[From Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, posted by TL]
I was deeply moved by the invitation to join the USIH community and by the warm welcome by my soon to be fellow bloggers. The last line of the introduction from their introductory announcement, about seriousness and friendship, took my breath away: to hear my efforts summed up with this poetic coupling is the highest compliment I can imagine. It would have taken a lifetime of reflection for me to grasp so clearly what I am myself hoping and trying for. If we have these, it seems to me, we have everything.
Years ago, when I first heard the word “blog,” I must admit I was horrified. First there was the word, sounding the very opposite of that other, age-old, first word. And it didn’t even have the fun of the pure anagram, which at least attempts giddy humor, juxtaposing the supposedly all-too-earthly canine with the divine. (If you are interested in a low growl against this stereotype, see my plug for “caninization” on our blog Longing For The Real.) Backwards, blog would only read golb, which instead has echoes of Woody Allen trying for a bank hold-up with his note, “I have a gub.” Humor in this guise also has the inflection of mistakes and meaninglessness, though there is some pleasant irony, perhaps, in the proximity of golb to gold, which critics could go on to argue is its exact opposite. “Blog,” to a language purist, sounded nearly profane, this latest Orwellian butchering of the English language. What has happened since then, to give the word such good connotations?
For me, USIH. And a handful of other fellow workers humbly claiming their rightful place through nothing but the intelligence, originality, and elegance of their written words in–as W.E.B. DuBois put it–“the kingdom of culture.” How are they doing this, given our dire straits, with everything from a dearth of jobs and decline of the university’s classical mission to today’s wholesale devaluing of the written page? With courage, energy, and invention.
Yes, I have been following the Society ever since its founding long, long ago…ok, last year. That’s not quite true. It wasn’t born yesterday. It began with the annual conferences, and before that with the brilliant idea on the part of the courageous new scholars who decided to utter a cry in the wilderness to those of us with common interests. Just five years ago ours seemed an area of inquiry one had to engage in only in secrecy. It seemed destined for extinction. So when I heard about the conference, from one of my doctoral students at Syracuse University who delivered a paper in its inaugural year (Jonathan Wilson, whose recent USIH post gave us a detailed description of the public intellectual conference at Harvard), my interest was instant and intense. I have followed it with rapt attention ever since. More aptly, wrapped in it, enfolded, brought into a fold.
My reasons? Hope and despair. As an inveterate idealist, my encounters with academe in the first decade and a half of teaching, had helped nudge me over the cliff into the long-feared abyss. One of those fortunate enough to secure a job at a major research university, and then to attain tenure and not one but two promotions, miraculously, I was filled with chagrin not just by the kinds of things I observed, but even more, by those I didn’t see anywhere. With naïveté as my strong suit, I looked around for the intellectual community I assumed was the be-all and end-all of choosing the mind as a way of life. Visions of cafés and conversations danced in my head, essays and letters, seriousness and friendship.
What I found instead, the particularities of my own despair and its sources, is a story of its own. Suffice it to say that I was shocked to the core at how distant from my dream–however misguided you might consider it–was from reality. In that dream, ideas really mattered.
I became a Jacoby-ite (Jacobyn?). Less concerned with exactly who counted as one in the whole public intellectual debate later engendered by The Last Intellectuals, like others I was drawn by Russell Jacoby’s clear laying-out of the historical developments that seemed to have irrevocably altered life in the late twentieth century. The decline of the milieu in which ideas were exchanged with emotional intensity, that “perfervid” atmosphere one of the four writers profiled in “Arguing the World” called it, seemed to be the story of my own professional despair. It explained a lot, if not everything.
When I was invited to participate in an online forum on the state of American intellectual life by one of the stars now in the USIH constellation, Ray Haberski, my portrait was all shades of gray. I was surprised by the points of light George Cotkin saw, if that phrase can be used innocently and apolitically yet. The resulting chiaroscuro bemused and confused me at the time. I didn’t recognize the shades of of hope.
The great thing about idealists is that they are so smitten with the forms, they cannot escape even if they wanted to. A Houdini act gone awry, they cannot deliver themselves from the box they locked and asked the assistant to plunge recklessly into water. They haven’t merely gone over to the deep end, they remain there despite many offers of rescue. As in Neil Young’s “Helpless,” “the chains are locked and tied across the door.” Cynicism, what passes for sophistication today, is not an option.
So, while it would be easier to lose oneself in the shadows, an idealist lives to be proven wrong. If despair can become elation, if struggle is tied to the only happiness we are to know, let no man tear them asunder.
In the first discussions about the internet, and its possible enhancement or destruction of community, like many I imagined the worse. Tragedy is our human fate. But on the way, Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs counseled, all of our tools and other creations are only as good–and as bad–as their uses. If the internet might threaten real community, or further a way of life in which it was already extinct, then the hayseed might say, in his complete simplicity and “field of dreams”-like faith, let’s make it not. It seems the universal challenge, no matter what the materials, or the time or place, is to make our lives something we actually want to live, which includes, because we are social beings, making our commons a place we want to inhabit. Can we make a beautiful commons, not for more free range of disembodied surfaces but for the disciplines and stewardship of freeing inwardness, where the “feeling intellect,” á la Philip Rieff, can reside?
A new acquaintance, half British and half Italian, likes the saying “fa il vostro mondo” (make your own world).
I joyfully cast my lot with those who, hope against hope, try to live in the world as it is as if it were the world they would like it to be. Only by doing so do these worlds come any closer together.
Though, maybe we could just add something to the word blog to make it a tiny bit more elegant as a name for a whole genre of writing and conversation? Perhaps we could find a graphic ornament of some kind? Develop an original inflection all our own, a new sort of pronunciation on the page, like a secret written handshake? Accessorize it with an accent, taking a page from Kierkegaard?