Tales From the Ivory Gutter

My last post (about panic attacks) was exhausting to me in ways that most of you wouldn’t believe, and that I myself hadn’t anticipated.  For that reason, and because I’m also uploading a new book to Amazon today–and, thirdly, because I want to write more about Eckhart Tolle but should wade deeper into his tendentious tome before doing so–I’m begging off a post today; or, rather… how about I just paste in a couple of excerpts from the new book’s preface?  It’s a collection of twenty-five short stories penned for the defunct journal Praesidium under the name of Ivor Davies.  All the stories address some aspect of academic life, most are humorous, and a few are admittedly a bit snide: don’t say you weren’t warned!  The title is Ivory Gutter Shining Bright: Two Decades of Stories About America’s Phoniest Institution.

If you’re interested, give the book a day to appear on Amazon.

A person who had spent three decades working in higher education, as I have done—teaching at seven different institutions, from junior college to private four-year school to state university with graduate program, over a range of four states—should have a thousand interesting stories to tell about life in the classroom.  I am not that person, and these are not those stories.  It isn’t within me, apparently, to recount with pathos the struggles of the dwarf girl who once took a writing class from me or the horrors of the day when a live shooter was thought to be on a rampage.  Mine are not narratives “from the files” of a seasoned academic (after the fashion of Forensic Files or Unsealed: Alien Files).  Maybe such a book would be more to the general public’s taste.  Alas, my abstention from writing that tome doesn’t signify a judgment call: I just can’t do it.  I am not a chronicler.

What drove me to write about academe, rather, was the same motive that has always driven my creative endeavors.  I am not stirred by the objective facts of situations: I am stirred by the subjective forces operative within them.  What influences battle for the soul of a typical academic?  What’s happening on the inside of those who have dedicated their public lives to service in such a very peculiar workplace?  I wished to locate and study the spiritual dwarves and giants (if there were any) on the scene.  I wished to pry into the daydreams of the dutiful hack who fantasized about blowing the boss’s office to smithereens.  What molds hearts and minds into odd shapes whose projection upon “objective reality” may be indetectible at any given moment?

I won’t make any bones about it: in my opinion, far and away the most animating force in academe is egotism.  The Ivory Tower is eaten up with it, like an old log by termites.  My personal experience (and hence almost every case highlighted in these stories) revolves narrowly around Humanities programs; and in such departments as English, History, and Foreign Language, especially, the professor usually earns much less than he or she might do in a more market-driven field.  The burden of relative poverty is somewhat compensated by the perk of occupying a lofty pedestal—or at least of supposing oneself, thanks to a fading but not defunct social convention, to be admired by all and sundry for one’s vast learning.

The very corridors of the more august campuses often glimmer with columns and architraves like the mythical halls of Mount Olympus.  The very forms of address—“Doctor” and “Professor”—carry an acknowledgment of superior status.  The very garb in which the assembled faculty processes to center stage on public occasions seems to combine Erasmus and Merlin (with a dash of Zoroaster).

Self-importance is always at least implicitly humorous.  The gap between the inflated fool’s estimate of himself and the humbling realities that sensible people know must qualify all human intellectual endeavor is as great as that separating a king from a toad.  Virtually all of these stories, therefore, offer a dark kind of humor to the spectator.  Even the characters who are most aware of their position’s fraud are powerless to fight it—for sustaining the fraud, the pose of high wisdom and moral enlightenment, is part of the job.  The public expects it, demands it; you don’t show up for the graduation of Mr. and Mrs. Albemarle’s beloved Wimberly wearing a sports coat and a striped tie.  If you don’t like posing for photos in your oppressive medieval regalia, find another line.

The profession certainly has had its share of lovable eccentrics until very recent times (though I fear that few sincere free spirits remain today among the host of exhibitionist iconoclasts). Besides Professor Sauter of “Third Degree”, specimens appear in “The Hemlock Society”, “Pomeroy’s Reign in the Days of Vast Decline”, and “The Steamrolled Kaleidoscope”. I confess a soft spot for those dusty profs who were retiring just as I was attempting to get started, and who, despite their stuffy views and bombastic speech, loved Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton with a passion. For crying out loud—they weren’t programming new generations of patriarchal racists! They were teaching young people that life is too complex for fist-shaking and “f” bombs.

My grief over the passing of such generous souls into extinction—and over the conditions that have produced this carnivorous purge of common decency—is such that I can’t help but grope after allegorical (if not metaphysical) dimensions when I portray the Ivory Gutter. My outrage is genuine, and the progressive betrayal of cultural and, indeed, broadly human values by our intelligentsia is real… so I would argue that I am in fact describing what’s right in front of us, though not right before our physical eye. Hell, I grant you, is a bit beyond the boundaries of the most flexible realism (not as much, however, as a time machine that transports twenty-first century talking heads from the tutelage of an Athenian sophist [“The Dogs Have Their Day”]).  I wonder: just how fanciful is my bicycling Don Quixote in “El Día de Hoy”, or the Sasquatch-chasing amoralist Spode of “Homo Superior Rises From the Muck”?  I’ve seen some pretty strange primates in the biz. Such creations are grotesque, yes… but a world as dominated by egotism as is academe, I’m telling you, is a veritable nursery of the grotesque!

I believe I may accurately summarize thus: this is a humorous book because it is an angry book. Humble nobodies like me have proved unable to oppose a system deeply embedded in generations of “members only” practice (despite the Sixties canard about breaking down barriers) and in sleazy political institutions that fund dubious research to launder ideology. What, then, can we do? We can steam ourselves into apoplexy… or we can deride the moral squalor of the whole arrangement….

P.S.  The book is dedicated to my friends Helen Andretta, Thomas Bertonneau, and Micheal Lythgoe, who worked with me closely on the journal for years.  I ventured to write in the dedication, “Where none dares whisper the truth, its sound peals like a bell.”

One Last Plunge into the Ivory Sewer

For the umpteenth—but final—time, I begin September by asking myself why I ever became a teacher. I know the answer well enough. “We’ve been over this a thousand times,” I say to my pining soul. “You’ve always loved to read, write, and speculate, and you got academic awards in your youth for doing those things well. When you were in college, you kept retreating to areas where you’d found success. Then, when it came time at last to find a job, you were fit for nothing else but pedagogy and pettifoggery. A journalist? We tried that major: they sneer at good writing—takes up too much space. A lawyer? Never! Arguing for pay that the kettle is blacker than the pot hardly qualifies as seeking truth. A government position—living high and wide on taxpayer dollars for shuffling papers? And besides, by the time you came along, white males weren’t exactly receiving serious consideration for hire.”
And so I became a teacher. To be honest, I’ve always enjoyed my interactions with students (well, almost always, to be really honest)… but nobody ever told me how very secondary that was to the job. First and foremost, flatter and fawn upon your bosses. Do their bidding with a smile. Laugh at their jokes, fight for their ideas in committee, and clap vigorously from the first row when they deliver public speeches.

On a related matter, be the boss’s “pet”. Make yourself highly visible. Stay on campus from dawn till dusk, even though serious grading, lesson-planning, reading, and reflection can only be done at home. Don’t even attempt thoughtful work at the office: it will impede your being seen. Make frequent trips up and down the corridors of power as if you were on urgent missions—but always detain a passing dean or VP to remark how brilliant you think the new curriculum revision is.

Go to conferences in Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco, Boston… and maybe London or Madrid. Soak up coffee and doughnuts like a Hoover for junk food, and get yourself on the program with some five-page paper about Aphra Benn’s lost diaries that you cooked up from a note in a previous paper about Aphra Benn’s perhaps having kept a diary. There’s nothing you can say or hear at these gatherings that couldn’t have been (and isn’t being) disseminated over the Internet without the cost of airfare and hotel—but you need to be seen.

So how did I get myself into something so antithetical to my nature that the fanfare of the new school year quite literally makes me faintly nauseous? I know, I know… but that thousand-times-recycled answer is really no answer at all. The truth is a failure of character: I was too cowardly to fling myself into something for which I had no apparent aptitude or no previous training—architecture, agriculture, marketing—in order to escape from Hell. And so I have spent almost forty years—pretty much my entire adult life—drifting through Limbo, neither saved nor damned: a psychic zero.

No more. This is the last year. Whatever I have left of life will not be passed in this egotistical, futile maelstrom.