Wednesday, January 28, 2015
A couple of times a month when I have evening events in New York City I choose to cadge a bed at my daughter’s apartment rather than trying to return home late at night. I can still get back to Princeton in the morning in time to be at the gym at its 6:30 opening if I catch a seriously early train out of Penn Station. It departs at 4:51 and seems to have a pretty regular clientele well known to the conductors, judging from the level of somnolent bonhomie displayed on all sides. The already sparse population of the cars as we leave New York is halved again by the time we are pulling out of Newark Airport.
I cannot sleep on trains. I have to be reading—but there is reading and then there is reading. The book I had with me for the trip up was the Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa—a patristic text of considerable importance to my current project on the literary origins of Christian asceticism, but perhaps not exactly light fare. The chances of engaging with it profitably in my pre-dawn daze were not good. I long ago learned that the proper literary level for this milk train was one of the New York tabloids. As the Post is a quarter cheaper than the Daily News, I went for the Post.
The best part of the Post, as also of some of the English tabloids of decades past, is the headlines, which often exhibit a power of poetic concision to rival that of an Emily Dickinson. Nowadays at the cashier’s post in mercantile establishments the various Hollywood and television fan tabloids tend to monopolize the rack with a somewhat limited and long since hackneyed vocabulary of scandal—“Cheatin’ Hearts”, “Love Child,” “Pants Down,” etc. Post headlines often still have crackle.
There are certain headlines one encounters in one’s daily rounds—such as “Avis Important,” “Terms and Conditions,” “Statement of Limited Liability,” or “How to Get the Most Out of Your New Suk-o-Vac”—apparently designed to quench any desire to read any further. The tabloid headline, when properly done, removes any need to read further. In the good old days in the grocery stores any number of The News of the World alone could be counted on for two or three typographical outrages. Two from my youth have stuck in my memory. The first—“Dead Mom Gives Birth to Child in Coffin” practically made me gag right there in the check-out line, and for several years I thought it must surely be the gold standard of the journalistic grotesque. A second actually induced me to buy a copy: “The Filth You Eat in Your Bread!” in at least forty-eight point type. The suggestive powers of a sentence fragment are often irresistible.
But these days the New York Post seems nearly alone in its noble mission. Certainly I was richly reward by Wednesday’s edition. There was a squib headed “Spouses, you post, you’re toast” devoted to the interesting sociological fact that in England Facebook postings are now cited “in a third of all divorce cases”. More interesting still was the following meta-headline: “We’re ‘head’line news!” On the off chance that you are not familiar with my curious use of the Greek prefix meta, I should explain that I take it from the gobbledygook of current literary critical theory. The meta maximizes self-involvement. Indeed the meta is to ideas what the “selfie” is to photography. You have perhaps read a novel about a novelist who is writing a novel about a novelist who…etc.
Such is the genre of the Post story. Its headline “We’re ‘head’line news!” actually introduces a celebration of another headline. It’s a story from Down Under. A young Australian journalist, whose name is Nick Buttery and whose physiognomy and attitude remind one slightly of Alfred E. Neuman, was forbidden by a security guard from entering the Parliament House in Canberra—roughly the equivalent of the American Capitol—on sartorial grounds. According to the Post reporter, “The Department of Parliamentary Services said Parliament forbids offensive messages on clothing in the House.”
What offensive message? Mr. Buttery was at the time wearing a tee-shirt adorned with the classic Post headline: “Headless Body in Topless Bar”—a headline that, according to several eminent scholars expert in the genre, may be the greatest tabloid headline known to man. “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” nearly perfect in its syntactic balance and grotesque juxtaposition, displays the peculiar elegance of wit demonstrated in the titles of two memorable mid-nineteenth-century novels by Emily Eden: The Semi-Detached House and The Semi-Attached Couple. These too are worthy underground classics, though incapable of generating a potential international incident.
According to journalistic theory reporters are supposed to cover the story, not be the story. Mr. Buttery’s own cover defeated that sound principle, however, and his story, if not quite viral, has proved to be at least amusingly contagious.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Before there was political correctness there was theological correctness. Galileo, who thought that the earth orbited the sun was required by the Roman Inquisition to say that it didn’t. So he said it didn’t, but muttered a second opinion under his breath, Eppur si muove. Perhaps he followed the famous Muslim philosopher, Averroës, who, trying to reconcile the Koranic tradition with Aristotle, sought mental wiggle room in the notion of the “double truth”. Truths arrived at from theology and truths arrived at from philosophy, though apparently incompatible, could both be “true”. For example, the world could be both eternal (Aristotle) and created in time (Scriptural tradition). Christian Averroists got into big trouble in the thirteenth century.
I was surprised to see in the Times on Monday an essay by Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party in France. This was rather like discovering a previously unnoticed “Gospel of Moloch” tucked away among the unread apocryphal books. The essay was arresting, and the numerous readers’ comments even more so. My memory, once a steel trap, is now more like a broken, rusty hinge, so you must take my word for the footnote when I say that there is a polemical passage in Jerome, debating the opinion of the mighty Augustine, in which he boasts somewhat as follows: “I judge an opinion not by whose it is but by what it says.” Readers’ comments on Ms. Le Pen’s essay were sharply and fairly evenly divided. What struck me about them, however, was this. Those who approved the essay tended to do so in terms of its specific ideas and the quality of its argumentation. Those who disapproved rarely even mentioned its ideas, declaring instead its a priori illegitimacy on the basis of the identity of its author. Some of the “antis” accused her of bad faith for not clearly displaying in the essay the “fascist”, “xenophobic”, and “far right” pathologies said to define her and her political party. Some others criticized the Times for “legitimating” her hateful views.
The title of Ms. Le Pen’s piece was “To Call This Threat by its Name” (“Bien nommer la menace”). Following the generally sound rule that the first step in addressing a problem is correctly identifying what the problem is, she wants to call the slaughter at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo and the anti-semitic attack at the kosher grocery Islamist terrorism. She thinks the French government has been perversely reluctant to utter the words “Islamic” or “Islamist” in this context, though in fact many French officials have been models of plain-spokenness compared with President Obama, various “spokespersons” of our State Department, and indeed numerous other thought-leaders here and abroad. Our enemy, according to them, is not Islamic terrorism but “extremism”.
The essential evil of extremism in American politics was definitively established as long ago as 1964 when Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for the presidency committed one of the century’s great oratorical gaffes. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he said to raucous applause as he accepted the nomination. “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” How this sentiment differed from that of Kennedy’s inaugural speech of 1961 would be difficult to say (“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the success of liberty”) except of course that it was expressed three years later.
Were we not dealing with a clear and present danger horrible in its nature, the linguistic convolutions of a Howard Dean—as an example chosen among dozens--might be comical. The self-proclaimed caliphate ISIS (i.e., “Islamic State”) necessarily claims Sharia law as its constitutional basis. That is one feature of its intentionally Islamic character. According to Howard Dean, however, Islam has nothing to do with ISIS, and should not be mentioned in the same breath. Yet most countries are allowed to name themselves. It is now rather gauche to call Zimbabwe “Rhodesia”. The United States is currently conducting obscure and perhaps endless negotiations with “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the name confirmed by 92% of Iranian voters in 1992. Perhaps Mr. Dean will convey the news to Supreme Leader Khamenei that despite what the ayatollah may think, his governance has nothing to do with Islam!
I grasp the good intentions behind this linguistic tomfoolery. But one can avoid the “broad brush” without recourse to the airbrush. Surely we should seek irenic and courteous relations with all peoples of the earth. But if you cannot distinguish between the statements Some X is Y and All X is Y, you should probably not be a practicing dialectician. What is the happy mean of which slaughtering cartoonists is the extreme? I do not know, but I doubt that we a'e well served by Egghead Linguistics as found in Alice in Wonderland: “'When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less'.”
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
The famous allegorical painting at the head of this essay, one of the great treasures of the Borghese gallery in Rome, was made by Titian around 1514. For at least the last three centuries it has been called “Sacred and Profane Love”. That is probably an accurate title. Titian is probably making an emblematic contrast between the two conceptions of love (amor) known in the old Christian ethical vocabulary as caritas and cupiditas. According to the vastly influential opinion of Augustine in his City of God, these are the “two loves that build two cities,” the metaphorical versions of Jerusalem and Babylon, the City of God and the City of Man. The ambiguities in the word “love”, when operating within the more limited and intimate sphere of individual human psychology, provide about half of the materials of Western literature.
Getting back to Titian and his much-admired painting, I would make two points. The first is that we are only pretty sure--not absolutely certain--that the subject is “Sacred and Profane Love.” The second is that among the learned art historians who have written about “Sacred and Profane Love” there has been no general agreement as to which of Titian’s beautiful babes is which! I want to stress that point. Important scholars—men and women who have spent years and decades studying Renaissance art and iconography—dispute the most essential feature of this painting’s “meaning”. Of course I know the answer, but if you think I am going to tell you for free, think again. Such point as I would claim to make has to do with the uncertainty—or as the fancy critics call it, “indeterminacy”—of iconographic representation.
I would not idly contribute to the cataract of photons that have been poured out in the last week over the fanatical murders recently perpetrated at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris—were it not for one salient fact. Unlike the large majority of American commentators I have read, I actually knew a little something about Charlie Hebdo before all this happened. I have lived in Paris for periods of time. Most weeks (“Hebdo” being short for hebdomadaire, “weekly”) I used to try to take a look at it. Its sophomoric humor appealed to me—insofar as I could grasp it. For in engaging a foreign language, satire is one of the very last cultural forms to float into comprehensibility. This paper is full of slang, dirty talk, and above all obscure political and cultural allusions that must challenge many native speakers. Its point of view is post-modern, urban, utterly secular, and flagrantly irreverent. Notice that is calls itself a journal irresponsable!
Since it scorns all pieties, it was scornful of the most hallowed ones, religious pieties. But in my experience its principal targets were cultural and above all political pretension. Oversimplifying wildly, I would say that the most glaring weakness of American politicians is limited intelligence. In France they tend to be smarter, but also more pompous. The pomposity of French politicians, indeed, seems almost to have been invented for the delectation of satirists of the sort who worked for Charlie Hebdo. And of course both in history and in current radical Islamic thought the distinction between religion and politics is hardly a bright line. Some of the implications may bemuse infidels. Just today I learned of the fatwa of a Saudi cleric declaring the building of a snowman haram! (It has been snowing of late along the Saudi-Jordanian frontier.)
In an important passage in my own Scriptures (I Corinthians, cap. 10) Paul has some advice for the Christian minority living in a pagan culture. All things are lawful, he says, but not all things are expedient. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. How about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons?
It’s a judgment call, but there are times when making a point is the point. The street on which I live, Hartley Avenue, is a relatively new extension of the older Faculty Road, which runs through the campus along the northwestern most banks of Lake Carnegie, linking at right angles two well traveled county roads. Faculty Road, though now serving as a fairly major traffic artery, is technically private property, owned by the University. For one day a year campus security officers close it off with barricades. This action, which on that day is annoying and inconvenient for large numbers of motorists, cements the University’s point, its legal property rights, which for three hundred and sixty-four days of the year are effectively waived.
In a pluralistic society cultural difference is inescapable, and if the difference is so great that there are some people willing to kill you for what you say, draw, or doodle, it may need a little thoughtful negotiation. Expression incapable of inviting offense or contestation needs no legal protection. On the other hand rights never exercised are utterly meaningless. Take a look at the so-called “Stalin Constitution” of 1936 some time. Charlie Hebdo thought the exercise of a fundamental civil right more important than the sensibilities of some fundamentalists.
What remains of their editorial board apparently still does, to judge from the cover on today’s edition. Titian’s example can teach us that the artist’s intention cannot always conquer the inherent ambiguity of pictorial forms, but in a preemptive exegetical interview the cartoonist himself said that his subject is the Prophet shedding a tear over the wicked folly of some self-proclaimed followers. There may, alas, turn out to be other interpretations.
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Most people agree that the invention of printing in fifteenth-century Europe marked an astonishing advance in the history of culture and the advancement of learning. Rabelais, who was born about thirty years after the death of Gutenberg includes in his marvelous novels an imaginary letter from Gargantua to his son Pantagruel praising the cultural miracle effected by the printing press. “I see the robbers, hangmen, freebooters and stable-boys of today more learned than the theologians and preachers of my time.”*
A bit of poetic license, perhaps, but is hardly necessary to point out the advantages of the machine-made as opposed to the hand-made book. They included quantity and price, both of which favored the wide distribution of texts. But the printers themselves particularly boasted of another feature: that the books they produced claimed a new accuracy, since before being sent into the world the text could be read and corrected in proof. The reader could be confident that the correct reading was Lead us not into temptation, as printed, and that when their manuscript read Lead us not into Penn Station, that was probably a mistake born of human error.
My most recent essay had been exposed to the eyes of the world for the better part of a week when I received an email from a reader named Ian Jackson. Its brief subject line immediately caught my attention: “Pubic”. Mr. Jackson pointed out that in a passage in which I spoke of the American system of public education, my text quite clearly read pubic education. This would have been a cause for embarrassment even had the context not been, as it unfortunately was, a high-and-mighty excoriation of our national educational inadequacies.
There really was no way of redeeming this blooper, though my mind did its best. I recalled a masterpiece of toilet stall graffiti that I encountered in England fifty years ago. Among the sad, crude monuments to unsatisfied longing scrawled upon the wall was the following masterpiece of postmodern dialogue, written out in vertical form, as though in a Shakespeare text:
[Hand A]: God bless little grils.
[Hand B]: Don’t you mean GIRLS???
[Hand C]: What about us grils?
Good question, that! And surely a similar point could be made about American pubic education. Was it fair to neglect it entirely?
But the real lesson of my experience, and the reason I am so sincerely grateful to Mr. Jackson, is that it is surprisingly rare even for friends to try to save you from self-incurred embarrassment. They seem to think that it is better for you not to know that your beard is clotted with drool and the spume of your Starbucks latte. This leads me to invoke a second English anecdote of the same era as the last—the period of my undergraduate years at Oxford.
I was a member of Jesus College, an institution at which in those days the athletic culture somewhat outpaced the plumbing capacity. There were some showers, but there wasn’t much hot water in them at the best of times. When you needed them most—when you were returning with large numbers of your fellow footballers, oarsmen, or runners after some exhausting, sweaty ordeal—there was usually no hot water at all. Remember this, as in the story I must now relate it is what literary critics call a relevant detail.
One day I was scheduled to go to an elegant sherry party sponsored by the English Speaking Union. I believe the venue was the upscale Randolph hotel or perhaps somewhere else in the block opposite the Ashmolean Museum. Bear in mind that the English Speaking Union is an organization that celebrates the glories of international communication made possible by our shared world language. The schedule was tight. If I moved at a brisk pace from our boathouse to college—a fair distance—I would have about fifteen minutes to shower, shave, put on my brand new Harris Tweed jacket, and hustle over to the ESU sherry party. The hot water was already exhausted, but I faced it like a man. I took a chilly shower, and shaved quickly—too quickly--in cold water. Then off I went. The sherry-swigging had already begun when I got there, but I was not the last to arrive, and I joined right in.
The ESU has both male and female members, though on this occasion there were several hostesses and no visible hosts. I moved about among the English Speaking ladies, speaking English the whole while, and pretty competently too, if I do say so myself. Some of them seemed to be regarding me in a somewhat alarmed fashion, but years of experience had inured me to that sort of thing. I have never shared Byron’s experience of having women faint from excitement when I walk into a room. About twenty minutes into the circular chatter, when I had engaged a least a dozen English Speakers, I felt a slight tickle or itch roughly below my left ear. Adroitly passing my sherry glass to my left hand, I reached around with my right hand to give a surreptitious scratch to the itch.
I detected something wet and sticky, and when my hand reappeared in sight it was pretty well covered in blood. Hasty shaving, especially hasty shaving in cold water, is not to be recommended. All unknowing I had given myself a fairly good nick below the left ear. The flow, which had been surprisingly copious, had found its course, invisible to me but certainly not to anybody with whom I was conversing, down the back of my neck, over the shirt collar and onto the upper shoulder of my new Harris Tweed. The adjective “blood-soaked” is almost always hyperbolic, but a patch of the jacket was actually soggy. For all I know I was in need of a blood transfusion. However, not a single one of the good ladies of the ESU had thought it proper to mention to me that I was hemorrhaging: an instance of “death before dishonor,” perhaps? Hence my gratitude to Ian Jackson. Just like it says in the subway cars: if you see something, say something!
*Book 2, chapter 8.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
McGuffey's Eclectic Reader: Back to the future
Social scientists warn us to beware of “anecdotal evidence.” They prefer “data”—that is, a more or less sizable accumulation of anecdotes laid out in graphs and statistical charts. Despite my often serious discontents with various contemporary cultural trends, fundamental pessimism seems almost willfully perverse if you are surrounded on a daily basis with phalanxes of smart, energetic, capable, purposeful and optimistic young people.
Any college campus is bound to be a “bubble”. The campus of a “highly selective” institution, such as the one on which I spent my active career, can often seem an exotic preserve for Golden Youth and a laboratory of social opportunity. Of course an important part of that opportunity is the insistent invitation to look beyond the bubble and think about what you see there.
If you accept that invitation the relationship between fiscal and cultural capital becomes obvious, even if the question of cause and effect may be murky. Speaking in the most general terms, financially successful Americans are more likely than unsuccessful ones to know the distinction between its and it’s, there and their, and imply and infer. (I have about given up on the distinction between the verbs lie and lay.) Competence in one’s native language isn’t a finite resource that Smith will have less of if Jones has more. It requires no “redistributionist” mentality to imagine a literate citizenry. Why, then, are we incapable of imagining a school system that might create one?
For a time the proposed new national public educational standards gathered beneath the shorthand phrase of the “Common Core” seemed to be gaining the “momentum” so prized in various aspects of our national life. This momentum fell far short of a shared enthusiasm, but still appeared somewhat more powerful than mere grudging support. Words are generally more prolific than deeds, however, and as the moment for implementation arrives the pseudo-consensus is fraying
I think this is a pity, but probably inevitable. It is a pity because the new “Core” aims at sensible goals that if achieved even partially would enrich the lives of millions of our young people and measurably strengthen the national cultural fabric and our national economic prospects. It is probably inevitable because we long ago surrendered our public education system to the untender mercies of the realm of the partisan political arena and to the dead hand of an intellectually moribund trade union mentality. We have created the circumstances least favorable to broadly supported educational reform and most favorable for its plausible rejection on overtly political grounds. In particular self-styled conservatives are framing it in such a way as to guarantee its unhelpful presence as an issue in the Republican Party presidential primary of 2016—which of course has already begun in late 2014.
There is no partisan political content in the Common Core reforms. This needs to be said because so many of its critics seem to think there is. The Common Core is supposed to improve, in concrete and objective terms, American students’ mastery of the skills of reading and of mathematics. Educational reform must therefore address two demonstrable problems with American public education. The first of course is that judged in the world context, which is the proper context for any sensible evaluation, American schools are on the whole pretty mediocre. There are places, lots of them, where things are worse. But there are also quite a few places where things are better. A second problem is that most American students think they—meaning both their individual selves and their own schools--are just fine. That is, actual objective surveys of the mathematical attainments of American high school juniors, say, place them well below the level of achievement of their contemporaries in numerous other countries. But if you ask an American high school student where American students rank in international surveys you are very likely to get the confident answer “Number one!”
It is probably not reasonable to hope that America, with its large pockets of social pathology unknown to many smaller and more culturally unified countries, is in fact going to be “number one”. But on this issue default American optimism is an instance of “the man who knows not, and knows not he knows not”. The proper response to the man who knows not, and knows not he knows not, as I recall, is—pity him. The first two steps toward doing better are acknowledging that we must and realizing that we can.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Conventional Christmas tree
On Sunday we went out to get the tree. It was our first priority following the girls’ arrival from New York. They arrived, as they have on several earlier occasions, in a large, beautiful shiny black SUV driven by Mr. Singh, the proprietor of a Manhattan car service. This is no big deal for my granddaughters, in fact no deal at all, and I have learned to take it in stride myself. But the shiny metallic blackness still triggers in my mind a phrase from my high school history text book: “the rise of the Middle Class,” a phrase vaguely suggestive of hot air balloons or perhaps bread dough, though harder to visualize in concrete terms. As some wit pointed out, the Middle Class has been rising for so long in history texts that it should now be visible only with the help of powerful optical instruments.
To set out to buy a Christmas tree four days before Christmas might seem to be cutting things a little fine even for those who live by the procrastinator’s creed: Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow. But on this question everything depends upon whether you view Christmas from the perspective of the red or from that of the black. I allude of course to the chromatic shorthand of the title of a famous novel by Stendahl in which those colors suggest the tensions between secular and ecclesiastical values still very much alive in post-Revolutionary France and not quite finally settled even today.
Not quite, but almost. According to the American commercial calendar, which is redder than the star on Trotsky’s cap, the Christmas season begins no later than the Friday following Thanksgiving, which is somewhat confusingly called “black Friday.” Black Friday, which this year fell on November 28, is the official beginning of the shopping orgy. On the basis of black Friday sales grim number-crunchers are able to predict, before a week is out, whether or not American commerce will exit the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace in the red or in the black.
According to the old really black calendar, however, Christmas began on, well, Christmas, December 25, and extended through the twelve-day period until the Feast of the Epiphany, which is its thematic and theological complement. Vestiges of the medieval importance of Epiphany as the culmination of Christmas are still prominent in various parts of the world, including multicultural America, in celebrations of the “Day of the Kings”—i.e., the kings of Orrey and Tarr.
If you think that Christmas ends rather than begins on December 25 you are going to miss out on everything except the partridge in a pear tree. All the really good stuff—golden rings, geese alaying, lords aleaping, etc., comes later. But historical sensibility, supplemented by a raised liturgical consciousness and about three dollars and a quarter, might get you a small latte at a central Jersey Starbucks. My tardiness in the tree search, though ideologically justified, was practically motivated. After all the essence of the tree search is the active participation of the grandchildren.
The girls arrived only about three o’clock, and they needed at least a brief period of decompression and refreshment before being packed into another vehicle to be carted back to the arterial highways of central New Jersey. Sunday was, as it happens, the day of the winter solstice, alias “the shortest day of the year”. That meant that the shades of night were threatening to fall even as we got on our way. To give the girls due credit, however accustomed they have become to black late-model SUVs, their spirits rise noticeably when they are riding around in a faded red Ford pickup somewhat older than their own combined years. Most of the actual Christmas tree lots and “cut your own” farms having packed up by then, we made a beeline to the belly of the nearest big box beast—in this instance the Lowe’s on Route One in West Windsor.
Co-conspirators with the Delivery System
It was not a good omen that the sliding mesh doors of its horticultural division were closed, though our hearts leapt up when we got within reading distance of the affixed sign, which promised that ingress was possible via the main entrance to the huge store. We hurried through aisles bustling with prospective buyers of snow blowers and toilet floats to the Garden Shop. It was not quite empty. There was a young couple—of Rumanian Orthodox confession I conjectured on the basis of my awesome deductive skills—and a middle aged woman with a small, electric-powered chainsaw. She was cutting three untidy inches off the withered trunk of the tree the Rumanians had just purchased.
That left six trees for us, now the sole customers in that barn-like place, to choose from. All of them were special trees in the recently acquired sense of that adjective as exemplified, for example, in the phrase Special Olympics. And we bagged the most special one of all. The bagging was literal. The Chainsaw Lady had a cunning apparatus that wrapped the tree in a giant hairnet of strong but nearly invisible webs, thus accommodating suburbanites with shiny black SUVs who, unlike us, have to strap their booty to their shiny black roofs. Among the other advantages of buying special trees four days before Christmas is an apparent discount of about ninety-five percent. In practical terms that means that you get change for a ten dollar bill. Our gorgeous tree is now in place awaiting the first day of Christmas and young and vigorous enough to flourish for the following eleven without needling us.
Special Christmas tree
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Plato 1, Aristotle nil
Principles of literary criticism are seldom visibly applicable to widely discussed current events, but the current discussion of “rape culture” at the University of Virginia obligates me to make one of my rare descents into the politico-cultural maelstrom.
Most people know that Plato banished poets from his ideal republic. They made things up. Putting it another way, they were liars. Ulysses didn’t really do all that stuff. There is in fact in the Western cultural tradition a continuing strain, persistent if minor, of this kind of thinking. But the doctrine seems grim, extreme, or simply wrong-headed to people who like stories. Plato’s ace student Aristotle came up with an alternate theory that most English professors prefer as it keeps bread on their tables. We must distinguish between literal or historical truth and moral truth. Fiction can actually be truer than what we laughingly call reality. Fiction should and can have pleasing artistic shape, harmony and economy of organization, and clarity of moral tendency—features often sadly lacking in real life. Though King Lear never existed, an audience can grasp more eternal verities in watching three hours of Shakespeare than Lear himself was able to absorb in a long lifetime.
Many of us carry around with us in our heads certain legendary or literary couples: Dick and Jane, Hansel and Gretel, Frankie and Johnny. Jack and Jill grow up to be Darby and Joan, perhaps. Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw grow up to be—well, they don’t exactly grow up. As most readers of this blog surely know already, the new couple in town are Jackie and Drew, two undergraduates at the University of Virginia. Drew arranged the mise en scène for seven guys to gang rape his date Jackie at his fraternity house. That at least is the ballad of Jackie and Drew according to Jackie, according to Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a professional writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Erdely’s article “A Rape on Campus” gained wide attention and triggered an outpouring of opinion about a supposed “rape culture” on college campuses. It had an immediate chilling effect on Greek life in Charlottesville but a warming effect among MSNBC pundits.
The article caused such a ruckus, indeed, that a reporter on the higher education beat at the Washington Post, undertaking the story behind the story, so to speak, started doing some fact-checking. Everybody already knew, and accepted, that Jackie and Drew were made up names. But the first gestures of prudential research, with which neither Ms. Erdely nor her editors had bothered, soon suggested that a great deal else had been made up, including quite possibly the very existence of Drew and the alleged fact of a gang rape. As reported by Ms. Erdely, Jackie’s tale is fantastic. One claim is that some male friends and presumed comforters of Jackie encouraged her not to make a fuss about having been brutally gang-raped by seven violent criminals atop shards of broken glass lest it compromise their own hopes of rushing a fraternity. Though Drew hasn’t shown up, the friends have, and they have been unable to recognize themselves in the published account.
Pitchforks and torches at the Phi Kappa Psi house
A single instance of rape is one too many, but is there an epidemic of campus rape? Is there a “rape culture” in many of our colleges and universities? Is campus sexual assault as common as Joe Biden, among many others, claims? I have to say I doubt it. To be sure, my doubt is based not in statistical study but in mere personal experience. I was for more than a decade the faculty master of an undergraduate residential college within Princeton University. My principal job was to foster a wholesome symbiosis of students’ residential and classroom experiences. I saw or became aware of a lot of undergraduate life up close. On the whole I enjoyed those years immensely, but there were some seriously unpleasant episodes—including a probable rape.
Looking back at those years I come to some conclusions. The first is that such episodes of sexual unpleasantness as appear on our college campuses—and they are many--differ in style rather than in substance from those in many parts of contemporary American society, which has indeed witnessed, during the comparatively brief span of my own lifetime, what is accurately called a “sexual revolution”, the contradictions of which are still far from resolved. The second is that campus sexual incivility and violence are so frequently associated with alcohol abuse that in proposing “solutions” it is almost pedantic to separate the two. My third conclusion is that charges of rape, as a serious felony long established by our criminal codes, ought to be treated with genuine as opposed to rhetorical seriousness. That is, they should be investigated and prosecuted by the relevant police authorities and other professionals in the criminal justice system. College discipline committees are no more competent to deal with rape than they are to adjudicate other violent criminal behavior such as armed robbery, kidnapping, or murder.
The ballad of Jackie and Drew really need not be the stuff of ideological duels between television pundits. Conservatives and Liberals do have some common ground, and I would have thought that one shared plank might be opposition to felony rape—on campus or off. Furthermore I grant that fiction may well influence national social life for the better. Uncle Tom’s Cabin unquestionably played a role in ending chattel slavery. Perhaps a required reading of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons might have an analogous effect in reforming the sexual mores of select southern campuses. Then again, probably not. But though fiction may be exemplary, it squanders that possibility when it seriously claims to be fact. It then becomes a mere fib or a hoax. The strange ballad of Jackie and Drew was presented as exemplary fact by Ms. Erdely and published as fact by the editors of Rolling Stone. It is these people, not their critics, who are trivializing rape. For various reasons it is a less serious hoax than the infamous Duke Lacrosse fiasco of a few years ago, though it shares the central feature of an obscurely motivated false accusation easily credited by people who don’t like rich kids, jocks, frat boys, or some other group on the list of authorized stereotypes. The relationships between young men and young women on our university campuses are unlikely always to be Platonic. But discussion of them need not be so enthusiastically Aristotelian either.