I’m too bright for the world, and I won’t keep my mouth shut about it; it’s a disease for which there is no cure. So I must be locked up, where I can be safely irresponsible, where I can do no harm…It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuits of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear.
Welcome to part I of a series of responses to John Williams’ Stoner, a strangely poignant work which I’ve recently devoured and am only beginning to digest. It’s unlikely that I’ll summon forth my literary criticism forces in any of these brief pieces; instead, I’m hoping to pursue the practical and/or philosophical import of the quotes I isolate. Enough preamble…
Here we’re caught in the middle of a painfully privileged conversation (although Stoner, in terms of social class, does not qualify as such; along the axes of gender and race, however, he’s winning) about the particular purpose of the University, and indeed, about institutionalized knowledge generally. That is, it unveils our former gatekeepers (the book having been written in the 60s and about an even earlier time, long before the chaotic dissemination of information now). According to William Stoner’s friend, Dave Masters (quoted here), the University is a refuge for the intellectually strong; in graver terms, those who have the advantage of secured survival and the so the luxury of (relatively free) thought. These are the people who are thriving by means of accumulated advantage, increasingly protected and segregated from threats to their pitiful bastion of “virtue.” I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s vindictive lament about the genealogy of morals; these characters would surely perish without social institution and psychological warfare. (Ironically, Nietzsche and his frail body would have as well…what a strange philosophy it is to call venomously, yet playfully, for your own self-annihilation; to regret the very circumstances that give you the freedom to express that regret in writing.) Basically, no one in the University (or in a position of power) would survive without the system that favors their participation, yet every individual is deluded into thinking he’s there because of some personal value.
What develops from here in the narrative is only worthwhile and meaningful for those who benefit as well from the system that gives life to such characters. Stoner’s story is compelling because I can relate to the unfair comforts he enjoys, the ones that set him free to experience “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” in the mind, that is. Like Hamlet, Stoner ends up on the winning side of the system, which means he’s physically immune from any real slings and arrows; this allows him access to powerful feelings of triumph and loss unavailable to most of society, in terms of the consciousness he gets to couple with his fundamental emotional experience. Of course, there’s no promise that adding a mental layer to your interpretive framework helps matters much; it just makes them different.
But as we’ll explore in forthcoming posts, the life of the mind and of the body, regardless of the combination of the two with which you ultimately endure your life, adds up to the same end. That which frames everything and makes it all nothing.