A war doesn’t merely kill off a few thousand or a few hundred thousand men. It kills off something in a people that can never be brought back. And if a people goes through enough wars, pretty soon all that’s left is the brute, the creature that we – you and I and others like us – have brought up from the slime. The scholar should not be asked to destroy what he has aimed his life to build.
Stoner’s mentor, Archer Sloane, utters these remarks after the onset of World War I severely degraded the University’s community. Ostensibly safe in the intellectualization of war, Sloane finds a way to feel apart of its tragic reality, likely as a means of catharsis, a way out of feeling any real responsibility for events over there. And it is in what he imagines and articulates about war that we are meant to empathize with him. Poor old scholar, humbly minding his business, and here comes this petulant child, War, to interrupt his quiet study. How sad.
We are also meant to empathize with the tragic (relatively minor) wars in which Stoner is engaged throughout his life, which, because he experiences them, should matter just the same. Secure in the comfort that we’re reading a text, we can make the leap to feel for Stoner and his consistent woes (although he does get on better than we’re directed to believe for most of the story). Like Sloane, however, we only really feel for Stoner if we can navigate our way clearly back to ourselves. Sloane’s contempt and lament for the war is about the threat it poses to his own identity (or, if not a threat, at least how it relates to himself); in fact, his indictment of war’s corruptive power is insulting, condescending, naive, and self-centered. It’s only significant to him because it may undermine his scholarly self, without which he would be not only lost, but destroyed. He needs the University, and he needs there to be a majority of people for whom the University is not suitable.
Perhaps it is not only the soldiers who find the worst of human brutality during war; the bystanders, looking on from a distance with a shifting and inconsequential mix of pride, pity, anger, and apathy, are just as guilty of re-erecting themselves from slime. They are promised a greater chance of survival, at least, which may be worse for all of us. They may only get stronger in their tranquil domestication. If anything, war should bring to light and to question the very purpose of the scholarly pursuit, and other intentionally insular activity. Just what is it that Sloane, Stoner, and all scholars do that benefits us? It’s not even clear that it benefits them.