The Magazine

PROFESSOR NARCISSUS

Jun 2, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 37 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Not so long ago, it was TV talk shows that were being excoriated for their wanton exhibitionism as they competed for the honor of producing the most brazen or degrading revelation of the month. The award surely goes to the show (never aired but highly publicized) where one man confessed to being a " secret admirer" of another and was then murdered by the unsuspecting object of his affections. The victim, a "talk-show freak," as he described himself, received a fitting eulogy from a friend: "Scott had a troubled life, and all I can think now is that he's got to be happy. He's probably looking down and saying, "I knew I'd make it on TV.'"


Then it was the turn of the publishing industry, which has been churning out a series of bestselling memoirs by people whose only distinction is some unfortunate affliction (AIDS, alcoholism, anorexia, drugs, child abuse, mental illness) or perversion (incest, pedophilia, bestiality, sado-masochism, obsessive promiscuity). This genre reached its climax with The Kiss, an autobiographical account of the prolonged and voluntary affair between a young woman and her minister-father. By way of anti-climax, her husband proceeded to write an article sympathetically commenting on the affair and endorsing his wife's decision to publicize it (this in response to those who were churlish enough to suggest that it might have an unfortunate effect on their two young children).


Now it is the universities that are displaying the same self-absorption, self-indulgence, and self-revelation -- all decked out in the latest theory proclaiming the personal mode a higher form of scholarship than the impersonal "footnote voice" (the term is used pejoratively, of course), This is not an entirely new phenomenon. For years now, women's-studies programs have been dedicated to two propositions: "Everything is political" and "The personal is the political." The result, as even some of their supporters admit, is the degeneration of all too many of these programs into glorified rap sessions, in which orgasms and menstrual periods alternate with the marginalization of women and the hegemony of the patriarchic order as the proper subjects of class discussion.


What we are now witnessing is the emergence of the logical corollary of these propositions, "Everything is personal," and its extension to all fields of study and academic activities. Those weather vanes of academia, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Lingua Franca magazine, have published articles within months of each other bearing such titles as "Dare We Say I?," "The I's Have It," and (by one disaffected commentator) "Sick and Tired of Scholars' Nouveau Solipsism." Where the "I's' had previously been confined to the preface of a scholarly work (commenting on the occasion for the writing of the book or expressing thanks to spouse and colleagues), they now intrude into the body of the work itself. Thus the scholar's personal life -- or what would once have been regarded as such -- permeates a study of Japanese society, or the life of a Mexican peddler, or an analysis of a French painter, or a comparison of primitive and Western cultures.


"George Eliot, c'est moi," announces the biographer Phyllis Rose, who has created an Eliot in the likeness of a properly liberated late-20th- century American woman. And the influential literary critic and theorist Frank Lentricchia, who makes much of his workingclass Italian-American background, writes an essay entitled "My Kinsman, T. S. Eliot." The academic journals are full of such titles: "Me and Not Me," "Me and My Shadow," " Reader, I Married Me," "Who Do I Think I Am?"


The form has been given various names -- "personal criticism," " autobiographical criticism," "confessional criticism," the "personal voice," the "personal turn" (echoing the "linguistic turn" of postmodernism). A symposium on "The Place of the Personal in Scholarship," in a recent issue of the Publications of the Modern Language Association, opens with an essay by Michael Berube who tells us that he has done a word count of the first- person-singular pronoun in his writings in the previous six years. "I" appeared 7,300 times, not including, he wryly observes, the six times in the first sentence of his present essay. One enthusiast has compiled a bibliography of book-length works (not mere essays) on this theme; it runs to seven single-spaced pages. Although the personal turn is most conspicuous in literary criticism, it is by no means confined to it. History, philosophy, classics, art, anthropology, sociology, jurisprudence, even the sciences, have all been affected by it. (Among French historians, it goes by the name "ego-histoire.")


Within the past year, Routledge (the trendiest of commercial publishers) has issued a volume of essays originating in sessions at the American Philological Association and the British Classical Association. The contributors to Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship describe the intimate relationship between their analyses of particular classical texts and their personal lives: alcoholic parents, depression and mental breakdown, feelings of inadequacy induced by a malecentered profession, a woman's memory of her sexual arousal as a teenager, a man's consciousness and practice of his homosexuality. Another Routledge volume, Confessions of the Critics, includes some dissenting voices, but is dominated by the celebratory tone of the editor, H. Aram Veeser, who describes confessional criticism as a "performative" event akin to performance art, and thus a form of "erotica." He explains: "Theatrical, sexy, flashing their bodies between the folds of theory, they could hardly stand further from the neutered "third sex of Ph.D.s.'"


That "third sex of Ph.D.s" -- referring to the "white mainstream feminism" that consciously sought to depersonalize feminism -- comes from one of the founding texts of this movement, Nancy K. Miller's Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts (published, again by Routledge, in 1991). The final essay of that book, "My Father's Penis," almost literally carries out Veeser's promise of "flashing their bodies between the folds of theory." Recalling childhood memories of her father walking about the house in his pajamas with a telltale gap in the fly, Miller, 40 years later and sharing an apartment with her ailing father, finally has the opportunity to touch his penis as she helps him urinate and then, while he lies naked and asleep on a hospital bed, to examine it more closely.


Miller does not deny the voyeuristic element in her behavior, but she gives it a large theoretical significance by comparing the penis with the "phallic" mode of traditional literary criticism. She wrote the essay, she explains, " in the aftermath of an intensely charged academic performance in which the status of "experience' in feminist theory had been challenged with a certain phallic -- what would a better word be? -- insistence. . . . Born of the troubled intimacies of the autobiographical penis and the theoretical phallus, [the essay] had unexpectedly come full circle back to feminist revision."


If the other critics take Miller as their model, Miller herself pays tribute to another influential feminist critic, Jane Gallop, whose essay " Phallus/Penis: Same Difference" was reprinted in Thinking Through the Body (published in 1988). This volume was also made memorable by another essay dedicated "Aux hommes de trente-six ans," a tribute to the series of 36- year-old "unavailable" men with whom she had had affairs. The book jacket features a photograph taken by her husband of Gallop giving birth to their child.


Gallop, the Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, has just published another book that takes the personal/erotic mode beyond the realm of literary theory into the heart of academic scholarship and pedagogy. Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (published not by Routledge but by that most modish of university presses, Duke University Press) is an account of the charges brought against her by two of her female students. The students claimed that Gallop tried to have sex with them and then, when rebuffed, retaliated by giving one of them poor grades and refusing to write a letter of recommendation for another. Gallop denies both charges, while admitting (indeed, boasting) that her relations with these students, as with others, had always been "personalized and sexualized." But this, she argues, does not constitute sexual harassment because harassment, properly understood, means discrimination, and a feminist like herself cannot be said to discriminate against women. What she did do, on the particular occasion cited in the charge, was to engage in "flirtatious banter and frank sexual discussion."


That occasion was a gay and lesbian student conference at her university in 1991, in the course of which she announced that "graduate students are my sexual preference." In retrospect, Gallop finds nothing untoward in that comment, for it merely testifies to her passion for her students and her conviction that "you couldn't separate the intellectual energy from the sexual." She herself was not disconcerted when, later in the evening, a student from another university complimented her on her legs and invited her to her hotel room. She was "flattered but graciously declined" the proposition, which she felt to be in keeping with the sexual atmosphere of the conference. In the same spirit, at a lesbian bar later still, she bade goodnight to her own student (who later brought the charge against her) with a dramatic embrace and a "torrid kiss." That "brazen and public" display, as she describes it, seemed to her then (and still seems to her now) an appropriate finale to a conference bearing the title "Flaunting It." "To my mind, our student-teacher kiss enacted a fantasy of lesbian pedagogy: women together tasting from the forbidden tree of knowledge."


If Gallop finds little to apologize for, it is because she was only doing what she had always done -- and what she had always preached. Indeed, she was doing far less, on this occasion, than she had done in the past. From the beginning, when she first encountered feminism as an undergraduate in 1971, she had found in it a double liberation -- a liberation of "ideas and lust." Feminism, she says, "turned me on, figuratively and literally." She had "the hots" for the other young women in her circle (only a few of whom, she assures us, she actually slept with), while from Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex she learned the pleasures of masturbation. Her previous sexual experiences with men, she now realized, had been "awash in romance and passivity." Now she was "energized" -- for schoolwork (her grades instantly improved), for political activity (as a feminist), and, of course, for sex.


The most memorable event in that annus mirabilis was a "women's only" dance that culminated in an orgy of bare-breasted dancing. "Our breasts were political," Gallop recalls; if bras were "a metaphor for women's bonds," bare breasts signified women's liberation. But, she continues, "our breasts were not just political"; this was sex, pure and simple. So too, she realized, the spectacular appearance earlier in the evening of her women's-studies professor accompanied by one of her students was political -- and more than political. The professor was wearing a dress, the student a man's suit, their carefully staged entrance a public declaration of their affair. It was also a public assertion that women would not be bound by conventional sexual roles, any more than they would be bound by the constraints of bras. Nor would they be bound by the conventional roles of professor and student; this too was part of their liberation. Nor would knowledge itself be bound by convention; that professor of women's studies was affirming a new kind of knowledge, a feminist knowledge, that was "more egalitarian and more alive" than the old.


These lessons carried over into graduate school, when Gallop made a systematic effort, she tells us, to seduce two of the professors on her dissertation committee. After being repeatedly turned down, she finally succeeded in having sex with both of them, "each separately, to be sure, but oddly, coincidentally, in the same week." She desired them, she says, because of their power over her -- not, she hastens to add, their institutional power, but their intellectual power, their brilliance. Just as her original initiation into feminism made her a better student, so "screwing these guys" energized her intellectually and made it easier for her to write her dissertation (on the Marquis de Sade). This was the "heady atmosphere" of the academy as she had come to know it: "I learned and excelled; I desired and I f -- d my teachers." (One of these teachers, later asked to write a blurb for the present book, did so by apologizing for having been "unprofessional, exploitative, and lousy in bed." The publisher did not use the blurb.)


When Gallop herself became a teacher, she assumed a new role. Now it was the professor who seduced and slept with her students. In her first two years, she had affairs with a graduate male student, an undergraduate male, a woman student in a "classic one-night stand," and another one-nighter with the former lover of that woman. These came to an end in 1982, not, she tells us, because of any change in her views of teacher-student liaisons, but because she got married. Since that time, she says, she has not slept with a student. She still, however, has personal relations with her students, some (as with those who accused her of sexual harassment) "intense complicated, and sticky," but most, she is confident, productive for her students and for herself.


Gallop does not deny that she has violated the university prohibition against "consensual amorous relations" between professor and student. But this regulation, she protests, is itself a violation of feminism, which is meant to empower women personally and sexually as well as politically and professionally. By the same token, it is a violation of scholarship, which, as she understands it, entails a passion that is personal, intense, and never far removed from sexuality.


In the final paragraphs of her book, she carries the argument a step further. Just as she had deliberately made a spectacle of herself in that kissing scene, she explains, so she was now deliberately making a spectacle of herself in writing the book, publicizing it (and herself) and giving it that sensational "tabloid title." For it is precisely a sensation that she is seeking, "the best kind, where knowledge and pleasure, sex and thought play off and enhance each other."


This is "sexual politics" as not even Kate Millett (the author of that famous phrase) anticipated it. If this book does create a sensation, as Gallop hopes, it would be a shame if the salacious sexual details obscured the larger issues implicit in her story. Not all feminists carry the idea of sexual "empowerment" into the academy as she does, and many demur to the sanctioning of sexual relations between teacher and student. But a good many feminists (indeed, many academics in all disciplines) now subscribe to a view of scholarship and pedagogy that is only once removed from hers -- not as insistently sexual, perhaps, but quite as insistently personal.


Narcissism knows no limits -- in the academy, as in the media. It is odd to find Professor Gallop, in her contribution to the Modern Language Association symposium, saying that of course all scholarship is personal, yet worrying that there is such a thing as being "excessively personal." "My personal name for this excess," she says (thus personalizing the very tendency she is ostensibly deploring), "is narcissism." Balancing the dangers of "too much" and "too little" personalism, she concludes that she herself is "headed for a writing where it would be literally impossible to separate gossip from scholarship."


The academy has, in fact, been heading in that direction for some time. Stanley Fish, the not-so-grey eminence of Duke University (professor of English and law, executive director of the university's press, associate vice provost), has been described, in press releases by his publisher (the venerable Oxford University Press), as "the Roseanne Barr of the professoriate." Jane Gallop, competing for that distinction, bills herself as the "bad girl" of feminist theory. If few professors are as sensationalist, exhibitionist, and publicity-seeking as these, a good many share the assumptions and ideas that legitimize such antics.


"Everything is personal" is a logical deduction from the postmodernist dictum, "Nothing is true." For it is only if there is no truth, therefore no objectivity, that everything can be deemed to be personal. And the denial of truth -- not absolute, fixed, total truth (no scholar has ever laid claim to that), but partial, contingent, incremental truths -- is not confined to feminists or literary critics; it has become the prevalent academic mode. (The word "truth" almost invariably appears in quotation marks in the learned journals.) In the new credo, truth is replaced by power -- "everything is political"; and objectivity by will -- "everything is personal."


The irony is that the personal itself, according to this credo, is specious, for postmodernism deconstructs the "self" together with truth. If there is no fixed truth, neither is there any fixed identity. All there is is a " protean self" (as Robert Lifton named it many years ago) -- an ever-changing, "transgressive" self that expresses itself only by constantly reinventing itself, assuming new roles and postures, shocking others and making a spectacle of oneself. This is the meaning, as Gallop herself makes clear, of the dance that initiated her into the liberated world of feminism, where the conventional categories -- masculine and feminine, professor and student, public and private -- were so sensationally defied.


But if personal identity is so ephemeral, personal scholarship is all the more so. There is no "there" there -- no person of any substance, and no scholarship of any enduring value; the one is as evanescent as the other. The impersonality of traditional scholarship was, in fact, a triumph of character over personality, the character of those who had the self-discipline and strength of mind to submerge their own persons in what they knew to be the far more important and interesting subjects of their work. These scholars were elevated by their scholarship, by their denial of self, rather than demeaned by an exhibitionism that degrades both themselves and their profession.




Gertrude Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society recently received the Templeton Foundation's Outstanding Contemporary Book award.