Many years ago when I first taught college English, I made a discovery in the first or second week of teaching, namely, that the main obstacle to instruction, to one’s ability to teach someone something they don’t already know, is the mood and spirit of relativity. Here is what happened: I was teaching a short story by Henry James called “The Lesson of the Master” whose main character is a well-known English novelist, ripe in age and reputation, a figure of awe to the young aspiring novelists of his later years. As the story moves along, however, James begins to send out to the reader many hints which would suggest that this man is in fact rather more subtle than wise, excessively vain, and that his reputation has really more to do with considerations other than the literary merits of his books — he is really, it turns out, a best-seller who has cleverly grown old and thus accrued the patina of venerability.
Now the point is that these hints which James sends the reader in his ironical manner comprise the atmosphere and delight and intelligence of the story — the playfulness of perception between reader and narrator. With this irony there is one kind of story which is really excellent, and without it, another kind of story, not so excellent, which is almost the opposite in meaning of what James intended.
God may consider our ideas and values relative in the fluxive tides of time, but that is one of His facts, not ours. To us, down here on earth, earning our dignity day by day, those ideas and values matter absolutely to the manner in which we choose to live or die.
Nor did it surprise me that my freshman students didn’t “get” it right away. I certainly hadn’t gotten it when I first started to read James a few years earlier. They were young kids pretty much untrained in the reading of complicated literature, and they were not used to irony except of the most obvious sort. What did surprise me, however, was the manner in which some of them chose to hide their ignorance. Essentially it boiled down to this attitude: “Just because you’re the teacher doesn’t mean you’re right.”
Well, in an American classroom where church and state are fairly well separated and the teacher cannot lay claim to divine appointment, it’s a good question. Moreover, I couldn’t pretend to that sagacity of demeanor which allows the best and worst of teachers to move a class across the length of a semester without so much as a small tempest. I was twenty-three, under-dressed, and sympathetic. I was also, in spite of all my limitations, absolutely right about this story and the way to read it. My view of the story was, simply, richer and more abundant in meaning than theirs, and I felt immensely frustrated in having to argue for it. Only a despot, however, can refuse to deal with the insight that he is right only because he says he is. I had to figure out what to do.
A number of choices were available to me. Posing as a psychologist I could have regarded my students as emotionally delicate and played (only played) with the notion that I might be wrong, that perhaps there really are two ways of reading the story. This would mean, however, that I had taken responsibility for my students in a way I hadn’t counted on. To save them from the discomfort of having to come face-to-face with what they didn’t know, I would be obliged to pretend that I didn’t really know what I knew, in this case, that James was using irony. The price of such a pose would be large, for in effect I would be abdicating my role as a teacher, a role which was actual and not a metaphorical one (I mean, they were supposed to learn this stuff about James in my class just like they were supposed to learn theorems in their geometry class) — a role I never took lightly. I believed then and I still do that a good teacher in college often represents the last chance an American child has to emerge unharmed from the inevitable collapse of that huge, hollow structure which has been his past education. How could I teach honestly, or at least be square with the books I was teaching, if I ran from such a tiny but precise intellectual problem the moment my students’ feelings began to skitter? And furthermore, what was my connection to my students’ “feelings”? Would it be really respectful of me, in the long run, to grant autonomy to a feeling that had sprung vaguely into being, based as it was on an experience with literature which I could only in kindness call uncritical? Wasn’t I old enough to remember with real embarrassment my own past feelings about things, such as my high-school theory that the movies of Ingmar Bergman were to be enjoyed only by “intellectual phonies,” or that sports were “dumb”?
I had also discovered along the way with respect to pedagogy that it was the teacher who stubbornly stood in my way, rather than yielding to the sincerity of “opinions,” who had ended up teaching me the most — particularly if that stubbornness represented some kind of conviction. Dealing with any person for whom an idea is not just a piece of intellectual baggage or an accumulation, but rather a breath of air continuous with the motion of their daily life, is a purely valuable experience, even if you disagree with that idea. The conviction annoys and angers you, but it ends up by teaching you something — for conviction is rare in the world of mass man. By forcing you to get around it, a strong conviction also gives you the chance of learning something about yourself, about your intellectual survival, which a lesson more in line with classroom objectivity might not have taught you.
For example, when I was seventeen a man I respected saw that I was carrying around a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. He looked very annoyed and in a bullish way said, “Why are you still reading that sentimental trash?” Now among all the many things he got wrong in that question, he also got a few things right. (I should add here that such a question didn’t scare me since I was raised in a home where controversy was allowed, and my brother and I were sometimes belligerent with each other.) Aside from the issue of whether or not Gibran wrote trash (which isn’t true), what was I doing still reading him? The question was fair for this reason: at that time, in the early nineteen-sixties, Gibran had become obligatory reading for all “sensitive” young men and women. Around the age of fifteen one hooked on to his poetry with a spasm of relief in much the same way that young men and women would be attaching themselves to the writings of Rod McKuen five years later. The simple way in which both men wrote, without any precise reference to the facts of modern experience, seemed like a life-preserver after one had floated about the troubled waters of high-school English, trying to puzzle out the fragments of “The Waste Land” and pretending to enjoy the heroic poetry of Milton. (It wasn’t until many years later that these “classics” were superseded by new and “relevant” literature — a dismaying attempt, on the part of curriculum committees, already too late in coming, to re-connect the high-school student to the written word — an attempt which furiously drove half the students back to television, and left the other half gasping for an imagined significance.) Gibran’s lines, after all, looked like poetry and they made pleasantly good sense. You didn’t really have to think to understand them. In a way, Gibran represented the first (of many) anti-intellectual moments in my life, that is, the impulse to respond to a thinner or more sentimental interpretation of reality, not because the thinness of insight corresponded to my own, but because the larger interpretation I was rejecting required hard work and real concentration. The fact that I was “still” reading Gibran meant to my interrogator only that I had not developed my taste to the point where it would, by itself and without the help of a crowd, push beyond the meager confines of what was trendy.
But at that moment, with the help of his contempt, it probably did. What I do know for certain is that sometime in the next few months I started to read poems which were actually poems — which, I guess, was my way, not of encountering modern experience (because I had been encountering it all my life), but of interpreting it, of admitting to its presence, its anger (which was my anger, unacknowledged as it was), its sense of broken-up atomized life, its need to effect impossible reconciliations, its unwillingness to deny failure and dread. I turned away from Gibran as one turns away from a friend with whom one no longer shares enough life. His calm, gnomic utterances, rendered gracefully and in verse, seemed to insist upon nostalgia for a lost world and to deny the feelings and moods with which I was becoming familiar. Laying The Prophet aside, I acknowledged, maybe for the first time, that things were not all right with me or with the world I lived in, and that glossing over those facts, either by sentiment or simplism, answered no real needs of my own.
Of course, on another level hardly anything changed. A new direction, a slight shift in emphasis — these things take years. The seeds of consciousness will offer a leaf, but the flower may be unknown. I still understand modern experience only imperfectly. But I do remain grateful to that somewhat insensitive man for becoming an obstacle I had to contend with — he loved literature enough to fight for it, and I imagine now that he liked me too. The jolt he gave me forced me to come to terms as well as I was able with that most difficult problem of being young: not knowing or even being able to know what you think is true.
Well, this has turned out to be a large rumination since obviously I couldn’t stand with such a forcefulness in front of a class of students who didn’t understand irony. Irony is a mist, a shimmering, a point-of-view, a mere angle of vision, and to try and teach it with obstinacy would be like photographing shadows with a bright light. Whoever would get it would get it, period. I went to the text itself, to “The Lesson of the Master,” and spoke of what was serious and comic in it, of how James employed irony as ballast to narrative, and of why I enjoyed reading James so much. I hoped that all my students would be swayed by the force of my argument, by what was precise in it, and lucid. Some were, some weren’t.
But in the classroom that day I saw for the first time what I was going to see time and again for the next fifteen years, both in myself and others: that whenever we didn’t want to own up to what we didn’t know, we would appeal to the spirit and mood of relativity. We would, in fact, develop an uneasiness about “knowing” anything, almost as if the impossibility of knowing anything completely meant we should know nothing at all, and before we admitted to an opinion, particularly a negative one, we would cut away half of its life, that is, its life as a choice, and say something like: “Oh, well, this is just my opinion,” or “I know that everything’s relative, but . . . ,” or even “Hey, I’m no intellectual.” In such a manner we would escape from the obligation inherent in our preferences and pretend that we were children still, in the way that children actually are, and that choices grew on trees like apples, some sweet and some sour, and all we had to do was pick one at will; if it seemed too sour we could throw it away. According to such logic, and it is a very good logic, why ever choose one apple?
Laying The Prophet aside, I acknowledged, maybe for the first time, that things were not all right with me or with the world I lived in, and that glossing over those facts, either by sentiment or simplism, answered no real needs of my own.
By choosing to make all things relative, we made things safe for ourselves, that is, we would preserve our independence not only from the mortal struggles of the “others” out there in the “political” world of trapped and locked-in people, but even from those limits which friendship, perhaps only friendship, imposes: for whenever anyone we knew would make an absolute commitment to one choice, to one belief over all others, we would, in our minds, reduce that choice to a mere “opinion,” to something so relative that it resembled “taste” — as if the attempt to make value in this world (which we all shared, like it or not) was of no more significance than whether we liked or disliked a particular movie. “If it turns you on,” we would say, thereby reducing the enterprise of human endeavor to the shimmering, vague, unknowable world of feelings. That’s his “trip” or “bag,” or, more currently, “what gives you strokes.” And as a consequence, what we ended up doing was not at all to relativize that person’s choice (which had already escaped us by belonging to the world of choice and commitment), but to relativize that person and our devotion to that friendship, since at the moment we reduce his choice to a mere opinion, at that spot where the relativizing takes place a terrible failure of the sympathetic imagination occurs and the loss can only be one of friendship. And the obverse turned out to be true too, and even more obvious: that when our friends would abandon all notions of truth in order to earn big money in those professions which exist only to clothe the notion that all things are relative, professions like advertising, we would step back in fear of judgement, afraid of being called “judgemental,” saying something to ourselves like, “Well, if that’s where they’re at . . .” And thus pretending to be philosophers we simply figured out a way to repudiate the struggles of love.
Nevertheless, I should say here for the record that I have not come to believe that the notion of relativity, that is, its life as an intellectual notion, is anything other than valuable when we are young and navigating our way through everybody else’s absolutes. Then the notion of relativity is not just a mood, a capacity to reduce everything to an equal impulse, but instead a solution to an overwhelming problem. Which one of us, for example, has not had the experience, particularly when young, of dealing with a high-toned moral adversary who had all the power on his side, a relative perhaps, who insists on the biblical roots of racism, or a teacher who declares blithely that modern literature is pornographic? At those moments, faced down by an authority which is magisterially amiss, we really have no real choice, short of suffocation, than to turn in the direction of what might be called scientific rationalism — a mode of perception which in its hunger for proofs attempts to establish the relative nature of belief — and which is, not incidentally, the best antidote to any kind of dogmatism. In this lovely new realm which seems at first to be created by the intellect for the sole privilege of granting itself freedom, no one can boss anybody else like a moral bully — one has to prove one is right, a rather eternal event, and not just walk through the door giving orders. Why, morality itself, to the rational mind, is just a kind of codified behavior designed to solve a certain set of problems. And yes, above all, the spirit of inquiry — which is rationalism in its uncorrupted state — must remain free, too, out in the open with all of its possibilities — and that means dogmatism is not allowed since it has stopped inquiring about anything except who is in the ranks.
Of course we all know how rationalism can establish its own dogma — how the act of dissection can be raised to a doctrine and the impulse to categorize can overwhelm even the curiosity which gave it birth. Nothing in the world can equal the tedious under-imaginings of the rational mind after it has left its initial stage as impulse and moved on to a later, though by no means inevitable, stage as habit. But in our earliest introduction to it — when it functions as an escape we hadn’t expected — rationalism, hand-in-hand with its daring relativity, that splendid instrument of our intellectual awakening, is the sweetest thing in the world. Our mind is suddenly pervaded with the notion that it can think anything it wants. I mean, there are no walls. Freedom suddenly becomes that which it was always supposed to be; we are necessarily giddy. We have escaped from dogma, that room that was so small that you couldn’t, as the old comedian said, even change your mind in it. Escape, pure and simple. We are free.
Well, we are free, actually, until we are not free, until the pendulum swings and the world pulls us back into its own orbit of needs. The fact is, the pure freedom of escape lasts until we are beyond the barbed wire. At that airy moment, when we gaze about and see nothing but open uncultivated fields, no houses, no buildings of any sort, not even ruins to testify to the event of history, to that rubble of past achievements turned into fragments, we tend to come upon ourselves, to discover those projects of our own which we concealed even from ourselves in the urgency of “getting out” from dogma’s high-handedness. It seemed like all we wanted was to escape, and yet having done it we find the absoluteness of escape somewhat intolerable. Freedom, it turns out, pure freedom (promised us in a dream of relativity) does not only mean freedom from dogma, but freedom from everything else too — from other people who bind you and ideas which claim your allegiance, from poems that matter and wives who sing. It stands in front of us, this freedom — autonomous, unapproachable, moated — and we say to ourselves, at least most of us, that this pure unadulterated absolute freedom is not what we had in mind. We had intended something less austere than a cactus flower existence, and not exactly filled with the spirit of compromise, we turn back to the world and its mortal undertakings, to something more human than these fields far from the activity of men. We are older now, tired of strangers. Maybe a few years have gone by. Possibly we are less willing to confuse a life of commitment with tyranny, with the face of that relative or politician whose early power over us turned out to be an illusion, didn’t it, since we escaped simply by turning away?
There are others, scientists and spiritualists, who, having escaped, decide against the world. This type of scientist, enthralled by the universal, claims an allegiance to truth which is above the ethical and biased clamor of men. Abstract and worldless, working in the laboratories of other men, he separates in his mind the perfection of his work from the imperfect uses to which other men, his bosses, put it — and out of a love for “truth” which was above morality, he sometimes, and quite inadvertently, improves his own country’s arsenal of terror. Escape is often harder than one imagines. Similarly, the curse of the spiritualist, particularly if he seeks disciples in the world, is never being able to transcend that most worldly conflict between power and freedom. The landscape of the spirit is littered with the ruin of religions which were always at first an escape from an intolerable situation, an escape into a new freedom even if it meant, paradoxically, a new yoke, and which over the years found the breath of spirit petrifying into the old recognizable shapes. The spirit, it turns out, at the exact moment it desires to effect the world, must rise up with a new vocabulary, with rituals and disciplines, and establish a fresh dogma in the face of encroachment or assimilation: it must proselytise, write books, found a ministry, build churches, sell tickets, form committees, hold “workshops,” in short, recapitulate all the stages by which the ineffable attains solidity by reaching out to men, to men in history, perhaps simply to escape the inconceivable burden of being ineffable. Perhaps it is simply a question of loneliness. I don’t know. From all evidence, however, there seems to be only a few brave monkish souls in this world who seem to be able to endure the insight that the breath of spirit, in order to remain spirit, must remain a breath.
But for those of us who feel the pull of the world as something irresistible, the classroom is one of those places we end up — either sitting in it or teaching in it — precisely the same kind of classroom where I had my small problem with Henry James’ irony. And this classroom, any classroom, turns out to be the juncture of one of our most interesting paradoxes. Established, ideally, on the premise that all ideas are not equal — otherwise what are we doing there? — the classroom experience attempts to instill into the minds and hearts of the young those ideas and skills which a given society considers the most valuable, that is, the most unequal ideas. That this process, this education, often turns out to be largely propaganda to train young citizens into a limited ideology (that of a prior generation) is just one of those facts about life which we are obliged to face, and if we can, to modify. Nothing is unmixed in the world, as we are bound to find out. And it is also true that the “best” ideas of a society frequently do turn out to be purely relative ideas such as the superiority of a given culture or race. Nevertheless, it is in relation to other ideas, richer ones, better ones, ideas which, as my friend Jean Morrison says, “fit more facts,” that these “best” ideas achieve their proper inferiority. God may consider our ideas and values relative in the fluxive tides of time, but that is one of His facts, not ours. To us, down here on earth, earning our dignity day by day, those ideas and values matter absolutely to the manner in which we choose to live or die. Like the scientist who thought he had escaped the bonds of time at the exact moment that his discovery in a laboratory so casually led to the destruction of a small village somewhere, so too we can only pretend to be above the world like God — the interconnectedness of all men living in modern societies makes any act of omission an act, a moral act, either a good one or a bad one or one inbetween. I mean, the problem of escape is that we can’t. And the classroom with its usual hoopla of worst and “best” ideas, with its occasional glimpse of the truth through the fogs of nationalism and prejudice, is still our best way to work out the terms of our marriage to a world from which we cannot be divorced, short of death.
By choosing to make all things relative, we made things safe for ourselves. . . . “If it turns you on,” we would say, thereby reducing the enterprise of human endeavor to the shimmering, vague, unknowable world of feelings.
(Who but a victim of abstraction could listen without puzzlement to those “cosmic” men who speak in workshops all over America, men who would tell the Jews that tyrants come and go and that tyranny is just a perceptual game? Pretending to assume God’s attitude regarding the relative nature of human life, these men of the universe unintentionally re-enact the original failure of insight which gave Hitler his power: the failure to distinguish between tyranny and totalitarianism. For totalitarianism, even though it resembles tyranny, is not at all the same thing — as the organized ideological murder of millions testifies. To the surviving Jews of the death camps, for example, who remember that in the German classroom they were once considered a species of racial impurity, a virus, the failure to appreciate this distinction, the failure in general to recognize the urgency of ideas, is inconceivable — but more: it is another instance of that “clever” indifference to suffering which, in the twentieth-century, has become a way of life.)
The paradox, however, lies here: that whereas our values and choices matter absolutely, the success or failure of those values in our lives is a purely relative matter. (This, I think, is what we usually mean when we make the blanket statement that everything is relative, to wit, that even though everything is not relative, most of the time it feels that way.) No matter what we believe, we cannot depend upon success. Our lives are not sporting events in which winning or losing is obvious; in life we fail at times and succeed at others, and so enmeshed are the roots of joy and sorrow that we don’t always know which is which. The best feel worse and the worst look better. All we do know for certain is that we fail, lose hold, come together, gladden, revive, and perhaps fail again, perhaps not. If we have success, it is up to our private selves to determine it — it simply depends upon how we feel about ourselves; in other words, it’s all relative. No yardstick exists to measure our success except one of our own devising; no consensus. If we don’t feel triumphant, it doesn’t matter if an entire society disagrees with us — we have failed. A year or so before his death I read an interview with Groucho Marx who said he would gladly give up all his good fortune — his international fame, the later success of his early movies, a recent film industry award at Cannes — for the pleasure of a single erection. The other stuff, he said in Groucho fashion, could wait until later. Nor was he kidding. Unless we have made a deep inner arrangement which gives someone power over our feelings about ourselves (unfortunately, children too often can’t avoid this arrangement), we cannot be argued into self-congratulation, or, I should add, self-deprecation. How we consider ourselves has sprung from the unpredictable welter of existence over which we have no control: from the strengths or weaknesses we inherit, our family and country, the heroes we run into along the way, etc., in other words, from that eternal combination of things which constitute our relative personalities.
I remember fifteen years ago when my friend, Jean Morrison, probably the most remarkable person I ever met, was in despair.
“Why do you feel so suicidal?” I asked. “You have everything.”
He seemed genuinely surprised and looked at me oddly.
“What do I have?”
It was my turn to be surprised since Jean was never coy.
“Why you’re brilliant, nobody writes like you, you’re a poet, a great teacher, you’re amazing.”
“That’s talk,” he said. “All I have is the black regard. That’s what I have. The black regard.”
“Why?” I cried.
“It’s a good question!” he yelled at me.
The truth is probably that we are an aggregate of selves and moods descended from the dark ages of our own genetic history, and, simultaneously we are a contemporary act of responsibility which has, by its own definition, made this multiplicity into the “me” who writes these words. Nor do I think it too philosophical of me to point out that even though this act, this creation of “me,” being an act of organization, has severely damaged our spontaneity as animals, it has given us the freedom not to be too subservient to somewhat murderous impulses. Beyond my instincts I can choose all sorts of things, from candy bars to potatoes. Above all, I can say “no” which is the purest expression of my freedom. For example, I can say “no” to the strong man which the animal can’t, anymore than mass man, that is, man converted back into an animal, can say no to television advertisements which manipulate him or leaders who incite him. It is only this “me” who can decide how we shall live or die, and who lives on common ground with the “me” of you. We are together because we sit together, wrenched from the blue animal dream of chromosomal life, in this classroom talking about the relativity of taste or Henry James or the holocaust. And we know we can sit here talking of things because as citizens of this particular country we share the same kind of political freedom which was passed on to “me” through the grace of other men and women who had occasion to act absolutely in the course of their lives, that is, the American patriots, also many-selved men and women.
This is our common ground and I believe we come together here as best we can. Sometimes we hide from the facts of our common world, like rabbits in the crumbling ground; other times we are stunned by a similarity of self which usually takes the form of a love of freedom, limited though that freedom may be by the terms of life itself. And these terms frequently turn out to be nothing less than death and failure, though it is surely up to us to decide whether the ride was good. I wonder if that’s not the reason why my friend Jean, contemplating a great work of art or a piece of beautiful logic, says, in his odd way, “It’s only true.”
At any rate, I taught English literature for five more years until the dolor of university life drove me away. I ended up telling my students, day after day, that some things were definitely relative. Why? Because if they flunked out, the army would grab them and perhaps send them to Vietnam where they could be killed. It seemed to me that a grading system like that changed the terms of my understanding with the university about the standards we were all supposed to uphold. If giving an honest grade meant I got a chance to be honest, and someone else, down the line, got a chance to be killed, then honesty became dishonest, and in that situation, relative. In this instance, relativity was really an absolute detestation of the war in disguise, a detestation, by the way, upon which the men and women I loved at the time founded the best parts of their eventual selves.