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Andrew Delbanco

Author and Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, named by Time as “America’s Best Social Critic,” talks about his new Melville biography—one that’s actually enjoyable to read.

Author, essayist, and Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco has written extensively on American history and culture. In 2001, he was named “America’s Best Social Critic” by Time magazine, which said: As a teacher “Delbanco’s contribution … comes with every student he inspires. His model would appear to be Emerson, who, ‘like every great teacher,’ as Delbanco once wrote, ‘was in the business of trying to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep.”’ Delbanco is doing his part to jostle her awake too… Delbanco reads America and its literature so closely and so well, finding so much meaning in our great books, even for 2001—especially for 2001—that he stands worthy of recognition.”

He is the author of The Puritan Ordeal, William Ellery Channing, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil and The Real American Dream. In addition, he edited Writing New England, an anthology, and The Portable Abraham Lincoln, a collection of the president’s writings.

Most recently, Delbanco has published Melville: His World and Work, a well-regarded biography of the author of Moby-Dick. In another setting Delbanco opines on how and why Melville’s major opus has a new resonance and meaning in the 21st century:

I think Melville understood that Ahab’s genius was his insight into the fact that all of them [the crew of the Pequod] felt that they, too, had been wounded by the world. I think we all feel that we’ve in some way been mistreated or missed a chance or somebody else has gotten something that we deserved. Ahab taps into that feeling, and brings them around so that they become as intent on hunting down and killing that whale as he is. …

Up until Sept. 11, I had always presented that chapter in Moby-Dick to my students in something like the way I’ve just described it. I’ve always taken the opportunity to point out that it was in the 1930s and 1940s that Melville was discovered as the great genius that we now understand him to be. I think that had something to do with the fact that people alive in those years were witnessing the emergence in Europe of a demagogue who had many of the talents that Ahab had—a mesmerizing speaker, an ability to bring young people around to seeing the world the way he saw.

In making that case, I’m drawn to one particular comment that Melville makes about the whale, in which he says in Moby-Dick, “Ahab found evil visibly personified and made practically assailable.” That is, in the whale, in the gigantic body of the white whale, Ahab found a target. He found something one could aim at, one could strike at, through which one could feel a sense of power responding to what the world had done to him.

Of course, that’s what Hitler did in Germany in the 1930s. He explained to the German people that their suffering, their indignity, was all ascribable to one visibly personified and practically assailable enemy, namely, the Jews.

In the talk that follows, Delbanco (of the literary Delbancos—brother Nicholas and niece Francesca) and I wander through the landscape of literary history, expound on the nature of biography and explore American pedagogy—amongst other things. And yeah, we talk a bit about Herman Melville.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: You have written a number of books, and it occurs to me that deciding to write a biography of Melville could not have been a sudden impulse.

Andrew Delbanco: That’s true.

RB: So, how long had you been thinking about it?

AD: It’s probably been percolating for at least 20 years. In fact, as I think about it, maybe even 25 years. Melville has been a writer who has mattered to me for a very long time, and I have always had an inclination toward biography. But I have only attempted it in shorter forms—and my critical essays tend to have a biographical structure. So I was thinking about this book for a long time, and I am glad that I didn’t write it sooner because it took everything that I had to write it. I don’t think I would have had what it took when I was much younger. We could talk about that if you like.

RB: Let’s.

AD: As you say, I have written a lot of other books, and they tend to be arguments. Sometimes polemical, sometimes not. When you make an argumentthat stretches over time, a historical argument, you can be pretty free about picking and choosing the exhibits you want to include to make the argument persuasive. And there is a fine line between falsifying by playing free and easy with the infinite amount of available evidence that you can choose from and being creative and making your own shape out of the vast amount of evidence. That’s what I was doing for years in my other work. But I found that writing a critical biography is a different enterprise. I felt a different responsibility to my subject. This was a human being of enormous complexity, and when you write about a person over a sustained period of time, you come to feel you are living with him. And, just as you wouldn’t say casual things about a close friend or a family member just because it struck you as amusing or interesting to say them, that’s the way I felt as I got into the work. I had to do my very best to understand Melville’s experience, his mind, his imagination. It was a harder thing than I have ever attempted before.

Delbanco, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2006RB: Doubly hard because of the lack of basic documents—letters, papers, and such—that one might normally have?

AD: Harder in one sense. Though a good friend wrote me a really nice letter about the book, saying he thought maybe also there were some advantages in the fact there was so little external evidence. It’s harder, certainly—the way I try to illustrate it for people is to say that Melville left 300 letters from a life of 72 years, and many of those letters are perfunctory. Henry James left 12,000 letters, which were quite lengthy and in many cases about himself. [chuckles], so there is plenty of evidence for the biographer of Henry James. But there are great stretches of Melville’s life, not just weeks at time, even years at a time, when you really can’t keep track of him. That is a disadvantage if you are interested in writing an incidental, day-to-day, chronicle-type biography. That’s impossible to do for Melville. It’s been tried but I think it’s impossible. Anyway, that’s not the kind of book I was trying to write.

RB: In general, I am not fond of that kind of biography. And in fact, I have found in recent years James Atlas’s Short Lives series, and that these 200-page biographical essays are sufficient to deal with most people. Exactly what I want. I don’t need to read 800 pages on Mao. And I wonder what the purpose is of documenting every baby step?

AD: Well, I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask, because I didn’t try to do that.

RB: Had you had the material?

AD: No, for a number of reasons. Biography of that sort tends to degenerate into what might be called higher gossip. And my interest was the work. I have a friend who wrote a biography who said to me when I asked her to what extent she treated the work, “Only to the extent that it illuminated the life.” That’s a perfectly legitimate position for the kind of book she was writing. But my approach was the opposite. I wanted to see the interplay between the life and the work—and my hope for this book is that it illuminates the work.

RB: There are a lot of gut calls, speculation, to say what the illuminated interplay is.

AD: There are. “Gut calls” is a good way to put it. And that’s one of the other things I found hard about this. It seemed it required tact, literary tact. You don’t burrow into the life because you can’t get there and you start making it up very quickly. So, for instance, I didn’t declare what the marital relationship was like between Herman and Lizzie. There is some evidence that it was strained and tense. There may even have been some domestic violence. But we can’t know the answer to those questions. And there is a way in which I don’t even want to know.

RB: I could see that it might mean something, but I thought quoting [Somerset] Maugham on Melville’s possible homosexuality—what would that tell us about his work? What do we know if we now know that?

AD: As you know from reading the book, I don’t take a position on that question. I am not even sure I know what the question would mean in a 19th-century context.

RB: You felt obliged to air it out?

AD: Part of what I tried to do in the book is to take account of and pay respect to the various approaches to Melville over the years. And Melville’s sexuality has become a great preoccupation for a lot of critics and people interested in Melville.

RB: Now?

AD: Now. Maugham was one of the early figures who suggested that.

RB: Do those interested in his sexual preferences tend to be gay scholars?

AD: I’m not sure I would commit to—

RB: Was Maugham gay?

AD: In some probably complicated way, yes. But I don’t know if exclusively and straightforwardly. Yeah, sure—Newton Arvin, for instance, was gay at a time you weren’t allowed to confess that in public, and his way of writing about Melville’s treatment of sexual themes is very elliptical and indirect. But Pierre is a book which is almost impossible to understand if you don’t at least open the possibility that Melville is trying to find a vocabulary for talking about what people nowadays would call transgressive sexuality. I don’t think I overdid the point, but it would be prudish or silly not to mention it.

RB: It seems like an investigative cul de sac. You go there and then it doesn’t lead to or connect to something else. Maybe interesting, but what do you conclude? It’s an interesting ambient feature of his life.

I didn’t declare what the marital relationship was like between Herman and Lizzie. There is some evidence that it was strained and tense. There may even have been some domestic violence. But we can’t know the answer to those questions. And there is a way in which I don’t even want to know. AD: Right. That’s fair.

RB: I guess it is a testimony to your success and the readability of this book that I was able to read a lengthy biography despite my biases. I thought the “money graf”—to speak in the argot of journalism—was where you asserted in the middle of the book, “Though Melville had been born and died in the 19th century, Moby-Dick was the work of a 20th-century imagination. As we begin our transition into the 21st century, this book has lost none of its salience.”

AD: There’s a literary critic named Jane Tompkins who once made the suggestion that we could rewrite the history of American literature by ordering your topics in the order in which they became important in the culture. And so your chapter on Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be in the 19th-century section since Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a big book when it came out and people argued about it and it meant something. But Moby-Dick wouldn’t turn up until your 20th-century chapter because it’s in the 20th century that it becomes alive in the culture. That’s probably an impractical way to write literary history, but there is something to it.

RB: Who made the claim that Moby-Dick is the most ambitious book attempted by an American author?

AD: It sounds like a sentence I wrote in my book. Did you find it dubious? [laughs]

RB: I think those kinds of absolute claims are, uh—

AD: It was a bit of a flourish at the end of a chapter. But I would be hard-pressed to bring to the table another work from the 19th century that tried to do so many things, and tried to get its arms around so many subjects and see the whole human universe as Melville imagined it. Why don’t we leave aside the question of the “most” and agree that it was a very ambitious work.

RB: When you are a young student, you are introduced to any number of works, classics, so-called, Moby-Dick among them. And just as you talked about not being prepared to write this man’s biography, I don’t know why anyone thinks that even the most precocious reader would be prepared to read this novel.

AD: I couldn’t agree more. I would never teach Moby-Dick in high school. I tend not to teach it in my American literature survey classes. I reserve it for seminars taken mainly by seniors.

RB: Whose idea is that to teach it in secondary schools? [laughs]

AD: I have no idea. And certainly it’s not a book to be taught by excerpting it. The short fiction, some of it is accessible to younger people, particularly “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” But no, Moby-Dick is not a book for—

RB: I was not turned off from reading, but I do wonder if trying to force young students to read classics doesn’t have an adverse effect. What does it have to do with any kid’s experience of his or her own world?

AD: Well, I’m not sure a gifted teacher couldn’t wake up kids—

RB: How many gifted teachers are there in the public schools?

AD: There’s a problem. It’s all about the teacher. There is a very long list of books that can work in the classroom and get kids excited, and Moby-Dick is probably one of them, although it’s a very demanding text for the young. But a gifted teacher can make it relevant for the lives of early-21st-century late adolescents. It is, after all, a story about a young man going to sea and coming of age and discovering the darker aspects of humans experience.

RB: True, but the language is hardly direct and not of the time and circumlocutious.

AD: It’s true. One of the things Melville does—and this is what I love about him—is pull language from all the different corners of society. There is religious language, there’s political oratory, the classificatory scientific language of the time. There’s nautical language. And he loves mixing all this together and watching the different ways of speaking and writing compete with each other as descriptions of reality. So the subtitle of my book is His World and Work. And one of the things I was trying to do was to strike a balance between making the claim that he is a writer who matters now while also returning him to his own time and to the world from which he came. I tried to make that world come alive a little bit, I hope.

RB: Who is responsible for his resurrection in the 20th century?

AD: It really began in the ‘20s and actually began in England. D.H. Lawrence was an important figure in bringing him back.

RB: Whom you describe as a soul mate. You didn’t say much about that in your book.

AD: A quester, someone seeking the high peaks of sensory experience, and also aware that civilization is a fragile thing. Their minds moved in similar directions. Lawrence has two essays about Melville, one about the early fiction and one about Moby-Dick, wonderful evocative essays. So he was partly responsible. But the academic who gets the prize was actually a Columbia professor, so that makes me feel good.

RB: Do you go to Columbia football games?

AD: Occasionally. That’s not the first thing you do if you want to express your Columbia-ness. [laughs] When I went to Harvard College, we went to games and rooted for Columbia. It was just a sort of thing we did in those days.

RB: Didn’t Jack Kerouac play football for Columbia?

AD: I think he did. There’s a thought. Anyway, this was a Columbia professor [Raymond Weaver] and when his senior colleague in the department, the famous Mark Van Doren, suggested to him that he look into this obscure American writer, he did so and visited the granddaughter and he heard about this manuscript and the manuscript was, of course, Billy Budd, which Melville’s wife had kept in a tin bread box and protected for the rest of her life after her husband died. Eventually this Columbia professor published an edition of Billy Budd and that opened the floodgates and people began to return to the earlier work and rediscovered Moby-Dick. There are deeper reasons Melville came back to life in the early 20th century. Moby-Dick is, after all, a book about an eloquent demagogue who manages to turn this crew away from what they think the purpose of the voyage is and he turns them into an instrument of his will on his personal voyage of vengeance. You don’t have to think too hard to see why that would have been resonant in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

RB: You reminded me of Paul Collins, who wrote Sixpence House, and started the Collins Library. And he is a devoted bibliophile who loves to find these books he is fascinated with, and he republishes them. [New York Review of Books has been doing this, also, as has been Melville House Books.] Clearly, Melville’s work deserved to be reintroduced, but it makes one wonder how many great works and writers are buried somewhere, [and] why? Because [they had] no agent, or they were drunks and left their manuscripts in cookie jars and bread boxes?

I would never teach Moby-Dick in high school.AD: It’s a nice thing to think. It could be there are unrecognized masterpieces out there, but I am not quite persuaded. There is this nice little book called The Classic, by Frank Kermode, where he cuts through all the usual B.S. about what books we should be reading and we shouldn’t be reading, and he has a great, economical definition of a classic. He says a classic is “a book that is read a long time after it was written.” [laughs]

RB: Many publishing people maintain that no great work goes undiscovered.

AD: I think they are more right than wrong. There are a lot of people out there looking for them.

RB: True, but there are people who make mistakes.

AD: Right, but in the end—

RB: You get 40,000 monkeys at keyboards and in the end you eventually will have produced Das Kapital.

AD: [laughs] Right. Melville, by the way, was persuaded he’d be read. He writes in one of his letters to Hawthorne that someday, “They will give Typee to babies with their gingerbread.” He knew that he was not just a passing phenomenon.

RB: When did you first read Moby-Dick?

AD: I first really read it in college. Maybe when I was a junior.

RB: For a class?

AD: No, I just read it. I have an image of myself sitting in the library part of the time and in my dorm room. I’m not sure I made much sense of it. I just found myself swept up by the language. It starts with the language. One of the reviews of my book suggested it’s a bit of a novelty that I focus on the language, that I make claims for Melville as an artist with words. How do you like that, a novelty?

RB: Who was it?

AD: Frederick Crews, a retired professor at Berkeley. I’m very grateful for the review and he is probably right. What he is talking about is the academic world, where people are interested in writers for their opinions and politics, the stuff we were talking about earlier, sexual preferences et cetera, but they are not necessarily interested in writers for what they do with words.

RB: Aren’t words and stories what writers are about?

AD: You would think. [laughs] At least, that’s what I think.

RB: Has anyone broached the subject of why [there needs to be] another biography of Melville?

AD: Actually this will sound very self-serving. A couple of the pre-publication notices said, “Hey, oh no, another biography of Melville. Who needs it?” But I have to say, once it started to be reviewed and people were reading it, there seems to be a consensus that this book serves a purpose that hasn’t been served before, namely, to make Melville accessible to people who simply like to read. I had an experience that encouraged me in this respect. I took a tour of Arrowhead [Melville’s homestead] and the nice tour guide who was very involved with Melville and had read a lot of him—

RB: This is the 160 acres in western Massachusetts?

AD: Yeah, I don’t think they have all the acreage anymore. The house itself is still there, right on Holmes Road. Anyway, the tour guide keeps calling him “Herman” and she says she loves Herman and she says—she didn’t know that I had written a biography—she says to the people on the tour, “There are a lot of books on Melville but I have never been able to read all the way through any of them.” I found that encouraging because I really tried to write a book people could read.

RB: Yup, you seem to have struck within the range of American shortened attention spans.

AD: Yeah, something like that. So of course there’ll be other books—I heard someone is writing another biography. There will always be new books, but a critical biography that people could read was needed right now.

RB: Have you read all the biographies of Melville?

AD: Yeah. I confess I haven’t found them the most pleasurable.

RB: You say that the world that Melville came into was close to a medieval world and the world that he left was a world that more closely resembled a modern world.

AD: That’s a fast and loose use of the world “medieval.” But the huge changes he lived through did strike me, as I was rummaging around about Melville’s world, [that] he was born in 1819 in New York City. It was a place then where there were no mechanical form of transportation, no suspension bridges, no tall buildings. But by the time Melville died in New York 72 years later the place had come to feel like the New York that we love and love to hate today. And the way I tried to express this was to say that when Melville was born, the fastest way you could send a message more complicated than could be sent via drum beat or smoke signals or semaphore was to write it down and send it by a messenger on a horse. And that has been the case throughout human history. But by the time Melville was 25 we had the telegraph and then the transatlantic cable, and before the end of Melville’s life, the telephone and electricity, and the Brooklyn Bridge. So the way I tried to represent this, I had one map from 1817, a year or so before Melville was born, and it has all these empty streets, and New York City consisted mainly of the tip of Manhattan. Another map of New York from 1890, a year before he died, and that map is so crabbed and crowded. I put the two maps side by side at the beginning of the book, and they tell the story, I think.

RB: Apropos of nothing, were there Indian tribes that hunted whales?

AD: You got me. I can’t give a definitive answer. As to whether there was, close to shore, whale hunting among native Americans or Indians, I think so but nothing like open-sea whaling, I believe.

I love the academic life in some ways, and I am very lucky to have a job that can’t be taken away from me, but there is a temptation to just write for people who already know a lot about the subject and are going to read whatever you write because they need to, not because it’s pleasurable or exciting. But that is not exactly writing.RB: In the first chapter of Moby-Dick, he made reference to that.

AD: I suppose he must be right. There were a lot of whale men with Indian blood. Gayheaders and Pacific Islanders, but whether the Indians had a thriving whaling industry I just don’t know.

RB: How long did it take you to write this?

AD: If we date the beginning of the writing from the moment I had the idea, then it’s 25 years. If we talk about how many years from the moment I wrote the first paragraphs or passages that ended up in the book, it’s probably 10 years. If we talk about the time between signing the contract and publication dates, eight years. Actual writing, when I cleared the desk and said, “I am now writing this book,” probably about four years.

RB: Was it difficult?

AD: It was both hard and—not “easy,” I’m looking for the right contrast to “easy.” It came, I knew it was coming, except briefly after 9/11. I never felt blocked, but it was really hard to get it to where I wanted it to be. If you write about a great writer, you have a problem, which is that you have to put his or her words on the page and you have to put your words next to them.

RB: [laughs]

AD: I’m a pretty confident writer, I guess, but it’s really tough to come out looking OK under those circumstances. It’s something like playing with an athlete who is a lot better than you are. If you are really lucky, what happens is you raise your game, right? So I really had to raise my game in order to write this book. That was the hard part.

RB: Gary Fisketjon was your editor, and I was not aware that he does much nonfiction.

AD: I think that’s true, and I am incredibly lucky because Gary is a great editor, and he has been wonderfully supportive. He seems to have had a great interest in Melville, and I guess he had some confidence in me. I didn’t know he was a reader of mine. But I am delighted he decided that Knopf ought to publish this book, he and Sonny [Mehta]. Although I think it was Gary’s impulse to go forward with it.

RB: Might you now do something on D.H. Lawrence? [Or] are you done with literary biography?

AD: You are asking me a question that I am trying to evade myself.

RB: [laughs] Has it sunk in that you have finished writing this book?

AD: I hope that what I say can be heard in some way other than self-congratulation: I don’t know how good this book is in absolute terms, but I do know it’s the best book I could write. And that’s a great feeling, but it also raises the scary possibility that anything I write from now on would look to me like a weak second.

RB: Have you thought this after previous books?

AD: I haven’t.

RB: I believe that’s what fiction writers experience.

AD: I have always been reasonably happy with what I have done. Though, as time goes by, I see lots of things wrong with them. But I have never had the feeling upon finishing a book that I might not be able to write a better one.

RB: Is it that you concentrated much more than in the past on the prose?

AD: I have always been finicky about my prose. I just think—this sounds corny—I reached deeper into myself and found ways to express sensitive matters, and I had some nuance, and most of all, I think I gave the book some momentum, some drive. And that is really hard to do when you write about the sorts of topics I tend to write about. History of ideas and cultural history. Another editor whom I greatly respect and said something to me many years ago, when I told her I was writing a book about the theme of evil; she listened respectfully and she seemed to think that was OK, and then she said to me, “How are you going to tell this as a story?”

RB: Right.

AD: And ever since she asked me that question, I realized I had been kind of groping for that insight into writing—that no matter what you’re writing, you really have to find way to turn your subject into a story if you expect anyone to read it.

RB: Which is basic to having talented teachers present subjects—they bring those subjects alive with stories and their own passion.

AD: That’s right. And there is a great hazard of academic life. I love the academic life in some ways, and I am very lucky to have a job that can’t be taken away from me, but there is a temptation to just write for people who already know a lot about the subject and are going to read whatever you write because they need to, not because it’s pleasurable or exciting. But that is not exactly writing. Writing is a form of communication that persuades people to keep on reading. So, I felt I did that better in this book than I had ever done, and I am not sure I could do it again to the same degree. But maybe I’m just feeling drained at the moment.

RB: I’m sure it’s quite something to bring to fruition a project of such long duration. I wonder if you end up singing that Peggy Lee song “Is this All There Is?”

AD: It’s a bad metaphor, but there is always the postpartum thing. I don’t think I’m going to feel deflated and flat about it, but I need to think about what to do next. And I think whatever I do next needs to be sufficiently different so that it doesn’t feel like I am going through the same motions.

RB: Were there ambient things that you encountered in the research that might take you somewhere else?

AD: I don’t really think so. A lot of secondary figures flashed by, but I guess I had my eyes so focused on Melville all the time that I didn’t stop to say, “Here’s a figure I ought to come back to.” Also, I don’t know that a book about a person is what I should do next, because as far as I’m concerned, I have done the figure of figures. My critical essays tend to take the shape of the life-type form, but I have never written a full-scale biographical treatment like this.

RB: Unrelated to anything, I read your recent Slate.com piece on the theme of making college relevant. I have been thinking about this a lot. I have a young son and his mother thinks a lot about his college education, and I wonder about what it will mean to go to college 10 years from now.

AD: Interesting that you go there, because I’m thinking that may be the topic of my next book. [both laugh]

RB: The relevance of irrelevance?

AD: It’s really a challenge, which this roundtable in Slate tried to deal with—a challenge to figure out if you’ve got people for four years between 18 and 22, what is it you should teach them? There’s the explosion of specialized knowledge and the urgency that they have to get out into the world with some marketable skills, and the preoccupation of the faculty, at least at big research universities, with their own work. The idea of a four-year college experience as we know it from the past is a bit of a myth, I think, by now.

RB: We are of the same boomer generation, and my vivid recollection is that we were the last generation in which the value of liberal education was still espoused. There was not even a gradual shift to vocational concerns. Now it’s almost totally about getting a job—preparing you for the work world.

I had a beloved uncle who used to say, “Well, Freud thought the basic instinct was sex, and there’s the death instinct, but no, the basic instinct in man is provincialism.” Sticking to your own kind—tribalism. He might be right about that.AD: It’s interesting you say that, because we are of the generation that really participated in the great breakthrough—maybe more breaking and entering—in which previously excluded people, such as Jews, of which I am one, were starting to show up in these citadels of privilege that used to take all their students from the prep schools. And it was also the era of financial aid, so that it became possible for kids without money to go to the elite private schools, and there was also a great explosion in the public universities. So part of what has changed is that the generation that went to college before ours mostly didn’t have to worry about what happened after college. Their lives were pretty scripted. They had family money. They knew what college they were going to, based on which [high] school they went to, and where their fathers went. And it was our generation—this is a gross generalization—that started on a broader scale to have to invent their own lives after college. For us, a part of that was getting a liberal education so you could see the possibilities and be critical about what was out there. Since then, as you say, college seems to be more and more about getting the equipment you need to keep up the upward mobility.

RB: There is all sorts of evidence that university is no longer about training the whole person, that Aquinas precept. It’s about all sorts of fast-tracking to some vocational sinecure. One of the reasons I love my son’s pediatrician is that I actually once met him on a trolley, and we were talking, and he tells me about how dispiriting it was to see that his young patients were acutely aware of how much various professions earned.

AD: That’s horrifying. I know. Well, students I teach are still hungry for something other than money, [laughs] and my generation is not doing a really good job of providing them with examples of how to live for something else. There are also less sinister reasons for the problem. It’s hard to argue that the intellectual action at our stage in history is in the sciences. A lot of really smart people look at the world through the perspective of science and are discovering amazing things about nature and the human brain and so on. Science is an exciting place to go if you are a smart person. The problem is that there is so much to learn, so much training that is required, starting at such a young age, that obtaining the cultivation that we think of as coming from literature and art and music is increasingly regarded as an unaffordable luxury. And that’s, of course, a great mistake.

RB: I’m reminded of a passage from John LeCarré [from The Russia House], “I do not like experts. They are our jailers. I despise experts more than anyone on earth…They solve nothing! They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured, we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us…When the world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.” The domination of our lives by experts is most terribly exhibited in medicine, where only very recently have they thought it necessary to pay attention to issue of ethics.

AD: Part of that is because the growth of technology has forced the issues of ethics upon even the most reluctant physicians. If you have a machine that can keep a human being breathing long past the age where the brain has ceased to function, it raises questions that didn’t exist 25 years ago. And that machine costs an enormous amount of money to operate. So how to make the decision about investing in the life of the patient who is on that machine? Or taking the money away from that person and spreading it around to people who can’t afford to get flu shots? Those are serious ethical, and ultimately political, questions. And it’s a good thing that medical schools are starting to expect to have their students think about them. The other thing is that I know a lot more liberally educated scientists than I know—

RB: Scientifically educated humanists?

AD: Right, and I certainly fall into the scientifically illiterate category. And I’m not proud of it.

RB: Is Brian Greene at Columbia?

AD: Yeah.

RB: I try to check in with the world of science occasionally. I think it’s fun, and Greene and Lisa Randall make it accessible.

AD: I’m just saying that some of the reason that liberal education is on the ropes is because the faculty just doesn’t care about it enough. But in other respects, even for the well-intentioned educators it’s really hard to know how to deliver a liberal education in this age of exploding knowledge. What kind of science should we expect undergraduates to know? If the prestigious universities all decided—I had an argument with a Brown professor the other day who was going on and on about the importance of understanding science and how crucial it was to grasp the nature of the world. Who could argue with that? But then I said to him, “You teach in a university where they don’t require any science.” He says, “It’s better when the students take the classes when they want to.” It’s a respectable argument. But I said, “If Brown announced that they were changing the requirement and every Brown graduate had to take a full year of physics and a full year of life science, their application pool would drop by 50 percent.” And that wouldn’t be any good because they’d sink in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. So there is this crazy syndrome—these institutions are looking outward at their reputations rather than inward at what they’re doing for their students. I don’t mean to pick on Brown.

RB: Why not? Not enough people pick on Brown. Is it the case that the economic underpinnings of higher education seem out of whack in the same way that the medical economy is distorted? There has been this exponential rise in the cost of going to college.

AD: It’s actually not as exponential as it seems. The cost of tuition has risen faster than inflation the last 40 or 50 years, but not at an obscenely faster pace. But it’s certainly true that the social compact or social bargain once said that society would pay the cost to produce a broadly educated general population seems to be endangered. Tuition at the public universities is going up because the state legislatures are not apportioning enough funding. And in the private universities, the financial-aid budgets are not able to keep up with the huge need. You are returning to an era where the elite privates are bastions of privilege.

RB: The public schools at the elementary and secondary level seem doomed.

AD: That’s where the problem begins.

RB: What could possibly solve that?

AD: The nation needs to wake up and recognize—it’s a cliché, but it’s true—that the greatest capital we have is human capital, an educated public—and we are not investing in that. And we are going to lose—we’re going to lose to the rest of the world if we don’t do that.

RB: Talk about apocalyptic visions—diseased, dumbed, and destroyed. [both laugh]

AD: All that is possible. Maybe the bird flu will get us first.

RB: I saw Ted Koppel on some show, not his own. And he was asked what was going to happen.

AD: In general?

RB: No, regarding the bird flu. Were we getting solid information? He shook his head and offered that we were in for a shock. What was it, 50 million people died of influenza in 1919?

AD: Yeah, there, too, it’s fundamentally a political question. We know how to make the vaccine. Here I’m taking about something I don’t know anything about. I’m parroting a friend of mine who does know. Apparently we know how to make the vaccine. The question is can we make it fast enough, and if we leave it in the hands of private industry the answer is no. [Scientists know how to make a vaccine against H5N1 avian flu, but the fear is that as the virus mutates into a form that could cause a potential human epidemic, it could change so much that the vaccine would be ineffective and would need to be re-developed. Flu vaccines, no matter who makes them, tend to take about six months to prepare.—eds.]

RB: Here’s a fundamental thing I don’t understand. How is it that there are people in the world that just don’t think it’s important to feed their fellow citizens, much less the rest of humanity, make sure they are given competent medical care and legitimate medicines and so on?

AD: Let me bring this around to subject we started with. It’s a great question, but to think you have to feed your fellow citizens and you have to care about the rest of the world, and that requires moving somewhat outward from yourself. And that’s a hard thing to do, and a hard thing for all of us to do. Some of us may do it better than others, and we might be too quick to congratulate ourselves if we think we discharge responsibilities by voting for the right candidates and giving to charities. I think that’s what Melville’s great story “Bartleby” is all about. Because here is this decent guy, a small-time lawyer who keeps his head down, stays out of trouble and even describes himself that way—as a safe person, cautious, prudent. Runs a decent business and has two semi-dysfunctional employees. And he lets them do their thing and one of them works in the morning and the other in the afternoon and he pays them both a full salary, and he is a nice guy. And into his office walks this character who immediately becomes an insoluble problem. And the mind of the narrator who tells the story almost explodes. He doesn’t know where his responsibility to this young man begins and where it ends. He doesn’t know—how much should he try to reach this guy and save his life. Clearly, Bartleby, this poor young man, is descending into the inner circle of hell. And in the end—the lawyer tries pretty hard—but in the end he realizes there is nothing he can do. Remember how the story ends, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” So the story is both an argument that you have to pay attention and care, but it’s also an argument that says that at a certain point you have to go home and tend your own garden.

RB: At a certain point.

AD: And the real tough question in everyone’s life is, where is that point?

RB: Dante said it, Burke said it, you can’t stare at evil and not act, so we have things like Darfur that seem to remind us of our indifference and impotence. And New Orleans after Katrina—oh, my.

AD: It doesn’t have any reality. It’s not real unless it doesn’t just happen in New Orleans but also in our neighborhood.

RB: TV isn’t real?

AD: Don’t you think TV has a way of flattening out and making everything seem like one long movie? You don’t like the image, you turn it off or change the channel.

RB: Late-stage capitalism seems to have succeeded in turning people into near-perfect engines of consumption, and most people seem to function as shoppers and diners.

AD: It’s also true that capitalism has been declared to be in its late stage for a long time.

RB: [laughs]

AD: It always seems to have a later stage. It has elevated the quality of life, if that’s the right phrase, for more people than ever could have imagined living a middle-class life. And there has always been great misery in the world. We are more aware of it than before. I am not an apologist for the brutal aspects of capitalism. Again, it’s good to feel concerned about it; it’s another thing to know what to do. The socialist answer—at least the state socialism of the radical variety as in Russia—didn’t seem to work too well.

RB: There is that old saw about how Marx got socialism wrong but got capitalism very right.

AD: Some people think the Europeans have it right because they have some balance between the two.

RB: There seems to be a consensus about the social contract there.

AD: Yeah but there is also a crisis there because they can’t afford to pay for it much longer, for the promises that were made in the postwar years, and they are not doing such a good job of assimilating immigrants, are they?

RB: Which reinforces my view that everyone hates everyone else.

AD: I had a beloved uncle who used to say, “Well, Freud thought the basic instinct was sex, and there’s the death instinct, but no, the basic instinct in man is provincialism.” Sticking to your own kind—tribalism. He might be right about that.

RB: Cool. Well, good. Thank you.

AD: I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t know if this will translate well.

RB: Sure. I think so.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum