Friday, January 30, 2004
OLD SCHOOL DAYS
I was at The Medici, a popular Hyde Park restaurant, and Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom were dining at a table nearby. This would’ve been the early ‘eighties or something. Bloom and Bellow were basically a couple of hulking guys hunched toward one another in the smoky air of the place. They appeared to be giggling conspiratorially as they surveyed the black-clothed students around them. And why not. At various tables pallid scholarettes puffed on the Gauloises they’d brought back from junior year abroad. At my own table three jewish american princesses bitched about migraines and mittelschmerzes. I kept breaking away from Beth’s hypochondria and Randi’s irregular periods to peer at MM. Nobel Prize and International Best Seller.
It was clearly much more fun to be at their table. Every now and then Bloom would totally lose it and guffaw in a mad guttering manner, cigarette smoke streaming out of his mouth. Bellow’s big eyes took in the whole room: you could see prose rising out of his head. “Although I was Ravelstein’s senior by a good many years,” Bellow writes in Ravelstein, the novel about their friendship, “we were close friends. There were sophomoric elements in my character as there were in his, and these leveled the ground and evened things out.” “He did not,” Bellow goes on to write about Bloom, “accept dullness and boredom. Nor was depression tolerated. He did not put up with low moods.” And again, later in the novel: “It was our sense of what was funny that brought us together, but that [is] an anemic way to put it. A joyful noise - immenso giubilo - an outsize joint agreement picked us up together, and it would get you nowhere to try to formulate it.”
Immenso miserio, on the other hand, was the order of the day at my table and in graduate school culture generally....in “intellectual” culture generally. People talk about how wretched an experience graduate school is, but they forget that the affectation of despair remains highly existentially desirable throughout one’s life if one is to be taken as smart. Only idiots who don’t know anything are happy. Smart people, deep into depressive analytics, drag ass.
Humanities types in particular often spend their entire careers in an anxious unhappy state in which everything they see and do and hear about is fraught.
Fraught, fraught, fraught.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I woke up one morning a few years ago from an hysterically funny dream about me, my mother, and a pair of underwear. The details aren’t important - what’s important is that I woke up giggling and stayed pretty amused most of the day. I was chatting that afternoon with a colleague of mine - she’s now a well-known critical theorist - about this and that, and at some point I mentioned the dream, thinking to amuse her.
As I finished recounting it, I noticed that rather than laugh at the dream’s absurdity she looked as if I’d just told her I had cancer.
Her eyes went wide - wide with pity - and she was clearly fumbling for the right
words to say in this excruciating situation. How much of my sick unconscious I’d just unwittingly revealed to her! The murderous relationship to Mom. The paralyzingly ambivalent attitude to “underwear” -- ...under... world... under>... where... wear... we’re ...under... The unsettling puns discernable in even a cursory Lacanian reading of so thick a dreamscape were best not gone into...
Despite her efforts to be sympathetic and reassuring, my colleague betrayed her distress at how far into denial I’d gone... to turn this shattering material into a joke...!
She gradually slunk out of my office -- overcome, I guess, by the weight of repressed psychic material I had thoughtlessly transferred to her shoulders --
and never looked at me in the same way again.
For Bloom and Bellow, I began to understand, fraught was bullshit. It was the
surface of things that counted. It’s like that wonderful passage in Wallace Shawn’s performance piece, The Fever: “My feelings! My thoughts! The incredible history of my feelings and my thoughts could fill up a dozen leather-bound books," Shawn's affluent neurotic narrator says. "But the story of my life - my behavior, my actions - now that's a slim volume, and I've never read it." Bellow and Bloom were sitting in that restaurant like a couple of eighteenth century satirists, pleasuring themselves at the sight of people being both ridiculous and moving. For them, the world wasn’t fraught; it was comic. Oh, tragicomic, to be sure - but the emphasis was on the comic. Bloom in particular had a certain sympathetic interest in what made people odd. Being amusingly odd himself, he tended to study the vulnerabilities that shaped most people into something only slightly less odd than he.
From reading these two and watching them around campus (I never took a class with either of them), I began to intuit that there were roughly two sorts of people in the world. There were the sort Bloom as Ravelstein calls “self-glamorized” -- people who spin a certain image of themselves out to the world and therefore never achieve authenticity; and there were the sort that express a genial acceptance of themselves (and other people) with all of their flaws and absurdities. This latter sort express as well a mature acceptance of the unpleasant contract we’ve got to make with life altogether. They’re not going to let the business of being human get them down; on the contrary, they’re going to live fully and lucidly for as long as they can. And as for the opinion of others, by which the self-glamorized are ruled - phooey.
One way to attain this advanced degree of insouciance relative to the coercive pull of Other People is to refine in oneself a strong sense of autonomy. Christopher Hitchens puts it well in a recent interview:
“I've increasingly become convinced that in order to be any kind of a public-intellectual commentator or combatant, one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism. One has to have, actually, more and more contempt for public opinion and for the way in which it's constructed and aggregated, and polled and played back and manufactured and manipulated. If only because all these processes are actually undertaken by the elite and leave us all, finally, voting in the passive voice and believing that we're using our own opinions or concepts when in fact they have been imposed upon us.”
How to become this intellectual combatant? Clearly you need models; and at the University of Chicago Bloom and Bellow were two of quite a few. These were people who understood that what Orwell in 1984 calls “prolefeed” and what Hitchens here describes as manufactured and manipulated public opinion, can be understood in the context of high as well as popular culture. The gray net of abstraction that hypertheorizing in the humanities has thrown over reality is ... well, call it “aristofeed.” It’s prolefeed for the elite.
In one scene in Bellow’s novel, Ravelstein insists that his friend Chick (the Bellow character) give up his practice of welcoming the motley crew that shows up at the university wanting to talk to him during his office hours: “He said [Chick remembers of Ravelstein] that all kinds of creatures imposed on me and wasted my time.” But, Chick explains, “In my trade [Chick, like Bellow, is a writer] you have to make more allowances, taking all sorts of ambiguities into account - to avoid hard-edged judgments. All this refraining may resemble naivete. But it isn’t quite that. In art you become familiar with due process. You can’t simply write people off or send them to hell.” Chick takes regular “humanity baths.” His attitude toward each personality that presents itself to him is accepting, searching, open, intrigued.
I met with Bellow on one memorable occasion, in his office. I was part of the motley. Although Bellow was pushing seventy at the time, and was, I can see in
retrospect through the lens of Ravelstein, experiencing a dispiriting marriage, he was vigorous, handsome, trim, natty, witty, edgy, courtly, intriguingly nasty, and overtly sexually curious about me. Sitting in his office, located within an improbably Rapunzelesque tower, I wasn’t offended when he leered: I enjoyed the mild perversity of the scene. There was an aura of radical free possibility about it that exhilarated me, and I recall it all vividly. Below the tower’s gothic windows, the trees on the Midway flailed in the wind off the lake as we discussed whether he’d join the committee of readers on my dissertation (he made it clear that if I really pushed, he would. I didn’t push.). The atmosphere was altogether tightly life-packed. “The gloss the sun puts on the surroundings - the triumph of life, so to speak, the flourishing of everything makes me despair,” writes Chick, describing his sense of inadequacy in the face of Paris and its high-noon glories. “I’ll never be able to keep up with all the massed hours of life-triumphant.” None of us will; but Bellow and Bloom evoked for me at a particular place and time the tireless pursuit of intense life and the inevitable falling short of it.