Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Seance On a Wet Afternoon


Suzanne Fields, whose soul vibrates harmoniously in aetheric communion with the Absolute, uses her eerie powers to detect unrest among Harvard's storied dead:

On a quiet night some students swear you can hear voices from the past in Harvard Yard, echoes of the voices of John Hancock, John Adams, William James, Henry Adams, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. If ghosts could cry, you might hear the manly sobs of the ghosts of grown men.
I have no idea why Ms. Fields thought it necessary to reassure us that these sad ghosts are neither underage nor effeminate, but speaking as someone who's starved for innocent amusement of the sort Amanda McKittrick Ros used to dish out, I'm very glad she did.

What, of all the miseries in this world of woe, has caused these venerable haints to soak their winding sheets with spectral tears? The resignation of Larry Summers, natch:
Those men of Harvard's championship seasons wouldn't have recognized the place last week when Larry Summers threw in the towel, resigning as the president of the university. They could not understand how he lost a fight with the faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Well, Summers is the man who said that the Third World was underpolluted, a sentiment I suspect would not have found favor with Thoreau. And since Thoreau's distaste for Harvard is well known (to say nothing of his distaste for the sort of jingoistic boilerplate with which Summers' scolded its faculty), it's hard to believe that his ghost would shed tears - womanish or otherwise - over Summers' plight.

As for Emerson, he once said that "every hero becomes a bore at last." He also said that "Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory." Put those quotes together, and one arrives at the startling conclusion that to conservatives, no hero ever becomes a bore. Which, I suppose, is one reason why their natural mode is bathos:
He was Big Man on Campus for a time, but not big enough to vanquish the Lilliputians guarding their miserable little nests of selfish indifference. He wanted a university of open inquiry with a diversity of ideas, a search for true learning. He wanted to bring ROTC back to the campus, to honor the military. He would reform the undergraduate curriculum stagnating in a swamp of sour indifference to true learning. This is the last thing Lilliputians tolerate.
Selfish indifference and sour indifference...all in a day's work for Lilliputians!

All in all, Ms. Fields is a charming combination of Konstantin Raudive and Andrei Zhdanov, and I applaud her attempt to enforce partiinost by means of necromancy.

And that's not the only trick up her sleeve, by any means. She may not know the first goddamn thing about Thoreau (and even less about the genes she claims cause female students to "gravitate to the soft stuff in the humanities"), but she does know that a proper elegy must end on a consoling note:
He's free now to rejoin the real world, where respect for learning and accomplishment is a given. The ghosts of Harvard Yard can only wish him godspeed.
It'd be interesting to know which "real world" Ms. Fields inhabits, when she's not hobnobbing with the dead-butch wraiths of Thoreau and Emerson. In the course of her article, she sneers at "the burnt-out grove of academe," where the "shuttered minds in the faculty lounges" are in thrall to "a politically correct minority of simpletons." In at least one other article, she reveals herself as one of those know-nothings who think they can discredit academics by pointing out that, after all, they're academics. (Some of them, she notes, even use impenetrable jargon like "transgressive discourses" and "power relations" to describe...uh...transgressive discourse and power relations.)

I submit that rhetoric like this has done very little to advance the idea that learning per se is worthy of respect. In fact, when it comes to conservative respect for learning, the only "given" I'm aware of is that it's rarely bestowed on anyone whose work isn't praised in The Mankind Quarterly.

On that score, Ms. Fields is typical. She praises Summers' infamous remarks on women in science without, apparently, being aware of any reasonable, science-based arguments against him. To hear her tell it, Summers was laid low by militant feminism, rather than by the fact that he was - not to put too fine a point on it - completely full of shit.

In yet another woeful attempt to seem literate, she compares Summers to Don Quixote - a man in the grip of superstitious delusions, who imagined great dangers where there were none - and moments later, to Gulliver beset by the Lilliputians. Unfortunately for her, Swift created the Lilliputians to satirize a brand of religious militarism that has its true modern-day echo in Bushism. For instance, Lilliputians forbid atheists to hold government office, and are quick to charge Gulliver, irrationally, with "treason." Even more interesting are the Lilliputian customs relating to the education of women:
[A] smaller Compass of Learning was enjoined them: for their maxim is, that among People of Quality a Wife should be always a reasonable and agreeable Companion, because she cannot always be young....In the Nurseries of Females of the meaner sort, the Children are instructed in all kinds of Works proper for their Sex....
Am I nitpicking? I don't think so. Like many other conservative poseurs, Ms. Fields proposes to defend a culture whose major works she either hasn't read, doesn't remember, or doesn't understand. That being the case, it seems fair to point out that the term "Lilliputian" is far more applicable to conservative than to postmodern culture. But perhaps Ms. Fields has communed with Swift's ghost, too, and knows something I don't.

Apropos of which, my own ramblings on the astral plane have informed me that at least one of Harvard's ghosts - that of Stephen Jay Gould - is actually relieved to see Summers go. You'll just have to trust me on this; I have kind of a sixth sense about these things.

3 comments:

Tom - Daai Tou Laam said...

If you're gonna a take a poke at the folks in Harvard Yard being elitist, ya gotta call 'em "Barneys".

If'n there is no "Barneys" in the critique, then ya know that the critic knows nothing of Harvard Yard.

And after 2 years of absence from haunting the People's Republic of Cambridge, I bet I could still raise a few more spirits from Harvard Yard than this wench.

Phila said...

If you're gonna a take a poke at the folks in Harvard Yard being elitist, ya gotta call 'em "Barneys".

Good to know, just in case I ever run into Henry Kissinger.

Tom - Daai Tou Laam said...

Herr Doktor might be so disconnected from the town&gown issues, that he'd miss this one.

But never fear, I'm sure you can find a lot of other names to call Herr Doktor.