Jan 012004

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.

(Update: David Fiore replies on his blog, and in the comments.

  16 Responses to “Professor X Today”

  1. The PETA view is that killing animals is murder. You are of course entitled to dissociate yourself from that view, but you’ve written about animal rights a good deal without having done so.

    Armed resistance is a morally justified response to mass murder. Violence has a poor record of changing hearts and minds but an excellent one of changing policy; but this is tactics, and no one who believes that meat is murder is entitled to condemn it on any other grounds. In fact John Brown’s raid, which I think was morally justified and condemn only on tactical grounds, did a great deal to start the Civil War and ultimately end American slavery. You ought to acknowledge publicly that you think lab vandals are morally justified, as PETA does.

    One cannot, without hurting human interests, enlarge the sphere of human affections indefinitely — to, say, plants, or malarial mosquitos, or rats with plague. Therefore such enlargement, delightful as it sounds, cannot be good in itself.

    Lacking your insight into the design of Providence, I regard "liking" murderers and their accomplices as unsuitable, to put it mildly. But I am curious what Providence has to say on the subject of punishment, if no one has the right to punish anyone else. Does Providence recommend emptying the jails?

  2. So I’m either a hypocrite or a vigilante, is that it?

    I don’t believe that killing a fetus or an animal is murder, but I do believe that killing a person is murder. Nevertheless, I don’t go after murderers with guns because I believe that force should be the monopoly of the state. Why can’t Fiore believe that killing animals is murder, but deplore vigilantism and instead lobby for laws that punish animal abusers appropriately?

  3. People like you and me who oppose person-killing are in the comfortable position of having a state that is willing and able to enforce our animus. But suppose the state condoned person-killing, as it condones animal-killing: how would you behave then? This is the question.

    I’m not suggesting that David is obliged to bomb laboratories personally. He is obliged to acknowledge that animal-killers ought to be executed or, at the least, jailed, and this he refuses to do.

  4. Aaron,

    I will go back and look at your PETA posts as soon as I possibly can, but for now, a quick response–or a question, really:

    Didn’t you condemn John Brown in my comments section? And if you were unwilling to sanction his behaviour, does that mean that you, at this late date, are still unconvinced that slavery is an immoral institution–or are you just the Professor X of the slave question?

    Of course not. You were merely, and quite correctly, proceding upon the assumption that violence never converted anybody to any position–and that conversion is what is required in order to work real societal change.

    As we know, even the physical conquest of the American South did very little to eradicate the idea from White Southerners’ minds that black people were inferior to themselves. Yes, slaves were freed, but after Reconstruction came a 75 year terror campaign that didn’t even begin to slacken until the image of the Holocaust shocked a great many people in the West into a more universal commitment to Human Rights…

    The case I’m advancing re:Animal Rights is not dissimilar. I don’t want to see anyone hurt because: 1. violence doesn’t change hearts & minds; 2. no one has any right to "punish" anyone else… I don’t mind being called a hypocrite–hypocrisy has ever been the engine of progress–but I don’t even think that, in this particular case, I’m being hypocritical at all. I believe that PETA, as an "instrument of conversion", is necessary to the design of Providence, and I’d fight (to the death, if need be) for their right to disseminate their message… but I’m not going to waste my time hating people who are lost to the cause I believe in. This is supposed to be about enlarging the sphere of human affections (as they have previously been enlarged beyond the narrow confines of the tribe, and the nation), not creating new animosities.

    Do you see what I mean?


  5. "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…"

    To whom were you referring when you use the phrase "some people"? To the skyjackers? Or to the firemen, policemen and clergy who died that day? More people than you think are willing to die for what they believe. Ask any Delta force member or military rescue pilot. There are millions of people in fact.

    You just didn’t think of them, did you, because they don’t tend to write books you would consider reading?

    No, the most shocking thing about 9/11 was the death and mayhem. Ask anybody but an intellectual.

  6. very well written aaron

    now how can anyone not think killing a fetus is murder?

    it is entirely a rationalization for the sake of conveince

    we have proclaimed the woman as "God" she has the so called choice of life or death for the baby

  7. Aaron,

    Look what you got yourself into now! Who is Jay McKee? He sounds a little bit scary to me!


  8. The essay does not make a strong connection between Crane’s position and PETAs, nor does it make a connection between Emerson’s doctrine and PETAs. Many people have blamed the philosophy for the suicide of a close friend, the outpouring does not convince.

    What does convince is the second part of the essay – that if one morally believes that animals have the same "rights" as people, then one is morally obligated to view killing animals, in large numbers, with the same moral outrage that killing large numbers of people entails.

    To say "well, I am willing to wait until you see otherwise through reason" is not hypocrisy – it is saying "well, since it isn’t my neck on the line, I am inclined to wait."

    The basic problem with animals – or anything else that does not reason, or will not come to reason, having "rights" is that rights are a function of responsibilities to uphold them. Children have rights, but not the same rights as adults, because while children will, one day, be able to uphold their rights, fufilling social responsibilities, they cannot do so now.

    And in the end, we have only those rights, which we can defend. A rock cannot defend its rights, nor act to defend the rights of another – and this is, at bottom, the cost of having a right, the willingness to risk ones "life, fortune and sacred honour" to defend that same right for others.

  9. Bill: I was of course referring to the skyjackers. Soldiers and policemen do not die for ideas; they die, sometimes, in the course of doing their jobs, which they take for many reasons, of which ideology is usually well down the list. To point out this obvious fact is not to diminish them, and I have expressed my appreciation in no uncertain terms.

    David: Jay is a friend of mine who has the courage of convictions that I do not agree with.

  10. Stirling,

    I think you make an excellent point re: Animals being unable to fight for their rights. It’s true, and that’s why Kantian Animal Rights activists spend so much of their time trying to establish that animals are capable of reasoning… In the case of primates and dolphins, I’m not closing the book on the idea, but I don’t think it’s necesary.

    As I stated on my blog, I see "animal rights" as roughly equivalent to the rights that we (correctly) extend to severely retarded or brain-damaged humans. I’m never going to argue in favour of animal representation in the Canadian parliament, for example (or mandatory schooling for my cats), but I think the minmum we can ask for is that we refrain from using sentient beings to satisfy our own needs–particularly when human beings no longer have any compelling reason to do so for their own self-preservation.

    And no Aaron, I’m not going to say that I want to see people put to death for their crimes against animal kind. Whatever happened to "hate the sin, not the sinner"? I may appreciate the role of William Lloyd Garrison, but it seems like Theodore Dwight Weld had a much richer life (and a much more painful one too–because hate is a wonderful salve–but I guess that goes without saying)

    Now about this Emersonian ideas lead to suicide and madness thing… I may have something for ya soon!


  11. …or the physician who trekked to China to study SARs, only to meet his doom, or the the Ebola hunters and vulcanists and physicists who dealt with Chernoble or astronauts…many people die for a cause, although death is not their goal. Most are worthwhile causes.

  12. PS And yes, you are right (as you presented in the link) there are some people who are morally superior, just as there are smarter, stronger and swifter people. Most of us have a hard time acknowledging this.

  13. Stirling: You find the evidence that Crane’s ideas were responsible for his suicide unconvincing because, in the interest of brevity, I omitted it. I hate to tell anyone to read the whole thing, but I see no way to avoid it here.

    David: We extend some rights to mental defectives not because they are more or less sentient but because they are human, and as bright-line legal distinctions go, species is a damn good one. The business of no longer needing to kill animals for self-preservation raises an interesting point. I will leave aside the question of the truth of this, and ask only: when we did need to kill them, was it OK then? You’re arguing for rights, remember.

  14. Perhaps Crane read "The Sorrows of Young Werther"? Or perhaps the terrorists did?

  15. Aaron,

    No. As far as I’m concerned it was never okay to kill them. Nor do I think it was ever okay to treat women as second class citizens or grind the poor into the dust–but those things did not stop until technological/biochemical innovations made it possible for most of us in the West to allow ourselves to begin thinking about them as moral problems.

    Which of us is the realist here?


  16. A pacifist who won’t fight for human rights with physical force, like Gandhi, is not a hypocrite if he also refuses to fight for his version of animal "rights." It is only the man who advocates violent revoltuion when it comes to people, but who stops short when it involves animal’s rights, that has earned the title. Even if his animal "rights" are no different from those of children or the mentally challenged, it is rank dishonesty to stop short of the very same means one would employ in defending the "rights" of children (for which I myself would give my life.) Anything less debases the concept of "rights."

    Too many people do not take ideas "seriously" these days. It is this very fact which accounts for the obscene lack of integrity one can observe all around us today. The hypocrite, like everyone else, is governed by his ideas. Only he refuses to name the actual ideas which control his behavior, prefering to see himself as a "Christian," say, even when he knows he cannot begin to live like one.

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