What a Falling Prof. Was There
by Theodore Dalrymple (June 2014)
Last night I could not sleep: the clocks had gone forward (or back, I always find it difficult to remember which) and I had drunk a bit too much earlier in the evening. I don’t know why, but I suddenly had the idea to occupy my sleeplessness by looking up on the internet some of the distinguished doctors I had known as a student and young man. Perhaps this strange impulse came to my mind because recently, in my e-mail, I have received, both from France and from England, invitations to insure myself against funeral costs. Do the advertisers know something about me that I do not know myself? They cannot have got it from my doctor because I never go to my doctor. Perhaps they are working from general principles, namely that people of my age have accelerating death rates after years of declining ones. It is therefore nothing personal. But it is clear that advertisers of whom I have never heard know my date of birth, which is creepy enough by itself. (What else do they know about me?) At any rate, I will soon be going the way of those distinguished doctors I looked up, most of whom were dead; and I was seized by nostalgia.
On the internet one thing leads to another and I ended up looking also for my student contemporaries with whom I had since lost touch. The internet acts on sleep rather as amphetamines do, that is to say it prevents it. I found myself looking for hours.
The first thing I noticed was how misleading an impression in general the internet gave of the relative distinction of my own and the previous generation. The previous generation lived before the internet era so that only scraps of information about it were to be found on it; whereas there were often entire screeds about my contemporaries who seem to do nothing without an electronic record of it appearing. Their lives had become public in a way that those of the preceding generation had never been. And yet I cannot rid my mind of my belief that the previous generation had been composed of worthier men, men of deeper character, more distinguished in their distinction, than our own. We are shallow by comparison with them; spoilt in childhood, we have grown up pygmies. The only compensation for this melancholy thought is that the next generation will be even worse.
I have of course considered the possibility that the reason the previous generation appears to me so much more distinguished than my own is that I know my own generation better; as no man is a hero to his valet, so no generation seems distinguished to those who shared its youth. You can think really highly only of those about whom you know little. I knew the previous generation only by its accomplishments, not by its bêtises
I lived as a student in a house in which the physical squalor was equal only to the intellectual ferment. One of my fellow-residents published a paper in Nature before he had even graduated, but we thought nothing of this as an accomplishment simply because he was one of us. Of the four who shared the house, three became eminent professors (one published a paper only last week that was widely reported in newspapers). Of the four, only I failed to become a professor, my career, if such it can be called, having followed an erratic and one might say unserious path. The then girlfriend of one of us became a world expert on an important if declining disease, and many of our friends and associates likewise became professors of some eminence.
Even so, I cannot, as I said, entirely rid myself of the feeling that we amounted to nothing much. The fact that the title of professor, once awarded so sparingly, seems nowadays to be given out like titles of nobility in times when monarchical governments needed to raise money by the sale of such titles, reinforces my belief. It is precisely our generation, after all, that has cheapened that of professor by inflating the numbers of professors along with debt. This title was given so sparingly before our generation’s arrival to maturity that it was a virtual guarantee of genuine distinction in the person upon whom it had been conferred. It is not that there are no professors of distinction left, rather that there are so many without.
I looked up one man with whom I had worked as a young doctor. He was a year or two older than I, and he has been a professor at a university reputed to be one of the best twenty or so in the world for many years. When I first knew him, he and I were at an age when a year or two’s advancement in the hierarchy still seemed considerable, representing a great advance in experience. But I spotted him then for a charlatan, and a charlatan he has remained, at least if a video of him posted on the internet is anything to go by.
He dressed himself with more care than a reigning monarch, his chief concern being to mark himself out from others (not, when you come to think of it, indicative of a very flattering opinion of others). If I remember aright he was much in favour of velvet and corduroy, with unusually-coloured shoes. He wore silk around his neck, semi-cravat and semi-scarf. All his accoutrements, from his pen to his attaché case, were unusual and such as no one else had. He smoked big cigars, which was unusual, not to say unique, at his age and in that milieu, which was medical. I think he wanted to give off the aura of Freud without actually being a Freudian.
His genius, if such it can be called, was in discovering the possibilities of going interdisciplinary. He realised that going interdisciplinary would always give him an escape route: among the as he could always claim be a b, and among the bs he could always claim to be an a, which would explain why no one could ever quite understand what he was saying. Everyone would blame himself rather than him for not being able to understand what on earth he was going on about; every a would assume it was because he knew nothing of b-ology, while every b would assume it was because he knew nothing of a-ology. It was a perfect tactic at a time of university expansion.
I cannot of course say that he employed it consciously, and personally I rather liked him. But I did not notice much irony about him, or even a deep sense of humour. He once invited me to dinner (he lived in a charmingly bohemian flat, full of ethnoiserie) and he was a generous host and charming dinner companion. After a very good dinner – cooked by his wife of course – he suggested that we listen to some music. He asked me to choose, bearing in mind that he knew nothing later than the Twelfth Century. My knowledge of pre-Twelfth Century music, I am afraid, has since remained as exiguous as it was then, but I admired, in a way, the manner in which he announced the nature of his collection, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to a man of discrimination.
In those days I had every confidence that his charlatanry would find him out, that the fact that he was so transparently acting a part would prevent him from getting on in the world, let alone have a very successful career, much more successful than my own. But he had realised, as I had not, that the world was changing; and that, in the matter of academic advancement, solid merit was not the easiest or best way to get on. The academic world, or that part of it with the power to appoint staff, had become as enthralled (or perhaps I should say enthralable) by charlatanry as some of the American population is by transparently crooked and bogus television evangelists. I did not understand that the key text to understanding the new world that was then in the process of birth was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. No doubt this little story is of some application in all times and all places (it is truly universal, at least of man in a state of civilisation) but never had it been so applicable to academic life. My young acquaintance – I cannot call him a friend – fell into a university chair like a ripe apple falls to the ground.
I watched him (on You Tube) give a lecture and laughed heartily. He was not so much serious as earnest. This is a prime distinction which in the modern world is seldom made. There was no hint in his manner of the successful rogue. He was very professorial in manner, to the extent of having a very slight speech impediment of the type that English intellectuals, especially left-wing ones, often have (but proletarians never do). His manner of dress had changed from vaguely Tennysonian to young server in a hip and expensive bar. His hair, which had always been intellectually curly, had now gone white: but he still wore his Isaac Deutscher-type beard. Such a beard, I think he supposed, lent weight to his words, and possibly, from the point of view of others, it did. A bon viveur, he had put on weight.
He had not been found out and had gone through life in a pleasant and not unlucrative manner, lucubrating incomprehensibly and yet always with a vague penumbra of meaning. I do not mean to deprecate this: it is a definite skill that I personally have not mastered. Try as I might sometimes to be incomprehensible, and therefore profound, meaning keeps peeping through what I say like the sun through clouds. I suppose it is a matter of willpower and practice. I have never really wanted enough to be incomprehensible; and I am far too literal-minded for my language not to alight before long upon concrete realities.
I do not envy my former acquaintance his academic success; I would not wish to have spent my life with his thoughts running through my head because they would have bored me terribly. In other words, I cannot really imagine what it would have been like to be him, for I assume that he was never bored with himself or by his misty thoughts. Like everyone else, though, he has added to the rich tapestry of life: none of us can do otherwise.
Still, I cannot help but compare him with, say, a professor whom I knew as a student of whom no one had an unkind word to say. He died twenty years ago (as I discovered during my sleepless night’s surfing of the internet), and if he had not he would now be almost a hundred. He had the perfect manners of a previous, more courtly age; he was soft-spoken and induced obedience in his juniors by natural authority and because no one would have wished to upset him. In short he was a gentleman. He had written the most important textbook on a disease that has since only gained in public health importance. It is in the nature of things that the most learned textbooks on scientific subjects, though they may take years to write, should be superseded within ever-decreasing periods; indeed, the very notion of a textbook is now superseded; and thus to write one was a work of abnegation where it was not one of naked ambition (which it certainly was not in this man’s case). It was a service to mankind and intended as such.
When he retired, he concentrated on gardening (do really wicked men ever garden?). He wrote a book about an aspect of that delicate, useful and popular art that is acknowledged to be the best available in its field. Then he died, beloved of all.
Old men don’t forget, or at any rate when they don’t they compare. When I compare the two professors I think, with apologies to Hamlet senior:
… what a falling off was there!
From him, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
He made to knowledge, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of his.
No doubt it is foolish, even dangerous, to found a whole theory of cultural decline upon a comparison of two people, chosen perhaps to prove the pre-determined theory. And yet, and yet…
Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Threats of Pain and Ruin from New English Review Press.
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