“Expertise”: Ideology’s Contemporary Battering Ram

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As I recall now with an effort, my very first attempt at submitting a scholarly article involved an interpretation of a few words in Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid (line 749).  The hero is narrating his frantic return to the flaming ruins of Troy in search of his wife Creusa.  He uses the phrase, cingor fulgentibus armis, to describe… what, exactly?  A scholarly tradition has evolved which holds that the poet simply whiffed on this one.  Aeneas, so runs the wisdom, has already “girded myself with bright arms” several verses earlier.  My objections to the collective wisdom were multiple.  I argued that a) it’s too late in the narration for Aeneas to arm himself—he has left the rendezvous of refugees well behind, as the verse’s first half declares in the present-tense words, “I return to the city”; b) the style of the full verse (ipse urbem repeto et cingor fulgentibus armis) would be perfectly Virgilian if the latter half were reiterating the former (i.e., “I myself return to the city and am hemmed about by glistening arms”); c) Aeneas is indeed being figuratively “girded” by arms as he creeps among the pillaging Greeks—the scoffers are missing the drama; and d) the verb cingere is used both of girding oneself, as when buckling a belt, and of encircling a city with defensive walls.  There’s a bit of a connotative strain created, perhaps, by having a human figure girded with the contents of a city.  But we’re talking about poetry, right?  About a poetic genius, in fact… right?

Wrong.  We’re talking about “scholarly consensus”.  It’s more acceptable to condemn Rome’s Shakespeare of not describing his scenes with pettifogging precision or of not purging his scribbles of daringly figurative language than it is to call into question the collaborative nods of a hundred academic jackdaws on a clothes-line.  If the poet (as I was informed by the rejection letter) had employed the verb cingere in this novel fashion, it would be the only instance of its being used with such intent in the entire epic (what classicists call a hapax legomenon—a “once read”).  Actually, that’s not true.  “Gird or surround” remains the verb’s meaning, here as elsewhere.  The collective result is called a figure—as in poetry!

But since something done once is a suspicious oddity to the pettifogger (even if a glorious discovery to the poet), any unique instance is likely a mistake.  Therefore… therefore, nothing unique is ever plausibly said or written, and consigning the “apparently unique” to the much larger body of things already said and written is the “sensible” course.  Naturally, that bit of high-handedness makes the body things already said and written grow yet larger, and… and tendency becomes inflexible rule.  Creativity becomes impossible.

That was my professional introduction to “expert opinion”.

Now, it also happened that I came of age in a time when all conventional wisdom was being trashed as irrelevant or hopelessly corrupted by special interest; and there’s no question in my mind that literary studies proceeded to collapse during the Seventies and Eighties under the toxic influence of various slovenly, self-serving “reader response” approaches.  My own loyalties, then, were torn between my almost religious regard for artistic inspiration (a truly religious regard: read my Literary Decline and the Death of the Soul) and a profound disgust with the politicization of art to serve trendy crusades.  I say “between”, yet what I’ve just written doesn’t support those polarities.  The Old Guard was not my ally at the spiritual end of the tug-of-war.  The ”scholarly consensus” had rigidified our literary heritage to “gird in shining armor” its patented theories and its long, long baggage train of publications; the New Guard had dumped that heritage (along with the baggage parasitically attached to it) in the nearest bin and was now celebrating Simone de Beauvoir and Rigoberta Menchu as the superiors of Sappho and Marie de France—just to keep it female.  Different politics… same politicized motivation.  Careers, egos, authority: the Tower of Babel.

And so it is, alas, in the sciences—or so it has become.  I and the very few of my colleagues who somehow smuggled an appreciation for the spiritual into closely guarded ivory corridors would occasionally look with longing across the quadrant at Chemistry or Engineering and dream about what it must be like to work in an objective discipline.  Pipe-dreams… mere pipe-dreams.  For as scientific research became funded more and more by grant money, the assumptions of that research acquired more and more of a parti pris.  Why would a pharmaceutical company underwrite a study of a new cure for insomnia if a dozen harmful side-effects were to be unearthed and published?  Oh, but surely government grants wouldn’t import such sordid pressures into the lab… surely not!  No one in government has an agenda that requires a particular worldview to be validated!

I’m trying to tread warily and tastefully into a subject that bears an incalculable amount of significance for our future as a society: the reliability of “expert opinion” in the medical field.  In all of the sciences, as life grows ever more riddled with high-tech, strict integrity becomes more important; for we laymen must be able to rely on recognized experts as critical facts drift farther and farther from the reach of our intellectual competency.  How do we know, drawing purely from our own resources, whether a huge solar flare will toast the continental power grid or not?  How do we know whether GMO’s are safe, or whether a light coating of Roundup threatens the health of Third World nations more than an unimpeded swarm of locusts?  How do we know whether Extremely Low-Frequency Waves are still being directed into the stratosphere, whether their activity might cause the Earth’s magnetosphere to reverse its polarities, or whether the effects of such reversal might settle down harmlessly in an instant or end all terrestrial life over a period of months?

In the particular case of medicine, the stakes rise (or appear to).  Somehow, solar flares and locust swarms and the magnetosphere seem awfully distant to us.  They’re not distant at all, and maybe, indeed, they’re seeming less so every day.  The susceptibility of many average Americans to outright panic about the weather should prove that the paranoia stirred in us by our own cluelessness sits very near the surface, ready to erupt (like the supervolcano under Yellowstone that may or may not kill us all) at the slightest provocation.  Still, when you can’t even breathe the air with confidence… when you dare not even leave the house without a mask, and when you’re reluctant even to leave the house… then a face perching on a white coat and stethoscope becomes the Voice of God.  That’s understandable.

But it’s also understandable—only too much so—that those who want minute control over our behavior would enlist (or dragoon) the support of the medical community in their authoritarian project.  And, as with all other academic disciplines, the more government has become involved in medicine, the better it’s been able to enlist (or dragoon) support.  Grant money, yes; also board reviews and licensures, federal mandates, control over the means of payment, awards of access to resources funded by the “inexhaustible” flow of tax revenue… policy-makers can finesse intimate decisions reached between doctor and patient in dozens of ways.  You may remember the controversy Obamacare kindled about a medical exam’s resulting, perhaps, in the confiscation of the patient’s personal firearms.

Such concerns have diminished only to the degree that we’ve now surrendered the principles underlying them.  Peter Helmes published a piece at his Die Deutschen Konservativen site a few weeks ago about an interview between Gert Scobel and psychologist Thomas Metzinger.  Primarily, the exchange concerned the future use of hallucinogens like LSD to treat depression.  The “medical man” expressed eagerness and optimism about the potential of mind-altering drugs to promote a “universal consciousness” highly amenable to the Green Movement’s radical political objectives.  The scenario is more Orwellian than Orwell: a populace fed delusion-inducing substances to sway it toward the vision of a world that doesn’t exist and can’t exist.

Okay, yes: that’s Europe, this is America.  But our supreme medical expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, publicly foresees the day—without the least indication of personal alarm—when citizens will be required to have a battery of injections and to produce on demand documented proof of compliance.  On the bankrolling side of this “expertise”, Bill Gates proposes further that the “document” might take the form of a microchip injected (with or without the citizen’s knowledge) during the mandatory inoculation.  That an astroturf initiative to “debunk” Gates’s connection to such authoritarian fantasies is raging on Twitter and Facebook should not soothe inquiring minds.  (Diana West informed Frank Gaffney on Secure Freedom Radio [4/15/20] that explicitly incriminating comments had been scrubbed from a Gates TED Talk.)

I don’t like Anthony Fauci.  I don’t like Bill Gates, either.  I don’t like either one of them at all, at all.  I wouldn’t break bread with them; and, were hand-shaking still permitted by the Faucian hygienic protocol, I wouldn’t shake his hand or his one-time patron’s.  Not either hand of either one of them.  I intensely dislike them, as American citizens and as human beings.

Their level of expertise has nothing to do with my dislike.  It is the traitorous American and the corrupt human in them that I loathe.  Anyone who would seriously consider, even for a moment, tagging you and me the way Marlon Perkins used to tag zebra from a Jeep has renounced his membership in the family of decent, responsible adults.  No one gets to tag me.  No one gets to stamp your profile on (or in) your forehead.  People who have notions like this are monsters.  I don’t care how well they understand viruses—and Mr. Gates, for that matter, understands them no better than I do.  I personally am not a virus in a vial, or a white rat in a cage.  I’m a man.  I am your equal under God, Dr. Fauci; and if you were my age (I’d even give you ten years), I think I might bust you in the chops—after which I would carefully sterilize my knuckles.

Let us please clarify the nature of expertise.  The expert on Virgil is restrained by a humble veneration for poetic genius and artistic mystery: he isn’t a mandarin on a throne who gets to gird up a classic text tightly within verbal statistical analysis and historical minutiae.  The expert on human health respects the spiritual mystery of the human being: he isn’t a master technician for whom the behavior of viruses in a sack of guts is no different from their behavior in a Petri Dish.  To hear such a supposed expert descanting about how future societies should be organized is equivalent to hearing the New Age scholar interpret the Aeneid as a mere work of militaristic propaganda.  That is, a “literary scholar” who can do no better than say, “The people’s Will was held in check by these creaky old epics that exhorted them to die for the patriarchy”… that person is no better than a “medical expert” who says, “We could avoid pandemics in the future if people would just move in designated zones, eat designated foods, and touch each other in designated ways at designated times.”  Damn.

Yes, the scholar who knows the history of the Augustan age inside-out is certainly superior in some manner to the quasi-literate Ph.D. who rates every art work ever created by how well women and minorities make out in it.  The researcher who has actually logged decades of experience before a microscope is also superior to a Bill Gates who fantasizes about vaccinating all humanity with whatever he deems good for the race.  But a genuine expert is neither of these.  A genuine expert would say, “This is odd with respect to available linguistic data… but it’s also poetry”; or, “This risk could be reduced if people would do less of thus-and-so… but life is complex, and the choice among possible behaviors isn’t mine to make except for me personally.”

One could say that playing God is above the expert’s pay grade; but when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy volunteered this flippant excuse for ignoring the Constitution, he was de facto putting himself in the position of God Almighty.  Part of being an expert is understanding the limitations of your expertise.  To claim authority over the destiny of humanity because you have a rare knowledge of human diseases is like labeling a hundred deaths a calamity without identifying the number of lives that survived the specific threat.  Knowledge without context is magnified ignorance.

What Has Math to Do With Poetry? Maybe a Lot!

Some day before I die, I hope to publish my notes about Virgil’s Aeneid. I’m pretty sure that I have uncovered the map to a “subterranean allegory” that runs against the grain of the epic’s superficial, dully propagandistic objectives (the pursuit of which was the basis of the poet’s being commissioned to write the work, in the first place). I am even more sure, however, that the academic establishment will never accept my ideas and that no university press would ever publish them. In academe, “scholars” in the humanities prop each other up endlessly, without much regard for the unconditioned truth (whose very existence most deny in any form). All I have going for me is that my interpretations actually explain dark tinges in the Aeneid that otherwise make no sense, or that must be ascribed to authorial incompetence. The “scholars” will allow Virgil to say nothing that one of his contemporaries would not have said or that one of his predecessors had not already said. They’ve built their entire method on history—and no outsider would be as steeped as they in the historical minutiae of ancient literature, so the game is essentially “members only”. In contrast, my method is to found interpretation upon intratextual coherence. If a symbol with a certain twist gives greater meaning to the entire narrative when traced from start to finish, then the high probability is that the author intended it to have that meaning. A monkey might type “The Old Man and the Sea” once in a blue moon; but a rational person will have to admit that a perspective repeatedly successful at resolving controversial points in a literary text is probably the author’s intended perspective for his or her deepest readers.

“Scholars”, however, are rational only in the space left over after the performance of their tribal duties. The important thing for literary scholars is to insulate their practice from profane intrusion and, indeed, to make that practice so arcane that only the elite can publish and advance their careers. Devotion to the literary art lies cut and bleeding in the ruins of professional egotism.

Here’s an example of a passage in the Aeneid that struck me just last night as readily clarified by the analysis of recurrent, coherent motifs. Aeneas receives a prophecy from the virtuous Arcadians in Book 8 that promises more fighting and bloodshed. All around him are dismayed at the prospect, and he himself is briefly bemused; but then a trumpet-like thunder sounds that all interpret as a propitious omen. In fact, Aeneas recognizes in the supernatural heavenly peal a confirmation from his ever-protective mother Venus: a very odd reading on his part, since the thunderbolt belongs to Zeus throughout Homer. Yet Virgil’s Jupiter is a far cry from the supreme god who manages mortal destinies. His Olympian father seems, rather, an abstracted bungler who amuses himself with grandiose schemes but never bothers about the details. When Venus protests to him at the epic’s opening that his vengeful spouse Juno has almost sunk the Trojan fleet (and would have done, but for the intercession of Neptune, himself roused only because his wet turf has been invaded), Jupiter responds with promises and more promises about a gilded future—about an “empire without end”. Venus knows just what to make of that: she immediately hastens to Carthage in order to weave her own impromptu safety net for Aeneas (which involves, unfortunately, the sacrifice of the unhappy Dido).

At the epic’s end, Jupiter goes so far as to give away most of the transplanted Trojans’ culture—their gods, their language, the preservation of their race from inter-marriage—by conceding one point after another to the ever implacable Juno. His initial forecasts and solemn promises to the wandering tribe lie in smithereens.

Hence the confirming thunderclap in Book 8 that reassures Aeneas, having issued from Venus’s rather than Jupiter’s hand, is correctly read by the hero as a guarantee that he will survive the impending war and overcome the aggressors; yet it is no more than a short-term assurance, not a road to heaven paved in Jovian fool’s gold. Jupiter, who should have been the author of the thundering (as the astute in Virgil’s audience would realize), doesn’t mingle his feckless guarantees in this scene. Instead, he is invoked by old Evander in the ensuing one. About to send his beloved only son away to fight alongside the prophetically celebrated stranger, the trembling king beseeches Jupiter either that young Pallas may return safely or that he himself may die before hearing of his boy’s loss. Neither of these humble requests is granted. Jupiter isn’t grudging or invidious: here, as throughout the Aeneid, he just isn’t taking calls. He’s busy playing in the blueprints with which he strews his Olympian tables.

There is a kind of mathematical precision involved in interpreting texts by indexing their motions to hidden clues within their own narration. Like an equation, the correctly interpreted story balances itself out using values that can be derived from the initially given quantities. Is it pure accident that our collective ability to handle literature with taste and subtlety has declined hand in hand with our mathematical skills? Whether the stuffy classicist with his suffocating layers of history or the cutting-edge neo-feminist with her suffocating layers of ideology, the contemporary “scholar” of literature imports criteria from outside the created text and proceeds, like the mythic Procrustes, to make the prisoner fit the bed by hacking away long limbs or racking and stretching short ones. The art work must be made to validate the ideology, the party line: the latter never gives ground to the former. This is like the arithmetic of the barbarian who, when asked to divide plunder equally among an awkward number of fellow pirates, throws overboard the one who buggers up his counting every time. It’s not the way to balance a checking account… and it’s also not the way to handle a literary classic ingeniously composed under oppressive political conditions.