Sunday, May 29, 2016

Not Porcellian!

Word is that Harvard is shutting down its final clubs. Do I have that term right? Or is it "finals" clubs? I don't even know what they are, exactly, but for some reason their demise is making national headlines. It's the sort of story that, in a rational world, you and I would never have heard of, or formed an opinion about; but seeing that we are not in such a world, chances are we did, and have. So what are the thoughts and feelings that come to mind at this news? First -- a kind of awe. One can't help but be impressed with the university for actually being willing to épater some its most well-heeled alumni by shuttering their old stomping grounds. With this, however, comes a sting of bitterness, derived from the very grandeur of the university's self-sacrifice. One of the few salves one has at one's disposal, after all, for the sting of sour grapes that inevitably accompanies mention of the word "Harvard," is the assurance of one's own superior virtue -- sure, they may be rich and powerful, we tell ourselves, but at least they're also evil. It therefore smarts to see the administration do anything that might challenge this assumption.

Once that stab of jealousy has passed, however, one starts to get into the spirit of the thing. The Jacobin corner of one's personality is gratified at the thought of the administration purging these old bastions of privilege. Ecrasez l'infame! 

But then in short order, the sour grapes come back again, and one remembers that there will always be something wrong with what the Harvard administration does. The egotism of great institutions (like that of people) is a many-headed beast; it will burst through walls when it is barred at the gates. One therefore quickly finds reasons to suspect Harvard's motives again. A friend made the valid point that it's a somewhat dangerous precedent for a university to try to regulate students' participation in off-campus associations, whatever the reason for doing so. But then again, the final clubs are only "off-campus" in the way voter ID laws have nothing to do with race or party affiliation. In other words, we are in the realm of legal fictions here. 

My own fault-finding with the university's actions therefore takes a rather different form. My concern is that to wage a campaign against clubs of this sort is already to accept the clubs' self-mythology. It is to lend credence to the impression they deliberately cultivate that they in fact still operate as the effective gate-keepers to the American elite. To highlight the unfairness of the the clubs' exclusivity is already to assume that whatever party they have going on inside them is worth our crashing, which is exactly the point I'm not actually sure is true. I am reminded of those scenes in Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network that are set in the final clubs -- the ones that remind one of a 19th century pornographic fantasy about libertine Spanish cloisters or the secret sex rituals alleged to take place in Masonic lodges. It seems there is a deeply ingrained human tendency to assume that unspeakable debaucheries must be transpiring beyond any threshold that one is not personally allowed to cross -- but if you have ever met a twenty-first century Mason, you will have reason to doubt that they are in fact such depraved emissaries of Babylon; and the same can be said of many a modern-day bro.

In the present case, the myth of the sinister power of the final clubs is no doubt abetted by the fact that the nineteen-year-old pledges who inhabit them would very much like to believe that they really are such dangerous people, and that they possess such pervasive social access. I recall at one point in the Social Network scene, a golf-club-toting and backward-cap-sporting bro is addressing a line of women. I guess they are about to be initiated into the voluptuary delights of the inner sanctum, like so many Mormon wives in a 19th century Protestant broadside. "How would you like to party with the future chairman of the Fed?" the bro asks. I can believe that there are bros in this world who have said things this idiotic. But the idea that any of them ever actually do grow up to be chairs of the Fed or of anything else, which Sorkin's script seems to be implying, is much harder to believe. One can't really picture Ben Bernanke being much use as a bro in college, even if he tried; still less Janet Yellen, and not just because of her gender.

But I guess this is the empirical question at the heart of the controversy: do the final club bros really succeed so often and so grandly in American society, despite not trying, despite being obnoxious and widely despised, despite drinking their way through college? Is our nation's elite actually comprised of members of a secretive mafia recruited from Skull and Bones and its Harvard equivalents? It's totally possible that it is, and I am just so far removed from such echelons that I don't notice it. But if the elite is really so elusive as this, that a person can spend his whole life in this society and not even know they exist, then are they really so dangerous, and do we need to care what they do one way or the other? Perhaps the members of this semi-legendary old boys network are like the gods of Epicurus, or the ghosts and spirits of Confucius -- they may exist somewhere, but if so they plainly do not much concern themselves with the likes of us, and so we need not fear them. 

If forced to choose, however, I would take an even less agnostic view of the matter, and say that no, they do not exist. After all, if we are going to try to predict which American schoolchild will one day achieve greatness under present conditions, I would pick the good Jewish boy or the offspring of Quaker academics or the Chinese violinist over the Porcellian bro every time.

The truth is that outsized success is often the product of an inward need for compensation -- the clever scholarship kid, the introverted performer, the comedian battling his insecurities -- you know how it is. All one can say is thank god for people with something to prove, for those inner reservoirs of rage, because without them nothing interesting would ever get done or written. As for the final clubs bros, on the other hand, the "legacy" students, who seem to coast from privilege to privilege without trying-- well, I'm sure they can grow up to be perfectly adequate I-bankers, or something equally unenviable; and they may even marry and add scions to their misbegotten race. But every human fate, however seemingly desirable from the outside, has its costs. Just as extraordinary success is often the product of an inner psychic turmoil, a comfortable life as an old Harvard hand in Westchester county, say, often comes at the price of stupidity-- and its close ally, conventionality. Not even the hyper-privileged are able to escape the burden of having a mind, after all, and either that mind is going to get stocked full of interesting things through deliberate effort, or it will condemn one to boredom and frustration, or to sadism, alcoholism, or other substitutes. Just turn to Robert Lowell's "Bobby Delano" -- a portrait of the "charmed" life of an unmistakeable member of the American hereditary elite, who dies "odious, unknowable, inspired as Ajax." 

Oh, but that's just my own compensations speaking, most likely. It's comforting, albeit in a cold sort of way, to think that deep down everybody has it just as bad as we do, only in different ways. "[A]ny life," George Orwell once put it, "when viewed from the inside[,] is simply a series of defeats." This theory, however, fails utterly to account for the presence among us of those inexplicable people whom we all have met -- the ones who seem to have more than 24 hours in the day, the effortlessly photogenic and well-coifed ones, the ones who obtain multiple advanced degrees and professional esteem all while raising two lovely children and running a half-marathon each day, the ones who have a charmingly self-deprecating sense of humor, even though as far as anyone else can tell there's nothing about them to deprecate. You must have seen them -- the higher beings, the perfect people, who are so terrible precisely because they are so likable. We shall call them the Towneleys, for simplicity's sake, after a minor character in The Way of All Flesh who is a fine literary specimen of the genre. As Butler describes him: "He was good at cricket and boating, very good-natured, singularly free from conceit, not clever but very sensible [...]  Fortune every now and then does things handsomely by a man all round; Towneley was one of those to whom she had taken a fancy, and the universal verdict in this case was that she had chosen wisely."

The existence of such people is a medical marvel, a wonder of psychiatry, violating all known laws of inner psychic tension and compensation, of the kind sketched above. Their failures do not make them disagreeable (not that they have any); their successes do not make them insipid. They somehow know everything and have read everything, yet still find time for all the other parts of a flourishing human life that the rest of us sacrifice in order to read and to know. Nor is there any consistent set of factors that are proven to give rise to such a person. Towneleys have not yet been replicated under laboratory conditions. Their successful adulthoods are not the products of earlier psychic defeats; and their unhappy childhoods -- if they had them -- left no lasting scars. They are simply able to do naturally and unconsciously what the rest of us scheme and scrimp and slave for our whole lives, and we go to our grave never learning the recipe for their special sauce. As Gottfried Benn once put it, voicing the bafflement of all schemers in the face of Towneleys:
I have met people who grew up in a single room with their parents
and four brothers and sisters, […]
and grew up to be beautiful and self-possessed as duchesses—  
I have often asked myself and never found an answer
whence kindness and gentleness come,
I don’t know it to this day, and now must go myself.
The finest philosophical meditation on the transcendent mystery of the Towneleys, however, comes, of course, from the author who first discovered them, much as a naturalist discovers a breed of grouse. As Samuel Butler writes:
"The people like Towneley are the only ones who know anything that is worth knowing, and like that of course I can never be.  But to make Towneleys possible there must be hewers of wood and drawers of water [...] through whom conscious knowledge must pass before it can reach those who can apply it gracefully and instinctively as the Towneleys can. I am a hewer of wood, but if I accept the position frankly and do not set up to be a Towneley, it does not matter."
I am afraid I am not able to deny here the existence of the Towneleys; they exist, and they are simply better than you and I by most metrics. I can offer this reassurance, however, which allows me to salvage most if not all of the argument up to this point: Towneleys are not the people who join final clubs. If they were, they would rapidly cease to be Towneleys, for the essence of Towneley-ness, as Butler explains, is its effortless quality -- it is "graceful and instinctive."  Towneleys do not have superior things or belong to superior clubs; they simply are superior. To pledge for a club or a fraternity, by contrast, would already be trying too hard. More importantly, the last and final perfection of the Towneleys is always that we like them; that's what makes them so insufferable. One cannot even claim a moral victory over the Towneleys -- they are good people, in addition to everything else. 

One can claim such a victory, however -- and that quite easily --- over the Bobby Delanos of the world. And it is the likes of these latter who actually find their way into Porcellian. And, to restate the conclusion reached above, the lot of the Bobby Delanos is not what one should envy.

This is the truth that the Harvard scheme to crush the final clubs fails to appreciate -- this is what it gets so very wrong. It assumes that the outsiders all actually do, or at least, should, want to join such clubs. Thus, in the very act of combatting them, the university actually endows the clubs with more credibility. All of which, by the way, is such a characteristically Harvard thing to do! It's the equivalent of the "I go to a school in Cambridge" line one sometimes heard, from students resistant to dropping the so-called H-bomb. It's an evasion prompted by a misguided sense of propriety (I take it the underlying thought is something like: "I don't want to annoy anyone by seeming like I'm bragging"), but it actually ends up insulting one's listeners even more. As a fellow U of C-er once pointed out to me, in reference to the alien Ivy Leaguers -- "It's like they assume my self-esteem is so minimal that I will be crushed and defeated just at learning that someone else goes to Harvard." 

The administration's action of eliminating the final clubs follows the same pattern. "We know you all are devastated by the fact that you can't be a part of these groups, so we will destroy them for you, in order to spare your feelings." But what if we were never actually devastated? What about the secret third option, pursued by all but an infinitesimally small percentage of human beings, and indeed, by many Harvard students -- that of simply not caring about the clubs one way or the other, or of holding those who join them in a vague and largely indifferent disdain? Nobody can blackball you if you never pledge, after all. No one can beat you at a game you don't play; or, as Joan Didion writes in The White Album, with well-earned bravado, "nobody forces [you] to buy the package."

To take away what the final clubs have is to avow that whatever it is is worth having. It is burning down the palace and wearing the king's jewels, instead of throwing them in the river. It is, like all desires for vengeance against one's captors, a sure indicator that one has not in fact been emancipated. It is what Sylvia Townsend Warner calls, in Lolly Willowes, a "slavish remnant"-- a desire to kick the goad because one hasn't actually rid oneself of it. 

When true liberation has been achieved; when one is really free of the bros and the Delanos and all the rest -- and not just free of their presence, but of belief in their values; then one no longer needs to destroy other people's final clubs. They can have them, with blessings. One doesn't need to write blog posts like this one anymore, for such an objectively insignificant topic would no longer provoke so many thoughts. Rather, in such a worthy and desirable condition, one's anger would pass from one like an exorcised spirit; for the highest victory is forgiveness, and this -- the usual clichés be damned -- is very much the same thing as forgetting.

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