The Most Embarrassing Charisma of All

In March 2008, it was my turn to take part in the annual ritual of graduate recruitment, whereby graduate programs, hitherto entirely anonymized and impersonal, suddenly populate themselves with faculty members who have read and thought deeply about one’s work, and know (or think they know) which levers to pull to entice you to come study with them. For the prospective grad students, these events can be overwhelming and delicious: after a year spent wondering whether one’s work will ever be received (and whether, perhaps, one’s undergrad mentors were misleadingly overestimating its value), flesh and faces and your name appear on and in the mouths of the storied grandees whose approval you have spent a year craving. And then you also realize, quickly, that your estimation of the organization of the departments you were applying to was misguided, and that Prof. A is not, in fact, the beloved pedagogue you imagined, but a cranky satellite; whereas Prof. B, whom you had cast as a callow neophyte, seems more valuable than that.  

It was on these visits — I had five — that I realized that I wanted to be around young, or youngish (forty-something, let’s say) professors.  The old ones were ridiculous. At Yale, some no doubt very grand old timer spotted me across the floor of a cocktail party, sallied up to me, sloshing a schooner of sherry extravagantly with his left hand, and fixed me between the eyes with the question “hm, Nabokov’s terribly good, don’t you think?” I spluttered anxiously: I had read a few short stories and hadn’t gotten quite what I’d hoped for from them - someone I’d read had compared his style to Conrad’s, which I liked, but I couldn’t see it. Still, the greatness of Nabokov was a foregone conclusion, and one I could hardly contest, so I started purring out “well, yes, obviously, Pale Fire is a magnificent achievement, and Lolita—“ but before I could finish my sentence, my interrogator picked his back up, “...but also rather overrated, don’t you think?” It had been a trap. The most pointless trap ever sprung.

Was that Harold Bloom? I don’t think it could have been, but certainly back in 2008 I didn’t know what Bloom looked like, and I had to go back to his published work on Nabokov to see if I could get it to match up. But it didn’t, exactly, and I concluded that it was one of Bloom’s contemporaries, somebody who had likewise allowed the brew of late modernist prose and early poststructural linguistics to curdle into oleaginous self-regard. But I had been hoping to meet Bloom, whose Kabbalah and Criticism I admired as a young tarot-obsessed nerd, who really wanted to read Yeats as though magic was real. A boy I had been slightly in love with as an undergraduate had studied with him at Yale, and, the first night we made out, had done this delightful impression of the elderly Paterian as a camp, soft-bodied soubrette: “come, sit next to dear old sad Bloom, whom nobody loves.” I did not know then, as I know now, that his posture of melancholic neediness, disarmingly frank as it was in avowing the desires of the flesh, enabled Bloom to conduct a career as an emotional and physical abuser of young women. After leaving New Haven and returning to my base of operations in New York, I read Naomi Wolf’s New York Magazine story detailing her being groped by Bloom after he had delivered the line “you have the aura of election upon you,” a line perfectly in keeping with the fussy stylistic tics I had heard about from B., but was additionally crass. Or I suppose the problem was that the line “you have the aura of election upon you” is actually embarrassing, and so reveals the bad faith of the hokiness of the performance of embarrassingness that had seemed appealing moments before. Wolf writes, “the whole thing had suddenly taken on the quality of a bad horror movie,” a genre shift we can really sense in her reportage. 

My visit to NYU was more theatrically weird. I was especially keen to connect with Avital Ronell, whose Telephone Book I admired, so I arranged to sit in on one of her grad classes (which, unusually, filled a whole lecture theater in Julius Silver). Before the lecture, I walked in and introduced myself to Ronell, who was seated in front of a few dozen graduate students; she took my hands, touched them to her forehead which she bowed towards me, and said “we have met somewhere before.” (Years later, Philip Seymour Hoffman imitated this moment perfectly in The Master.) We had, of course, not, but I had emailed her to ask for her advice about applying to NYU for Comparative Literature, an email of course larded with praise for her work; she responded in an oddly clinical tone that she could not guarantee me a place in CompLit, but if I wanted to apply to German she could make sure my application was viewed favorably. Which wasn’t going to work: I didn’t read German, beyond what I’d cobbled together to write a paper on Kafka. Ronell’s actions had been very strange, but of course the bending of the rules seemed sexy rather than dangerous. Until, suddenly, it became dangerous, at dinner after the lecture, when Ronell, flanked on one side by a tall, handsome man and the other by a woman whom, I could tell, “does all the work around here,” started berating one of her TAs for having dated to refer to Kathy Acker as “dated.” Trying to intervene in what was escalating into an onslaught, I offered the thought that maybe being dated wasn’t so bad, maybe we want to be marked by our dates and places... it wasn’t a great argument, but then I wasn’t the one bullying a grad student. Ronell stopped, slammed the butts of her chopsticks into the table, and stared at me until someone changed the subject, and the name “Kathy Acker” was not spoken again.

Yale and NYU had been my top two choices, but the fustiness of the former and the chaotic energy of the latter had ruled them out. They seemed opposites, but now that we know that Ronell’s pedagogy also extended, like Bloom’s, into sexual harassment and assault (which didn’t surprise me, given what I’d seen), they seem almost indistinguishable. A facility with the kind of abstract conceptualization that skirts the edges of sense-making, that produces the kind of charisma that also requires experiencing one’s body as abject, which slips into sexual coerciveness. I know at least other senior faculty member at one of the other schools I visited that spring has done the same shit; I know this because he did it to someone I‘m close with, who was his undergraduate student. That isn’t my story to tell, though. The question for me is why I had admired so many sexual abusers - admiration that, thank goodness, I lost the moment I found out about the abuse. There are a couple of fairly pat answers. The first is that everyone is capable of sexual abuse, and the difference between us is only who has the power to enact it. But I don’t think that’s true, or at least, the people whom I have chosen to mentor me since 2008 are people whom I trust have never allowed themselves to spin their sense of physical abjection in the manner of a Bloom or a Ronell. My beloved Paul, for example, told me in one of our earliest conversations how many of his peers had been damaged by deep personal relationships with charismatic professors. He mentioned De Man by name. And while at the time I felt frustrated, and wanted to flirt with Paul and fuck with him slightly, I know that he doesn’t do that.

And the second answer is that, in 2008, I was still pretty much in the grip of a strange and compulsive pedagogical relationship myself, one which had a decidedly sexual component (though it wasn’t primarily a sexual relationship). I had come to think that a real intellectual kinship was one which challenged all the impositions of institutional bureaucrats, one which gave itself up to the freedom and spontaneity of every possible moment. That guy was a Paterian too, I guess, but of the Marxist variety, where one convinces oneself that one’s personal domination of one’s students is in the service of a revolutionary social project whose public failure - of course nothing ever happens as a result of such schemes - is proof of private virtue. That variety entails a good deal more cocaine and ecstasy than it does sloshy schooners of sherry, although probably some of those too. But I’m struck by the similarity of each of these abusers: an outward commitment to the life of the mind that projects a sense of bodily abjection, and therefore solicits comfort and/or chastisement; a sense that university bureaucracies — typically, prohibitions on sexual relationships between students and faculty — exist solely to stem the flow of ideas and energies (“the aura of election”) and therefore that it is in everyone’s interests to oppose them. Once more, as frustrating as I found Paul’s shyness around me - which, perhaps, had its own unspeakable electricity - I’m grateful for the examples of people who managed to survive into adulthood (the real adulthood of being a Full Professor, in our world of arrested development) without relinquishing their desires into the domain of anti-institutional resentment. There’s a model there, something to live by: no cops on campus, and, as Stephen Seely and Drusilla Cornell put it, there’s nothing revolutionary about a blowjob, comrade.