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?"