Thursday, September 8, 2011

Advanced Humanism

"My point is that to turn a jungle baboon into a seminar baboon is a cruel, irreversible process. I understand why you won't ever be happy around the waterhole again."
Nathan Zuckerman's agent (from Philip Roth's Zuckerman Unbound) is referring to the scarring that results from higher education, how four years of training in "Advanced Humanistic Decisions" can make it difficult for an individual to navigate the less advanced humanism of society outside the university. While I think this is true, I've also noticed (in myself and certain other colleagues) that the reverse is also the case: that too much time spent outside the academy leads to dissatisfaction with the functionings of the academic world. After finishing a somewhat botched undergraduate degree, I spent five years enjoying the freedom of a nu-bohemian creative lifestyle—inclusive of autodidactic efforts to approach literature and philosophy outside of a university perspective—before deciding that the time was right to reenter the academic fold. At first I treasured these five years, believing that they gave me a certain perspective that my fellow students (many of whom entered their doctoral programs directly from college) lacked. I am beginning to see now that this brief taste of freedom had its price: that, opposite to Zuckerman, whose academic experience makes it difficult for him to be content in the "real world," my five years out of the academy also represent an irreversible shift, a break from the academic winding-up process, making it very difficult for me to be happy around the university waterhole.
To go back to the clip I posted of Paul McIsaac in Robert Kramer's Route One USA, it's not always a matter of choice which "prizes" one ends up striving for. With academia, as with bourgeois America, it is a matter of being able to enjoy its system of rewards. With any enclosed cultural ecosystem, a dose of perspective can spell exile for the curious participant.


  1. I've been thinking more and more on those prizes— those "external goods" dangling around here and New York, that seem to keep working their way further and further inward— and it makes me really stick closer to that Internal Good.
    I'm ready to devote myself to the business of secrets.

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