Sixty years ago Yvor Winters wrote a moving essay on Hart Crane called “What Are We To Do With Professor X?” Crane and Winters were correspondents and friends for several years; they broke over Winters’ largely hostile review of “The Bridge” in 1930; Crane jumped off an ocean liner two years later. Winters charges Crane’s suicide to his belief in Emersonian advocacy of instinct over intellect and change for its own sake. (To anyone who doubts that this is in fact Emerson’s philosophy I suggest reading “The Oversoul,” “Self-Reliance,” “Art,” or “Spiritual Laws” straight through, instead of the little snippets from them that are so frequently quoted.) He contrasts Crane, “a saint of the wrong religion,” who took those ideas with literally deadly seriousness, with genteel Professor X, who holds the same ideas but would not dream of actually practicing them:
Professor X can be met four or five times on the faculty of nearly every university in the country: I have lost count of the avatars in which I have met him. He usually teaches American literature or American history, but he may teach something else. And he admires Emerson and Whitman.
He says that Emerson in any event did not go mad and kill himself; the implication is that Emerson’s doctrines do not lead to madness and suicide. But in making this objection, he neglects to restate and defend Emerson’s doctrines as such, and he neglects to consider the historical forces which restrained Emerson and which had lost most of their power of restraint in Crane’s time and part of the country. [Crane was born in Cleveland in 1899.] … The Emersonian doctrine, which is merely the romantic doctrine with a New England emotional coloration, should naturally result in madness if one really lived it; it should result in literary confusion if one really wrote it. Crane accepted it; he lived it; he wrote it; and we have seen what he was and what he wrote.
Professor X says, or since he is a gentleman and a scholar, he implies, that Crane was merely a fool, that he ought to have known better. But the fact of the matter is, that Crane was not a fool. I knew Crane, as I know Professor X, and I am reasonably certain that Crane was incomparably the more intelligent man. As to Crane’s ideas, they were merely those of Professor X, neither better nor worse; and for the rest, he was able to write great poetry. In spite of popular or even academic prejudices to the contrary, it takes a very highly developed intelligence to write great poetry, even a little of it. So far as I am concerned, I would gladly emulate Odysseus, if I could, and go down to the shadows for another hour’s conversation with Crane on the subject of poetry; whereas, politeness permitting, I seldom go out of my way to discuss poetry with Professor X.
In the role of Professor X today is David Fiore, who is pleased that PETA exists. I have made my objections to the concept of animal rights elsewhere and will not rehearse them here; they are beside my point. Now PETA has been excoriated, properly and often, for its advocacy and funding of violence and terrorism. It is less often noted that these follow necessarily from its position. If you believe, like Ingrid Newkirk, that a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy, then fire-bombing a laboratory is a small price to pay to stop what, by your lights, is mass murder. I can respect this view even as I wish to jail anyone who tries to put it into practice.
David begins courageously enough: “I’ve made a radical choice. So have you.” But he fails to comprehend just how radical the choice is: “And certainly, I don’t condone any acts of violence Animal Rights people might commit. That’s just insanity, you don’t make change by terrorizing the majority. Change happens when the majority assents to it… Moreover, I don’t have the slightest desire to “convert” anyone, I like just about everybody, and I’m not suited to delivering harangues…” David has, and can have, no moral objection to violence on behalf of the bunny rabbits; it is a mere question of tactics: “you don’t make change by terrorizing the majority.” Winters writes that Professor X “once reproved me for what he considered my contentiousness by telling me that he himself had yet to see the book that he would be willing to quarrel over.” And so David, who likes just about everybody, prefers that PETA deliver the harangues on his behalf.
Sometimes hypocrisy is, as La Rochefoucauld says, the tribute vice pays to virtue; sometimes, as in this case, the tribute fanaticism pays to sanity. A significant minority of Americans believes that abortion is murder. Yet in their next breath they will condemn clinic bombers — because they are hypocrites, fortunately. In a society of mass murderers, armed resistance becomes a perfectly logical, even admirable, response.
The most shocking thing about 9/11 wasn’t the deaths, or the image of the World Trade Towers collapsing. It was the realization that some people are willing to die for their ideas, foolish as they are, while most of us treat ideas like shiny playthings that you can put back in the toy chest when you’re finished with them. I have friends who say the trouble nowadays is that no one takes ideas seriously. They should thank their lucky stars. When nearly everyone thinks as badly as possible, Professor X may be the best we can hope for.16 Comments