Don't Cry for Me, Academia
In a recent recurring dream, I return to college or to graduate school—by choice apparently, but actually feeling there is nothing else for me to do in the world but return to studying—where I find myself surrounded by stylish, pre-professional women. The details are true to the past, as I did attend a women’s college, and I did find, on arrival at Princeton for graduate school, that the women I was among were smarter in wardrobe and more professional in bearing than I had expected them to be. Some, in this department where I’d gone to be a feminist literary critic, even sported diamond engagement rings. Most were very determined, and some were offered good tenure-track jobs when they were still ABD, or soon after finishing.
I woke up from one such dream the other morning to ponder the question of whether there was something I could or should have done at Princeton that would have set me on a smooth upward—or outward, since one can’t really go “up” from Princeton —trajectory, rather than the long bumpy path I have actually taken. A personality transplant, perhaps, that would have made me canny, tactful, and outwardly calm? Determined, like those other women? Even as I write it, I’m aware of the ambiguity of that word. The person “determined” feels active but the verb is passive. Perhaps all of us are actually determined by forces outside ourselves. The nineteenth century novel has a way of making that point, and a surprising relevancy to our own era. In a period of individualism, how much of the idea of self-determination is actually self-delusion? Perhaps I was determined the minute my parents gave me my odd, semi-palindromic name, which means “Gift of God” in Hebrew and which no one could ever pronounce.
I think these thoughts on sabbatical—my first sabbatical after attaining full professorship a few years ago—as I’m reading about Isabel Archer, the heroine of Henry James’s 1881 novel Portrait of a Lady. When I look up from the page of Michael Gorra’s book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, I have this thought:
“We rattle around in our world; or we’re too tightly closed in."
“Both are the case for me.”
Unlike most of those in James’ era—and this is part of what made him radical as a novelist—people in our day are preoccupied with individual fulfillment. I certainly am, though my case is made particularly acute because I’m an only child without children, or even nieces, nephews, or cousins within a 300-mile radius: I’m a radical individual, attached only to husband and aged parents. But it’s acute for all of us, in America, in the modern world, in the postmodern world where we have so much apparent choice about who to be, what to do with our lives. Or at least, we grew up assuming we had such choice, until the economy closed in on us and foreclosed our visions.
For the last sixteen years of my life, I’ve taught English literature to undergraduates in a small college in a small Illinois town. I am at once too placed—the college is panoptic and can feel oppressive— and quite irrelevant. The town has no need of me, I contribute nothing to its collapsed economy or its culture; I am, though born a Midwesterner, fundamentally an East Coast Jew. As a poet, I try hard to listen for the almost inaudible vibrations of the earth. When we first came to look for a house, our farmer-realtor took us for a ride in his tractor and explained its GPS and stereo speakers to us, as well as some of the properties of the soil. The loam is dark, it breeds corn and soybeans and little else, and though I’m in love with its fecund darkness in the spring months, I have failed to root myself in it. I cannot hear its language, or translate it to my own. I know that its rich moisture appeals to me, far more than the red clay of North Carolina where I was an invisible visiting assistant professor for four years and even less at home than I am here. But the aesthetic and sensual appeal of newly-planted, or recently-harvested, bare fields can’t carry me through a year of ferocious winters, humid yet parching summers, and allergies to the thousands of tons of cropdust in the autumn air and pollens in the spring.
Not to mention the demands of a cash-strapped, eccentric college where an English professor must also be a remedial-writing teacher, social worker, and—in the absence of sufficient secretarial support—clerical worker. Oh, the reams of copying I’ve done and the kleenex I’ve dispensed in my office, and oh, the perpetual sense, generated within as well as without, of never doing quite enough or doing it right, because I so wasn’t trained for this: the weak high school educations of my students, their inadequate discipline, their drug and mental problems, their tales of pain and family woe.
Living and working in such an environment also has a distressing way of making the human, existential condition starker, more present. I am cushioned from many ills, but not from the awareness that all I can do each day mends barely a pinpoint-sized hole in the fabric of the world. Tikkun olam—the repairing of the world—is supposed to be the ethical project of a Jew, but this world of my poverty-stricken town and college is constantly springing new leaks, and I am neither plumber nor carpenter, I am an ivory-tower eduated, irony-toned, rarefied scholar and writer. And then I think—for, in the absence of any sort of entertainment, I think too much, though not productively—about the great world that surrounds this one, and all its monstrous leaks: the suffering, the cruelty, the failure or tyranny of governments, the disease, the starvation, the exploitation, the tortures . . . .
I go to cities whenever possible, and there I remember that in addition to misery, there is creativity, energy and joy; there is philanthropy, culture, money used to good purposes. It seems to me I am fundamentally an urban creature. Again, not because I contemn the small and rural, but because I have so little to contribute there. The college I teach in is a mere pimple, or perhaps a decent-sized boil, on the body of the town it’s housed in; whatever I do doesn’t reverberate beyond its walls. And it’s a sad town in any case, a place where nothing ever happens, to quote David Byrne’s song “Heaven.” Trains roar through a hundred times a day, and sometimes a person gets hit and is killed or loses a body part. There is violence, drunk driving, a drug trade, and one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. But because the place is insular, and all its charitable institutions are Christian, I see no place or way to intervene; I simply become depressed and scramble to escape.
And so there arises an old question, going back to childhood when my parents took me to Germany and back and I changed schools a couple of times, mostly growing up in another small midwestern town where I was one of a mere handful of Jewish children, odder still for being an only child with a boy’s short hair and no tv in the house. Where do I belong? Where, I wonder now at fifty, can I be myself and make my most meaningful contribution? For I do want to contribute. The question of individual ambition, or at least of succcess, is past me: after eight years on a straitened academic job market, with an Ivy League Ph.D., I did finally nab a tenure-track job at my fine, stalwart, needy college; after a good deal of hazing such as only academics know how to administer, I got tenure, and even persuaded my colleagues to make me a full professor. This they did, much to my dismay, with audible groans: it seems my palpable frustration and unhappiness had communicated itself to them as arrogance, and, as people in small places do, they took it personally. At forty-nine, I toyed very seriously with the idea of changing professions altogether and becoming a psychoanalyst—better to say, I tortured the idea, turning it inside and out, upside and down, tweaking and twisting, subjecting it to bright light. The psychoanalyst it was necessary to discuss my plans with told me I should attend to myself before contemplating taking care of others. To attend to the self demands compassion: compassion for the self from the self, a thing I’ve found hard to come by. Just as I torture ideas, I have tended to torment myself. The scorpion stings of others are nothing compared to what I make of them. To understand that this is a kind of narcissism, and that a better form of self-focus involves treating myself as I would my best friend, has taken me half a century.
“Mid-life crisis” is a clichéd peg for what has the potential to be a moment of deep self-realization, the moment you become an adult and stop trying to conform to others’ agenda. The pain of the crisis is its protraction. Nothing superficial truly stops the gap, the sense of a chasm yawning before you if you don’t change your life. Some of us get fat, others become alcoholics, many accumulate possessions. Those are clichés concealing sorrow and loss. (“Greed is despair about pleasure,” says Adam Phillips.) Another temptation is to sit still, to say, “What power have I to change this? Better to count my blessings, and stay put.” And it’s true that our power to move, act, or change, is limited by social and economic circumstances; our choices are more apparent than real. Freud saw it: the civilization we require to live humanly also clips our wings. I’ve received some of the best of “civilization”: academia is entrapping, infuriating, hasn’t lived up to my idea of it, but the life has given me openings, freedoms, and possibilities others can only envy. Really, the problem comes down to place—or perhaps to place and time. The academia of my father, teaching avid East Coasters to conjugate German verbs and grapple with Kafka in the glory days when his was at the top of the list of best small colleges in the country, is not the academia of now. I’ll leave the explanation to pundits, who have written plenty about it. All I can say is, I’m not exactly sure how I got here, and I don’t really understand where I am—Bryn Mawr and Princeton never prepared me for this. And while I truly want to do as much as I can while I’m here, I don’t think there’s much more than what I’ve done already: conform as best I can to the culture and expectations of the institution, take the bad with the good, respond to students as vulnerable, struggling individuals who need all the tolerance and help I can possibly give them, and rejoice when meaningful communication occurs in the classroom—as, I must emphasize, it often does.
But. There must be something more.
I have written about all the problems outlined above in many other essays; so many that I’m embarrassed to be assaying the topic yet again. (No new subjects, only new approaches.) I have written about my town, my college, feeling out of place. I have written about the physical effects of all this, the hunching over books and papers, the apologetic posture an outsider assumes in order to be less conspicuous. These physical effects have come home to me again, and more forcefully, in my sabbatical year, a year I could hardly bear to wait for as the college delayed it and the stretch between meaningful breaks became eight rather than the biblical seven. I thought I would crack as I crawled toward this year, and turned fifty at the same time. I did crack, briefly, at the start of the year; and though my dear, older friend kissed me on the morning of my birthday and promised me the fifties were a good decade, I spent the rest of the day vomiting and shivering from a flu.
Now I am putting myself back together, in a small apartment in Chicago. I do not, in the slightest, miss my large house in the small town, though I know that it is the dream of many to have just that. All that’s missing here is my books, but I’ve already acquired a new mini-library; I’ve got the husband, dog, and cat. I don’t miss my backyard or front yard or driveway or patio. The city is my living room. I sample its many pleasures, though carefully, as I have less money now. I see how others live: next door to our apartment building of sixty units is a single-family house half its size with a cadre of Mexicans to take care of its little-used garden. On the street corner is a man with no calves who sits in the sun rattling a paper cup all day long. The extremes are merely more visible; the energy is also greater. I have signed up to volunteer at a homeless shelter, perhaps, my therapist suggests, because I know what it is to feel homeless.
I have also started Pilates classes. I am not the believing type, but have become a convert to the system of Joseph Pilates (himself a wanderer, if not a Jew). I, too, had started to sink into obesity, too much drink, a desire for possessions—all in moderation, but enough to trouble me. A lifelong aversion to the gym-class situation—drills, sweating, instructions, pain—and a passion for reading meant that I was losing flexibility, strength, and physical self-confidence. I’d see people squat or jump with the conviction that I would never be able to move springily again. But I have sprung back! am springing back. My legs are more elastic and my torso is stretching out. And my dream life has changed, too. For years, my dreams involved confinement—finding myself in a space too small for me. (I wrote about these in an essay called “What Is Home?”) When I dreamt of flying, I flew a foot off the ground, breaststroking through turgid air.
The other day in Pilates, my charming teacher said, “Today we get to fly!” We did horizontal jumping off a springboard, and I was in heaven (the one where things do happen). I leapt, I leapt, I leapt, and all while lying on my back! There was no danger, no fear of falling, no jarring of the feet or spine. Life should be like this! My career should have been like this—a leap upward: if only I’d had mentors who’d held me, a milieu that catered to my strengths, job interviews in which the questions weren’t impossible, the atmosphere stifling. (Oh, those hotel room job interviews: “How is your work changing the face of feminist theory?” “How soon will your dissertation be publication-ready?” More on those further on.)
But I wonder increasingly, lately, if I ever had the right temperament to succeed in academia—to fly. What would flying have meant, anyway? Not a job mired on the flat prairie, but one in the ivory tower from which I’d have been booted within years for insufficient publication. Again it’s a question of choices: I’d gladly have taken something in the middle, a job in a city university like the city universities of yore, where immigrant children went to improve themselves. But I’m romanticizing there, too, imagining the buzzing Jews and Italians of my parents’ generation, full of book-love and art-aspiration, as articulate in class as at home around the dinner table, except that the classroom allowed flight into higher realms (flight as both escape and rising).
Humans don’t get to fly, mostly, but I wonder about stretching our wings, giving them a little flap, shaking off the dust and just reminding ourselves of our capacity. That is what Isabel Archer gets to do, for at least a little while, before she finds herself confined in a birdcage of a marriage. The horror of that wonderful novel is watching the magnificent young woman, bow in hand with the whole wide world in her sights, receive Gilbert Osmond’s arrow smack in her slender flank. He barely raises his finger, and she’s his! Isabel Archer could be my daughter—I’m old enough. Instead, I have substitute daughters, smart, eccentric, characterful young women, a little lost and sometimes quite damaged, whom I try, to the best of my ability, to help aim. I stand beside them, my eye sighting along their arrows, my hand lightly on theirs, whispering encouragement—these young women who need more latitude than their lives have given them, and perhaps, paradoxically, less protection than they receive in the collegial cocoon—I do my best, but it’s little enough. And I sometimes think that, like some of my lonelier colleagues, I am trying to take care of my students in lieu of nurturing myself.
For at fifty, who doesn’t still need nurturance? Fifty is another eighteen or twenty-two; it’s the moment of looking at the next decades and wondering what your quarry should be, which path you should take through (or into?) the woods. It’s the moment when you could too easily give up, especially if you’re a woman and feel yourself to be “on the shelf,” no longer looked at, no longer sexually cogent; in the old days, there was simply nothing more for you but grandmotherhood once you were fifty. A passage in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda illustrates poignantly (with the point of an arrow!) what it meant to be on the threshold of adult life as a woman and what it meant to have passed over that threshold into a dark place. Young, lovely, conceited Gwendolyn Harleth has been aiming and striking her target consistently at an archery contest; she is the clear winner, but before the day is over, she has a secret errand: she is to slip into the woods and meet a person who has promised to reveal something about the man who has been courting her. The revelation is that this person, Mrs Glasher, is Grandcourt’s discarded mistress, that she has had four children by him, and that she is financially indigent because the illegitimacy of her claim, combined with his own selfishness, means that Grandcourt won’t acknowledge his duty to her.
Isabel Archer, whose surname surely owes something to the ironies of Gwendolyn’s story, receives no such warning and cannot be blamed for her own unfortunate marriage as Gwendolyn, at least partly, can. Here is the meeting of Gwendolyn Harleth, who goes from striking targets to being a kind of married harlot, in it for the money and betraying the promise she makes in this scene, and the older woman:
She found herself in front of some one whose large dark eyes met hers at a foot’s distance.
. . . [S]he was startled and shrank back, but in doing so she could take in the whole figure of this stranger and perceive that she was unmistakably a lady, and one who must once have been exceedingly handsome.
After Mrs. Glasher reveals her secret, Gwendolyn “watching Mrs. Glasher’s face while she spoke, felt a kind of terror: it was as if some ghastly vision had come to her in a dream and said, ‘I am a woman’s life.’”
Ouch. Ouch again. How grateful I am, a thousand times over, that this is not a middle class woman’s life in our era! And yet: the feeling of being washed up, of being a vessel that has clashed, somehow, with other vessels, a broken glass, a clasher, gashed—as little reason as I have to, nonetheless I empathize with Mrs. Glasher. I had great expectations once. The man who was going to marry me and have and hold me was academia, but academia delayed and delayed, and I went from the ivory tower to the equivalent of Mrs. Glasher’s shabby little house in the woods. And there I’ve stayed, doing my best, and, as you’ve gleaned by now, dear reader, feeling mightily sorry for myself. Ad nauseum, really.
But I’m not the only one suffering from disillusion, I know that. Over scotch the other day, my friend who teaches at another institution—in a city!—and has been in various ways more successful professionally than I, confessed to a similar sense of bewilderment and obsoleteness. What we’re doing now, where we find ourselves, is not what we grew up expecting academia to be. What did we expect? Good question. Something more exalted, I suppose; an atmosphere of excitement and respect for the intellect, a buzzing, humming, somehow purer place, not bogged down in remedial exercises, “assessment,” and petty, endless curricular discussions leading to infinitesimal change and questionable improvement.
The mistake was surely to have had great expectations in the first place. Every time I reread Dickens’ story of poor, deluded, misled Pip, whose palindromic nickname signifies that his forward progress will always lead him inexorably backward—the arrow as boomerang— I shake my head at Dickens’ insight into the capitalist, modern version of the delusion that the course of our lives should make sense. Not just make sense, in fact, but lead to reward. As if our own lives were stories with a moral.
My favorite edition of Great Expectations, which I read with students, has a cover illustration of huge, rusty chain links. They suggest the capture and continual recapture of the convict Magwitch, but also the entrapment of Pip in a repetitive narrative: these fetter O’s lead, diabolically, nowhere but back to themselves. They make me think of Spartacus, the figure and the film, which I watched one night in a hotel room in San Francisco, having paid many hundreds of dollars to fly to an MLA convention for one interview which I flubbed. I was waiting to hear from the university in question that night, for they’d promised to decide on their short list by late evening; the hours dragged by, Spartacus was more and more put upon, and I was awake, alone, calling my husband in England to weep.
What happens in Great Expectations is that Pip thinks he’s going somewhere but he continually ends up back where he came from and we, the readers, “are back in the horizontal perspective and muddy tidal flats that are so much a part of our perception of the childhood Pip” (Peter Brooks). I thought I’d left the small-town Midwest, the experience of bleak and lonely outsiderdom that characterized a good part of my childhood in the cornfields, only to return to an even severer iteration of that place and time. My challenge now is the challenge that, in Peter Brooks’ unforgettable analysis, Pip faces, the challenge he must meet in order to grow personally. Pip must be “cure[d] from plot.” And what is plot but expectations: our own of ourselves, others’ of us?
As I write, my sabbatical has dwindled to two weeks—less, if you count the syllabizing and other preparations I must make to return to work. I have made great leaps in this three-quarter year, and not just Pilates-jumpboard leaps, but it is now I have to make them tell, I have to make them mean, I have to incorporate them into something other than the same old plot of endless return. If I’m going back, can I also be going forward? Can I free myself altogether from such spatio-temporal images, or transform them somehow? It’s literature, as always, that helps me understand how to do this: pictures, too, and music, but literature above all, and above all my passion, modernist literature. Paterian to the core, I want to burn with a hard gemlike flame; I want to live by the epiphany, not the plot, by that which reveals itself from behind the fog of everyday being—what Woolf called the moments of being behind the “cotton wool of everyday life.”
The problem has always been that cities, and rarified cultural and intellectual milieux, yield far more such Paterian “pulsations” than the place where I live and teach. The problem is that I am a sybarite, a perpetual seeker after pleasures. The problem is that I want a fast pace and near-constant stimulus. The problem is that I may be able to jump more and better than I used to, but I can’t jump over my own shadow. Nor do I have it in me to make a Joycean leap to Trieste. Something closer to what Woolf did—found her own press with her husband, so that she could write and publish freely—and dreamed of doing—founding a “Society of Outsiders”—is what might be possible, though not without funds or connections. The world is not going to help me here. I’m about to be fifty-one, and I’m not winning any McArthurs or Guggenheims.
Funny that I went back to the nineteenth century on my sabbatical, when it’s the modernists who are my people. I must have been looking for something, going into plot to be cured of it as Peter Brooks would say, trying to find analogues for myself and my errors, or at least my determination. Yes, I was determined from the outset by my parents and namers—my two authors—who made me unable to ever “fit in.” And I wanted to be different, never imagined conforming to social or institutional expectations—so what gave me the delusion I’d be successful in academia? Perhaps the fact that I was successful in the Ivy League—successful enough, anyway, magna if not summa, with an A- on my general exams in the second year of grad school. Was that what determined the rest, that egregious A-? Or was it that I was too nervous and self-conscious and just possibly, arrogant, to attend mock interviews and learn how to conduct myself when asked in a small hotel room full of eight professors how I’d be changing the course of literary theory?
I said I’d get back to that hotel room. It was at the top of one tower of a two-towered hotel in San Francisco—unfortunately, not the tower I went to when given the room number. By then I’d waited a while so as not to be early—to be right on time; right on time for my interview, I found myself in the wrong tower; the whole thing was a bad dream. Sweating in the grownup duds and uncomfortable shoes with which I’d climbed the streets from my hotel to the conference, I arrived in the correct tower a couple of minutes late. In the course of the allotted thirty-five minutes I never got over being late, or sweating, or having walked into a veritable senate of professors, or being asked questions about my future scholarly career I felt I could not possibly answer. Nonetheless, the handshakes goodbye were kindly and I was assured that the finalists would hear of their good fortune that very night.
And so I got take-out Chinese and started waiting by the phone in my room around seven. I turned on the television and there was Kirk Douglas with matted hair and beard, shackled to a cliff to die under the sun. I turned down the sound. Kirk was whipped around, taken somewhere else, and eventually commanded to fight a tall, princely Ethiopian; the noble black man rebelled and was killed in dastardly fashion by Laurence Olivier, but by that time the screen was a blur. Eleven o’clock came and went and I watched the clock. By then I knew there’d be no call, but I lay awake till two and then called my husband. The next day I took a plane back to the East Coast.
I think it was that error of the two towers, still haunting me, that has given rise to my other recent recurring dream: the dream of the horizontal elevators and the sprawling hotel. In this dream I can never find my way to the floor I need; I end up on elevators that are swinging wildly like Tarzan from one block of the hotel to another. They zigzag, they slant, they swoop diagonally, and they usually take me only a storey or two up toward my destination. Then I board another, and the misadventure continues, like an endless car chase in a second-rate thriller. Everyone around me, men and women, is wearing suits; they have telos; they know what they’re doing. I give up, return to street level, and go in search of Chinatown for some food. I seem to be in Toronto, which happens to have been the city where I finally had the interview that led to my job in the cornfields, but I can’t find any landmarks, I’m alone, and it’s dark and cold outside.
Poor Spartacus! Twenty-three years after that hotel night, in the last days of my sabbatical as full professor, I’m re-watching the movie at last. Am I curing myself from my own plot by riding out the Thracian slave’s? Turning self-pity into attention to true suffering? Ridding myself at last from enslavement to a narrative in which success means rising ever higher, or at least, escaping (to Rome, or Moscow, or Chicago, or London) from my imprisonment in the provinces? Accepting that we are all in shackles one way or another and the best I can do is not chafe against mine? Preparing on return to my prairie campus to stop hunching tiredly and apologetically and thrust my chin dimple forward in full Kirk Douglas-style self-conviction?
For it’s not the shackles that trouble me now; it’s—to switch intertexts yet again—les autres. If routine, repetition, and the dullness of the small town feel entrapping, I have my new city life and lair for weekends. (Why didn’t I think of this earlier, you ask? I was infected by plot, the conviction I’d be moving on before long, unable to lose the fantasy that some academic version of the famous director would come along, spot me and say, “That one’s our star.”) What I worry about now is those who corrected, chastised, resented, and tired me over the years. Have they let go? People who are stuck in the same place for decades tend to like tormenting one another. They especially like tormenting the one who flaunts her right and ability to take off for periods of time, as I have, taking unpaid leave to be with my husband and concentrate on my work, refusing some of the more stultifying or futile duties others shoulder with good grace or, at least, minimal grumbling, making both her bewilderment and her feelings of superiority all too evident. Wearing them, indeed, on her sleeve.
So, was hubris my problem? Was it Pip’s, and Gwendolyn’s, and maybe even high-minded (too highminded) Isabel’s? I wanted both to be special and to succeed; I thought you did succeed if you were out of the ordinary; I had the only child’s sense of my own importance. I never learned, from having a sibling, that life is in fact unfair. Mockings and the occasional beating by other children merely meant I was a martyr to my own extraordinariness; admission to and success in the ivory tower proved this. Then things went downhill, or at any rate, sideways, zigzagging, stalling, and winding me up on a flat plain very far from any Chinatown.
What I truly was, I think, was naïve. And instead of chastising myself, I’ve decided to pride myself on my naiveté. I retain its vestiges in the form of a sometimes childlike demeanor, a young manner, a ludic sensibility—and a deep earnestness about my field, a Kafkan belief in literature’s capacity to break the frozen seas of habitual thinking. Perhaps we can even call this naiveté “integrity.” Asked by a colleague why, if I want good enrollments, I teach “dismal subjects like Holocaust literature,” I was too flummoxed to reply, except to say that that particular subject does tend, for whatever reason, to attract quite a lot of students. L’esprit de l’escalier is especially active following department meetings. I should have said that though I don’t believe much in any of us grownups any more, I still believe, possibly against all evidence, that the young ones might learn from history’s horrors and literature’s beauties and better themselves and some small corner of their worlds.
There is, as it happens, a tellingly named female character in Daniel Deronda who succeeds in attaining exactly what she desires. Catherine Arrowpoint aims obliquely at the very suitor her parents disapprove of, the European artiste Herr Klesmer; she gets him and, in the end, her parents’ grudging blessing. Perhaps my own aims were too conventional; perhaps I never understood what it would take to be an insider, or that my personality precluded insiderdom from the beginning. Naïve is as naïve does. One last word from Adam Phillips: “[L]iving as if missing the point—having the courage of one’s naivety—could also be the point.”