Hello, Cruel World

Professors are generally a whiny and self-absorbed lot, at least in the humanities.  I think this stems from the burden of being so much smarter than everyone else and yet structurally barred from having any real power over anything of actual significance.  Why can’t my field see ‘paradigm x’ is a wankfest for trendy douchebags?  Why can’t my students see that their incessant texting is transforming them into an addled herd of super-morons?  Why can’t the country see that collective investments in education and health care would benefit us all in the long run?  Why can’t the city see that there needs to be a left turn signal at Clark and Wrightwood?  Why can’t the cat see that if he demands food before 6 am he’s just going to be exiled to the basement?  Life for men and women of letters often seems a constant struggle against encroaching idiocy—a condition that begins to accelerate exponentially with age.

Institutions of power occasionally recruit humanities professors to prop up the credibility of whatever endeavor they are trying to legitimate— DOD nods to “cultural sensitivity,” entertainment producers hoping for an injection of academic prestige, Morning Joe looking for someone to elicit sympathetic nodding from Mika Brzezinski and folksy wisdom from the eponymous Joe  (I may just be an old-fashioned good ole’ boy redneck alligator f*#ker from the swamps of Florida, but it seems to me….).  But in the end, the Pentagon, Warner Brothers, or Pat Buchanan are just going to say or do whatever they want anyway.  The professor is there more as a blank signifier of something—a pretense of having some kind of dialogue I guess (when, of course, inclusion in the forum—whatever it is--means your role has been cast in advance).  

Apparently the knowledge possessed by humanities professors is for some reason especially threatening and thus must be positioned as particularly useless.  If you saw The Daily Show last week, maybe you witnessed George Lucas promoting his new book of industry anecdotes by assuring the audience it was no “ivory tower” study of the movies.  Nice.  He also at one point claimed that the new generation of Star Wars fans actually “loves Jar Jar Binks.”  I may be mistaken, but I think both comments probably stem from a former colleague of mine at USC actually deigning to critique the racial politics of good ole shuck ‘n’ jive Binks.  The Jedi King apparently remains unamused by such gestures.       

Whatever the case, the “ivory tower” crack (in any context) always carries an undertone of insecurity, not to mention a fundamental misunderstanding of what humanities profs in particular actually do.  Most people assume that if you teach in a literature, art, or media program, you are essentially a failed creator who became an over-credentialed critic and thus a cranky arbiter of what is “good” and “bad.”  Given the absolute victory of commodity culture in all aspects of our lives, I suppose such a distortion is understandable.  After all, what possible relevance is there in studying culture unless one is contributing to some master consumer guide?   And who would be most likely to engage in such bitterly unqualified opinionating other than the dweeb who never finished his novel, made it into the Whitney, or contributed an installment to the Saw franchise?  Hell, I’d hate that guy too.  Not only would I lock him away in an Ivory Tower, I’d help the townsfolk gather the kindling and torches to light it on fire.

It’s generally useless trying to explain the “utility” of studying the humanities, even with something as compelling as Jersey Shore in circulation to help everyone imagine a world of relentlessly unexamined selfhood.  Then again, who knows, maybe the “Situation” is the one who has his priorities straight.  During the sunset years, perhaps it is better to reflect back on a life spent partying, “creeping,” and brawling rather than one devoted to situating historical antecedents for incidental characters in Melville.  I hope not, but you never know.  Maybe God meets academics at the pearly gates shaking God’s head in disbelief: “I created the world, alcohol, and genitalia and you spent all your time in the library?  What the French, toast?”

If you’ve ever pondered these issues, you might be interested in John Williams’ novel of 1965, Stoner.  Williams taught creative writing at the University of Denver for some 30 years, and Stoner is his fictionalized account of a professor’s life pretty much from cradle to grave.  And in telling the story of William Stoner, Professor of English literature at the University of Missouri in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, Williams manages to capture with unnerving accuracy both the rewards and vexations that confront academics in day to day life (spoilers galore—beware!).  

The novel begins with a meditation on an inscription found inside a manuscript donated to the University library in Stoner’s name after his death.    

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question.  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

Ouch!  That’s pretty bleak.  But that’s what I mean about professors being a whiny, self-absorbed lot.  I doubt existence is any less cruel for plumbers, accountants, or even today’s gold-standard of meaningful existence--rich celebrities.  Sure, Kim Kardashian is living the high life right now—but odds are she’ll end up a crazy old lady poisoning raccoons on her compound in Encino.  And ain’t no one going to remember her either.  But as professors are so much smarter and more sensitive than everyone else, the general humiliations of their existence are felt that much more acutely.

Given this auspicious beginning, Stoner may seem like a total downer.  Truth be told—much of it is.  He marries a lunatic (but that could happen to anyone).  His daughter shows great promise early in life but gets knocked up and becomes a drunk in St. Louis.  He gets in petty fights with colleagues, resulting in a demotion to teaching Freshman comp.  Wiseass grad students assail him for being a relic of older, inferior paradigms.  Oh yeah, and he drops dead from cancer six months after retiring.

But even so, Stoner has some victories.  He writes a book that gets decent notice in the field, and even better, mentors a student who writes a truly brilliant book.  He gets to eviscerate and then fail an obnoxious grad student during his Ph.D. orals (“Can you name any drama of significance before Shakespeare”….No, he can’t!).  He experiences the satisfaction of seeing undergrads energized by their temporary sequestering in a world of culture and inquiry.  A torrid affair with a grad student makes for probably the best year of his life, even though it of course ends badly.   

But most of all, he gets to read and think as much as he wants, which is pretty much all he wants to do.  And grade.  Stoner is constantly marking exams. 

What does Stoner learn?  Your own work is important, of course (as is appearing on television, or testifying before Congress, or setting up panels and think-tanks, or the other things academics sometimes do today to have an “impact” on that elusive “real world”)—but most important of all is maintaining the University as a place that is decidedly NOT the so-called “real world” (and really, is there anything more insufferable than a colleague who endlessly lectures everyone about turning theory into practice and doing something “worthwhile” in this “real world”—as if the crucially important task of teaching young men and women to ask critical questions about their existence was somehow akin to sprinkling pixie-dust on unicorns everyday?  Talk about self-loathing).

Early in Stoner, author Williams lays his cards on the table.  Stoner and his two closest friends in grad school are having a beer.  One will soon die in WWI and the other will become a fellow teacher and then later on Stoner’s Dean.  Dave, the most brilliant of the three (the one soon to die in the war) appraises each student’s relationship to the “true nature of the University.”  You are invited to pick the one that best describes your situation: 

Of Stoner’s future colleague and Dean, Dave says, “you’re bright enough—and just bright enough—to realize what would happen to you in the world…On the one hand, you’re capable of work, but you’re just lazy enough so that you can’t work as hard as the world would want you to.  On the other hand, you’re not quite so lazy that you can impress upon the world a sense of your importance…In the world you would always be on the fringe of success, and you would be destroyed by your failure.” 

Of himself, Dave observes, “I’m too bright for the world, and I won’t keep my mouth shut about it; it’s a disease for which there is no cure.  So I must be locked up, where I can be safely irresponsible, where I can do no harm.”

And of Stoner, he says, “You think there is something here, something to find.  Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough…You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world.  You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what went wrong.  Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be.”

This may seem harsh, but in the end Stoner comes to understand his dead friend’s wisdom.  The University is, in many respects, a place to lock up smart, neurotic people as a type of loyal opposition to the “real world,” and that is actually a crucially important thing for a society to have.  Students will take up their positions in the consumerist-administrative-techno order soon enough—they deserve at least a few years to entertain Nietzche, encounter Dadaism, and ponder a few media artifacts made before 1990.  Let's face it.  This is why people love Harry Potter so much.  There remains a yearning for education to remain magical and sequestered.

When Stoner fails the dissimulating huckster Ph.D. candidate hoping to bluff his way to a degree, he explains the imperative of keeping such people out of academia.  Talking with his longtime friend the Dean (who must persuade Stoner to relent), Stoner says, “Dave would have thought of him as –as the world.  And we can’t let him in.  For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as…The only hope we have is to keep him out.”

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