[Paleopsych] WkStd: Civilization and Its Malcontents

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Civilization and Its Malcontents

     Civilization and Its Malcontents
     Or, why are academics so unhappy?
     by Joseph Epstein
     05/09/2005, Volume 010, Issue 32

     Faculty Towers
     The Academic Novel and Its Discontents
     by Elaine Showalter
     University of Pennsylvania Press, 143 pp., $24.95

     I HAD A FRIEND, now long dead, named Walter B. Scott, a professor at
     Northwestern University whose specialty was theatrical literature, who
     never referred to university teaching as other than a--or sometimes
     the--"racket." What Walter, a notably unambitious man, meant was that
     it was an unconscionably easy way to make a living, a soft touch, as
     they used to say. Working under conditions of complete freedom, having
     to show up in the classroom an impressively small number of hours each
     week, with the remainder of one's time chiefly left to cultivate one's
     own intellectual garden, at a job from which one could never be fired
     and which (if one adds up the capacious vacation time) amounted to
     fewer than six months work a year for pay that is very far from
     miserable--yes, I'd say "a racket" just about gets it.

     And yet, as someone who came late to university teaching, I used to
     wonder why so many people in the racket were so obviously
     disappointed, depressed, and generally demoralized. Granted, until one
     achieves that Valhalla for scholars known as tenure--which really
     means lifetime security, obtainable on no other job that I know--an
     element of tension is entailed, but then so is it in every other job.
     As a young instructor, one is often assigned dogsbody work, teaching
     what is thought to be dull fare: surveys, composition courses, and the
     rest. But the unhappier academics, in my experience, are not those
     still struggling to gain a seat at the table, but those who have
     already grown dour from having been there for a long while.

     So far as I know, no one has ever done a study of the unhappiness of
     academics. Who might be assigned to the job? Business-school
     professors specializing in industrial psychology and employer/employee
     relations would botch it. Disaffected sociologists would blame it all
     on society and knock off for the rest of the semester. My own
     preference would be anthropologists, using methods long ago devised
     for investigating a culture from the outside in. The closest thing we
     have to these ideal anthropologists have been novelists writing
     academic novels, and their lucubrations, while not as precise as one
     would like on the reasons for the unhappiness of academics, do show a
     strong and continuing propensity on the part of academics intrepidly
     to make the worst of what ought to be a perfectly delightful

     Faculty Towers is a report on the findings of those novelists who have
     worked the genre long known as the academic novel. The book is written
     by an insider, for Professor Elaine Showalter, now in her middle
     sixties, is, as they used to say on the carnival grounds, "with the
     show." At various places in her slight book, she inserts her own
     experience as a graduate student and professor, though not to very
     interesting effect. An early entry in the feminist sweepstakes, she is
     currently the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at
     Princeton, a past president of the Modern Language Association, a
     founder of "gynocriticism" (or the study of women writers)--in other
     words, guilty until proven innocent. She has also been
     described--readers retaining a strong sense of decorum are advised to
     skip the remainder of this paragraph--as "Camille Paglia with balls,"
     a description meant approbatively, or so at least Princeton must feel,
     for they print it on princetoninfo.com, a stark indication of the tone
     currently reigning in American universities.

     Professor Showalter's book is chiefly a chronological account of
     Anglophone academic novels for the past sixty or so years, beginning
     with C.P. Snow's The Masters (1951) and running through examples of
     the genre produced in the 21st century. Faculty Towers is, for the
     most part, given over to plot summaries of these novels, usually
     accompanied by judgments about their quality, with extra bits of
     feminism (mild scorn is applied where the plight of women in academic
     life is ignored) thrown in at no extra charge.

     The book's title, playing off the John Cleese comedy Fawlty Towers,
     suggests the book's larger theme: that the university, as reflected in
     the academic novels Showalter examines, has increasingly become rather
     like a badly run hotel, with plenty of nuttiness to go round. The
     difficulty here is that Showalter believes that things are not all
     that nutty. Mirabile dictu: She finds them looking up. "The
     university," she writes, "is no longer a sanctuary or a refuge; it is
     fully caught up in the churning community and the changing society;
     but it is a fragile institution rather than a fortress."

     The feminism in Faculty Towers is generally no more than a tic, which
     the book's author by now probably cannot really control, and after a
     while one gets used to it, without missing it when it fails to show
     up. The only place Showalter's feminism seriously gets in the way, in
     my view, is in her judgments of Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe
     (a forgettable--and now quite properly forgotten--novel that she rates
     too highly) and Randall Jarrell's wickedly amusing Pictures from an
     Institution (which she attempts, intemperately, to squash). The two
     misjudgments happen to be nicely connected: the most menacing
     character in Jarrell's novel, Gertrude Johnson, is based on Mary
     McCarthy, who may well be one of Showalter's personal heroines, of
     whom Jarrell has one of his characters remark: "She may be a mediocre
     novelist but you've got to admit that she's a wonderful liar." Sounds
     right to me.

     Being with the show has doubtless clouded Showalter's judgment of
     Pictures from an Institution, which contains, among several withering
     criticisms of university life, a marvelously prophetic description of
     the kind of perfectly characterless man who will eventually--that is
     to say, now, in our day--rise to the presidencies of universities all
     over the country. Cozening, smarmy, confidently boring, an appeaser of
     all and offender of none, "idiot savants of success" (Jarrell's
     perfect phrase), not really quite human but, like President Dwight
     Robbins of the novel's Benton College, men (and some women) with a
     gift for "seeming human"--in short, the kind of person the faculty of
     Harvard is currently hoping to turn the detoxed Lawrence Summers into
     if they can't succeed in firing him straightaway for his basic mistake
     in thinking that they actually believe in free speech.

     C.P. Snow's The Masters, is a novel about the intramural political
     alignments involved in finding the right man to replace the dying
     master of a Cambridge college. In this novel, the worthiness of the
     university and the significance of the scholars and scientists
     contending for the job are not questioned; the conflict is between
     contending but serious points of view: scientific and humanistic, the
     school of cool progress versus that of warm tradition. In 1951, the
     university still seemed an altogether admirable place, professors
     serious and significant. Or so it seemed in the 1950s to those of us
     for whom going to college was not yet an automatic but still felt to
     be a privileged choice.

     One might think that the late 1960s blew such notions completely out
     of the water. It did, but not before Kingsley Amis, in Lucky Jim
     (1954), which Showalter rightly calls "the funniest academic satire of
     the century," first loosed the torpedoes. In Lucky Jim, the setting is
     a provincial English university and the dominant spirit is one of
     pomposity, nicely reinforced by cheap-shot one-upmanship and
     intellectual fraudulence. Jim Dixon, the novel's eponymous hero,
     striving to become a regular member of the history faculty, is at work
     on an article titled "The Economic Influence of Developments in
     Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485," a perfect example of fake
     scholarship in which, as he recognizes, "pseudo light" is cast upon
     "false problems." Amis puts Dixon through every hell of social
     embarrassment and comic awkwardness, but the reason Jim is lucky, one
     might tend to forget in all the laughter, is that in the end he
     escapes the university and thus a life of intellectual fraudulence and
     spiritual aridity.

     Amis's hero is a medieval historian, but the preponderance of academic
     novels are set in English departments. The reason for this can be
     found in universities choosing to ignore a remark made by the linguist
     Roman Jakobson, who, when it was proposed to the Harvard faculty to
     hire Vladimir Nabokov, said that the zoology department does not hire
     an elephant, one of the objects of its study, so why should an English
     department hire a contemporary writer, also best left as an object of
     study? Jakobson is usually mocked for having made that remark, but he
     was probably correct: better to study writers than hire them. To hire
     a novelist for a university teaching job is turning the fox loose in
     the hen house. The result--no surprise here--has been feathers

     Showalter makes only brief mention of one of my favorite academic
     novels, The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein. Ms. Goldstein is
     quoted on the interesting point that at Princeton Jews become
     gentilized while at Columbia Gentiles become judenized, which is not
     only amusing but true. Goldstein's novel is also brilliant on the
     snobbery of university life. She makes the nice point that the poorest
     dressers in academic life (there are no good ones) are the
     mathematicians, followed hard upon by the physicists. The reason they
     care so little about clothes--also about wine and the accoutrements of
     culture--is that, Goldstein rightly notes, they feel that in their
     work they are dealing with the higher truths, and need not be bothered
     with such kakapitze as cooking young vegetables, decanting wine
     correctly, and knowing where to stay in Paris.

     Where the accoutrements of culture count for most are in the
     humanities departments, where truth, as the physical scientists
     understand it, simply isn't part of the deal. "What do you guys in the
     English Department do," a scientist at Northwestern once asked me,
     quite in earnest, "just keep reading Shakespeare over and over, like

     "Nothing that grand," I found myself replying.

     Professor Showalter does not go in much for discussing the sex that is
     at the center of so many academic novels. Which reminds me that the
     first time I met Edward Shils, he asked me what I was reading. When I
     said The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie, he replied, "Academic
     screwing, I presume." He presumed rightly. How could it be otherwise
     with academic novels? Apart from the rather pathetic power struggles
     over department chairmanships, or professorial appointments, love
     affairs, usually adulterous or officially outlawed ones, provide the
     only thing resembling drama on offer on the contemporary university

     Early academic novels confined love affairs to adults on both sides.
     But by the 1970s, after the "student unrest" (still my favorite of all
     political euphemisms) of the late 1960s, students--first graduate
     students, then undergraduates--became the lovers of (often married)
     professors. If men were writing these novels, the experience was
     supposed to result in spiritual refreshment; if women wrote them, the
     male professors were merely damned fools. The women novelists, of
     course, were correct.

     The drama of love needs an element of impossibility: think Romeo and
     Juliet, think Anna Karenina, think Lolita. But in the academic novel,
     this element seems to have disappeared, especially in regard to the
     professor-student love affair, where the (usually female) student
     could no longer be considered very (if at all) innocent. The drama
     needed to derive elsewhere. That elsewhere hasn't yet been found,
     unless one counts sexual harassment suits, which are not yet the
     subject of an academic novel but have been that of Oleanna, a play by
     David Mamet, who is not an academic but grasped the dramatic element
     in such dreary proceedings.

     Sexual harassment, of course, touches on political correctness, which
     is itself the product of affirmative action, usually traveling under
     the code name of diversity. Many people outside universities may think
     that diversity has been imposed on universities from without by
     ignorant administrators. But professors themselves rather like it; it
     makes them feel they are doing the right thing and, hence, allows
     them, however briefly, to feel good about themselves.

     Nor is diversity the special preserve of prestige-laden or large
     state-run universities. In the 1970s, I was invited to give a talk at
     Denison University in Granville, Ohio. I arrived to find all the
     pieces in place: On the English faculty was a black woman (very nice,
     by the way), an appropriately snarky feminist, a gay (not teaching the
     thing called Queer Theory, which hadn't yet been devised), a Jew, and
     a woman named Ruthie, who drove about in an aged and messy Volkswagen
     bug, whose place in this otherwise unpuzzling puzzle I couldn't quite
     figure out. When I asked, I was told, "Oh, Ruthie's from the sixties."
     From "the sixties," I thought then and still think, sounds like a
     country, and perhaps it is, but assuredly, to steal a bit of Yeats, no
     country for old men.

     By the time I began teaching in the early 1970s, everyone already
     seemed to be in business for himself, looking for the best deal, which
     meant the least teaching for the most money at the most snobbishly
     well-regarded schools. The spirit of capitalism, for all that might be
     said on its behalf, wreaks havoc when applied to culture and
     education. The English novelist David Lodge neatly caught this spirit
     at work when he created, in two of his academic novels, the character
     Morris Zapp. A scholar-operator, Zapp, as described by Lodge, "is
     well-primed to enter a profession as steeped in free enterprise as
     Wall Street, in which each scholar-teacher makes an individual
     contract with his employer, and is free to sell his services to the
     highest bidder." Said to be based on the Milton-man Stanley Fish, an
     identification that Fish apparently has never disavowed but instead
     glories in, Morris Zapp is the freebooter to a high power turned loose
     in academic settings: always attempting to strengthen his own
     position, usually delighted to be of disservice to the old ideal of
     academic dignity and integrity. Fish himself ended his days with a
     deanship at the University of Illinois in Chicago for a salary said to
     be $250,000, much less than a utility infielder in the major leagues
     makes but, for an academic, a big number.

     By the time that the 1990s rolled around, all that was really left to
     the academic novel was to mock the mission of the university. With the
     onset of so-called theory in English and foreign-language departments,
     this became easier and easier to do. Professor Showalter does not
     approve of these goings-on: "The tone of ['90s academic novels]," she
     writes, "is much more vituperative, vengeful, and cruel than in
     earlier decades."

     The crueler the blows are required, I should say, the better to
     capture the general atmosphere of goofiness, which has become
     pervasive. Theory and the hodgepodge of feminism, Marxism, and queer
     theory that resides comfortably alongside it, has now been in the
     saddle for roughly a quarter-century in American English and
     Romance-language departments, while also making incursions into
     history, philosophy, and other once-humanistic subjects. There has
     been very little to show for it--no great books, no splendid articles
     or essays, no towering figures who signify outside the academy
     itself--except declining enrollments in English and other department
     courses featuring such fare.

     All that is left to such university teachers is the notion that they
     are, in a much-strained academic sense, avant-garde, which means that
     they continue to dig deeper and deeper for lower and lower forms of
     popular culture--graffiti on Elizabethan chamber pots--and human
     oddity. The best standard in the old days would have university
     scholars in literature and history departments publish books that
     could also be read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by
     nonscholars. Nothing of this kind is being produced today. In an
     academic thriller (a subdivision of the academic novel) cited by
     Showalter called Murder at the MLA, the head of the Wellesley English
     Department is found "dead as her prose." But almost all prose written
     in English departments these days is quite as dead as that English

     For Professor Showalter, the old days were almost exclusively the bad
     old days. A good radical matron, she recounts manning the phones for
     the support group protesting, at the 1968 Modern Language Association
     meeting, "the organization's conservatism and old-boy governance." Now
     of course it almost seems as if the annual MLA meetings chiefly exist
     for journalists to write comic pieces featuring the zany subjects of
     the papers given at each year's conference. At these meetings, in and
     out the room the women come and go, speaking of fellatio, which, deep
     readers that they are, they can doubtless find in Jane Austen.

     Such has been the politicization of the MLA that a
     counter-organization has been formed, called the Association of
     Literary Scholars and Critics, whose raison d'être is to get English
     studies back on track. I am myself a dues-paying ($35 annually) member
     of that organization. I do not go to its meetings, but I am sent the
     organization's newsletter and magazine, and they are a useful reminder
     of how dull English studies have traditionally been. But it is good to
     recall that dull is not ridiculous, dull is not always irrelevant,
     dull is not intellectual manure cast into the void.

     The bad old days in English departments were mainly the dull old days,
     with more than enough pedants and dryasdusts to go round. But they did
     also produce a number of university teachers whose work reached beyond
     university walls and helped elevate the general culture: Jacques
     Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Ellen Moers, Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen
     Ward, Robert Penn Warren. The names from the bad new days seem to end
     with the entirely political Edward Said and Cornel West.

     What we have today in universities is an extreme reaction to the
     dullness of that time, and also to the sheer exhaustion of subject
     matter for English department scholarship. No further articles and
     books about Byron, Shelley, Keats, or Kafka, Joyce, and the two Eliots
     seemed possible (which didn't of course stop them from coming). The
     pendulum has swung, but with a thrust so violent as to have gone
     through the cabinet in which the clock is stored.

     From an academic novel I've not read called The Death of a Constant
     Lover (1999) by Lev Raphael, Professor Showalter quotes a passage that
     ends the novel on the following threnodic note:

       Whenever I'm chatting at conferences with faculty members from
       other universities, the truth comes out after a drink or two:
       Hardly any academics are happy where they are, no matter how apt
       the students, how generous the salary or perks, how beautiful the
       setting, how light the teaching load, how lavish the re-search
       budget. I don't know if it's academia itself that attracts misfits
       and malcontents, or if the overwhelming hypocrisy of that world
       would have turned even the von Trapp family sullen.

     My best guess is that it's a good bit of both. Universities attract
     people who are good at school. Being good at school takes a real
     enough but very small talent. As the philosopher Robert Nozick once
     pointed out, all those A's earned through their young lives encourage
     such people to persist in school: to stick around, get more A's and
     more degrees, sign on for teaching jobs. When young, the life ahead
     seems glorious. They imagine themselves inspiring the young, writing
     important books, living out their days in cultivated leisure.

     But something, inevitably, goes awry, something disagreeable turns up
     in the punch bowl. Usually by the time they turn 40, they discover the
     students aren't sufficiently appreciative; the books don't get
     written; the teaching begins to feel repetitive; the collegiality is
     seldom anywhere near what one hoped for it; there isn't any good use
     for the leisure. Meanwhile, people who got lots of B's in school seem
     to be driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments,
     enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former
     good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a
     just society surely would never permit.

     Now that politics has trumped literature in English departments the
     situation is even worse. Beset by political correctness, self-imposed
     diversity, without leadership from above, university teachers, at
     least on the humanities and social-science sides, knowing the work
     they produce couldn't be of the least possible interest to anyone but
     the hacks of the MLA and similar academic organizations, have more
     reason than ever to be unhappy.

     And so let us leave them, overpaid and underworked, surly with
     alienation and unable to find any way out of the sweet racket into
     which they once so ardently longed to get.

     Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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