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Academia’s Saul Bellow Moment

'Hi kids! Let's talk about your pain.' (Johny Keny/Shutterstock)

A reader writes from inside the academy:

Watching the video you embedded of Christakis surrounded by SJWs, pleading along the lines of, “But we’ve eaten together for years, you’ve taken classes with me, how could you think I’m the kind of person you’re now accusing me of being? Doesn’t our having known each other count for anything, at all?” my mind went immediately to a scene from Saul Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, when Joseph, the narrator, encounters a former Party comrade in a restaurant. It’s a long scene, so I’ve bolded the relevant parts, skipping some of the Bellovian ranting (though that’s quite good, too). It’s especially useful to think of his friend Myron (who doesn’t wind up giving him the job in question) as a university administrator, too.

Of course, there’s something a little naive and innocent about Comrade Jim’s rejection of Joseph — he’s an honest-to-God revolutionary; he’d never try to manipulate the apparatus of institutional power to get him fired! Do that, and you’ve sold out to The Man just as much as Joseph did when he decided to fix the world by treating a few sores at a time rather than tearing it all down and building up something new in its place! I want to say that it’s the Left eating its own again at Yale — but in the ’40s, the Left was content to let this all be internecine warfare. Now it’s got to be Revolution™, dammit — and those Trotskyists need to be the first to go!

One day, hopefully soon, we’re going to reach a point where those of us who dissent from the antiliberalism of the campus Left will simply announce, with e.e. cummings, that “There is some sh*t I will not eat.” I think in the refusal to apologize on that campus lawn, there’s a step toward it. (My breaking point came when I refused to write an e-mail apologizing to several colleagues for my insufficient expression of outrage at the “racist condiments” in the department break room. No one had asked me to; I just knew I needed to. And then I realized what I was doing and closed my computer. That was a thing that really happened in my life.)

Anyway — the long passage in question is:

An unusual explosion of temper this afternoon, when I was with Myron Adler. I behaved unaccountably, greatly surprising myself and of course, bewildering Myron altogether. He had phoned me about a temporary job which would consist of asking people questions for a poll he is conducting. I hurried down to meet him at the Arrow for lunch. I arrived first, took a table toward the back, and immediately fell victim to depression. I had not visited the Arrow for a number of years. It was at one time a hangout for earnest eccentrics where, at almost any hour of the afternoon or evening, you could hear discussions of socialism, psychopathology, or the fate of European Man. It was I who had suggested that we eat there; for some reason it had been the first place that came to my mind. Now it depressed me. Then, as I looked around at the steam tables and the posters of foundering ships and faces of Japanese, I saw Jimmy Burns sitting at a table with a man I did not know. Since the days when we had been Comrade Joe and Comrade Jim, we had seen each other no more than two, perhaps three, times. He looked changed; his forehead had grown higher and his expression more severe. I nodded to him, but got no recognition for my pains; he looked through me in the way which is, I suppose officially prescribed for “renegades.”

When Myron came in a few minutes later and started at once to talk about the job, I said impatiently, “Wait a second, now. Just hold on.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Something very special,” I said. “Wait till I tell you. You see that man in the brown suit over there? That’s Jimmy Burns. Ten years ago I was privileged to call him Comrade Jimmy.”

“Well?” said Myron.

“I said hello to him, and he acted as if I simply wasn’t there.”
“What of it?” said Myron.

“Does that seem natural? I was once a close friend.”
“Well?” said Myron.
“Stop saying that, will you!” I said in exasperation.
“I mean do you want him to throw his arms around you?” asked Myron.
“You don’t get the point. I despise him.”
“Then I don’t get the point. I confess I don’t get it.”
“No. Listen. He has no business ignoring me. This is always happening to me. You don’t understand it because you’re a person of no political experience But I know what this means, and I’m going to go up to him and say hello whether he likes it or not.”
“Don’t be a fool. What do you want to make trouble for?” said Myron.
“Because I feel like making trouble. Does he know me or doesn’t he? He knows me perfectly well.” I was growing angrier by the minute. “I’m surprised that you shouldn’t be able to see it.”
“I came here to talk to you about a job, not to see you throw a fit,” he said.
“Oh, a fit. Do you think I care about him? It’s the principle of the thing. It seems to escape you. Simply because I am no longer a member of their party they have instructed him and boobs like him not to talk to me. Don’t you see what’s involved?”
“No,” Myron said carelessly.
“I’ll tell you what’s involved. I have a right to be spoken to. It’s the most elementary thing in the world. Simply that. I insist on it.”
“Oh, Joseph,” said Myron.
“No, really, listen to me. Forbid one man to talk to another, forbid him to communicate with someone else, and you’ve forbidden him to think, because, as a great many writers will tell you, thought is a kind of communication. And his party doesn’t want him to think, but to follow its discipline. So there you are. Because it’s supposed to be a revolutionary party. That’s what’s offending me. When a man obeys an order like that he’s helping to abolish freedom and begin tyranny.”
“Come, come,” said Myron. “You’re making too much fuss over it.”
“I should be making twice as much fuss,” I said. “It’s very important.”
“But you’ve been through with them for years, haven’t you?” Myron asked. “Do you mean to say you’ve just discovered this now?”
“I haven’t forgotten, that’s all. You see, I thought those people were different. I haven’t forgotten that I believed they were devoted to the service of some grand flapdoodle, the Race, le genre humain. Oh, yes, they were! By the time I got out, I realized that any hospital nurse did more with one bedpan for le genre humain than they did with their entire organization. It’s odd to think that there was a time when to hear that would have filled me with horror. What? Reformism?”
“I’ve heard of that,” said Myron.
“I should think so! Reformism! A terrible thing. About a month after we parted company, I sat down and wrote Jane Addams a letter of apology. She was still alive.”
“Did you?” he said, looking at me curiously.
“I never mailed it,” I said. “Maybe I should have. Don’t you believe me?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“I changed my mind about redoing the world from top to bottom a la Karl Marx and decided in favor of bandaging a few sores at a time. Of course, that was temporary too. . . .”
“Was it?” he said.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! You know that, Mike,” I said loudly.
The man who was sitting with Burns turned around, but the latter still pretended not to see me. “That’s right,” I said, “Look the other way. Go on. That boy is mad, Myron. He’s never been sane. Everything has changed, he’s been left far behind, but he thinks it’s as it used to be. He still wears that proletarian bang on his earnest forehead and dreams of becoming an American Robespierre. The rest have compromised themselves to the ears, but he still believes in the revolution. Blood will run, the power will change hands, and then the state will wither away according to the in-ex-or-able logic of history. I’d gamble my shirt on it. Let me tell you something about him. Do you know what he used to have in his room? I went up with him one day, and there was a large-scale map of the city, with pins in it. So I said, ‘What’s this for, Jim?’ And then—I swear this is true—he started to explain that he was preparing a guide for street-fighting, the day of the insurrection. He had all the critical streets marked in code for cellars and roofs, the paving material, the number of newsstands at each corner that could be thrown into barricades (the Parisian kiosks, you remember). Even abandoned sewers for hiding arms. He traced them through City Hall records. The things we used to accept as natural—why, it’s unbelievable! And he’s still in that. I’ll be he still has the map. He’s an addict. They’re all addicted people, Mike. Hey, Burns! Hey!” I called out.
“Shut up, Joseph! For God’s sake. What are you doing? Everybody’s looking at you.”
Burns glanced briefly in my direction and then resumed his conversation with the other man, who, however, turned again to examine me.
“What do you know about that? Burns won’t give me a tumble. I can’t arouse him. I’m just gone. Like that.” I snapped my fingers. “I’m a contemptible petty-bourgeois renegade; could anything be worse? That idiot! Hey, addict!” I shouted.
“Have you gone mad? Come on.” Myron pushed back the table. “I’m going to get you out of here before you start a fight. I think you would start a fight. Where’s your coat, which is it? Why, you’re a madman! Come back here!” But I was already out of his reach. I halted squarely before Burns.
“I said hello to you before, didn’t you notice?”
He made no reply.
“Don’t you know me? It seems to me that I know you very well. Answer me, don’t you know who I am?”
“Yes, I know you,” Burns said in a low voice.
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” I said. “I just wanted to be sure. I’m coming, Myron.” I pulled my arm away from him and we strode out.

The academic who sent me this added that people in his department were so excited that the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s inside higher education were over, and they could all get back to teaching. Now that’s over — and professors are burned out by the reality of having to go through all this again.

One is reminded, of course, of The Closing of the American Mind, the famous 1987 book by Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom. This passage cuts deep:

My grandparents were ignorant people by our standards, and my grandfather held only lowly jobs. But their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it, not only what was specifically ritual, found their origin in the Bible’s commandments, and their explanation in the Bible’s stories and the commentaries on them, and had their imaginative counterparts in the deeds of the myriad of exemplary heroes. My grandparents found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfillment of their duties in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and ennobling past. Their simple faith and practices linked them to great scholars and thinkers who dealt with the same material, not from outside or from an alien perspective, but believing as they did, while simply going deeper and providing guidance. There was a respect for real learning, because it had a felt connection with their lives. This is what a community and a history mean, a common experience inviting high and low into a single body of belief.

I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, all of whom are M.D.s or Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning. When they talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but cliches, superficialities, the material of satire. I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside. The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished.

And this from his chapter titled “The Sixties”:

“You don’t have to intimidate us,” said the famous professor of philosophy in April 1969, to ten thousand triumphant students supporting a group of black students who had just persuaded “us,” the faculty of Cornell University, to do their will by threatening the use of firearms as well as threatening the lives of individual professors. A member of the ample press corps newly specialized in reporting the hottest item of the day, the university, muttered, “You said it, brother.” The reporter had learned a proper contempt for the moral and intellectual qualities of professors. Servility, vanity and lack of conviction are not difficult to discern.

The professors, the repositories of our best traditions and highest intellectual aspirations, were fawning over what was nothing better than a rabble; publicly confessing their guilt and apologizing for not having understood the most important moral issues, the proper response to which they were learning from the mob; expressing their willingness to change the university’s goals and the content of what they taught. As I surveyed this spectacle, Marx’s overused dictum kept coming to my mind against my will: History always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The American university in the sixties was experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German university in the thirties. No longer believing in their higher vocation, both gave way to a highly ideologized student populace. And the content of the ideology was the same — value commitment. The university had abandoned all claim to study or inform about value — undermining the sense of the value of what it taught, while turning over the decision about values of the folk, the Zeitgeist, the relevant. Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same.

Bloom went to see the Cornell provost at the time in defense of a black student whose life had been threatened by a black faculty member over the student’s refusal to participate in a demonstration. The provost refused to defend the student. Bloom:

I saw that this had been a useless undertaking on my part. The provost had a mixture of cowardice and moralism not uncommon at the time. He did not want trouble. … No one who knew or cared about what a university is would have acquiesced in this travesty. It was no surprise that a few weeks later — immediately after the faculty had voted overwhelmingly under the gun to capitulate to outrageous demands that it had a few days earlier rejected — the leading members of the administration and many well-known faculty members rushed over to congratulate the gathered students and tried to win their approval. I saw exposed before all the world what had long been known, and it was at last possible without impropriety to tell these pesudo-universitarians precisely what one thought of them.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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