Saturday, March 25, 2023

'However Self-important We May Have Been in Life'

Thank God for professional discipline (and a well-exercised sense of humor) or one would soon be unemployed. The virtues of repression – stifling one’s precious impulses – are no longer fashionable, I know, but that’s how I hold on to my job. More than most professionals, academics exude self-esteem. They are walking, talking public-relations firms for themselves. Joseph Epstein learned this lesson the hard way several years ago (though I suspect he already knew it). 

As a writer/editor for a university, I read the copy produced by professors and they read and edit what I write about them. Certain stylistic proclivities are nearly universal. All nouns, as in German, are capitalized, especially job titles, regardless of context. Every adjective is preceded by an adverb. The most popular adverb is “very” – a word my high-school English teacher taught me to banish because it is empty of meaning. All accomplishments are described in the superlative. The most highly prized quality of prose is fulsomeness. And so on.   


Critics might judge my complaints sour grapes, and I’ve considered that. Professors have Ph.D.’s. I don’t. They make more money, have larger offices and labs, and generally dress better and have better haircuts. However you gauge “prestige,” they have more. None of that irks me. I’m already paid more than I’m worth. I make many times more money than my father, who was an ironworker. In other words, he had a marketable trade. I’m eminently expendable. All of that is just fine with me.  


A reader on Friday, after reading that day’s post on Theodore Dalrymple, sent me an essay Dalrymple wrote in 2007, "Comfort for Failures," for the British Medical Journal. It begins:


“Triumphant success—in others, I hasten to add; I've never experienced it myself—intimidates me and makes me feel stupid. Why am I not similarly successful, though quite intelligent enough to be so? I suppose it boils down to character, or what these days is called personality.”


I don’t share Dalrymple’s sense of intimidation when in the company of the nominally successful. If anything, it amuses me. And I do enjoy conversations with some members of the faculty, especially those who are older, securely tenured and have interests beyond the narrow range of their research. We can talk about normal things like family and books. Dalrymple gets more interesting when he turns to a literary interest:


“It is because success is so intimidating, I imagine, that I find the poetry of Philip Larkin so appealing. It exudes a reassuring hopelessness, and brings solace to us failures, who after all are in the immense majority. Dissolution and death are our fates, however self-important we may have been in life. What, in the end, can we hope for or expect, other than ‘Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines’”?


I have never understood readers who find Larkin “depressing.” His poems are too smart, too beautiful, often too funny, too revealing of human nature to be depressing.


Faze said...

Are you a successful writer? You make a salary, get benefits, and maybe a 403b plain - plus all that you'll get from social security. Start from the beginning of your career and add all that up. I've done this for myself, and realized that as a writer, I've made a couple of million dollars over the years. If that doesn't make me a successful writer, what does?

John Dieffenbach said...

This is not related to your post, Patrick, but a thought that occurred to me while reading a film review of "The Lost King" in the NY Times today:
Literary criticism is the only form of creative critique that is presented in the same medium as its subject matter.
When I read a film review, for example, I often wonder what gives the critic the authority to comment on something they do not do: make movies. Likewise for fine arts, such as painting or sculpture. What if a film critic had to present their thoughts visually? Or an art critic had to paint their views on a recent exhibit?
Literary critics are writers who write about writing. Perhaps this is all nonsense, but, as a writer, I drew some comfort in that realization.
The older I get, the lower the bar to my happiness.

Faze said...

I should add that I have a similar position to our host, in a different type of institution.