Backstory: written for my students after a spirited discussion about the nature of the modern university, where I realized I’d said something kind of weird and maybe indefensible; it made me start thinking about whether this temptation-ridden medium is still good for something.
Ok, so, discussions, conversations, that thing you do where you interact with other human beings in speech—is nearly always unsatisfying, I’ll opine. Is this shocking? I sort of hope so. To me, it’s a heady medium—that’s why I like teaching in that style so much, I do like heady things—but anything that has the potential to turn your head, to give you a rush—well, it can also end abysmally. To learn to expect the abysmal, in constant hope of the sublime—such is conversation.
After making it home, collecting children from various parts of the city, scraping dinner, overseeing bathtime, thinking about how to teach a work of Aristotle—I’m just beginning to teach his Ethics for the third time—to stand on the back of his extraordinary pedagogy and make his arguments at the tempo he made them, in the order he made them, is to see for a moment from the eyes of godlike human being. Love that man.
The slight reddening of the cheeks you recall, when you recall just how far out on a conversational limb you were when you made some particular claim. Today it was my hesitation at the happy image of academics all working together in friendship, which made me hesitate, and decide to opine that on the whole, friendship between members of different professions and even departments—you may as well be told that Aristotle, my friend, has thoughts on friendship—did not often result in friendly meetings. Or friendship. You know, in general.
I’m thinking over whether I want to take that back or not.
First of all, it’s immediately contradicted by my experience: there’s a particular couple I have in mind, early sixties, who I won’t name by name so as not to gossip—but I’ve been very gratified to be invited to their parties, where I’ve talked to biologists, Latin studies folks, musicians and musical people, and so forth. (The crowd wasn’t heavily STEM—there were no lawyers—I think I told a few philosophy pet peeves/jokes/bad jokes? that seemed to please the assembled company, which pleased me.)
Now, to me this couple seems to be something of an extraordinary case; they’re united by the common cause of classical music in New Orleans, which is something of niche group—but the fact is, I’ve met and conversed with a range of people from a range of professions there, and found some real satisfaction in the meeting of minds, and whatnot. In fact, there may have been a point during Mardi Gras where I was talking with this fellow instructor, an anthropologist, in a bar, and we swore together as blood brothers we’d get together and teach a class, for the honor and glory of philosophy and anthropology working together in the goddamn modern university.
Part of my interest in teaching is to see what a group of people with different temperaments, with different professions in mind, has to say: having different professions present makes all the difference for a potentially really interesting and not lame conversation.
But the trouble is we wanted to know about friendship, actual friendship, because that’s what we actually want, the real kind, that makes life worth living—and Aristotle, he says these things about friendship, and I’m obliged to pay heed; both from natural love and respect for the man do I pay heed, as well as a wish for this friendship thing itself, myself.
This came up in my other section of Colloquium, the beautiful ideal, the academics in their black gowns all having dinner together in harmony, the chemist, the physicist, maybe some poet, who knows, perhaps a philosophy guy is there. To use a popular or demotic example, think about that moment in the West Wing where Martin Sheen the President is having dinner with his wife’s doctor friends, and suddenly they are all going to cure cancer in ten years, and the president gets really excited about this, and all is golden at the dinner party, and Martin Sheen is going to have some presidential task force thing that will really make this happen. If this were real, I guess it would be awesome?
A more classical analogue is when Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own gets to visit the building where the dons, the men ones, are all having dinner together and shooting the shit in an elegant, refined, academic sort of way, and “the glasses blush white, and blush red” which indicates that much wine was drunk, and that the conversation was very much helped by this institution. (And the money it took to provide that.) (Also Herodotus notes the value of deliberating once while sober, then while drunk—but that’s a story for another day.)
Anyway, the idea is, we’ve got this image of academic life, where the people who are clever and thoughtful and witty, who study all sorts of neat different things, get together and party. This gives me pause. A lot of parties suck. Less often than conversations, but enough of them suck that I would contend we need to think more about what constitutes an excellent party.
The truth is, though, that this does occasionally happen. Virginia Woolf herself was part of such a group, the Bloomsbury group, where poets and musicians and writers and maybe some scientists all got together and really actually talked and partied, and really actually influenced each other, and the results were awesome: check out VW’s novels and essays, her husband’s books, their publishing company, VW’s lady lover Vita Sackville West’s work, the photos of all this, GE Moore, my favorite EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes—watch out for VW’s eventual suicide because that happened and it’s part of the story.
So that’s our gold standard, except for the suicide, and it is right it should be so. A Bloomsbury group looks to me something like the pinnacle of human intellectual happiness; maybe something like this was going on in those glory days, the days Socrates taught Plato, his brothers, and a lot of their friends, and Plato taught Aristotle in the garden of the Academy, where you would just show up to garden and converse with whomever you came across that you wanted to speak to, like a cocktail party without the liquor. That was your schedule for classes: come to the garden and talk.
But what I want to know about, what keeps me up at night, is that most of the time this doesn’t happen. Most of the time people fight. Most of the time we can keep a thin, public, veneer-like peace, and speak well together about our common aims; and this tenuous peace—god bless it—is what keeps the tenuous project of civil society alive to fight another day. Without this peace we’d be nowhere. But the trouble is, yes, people get together at parties and tell jokes or pet peeves about their discipline, but this is not real collaboration. The people you write grants with on collaborative projects aren’t necessarily your friends. You’re lucky if you can get through a group email without frustration. A trusted colleague, one whom you consider an ally in negotiation and deliberation, is a diamond, but hardly common even in the confines of one department. Real friendship is different, difficult, and rare. So sayeth Aristotle in the Ethics: most of us are lucky if we have one or two or three actual friends: how much the less are we likely to find not only friends but intellectual collaborators? People who are profoundly different from us in temperament and interests, but that we’re willing to trust in their own distinct virtue, such that it would change our own mind about our own dear thoughts? Not too likely: but such is the sublime that we continue to cast about for, even if it’s only in the back of our minds.
So are people in the modern university friends? Do they get together and do interdisciplinary projects together? You know they do. They do this all the time. In fact you can get a lot of money for this kind of thing; and I myself am hoping to be part of a grant where my friend writes some music, our poet friend writes the words, our landscape artist/architect builds a venue, our painter friend fills the walls with pictures, and I will sing as I do on occasion. But do we meet the gold standard, are we a Bloomsbury group? Absolutely not. Not yet, anyway. The interstices of our mutual loves are all too infinite; and self, dear self forever intrudes even with the best of intentions. But what would it take to change the ordinary give-and-take transaction of the world, the ordinary alliances of utility—what Aristotle calls friendships of utility and we call making connections, professional networking—into something like a friendship that spins pure artistic and intellectual gold?
Ok, it’s conversation! Talking! Shooting the shit! That thing that is constantly annoying, and usually pretty damn frustrating, and absolutely necessary to all human interaction not based on eros or authoritative force. A willingness, an openness, to meet human beings in profoundly casual, playful conversation; in utter leisure, divorced from the pressures of getting things done, of completing a task, of checking a box or unlocking an achievement, to sit back and—in a way, give up on the immediacy of your own damn thoughts. To follow an argument out, even a strange or repugnant one; to have patience for the tangents of others (everyone has patience for their own, that’s easy alas); to note with pleasure the idiosyncratic turn of phrase of some stranger; to notice when you’re merely telling some old hacksaw of a joke rather than a pressingly prescient one; the ideal, to have the very weather or your thoughts thawed or fevered by the insight of another; but to record the abysmal as abysmal without despair. To live to converse another day, at another bar, another party, another room with awkward desks.
I think I’m right to blush at the kind of wrong thing I said; but I wasn’t wrong to say it. In the rush of conversation we are led on to headily say more than we want—but maybe not less than we mean. The grace of conversation is threatened by our regrets, and inevitable fears, but conversation itself is enlivened by our willingness to risk the faux pas. Should we be brave enough to consider taking up the mantle again after all our missteps, all good things await us—even the possibility of bliss, and the sublimity of mutual recognition and mutual thought.