devastation of northern England’s and Scotland’s great forests, an ecological disaster equal to the Soviet Union’s ruin of Lake Baikal and Saddam Hussein’s draining of the Mesopotamian marshes. They should, of course, have overseen the exodus of "unwanted" populations to distant colonies with conscience and humanity. (Slavery was not the only nightmarish by-product of this barbaric insouciance: indentured servitude allowed New World planters to evade the care of aging drudges, and the treatment of native peoples by European "nabobs" has poisoned the world’s peace to the present day.) I am not enough of a historian of events to suggest exactly how such affairs might have been managed better. I am enough of a historian of ideas, however, to know that the French Revolution carried us in the wrong direction. The simplistically adversarial "us/them" mentality was already deeply implanted in a budding intelligentsia by the time severely repressive reactions to the Napoleonic upheaval had filled up prisons in France and Austria.19 The bomb had already been set ticking by 1830, perhaps. Poetry of the right sort, the healthy sort, was already obliterated: the spiritual elixir of art had already been ineffectually distilled after that Doppelgänger formula so prominent in nineteenth-century dark tales into bland bourgeois happily-ever-after fables and splenetic effusions of the mal du siècle.20
For Rousseau and other proto-intellectuals were right about one thing: a life without poetry is no life at all. I wrote earlier that the twentieth-century intellectual shirked a holy obligation to seek truth. Actually, this formulation begs the essential question, for the greatest calamity of the scientific revolution was precisely to convince everyone that material fact—empiricism—is truth. The intellectual’s proper task, then, was and is first and foremost to make the contrary argument. He or she must insist that the forced transplantation of peasants or the steady displacement of hunter-gatherers is not a sad but inevitable reality: it is, rather, a rejection of moral reality—or (by the same token) it manifests the moral reality that the situation’s designers have excommunicated themselves from the society of civilized human beings. The intellectual, likewise, must insist that the transformation of safe, sleepy villages into noisy, squalid waste heaps defies and belies the aesthetic reality that abiding ugliness (quite apart from crime and toxicity) renders human life miserable. The "realists" among us sometimes say that a man would rather eat in hell than starve in heaven. I myself have done both (in the terrestrial sense of this argument), and I dare to say that the assertion should not be granted a free pass just because of its witty acerbity. A man dies, in either case; or if you think a man continues to live in one, then what kind of man is he?21
These are the questions an intellectual should pose instead of preaching the annihilation of the status quo. But then, they assume a real apprenticeship to material fact and moral duty as well as to poetry… so are they ultimately "intellectual" questions? Would not the person who could answer them be fully immersed in reality—full reality, truth seen and unseen—rather than in imaginary labyrinths? I confess, now that I am almost done, to having used the word "intellectual" in a provocative manner throughout this essay when I might have chosen, say, "intellectualist". Even better, I might have reprised the term I favored in my previous essay, "ideologue". Yet my argument here has been precisely that the sequestration of ideas to the individual’s Cloudcuckooland is ideology—a whimsical arrangement of certain facts which scornfully ignores certain other facts; and why, I ask, should the thoughtful person who resists such dishonesty be distinguished as an intellect? He is thoughtful, yes: but is honesty a function of high intelligence? Does a lofty IQ inspire moral sensitivity to the poor naifs likely to be misled by images of the New Dawn, or to the poor wretches likely to pay the awakening’s practical costs? I have to admit sadly that, to the contrary, I sometimes observe the relationship between intelligence and responsibility to be inverse!
So call the intellectual a person who thinks about things, if you wish—but let us at least be clear about the quality of his thought. Let the intellectual be deliberately, deeply conscious of reality’s every aspect if he is not to be a mere intellectualist. Let him not be carried away by a magnificent design for human society if accomplishing its perfect angles and arches requires armed guards patrolling every city block. Let him not propound a physician-bureaucrat’s utopia, on the other hand, where staircases are banned and parents must be certified to teach their children bike-riding. An objectively measurable quality of life (longevity, body fat ratio, dopamine level) is no more the end of human existence than objectively verifiable equity of financial income. The intellectual should know this, and he should know that such knowledge is not primarily a matter of astute intellect (if, that is, we choose a more generous sense of the word than I have been using). What I said of pre-modern philosophers is just as true of this thoughtful twenty-first century figure: he or she is not really cloistered in the mind’s private places at all, but most insistent, rather, that the material world not be granted any privacy from human admiration for beauty and human obligation to do good. In this sense, perhaps, the scientist is far more "intellectualist" for seeking to extract human intelligence from a flux of vital activity measurable only by human intelligence. What a quixotic undertaking! And the ideologue, of course (if one may believe Martin du Gard and others who have observed the species up close) has historically met the scientist on his own terms: from God to Man, from Man to… nothing. Perfected human society as an orderly bed of insects—this is the materialist vision, whether seen through the biologist’s microscope or the totalitarian’s Five Year Plan.
In a nutshell, the chore of getting back on the right track entails turning the intellectual back into a down-to-earth human being who thinks of ends beyond this earth. Or in the terms of my first essay, he must be a realist with ideals: he must recognize the reality of a good apprehended only through internal experience. You might as well say, too, that he must be a realistic idealist—that he must not convert things to private fancy with wanton disregard for their objective roots. He must know in his heart that falsehood is wrong, but he must know his heart better than to air out delicate discoveries which win him acclaim or promotion over rivals. He must know in his heart that matter never gestures more compellingly beyond itself than in great art, but he must know the snares of beauty better than to let children freeze by night because their hovel participates in a quaint landscape by day.
Yet what am I talking about now, if not the good person? Bright people must aspire to be good, which may or may not dim their brilliance. Just so. The last hope of Western culture is in the goodness which it once argued could not be entirely extinguished while human beings survived. If that high poetry is true, and not mere poetry, then we have no great cause for alarm.
Georges Duhamel, Le Voyage de Patrice Périot (Paris: Mercure de France, 1950), 47-48. The translation is mine.
I add that Mussolini, too, despite his early courtship of the Vatican, therein showed himself only to be an opportunistic megalomaniac rather than a believer. In suppressing Christmas festivities, he once remarked that he could see no reason to celebrate the birth of a Jew.
See especially Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins 200), and Molnar’s Decline of the Intellectual (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994) and Utopia: The Perennial Heresy (Lanham, MD: University P of America, 1990).
My little paperback collection of Scéalta ó Bhaile na Gréine may well be the most self-effacing volume I have ever seen in print, for it volunteers neither publisher nor place nor clear date of publication (1992 is listed as the year of copyright). The story from which my citation is lifted carries the title "Rudaí" (pp. 21-34: the citation appears on 22-23). Most of Tomás de Paor’s homespun tales were penned in the 1940’s, and this one, I assume, is of that vintage. The translation from Irish is mine.
Both citations from Roger Martin du Gard, Les Thibault, v. 3: L’Été 1914 (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), 181. My translation.
An exhaustively complete exposé is offered in Judith Reisman, Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences (Arlington: Institute for Media Education, 1998).
Perishing in a duel was almost as popular in this generation as perishing of anemia would be a few decades later. Pushkin and Lermontov both managed to get themselves killed for honor’s sake. By the same token, Voltaire’s beating at the hands of several lackeys stung him with its ignominy for the rest of his life.
This must not be mistaken for a definition of religious faith, much as contemporary faith has surely been infected and debased by "intellectualist" folderol about dreams. The truly religious person (as opposed to the cultist) believes that a higher reality penetrates and surpasses the one in which we live. Though keeping faith with this reality may require him to do what appears nonsensical in worldly terms, this believer holds that eventually, and in this world, his detractors will suffer great miseries for trusting only what the eye can see. The dreamer, on the other hand, is apt to retreat into communes and, in extreme cases, force a kind of rapture through suicide, so wholly unfit is he for engaging the realities in which God has placed him.
A contrast of this essay with Kant’s Muthmaßlicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte ("Speculative Origin of Human History") is instructive even at the level of titling. Critics of Kant may be interested to know that he takes Genesis as his guide to primitive society’s evolution. Rousseau’s theory is drawn entirely from his imagination.
My first essay in the series was presented as something of a response to an apology for realism by Jonathan Chaves (see Praesidium 3.2 [Spring 2003]). I should note, therefore, that I intend the word "realism" in a less rigorous and exclusive sense than does Professor Chaves. To me, the whole question about realism (and the essential reason for my discomfort with its philosophical use) is precisely why the tangible should be considered more knowable and objective—hence more real—than an overpowering inner imperative whose force implies universal validity.
Op. cit., 11-12.
I think of the very fine Irish singer Enya, whose success across the Atlantic is largely owed to her contributing the background music of a car commercial. Less famous but more apt is text of a recent series of truck commercials: this consists quite literally—and almost entirely—of Patrick O’Leary’s simple verses read by actor James Garner.
To be sure, the unwholesome aura of the artist attracted many of limited talent who wished to posture as outcasts rather than labor after truth and beauty… so the unflattering preconception grew self-sustaining. It seems to me, indeed, that periods of inferior artistic inspiration must be the responsibility both of the creative community and of the broader community. Genius cannot simply burst upon the scene without encouragement from somewhere; and the general vilification of genius as anti-social assures us a dozen like Villiers de l’Isle Adam for every Baudelaire, a hundred écorcheurs de canevas for every Turner.
See, for instance, Ellis’s Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1999). Kernan has lately edited What Happened to the Humanities? (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997) and The Death of Literature (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1992).
Classic Marxism (as one might call it) has a strong pastoral note and is keenly aware of the wreckage wrought by industrialization. Yet it remains obstinately focused on private ownership as the force responsible for creating and then speeding up the assembly line. The truth is that technology either continues to refine itself or slowly grinds to a halt (like the ancient Diesel locomotives one sees doing hard duty in Third World nations today). Regardless of who owns the factory, machines will forever lure their human attendants into a more mechanized state of existence, ending—as is ever more apparent each year—in our hearts and kidneys and finally our brains becoming machines, or perhaps in our "phasing out" by robots as inferior species of their own genus. The only antidote to this seduction is the survival of humane letters and culture.
Silvio Pellico’s Le Mie Prigioni is a forgotten classic on this subject. A playwright with revolutionary sentiments and contacts but utterly unassociated with any violent disruptions, Pellico was nevertheless confined in Spielberg’s notorious prison for about twenty years. No doubt, today’s freedom-fighters have forgotten him because of his sincere and profound religious conversion while incarcerated.
Besides his universally known novella about Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson’s Master of Ballantrae is also constructed around split personality. The division which so fascinated Freud between an animal Id-half and an unsustainable but socially ideal Superego-half was by no means his alone, or his originally. Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, Coleridge’s Cristobel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (along with most of his longer works) might barely begin to make a list of relevant literary cases.
Since the subject of manliness inevitably appears at some level when one expresses such sentiments as mine about the quality of our existence, I allow myself the following observations in a final footnote. Men long to devote and sacrifice themselves—if not more than women, then more to abstract ideals, I think, than women. Mussolini and Hitler both built their real power base upon organizations of boys. Too often, if a boy cannot find a high cause to serve, he will serve a vile leader who spouts high rhetoric. For this reason, one way of viewing the crisis of the West—and a very practical way—is as a bankruptcy in its ability to stir young male hearts. Radical Islam poses a menace to the West out of all proportion to its technological and logistical resources simply because it makes extreme demands of male adherents. In response, I believe the West must somehow learn how to present concern for the oppressed and for the physical environment as something other than effeminate. Weak-willed and servile, rather, is the man who exploits those incapable of fighting back and who will savage the world around him to assuage an appetite for wealth. We once knew how to deliver this message. Our survival very probably depends upon our recovering the technique in a genuine and profound movement of "cultural conservatism".
And From Our Correspondent In…
To the Prophets: An Essay on Romanticism
John D. Wright
When I first proposed to Mr. Harris that I should write an essay on romanticism, I did not know what I was getting myself into. I suggested it on the impulse of affection; I enjoy much of what is called romanticism, it had been on my mind as a result of recent reading, and I was desirous of producing some piece on literature for this publication.
But the more I came to think of my subject and what it meant to me, the more I realized the complications of the message I wanted to convey. It was not, is not, romanticism itself that I love, but what romanticism signifies to me through certain works. There are qualities of romanticism that seem especially needful to literature, art and culture at present. I cannot say so much of classicism or modernism.
Our time has its characteristic discomforts and peculiar demands: in addition to the hurry and the crowd of our days, there are the intellectual and moral demands of democratic obligation. From an early age, we are encouraged to encounter moral and political issues that are frankly beyond our education or experience. I was thirteen when I first read, in magazines such as The Atlantic and Mother Jones, the tirades of disappointment written by my father’s generation over the political ignorance of my own. I learned from essays such as those—as well as from books, movies, television, and the whole collective present voice of the world—that I must hasten to know something of nearly everything, to have in my possession certain favorite facts and, above all, at least to have an opinion. I was dutiful to those calls inasmuch as I made my unguided way through what surrounded me in pursuit of knowing something and having an opinion on everything. It was made clear to me also that I should not only know, but feel all possible convictions. And here, you will think I have misstated myself, but it is not so. In the arguments and images I observed, it seemed the highest virtue to anticipate all outrages and to answer them, even to precipitate them if it could be done in the cause voicing righteous moral and political claims. The reader may object that my experience is uncommon. I will say that I did not observe a marked piquancy of moral or political interest among the great majority of my classmates. However, in the seventeen years which have passed since then, I have certainly noticed the symptoms of the same experience almost universally exhibited by people of letters.
There is also the exposure of free speech: we must hear and see everything. When I go to the video store, I can scarcely pass an aisle without seeing innumerable covers of videos depicting women in erotic or obscene poses. I see the same when I pass the magazine rack at the grocery. Moreover, since what is newsworthy is usually the worst and strangest of life, and since we follow at least a modicum of news for our democratic responsibility as well as a fat portion of gossip to satisfy the demands of social chatter, then we continually fill ourselves with news of the worst and strangest. We must watch the Allied films of the concentration camps; we must talk of O.J. Simpson and Arabs and racial profiling; we must argue whether everyone must say the pledge of allegiance or whether no one can say it; we must speculate on the rates of incest and rape, and choose the higher number.
As for our literary entertainments, our properly elective reading, we find no refuge there. Our writers and artists are equally committed to doing the necessary deeds of conscience, to not wasting anyone’s time, and to getting on with a titillating story. A young writer is instructed to produce something of interest; he listens to the talk of the world and assumes that this should involve lesbians and serial killers. He recognizes that the prurient interest must be upheld alongside the moral. He should not depict lesbians at lovemaking because homosexuals are special group not to be so exploited; but he may, perhaps must, depict everyone else at some manner of fornication, and the more criminal, perverse, or anatomically detailed, the better. He realizes that no one cares to read a story about men in Africa spreading AIDS among barely pubescent or prepubescent girls, but he may, and perhaps should, occasionally allow his principal character a brief tirade on the subject. One is not to be decorous but politically sensitive; not to be moral at length and through example, but to be anecdotally conscientious. A writer wants the epigrammatic rant at the right moment and then move swiftly to the next scene, or else the reader (being of a lesser patience than himself) will faint at his reading and turn away to his videos and drugs.
Writers are also to write what has never been written before; to avoid the clichéed subjects of falling in love, enduring loneliness or being commonly poor; and to disdain, in respectable upper-case Literature, that mere fantasy which is no good to the starving, an abdication of the troubles of the real world. That the starving, once fed, should wish for nothing more than the flavors and fancies that delight us all or that no man has stood off famine with a moral novel, does not matter. Only we must decline pleasure for the sake of the ill, as if the salvation of the world lay with Lenten abstinence from literary comforts. Not that we would undertake any radical measures to save the helpless—not that our nation should forgo the collection of any debt or risk much fortune—but we may snub an innocent good and balm our consciences with petty denials.
We are all to get on with everything, say everything, see everything and never repeat, like so many mechanical shovels to dig holes in the ground, to cover the earth with holes and see that no inch of ground is without one.
The purpose of this essay is to speak of romanticism because it reminds me of so much that literature presently forgoes. This abstinence, severity, sometimes brutality and often humorless vulgarity of our literature concerns me because I take much of my pleasure in leisure from books and because I believe that an art mirrors the men who make it. Therefore, my immediate concern is with the state of contemporary literature, and what good or guidance can be taken from the precedents of romanticism. My greater implicit concern is with all our lives and what the world may be when our generations are done. This latter concern indeed lies behind all of what is best in literature, even in those frivolous writings that seem to bear no concern at all. But levity may also stand with the cause of humanity and conscience. To the suffering, laughter is dearer than hard thoughts. To the faint of hope, good humor is sweeter than rectitude.
Romanticism is so variously defined and exemplified that one cannot describe it according to what it is; nor according to an era, since romantics have come out of season and out of place, neither in England or Germany nor in the 19th century but here and now and not long ago. Romanticism is only rightly defined according to what it allows and what it connotes.
What romanticism allows is anything that serves fluency; what it connotes is possibility, expansion and hope; or if not hope, then such a movement toward the ultimate that it signifies the search for hope.
Of the three great tendencies of western art, the remaining two are more easily reduced. Classicism does service to form and tradition. Modernism does service to reality, and in two ways: to describe what can be outwardly observed (realists, naturalists) and what can be inwardly observed (in stream-of-consciousness, symbolism, surrealism, cubism, etc.). I see nothing wrong with those aims, considered as particular aims. But as general modes of art, they are defective. Merely that they can be so easily and aptly described suggests a lack of humanity in their dictates. Or else, in dictating to an artist the importance of recording reality, the practitioners of those schools (loosely called) have defined reality too narrowly.
None of this serves to deny the worth of all writers and artists identified with those tendencies, but merely to remark the inability of modernism or classicism (or postmodernism, for that matter) to describe any artist of great value. A writer may claim to write as a postmodernist, neoclassicist or a realist; yet as soon as he produces anything of greatness, then he has succeeded in art and failed in his school's profession.
I will note briefly the flaws of those schools of thought, or historical tendencies, as they are usually formulated.
Realism forms the largest and most successful part of modernism. Yet in attempting to describe what reality is or has been, it fails entirely to take account of what it might be. It sets itself to be the recorder and poet of the past. It must be only the poet of the past, as a reality can only be related which has been previously observed. If one objects that realism is not only to record what has been, then one objects that realism is not only real—and so contradicts its only generally identifiable trait. Or one may say ask what is wrong with only recording what has already occurred. The answer, as implied by my definition of romanticism above, is the absence of hope. And as one may only hope for what is not, being unable to desire what has already been obtained, then all the hope for present humanity lies in that which is not and where reality has not yet been. It need not be the intention of a modernist for this to be so. It is often the case that one follows a particular dictum without tracing it to its ultimate implications. So it is with all naturalistic tendencies. To the extent that they are exclusively naturalistic, they become also exclusive of our hopes, of what has never been.
Classicism pays its tribute to form and to tradition. Tradition is the most easily assailable of these. As tradition has erred, so the imitation of tradition carries with it a similar likelihood of error. It is true that the passage of time may make a tradition more true than when the men lived who made it; but this is happenstance and lends nothing more to art than the good or ill chances of history. As for form, it has its uses to the artist as a framework for thought, that materials may be organized or that some train of thought may be reinforced. Yet again, as inspiration becomes doctrine, and hardens further into artificial rites and dogmas and blind pedantry, so form also often calcifies into nothing better than an encircling crust that gives no form to life but kills what life might have lived within it.
Modernism and classicism in their worst (which is to say, their purest) forms are the Sadducees and the Pharisees of art. The modernist believes there is no hope for the dead, and the classicist cares more for hand-washing than for love.
II. Of Hope and False Hope
I am proposing romanticism to the reader on the non-negotiable condition that romanticism not be reduced to any formula or narrow doctrine. If an artist wishes to choose for himself some protocol of work which serves a happy fit to his individual genius, then that is good. But we are speaking not of individual habits but of broad prescriptions, and it is the latter that is to be turned aside.
In truth, realism was good when it was itself a hope: a hope to tell what has not previously been said; the sincere desire to discover people to themselves and tell the truth. But since that school of thought has aged, I find that it no longer serves its better purpose, while it is only a technical mode by which verisimilitude is gathered. It has become a plowshare and good for gathering wheat, but serving in nowise to do war against the grossness and falseness of the world. It is key to my parting ways with our still-established realistic tendencies in literature that what I read corresponds so little with what I observe. I do not see myself, my family, my life or my thoughts in our literature; realism itself has become a fantasy to comfort the weakness of those who write it.
Again, classicism (and neoclassicism) was once itself a hope; a hope against chaos and decay, to preserve by form and tradition the destruction threatened by barbarity, decadence, factions, nature and time. Four pillars were hope when they stood against destruction, were good until they became the bars of a cage.
Then if romanticism is to have value to us, it must also serve the needs of our place and time. For example, I have spoken of freedom. One may well ask why freedom should be at issue, when many have said that too much freedom is all the cause of our worst troubles, that we gorge ourselves on our liberties until we choke on them, like so many fast lunches, drugs, orgies, and controversies that fill our mouths. On this point, I must be excused to distinguish between freedom and licentiousness. Where freedom refers to the loosening of something painfully or unjustly confined (unjust, in the sense of treating unevenly), licentiousness refers to that which exceeds satisfaction and induces physical, mental or moral illness. A man who eats more than stills his hunger develops indigestion; a child treated with high favor over his brothers develops impatience and condescension. Therefore, freedom and licentiousness can be distinguished according to results. Freedom results in health, licentiousness in sickness.
In this sense, the romanticism I suggest should treat not only the absence of freedom (to which I will shortly come) but also, by elective form and restriction, the presence of licentiousness.
The freedoms that are at issue are numerous. Modernism confines hope by restricting speech to precedent. A writer thinks of writing a story that is a criticism, a parody, or a novel variation on the present. Yet he does not so often think of projecting any positive answer to the world. When a man has criticized something, it is fair to ask him what he would suggest by way of alternative. But the modern writer is so accustomed to reporting what he has seen that he has lost much of the habit of depicting what he has not. It is true that all fictions, to the extent that they are fictions, are depictions of what no one has seen. But the point remains that the variations doctrinally allowed to the contemporary writer are so narrow as to be generally indistinguishable from journalism by the reader. A little change of phrasing and a few bibliographic references would serve to convince many that the fabrication is fact.
Also, modernism has confined, in certain ways, the author’s mode of expression. He is allowed the plain prose and the dialectical or common speech. He is allowed certain moments of fractured prose for psychological effect. However, he is prohibited, either explicitly or implicitly, the elaboration of high speech, of philosophical reflection, of the subjoining of thoughts in clauses to make self-contained parallel comparisons. He is denied such language to raise witty jibes or make description more than a laundry-list of articles observed. He is discouraged, perhaps, from writing an essay such as this and will not do so if he values his money over his art.
Modernism also dislikes open moralizing. It does not, oddly enough, object to covert moralizing. You may, if you like, depict a man who endorses an act or opinion, and indict his appearance through description, or his character through incident. Trials such as those are regularly held even in the pages of the least thriller at the grocery. The writer may even let drop in a brief paragraph a favorite political opinion of his, although the murder novel does not otherwise concern that issue. He may burn many straw-men and let fall numerous parenthetical complaints without in the least violating protocol. It is only the open address to the reader that is under ban and despised as proper moralizing. An author may unzip the gall sack of his heart and pour out more than another man’s weight in sickly opinions. Only he must cover the work with a perfunctory slyness, and pretend the author never spoke.
I should make it clear that I am neither exhorting authors to besiege the reader with pedantry, nor determined that any writer should be exiled from publication for the crime of omitting subordinate clauses. I will emphasize again that what I protest are just such prescriptions that suppress any author’s own natural and defensible inclinations. I am pleading, for example, the worth of Swift alongside that of Twain, or of Poe alongside that of King. It is strange to me that our contemporary standards should utterly condemn the general manners or aesthetic workings of any of those writers, yet no one who applies the present dictums to the former elements of those pairings can deny that it is so. Moby Dick will not stand the scrutiny of an elementary writer’s workshop, as he interrupts the dramatic exposition of his narratives with abstractions upon ships and whales. Shakespeare himself cannot keep dignity with the assistant editor of a university quarterly, as his soliloquies are deliberate abstractions from and reflections upon action that has previously taken place, and in such language as was never conversational on earth.
III. The New Regime
The connotation of words confuses everything and turns a word into its opposite.
If a man appears publicly in ill-fitting shorts that fail to conceal an article of clothing once under the heading of unmentionables and now displayable, then such dress draws little comment because it is commonly seen. But if a man appears every day in a suit, tie, vest and hat, he may well arouse comment and even disapprobation. Yet if onlookers are asked to describe his dress, many of them will make the unreasonable mistake of calling his dress conservative. What they mean, of course, is that he dresses with more formality, or according to an older tradition. Indeed, tradition is also linked by connotation with conservatism. And yet, in the case I have described, precisely the opposite is the case. When all the world is dressing down, to dress in a suit indicates boldness and liberality. The willingness of the wearer to change, to stand in contrast to the common standard, could hardly be more evident. To make the point clearer, the younger the wearer, the more radical his formal dress becomes. In adolescence, such attire is tantamount to defiance of his peers, the most dangerous and radical defiance of which a young person is capable. Therefore, there are times (such as these) when nothing could be more conservative than to be casual. The man who wears a black turtleneck shirt with a black jacket and the writer who shoots off breezy paragraphs, full of references to popular culture—these two are of a piece. They are the establishment, slumming to avoid being noticed as such.
I point this out not to demonize all that is established in society: another generation has thoroughly pursued that sentiment and we have seen its absurdity. I merely wished to pose an example so that the reader might better understand me in the clarifications and corrections that follow.
We are concerned here with what writers usually write. Among other things, they usually write every scene at length. If two characters meet, then the writer will not gloss a single point, but we must have the entire conversation verbatim, down to the last syllable. Nor can we be allowed from time to time to guess a character’s thoughts but we must always be told. It is a paradoxical fact of present literature that although a writer may be praised for the speed of his exposition, we find the same writer guilty of failing to omit vast quantities of material that need be neither told nor even imagined. We are told every detail, however, because the writer wants his story to be realistic. Inasmuch as reality contains much that is tedious, the author has succeeded.
Related to the all-inclusive description is the habit of mimicking true speech. The original value here was truth, but the principle of truthfulness has been perverted to the use of drabness and vulgarity. Every ornamentation or artifice is convicted on grounds of being unnatural. However, the novel itself is unnatural and all literature is artifice. To wear clothes at all does obeisance to the value of artifice, since in many climates we could do without them. A human being entirely without artifice cannot even speak or properly employ a simple tool. Again, artifice and ornamentation of speech or narrative description is sometimes accused on account of specific examples that these judges are willing to produce. They hold up clumsy specimens of ornamentation and pronounce it poor work; so much is true. But innumerable examples of poorly executed naturalism and quasi-naturalism pass before the public every year without those failures ever amounting to a condemnation of naturalistic technique—in fact, so many failures of naturalism pass in a single year that it verges on totality. As for contrasting examples of excellence in more artificial writing, there are some to be noted. And if there are not more, it is only because it is more rarely attempted and makes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Entire nations or cultures pass centuries in the belief that a particular idea is unworkable; therefore they do not attempt it and learn only of its success from abroad.
But contemporary writers do not believe only in the worthiness of mimicking common speech and perpetually pecking out whole conversations like court recorders. They also believe in the inherent evil of ornamentation and artifice.
The literature of artifice—of what may be called mundane fantasy—did not fall entirely under the advance of realistic and naturalistic literature until the late 19th to early 20th century. During this period the influence of artificial and naturalistic approaches shifted from parity to a dominance of the latter. (I say this based on impressions drawn from my reading; of course, such a thing is unlikely to be determined with precision or quantity.) The rise of naturalistic-realistic literature took place between two important cultural and political changes: the rise of western democracies, and the suffrage of women. The relationship between those two general changes and the transformation of western literature might be interpreted in many ways. I will relate these two things to one another in the simplest way I know how and trust the reader’s ear to test the truth of it.
Since the western publics had often valid grievances to bring against their monarchs (as they have also valid grievances to bring against their presidents and prime ministers) and as the notion of democracy seemed to promise a cure for all the evils of monarchy, then eventually all that was associated with monarchy was deemed worthless, while all that went with democracy was deemed fine and noble.
Along with the monarch’s abuse of power, the public was free also to despise the manners of the aristocracy. We all understand, of course, that the manners of the aristocracy were not themselves evil but that the idea gradually came to people that all that was ever foolish or tyrannical in monarchy, with its attendant aristocracy, must also inhere in all that ever belonged to monarchy. Therefore, the refinement of manners became an evil. Ornament in all its forms became evil. I do not refer to variety; the lower classes have always themselves appreciated variety. But ornament partakes of relatively organized variation, whereas variety may exist where garish themes are cobbled together with little coherence or connection.
Democracy indicated that all men (or at least all substantial land owners) should have a hand in the election of their government. In popular imagination, democracy also indicated that any man was as good as any other, whatever that may mean. Some writers thought they knew what it meant: it meant that the meanest guttural line was as excellent as any wit. It meant that grotesquery and shock were every bit as worthy as subtlety and dignified analysis. The shopkeeper was as good as a prince, a plowman was as good as a shopkeeper, and a plowman was no better than a wanderer feeding on the edge of his field. Moreover, these statements should seem no exaggeration to present readers. They are aware, when they reflect, of a near inversion of the old order and honors at this time. The loose and drugged musician or the gun-toting thug are themselves of more esteem than any ordinary working man. And as men pride their sons in athletics and whoring rather than knowledge or manners, they also esteem the scientist and ambassador less than traveling performers and pimps.
As it went with all those things, it also went with the arts. The poet made tracks through the gutter, not as François Villon did by coming into thievery as into an inheritance, or as Poe did by falling into drunkenness and poverty through disaster and weakness—but as a privileged young man might frequent certain ragged districts on Saturday nights in his father’s car. To the extent that he goes slumming, he loses all his father might have given him and gains nothing in exchange but a venereal disease and a dirty collar.
The effect of women’s suffrage and liberation on literature appears somewhat less obvious but can be stated with sufficient clarity. With the right to vote, the right to work, the philanthropic inducement to obtain education and advancement, and the liberalization of divorce law, both marriage and family were placed on an open exchange, the free market. By this, I do not deny that relations between men and women have always partaken of commerce and bartering. But at earlier times, the deal for wife and family was struck with greater finality. A man and woman might lose their affection if not their love, but the family held firm and the business of a husband and wife remained joined. When the family became broken and the importance of a husband as the sole, or at least primary, source of income was undermined, then the stake of a woman in her husband was weakened and the honor of a man for his family was diminished. Very many men who are otherwise irremediable drunks and troublemakers learn to keep some dignity for their family, and even better men display something of the same. But when men have no family to raise or wife to keep face for, or when they are otherwise in doubt of their possession of or authority over their family, it is difficult for them to find the use of honor. It is not uncommon for a man who has been separated from his wife and family to resume the disorganized and dissipated lifestyle usually abandoned during or shortly after college. Nor is it any wonder to see that men so separated from their best-established reasons for observing decorum will also write vulgar books. The reader who doubts this need only go to the bookstore and take down at random any novel written by a living man. The odds are considerably better than even that he will find more than one scene in its pages that a father would not like to read before his son. That this is so, is neither accidental nor inevitable; it is, in many ways, a recent historical development. Again, if the reader will doubt this, then let him select several of the best-remembered books from the 19th and 20th centuries and read them for contrast. I am far from imagining this difference.
Besides the dissolution of permanent families, a woman’s tastes entered the market with her newfound wealth (brought from employment or alimony, it all spends the same). Today, most literature (around two-thirds, at last glance) is purchased by women. Therefore, if most books are purchased by women, it should be no surprise that books written to identifiably feminine tastes prevail in new publications. As for what feminine tastes could be—there are some who must always perversely challenge the notion that such a thing exists—it is, with so many things, best illustrated by examples and contrasts. Dickens may be read with pleasure by many literate women, but Poe is less likely to be so; Defoe may be read with similar approval, but not so Swift. The primary difference is abstraction, to which men are more inclined. I am not pronouncing a law (any law appearing in this essay will be explicitly noted as such, or will be enclosed with asterisks), but remarking a rule. The most common academic results bear this out: that women tend to excel more in verbal skills while men do so in mathematics. If this is not a timeless rule, it appears to be a rule for our time and is sufficient to stand as such, as I am writing a timely piece. By this means, the tendency toward naturalism, accelerated by the desire to tell the truth of the common man, was amplified by the increased influence of women, as readers, writers and editors—by the subsequent diminution of abstraction and the steady, perceptible increase of verbose concrete description among the best talents. The writer became like a woman reciting a recently heard conversation: word for word, and largely free of summary.
I do not write here of what I do not know, nor do people know well that with which they have no dealing. Nor do transactions occur where the trader is not changed. Therefore, these reflections are not issued with either perfect disaffection or immunity. I have read, sometimes enjoyed, contemporary literature of the kind here criticized. I have in turn been affected by my reading of it, and cannot escape the suspicion that my criticism of it arises from a dislike of what it attempted to make, by its existence and dogmas, and partly succeeded in making of my own writing.
Then as it is with one thing in this essay, it is with others. Nor do I accept any opportunistic verdict of hypocrisy on this apparent contradiction between acts and recommendations. If one acts incorrectly and recognizes it as such, then that he does not afterward recommend his error, either to himself or others, is what is called repentance, or regret. It undoes no error but promises the end of future error. It is by such correction that one learns and so, by the condemnation of his former deeds, leaves the one he was behind.
If one falls down a hole and breaks his leg, there still remains something for love and pride that he does not call one and all to come down with him by the same route. Or else, if this is one’s hypocrisy, then some hypocrisy should be cultivated with any loving person as a mercy to the unwary.
V. Other Days and Far Away
It is a strange restriction of contemporary writing, largely due to its manner of telling, that a writer proceeds in his story from familiar times and locales to those foreign only under a burden. One may be perfectly convincing to tell with abundant detail a story set in a city like that in which one lives. Yet to advance further abroad in fiction without personal knowledge of a place is to court an obvious disjunction in the degree of description that can be knowledgeably and accurately related to the reader. Or else the writer is placed under such a burden of research in attempting to imitate intimate knowledge of a strange time or place that his writing is driven against his will toward the mechanical recitation of factual matter, as if it were his duty not to tell a coherent, consistent and reasonably convincing narrative but produce a travel guide for trips that will never be taken. An author can hardly be expected to know of 18th century China what he knows of his own home town; and, as any reader may observe, he is hard-pressed enough in producing satisfactory work with the latter material that great work in the former is removed nearly to the realm of impossibility. It is true, I admit, that novels historical and of foreign setting are common enough, and are sometimes popular. But in sampling these works, I find the quality generally below that of ordinary local fiction and find moreover that many of the best talents decline altogether to essay such productions.
However, if one imagines the austerity of the above literary dictums removed, then the writer’s burden so far evaporates as to be nearly indistinguishable from that of local setting. It is true that this much allowance will open the door to works only marginally founded in history or present fact, but merely dressed in the accoutrements of an age in order to enable a mood or subject matter pleasing to the author. However, writers of historical fictions already take some similar liberty in their works as I (who have no more knowledge of history than most ordinary habitual readers) have detected in the anachronisms of their dialogue. Also, to say that present writers of historical fictions do take liberties in their fictions does not contradict what I have said about the restrictions placed, however implicitly, on contemporary writers. Just as the writer of naturalistic fictions may abhor abstractions from concrete detail and place himself under that austerity, he may also allow himself small exceptions in the way of occasional interior monologue or asides to the reader, or else lapse unwittingly into them. So there is no need to dispute the facts of this, but only to recognize the degree of difference that I am now attempting to negotiate.
A reader may stand by the demand for perfectly accurate historical or foreign fiction. To this, I would merely reply that should all readers do such, then the writer may and should resort to whatever masquerade is necessary to circumvent this demand. One who has written a loose historical fiction that is worthy in every literary sense but deficient in fine point of fact has merely to alter the names of his characters and places. By slight modifications, he may give his story the appearance of fantasy; which, of course, it is. Yet I do not see how it benefits the reader to have the original names and sources of the story so withheld from him, except to fulfill the letter of an informal law.
It will by now be evident to some that part of what I recommend is permissible under the heading of fantasy or science fiction. But it is not quite satisfactory that those genres should serve as the receptacle for all works lying outside the demands of mainstream fiction. To begin with, those genres themselves labor under many of the same constraints of style as every other genre. Also, a culture exists in those genres that often places an author under an entirely different set of artificial rules of conduct having nothing to do with the experience of the reader and everything to do the peculiar inclinations of the critics. Furthermore, many a book might be turned away from a constellation of agents and publishers dealing in mainstream fictions that would be inadequately received by most readers of fantasy and science fiction due to expectations having only to do with the traditions of those genres.
The science fiction author John C. Wright, who is no relation of mine, said in a recent interview, "… It is pusillanimous to write of small things when one can write of great. The abyss of time holds wonders too large to fit inside one small world, or the narrow confines of one cramped century. Science Fiction is meant to tell us traveler's tales of places and aeons men cannot reach, but imagination can." He perhaps goes too far in perfectly discounting small things and native locales; the ordinary also holds revelation for one who can see. But the point is well made that literature has no business to doctrinally confine itself to small places, and it is also true that no fantasy of foreign times or worlds is without its roots planted firmly in the world the author sees and knows. All stories are written from familiar things, but the extrapolations of an author remove it here or there, fitting it with characters that seem near or far according to fancy and reason. Even a factual essay steps minutely away from its origin, becoming a subtle fantasy in words and reason.
VI. The Romantics
It is impossible for me to say in this essay all that should be said on the subject at hand. I have touched those few points that have first occurred to me. But beyond criticism and round suggestions for what might comprise a new romanticism, there remains to grant the reader a positive vision and exemplification of the good that might lie at the end of such amendments.
For example, in the previous version of this essay, since discarded, I took considerable pains to review the past definitions of romanticism and excerpts of work by those commonly called romantics. Although I now believe that review unnecessary and overlong, some sampling of names and titles might be in order, that the reader will understand the breadth of endeavor I am attempting to evoke by the term romanticism itself.
There are those ordinarily recognized as romantics: Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hoffmann, Schiller, Goethe, Novalis, Tieck, Jokai, Hugo, Poe, Stevenson, De Quincey, Carlyle, and others, comprising works as disparate as Faust, "The Body-Snatchers", Peter Schlemihl, "Frost at Midnight", "The Sandman", "Dover Beach", Essays of Elia, A Rebours, Waverly, and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. This brief list, barely scratching the surface, should suffice to establish understanding of the term romanticism on historical grounds.
But going both backward and forward from the 19th century, we find romantics and romanticism continually reintroducing themselves, if only in isolated cases. When, for example, the classic, romantic and modern are the only choices, no one can deny that Shakespeare was a romantic, since his plays contained only a little factual verisimilitude and failed to correspond to classical form. Nor could Louis Ferdinand Celine be said to have much more of modernism than Hoffmann. If the Swedish writer Par Lagerkvist is called a modernist of any kind, it must break the very use of the word. Or again, there is Borges, a writer whose romanticism is critically concealed under the heading of postmodernism—a rubric that encloses many romantics, would-be romantics, and romantics aching under the absurd expectations of modernism. The term postmodernism is itself a slight deception, to make it seem by the extension of the word modernism as if it were modernism’s natural extension rather that its defiance and refutation.
An excellent example of this last may be found in the recent novel House of Leaves. The book contains, it is true, any number of scenes that employ naturalistic description. But the work as a whole, with its commentaries, overlying notes, and typographical oddities can scarce be credited to an ethic dominated by lifelikeness and concrete description. One might almost go so far as to say that House of Leaves is written just as "The Fall of the House of Usher" might have been written, had it been planted on the thin aesthetic soil of mainstream literary tastes at the end of the 20th century.
In fact, I have no problem at all with considering the following authors and works, for one reason or another, representatives of romanticism: First and Last Men, H.P. Lovecraft, The Night Land, Flatland, the Journey to the West, Dante’s Divine Comedy, "The Heart of Darkness, Umberto Eco, Charles Fort, Jacques Barzun, Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools and Ambrose Bierce. This may seem a mysterious gathering of works and authors; I believe it is. That is my point. But work like that of these authors is—even in the teeth of the occasional exception—exactly what the gatekeepers, the publishers, editors and agents, resist. Lovecraft would not be forgiven his adjectival ticks, nor Dante the passivity of his protagonist.
VII. Who Prophesy with the Pen
The artists of the present day do not generally regard themselves as mere entertainers, as if such a thing were something to be ashamed of; nor do they regard themselves as mere craftsmen, working from rule and reason together with human spontaneity to create diverting and durable works. Without reason, they regard that role to be also beneath them. Rather, they have conceived of themselves as men like prophets, to tell not from rote or by argument but from inspiration what men should hear. Men scarcely educated or educated in little better than novels have raised their voices to be heard above men of right public duty, to say what should and should not be, to say how such a thing should be. These artists are eager to leaven their diversions with so much miscellany of opinion that one often wonders why they are not journalists.
Yet the work of a prophet is courage and reverence, and who would prophesy with the pen must also love and tell the truth. A prophet is not a liar, is not vain, is not anxious after his position and his possessions. A prophet is not cruel, but delivers the judgement of righteousness while still holding out hope for those who turn back. But do these things describe our artists, our writers? They may not use the word prophet in describing themselves, but what shall we call a man who has no qualification other than his own inspiration, having otherwise to defend his arguments according to reason which needs no art? What shall we call those who portray men in miniature, like Ezekiel when he made a mound around a brick to show a sign to Israel, and intimate that they have told a truth from inspiration rather than reason?
Or else what purpose do our writers serve, who do not write informative books? What is the purpose of novels, poems and songs? What earthly use do they serve? It is plain that our writers do not typically make it their business, as other realistic artists have in the past, to document the ways and manners of our time. Rather, their treatments are exactly the opposite; they conduct research into fact only as necessity requires, that by convincing details they may sell us a bill of goods, containing nothing more than a dalliance, a murder, and an empty chase between. One may spend hundreds of hours reading the most highly recommended novels of our time without finding, either in fantasy or realism, any convincing trace of the lives we know. Our prophets have decided that we are only interested in sensationalism or exotic novelties, or in their own opinions. The wonder of the present time is not that we read so little literary work but that by habit we read so much.
Romanticism not only implies the courage not to repeat as well and good what the world may say is well and good, but to see things for oneself and to dare to say that which judges both reader and author. The romantic may cry defiance to the world and still keep his love for those who live. He may set aside his own material well-being and write what is necessary. If what he submits or publishes does not live long under the glare of violent appetites and vain sophistication, then he has given his all to the world for the love of it and may claim a prophet’s reward. But if he calculates from the beginning according to the fashions of literature, according to his conception of the public, or according to anything but what his heart tells him is needful, then that work is likely to be stillborn in truth, and he has only the profession of a prostitute.
There is nothing in art but a man who empties the contents of his mind into craft, unless God has given him more. As for his craft, he must either learn tradition and contribute what is lacking from tradition, according to what he knows of it, or else all his work is discounted for redundancy. What remains when these dead ends are found is mere humanity. But a writer’s humanity is good for nothing but prostitution unless he tells the truth and loves the one he tells.
When one reads the articles written about contemporary culture, one finds the ground littered with fears and complaints about the limited tastes of the public, about declining literacy, about the oppressive commercial interests of the corporations that own the publishing houses. One observes the writers and critics themselves and finds that only certain kinds of opinions are good to put into a book; only certain kinds of styles are good to write; only some things are possible or tolerable and no more. The world is full to the bursting with works than cannot, should not, will not be published; or so they have said. The world is heavy with organizations of people and the machinery of bureaucracy. The internet, for all the good it may do, has opened a vaudeville stage for every man’s opinion, and the air is full of voices saying what is good and what is not. And there is nothing more than preference unless there is love.
If there is to be a modern writer of romanticism, then it is impossible for me to describe the manner of his writing. Romanticism is itself a word for independence through love. Then if a romanticist is independent and free, I cannot say what he will do until the man presents himself as he is, having chosen his own way. But when a romanticist is good, then nothing in his ways is obligatory; nothing is perfunctory. He has not spared truth to himself and neither does he spare the reader. Yet he has not left the reader out of his thoughts nor neglected thinking of the condition of those who may read his words, because if he does not care for the reader, then why does he write? He would otherwise do as well to open a business or take a professional occupation, and let go his pretensions to anything but a desire for livelihood.
If a writer cannot find amid his hatred of the world some love for those who live here, then he is only marking time with words until death. If a writer cannot find hope for courage, then he is defeated when he begins, and all the world’s applause will serve the vanity of a very clever monkey. He diverts the idle and serves no one in his heart. If a writer does not unbend his heart to the world while rising above it, then he leaves all people as they were and awakens no one.
If a writer believes in the factions that serve the ends he loves, then he is no better than a jockey half in the saddle; he is carried well for a time and then is trampled beneath his mount. If a writer believes that the way books are written is how they will always be written, and all development has come to an end, then he is no better than an echo at the end of a chorus.
But the romantic writes from himself to the world. Fashion and tradition, want of money, and the voices of others—these are all things he has overcome or wishes to overcome. The romantic is neither fast nor slow, but he is free to be both. He is neither superficial nor interior, neither a realist nor a fantasist, but knows that all the good of art is something more than these. The work of a romanticist has as many aims as one person with another: he commiserates, comforts, confesses, delights, diverts, instructs, condemns, praises and forgives. He has not one purpose only and that to shout the sins of the world, but he may also satisfy many minds and hearts when no one else could see what satisfaction was needful. He does not claim an authority that does not belong to him when there was no inspiration but his own heart, a heart like that of any other. He is not afraid to tell a prayer when one is sitting on his heart, nor tell a curse when one is trembling on his lips.
He will say when he sees the faith of his nation slipping away; and I say so. He will say when he finds the destruction of abortions abominable; and I say so. He will say when he finds the littering of fatherless children in a rich country despicable; and I say so. He will say when he finds too many people lonely because they find no one better than themselves; and I say so. He will say when he sees children who grow up told of no God to hope in, and no better parents to raise them than distant sentinels standing like clock towers on the horizon.
If a romanticist would be a true voice in the world, then he would show the world what a good man could be, and what the world has done to good men. He would also find hope in bad men. His stories and songs might delight a child, and the same song refresh men when they are older. He would not hide his weaknesses wholly from the world but also lay them open, because God will judge and justify when the world is done, and because men will see themselves in the weaknesses they find.
This is how he is a romanticist: the only rules in the world are the laws that God has laid down, and a man is otherwise free to fly.
VIII. Envoy: That Which Yet May Live
Let a crude hand touch a beautiful thing and it will break beauty with its touch. Let a mean spirit touch a good thought and the facets of the thought will be shattered out of all resemblance to itself. Let a hard heart find a wonderful creature and that creature will be wasted when even a wolf would suck the bones.
Let a mean culture touch art, and art will die. Let a distorted culture touch poetry, and poetry will die. Let such a one touch any given flower of civilization and that flower will wither at the touch.
Then let a mean culture say that literature is dead and I say it was the hand that touched it. The flowering of art is as natural to man as the flesh. Even when flesh is diseased, it matures against the sickness. To otherwise stop its natural growth needs murder.
Say that art is dead in the United States and surprise will be the rare response. Indignation you will scarcely find. And why none of these but that its death was intended?
You need hardly look for motive in the murder. Art, music, literature: these are repositories for men’s hearts. But endless rebellion made us heartsick, and the sickness of the heart made us weary of the heart. So we laid it down, and art with it.
Even so, neglect is not murder. A starving thing has yet to die. And what’s been dropped may be gathered up again, but that our former selves stand guard over it. Only faith and patient reason will negotiate its release.
Then let me have my heart. If I have abused it, I will nurse it back. If it has deceived me, I will forgive it. If it is a burden, I will drop the goods of life to carry it. I will take it without accessory. I will not speak to it only of our chances but also of our hopes. And if we fail in those hopes, I will not rebel against it.
Let it be so in my words. If my heart will guide, I will carry.
Postscript to Essay on Romanticism:
Author and Editor Trade Thoughts
John Wright and John Harris
When Mr. Wright was kind enough to send me his fond reflections upon the romantic spirit, I immediately recognized that here, once again, was a chance to arrange some kind of postscripted exchange. We have published such "follow-up" discussions three or four times in the history of this journal, and always, I think, to the profit of our readers. I sit in a position rather different from Mr. Wright’s—surprisingly different, I discovered. Perhaps what surprised me was simply how old I have grown since I first taught a seminar on the European romantics at a state university. At that time, I was very enthusiastic about every scrap of literature produced by that period’s upheaval. I remain impressed by the degree of creativity to be found in all romantic art; but as I have aged, I have become less patient with flights of fancy which exact a heavy toll in moral responsibility.
I do not suggest that Mr. Wright is any more tolerant in this dubious regard. I say only that youth makes one more aware of possibility, age more aware of probability. And—who knows?—perhaps an artist who is "oppressed" by a sense of probabilities would end up not producing much art… I am willing to concede the point, which I think is implicit in Mr. Wright’s position. Though the following exchange (which is presented as a conversation, but actually took place through e-mail) will reveal that our agreement is a long way from complete on most of the issues, I suspect that the disagreement usually reduces this very point: i.e., the importance of pure, fresh, uncompromised inspiration in producing great art. Since my reluctance to unfetter the Muse arises largely from certain no-holds-barred creators I have known—and since these are seldom more than loud poseurs—I myself may be guilty of inconsistency here. How uncharitable a little living makes us! ~J.H.
JRH: You insist that romanticism transcends boundaries of time and place—that it is nothing less than a kind of l’art pour l’art imaginative freedom (chastened, hopefully, by some measure of moral responsibility: no one who read your essay would contend that you endorse the "cross in a jar of urine" school of art). Does not such a definition thrust classicism irredeemably into the past and modernism into the present, leaving romanticism in the enviable position of a Golden Mean? Not too much structure on one side, not too much dry, raw, anti-sentimental realism on the other. This doesn’t seem fair to the classics, in particular. Aristotle’s Poetics are more descriptive than prescriptive, and the spirit of most classical commentaries on art seems to allow a lot of wiggle room. Plot really does count for something in literary aesthetics, and character really is related to plot in most serious narratives. The perceiver has to have a sense of limitation—of the frame around the canvas—in order to appreciate the fades of colors and meanders of roads and hills. It is limitation, in short, which sets free artistic exploration: the two are inseparable. Without doubt, you can carry formalism too far, but I don’t see why the classical should be branded as excessively formal. Form, it seems to me, is indeed the lifeblood in certain literary genres—the short story especially, and also the novel—whereas the artist can be permitted far more freedom in, say, a prose poem. But even the prose poem should end up closing into an arabesque rather than straying like a donkey through a truck garden (as my efforts in that genre often do).
Realism, I feel, is much less slighted by your by your distinctions. A lot of what has been prescribed over the past century and a half in realism’s hallowed name strikes me as bloody bad writing: the characters treated like Pavlov’s dog, so that their hanging tongue is all we know and all we need to know about their soul… the staccato, hipshot dialogues so popular in contemporary writing which sometimes run for pages, and which you so rightly deplore… but even here, aren’t we conflating several separate issues and trends into one definition? The masters of old-school realism were certainly sparing in their dialogue. If anything is realist which approaches the reigning genre of popular communication—newspaper account, radio broadcast, and finally talk show—then isn’t that distinction, too, suspiciously convenient for romanticism? Because romanticism, you know, prided itself historically on recognizing the parlance of the common man—"Preface to Lyrical Ballads", Robbie Burns, and all that.
JDW: After reading your response, I was at first concerned that, while I had relatively little of my real opinion to defend, I had so much to clarify. However, now that I’ve considered it, I think it’s just as well that you’ve asked these questions, as they at least provide me with an opportunity to prevent misunderstanding that might otherwise have resulted. Often I find myself on guard against being so exact in my statements that my writing becomes laborious with qualifications. This discussion, on the other hand, serves as a suitable footnote to the essay and will hopefully clarify anything left vague by the text itself. I sincerely thank you for your response and I hope my answers are satisfactory.
You say that I have insisted that romanticism transcends the boundaries of time and place. I am not sure that I do say so. I said that writers whom I deem romantic in manner or purpose have appeared at many times and in many places; this being, of course, rather a more limited statement. You also say that I asserted that romanticism is a kind of art for art’s sake. Again, I am not sure that I have said so. Only perhaps if you have agreed with me in the definition and purpose of good art, then it might be so. Otherwise, I am in some difficulty to imagine (as I have wondered over that concept in the past) what l’art pour l’art could possibly be. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine art as a thing detached from other things; detached for example from courtesy or morality.
As for my having condemned the classics, I was at some pains, however insufficient, to preserve all worthy works of art from any condemnation in my essay. I intended no little purpose of essay precisely to dismantle that petty factionalism and doctrinaire judgement that allows any reader or critic to dismiss whole periods and efforts according to rule—according, as it were, to the indiscriminately applied straight-edge. My criticisms were directly primarily, if not exclusively, at the spirit of petty doctrine; so that worthy Greek or Roman accomplishment is necessarily preserved.
Your observation that romanticism prided itself historically on recognizing the parlance of the common man interests me. There were, indeed, many romanticists who were interested in the common man, or at any rate in folk sources. I think of the romantic composers who grounded great works in their studies of folk music: Liszt and Dvorak, for example. However, many romantics were no more grounded on folk sources than any classicist. You may as well imagine that Homer and Ovid were also romantics since they drew their work from folk sources. Michelangelo must himself have been a romantic since he took so much of his matter from Hebrew folk sources.
JRH: Was it not precisely romanticism which delivered art into the hands of the self-proclaimed individualist who ends up putting a cross in a jar of urine? I know you are upset by the moral ineptitude, and even insouciance, of contemporary art—the taste for childish shock effects, and the obtuse belief that a turned stomach has something in common with a moved heart. But what basis, after all, does your commendable sense of responsibility have in a purely romantic license of the spirit that bloweth where it listeth? You say at the end of the essay that "the only rules in the world are the laws that God has laid down, and a man is otherwise free to fly." If God has not laid down these laws, however, in a fashion which grips the human heart, freeing it and forcing it to confront the deepest truths about itself, then the only alternative is that these laws are arbitrary decrees from without, delivered (presumably) in a holy book. But if the decrees recorded in the holy book are merely arbitrary, and not grounded in man’s essential nature, then those who refuse to recognize them would not feel their absence—not, at least, within the secular context of artistic creation. And yet, I don’t think you would be at all satisfied with this formulation—any more than I am. Your essay, if it says anything, proclaims that the literary art we’re getting now is cramped, insipid, and uninspired, quite without any regard for the given reader’s preference in holy books. If there is something objectively wrong with the barrenness of our art, then—if it is truly barren, and not just so to a few of us—then there must be laws of the heart which it violates. It must be, not merely unfaithful to an arbitrary code which some accept and some reject, but unresponsive to human nature.
JDW: I have myself previously (although not necessarily in the essay that I have sent you) observed the development, or conversion, of romanticism into the various modern strains that have resulted in our present literary practices. However, I am not sure I correctly understand your objection on this ground. Both antique Greek and Hebrew cultures came in time to the inheritance of the present age and took as their own many of the same luxuries and vices, embellishments and degradations. Yet it is not clear to me that all the sin of the present indicts the past, nor that the distinction between those ancient cultures is lost by their mergence in common contemporary virtues, vices, pains or comforts. In the same way, I do not see that romanticism is guilty by reason of subsequent derivations.
You refer to the "purely romantic license of the spirit that bloweth where it listeth." Again, I do not recognize this romanticism in the romanticism I described. It occurs to me that half the work of my essay was to provide my notion of romanticism with a firmer foundation than the sand upon which previous conceptions of that movement were built. With the foundation and guidance of faith, romanticism need not listeth anywhere inappropriate; or least not so without regret.
It is plain to me that God has laid down laws that are felt in the human heart. I need no convincing to believe that all law is written natively on the heart without teaching. Yet native law is deliberately obscured through sin, which leads to moral ignorance and would appear to be the basis of the Bible’s insistence that sin occurs even when the relevant act is committed out of moral ignorance; in other words, that moral (or perhaps I should say spiritual) ignorance is man-made. All of this was taken into account and also, I thought, implicitly recognized in the essay.
JRH: I can also come at this same issue from the direction of classicism. You write the following early on: "As tradition has erred, so the imitation of tradition carries with it a similar likelihood of error. It is true that the passage of time may make a tradition more true than when the men lived who made it; but this is happenstance and lends nothing more to art than the good or ill chances of history." Happenstance? So traditions change in response to spontaneous, unpredictable pressures like those which alter an electron’s flight? Surely it the case, rather, that people mull over their accepted wisdom and adjust it as they recognize its greatest virtues. One could also say that they pervert it by the same process of deliberation—but this strikes me as a rhetorical feint. When traditions are grossly distorted so as to plead the cause of tastelessness or depravity, it’s always pretty clear that the wit who so tortures them doesn’t believe in their inherent value. He is often a bold-faced rogue—an Ovid or a Lucian, or someone like that toxic melting pot of all values, Michel Tournier. Where traditions are seriously regarded, on the other hand, they are fine-tuned with immense care and constant double-checking. Most of the romantics you admire could never have produced their masterpieces without a profound exposure to precedent: certainly a Coleridge or a Poe (let alone a Shakespeare or a Goethe) would be inconceivable as a flash in a vacuum.
If, then, such creative genius is deeply beholden to tradition—the very tradition, often, which it rejects—is it not part of that tradition, a reflection upon it which represents just one of innumerable such reflections? Does not this worthy series of reflections deserve to be considered as more than a series of accidents?
JDW: Here again, I must apologize. It is possible that my mode of expression is at times all-too-epigrammatic. It is always my hope that any clarity otherwise lost in neatness of expression will be reconstituted by adjoining expressions, so that the correct meaning might be triangulated by the reader.
You ask me if I think that alterations in tradition are arbitrary. Without encountering each of your comments, let me return to my original meaning and understanding. I believe that what we call tradition is a human practice that is repeated with regularity. In order that an act may be said to be a repetition, it must be the same as the relevant act that preceded it; to the extent that it is not the same, then it is not tradition. Therefore, when I speak of tradition, I am speaking of tradition to the extent that it is such; namely, to the extent that it does not change. Nor, when I spoke of change, I was referring to tradition itself, but quite the opposite. I was referring to cases in which tradition remains the same (remains tradition) but when circumstances alter: a particular practice has a particular efficacy; time passes; new circumstances fortuitously increase that same efficacy. These last thoughts were the whole of my observation and formed a minor qualification in acknowledgement of the occasional advantages conferred to tradition through the changes brought by time.
You say that when traditions are seriously regarded, they are fine-tuned with immense care and constant double-checking. Here, I am not sure whether I agree or disagree. Fine-turned and double-checked—with regard to what? Surely the Pharisees took their traditions seriously. And indeed they were double-checked; they double-checked to see that Jesus’ disciples were not washing their hands. I am not much reassured by the fine-tuning of tradition that is, to begin with, fundamentally incorrect or misapplied. However, I may confess that traditions are good where men are good. Had the Pharisees been so good as to allow God’s law preeminence over their own particular customs, then I think there should have been little objectionable in the tradition of hand-washing.
JRH: One thing which can be painfully absent from such discussions as this is clear illustration. Before we conclude our exchange, I would like to volunteer some specific reactions of my own to contemporary literature. Frankly, I don’t read much of the contemporary unless I absolutely have to. Today’s writing seems to me either a cheap imitation of a B-movie’s screenplay and script or else, where the spectrum achieves "literature" with an upper case "L" (as you say), interminable mush advertising its plotlessness and pointlessness on every page. I’m aware that there must be something in the spectrum’s middle—the fiction published in The Atlantic, for instance—but I haven’t the time for it and do not feel disposed to make the time. It was therefore a minor revelation for me to chance upon a volume titled Scéalta san Aer, or Stories in the Air, a couple of years ago. I plowed through this volume in order to work on my Irish (studying other languages is the sort of thing I do make time for), and I emerged with a pretty good sampling, I think, of what passes for good short-story writing in circles neither dryly academic nor coarsely popular. All of the stories in this book were previously read over (if not expressly written for) Ireland’s national broadcast network, RTE. They were therefore seldom longer than two thousand words. Since they were composed in Irish Gaelic, a competent use of that language was the major criterion, I’m sure, in selecting them: that is, stories of a certain politically incorrect content would have been much more "publishable" than in any comparable North American venue if their opprobrious sentiments were well parsed. In fact, Ireland is a very conservative culture as Europe goes these days, and writing about the simple folkways of yesteryear is also every bit as proper as writing about Native Americans would be in the U.S. So I scarcely expected to see the kind of thing which I had once known well from campus literary magazines.
I was wrong! Not entirely so—there were some really good stories, in my humble opinion. One of my favorites was in fact about a couple of housewives who are somewhat insecure in their admiration of a woman who has reverted to the traditional, pre-electric way of living—thatched cottage and all. They have the bright idea of going to visit a very ancient, but still keen-witted, grand dame from the old days who (they agree) can pass a competent verdict on whether things really were better back then. When they are just about convinced that the old girl represents a heroic generation of beings, she turns their blood to ice by insisting that her infant daughter never died all those years ago, but was spirited away by fairies! As the two visitors backpedal out of her room, she asks them for the "remote" stick so that she can catch the evening news!
There are several very fine touches of irony here which, I suspect, must show through even my threadbare summary. What I like most is the perfect suspension of judgment at the end, just when I felt certain that the Luddite option was going to be run up the masthead for everyone to salute. This story most certainly has form, yet its ultimate achievement is a highly poetic wonder that leaves you between the devil and the deep blue sea. In style, it is perhaps a little artless—it relies almost exclusively on conversational chit-chat, which makes the remote-control stick an especially surprising touch. Yet small points of style (or small demerits of stylelessness) really don’t count for much when, upon finishing the last sentence, you become aware that you have a whole work before you.
Other than this story, even the more conventional ones—and there were few enough of them—always left me ever so slightly squirming. There was one about making Saint Bridget’s Crosses from rushes which qualified, once again, for the "younger generation discovers older generation" theme, I should say. Yet there was a heavy dollop of nationalism this time, since the Saint Bridget’s Cross is truly an artifact of pagan antiquity with the very thinnest of Christian veneers. Everyone in Ireland knows this, and the rush-woven crosses are employed almost jingoistically in that capacity. The story in question brought no irony whatever to bear on the practice, though it might easily have done so. Speaking of paganism, the piece whose style I most admired was told as a series of letters from an early medieval monk to his friend nestled comfortably back in an English monastery. Some of that historical imagination which you find in short supply among today’s authors was in glorious display here. Indeed, there was nothing else in the collection remotely similar to this atmospheric story. What nagged at me, though, was the political subcurrent of the monk’s heart-of-darkness narrative—for he kept confessing himself to be miserable among the Irish barbarians and praising the memory of everything continental. I came away with the very strong impression that the writer wanted us to recognize Catholicism—and Christianity generally—as an alien influence grafted forcibly upon Ireland. I found that hint altogether too propagandistic in its heavy-handedness. Art should have a lighter touch, and its finger should point more vaguely.
The most ostentatiously traditional story was written as a fairy tale. Young man doesn’t care for girls or merry-making, high wind whisks young man away to enchanted castle, revelers in castle cannot extract from young man so much as a jig or a joke, high wind whisks young man away to a graveyard, corpses welcome young man into their midst with macabre effects, young man whisked back to castle and given one last chance, young man brilliantly exits his shell and inspires enchanted princess to clear castle of all but him. Well. You could say that this is the Christmas Carole scenario so popular in folklore, but for two things. I can’t recall ever having read a single folktale where revelry is extolled as a virtue, thought I’ve read a great many where the young man must be healed of some dissipating habit. Secondly, there is no marriage at the end, or even any promise of what is called nowadays a "long-term relationship". The princess gives every sign of having arranged a one-night stand—and, curiously, the story ends with her ardent suggestion. No popped-bubble return of our lad to real-life tarmac with a vision-inspired resolve: just a princess turning up the heat. Now here’s a perfect example, I would contend, of a story whose moral dimension sabotages its aesthetic one. Even though there’s something witty about using traditional style to turn traditional morality inside-out, I can’t imagine any thoughtful person supposing that he will one day stare into his grave haunted by not having been to enough parties. If you’re a grown man and have known all sorts of people to die in all sorts of circumstances—have seen lives truly ruined which you truly held dear—this charming fable teeters on the verge of complete frivolity.
With one or two exceptions, the other stories in this collection of twenty-six have nothing to do with tradition, in either style or content (or diction, I might add: nothing chafes at me more than trying to read an Irish document littered with all kinds of gaelicized words for "screen saver" and "spark plug"). A good third of the total, I would estimate, handles what might be called "women’s issues": women in midlife crisis, in bad marriages, in unrewarding jobs, in oppressive wife/mother roles, in crises involving a child’s illness or death… that sort of thing. And some are movingly composed—but, alas, they are bedeviled now by being "that sort of thing". Even I, in my deliberate evasion of contemporary literature, have one way or another read so many feminine laments and tirades about life’s injustice or tedium or agony that something in me turns cold when I see another. The message is always at least implicit that life is so only for women or especially for women. I have enough bad days of my own that I don’t relish reading about someone else’s. When, on top of that, I have to accept the fictive universe’s constitutive law that I, as a man, cannot really have very bad days, then… well, then, that makes my day quite needlessly worse, as I see it. By the way, the very first story I mentioned—about the old woman who ascribes her daughter’s loss to fairies—could be squeezed under the rubric of women’s issues: all the characters are female, and childbirth is a frequent topic of conversation. I note, however, that the story is dominated by irony and by a sense of life’s complexity for everyone. To be a female author without playing the "gender card" at every turn is certainly possible.
The remaining stories are a motley bunch. I really don’t know where to pigeon-hole the one about the female bagpipe-player with a Mohawk haircut and a ring through her nose who, after a jam session in a bar, gets the master piper to trill "Black Bear" up and down her spine till dawn. Transgendered issues, perhaps? How about pipe-cleaning?
Then there was the first-person narrative of an engaging chap who befriends old men at a distant resort, wins an invitation to their room, rolls them off the balcony, and rifles their belongings. The author thought it worth underscoring that his serial murderer targets Englishmen especially. The same emphasis marred an otherwise mature story about a man who seeks out his uncle’s grave among the thousands of British dead from World War II resting in the Netherlands. His words in the cemetery’s guest book are almost the last of the story: "They died needlessly"—this because his uncle fought beside the English. Needless, the halting of fascism’s spread and Europe’s descent into a dark age? A fine epitaph!
Indeed, several of these stories manifest such an eagerness to deal cheap shots at England, the English, and the English language that one must wonder if their authors perceived themselves as thereby garnering bonus points in the scramble to be selected. Such a situation would be the precise parallel of PC on our side of the Atlantic. Certain protected groups of people must not be cast in a shadow, come what may, while certain other groups of may be kicked and punched to the assured delight of editors. I found this kind of English-baiting operative even in a piece whose flashy defiance of convention courted utter unintelligibility. The story-teller informs us that he can’t think of a story to tell (in high "metafictional" fashion—but rather tired and dated, too, isn’t it?), so he goes on the Internet and runs a contest. An Hispanic woman in Tucson, Arizona, is the happy winner—but she must be chastised for slipping from Spanish into English! Even the most self-promoting amoralists and antinomians of our creative community, it seems, cannot write for very long without giving away their dogma in categorical imperatives.
The award for ignoring the most obvious occasion for irony (competition was stiff) must go, in my view, to another Internet story. A young man, having finally set up his Gaels-around-the-world Web group, finds himself stumped for an inaugural message. He at last contents himself with a mystical satisfaction in the mere fact that the group exists. But he has nothing to say! We electronically sorted dopes with phones stuck in our ears all seem to believe that a universe of like-minded (or identically mindless) Irish expatriates or blond transvestites or Sagittarian occultists is just waiting to hear our next words… and nothing but cliché and blather dribbles from our mouths! If that isn’t funny… but my mirth received no encouragement. O irony, thy death is the end of thoughtful joys!
I conclude this exhaustive, probably exhausting review of a disappointing anthology with the story that disturbs me most. "Eating People", it is titled. Lest I devote time where all fine analysis would be wasted, I say merely that this one man meets this other man who appears to be an omnivore, eating bits of trash—papers, bottles, aluminum cans—out of the street as he stalks Man One, who is finally himself grist for the digestive mill. Man One is the narrator (the story wanes as he is dismembered), and he relates the encounter in a vein as light-hearted as the whole story’s conception is light-headed. Micheál Ó Congaile is responsible for this contemporary classic. He is quite celebrated in Ireland, I believe. I once waded through his An Fear a Phléasc (The Man Who Exploded), a short-story collection featuring, among other things, the eponymous piece about a spectacular event of spontaneous combustion. Well, well. I should stress that no moral or social allegory ever burdens an Ó Congaile work. We simply find lurid absurdity to the –nth degree, rather better done, perhaps (in that it is less beholden to TV formulas and movie camp), than the garbage one finds all over the Internet—a refuse heap which no set of teeth could grind.
I’ve inflicted this long digression upon you because it sums up through specific example my own judgment about why literature is dead. Would you care to add examples of your own, or to qualify mine? And having done so, can you put in a few words your view of just what’s wrong with our writing today? The case of Ó Congaile would suggest that our malaise isn’t as simple as complete lack of imagination.
JDW: I appreciate your comments on the stories you described. I will attempt to respond to those observations according to the general traits indicated by them.
When browsing markets for fiction, I find peculiar features in the guidelines. Sometimes an editor’s preferences are unusually specific. One market demands science fiction stories set in the 19th century. Another demands stories set in a particular region of the country. Or else editors make a point of encouraging ethnic fiction. I have never discovered to a certainty what ethnic fiction is. I may imagine that it involves brogue or salsa. It is impossible to know without finding a literary journal that deliberately labels each ethnic story as such. Nor have I ever arrived at a sure acquaintance with what is termed slice of life, and I cannot possibly know why anyone would want one.
Writers today do indeed routinely give their readers the benefit of their political and social opinions. In fact, I cannot deny the efficacy of such opinions as propaganda. However, a novel seems a long-winded way of recommending a candidate. Nor am I willing to part with seven dollars for the pleasure; no matter how many books an author sells, it is an expensive opinion.
Novels have also become literary pornography for those too shy for the usual sort. Or else, they also indulge the magazines and movies, but find their intellectual pretensions served by extending their titillations to prose. Let me hasten to add that I am not criticizing anyone’s sexual proclivities, but merely observing what additional venue such appetites have recently usurped.
Well-read people, who could be expected to know better, pursue accessibility as a prime virtue in literature. Writers, editors, critics have all acknowledged what a busy world it is. One does not have time to read long sentences or complex phrasing. By extension, the principle of accessibility involves selling literature to those who do not especially care for books.
Writers are to be original, above all things. Men of letters have come to the conclusion that all the value of a story lies in its plot and summary. Canterbury Tales is enfeebled by its lack of originality, loses all vitality under the burden of its twice-told tales. Oddly enough, the contemporary sensibility does not so much object to the pastiche. The very obviousness of derivation seems to be a more acceptable citation of source, as if the simplicity of unmixed borrowing justifies the text and gives credit to the author through the appearance of unsophisticated honesty. In other words, a too-free mix of source and inspiration appears to them a sly deception, the beginning of a lie.
Once again, concerning a writer’s opinions: it is a common error to absolutely conflate acceptance with stupidity and rejection with intelligence. It is true that one may accept many things together, as if of equal value, because of untutored lack of discernment. It is also true that a knowledgeable person may reject many objects because his discernment allows him to see that they are unsuited for him. But I also believe that a mature intelligence strives to reject only what is needful to reject, and that such a person does so silently when he can. He does this because he understands that the voicing of many antipathies is an unpleasant clamor and the beginning of violence. He also does this because his pride can be satisfied in his work without boasting loudly of his cultivated preferences.
That said, I have certainly written an opinion for my essay on romanticism. But I believe that an essay is an acceptable place for an opinion, especially when it is given with as many allowances for error as I believe I have done. I have tried to accept all that I could fairly deem acceptable in literature. I have rejected those things I have thought it necessary to reject. I have tried to steer clear of hyperbole and cruelty, in any case. But as for fiction, I hope I express only the broadest opinions, such as spring from fundamental beliefs, which cannot be removed without depriving literature of its original motive. Or else, if a miscellaneous opinion of mine creeps into a story, then I should be happy to treat it like the opinion of any stranger, being susceptible to humor and unimportant in itself.
Through the habit of realism, writers have lost the skill of negation. I’m not sure whether negation is a good term; it sounds so hopelessly pessimistic. I refer to the skill of beginning from premises contrary to fact, contrary to the writer’s own condition, or contrary to the condition of the world. Whenever I have happened on such a premise in one of my stories, whenever I have found a condition in my story that was contrary to my understanding and feeling, then I was also surprisingly stimulated by the tension, irony, and implicit criticism that underlay the development of that premise. I believe that such an approach, if practiced and well developed, could expose a vast tract of literary possibilities that are currently uncultivated by contemporary writers.
Let me put it this way: I can see the worth of describing a beautiful world, even if all my world was ugly. I would tell what is beautiful, if only to enact the disappointment of that contrast, and keep my heart alive to its own unrealized hope. To depict the good that does not exist may act in fiction like a step upon the water. One may sink like Peter into the waves, but is it better to remain waiting in the boat? Isn’t it better to be embarrassed by our enthusiasm for what is good? What pride is there in turning only to the worst face of the world, merely because that is the only face that does not put us to shame?
On the other hand, I see no necessary fault in descending to dark subjects and horrors. To begin with, a horror well depicted may also be a warning. Or else, the dark turns of a story might give voice to human perversity without accepting it, but affirm the good will of the author (if not the character) against his heart’s own countervailing wishes. One may pray at night his best and most humble prayer, only to return to the most despicable thoughts on the very next evening. To judge by the movements of my own heart, I might suspect that Satan lay in wait for the lights of good prayer, to pounce upon and strangle them, before their worth can be enacted. When all this is the case, a writer might be forgiven for also writing such struggles that produce horror in the face of hope.
As a last-minute thought, I would only add that it is easy to underestimate writers, critics, publishers, and readers themselves. They are capable of more than they know. We criticize one another, but criticism is not the way to find another’s better parts, only his defenses. I suspect readers of having better tastes than the books they read and writers of better intentions than the books they write. In our wars of words, our resolutions draw themselves into tight simplicities, often doing injustice to one’s convictions through his own description of them. You ask what is wrong with writing. I can only answer, finally, that the same thing is wrong with our writing as everything of our making. It is us, and is perhaps not remedied by pretending that the fault lay with someone beside us, either of another party or sensibility. Whatever faults we find with our thoughts, politics and letters, these things are also produced in the midst of us who criticize them. I am inclined to believe that this simple acknowledgement forms the beginning of much of our hope, as we could then see clearly those around us. Purblind anger and condescension blocks up the sight necessary for great art; simple doctrine accuses even a prophet. I would have us all take more freedom with ourselves, and be worthy of it.
JRH: In fairness, I should volunteer a brief answer to my own question—and in mercy, perhaps, I should then let it all rest. In my opinion, what we’re seeing is a collapse of what I call "inner life": the awareness of the self/other distinction, the sense of duty which follows from that distinction, the complex egotistical struggles which impede that duty and lead to a profound examination of motives… all the things which might be summed up literarily in the word "psychology". Contemporary writing has no psychological depth. Characters are two-dimensional. We never get to know them, yet we seldom feel that there is much to know. Sometimes their actions are the formulaic behavior we would expect of rats in a laboratory. More and more often, though, it strikes me that, in a bid for originality, their author has them acting with an inscrutable immunity to common sense, sane emotion, and daily experience. They are as grotesque as talking animals—which peculiar beings are an increasingly popular species of character, as if our literary culture had recognized that it no longer has much to do with the human.
I have written in many places that this pathological shallowness shows a rejection of the literate life in favor of electronic post-literacy. I’m not going to revise that view here, by any means: the alarm it raises is a central note in the mission of The Center for Literate Values. All the same, I could understand why someone might want to emphasize that this is a moral decline, not just a technological shift. That, indeed, is my own view. I think the shift in our communications technology from writing to screened images spells disaster for our moral depth. Naturally, with respect to story-writing, I don’t mean that we should exact morally uplifting fables from our artists. In fact, without vice and evil, I’m not sure that there would be any good stories! Where would the tension come from which is the narrative world’s gravity and shadow? What I mean is that a good story must know which way moral gravity pulls. You can’t expect a sane, mature adult to deplore people of a certain ethnicity or social class with the same righteous indignation that he would shower upon child-abusers. You can’t expect such a person to view murderers with sympathy because their victims are balding white men in retirement. You can’t expect him to be engaged in any way by a tale about some seedy type who eats people’s arms off around street corners when no context whatever is offered for bestowing sense upon such impossibility. Even so-called fantasy writers, when they do their job, tinker only with the grounds of empirical possibility. The best ones are so far from taking liberties with human nature that they deserve to be considered moral realists, if that term isn’t too dissonant; or if so, then let us denominate them students of the human heart.
No sublunary artist ever creates ex nihilo. His materials already have mass, dimension, color, and texture when he picks them up. For the literary artist, who can indeed change the size and weight of mere things, these essential facts are moral ones. When there is no more universal outrage at brutal murder or universal sympathy for self-sacrificial love—or when the pre-condition to registering such naturally human responses is that we be a certain race or gender of human—than literary creation is simply impossible. The human being might as well try to grind bricks and chrome with his poor molars. Such is the pitiful sterility of our state today. Call my view a romantic classicism, if you like. My own grudge with the romantics is precisely that they tended to besmirch and efface the universal with their incessant fixation upon their personal oddity. Yet they were obtuse philosophers, be it said on their behalf: much of their art belied their plangent theorizing and found the high ground to common humanity—or the winding path, I should say, to a higher humanity. Without that sense of universality, and without the creator’s aspiration to touch the Milky Way over all our heads, our art can only circle the drain. Sometimes I think I hear the terminal gurgle, and that I will soon hear… nothing. But even if that were so, I don’t suppose it means anything more than that we need to get busy starting over.
Translated Excerpts from Pierre Lasserre’s
Le Romantisme Français
It has been at least a year since I promised to Praesidium the translation project below. Even now, I find that it is far from done, for I have only managed to put into English about half of the passages which I enthusiastically photocopied from Lasserre’s magnificent (and now unattainable) book. This isn’t the place to ramble on about a higher-educational machine which rewards the writing of endless jargon-coded claptrap while sneering at translation and other endeavor focused on yesteryear’s texts. It certainly isn’t the place to testify that I have found being a devoted parent infinitely more rewarding than being a devoted cog in that stuffy machine. In an ideal world, I should not have had to choose between the two. Caring for one’s own young would complement caring for the next generation by teaching it about previous generations. Professors who take that view of their calling now, however, risk termination.
So that leaves the "Ph.D.-Moms" to do such labors as translating Lasserre. I have felt an even stronger bond to this work since a small book in which I collaborated—Why Boys Shoot: Culturally Conservative Scholars Review Our Crisis in Masculinity—appeared for Arcturus Press right after the 9/11 attacks. Over night, no one was thinking any more about shootings on high school campuses: everybody was suddenly being frisked at the door of every high school. The connection with Lasserre is apt because his brilliant book was published on the eve of the furor which ignited World War I (1907). Though he excoriated the German tendency to irrationality, it was precisely a French version of the same tendency which fanned the anti-German flame in those years—so his work fell between the cracks, and has never really found its way back out.
On Jean-Jacques Rousseau…
"‘He’s a savage from the banks of the Orinoco,’ said a friendly voice, Mme. de Staël, ‘who would have been very happy to pass his days watching those waters flow’ (Lettres sur les écrits de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre 4). So who was stopping him?
"But no! He preferred to face off against life, to hurl malediction at those of her creations whose complexity and vigor offended his nerves. He announced that the only legitimate condition for man’s existence was that which would have suited him personally. For that matter, it was a chimerical and contradictory condition whose fiction he composed with a heedless disdain for natural philosophy. To lend credence to the fiction, and to burden the human race with the folly it had committed—with the crime it had perpetrated against Jean-Jacques Rousseau by exiting this fantasy—he forged his very own system of philosophy, history, and politics.
"Thus, in involving his epoch with this system, Rousseau involved it in nothing more than Rousseau. The thunderclap celebrity which he encountered one fine day in Paris represented more a caprice for an odd individual than an interest in his ideas and talent. Until then, appearances suggest that people would mix their enthusiasm for great writers and artists with the cult of an illustrious or studious past which had nourished their genius. This latter sentiment, by tempering the former, ennobled it. The union of the two constituted glory. How could praise have been lavished upon a rhetor who wanted only savages for forebears and brothers? It would be tantamount to substituting oneself, one’s pretensions, and ones ideas for every acknowledged measure of high esteem and leaving people only the alternatives of howling catcalls or falling on their knees.
"In this position, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was necessarily all alone. Was that not his most cherished wish? Diderot and the Encyclopedists, the grand arbiters of opinion after Voltaire, started out by coddling him, since they thought that everything subversive was theirs by right—and since, too, militant sects always want to enlist anyone enjoying wide renown. What a blunder! No doubt, the only way that the monstrous paradox which is Rousseau could make itself be taken seriously was as an intellectual anarchy stirred up by the Encyclopedists’ demolitions. Nevertheless, this paradox was a passionate outrage against the spirit of studying humanity scientifically and philosophically. It vilified the honorable part of Encyclopedist doctrine: the confidence in the progress of the human condition and of human morality as a result of enlightenment. Hence, Jean-Jacques, at war with both the past and the future, refused himself to any affiliation and took a lonely stand on his prideful sterility. Yet we should note that if he defamed his century, he also profited from it. As a stranger, he could bitterly rail against the obtuseness and frivolous giddiness of French thought. This disposition, carried to an extreme, was midwife to his stroke of fortune.
"Behold, then, this man à la mode. Success, an illustrious visitor, filled with incessant affluence the worker’s hovel which he inhabited with his unwashed family. And how did he receive the caller? Like a bear. An amiable Jean-Jacques, reconciled to life by his vogue, would have disappointed the expectations of a society whom the author of the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts only charmed by insulting. He thrust himself, therefore, into the role of universal censor which had just drawn him so much applause. We may date from this moment his great personal transformation. Of course, everyone must understand that the man had an absence of personal restraint which he was never forced to mimic.
"Under the mask which he fashioned for himself, Mme. de Warrens’ nursling could indeed have mistaken his own identity. He made himself a Roman, a Stoic, a ‘citizen’. After twenty-five years of absence, he remembered that Geneva was his homeland. In phrases of a marvelous harmony, he deplored not having been able to pass his days in this city of upright politics and austere virtue. He threatened to settle down there. Mixing together reminiscences of Calvinist moralism and ancient civic duty, he composed an ideal of rugged heroism which elevated to a superior significance his wild and woolly airs. By his own admission, this overheating of the imagination—torrid enough to inflame these pedantic themes with an eloquence from which Mme. Roland, a young Napoleon, and Beyle [Stendhal] would draw bursts of energy—endured for four or five years. The energy of Rousseau! Those critics who seek the source of these declamations in his early education, in the spirit of terse jurisprudence with which Geneva had been imbued since Calvin’s time as well as in a precocious reading of Plutarch, simply haven’t done their homework. The portrait Jean-Jacques has painted us of his family shows it full of joy like something out of a story, alien to public-spiritedness, the father unruly to the verge of the bohemian and incapable of teaching his son any affection for general order. The boy himself, born Protestant, was won to Catholicism by the charms of a pretty proselytizer, and would have turned Buddhist in the same circumstances. Personal feelings were his unique inspiration even in the practice of the stalest dogmatism. The Geneva which he describes and invokes so reverently, in short, has almost nothing in common with the real Geneva’s constitution and customs. We can find nothing there but a sort of bogey-man through which he incites his contemporaries and stirs himself to a fever-pitch—a tactic comparable to the terrorist, theatrical Catholicism from whose lofty vantage another man of letters, Barbey d’Aurevilly, cast a lightning bolt upon the nineteenth century." (34-37)
"If he repudiates education, Jean-Jacques also systemizes lack of education, as one might say. Yet that in itself constitutes a system of education at once extremely detailed and extremely vague, which may be summed up in this formula: learn everything by learning nothing. I have no more to say about the impossibility of trying to picture the moral development of a child separated, like Emile, from his family and companions of his own age, locked in perpetual dialogue with a tutor who, without ever actually intervening, doesn’t let a minute go by without clandestinely looking to the child’s progress. Let us note that the method imagined by Jean-Jacques, unless expended on an intellectual paralytic, is bound to produce a faint-hearted, devious little beast. Lest he put anything of the traditional in his pupil’s mind and so betray in him the man of nature, Rousseau insists that the child not be confronted with the notion of right and wrong. Emile will acquire a power of discernment through his own experience. Since nature has not planted a scarecrow in every garden to convince young raiders that the neighbor’s apples are delectable, the scarecrow will be dispensed with. Along Emile’s way, as illicit actions occur, combinations of circumstances will be piled up so as to produce automatically such consequences that he will never again want to trespass. If Emile is not a blockhead, he will smell out this artifice. If Emile is not a blockhead, he will learn to take better precautions next time. But that he should reflect on account of a blush that he has violated some law without which people could not form a society… no, I don’t believe that the inductive reflections of this young animal would make such a leap.
"To be sure, the energy needed to jump over fences is what Rousseau has supplied least of all to his young pupil’s character. At the side of this abstracted and systematic child, one sees another figure emerge in the course of the novel—a morose emanation of Jean-Jacques’s own spirit, the sad Alcibiades of this sad Socrates. In his stunning lack of scruples about eliminating the fundamental features of the problems he addresses, Rousseau does not ask himself a single time the very first of pedagogical questions: what is happening to this susceptible young mind? He decides not to occupy himself with the issue until the ‘fifth year’ of instruction—but a child’s mind will not wait that long. Deprived of all heroic nourishment, it will secretly choose itself for its constant object, and—though growing more poor all the while—will acquire complete autonomy over its thoughts. Thus bloated without having been fed, for a period of five years, on a diet of tear-sprinkled outbursts, of indeterminate realities—Nature, Woman, God— which he can hardly distinguish from himself, without a homeland, without a past, without a childhood, and also without any manhood, Emile will embark upon life endowed with nothing but a logic concocted in his own heart.
"Does there not arise from all these sullen fantasies a cadaverous stink?" (68-70)
"At the bottom of it all, fear, pride, and desire. The first, by making the heart tremble, forbids all knowledge to the inquiring spirit. It counsels flight from human affairs. But its marriage with desire produces a child—the false world of reverie. And from its further union with pride is born the vital expedient of making oneself accepted and admired by men as the victim of a superior destiny. The pure fact of personhood ends up justifying an artificial personality.
"An actor needs a theme, and someone whose social role is an act needs an antisocial theme. Anxiety, which the role’s successes do not really banish from the intestines, makes a common cause with that very role to erupt eloquently in sterile malediction of life’s basic conditions:
"These laments constitute a very frail vengeance for a soul embroiled against itself, if to dark reality it opposes nothing but an ‘ideal world’ (Rousseau’s own words), to the future a defunct Eden—an indeterminate synthesis of all joys without any taint of labor or pain. The Christian heaven is ‘supernatural’: one enters there by dedication to virtue and in another existence. In contrast, the romantic heaven is the mirage of an earth and a humanity completely amenable to my desires. The whims of romantic dialectic expend themselves in highlighting a natural and social reality which offends them at every turn and leaves us no alternative but to fly free of ourselves or to founder like something artificial and accidental that never should have been. At the same time, the paradise of lazy prayers gains credit as ‘true and legitimate nature’. We are to deplore that matter has weight, that tigers are carnivores, and that fine sentiments come at a price. The work of Rousseau is the most out-of-season whining which the human voice has ever released upon space.
"What it truly expresses is the soul’s basest depths. But it also contains a spiritual error which, in Jean-Jacques’s scheme, precedes sentiment, though among thousands of others it turns out to spoil the quality of feelings as it passes through the intelligence. This error is the mistaking of natural philosophy’s sovereign principle: a recognition that pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, wisdom and folly, justice and violence, and good and evil in general are not essentially different elements, but the same. The first term of each contrast conveys a state of accord and harmony, the second a state of disorganization and lawlessness. From this principle, the Greek metaphysicians were fond of drawing a universal explanation of the cosmos. At the very least, one can say that it is minutely involved in every work undertaken by human activity—in the architect’s manner of rendering heavy stones light in order to balance them, in the honest man’s manner of governing his inclinations by turning them into virtues, in the politician’s manner of transforming into social forces the conflict of special interests with the general welfare. Such activity does nothing other than reconcile order and anarchy through hierarchy. Polemos pater pantôn—everything is born from warfare, as old Empedocles used to say, the fecund warfare of artistic energy against irrationality and the spontaneous resistance of things. This is the merest of axioms in the common sense of all ages. But its consequence is that the human condition will forever be a struggle—that every object of human prayers will be bought and paid for by energy and remain subject to chance setbacks and decay—that grief is implicit in destiny’s most magnificent moments. Such a consequence, properly understood, chastens optimism with sobriety and pessimism with hope. Its message is neither humility nor swaggering pride, but a salutary assessment of things whose view is blocked by nothing so much as the inspired ravings of fear.
"As if he had never lived, Rousseau dreams of joy and suffering, happiness and misfortune, virtue and vice, justice and inequity, as if they were pure essences never mingled, and whose intimate sense, untainted by exterior contacts, would be an infallible touchstone. What dreadful naiveté! He gives false names to his emotions and then, by referring things to these emotions, he judges of their objective quality. ‘All that I feel to be good is good, all that I feel to be bad is bad.’ So, then—there are entirely good sentiments, absolutely and infinitely good, good in every way, good in every hypothetical case, to which one can abandon oneself without restraint? This spells moral disaster. What is good in itself is divine. ‘Conscience! Immortal and celestial voice!’ The abasement of religion lurks here—God shredded up in every movement by which the heart is pleased to let itself be dragged off.
"Art, morality, religion, and politics have no other end but to realize a unity of contrary elements and forces which, unless their contradictions are subordinated and conquered, will sterilize and destroy. This realization is the good, in all of its various names: the beautiful, the honest, the wise, the just. But if there is a primal and spontaneous goodness or virtue or justice, these disciplines are not only useless, they are a wicked artifice which prevents natural paradise from blossoming. The actual substance of that optimistic view is a nihilism of heart and mind. Rousseau practiced this nihilism with his morose gnawing at the edges, and in his calling down a universal pell-mell to succeed him in the name of liberty. The cry, ‘Liberty!’ is thrilling within a prison’s walls or under the conqueror’s iron fist. But when the yoke by which we feel ourselves oppressed is none other than the nature of reality, it becomes the desolate cry of a slave who accepts his lot while cursing it." (71-74)
On Mme. de Staël…
"Alas! I am not so limited as not to recognize that these unintelligible lines nevertheless have a certain sense. They are sighs, swoons, discomforts, overflows, hopes, regrets. And since these various states of consciousness are particularly stormy in this noble-hearted woman, she persuades herself, like the theologian she imagines herself to be, that they contain metaphysical and divine insight.
"It’s not that I wish to recommend platitudes or a crudity of sentiment, which are equally offensive to the essential character of the beautiful. But it is the misfortune of these apostrophes to stir in us a surge of bland bald common sense and to seek a little revenge for Molière. For they are, above all, vulgar. The heart of Mme. de Staël, let me repeat, is worth infinitely more than her creative wit.
"A sensualism of ideas, a metaphysic of emotions, a mystic materialism, a lyric bestiality—thus could one define the romantic bog, or rather the rot, of the intelligence. Let someone find me a single one of George Sand’s ‘philosophical pages’ which escapes this assessment. And in which of his most trivial emotions does Michelet (we might as well take his artistic organization at face value) not feel himself penetrated by the Holy Spirit? Does this bristling mass of things not compose the totality of the philosophy of a Quinet or a Pierre Leroux? They keep saying Religion, Humanity, and Infinity, yet they never talk about anything but their own heart. And this heart where they wish to have everything enclosed is a chaos. Here we are looking for sources. Let us therefore restrict ourselves to achieving a perspective upon the vast swampland of nineteenth-century romantic thought.
"Feminine ideology exerts a disorganizing influence by its multiplying as well as by its mixing up. In my eyes, what seals Mme. de Staël’s intellectual disqualification is the sheer number of sound, strong thoughts which we find in her work. They are signed Constant, Schlegel, Goethe, Schiller, Fauriel, Bonstetten, Barante, etc. What superior man of his time (Goethe proved the most resistant) has she not worked over to engage himself in her behalf? (George Sand, with her Michel de Bourges and her Pierre Leroux, divided herself up much more sparingly.) It is disturbing that a mind capable of entering so exactly into rational and studied positions emerges from it all without any mistrust of the customary impulsiveness of its own movements and, in the bat of an eyelash, adopts the very position which it has just implicitly excluded. No doubt, the perception of ideas is very astute among women. But there is a kind of intellectual memory whose weak-ness seems to represent one of their flaws. Their thought, so to speak, is forever virgin." (170-171)
On the Poverty of Canonical Romanticism…
"Regarding their sensibilities, then, the romantics of 1830 are no more than the heirs of their illustrious predecessors. The object of our investigation, applied until now to sentiments, will thus change its nature to some degree. Romanticism as a sentimental disorder has revealed its entire essence and offered all its testimony. We have nothing more to gain in that direction but repeated words. How does it happen that the period where we have arrived and which appears to correspond to Romanticism’s exhaustion is that upon which general opinion and historic usage have bestowed the proper noun?
"The answer is: because Romanticism had only popularized itself at that point and that the word did not adorn the fact—which had for long existed and been thought through—until that very fact, now popularized, began to penetrate the soul of French society by all the arteries of literature and art. We have seen that an ardent generation, extraordinarily rich in talent and hungry for an intellectual and aesthetic renewal, had not grasped how to see senility and death anywhere other than in surviving traces (already languishing) of the encyclopedic spirit in philosophy and of classic form in letters. This generation imagined that it could imbibe youth and life from the cup of Rousseau, Senancour, Mme. de Staël, and Chateaubriand. Until then, French romanticism had been the attitude only of a few poetic individuals, extremely curious but isolated, more solicitous about offering themselves as a spectacle to the public or to each other than about forming a school (which would have robbed their uniqueness). The body of work produced by these few has a persistently autobiographical character. It grows into a system, a program, a center of connected spirits—or is violently preoccupied about growing in that direction (for such a result would be contradictory and impossible). It strains itself to furnish philosophy with ideas, to furnish history with a philosophy, to furnish drama and the novel with subjects and characters and psychology, to furnish aesthetics with a doctrine. Writers with the least romantic disposition possible—Victor Hugo, George Sand, and even the good Dumas—have been whisked away in this movement and add to the sickness all the power of their health. It is thus by the name of explosion or tumult that one ought to call the epoch of literary history currently designated as that of Romanticism. Once finished, it will persist throughout the century under other aspects until its stream at last dries up.
Romanticism has as its sole foundation the eternal defeats inflicted by the common experience of life upon the independent aspirations of an individual who takes himself to be an end and an all. Hence it appears unable to express itself in any form except elegy and confession, whether explicit or veiled. How can this theme, as monotonous as it is inexhaustible, nourish literary genres whose object is the painting of humanity? This originary contradiction dealt a mortal blow to romantic literature. Its poems, dramas, and novels addressed a single, unique subject. It struggled to multiply and vary the theme, to inflate it by disguising it under a thousand masks. But what was needed was to forsake the subject entirely—to break free of the tyranny, the triviality, the torpor, and the infertility of the I. Authors wished to equate their conceptions and sentiments with the proportions and content of humanity, society, civilization, history, and God himself. They received enlightenment from such sources only through the beams which filtered through the window of their miserable egoism. The universe was supposed to deliver itself lock-stock-and-barrel to be read and measured in the capricious reactions of an individual sensibility. Everyone sought in himself the alpha and omega of everything. The whole phenomenon was an exercise in arrogantly renouncing observation and closing the intelligence to reality, preserving all the while the pretension of thinking and of accomplishing true, profound, noble works. There followed the imaginary creation of an illusory, fantastical reality, a tireless manufacture of philosophical, political, psychological, aesthetic, and moral inventions that feigned grandeur through oddity, profundity through the bizarre’s audacity, truth through an forced complexity. These were hollow, purely artificial inventions for anyone who takes them as they are, without straying in other directions. Yet at their bottom the analyst always finds something real, one fact: the blind sedition of the individual. Despoil such creations of their high fantasies, pierce through their pompous comedy, and they invariably repeat, ‘Me, Me, Me!’
"The originality of the romanticism of 1830 resides in just this furious labor, this frenzied parturition of false ideas. The chords of nostalgia, of vain hope, of lament, and of disillusion now had a muffled sound. Sentimental individualism, having played itself out to the end of its monodie, was no longer expressed directly, but rather stirred up a world of theories and general declamations leveling at society their malediction and a vengeance, no longer of the I, but of all insatiable and disappointed I’s everywhere. This transposition, which was at the same time a proliferation, was necessary precisely to vulgarize romanticism. In this form, the movement could unite communicants of dispositions as healthy as Sand and Hugo, who were better constructed to drink of life deeply than to renounce it in grieving. Poorly suited to pine away and moan, they managed to deploy their ability in the development of revolutionary ideas and in the games of an imagination out of control.
"The truth is that romantic theses held little of the new by 1830. Romanticism had already unfolded under Rousseau in the dual form of sentiments and ideas. Theodicy, religion, philosophy of history, politics, morality, psychology—he had melted down and mixed up just about everything, according to his pleasure. But while Rousseau had never ceased to have his adherents as a man of sentiment, the terrible realities of revolution and counter-revolution had dealt some rude blows to his ascendancy as an ideologue. It was on this account that Chateaubriand despised him. Constant, primarily a subversive by nature, did not buy into his prehistoric social mythology. And the sad Senancour scarcely uttered a timid echo of Rousseau in his solitude. Mme. de Staël had halfway inserted religion, metaphysics, and morality in Delphine’s and Corinne’s affairs of heart. But these heavy novels, unending, distinctly Swiss, and unreadable in Paris, were work in the rough. George Sand would come to refine their endeavor. Thus all the romantic theses—the wickedness of civilization, the radical antinomy between society and the individual, the absurdity of laws and customs, the divinity of passion and its legitimacy in every hypothesis, the right to happiness, the natural possibility of every joy artificially cut off by institutions—these whimsies recovered the glister of the never-before-said. It was just a matter of rejuvenating them with a fresh flame, of adding to the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality the flesh and blood of René (along with everything else of color and rhythm with which the geniuses of a young, lavishly endowed generation teemed). It was a matter of reworking Rousseau’s painful treatise in dramas, novels, poems, and historical tomes—of varying infinitely its application, of exhausting its con-sequences, of giving it a thousand voices." (188-192)
"Catholicism recognizes along with all civilized religions and moral systems—and more finely explains than any other—the duality, or rather the multiplicity, of human nature: the antagonism between reason and imagination, between will and passion, between outward-reaching and egotistical inclinations, and between particular pairs of these inclinations. Its best moralists excel at tracing and unmasking the infinite avatars of an internal combat that does not exist in demons or in angels (those perfections of virtue), but which is the condition of mankind. It is precisely to this combat—this struggle within the conscience which is quintessential to man—that romantic psychology shows itself completely blind. Romantics superimpose or juxtapose the angel and the infernal monster; they forcibly unite two abstractions, two irreconcilables, in a single individual who, thus conceived, is in fact a being alien to life, incapable of movement and evolution. Let us observe in passing that here resides the intrinsic cause which condemns Victor Hugo to abuse so much as a writer the devices of repetition and antithesis. He overworks antithesis because the give-and-take between deliberation and the unconscious mind, between liberty and instinct, between good and bad, where all the dramas and comedies of the human conscience play themselves out completely escapes his notice, which can perceive only material relations. He abuses repetition because his creations, by failing to offer any matter for analysis, offer no subject up for possible ‘development’.
"If one wanted at all costs to find some precedent in religion or philosophy for this impossible conception of human nature, one would have to reach for the Christian heresy of quietism. This doctrine, at least in its most excessive form, teaches that the soul can attain such a degree of purity, such intimate commerce with God, that it need henceforth only take an utterly passive refuge in the sweetness of its own life, dispensing with all concern for the movements of a body enacted beyond its sphere and incapable of being imputed to it as sins. Romantic virtue is exactly of this contemplative and transcendent quality. It is no particular virtue at all, but an indefinable and superior state, an influence of the ideal quite incompatible with the limitation of vulgarly detectable virtues. This is why one primarily encounters it under the banner of free thinking. Such a theory is impetuously affirmed by George Sand. She admires her Jacques ‘for calling into doubt the eternal laws of order and civilization’ (from Jacques, ch. 2), for being too ‘unbowed’ to ‘bind his honor and his conscience to the role of father and breadwinner’, and for deserving (by these very accomplishments) her salute as ‘colossus of fierce virtue’ (ibid., ch. 8). Of romantic virtue, it would seem. Elsewhere, speaking of ‘him whom society rejects and abandons’ not because of his misfortunes, but because of his voluntary faults and his perseverance in them, she wonders ‘if there does not arise between the supreme goodness and him an exchange more pure and more sweet than any other human feeling and all social approbation’ (Teverino, ch. 10). This is a rather mystical interpretation of the delectatio morosa which certain poets favor in the public’s lack of respect for them. On the subject of Rousseau, George Sand announces that the ‘crime’ he commits ‘by abandoning his duties as a father’ should not prevent us from ‘venerating in him the virtue which, after these sad days, began to radiate from his thought.’ In his thought alone—but there’s the point: sublime thought does not lower itself to the level of action.
"Romantic quietism was not just a phenomenon of novel-writing. It was readily extended to the living of real life. In 1833, the most celebrated of French poets staged a quasi-public elopement outside the bounds of marriage. He was not content that his friends should abstain from judging him: he demanded the Prix Monthyon. ‘I’ve never been more riddled with faults than I have this year,’ he wrote to one of his set, ‘and I have never been better’ (Edmond Birré, Victor Hugo After 1830, vol. 1, p. 98)." (212-215)
On Victor Hugo…
"In the theater and novels of Victor Hugo, judges are either lewd hypocrites, sinister torturers, servile ministers of ecclesiastic and royal vengeance, or blockheads.
"His kings—Louis XI, François I, Ferdinand the Catholic, Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Henri IV himself (in Supreme Pity)—are hyenas, porkers, tigers, or degenerates, not for any individual reason, but (so to speak) by definition as kings. [Both this and the following verse citation feature my prosaic translation of Victor Hugo.~G.DiR.]
"What he says to a bishop in Châtiments summarizes Hugo’s opinion about the soul of a Church dignitary in general:
"Someone is sure to say that these verses were written by Hugo in a moment of anger. Yet his psychological profile of the priest dates from 1830, an epoch when he was not an enemy of the altar—but when romanticism was already imposing upon his conceptions the purest kind of revolutionary shamelessness (without yet exacting it of his sentiments). Claude Frolio (of Notre-Dame de Paris) is described as having a ‘severe face with large forehead and profound stare’, and his youth is said to have been devoured by ‘a veritable fever of acquiring and hoarding, all in the name of science.’ Having plumbed the depths, one after another, of theology, canon law, medicine, the liberal arts, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, Claude Frolio harbors under these reverend appearances and within these outwardly spiritual occupations a sexual rage capable of exasperating itself to the point of murder. He is ultimately as atheist as Antony and Claude Gueux are charismatic. So much for the priesthood. In Homodei, Hugo advises us that the vile spy d’Angelo is intended to symbolize the Parisian ‘pamphleteer’. But he does not leave us to wander about in doubt that this pamphleteer is Nisard, and Mérimée, and Sainte-Beuve, and anyone else who brings to the examination of the spirit’s labors a concern for the intellectual and aesthetic laws imposed even upon ‘genius’ by the good and the beautiful. Hugo’s pretense is mendacious, and serves only to mask his impotence and envy. A critic of this sort is like a big toad swollen with venom. In the same way, this poet who died a multi-millionaire and had concocted a false genealogy for himself did not exempt hereditary aristocrats or the suddenly rich as he jeered from the arms of vice, disgrace, and imbecility. Such is the theme of The Man Who Laughs.
"In sum, authority of every kind is usurpation, grand larceny, an attack upon human nature—or at the very least, an affectation. Those who exercise it or participate in it therefore necessarily form a branch of the human race which is corrupt, wicked, stupid, or at the very least and in every instance burlesque.
"Let any representative of an institution, tradition, or order arrive by chance at the romantic Muse’s door, and—redemptive destiny!—she will awaken him to his superiority. He will recognize the absurdity or the baseness of his occupation, he will secretly anguish over what he is, and a frightful remorse will seize him that he is only half-revolutionary or is drifting in that direction. George Sand’s Jacques is an admirable husband. The shame of his state, therefore, overpowers him, and he discreetly commits suicide. The policeman Javert in Les Misérables (about which we will speak later) is an inexorable but honest officer. He must have his encounter, therefore, on the Road to Damascus. The generosity of an escaped criminal makes him doubt the justice of his calling, and he throws himself into the Seine.
"A review of this anarchist psychology’s most significant moments would be long. Since the characters which it vilifies are often historical figures, and often quite noble and famous, a moral judgment on the use of poetic license to analyze history—particularly the history of France—would eventually be necessary." (216-219)
On the Essence of Romantic Style…
"Assuredly, the [romantic] mask, as much of a contradiction as it was with the true face, had not been created for it through the cool artifice of literary stylists carefully picking and choosing among an arsenal of grand words. Such a crowd would have deceived no one. It was necessary that the romantic poets deceive themselves, that they themselves feel the vertigo—that they should have, as it were, a genius for abusing themselves and dazzling themselves about the quality and consequence of their ideas and receive therefrom emotions out of all proportion to the ideas’ actual content. Permit me to call this inspiration the Genius or the Muse of Emphasis.
"One will well understand that romantic emphasis is of a distinct type. It consists of the very disorder of thought. At any rate, the abuse of verbal strategies by romantics follows from a genuinely sensed exaltation. It is this exaltation which is emphatic relative to the pettiness or the unworthiness of the objects to which it attaches itself and which it drapes in a false importance and sublimity. The romantic spirit has an irresponsible tendency to grow marveled, to launch into ecstasy, to seethe with indignation, and to recoil with horror which has little to do with the true quality of specific occasions, and from which it draws an inexhaustible supply of the pathetic on every subject.
"How to explain a disposition so strangely mingled of the mimetic and the sincere?
"An adult embarks upon life full of chimeras dictated by the desires of his heart. The most banal of experiences are sure to cause him deeply disconcerting moments of bewilderment and disillusion in comparison to the response of an even slightly seasoned judgment and sensibility. If this man is full of pride, short of courage, and a poet, and if he can find an audience dull and idle enough to receive without jeers the public gushes of his tragic discoveries, he will doggedly assert the rights of his dream over reality—especially the right to judge and value the latter by the moon-glow of the former. This is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s story in a nutshell. He came before society convinced that men are good—which is to say that the happiness of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was their principal occupation. Everything which forced him to a different conclusion was for him a Himalayan eruption of surprise and scandal. His adventures became the drama of human malice and social perversity, his poignant moments the sublime inspirations of virtue. He made holes into abysms: the simplest movements of his soul persuaded him that it was the most ethereal of his time and of all times. To be sure, ‘pomp’—that is, the purely verbal effort of a writer or orator to speak grandly of something that scarcely moved him at all—had been invented long before. In this natural and cultivated disposition to abandon oneself to extreme states of emotion and rapture before the sorriest of objects, however, there was the beginning of a genre of pathos entirely new in French literature." (224-225)
On Vigny and the Poet’s Right to Rule…
"The pretensions which Alfred de Vigny raises in his [the poet’s] name are unfortunately quite extensive and, to tell the truth, have no limit. The languishing dreamer for whom he demands ‘all our tears, all our pity’ is for him, at the bottom, first among men: the ‘spiritualist being stifled by a materialist society’ (Preface to Chatterton, p. 13), the earthly incarnation of Psyche. To this being belongs legitimately the right to reign over all nations, for he represents ‘the true’, while political power represents in essence ‘the false’.
"In his Reception Speech to the Académie [Française], Vigny, sponsored by the Comte Molé, said the same things with more politeness and concluded with a bittersweet praise of the statesman as an ‘improviser’.
"Such an infatuation as this would not be worth highlighting if it were only Alfred de Vigny’s personal craze. But the disparagement of political labor and order in favor of a literary personality is a commonplace—or rather, a requisite attitude—for the romantic spirit. In her Reflections on Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1841), George Sand rates ‘men of action or strong men’ well beneath ‘men of thought or great men’. The latter—which is to say, artists and poets—are the ‘sappers of the mobile human phalanx’. It follows herefrom that the former—that is, legislators and heads of state—should only consider themselves the servants and assembly-line workers of the formers’ inspirations. This impetuous female author adds that we will soon see ‘the day when the notion of progress will be consecrated as the principle of all legislation on earth’—a formula strikingly clarified by another which follows: that on that day, ‘the essence of the law will be a perpetual renewal of forms.’ Until such government by men of letters dawns, the art of governing the people will remain in the hands of materialism and a barbarous empiricism. What an unholy myth, as prejudicial to the prosperity of the arts as to the order of societies! It is simply not true that the artist can substitute himself for the statesman. It is less so, even, than that institutions can be modeled, without peril of subversion, on seductive aesthetic ideas. Quite to the contrary: since the florition of art requires the existence of a public taste—of a world of connoisseurs—it presupposes a strong, durable political order. Art and poetry are the fruit of such order. When sensibility and imagination are elevated as the reconstructive agents of society, they are necessarily revolutionary. It is not true that a statesman who deserves the name is an ‘improviser’. More than any other kind of work, his demands continuity, patience, long-term designs, prudent preparation, and—with great care of application—a solidity of principles mined from the depths of the most time-honored experience. Let us agree merely that the Realm of the Word, which tends to make of politicians the unwholesome shadows of poets, excuses Vigny’s impertinent rebukes up to a certain point." (302-304)
On the Romantic Aesthetic…
"Is the reader perhaps surprised that in a study of so-called romantic literature, we have not paused before any of the formulas which this literature commonly inscribed on its banner—before the doctrine and the program of aesthetic reform, in a word, which it boasted of applying to the medley of theories and arguments stirred by the bristling quarrel between the ‘classics’ and the ‘romantics’ (a quarrel whose most celebrated monument was the Preface to Cromwell and whose most resonant episode the premier of Hernani)? But all of that raises much more racket than it has of real importance. We have defined Romanticism as a disorder which, unleashed upon sentiments and ideas, overturns all the economy of civilized human nature. The literature of 1830—in its foundation, its inspiration, and its general direction—must strike us only as a manifestation, a particular extension, of a revolution which has continued to extend itself in numerous other ways after this literature’s proper course played out. The quarrel between the ‘classics’ and the ‘romantics’, relative to the development of this literature, is only an incident precipitated by the agitation, the ardor, and the special interests of a cabal which was far from encapsulating the whole romantic movement, since neither Lamartine, George Sand, nor Dumas took any part in it, Vigny had but vague ties to it, and Musset slipped away from it as smartly as he could. In sum, the Preface to Cromwell, as an aesthetic treatise on universal history, is a work of pure improvisation and of as much blockheadedness as liveliness. The long, adventurous path which it makes us follow through the literature of all ages arrives only at a defense of Hugo’s own conceptions and manufacture of dramatic effect. Some have praised the author of this manifesto for having stirred up ideas in it sufficiently to keep critics buzzing for a hundred years. Indeed, a writing which poses a thousand questions but which invariably poses them badly, which contains neither a clear notion nor an exact factual allegation, which has as its principle object to demonstrate that the truth of art lies in a reunion of the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘grotesque’ and yet never uses these central terms two times running in the same sense—such a writing invites rectifications as abundant as they are pointless. Better not to waste one’s time on the task, and to observe directly, as we have tried to do, romantic literature in its essential and generative realities, leaving to one side these vain pronouncements which reveal only limited and superficial qualities.
"Sainte-Beuve, so much in the thick of things and yet so clairvoyant already in 1829, affirmed at that time in the preface to The Poetry of Joseph Delorme ‘the preeminence of conceptions and sentiments’ in the literary revival. Precisely by the conceptions and sentiments which inspired it—by its intellectual and moral foundation—must we define romantic literature. If we had wanted to consult on the subject the professions of faith of the romantics themselves, Mme. de Staël would have furnished us with matter to examine and discuss quite as serious as the Preface to Cromwell (which, by the way, lifted much from her writing). However interesting may be the theory by which she linked romanticism to the general inspiration of German and Christian literature, the classicism of southern France, and paganism, one will readily understand, thanks to the formulas which we have offered to express the flesh and blood of romanticism, that these celebrated generalities strike us as drifting well free of reality. The psychological ruin of the individual, an indolent eudemonism, a sentimental chimerism, a malady brought on by solitude, a corruption of the passions, an idolatry of the passions, the rule of the woman, the rule of the spirit’s feminine elements over its masculine ones, a subjugation to the ego, an emphatic deformation of reality, a revolutionary and shame-free conception of human nature, an abuse of art’s material means to mask a laziness and poverty of invention… such are the principle formulas which we have developed with constant attention to highlighting the close ties to and natural determinism of those phenomena of decomposition to which they correspond. Whatever one may think of our thesis’s validity, surely it excludes any discussion of views and theories on romanticism’s true essence.
"As for romantic literature’s manifestos, and especially that of Hugo, a single remark will sufficiently demonstrate to what point these innovators deceived themselves about their own originality. They demanded the abolition—i.e., the confusion—of literary genres. But a confusion of genres quite as profound and decisive as that in literature—and which, to be honest, enveloped literature—had been ongoing since the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It completed its work around the young votaries of Hernani through the agency of grave men whom they would never have dreamed of numbering among their own. I refer to the confusion of genres of thought and genres of sentiment, sometimes as thought or sentiment, sometimes as thought and sentiment: the confusion of religion and love and of virtue and passion in The New Heloise, Delphine and Corinne; the confusion of theology with poetry and fantasy, of reason with impression or description, and of reality with desire in The Genius of Christianity; the confusion of philosophy with eloquence in Cousin’s 1828 appointment; the confusion of reverie with history in Michelet; and the general confusion of the I with humanity, the universe, and even God. The free mingling of tragedy with comedy or of elegy with epic was truly of little importance beside these mixtures, which spread disorder through the human mind and the human soul. Upon this ocean, literary transformation was a small wave." (309-313)
A frequent contributor of humorous eavesdrops on the academy’s dirty little secrets, Mr. Moseby is rather less old than this piece’s protagonist, and rather more happily (if less lucratively) employed.
"Why do you want this job?"
"Because I need the money."
"Why do you want this job?"
"Because… because I want to make a contribution. In the gender and ethnic studies field."
"Uh… fields! I mean in the general—the very general—area of literary studies that seek greater social justice."
"Mm, very good. But why this job? Why here at this campus?"
"Because it’s simply the best place to be. For this field… these fields. For concerns about social justice. About the… the nexus between literary studies and social—"
"Okay. But I notice on your c.v. that your course work is mostly very traditional. How do you think you’re uniquely qualified for this position?"
"Oh, I’m the man for the job, all right!"
"Yes, this is simply the best place to be—the premier institution in the nation in advancing gender studies to the very heart of textuality. While other institutions are backing off under pressure from reactionary politicians and fat-cat donors, you continue here to…"
"Excuse me, but you don’t mean to say that you consider our program better than the one assembled at Harvard, do you?"
"Hah! Their program is mere tripe compared to yours! I have dreamed of teaching here since I was a small child. I wouldn’t accept a Harvard appointment over this one if they paid me in six figures! And you know why?"
"I’ve always felt that this would be a wonderful place to work."
"Well… I mean, since I first entered graduate school."
"And what happened there to interest you in our program?"
"Well… it must have been my dissertation advisor. She must have interested me in it."
"Ah, so she had studied here! That’s very gratifying. And what was her name—it’s on your c.v., isn’t it?"
"Yes, but… I don’t think she went here. I mean… I don’t know where she went."
"Oh, I see. But then I really don’t understand. Exactly how did she interest you in our program?"
"It must have been something she said."
"Your dissertation advisor."
"When you first entered graduate school?"
"Well… well, not when I first entered. I mean, not the first day…"
"Your c.v. seems to show an interest in the nineteenth century."
"Yes. That was the critical period in the shift from patriarchal values to egalitarian values."
"That’s debatable. At any rate, I know someone in our department who would take extreme exception with you."
"I’d love to debate with hi—with her. Or him."
"You realize that with budget cuts, English departments across the country are being pressed to justify their more theoretical courses and programs on a cost/benefit basis. Why are you laughing?"
"Well, it’s not just English departments, is it? That’s the way we live our whole lives in this society."
"Yes, I suppose it is. But given that as a fact of life, how would you set about justifying our program?"
"Well, I realize you don’t have the resources of a Harvard…"
"Does that bother you? You’d rather be at Harvard?"
"Wouldn’t we all!"
"Yes! Ha-ha-ha! Wouldn’t we all!"
"But, you know, given the facts of life, as you say… I think a significant connection might be forged with computer-aided research."
"Demographic studies, that sort of thing. The nineteenth century is really the first for which significant statistics are available… on health issues, poverty and employment issues, a whole range of things. Emphasize the essential role of the computer in what we do."
"Yes, that’s… it sounds brilliant. And… but would you be able to make that case even for lower-level courses? That’s where our big enrollment is."
"Especially for them! A computer at every desk and in every dorm room. I’ve noticed your splendid, state-of-the-art writing lab."
"For the composition classes, yes. But what would you do with the literary surveys?"
"Throw ’em out."
"Throw ’em out. The students always absolutely detest them, and what do they teach, anyway? A propagandistic canon that violates everything we’re trying to accomplish in this field. We’d be far better off—I mean, all English programs everywhere—creating a new, hybrid kind of core course with History and Sociology. And maybe Psychology. Statistical studies and historical documents—which would include, of course, private letters, bills of sale and freight, death certificates and warrants for arrest… that sort of thing."
"I… I think I see."
"Shakespeare—who needs him? I’d rather read his grocery list than his plays."
"I got so sick of that asinine bell that I felt my fingers flexing to get around Shurlick’s throat," moaned Sauter later that afternoon, when he and Cornelia had the building largely to themselves. (Even so, he had eased her door shut with a knowing glance—knowing after the fact, since the silent turn of the knob was pure reflex—when he had first staggered into her office.) "It was like the hotel lobby in some Vaudeville comedy—like the cue for a song, you know. ‘Ding, ding, ding went my brain pan!’" His unmusical falsetto embarrassed him, and he made sure to look wistfully away at Cornelia’s many consecutive issues of Conradiana extending fully across two shelves of a bookcase. He also fought to lower his voice. "Why don’t we just… why don’t we just arrange the grad students over s trap door, and we can pull the lever every time one says something politically incorrect. ‘He’ instead of ‘she’! ‘I’m the man for the job’! For Christ’s sakes!"
"Paul’s methods do seem to get results," he heard Cornelia sigh in that note of diplomatic commiseration which he both cherished and resented in her. He peered from under his brows to see if the ghost of a smile might be playing in the wrinkles of her frail chin. No, she was not laughing at him. She was merely stating a very sad fact.
"The job market being what it is," she resumed finally in a drone, "it’s really quite extraordinary for an institution our size to have placed two graduates immediately as we did last spring… not that they both remained in the professioriate very long, but that’s hardly our fault. Or Paul’s, in particular. Least of all Paul’s."
"What are you—"
"Maybe it’s my fault!" Now Cornelia smiled, her ancient blue eyes sparkling at Sauter across her disheveled desk. It was like her to smile at her own expense—and how unlike anyone else it was, these days! "I should have prepared Anne better for what she was going to find.…"
"Anne Gellico, Alex. Didn’t you know that she resigned from… from that little swampland university down in Louisiana or Mississippi? After one year. Of course you knew—I distinctly recall telling you."
"I…." Sauter waved at thin air and hunched guiltily back in his chair. (It creaked subtle menaces of collapse as he did so. It had once been sequestered safely by the window, reserved for him and other special friends; but the students, attracted by its superior cushions, had irresistibly pressed it into service beside the desk. Its sad fate had been the subject of more than one of these rueful after-hour conversations.) "I can’t remember anything any more. The years are all blurring together… and the good ones when I’d just started here seem as though they never happened. So poor Little Orphan Annie…"
"She was in tears. The students were pushing her all over the place from one side, and the departmental chair was beating her into the ground from the other."
"But Cornelia, look: Anne is just exactly what I’m talking about. She did miserably on Shurlick’s mock-interviews… and who doesn’t, for that matter? The little swine should have worked for the KGB. It’s absolutely staggering how he ferrets out the tiniest inconsistencies and brings them to the surface. It’s the only real talent I’ve ever observed in him. And considering that the whole thing’s a mock-up, anyway, how could anyone ever expect the kids to have their… their story down pat? Because that’s what it is—that’s what we’re teaching them in these ridiculous interviews. We’re teaching them how to fake their way through any prospective employer’s attempt to get a straight answer. We might as well give them forged passports. ‘While you’re in Cairo, Double-O Seven, you will be Dr. Higgenbottom attending a conference of urologists on the Nile floods and the emerald-horned Pharaoh beetle….’"
He threw up his hands in a disgusted shrug—and the disgust was honest; but Cornelia’s gentle, slightly wheezing laughter was punctuated by two claps which made him smirk boyishly, despite his fifty-five years.
"It does seem that way, doesn’t it?" she lauded him. (Cornelia, though possessed of a fine sense of humor, had never been able to sustain or embellish one of his jibes.) "Such silliness, really, to imagine an opening in such detail!"
"Especially that kind of opening," huffed Sauter, chasing away the last traces of the smirk. "A position in gender theory… those are just coming up like mushrooms nowadays, aren’t they? Although he did think to slip in questions about how rare such positions are… but my God, if we want to prepare our students for job interviews, why not hypothesize jobs that are out there in the real world? Is that because the new guard in this department isn’t preparing them for the real world?"
"What it isn’t preparing them for is the world of letters," said Cornelia, tersely but incisively. Sauter refocused on her with a start. The tone was less equivocal in its despair than any she had yet voiced—or than any she would usually voice. "Of course, that sneer about the nineteenth century was aimed at me."
It was Sauter’s turn to sigh and commiserate. "Well, he’s trained them pretty damn well, hasn’t he? The sharpest of the lot wants to airbrush Shakespeare from the books, unless we can study the size of his underwear. Even Shurlick had to ping that one."
"I suppose they see themselves as creating a new world… I suppose the insistence on a real world would be argumentative to them," Cornelia continued to muse. But her despair was already lifting in a struggle to understand—a struggle which had no need of Sauter’s commiseration, and whose naiveté made him the least bit surly. "In a way, you know, they are succeeding. Shakespeare will survive, and even Conrad will probably survive… but what about Trollope or George Eliot or John Galsworthy? Young people never read the second-tier authors any more. And if the new wave can indeed move to the same tides as the computer…."
She left the remark unfinished—or did so long enough to look at Sauter as (he was sure) Socrates must have looked at Phaedrus or Jesus at the wealthy young zealot. "In ten years, you know, Alex, that frightful Young Turk Finney may just be reviewing the tenure of the world’s Shurlicks on the basis of whether or not they have fully digitalized their thinking."
The notion of Shurlick waiting tables for a living brought no sunlight at all to Sauter’s heart: he would probably be shining shoes by then, if the rumored reviews of all tenured faculty indeed came to pass. "Early retirement," he brooded from as deep in the cushions as he could nestle. "I wonder if I can afford it. Lucky you. You’ll be out of all this after next year, writing your memoirs in some mountain cabin. My daughter’s just starting college… and when they replace you, Cornelia…."
Though he had just settled back in ultimate torpor, Sauter now found his chair tortuously uncomfortable. His least favorite subject had reared its squalid head. As Cornelia entered her final year, the kinds of scenes he had been forced to sit through all afternoon would be enacted on campus without any bell, and the unprincipled sophist who blabbered the most flatteringly would be Cornelia’s replacement. Then his complete isolation would begin: then these corridors would become for him an unrelieved den of vipers. "I wonder what Anne Gellico’s doing now, instead of teaching? Maybe she could give me a job."
"She did get that one job, though, didn’t she? At Swampland U, I mean? That was my original point on the subject. By Shurlick’s standards, she was a terrible interview. And yet, there must still be places that recognize and reward mere intelligence and competence. As opposed to slick sycophancy and servile obedience, I mean." He clapped his hands upon the chair’s cushioned arms as if he had just made a stunning discovery. "Maybe… maybe there are still a few schools out there… where exactly is this lush green campus of the Magnolia Belt, anyway? I have a few mint-julep connections somewhere in my address book, I believe."
The cleaning lady’s dust pan clattered loudly against a broom or trolley beyond the closed door, and they both froze for an instant. Sauter’s eyes fixed upon the laminated poster of Doctor Zhivago (film version) beside the door frame, and he listened to Cornelia’s dispirited observations in a daze intensified by her gentle drone.
"I don’t think Anne was ever meant to succeed. I have a suspicion that she was hired precisely because certain people on that campus perceived how manipulable she was. Heaven knows if those same people got what they wanted. All I know is that they destroyed whatever chance at an academic career Anne ever may have had. And perhaps… they destroyed much more."
Sauter found himself unwilling to stray down any metaphysical lanes, though the old torpor had re-descended upon him with a vengeance. He stared distantly at his shoes—those comically wide, clumsily laced, gum-soled shoes which protected his arthritic heels from hours of lecturing—and bit his upper lip until the pain roused him to a new, safer, more trivial line of discussion.
"In that case… if they hired her just to make her a pawn in some political struggle, an ounce more of dead weight to bring their cannon fodder to critical mass... why, then, we were both wrong about Shurlick’s dress rehearsal, weren’t we?"
"I mean, her hiring is evidence neither of the rehearsal’s efficacy nor of virtue’s winning its way forward. No, what we have in Anne, rather, is clear evidence of… of…."
And he extended a hand to the edge of Cornelia’s desk, as if passing her the bitter chalice. She declined, however: was it naiveté again, or hidden cowardice? Was there a difference?
"I don’t know, Alex. This is your deduction."
With an infinitesimal snort of scorn, Sauter looked away, smacking the vainly raised hand down on his thigh. There was Doctor Zhivago again—Julie Christie and Omar Sherif.
"Evidence of jackals, my dear. Evidence that the ultimate deciding factor in all mundane affairs is how the jackals are to be fed. Beauty and poetry—we may not live by bread alone, but beauty and poetry are at the apex of that Russian fellow’s pyramid of needs, or his food pyramid, or whatever the hell. Before we need beauty and poetry, we need red meat. Worms and bones. First fill the belly, then feed the pups if they haven’t been eaten to satisfy Need Number One, then… then eulogize the carcass. O thou great mammoth, how low art thou fallen! Sprinkle some dust, sing a hymn before lunch time."
Sauter buried his forehead in the other hand, the one which had not bothered to gesture forensically. He was suddenly aware that his detour around troubling issues had landed him right in the middle of a metaphysical tar pit.
Within five minutes of his gloomy reflections about life on the savanna, Sauter squeezed back out of Cornelia’s office, smoothing the door seamlessly shut after him (for some reason: it had been wide open before he entered). He felt indefinably ashamed of himself. He knew the feeling well—it often assailed him after one of these intimate chats—but its origins remained a mystery to him. He occasionally had the same feeling after introducing some spectacularly unspoiled freshman coed to a tawdry double entendre (an e.e. cummings poem in the reader leapt to mind). The girl would usually have been home-schooled, or else educated by nuns. He would find her obtuse horror so amusing that he could hardly suppress a smile… but he would also end up asking himself, as he lay wide awake in an empty house’s half-filled king-sized bed, if the "enlightenment" was justifiable. To break down those walls on behalf of Baudelaire or Dostoevsky, okay: there were obscene truths festering in the human soul which had to be faced. But beatniks and dirty old men who cruised the ’burbs and refused to capitalize proper nouns—was it his mission in life to convert foolish virgins to the gospel of such prophets as those? Was he rendering the final months of Cornelia’s career—or the heyday of his own—any more tolerable by analyzing them all with his x-ray vision?
He picked his way uncomfortably along a corridor now a-bristle with three or four cleaning women, all chattering Spanish around him as they wandered in and out of fully lit doorways. His shoulders drooped and he lengthened his pace. Passing among them down the hall’s dusky center, he imagined a gray wolf among lambs. But he might have been the bleached-out, innocuous ghost of Dead White Guys for all the notice they took of him.
He could not see particularly well in the penumbra—his x-ray vision applied only to moral matters. (Besides, he didn’t wear his glasses as often as he should have: yet another rage against the passing of the light, he mused with mild self-contempt.) The figure in front of his own door, therefore, struck him as a student’s only on the circumstantial evidence… though, as for that, what were the odds of a student waiting patiently for him at almost five o’clock? Not high… but higher, surely, than those of a "colleague" coming to find him and attending his pleasure without a peep.
Among the ranks of colleagues who might possibly want to implicate him in a scandal or wheedle something out of him, furthermore, the last he would have expected to find was… what’s-her-name. Ms. Brown-and-Downy, he saluted her in his mind. "Professor Sauter," she had just muttered (almost whispered) as her warm, compact figure reeled toward him in an apparently hand-wringing posture. (The double doors opening on the stairwell ordinarily admitted light from the ancient building’s apse-like side, which was amply arrayed with windows. After classroom hours, however, the fire code did not require that portal valves be battened to walls.)
What in blazes was she whishing and shushing about? She certainly hadn’t given him her name yet, and he found that his overpopulated memory, while able to retrieve her portrait from the throng, could bring no letters into focus. "… The only one I could come to… very delicate… I don’t know what to do…." She was fielding two or three sections of freshman comp on an adjunct basis: he remembered that much. Scarcely older than some of their grad students… an MA from…
"Please? It won’t take but five minutes of your time."
"Madam, at my stage of life, five minutes may be a substantial portion of what remains."
Her hair had a scent which appealed to him—not a manufactured fragrance, but the clean, fresh halo of shampoo. Maybe one of those honey shampoos… good God, they didn’t really put honey in shampoo, did they? What a ghastly mess, to have honey in your hair! But if he were a bee at this moment…
"Can we go inside?"
"We are inside, are we not?" He had been on his way to the parking lot. These days, he absolutely detested spending one unnecessary minute in his office. Besides…
"Yes, but… this is very private. And very delicate."
Delicate… and brown, and scented. All he needed was to be seen in his office after hours with an adjunct about half his age in a tight pullover (he recalled that she always wore tight pullovers: at least, the portrait in his imaginary gallery had roundly filled one). Slanders with a lot less stickum had clung for years in these hallowed halls….
"I suggest that we don’t speak in Spanish. I think we’ll be okay then."
Now she was sounding like his daughter. Dad!
"All right, all right. Just let me…." He sighed more loudly than she had yet spoken. "If I can find my keys… and now, if I can find the keyhole… will you kindly move your… that-which-brusheth-doorknobs?"
Oh, this was a mistake!
The light almost blinded him as Sauter succeeded in flicking the switch, and he therefore received no more than another round brown impression as his guest flitted past him. He restrained himself from glancing down the corridor before shutting the door: he couldn’t see worth a bat-squeak, anyway, and the gesture would look highly suspicious if anyone of malign disposition were indeed studying his figure in the sudden burst of radiance.
"Welcome to my hole in the wall. Ah, how tidy! The elfin hands of nocturnal spirits have already made order of chaos. And the sweet scent of Lysol!"
As he chirped at her back, he felt vaguely sullen that the odor of her thick brown hair, now gilded under an angry neon light, had been stolen from him by the strident disinfectant. As usual in moments of discomfort, he found that bombastic irony continued to flow from his lungs. "The two advantages of having an office by the stairwell are that the cleaning crew reaches you first and that snatches of conversation prevent you constantly from lapsing into a deep thought which might well end in sleep."
She turned on him just then. He was struck dumb by her youth. (Or was it just Youth? Ten more years in a place like this, and her lips, too, would start to shrivel as if they had tasted lemon, producing the sour puss whose progress he followed in the mirror every morning; but for now, their two upper angles were lithe and lively, their lower swell rich and moist even without apparent cosmetic touch-up. Her cheeks, as well, were as round and smooth as ripened apples; and her chin… he thought of Cornelia’s crinkled, old-crone’s chin, and was laid under a second, still more rueful spell of muteness.)
"It’s about Dr. Shurlick," she said. Her eyes blinked in what might have been nervousness, or gravity, or… who could tell? The eyes of the young, in revenge, could seldom speak much of anything but blunt passion.
"Dr. Shurlick," Sauter repeated, winning time. "You’re an adjunct professor, and you’re here to address me on a delicate—a very delicate—matter concerning Dr. Shurlick."
"You’re the only one I could think of who could possibly help me."
"Ah! Then you really are in a fix!" A convulsive sigh overtook Sauter which erupted into a laugh—one merry, shouting laugh—before he could repress it. He literally clapped a sleeve over his face as his eyes ran along the dusty, eighty-year-old cornice work and double-checked the door’s firm seal.
"May I sit down?"
"Oh… oh, by all means! Pardon my gaucherie!" he said with needless sarcasm (but the lingering merriment in his tone neutralized the effect, he was relieved to notice).
Sauter had managed to appropriate a kind of couch and two chairs done up in blue ballistic nylon (as he would say to Cornelia) by way of nourishing a clever illusion of comfort in his office. The students had actually expelled the set from some lounge or other of theirs, but they seemed pleased to find a professor offering them at conferences something beyond the standard steel-frame, interrogation-room accommodations. His fragrant brown woman of mystery assumed a seat at one end of the couch and angled her knees toward the other, as if she were pointing him in that direction. He therefore plopped down in the nearest chair (even though a decorous chocolate skirt was tucked completely over her kneecaps: there remained those straight shins, splendid in the neon pulse, and the subtle brown curve of calves behind them).
"I… I have this… that is, you probably know that…."
Sauter strummed the rock-hard upholstery with mounting impatience. And to think that he couldn’t even retrieve her name (the department had insisted that her rank was unworthy of inclusion in their bi-monthly afternoon bore-a-thon meetings). He considered asking her now—just straight out, "What is your name again?"—but decided that the opportunity had come and gone. She was already quite flustered enough.
"Should I go peek through the blinds to see if a man in a trench coat is reading a newspaper in the parking lot?"
He had intended to cajole her, tossing a glance lightly beyond his desk; but this time he really did sound sarcastic. He watched (with a marveling that humiliated him in his own eyes) those naturally purplish lips blanch for an instant as she bit them severely, then flush again with vital color.
"Here. Read this."
She refused to uncross her legs. He had to lean forward to take the proffered scrap of paper, which he did reluctantly.
"Ah! A… a Web address, if I am not mistaken! The ubiquitous ‘www’!" He just couldn’t contain himself: all this preliminary melodrama—and then to be handed a Web address! "I realize the gravity of the situation now! How long do you think we have?"
"Just… just listen, okay?"
He was finally irritating her. That was good: maybe he could go home soon.
"The… yesterday…." She winced and threw out her hands in either direction, as if to stop the sun and the other stars in their tracks. Sauter noticed the short, unringed fingers and short, unpolished nails. He was impressed.
"Dr. Shurlick had me helping some of the grad students find sites and do searches to get background information in places where they might interview. He believes in being very thorough. It makes a good impression, he says."
"Personally, I’m more impressed by…." Sauter had to cinch his thoughts up in mid-sentence. "I mean, in my day… when I was your age… a candidate was expected to explain his dissertation on Sherwood Anderson and the pastoral, not to know that Dr. Schultz had a ‘c’ in his name or that his little Frieda was a prodigy on the piano."
"Exactly," the girl resumed, clasping her clever hands and missing his point entirely. "The more you know about an employer, the better. It shows that you’re serious."
"Anyway, I was running a search on Dr. Shurlick’s essay that was anthologized in the Magruder collection, just to show them what kinds of tools were available, and—"
"Don’t tell me! He’s violated his parole!"
"Dr. Sauter, this is serious!"
"It certainly is! Is there anyone on the force that we can trust?"
"He’s a plagiarist!"
She had leapt to her feet, her exquisite little hands now clenched tight in outrage (a rather ill-directed outrage that looked as though it might land between his eyes). Sauter also bounded up, reflexively.
"His best known article—the one about Norman Mailer and Nietzsche—it’s posted at that Web site. But it’s in German, reproduced from Zeitschrift something-or-other, and it’s under a different name. And it was published ten years before Shurlick’s!"
Her fists had almost been in his buttons. Sauter noticed distantly (but not without a certain satisfaction) that they wilted self-consciously when she discovered them there, and that she hedged back a half-step. In his deliberative mind, he was trying to assess the full import of her disclosure. For some reason, though—squeeze and knead the information as he might—he could bring himself to be neither very surprised nor very interested. What else, after all, would any perceptive person have expected of Shurlick?
"I have my job to think of," she was brooding now, rather like a distressed damsel who has just confessed to Sherlock Holmes that the family jewels are paste. "It’s not much of a job, but… my career. He can destroy my whole career!"
"Might be the making of you, Ms…. why spend your life working with frauds and charlatans like… like us?"
"No, I… I love teaching. But I feel that someone should know this. I kept the graduate students off the trail, I’m sure. I instantly clicked on another site when I first grew suspicious… and, anyway, they don’t read German. I do, a little bit—enough to know what was before me. And I’d heard people say that you speak German very well."
"Ach, nein, selbst ein Kleinchen. Ich mage es lesen besser als sprechen."
"Well, so you can read the article for yourself and tell. It’s word-for-word translation, in my opinion. Someone like you with authority really should know this, and… you know, take it up through the proper channels, so that the right thing will be done."
Not for the first time, Sauter noticed how the sensation of feeling flattered had come to be instantly complicated in his heart by the suspicion of being manipulated. The reaction was as spontaneous as saliva in Pavlov’s dog. All he could do was flick his brows high aloft, smirk half a smile, and drawl, "Authority… you came to me in search of authority?"
His cynicism visibly disconcerted her now. Those busy little hands began working back the sleeves of her black pullover and rubbing those downy brown forearms as if fighting a rash.
"So there’s nothing you can do?" she said at last, staring at him in sudden resolve. (What a curiously un-romantic disillusioning her eyes were! A rich brown like the rest of her presence, but… so flat, so shallow.) "There’s nothing you will do?" (Yes, such idealism really needed a pair of flashing eyes to sell itself.) "You have full tenure, and you used to be chair of the department."
"Thank you for so succinctly summarizing the accomplishments of my adult life. At about this point in your budding career, you should be taught that no one on any campus has less influence than an ex-chair. I am an old nag who doesn’t rate a pasture to graze. My résumé is wet with the snows of yesteryear—or, excuse me, my c.v.! A pity you missed our rehearsal this afternoon for the finals in ‘conning the mark’, as I believe it is called in more honest circles. Or the job interview, as you all call it. I’d give fifty-to-one that no person in that room besides Dr. Waitfield and myself could actually spell out the ‘c’ word and the ‘v’ word."
"But that’s why you need to speak up—to fight for things as they should be! If I went to the administration, not only would I ruin my career possibilities, but I probably would be ignored, anyway. Just brushed aside. But you… they couldn’t just ignore someone like you!"
"My dear Ms…." Sauter turned away quickly and growled into a raised hand. These revolving-door, year-contract people should be made to wear name tags! "You’re not listening to me. The crime was what I witnessed, what I had to sit through, this afternoon, and also the hundreds of wasted classroom hours which were indicted by the prevailing folderol. Believe me, plagiarism isn’t spit in the bucket when rated beside the malfeasance which we practice and advertise here proudly and daily."
Sauter genuinely regretted the apparent frustration he had caused his guest. Her cunning flautist’s fingers pressed white bands up and down her sinewy, tawny forearms. And yet, he continued to be nettled by the absence of fire in her gaze—which had at last riveted upon the door in some semblance of reaching a decision.
"In any case," he murmured, shuffling a step backward to hint at a cleared path to the exit, "I’m not sure that I’d place much stock in this German Web site. I can’t imagine a German publication of ten years ago—even just ten years ago—accepting that tendentious, jargon-congested artifact of acid reflux. Oh, the Germans—I grant you, they are masters of impenetrable terminology… but that’s just it. The dull Wattage of Shurlick’s lamp can be seen through myriad holes in his bushel. I can’t imagine anyone but him producing such claptrap—the accidental transparency of his vapid ivy-wrapped ballyhoo is quite the most original thing about him."
He had been rolling his eyes along the cornice again in search of a good-humored register. The final, keenly punctuating glance which he cut at her was therefore able to surprise the first expression he had seen in her dark irises and slightly puffy lower lids. It had been a kind of a squint, and it said something wholly dissonant with the moral indignation she had tried to pull off. He must have been a little shocked—his face must have gone a little slack on him. For now she took immediate flight toward the door, trying to cover her trail with a new show of vexation. In doing so, she revealed to him a handsome jaw line.
"I’m sorry I came. I shouldn’t have bothered you. I won’t trouble you further."
The change had been both abrupt and effective. Sauter had been so clumsily snared in the previous emotion’s coils that now he could only reach for the door which she opened by herself. She made one last pause on the threshold, elevating that fine, unwrinkled, damnably youthful chin.
"You are a great disappointment, Professor Sauter."
"You know," he nodded, pointing a finger at the ceiling, "I recall my ex-wife saying that very same thing in that very same position relative to a door."
Sauter scratched his raspy, now fuzzily stubbled cheek (the gray ghost of five o’clock shadow) as the steps receded down the corridor. He nimbly calculated that there had been no sexual finessing intentionally deployed in "Ms. Downy’s" brown maneuvers. Those twinges of tuning violins were all inspired by his crabbed and cankered mid-middle-age celibacy. Nevertheless, the look which he had surprised in her eyes—that had been something beyond surprise! Nervous suspicion, maybe. Even alarm. Just in case she had been trying to strip and rotate him for the buzz saws of the rumor mill, he bounded to the doorway and leaned out.
"Buenas noches!" he bellowed heartily.
He thought that, in the shadows, he could see the square, black-clad shoulders quiver ever so slightly… but how could he, with his eyesight? The only movement of response that he unquestionably aroused was three raised arms from three cleaning women.
The notion of visiting the scandalous Web site and confirming Shurlick’s turpitude never entered Sauter’s mind in the hours that followed. (The seditious slip of paper was consigned to the grocery-sack trash collection beside his washing machine after he had admired the shapely, controlled scrawl one last time and passed it under his nostrils.) Of far greater concern to him was weathering the next afternoon’s events with his sanity—or with an insanity, at least, which was nobly aloof from the prevailing kind. The routine established during Shurlick’s three years of chairship was that, a day or two after the round of sleigh-bell interrogations, the grad students completing terminal degrees would appear formally attired to read quarter-hour excerpts from their seminar theses. The assembled English faculty was expected to replicate the audience of some Conference on the [Ab]use of Time in Postmodern Meta-Narrative… which meant, in practical terms, that their pitiful attempt to make the well-padded Armitage Lecture Hall seem amply occupied by sitting one to every third row was not to be taken as a sign of flagging enthusiasm. Once every student, spruced cap-á-pie for the conference circuit, had droned his or her gleanings of wisdom into a microphone which no one had switched on, the entire throng of a score or so would retire to the Lackleer Banquet Hall, where all would be sumptuously regaled from the department’s budget. The food was usually good.
This year’s harvest of young scholars was extraordinarily small (as well as, in Sauter’s opinion, extraordinarily devoid of pith): a mere four. Since he himself had been relieved as chair at least partially because of this diminished "output" (the Vice President’s unconscious metaphor, and apt enough—a machine spitting out wrapped candy bars), Sauter was secretly amused to watch the decline accelerate under Shurlick’s regimen of "new ideas". There was talk that their department might no longer be certified to offer a Ph.D. if the skid carried them much farther. One of this season’s terminal foursome, in fact, was taking a Master’s in Web Publishing or Literary Graphics or Hypertextualism (Sauter had successfully forgotten just which of Shurlick’s proposed titles had taken wing from the Curriculum Committee’s nest of cuckoos). The experimental major, of course, had as yet not penetrated to doctoral altitudes of aether. Shurlick kept preparing them—just any year now—to see the doors beaten down by young intellects hungering for a cyberspace sheepskin. What he never seemed to comprehend was that, even in the best-case scenario, he was undermining doctoral study by joining the juggernaut of speed and ease. It would be a pleasure to watch him kick the stool from under his feet after he had tightened the noose around his neck: this was the dénouement which Sauter dreamed of—fair-handed, out-in-the-open self-destruction—and not some boomeranging act of plagiarism which would grotesquely morph into a resignation "so that I may pursue my valuable work in more effective venues."
At any rate, the shrinking of the next afternoon’s docket to a mere four names was cause for gratitude. It could be worse—it had been far worse before. Sauter dutifully showed up in the lecture hall at 4:25 and took a seat off by himself. (He didn’t like to associate with Cornelia too publicly or too often lest she receive some of the hostility regularly directed at him. He also glanced up from his copy of Master and Commander now and then to see if Brown-and-Downy had made an appearance: no doubt, she had not been invited, despite the difficulty of filling the hall… what a bunch of arrogant swine!) As was typical, those who most supported Shurlick’s regime—or who offered the most vocal, visible signs of support—were the very ones who delayed the event. Straggling in, then fawning over Shurlick and his stormtrooper-cadets, then deciding through some purely instinctive calculation how many rows from the front they could risk sitting and how thickly they could gaggle together without appearing a cabal, he checked them all off between paragraphs. The Would-Be Crypto-Lesbians, the Slick Chicks, the Jolly Good Fellows, the I’ll-Do-Anything Raw Recruits (his Brownie would naturally have entered this rank if she should ever receive a promotion)… over on the far side, remote from the herd but also as distant from him as possible, the two Renowned Scholars (who would also do pretty much anything as long as Shurlick fell on his knees before each departmental meeting and hailed them, "O, Renowned Scholars")… the gang, finally, was all here.
Except for Ruben and his Sancho Panza (who was really more on the order of Jacques the Fatalist), Hrbeska. They would come, all right—failure to appear would constitute open mutiny, for the whole shebang was so painfully idiotic that it required universal participation—but they would come boyishly elbowing their way down the aisles halfway through the first reading. Both of them were in a unique position. As the only black male anywhere in the School of the Humanities (except for an aging history professor who was always glaring indignantly at seating arrangements), Ruben could write his own ticket to the top. He well knew that no axe would dare fall within a mile of his ebony neck. All things considered, he took this humiliating privilege rather well (unlike the history prof). He never objected to being called by his first name in an ostentatious liking that might have suffocated a lesser man. The general campus population could not have been more ignorant of his surname—or more insistent that it really liked him—if he had been an ancient janitor or groundskeeper. He responded with convincing smiles, and he even kept his hair and face shorn like a Navy Seal’s. In the well-oiled recesses of his mind, Ruben had figured out that the best revenge upon this worship of his skin was to abstain from all overt Afro-isms and to cultivate, instead, an interest in belles lettres. Sauter well remembered the day when Ruben had asked him for a list of "other playwrights who are as funny as Sheridan"; and whenever the assembled department had to respond to his public readings (for Ruben was the resident poet), the utter absence of references to gangs and ghettos and rap and Mississippi in his whimsical, not-so-angry verse left the whole lot nosing in their notes like a pack of whipped hounds. Since Sauter was the very last colleague he should have befriended, based on considerations scholarly and political (i.e., on his being a Moribund White Guy), Ruben usually sat near him on occasions like these. Sauter calculated that, within the next five minutes, he and Hrbeska would slump into folding cushions not more than half-a-dozen seats from his own.
As for Hrbeska, he was simply insane in a refreshingly irksome and irksomely refreshing manner. His finger-in-a-live-socket blond hair more than made up for Ruben’s missing Afro. He was Shurlick’s staunchest supporter when it came to designing programs or marshaling votes, but he also corrupted Shurlick’s august public displays with more ribaldry than the rest of the department put together. (He had once smuggled an air horn—the kind they pump and blast from the bleachers at football games—into Gestapo headquarters during the "interview rehearsal"; and when a particularly hapless respondent allowed the forbidden phrase, "those people", to pass her lips, he had sounded off. Jane Bange, the one indisputable Lesbian on the staff, had explored the initial stages of "suing his balls off".) Whether Hrbeska had a ghost’s chance of being tenured someday was anybody’s guess, as was whether or not he gave a ghost’s flatus about tenure. No doubt, it would all come to hinge upon what competence he manifested in his area of specialization—which area Sauter had sought vainly to discover during his final year of chairship.
Sauter realized at once that he should have carried a less lyrical author into the lecture hall. Though he knew every word the skeletally thin six-foot-two Marjorie was going to say before she said it, her incomprehensible disruptions of a merciless monotone in apparent efforts to add emphasis exploded the fluid prose of Patrick Stewart like busy construction hammers and drills beside a white beach’s surf. Had he slipped one of Shurlick’s theoretical gurus in his pocket, he would have fared better. (He had frequently noticed that the best way to read critical theory was to race through each sentence’s formidable mid-section with minimal attention, so that heavy intoxication or a background of nasal drones or some other such impairment was highly propitious to the endeavor.) In the present predicament, he was forced to retreat into Shurlick’s moronic evaluation forms, whose rubrics for analyzing each speaker included "suitable dress" and "oral delivery" and "Did s/he seem knowledgeable?". (What? No "body language"? Yes, there it was: "overall impact of body language".) Not one question was ever posed about factual content or analytical rigor. On the matter of "seeming knowledgeable", Sauter decided that he had written, "Nay, it is—I know not seems," once too often in past years. He applied himself, therefore, to the matter of dress, about which he had heretofore restrained himself to such jewels as, "How about budgeting new suits for all students with a deduction from the highest paid professors’ salaries?" and, "Shouldn’t a paper favorable to Marguerite Duras’s opposition to moral strictures be delivered by a woman whose nose ring does not render the notion of kissing problematic?" He was aware that his scrawl grew noisily energetic this time to the point of drawing glances. He was aware, even, that Ruben and Hrbeska (who had shown up on cue and settled five seats down from him) were trying to peer over his shoulder. Never mind. This was going to be good.
At that instant, something irreparably fractured Sauter’s train of thought. He had successfully mused and scrawled his way through three "presenters" to the last speaker, a dark-haired, trembling girl who had actually shown promise before their departmental clutches had closed upon her. (She had been "pinged" during the interrogations for answering with perfect candor and seriousness that what she needed most from employment was money.) Sauter could no longer sit still, let alone resume his writing. He felt his veins hum as if they had been injected with a stimulant. Though the girl’s voice was gentle and pleasant (alone of all four), he kept glancing at his watch and strumming his fingers. At last she finished amid a rustle of hand-claps along the first six or eight rows, dissolving almost at once—even there—into the leathery groans of briefcases and purses: for the banquet was at hand. Shurlick scarcely bothered to mumble at the girl’s shoulder, as he adjusted his glasses in a signature gesture of shooting the world a hidden bird, "Are there any questions?" Sauter needed no further invitation.
"Yes, I have a question," he bellowed (noting with pleasure the number of torsos that froze in mid-lift from their seats). "Did I understand you to say, Gretchen, that Kafka was influenced by detention in a Nazi prison camp?"
The poor girl was quite bright enough to know that the real question was just around the bend. So were the others, no doubt—but Sauter saw only her, nodding sheepishly as she thumbed her notes, and an exasperated Shurlick. When he ran his hands through his hair (which he had allowed to grow out laterally in compensation for his broad bald spot), Shurlick conjured up fleeting images of Bozo the Clown.
From fifteen rows up, Sauter arched his brows and opened his palm wide. "How did he communicate this influence to his work?"
"By psychic medium? Ouija board? If memory serves, Kafka died in 1921. The Nazis’ ‘final solution’ began to be implemented about twenty years later; and even had Kafka lived so long and then survived the death camps... well, add another five years until these darkly influenced works could be penned and published."
"I’m sure you’re right, Alex," whined Shurlick in a bid for wryness, scanning his restless audience. "You probably kept the logbooks at Auschwitz."
But the insult was sufficiently blunt and coarse—and the student’s error sufficiently egregious—that the remark was received in cool silence. Only Gretchen displayed any willingness to face the music for the truth’s sake.
"I… I was just repeating what I read. It was in one of my sources—about Kafka being interned at… at…"
"Yes, it was," leapt in Shurlick, consulting an upside-down program (Sauter had slipped on his glasses to savor the moment. "I recall seeing that in your folder of Xeroxes, Gretchen. I do."
"I must say that I find that entirely credible, given the current state of scholarship." For the first time, Sauter noticed Ruben and Hrbeska grinning at his side. Poor sods—this was the only fun they had had all afternoon. "I would say that Kafka must be rolling over in his grave… but inasmuch as revisionist criticism appears to have found a way to revive the dead indefinitely, I see no reason to suppose him in any such supine position even as we speak. Indeed, the phrase ‘literary immortality’—which, I grant, is never used in this department without an obnoxious ringing of bells—has acquired a new meaning for me this evening."
Attended by Hrbeska as ever, Ruben ended up sitting beside Sauter at the banquet table. Though the two of them never had much to say to each other, Sauter noted with an odd feeling of warmth, now as on other occasions, that Ruben actively sought out his passive company. (Did he, perhaps, feel a certain compassionate pity that this bright, personable young man was trapped in a situation where a lunatic and a sour old crab were the only people he could trust?) Cornelia came to rest at the end of the table where Jane Bange held court. The one thing that Sauter liked about Jane, in fact, was that she honored Cornelia at such public affairs—and, to be just, in limited company, as well—for being an earlier generation’s standard-bearer of female excellence. With a prominence that could not have escaped Shurlick nor have left him very comfortable, most of the department’s other women also gravitated to the Big Bange’s polarity. At what should have been the head of the table, Shurlick sat rather awkwardly enthroned among his lackeys and sycophants, casting frequent nervous glances down Jane’s way as Rome must once have looked at Avignon. In mild consolation, the department chair had managed to draw all of the graduating young scholars onto his side of the dreaded Sauter Limbo. They had learned something, after all, those four pitiful lost sheep. They had learned on which side their bread, for the time being, was buttered. Would a really sharp one or two of them already have divined, as well, that any side is always only buttered for the time being?
"My mistake," murmured Sauter into the vacancy around him. "It appears that seating arrangements are indeed a matter of some consequence." The brooding figure of that black history professor, his eyes aglow over a thick, pointed beard, seemed to drift by like King Hamlet’s ghost.
"What’s that, Alex?" grinned Ruben at his elbow. "Are you talking to your Ouija board?"
"I speak, dear boy, to those who are not present, but whose mortal coil has yet to be shuffled off. Ouija board not required. In any case…." He eyed the expanse of spotless linen vacantly facing him from the table’s far side (a waiter had just removed the unclaimed place settings) and the three empty chairs posed in frigid immobility beyond the white ledge. Out of the corner of his eye, he also observed that the psychopathic Hrbeska was polishing off his Dutch Chocolate Cake while the serving crew was still sorting Chicken Alfredo platters from Veal Parmesan platters.
"In any case," jogged Ruben.
"Yes… in any case, there are quite enough death’s heads and opened veins among us to summon all the spirits you like. Tell me, poet. Do you know a young woman who teaches Freshman Comp for us—I mean, around our periphery and beneath us? A brown-haired, brown-eyed young woman, unnoticeable to most but sure to attract a poet’s gaze? Usually wears pullovers… and always rather well."
"Um… um… I know who you mean. Kinks, who’s that chick—"
"That’s it! Sara Burnhart!"
"A Thespian—I knew it! What a fine role she plays… Sarah Burnhardt!" And Sauter laughed merrily as he shouted his words without discretion, expecting to see Ruben and Hrbeska join him when they recollected the name’s historic provenance, realizing little by little that no such recollection was rooted in them… discovering, as his laugh quickly wilted and his eyes evaded theirs, a gaping Shurlick. Why in the hell (Sauter cursed himself) was he too vain to wear his glasses? But he could see well enough: Shurlick had indisputably gaped at him as he had pronounced that glorious name, even though—at this instant—he was in full retreat behind a hand which adjusted his own glasses and shot Sauter a bony finger.
Something came over Sauter. Though uncertain if he had snared Shurlick or Shurlick had snared him, he was wholly unwilling to let any lines fall slack without a tug-of-war.
"Her ex-husband used to be Dean of Somethumabob before he moved on to Vanderbilt," Hrbeska was rambling informatively. "I beat his balls off at racketball in the gym one day before I knew who he was, and Sara came and warned me that he was some kind of pissed about it."
"Never beat a dean," sententiated Ruben.
"Not if you’re a white guy," Hrbeska blabbered on in full stride. "Now, you people are gifted athletes, and any dean would be proud for you to beat him. Or her, either. Just to be able to say around campus, ‘I play this black dude in squash’…."
Ruben threw back his manicured head and roared as, up and down the table, a malignant zephyr seemed to pass which turned chicken and veal to rubber in mid-chew.
"A mere three chairs," murmured Sauter almost inaudibly. (But he knew Ruben would hear, and would ask: Ruben would sprinkle the ground around his sacred delirium with holy water.)
"Three chairs?" queried Ruben on cue. (Though Sauter’s stare across the table was glazing, he could hear the mouth’s raised corners in the words.)
"Three empty chairs, my boy. Three of them to represent the toiling drudges who type our notes, copy our syllabi, order our textbooks, Xerox our source materials, slip our rejected manuscripts from one brown envelope and slide them into another, feed our Scantron sheets to the machine’s maw, grade our short-answer and multiple-choice tests, teach our discussion groups, staff our writing centers, update our Web sites, edit our newsletters, retrieve our robes from mothballs, prepare our idiot droves to enjoy lucrative careers in marketing Viagra and Nike online… our buck privates, our common sailors, our fantassins, our cannon fodder, our slave labor, our sweating helots. A mere three chairs. I would thank them all, but not one of them is here. They have no third degree, no terminal aureola, no track to the Himalayan vistas of tenure, no contract promising further employment after a year of groveling, chain-dragging, and rock-breaking. Dare I bid these cold, hard Samsonite chairs to convey my greeting in their mute, retractable iron jaws? Dare I visit the quiet, unmarked graves of those broken spirits who, their days of service and servitude ended without so much as a handshake or an autographed copy of our august chair’s Signal-Fiers, sell washers at Sears or dream homes at Remax? How shall I reach them? For they are not here.
O ye who are not here, I salute you in this… this… this decaffeinated but obdurately anti-oxydant beverage of the warm south, born beneath the blank and pitiless gaze of tigers passing among the reeds like a breeze’s shadow. I salute you for your absence—much may it profit you, even as much as my presence has failed to profit me!"
His iced tea held high aloft, Sauter had scarcely finished his final words before he heard a tremendous, un-elocuted shout at his side. It was not Ruben, of course, but Hrbeska, who had leapt from his seat and raised his glass so abruptly that the six-foot-two Marjorie squealed under an icy sprinkle. Behind his own impersonation of wide-eyed delirium, Sauter was able to study the thunderstruck celebrants. He applied his unblinking, myopic prophet’s gaze to them, mauling them with an insistent and utterly ridiculous fervor, until, one and all, they erupted into laughter. Coolly, he counted them off. The younger ones went first, and in clusters. Then the older ones gave way, under the pressure less of his mimicry than of their protégés’ enviable, magnificently youthful hilarity. Even Shurlick had to yield, chasing after his sycophants with bared yellow teeth lest they think that he had missed a joke. The two Renowned Scholars (sitting awkwardly close to the empty spaces, and so constantly grazed by looks from every direction) shook their heads at their plates, yet smiled. Cornelia matched her celestial blue stare to his, as if to chide, "What silliness is this, Alex?"—but she, too, smiled. Only Jane Bange paid absolutely no attention to what was happening; and, clenching the arm of a giggly neighbor, she brought the woman’s ear to her thick, un-rouged lips in what must have been the continuance of a very serious conversation.
Sauter was briefly the toast of the department, whose younger members had never suspected him capable of such a send-up as that festive evening’s (having never, of course, read P.G. Wodehouse, let alone Sheridan). Once Jane Bange had bestowed her pontifical blessing upon the popular outcry out of solidarity with Sauter’s proletarian-friendly sentiments (she had been listening, after all), his happy fate was sealed. He received three invitations to lunch (of varying intensity) as the semester’s final week evaporated, and was greeted almost twice as many times by colleagues in the halls.
All vibes good and bad, however, were soon stilled by summer. Most of the professors thereupon applied themselves to grueling research projects in London or York or Edinburgh or (in one case) the isle of Cos. Tending the departmental shop of summer-school offerings for students who had slept or partied through the regular terms were the very people whose travail Sauter had publicly eulogized. Oddly, Sara Burnhart—the proper spelling of whose name he had soon ferreted out—was not among them. (He had deliberately checked when the summer schedule appeared in his box, just out of curiosity—and now he was more curious than ever.) He certainly had no plans of setting foot on campus for the next several months, though neither was he skipping town. He was vaguely interested, nevertheless, to know how the brilliant career was progressing… and now its beacon had been strangely extinguished.
So the Burnhart Mystery assumed its place among dozens or hundreds of other insoluble cases, and the river of life flowed tediously, predictably onward through dense jungles of nonsense whose savage howls and blood-curdling shrieks invariably died in the raft’s wake. May became June, and June was verging on July. Sauter’s daughter would be leaving for college in mid-August (an institution as far from this one as he could get her), so, naturally, she wanted to spend as much time away from home as possible. He had somewhat reconciled himself to seeing her briefly over his morning coffee, hearing doors slam in mid-afternoon, and being awakened by the clatter of keys long after midnight as a reading lamp played the sun in his desert-castaway dreams. At first he had been surprised by surges of sloppy sentimentality and quiet desperation; but he had gotten a grip on himself in manly fashion, and had undertaken the painting of all the house’s outdoor trim. Thereafter, the hours of loneliness (or of meditation upon an impending loneliness like none he had ever endured) had melted away. Tina would actually volunteer to help him for a few minutes on some of her slower mornings. The old brick cottage had a lot of exotic ins and outs—ornate eaves and deep window frames—so the work dragged pleasantly, obligingly on.
When he heard a car door shut in the driveway one clammy afternoon as he craned himself into a casement, he naturally assumed that Tina had returned for lunch. Light footfalls in the graveled grass approached his step ladder coyly, and halted.
"Run out of money?" he muttered over his shoulder. "Or does Betsy not wake up before two? My wallet’s on the kitchen counter, if the former, and…." He straightened his back painfully with a sigh. "If the latter, I’ll go to some drive-through with you if you’ll just let me finish this spot. I’ll put a mop over my head so I’ll look like that other one… Clarice."
As his eyes emerged from their wince and the ladder creaked beneath him, he found a feminine stranger below, blurred by thick noon shadows and his own myopia, smooth round limbs flowing from her shorts and sleeveless shirt. A brown stranger.
"Sara… Ms. Burnhart. I’m sorry. I thought you were my daughter, and… I would have recognized you at once if summer hadn’t forced you from your pullover."
"Hello, Dr. Sauter," she mumbled to the foot of his ladder. Why was he always flippant to the point of rudeness with young people?
"Uh… that is, I need my glasses these days. But not for this close work. I’m trying not to get paint on the brick. It’s the dickens to get off."
"Just finish your tight spot," she continued in the same small, humorless, forlorn voice. "I don’t want to interrupt you. I can talk while you work."
Sauter gaped at his yellow-flecked hands for a moment (Mystic Dune, they called it at Sherwyn-Williams). His brooding intruder’s suggestion was rather unsociable… and yet, it also carried a certain intimacy, a trust such as succeeds mannerly preliminaries. He sensed that, up here facing the window, he was in something of the position of a priest in the confessional.
"All right… all right," he finally stammered. "Just hand me that rag, will you? It must have slipped. ‘Reach it to me,’ as my quondam helper Albert would have said. Back in the old days. Poor Albert, the years ate away his legs… a knee replacement, a hip replacement. Tina and I used to take him a basket at Thanksgiving, but now… I suppose I’ll have to take it myself. Be careful there, get it around the dry edge on top. Very good, well done. Thank you, milady."
As he thrust his nose back into the high corner, Sauter literally held his breath to steady his hand. The moment was perfect for the confession to begin. Yet he had gloriously chased a bead of paint along the caulking until it played out… and still not a peep from behind.
"Michelangelo couldn’t have done better!" he exhaled, and paused to pant. From under the sleeve that wiped his brow, he hazarded, "I notice you’re not teaching this summer."
"I’ve been unofficially cut loose from the university. I was never official, anyway, except from semester to semester. Now there won’t even be that. Professor Shurlick wants nothing more to do with me. He thinks I betrayed him. Now he’s cut me off for good."
The words came in short, matter-of-fact sentences, just as a criminal might allocute to a gruesome crime before a filled courtroom. Sauter lowered his eyes from his brush work, but he had no real desire to see what look accompanied the statements.
"Betrayed him?" Then a horrible idea occurred to him: he smeared the brick badly and applied the rag with a hiss. "Damn! Sara… Ms. Burnhart… I give you my solemn word, I never breathed a syllable of our conversation—"
"It was me!" she almost shouted. "Not you, me! I’m the traitor! I was supposed to lure you into going to the Dean!"
"With… with all that business about plagiarism…"
"That’s right! You were being set up—I was setting you up!" Then the voice lowered a register—yet as it did so, it began to quaver. "He needed someone who knew German to help him make it convincing, someone who was pretty new to the department. Someone who wouldn’t make you suspicious. That was me. I was supposed to show you the site, and you were supposed to run to the Dean in a tizzy. Then there’d be a full investigation, and…"
"And it would conclude that that reactionary paleo-Nazi Sauter had hatched an elaborate hoax to unseat his arch-rival, for whom his loathing (thanks to Shurlick’s coffee-pot gossip) has been inflated to legendary proportions around campus."
"It would be sure to conclude that, because the original file containing Shurlick’s paper and the German translation—along with all the distorted dates, and so forth—would be on your hard disk."
Sauter laughed noiselessly behind a grimace as he dipped his brush. The tremor barely shook his shoulders. "Hard disk! Case dismissed already—I don’t even know where the hard disk is!"
"It’s what you write on in the computer, unless you slip another disk in A-Drive."
"Ah, yes, how stupid of me! And which cleaning lady was supposed to download this rich-format hypertext onto my hard disk’s network transfer protocol?"
"It’s sweet of you to laugh about it all."
The gentle murmur stopped him in mid-stroke. He peered into the window’s reflections and saw a head-hanging figure which, with lighter hair and slightly thinner contours, could indeed have been Tina admitting that she had backed the car over his tomato plants again.
"It all seems so silly," he began.
"I did the dirty work. I hacked into your computer once Professor Shurlick had given me a little information about the campus codes. I did it from his office, with him looking over my shoulder. I prepared the German file, and I downloaded it after making a path to your documents. Look under Reuss."
Sauter had to turn himself about this time. "You, Sara? A Master’s in English with competence in German and computer skills, too? Remarkable—simply remarkable!"
She stared at him under her dark, drawn brows as if to verify that he wasn’t deploying his usual sarcasm. He was not, and she must have seen as much. Her head lifted the rest of the way, and she gave it a quick shake to free her bronze forehead of a short, thick lock.
"Don’t you understand? I’m the traitor! I set you up, in every way possible! I’m a sneak—a character assassin."
"At this university, such achievement should earn you some graduate credit hours under that obtusely redundant ‘Life Experience’ rubric which is the President’s great contribution to our decline." His sarcasm had revived—but benignly, and in the best of causes. "Ah, look… come on, now! Don’t take it so hard! This job is constantly calling upon us all to play the Judas. He had you completely at his mercy. Your career! Without his good will, it would be stillborn. And I should imagine that he also built up the prank as a kind of holy obligation."
"He told me… he said that you and Professor Bange were trying to undermine everything he was doing. He told me you’d bribed students with grades to complain to the Dean about his seminar."
"Yes, I know… but, at the time, I didn’t have any access to the grad students. I had only his side of it. He said that if he went down, Professor Bange would see that the whole composition program went with him—meaning my job, of course, but also the jobs of all the other adjuncts. My friends—people like me who need the work, who have hopes. And then… he never let on, you know, that… that anything more was at stake than your being discredited. I didn’t realize he wanted your head on a platter until… until I found out just this week—until it hit me, all of a sudden—what he was up to."
"So it was either me or all your friends and all your hopes," nodded Sauter, aware that he was cutting her off from the pursuit of a greater point. He was more interested (it almost occurred to him—but he squelched the notion) in wiping the smirches from her downcast face than in receiving a heads-up to his own peril. In fact, his tired eyes popped open at thin air as he caught a glimpse—like Galileo seeking stars—of how he might indeed deserve an ignominious shooting down. He frustrated her open-mouthed suspense with his triumphant discovery.
"Shurlick may have been right, for that matter! Damn, I didn’t see that at all! Calamity Jane and her Bang-gangers have been acting almost what one might call civil to me of late. She’s finessing me, that unintimidable sow. Yes… there could well be some kind of coup d’état afoot. There really could."
His enthusiasm for self-indictment sated, he began to rethink the terms of his unintended crime (still restraining her with a raised finger). "More probably, though, he was concerned—Shurlick, I mean—about Cornelia Waitfield’s replacement. I would be bound to head the search committee… senior tenured faculty member, since His Grand Sapience Donelly, who is my peer on paper, will be on sabbatical. Yes, Cornelia’s replacement could swing the balance of power. Yes. That miserable little sod! And yet, I would agree that the department’s better off in his oily hands than in Jane’s iron talons."
Now Sauter slumped his shoulders easefully and was beginning to chuckle again. His visitor, however, seized the moment to resume sounding the alarm.
"Dr. Sauter!" she exhaled hoarsely, stepping to the base of his ladder (where he could now see her face perfectly even without his specs: at last her eyes had caught fire). "Professor Shurlick is having all the department computers updated with new software. He rammed it down the Vice President’s throat this month, after all the department had scattered for summer. Urgent need—disgracefully outdated! He used all the buzz words."
"Art advised of that?" cribbed Sauter from a Shakespearean litter of exclamations, more impressed with this bright young woman than ever.
The fire in her eyes sputtered, but only until she could renew it behind a strong blink. "I know all this because… because I know the VP’s secretary. My ex used to be Dean of Financial Affairs, and… well, so I know Melody really well. All she’s been talking about lately is what a pain in the butt Shurlick has been over this software update. Do you understand now? He could have some student assistant in your office right this minute accidentally finding the German file!"
But Sauter was not in the mood to understand. Maybe it was all the computer lingo, or maybe the month of peace, or maybe the wind in the trees and the swaying shadows and the round, bare, brown shoulders at his knee. "What difference does it make what they find?" he shrugged weakly.
"He hates you!" she reiterated. "He wants to ruin you, even at the risk of ruining himself. He’d thought you would rise to the bait the first time—he was sure you would. The only way he can believe that you didn’t is if I tipped you off. He wouldn’t believe that I hadn’t. He said that you were taunting him about me at the graduate banquet. He also said that I had no evidence on him—that he had far more evidence on me, if I didn’t get out of his way. He called me a traitor three or four times, that last time I saw him… he said that he only rewarded loyalty."
Her voice had suddenly trailed off, and she shrank back from the ladder. "He gave me credit for having scruples. That’s funny, isn’t it? He was too naïve to see how willingly I would have ratted you out."
But Sauter didn’t find this rival to his own bitter ironies at all funny. "You did what you thought was best for everyone. You had no reason to think well of me… especially after the way I received you. Besides…."
He noticed just then that paint was running off onto his knuckles. He twirled the handle deftly in a manner at which he had grown proficient and squeezed the bristles dry upon the unpainted window sill’s broadest patch. "Shurlick, I have observed, knows exactly how to appeal to young people—the very talent which I so sorely lack."
Her eyes intersected his where they were both reflected in the window. The brown stare had become so large that, though merely an image, it held his own riveted to it. "Why didn’t you report him? I knew you weren’t really afraid to. That was the one thing that really started me thinking. Why didn’t you?"
He flushed the brush out one more time, needlessly, upon the sill.
"Hard to say. I suppose I just never liked the man enough to hate him that much."
A moment passed, and then she caught her breath sharply. He saw in the window’s reflections that she was now looking up at his real face, and the previous tone of urgency had fully returned to her voice.
"Anyway, Dr. Sauter, you have to come down now. You have to let me into your house so we can boot up your computer and erase that file. There’s no time to lose. I can do it from here—I could have done it from my apartment—as long as you go to the campus soon to collect your e-mail. I can send a file that will wipe out Reuss when as soon as you open the message."
"I… over the summer, I seldom—"
"But better yet… why don’t we just go to the campus right now? I’ll drive, if you like. The sooner we delete every trace of that file, the better. The only problem is… well, I’m afraid I can’t get back into the German site to change text. Shurlick seems to have switched the Web host’s password on me. I didn’t think he knew enough to do that. There’ll be a trail from those documents to your campus address. But I’ve been thinking… I could possibly divert the path, or at least create a path that would hint that Shurlick had hacked into your computer—"
"No!" Sauter cried, having hatched a decision which he had not even known was incubating. He turned once more, reaching back for the ladder with his free hand. "For God’s sake, enough of this insane antiseptic digital anarchy! You and I will go inside, all right—I to get cleaned up and you to recover that sense of common decency which you so lately displayed. Then we will drive to the campus together and break down the door of the highest-ranking administrator not playing hooky today. You will tell your story, we will visit the apocryphal Web site—the three of us—of the apocryphal German scholar, and we will retrieve this file from my drive as you detail how it came to be parked there. We will have the whole thing out, Sara, and let the chips fall where they may—even if Jane is coronated—even if I get sent to Siberia to head the Night School Extended Education Program—except that I will absolutely not tolerate your being held personally responsible for the misdeeds which you were pressured and cajoled into doing. The situation has reached a pass where nothing short of complete candor will do. Full disclosure, Sara—of your victimization as of the rest. No false qualms about ‘ratting’ anybody out. We tell it all. And then… and then, you and I will discuss how you may best prosecute your arrested career: a third degree, perhaps—perhaps in some field which complements your life experiences in a literature department. Criminal pathology, perhaps. But you will continue to learn from this, you will not enter the ranks of toadies and hench-persons, and your wings will carry you higher than you ever dreamed!"
Both his arms extended in apostrophe just then, and Sauter tottered. His visitor pitched herself sturdily under his armpit just in time to prevent a two-rung fall. In the same instant, he reflexively spun his head backward—for he had heard a suspicious splat behind him as his wings were accomplishing their single flap. Though relatively drained, his brush had left a thick yellow stripe across the window, exactly where his own face would have been. His deepening wrinkles, his souring pout, his worsening eyes… all replaced by a band of Mystic Dune.
R.S. Carlson: Life Via Electron
Professor Carlson (a regular contributor to Praesidium who teaches at Azusa Pacific University in southern California) reflects this time, as many of us do constantly, upon the electronic age. Along with the short poem on p. 18 ("And From Our Correspondent In…"), the two works below remind us both that our new media blunt or coarsen the emotion of life-altering events and also, sometimes, give such emotions an outlet where none seemed possible. As usual, progress is a zero-sum affair; and behind and within it, human beings still register the same old anguish and hope.
Emergency Techs trundling gurneys adorned with body bags
cheat information in the dash to the sloven question
What must the ravaged do for our viewing pleasure?
lock the doors, and give them twelve hours of black-and-white
whose leaders had blasted yours.
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