a column by Gal Katz
Every now and then a starry-eyed academic reminds us that there is something called Eros and that we have to be careful not to sacrifice it on the altar of conventional morality. A recent essay in the Boston Review is the latest instance of this genre. The writers, Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran, two junior Yale professors, warn that “in our current rush to respond to sexual harassment claims with effective actions, we may be engaging in … a moral panic.” They hope that the classroom remains a “safe space” which leaves room for “ambiguity”, and that we have to recognize that “we and our students are embodied beings.”
There is, however, nothing ambiguous or nuanced about this piece. The writers take us on a hyperbolic tour of all the usual suspects, the most canonical of Western canons—from Plato through Abelard, Heloise and Montaigne, to Freud and Arendt, whose love of her Nazi professor is famous. They even remind us that Jean-Paul Sartre, while “distinctly homely” (read: ugly), still won the heart of beautiful Simone, so as to show that intellectual charisma can trump the shortcomings of a less-than-impressive flesh.
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For me, the essay was timely in more than the obvious sense. I recently found myself facing the dilemma in question. Teaching the twelfth-century romance between Abelard and Heloise, I found my post-#MeToo freshmen to be promptly suspicious. “But he was her professor!” one student exclaimed, before elaborating on Abelard’s “toxic masculinity.” Another, likening Abelard to the character in the New Yorker story “Cat Person,” concluded that “he was being a total jerk.”
And he was. An academic star in his mid-thirties set his eyes on a bright adolescentula. Just look how smug he is:
I concluded that she was the best one to bring to my bed. I was sure it would be easy: I was famous myself at the time, young, and exceptionally good-looking, and could not imagine that any woman I thought worthy of my love would turn me down. But I thought that this particular girl would be even more likely to give in because of her knowledge and love of letters.
My situation was delicate. I had been planning to present this toxic predator, and a fellow teacher, as initiating a brave and beautiful human interaction.
Armed with Yale-style, Boston Review-ratified, self-help empowerment, I could have reminded my students that there is nothing bad in desire as such. It can even be a vehicle for pedagogical magic! Following the lead of Figlerowicz and Ramachandran, I should have supported my students’ “as yet fluid, and often unselfconscious, identifications and projections.” After all, why should my pupils feel ashamed of the little crushes they might be harboring for me? (I like to think I’m at least as charismatic as Jean-Paul, and have been told on a number of occasions that I’m much hotter than “distinctly homely.” Simone would pick me—even over Camus, hopefully? —any day of May. Come Simone! I’ll be at my usual table at les Deux Magots, sipping chocolat chaud and reading the Symposium.)
Happily, we can always count on Plato to be more sophisticated than those who cite him. Indeed, the ridicule of academic Eros is as old as Eros. In the Gorgias, Callicles, an accomplished Athenian man, doesn’t bother hiding his amused contempt for Socrates’s pedagogical exertions. The philosopher, he says, “flies from the busy center and the marketplace, in which, as the poet says, men become distinguished; he creeps into a corner for the rest of his life, and talks in a whisper with three or four admiring youths, but never speaks out like a freeman in a satisfactory manner.” The philosopher, then, is a creep or a loser, or more precisely—a creep because he’s a loser.
Any graduate student who regularly goes on Tinder dates in New York is familiar with the bewilderment of certain “career-oriented” individuals upon hearing that you’re still a student. They’re mostly too polite to ask: But wait, doesn’t it say in your profile that you’re over thirty? How much do you make? How much will you make? (Of course, many grad students have never gone on a date with anyone outside the familiar bubble. That’s a legitimate feel-good strategy, but it’s not that different from creeping in a corner.)
I may be projecting contempt onto my dates, but this (academic) inferiority complex often comes together with the superiority complex that prompts us to believe that our students can’t have enough of our intellectual charisma. Figlerowicz and Ramachandran claim that “a defining characteristic of university life is the entanglement of stimulating ideas and charismatic people.” My question: When did you last visit the cafeteria? Sure, the ideas are great and there’s a handful of interesting personalities, but they tend to disappear in the masses of Adderall-fueled academic mice, terrified of an overbearing advisor or the periodical tenure committee, immersed in an adolescence extending well into one’s forties.
I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as academic Eros, nor that Callicles’s marketplace is more important than Socrates’s corner. There is a reason why I chose the corner. I suspect, however, that our occasional chatter about Eros testifies less to the Eros and more to a common academic fantasy.
The wellspring of this fantasy, the supposed scandal, is not that there is desire between students and professors—or that #MeToo may kill it (rest assured: it won’t). The real scandal is that there is very little of it. Many of our students just want their A- or B+ so that they can go on to careers much more lucrative and powerful than ours. Their approach to the education we offer them is instrumental. But if this is especially true in the neoliberal university of our day (even at Yale!), it was also true even in Plato’s time. Callicles is happy to admit that philosophy is valuable but only at a young age, lest you “turn out entirely ignorant of the ways of men.”
If my train of thought lends itself to a determinate pedagogical insight, it’s that I’d like both me and my students to project less. I promise not to project crushes onto my students: not to compare myself to Peter Abelard, let alone to Martin or to Hannah (I even promise to giggle when I read pretentious, self-flattering fantasies about our intellectual irresistibility in the Boston Review). In the same vein, I ask my students to postpone projecting onto Abelard Harvey Weinstein or the Cat Person. Heloise and Abelard are not on Great Books syllabi as therapy for our latest bad date.
Incidentally, Heloise, even many years after the forbidden affair, and despite Abelard’s regrets and violent condemnation from her family, never disowns her desire. “The pleasures we shared in love were sweet, so sweet they cannot displease me now,” she writes. In a blasphemous twist on the Augustinian doctrine that a good intention makes for a good action, she suggests that the carnal sin they shared was purified by the love they intended.
Saying that Heloise endorsed the romance with her professor, alas, is not a defiance of our “conventional morality”—not only because exceptions have the habit of reinforcing the convention, but also because, as I think Plato knew well, it’s a bit pathetic to say you defy the norms when you’re mostly stuck in a corner. Or as Callicles puts it: “Whenever someone hears a man mumbling, or sees him act childishly, he finds it ridiculous, unmanly, deserving a beating.”
And yet, Callicles’s speech is also an admonition. Unlike all the Yale professors I know, Socrates was beaten; he was ultimately executed for corrupting the Athenian youth. If we academics are so pathetic, why do the Callicleses of the world desire to beat us?
While I remember, and admire, the rare occasions when the corner spills into the marketplace, when words become (or are) great deeds, I also know that discourse about it is mostly self-flattery. Let me take the risk and sound a bit like Callicles: if you want to desire, desire, if you want to defy conventional morality, defy—don’t chatter about it. Or if you do, take a note from Socrates. It’s called irony.
For even stranger things, follow Gal Katz on Twitter: @galgalkatz.