Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

Professionalism Revisited, by Ricardo Nirenberg.


It’s been ten years since I lost my best enemy, Gerald Burns.  I will not call him Gerry because I never met him.   I see a photo of him as a dashing, narrow-shouldered young man, a Harvard undergraduate in a three-piece suit with a flower on his lapel, sitting somewhere on the Yard smoking a cigar.  That was, the website says, in 1962.  Afterwards, it seems, he moved on to Trinity College, Dublin, and then to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where, I gather from his writings, he taught I don’t know what—English, I suppose.  He seems to have had a hard time holding on to teaching jobs, and he must have abandoned the academic life when still in his thirties.  After which he worked odd jobs for a living, sometimes washing dishes and sometimes in a circus as a clown, playing the banjo, or cleaning the lion’s cage.  At some point he opened a bookstore in Portland, Oregon.

My acquaintance with Burns was exclusively through Exquisite Corpse, the journal edited by Andrei Codrescu.  Founded in 1983, it lasted in paper form till just after Burns’ death (it still appears in the Web).  In almost every issue there was something by Burns—a drawing or two, a letter, three or four poems, perhaps an essay.  The quality of the stuff published in Exquisite Corpse ranged widely, but Burn’s contributions were among the finest.  He has been called the best Dallas poet ever.

My essay “Against Professionalism” appeared in Codrescu’s journal in 1995, issue #50.  At the time, poets were insulting each other and their rhetoric roughly thus, “You are like Newt Gingrich!,” “And you sound like Rush Limbaugh!”  The trouble with Rimbaud’s recipe, “Il faut être absolument moderne” is that if you follow it strictly—and what does absolument mean, if not strictly?—in no time you end up sounding more like an old fart than like a Deep Imager, a member of the New York School (First or Second Generation), a Black-Mountaineer, or what have you.  Anyhow, I was taken aback and shaken up when, on the following issue of Exquisite Corpse, I found a letter by Gerald Burns titled “Against (Ricardo) Nirenberg.” Why my first name was in parentheses I don’t know; all I can say is that the letter was intemperate and tempestuous beyond anything I had seen in the Corpse.  First thing I asked myself was, What does this guy really have against me?  At the time I didn’t know anything about him and his life; Codrescu was proud of not publishing bios of his contributors, which might have been fine for the insiders, but in those pre-Google times I found it very inconvenient.  Why was Burns so angry?  Could it be the fact that I had quoted from a poem by A.R. Ammons, a professor at Cornell?  Poets get extremely annoyed at quotes from poets belonging to a different clique.  Was Burns incensed at my comments on the Phaedrus?  Many literati won’t take your non-flippant comments on Plato or Kant with their arms down, if you aren’t a recognized authority, a professional commentator of Plato or Kant.  Upon rereading, however, there could be no reasonable doubt: Burns was actually disputing my credentials as a non-professional and as a radical discontent, and claiming that his merits were higher on both counts.  Which was probably true.  But come on, oh, come on…

What took me longest to interpret was the final part of Burns’ letter, where Marcela the shepherdess appears out of the blue or rather out of Don Quixote, in mitn d’rinen, as my Bobeh used to say.  What’s she doing here?—I mean Marcela, not my Bobeh.   Like her, he, Burns, stands alone upon a hill and tells me he does not have to love me.  Amazing, because I’m pretty sure I never asked Burns to love me, the way those shepherds used to pester Marcela.  No, I can swear the idea or the name of Burns never occurred to me before or while I was writing my anti-professionalism piece.  But now, reading those final portions of his “anti-Nirenberg” piece, I see the image of a fierce, radically lonely man standing on a hill —Surrender to friendship? “Nuts,” he writes, like General MacAuliff at Bastogne.

I wrote a reply which was published in the following issue of Exquisite Corpse. Sad that having so much in common, Burns and I could have been friends; yet I was all excited: I had acquired an enemy!  It meant I was important enough.  Or, equivalently, that my ideas about the evils of professionalism in the modern world were unsettling enough.

A short time later, in issue #55 of Exquisite Corpse, Burns had a column, titled “Peasant Literature,” in which he lamented the state of contemporary American letters (“peasant literature,” he contemptuously called it) compared to French letters (urban literature perhaps?), and attributed the difference to the well-known fact that E.A. Poe was grabbed by the French poets (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valéry…) and ignored by the Americans.  I immediately recognized that my enemy had made a faux pas, a losing move.  That whole Poe stuff is a chestnut, and as it happened, I was ready to roast it.  For years I had been reading and absorbing all that contemporary French poets had to say about Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valéry and the rest, and I was eager to wield it like a knotty club against Burns.  Ah, what a deadly blow!  The blow was duly delivered in issue #58 of Exquisite Corpse, and it was later anthologized in Thus Spake the Corpse, published by Black Sparrow Press.  Always with an eye out for uproar and readership, Codrescu cherished polemics, so he was quite happy, and I was proud of my final phrase, which stated, roughly, that “asinine” wasn’t strong enough to characterize Burns’ piece—what the right word was, you would never guess: “onagrian,” my own derivative from “onager,” the wild ass of Central Asia shown on Assyrian bas reliefs of the royal hunt.  Amazing, I thought, how having a good enemy, an intelligent, fierce enemy, sharpens and focusses the mind.

Not long afterwards, in 1997 in Michigan, Burns died of a heart attack.  It can’t have been my blow.  His heart must have been finally split by so much stupidity around him, by the deafening braying and cackling, by the blindaged professionalism we both abhorred.  Back around the time of the French Revolution, Chamfort wrote, “En vivant et en voyant les hommes, il faut que le coeur se bronze ou se brise”.  Well, now things are simpler.  Hearts have become tanned, hardened and cracked.  But how can the true poet, who cannot be satisfied by anything short of the All, survive in a world of leftover crumbs?


It took me years to convince myself that Burns was right, after all, when he wrote that professionalism  “actually is a device for getting out of small towns.”  My enemy was better acquainted than I will ever be with the mind of American professionals.  I was educated at the University of Buenos Aires, not, like Burns, at Harvard.  Certain facts which might be called sociological became evident to me very soon after I moved to the U.S.—for instance that the word “noble” and its relatives, quite normal in Spanish, are very rarely used in America—but other things take longer.

The full extent of the pride of the professional who “got away from small towns” was unknown to me.  Uncle Abraham was the only one in my parents’ generation who finished high school and got a professional degree; he became a psychiatrist, but I never heard him crow about that.  My father never finished high school and my mother never started it, but it never got into my sister’s head or into mine to feel “self made” because we have doctorates.  My wife had two aunts who present an interesting contrast.  Both were from poor families, and both became scholars of Spanish literature.  Aunt María Rosa, born and educated in Buenos Aires, was the more renowned and brilliant of the two.  When close to death from cancer, in Berkeley, California, what she wanted was Jorge Manrique’s Coplas por la muerte de su padre read to her.  The other aunt —by marriage— was born in New Jersey and educated in New York; recently, as she was close to death, Denah was pleased to talk and recollect about her good luck, how she was the only one in her family who went to college, how she became a professor at Smith, then at Brandeis.  She asked for no prayers and no poetic memento mori, medieval Spanish or other.

Of the two, María Rosa was the prouder by far; one is tempted to say, by infinitely far.  If Denah was proud of her pioneering efforts, determination and career in spite of all odds, of the great distance she had travelled from poor girl to professor, María Rosa was too proud to derive pride from such trivialities.  Not hers to recall that she had learnt Greek and Latin on her own: hers but to contemplate in delight Truth and Beauty.  Indeed, whoever is able to reach to the clear heights where contemplation becomes possible, will not waste her time on recollecting obstacles overcome during the climb.

Now, both aunts were professionals, both enforcers of seriousness and standards, but I see a difference: in one case the profession is a path toward something higher, in the other it appears to be an end in itself.  The word professionalism should be properly applied only to the latter case.  Of course, this man or this woman are more complex than any single opposition, and I am only talking now about their relation to their profession.  Nonetheless, I suspect that in some societies, Hispanic and surely others, traces of the old notions of nobility and honor present a barrier to the full development of professionalism as an ethos.  Bajo mi capa mato al rey, under my cloak I kill the king, goes a Spanish popular saying: under my cloak there is always a refuge for the capricious anarchism of the I.  But in the U.S., and this is what took me so long to understand, there is no such refuge.  Before professionalism we stand naked.


If it is at all possible to conduct one’s life in anything like a professional manner, it must be by adding and comparing benefits and burdens.  The only benefit for those who, like me ten years ago, pretend to do battle against the hegemony of professionalism, is the pleasures of pride, of standing alone against the madding, middling, heedless mob.  But the proud enemies of professionalism do not band together, they do not become friends —like Gerald Burns or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they climb on a hill and spurn and mock the like-minded.  And the professionals-at-heart naturally abhor those proud dissenters and call them misanthropes.  Summing up, then, today the main condition and burden of antiprofessionalism is alonness.

Because of that, I am beginning to surmise that the unprofessional life may not be worth the candle.

Perhaps I should change my life, I have said to myself, but how?  If I were thirty-years old again, and wanted to quit a profession, I would take care to train for another and cling to it, because an old man is worse off without a profession than without a wife.  The way it is, at sixty-eight, I can only go down to basics, still again, and inquire into the essential difference between the professional and the unprofessional life.  This inquiry will be carried out in the spirit of the only profession I have ever professed, mathematics —what else?

Of course any profession takes training; an RN will stab many oranges before doing an IV, and you must learn to train your eyes on the camera before your face appears on TV.  But a profession is more than practical training, and certainly more than praeses et socii certifying that you are qualified for this or that on a diploma.  A profession is really a mental bottom line, a ground.  It is the kind of ground religious faiths, or nationalisms, or utopias used to provide.

  Perhaps—you may object—but not as bloodyminded.  And I reply, perhaps a good deal more coldblooded.  The true professional submits to a formal axiomatic system—a language, logical rules of inference, self-evident truths, criteria of success—which may be changed occasionally here and there, adding an axiom or slightly altering a rule, but which are for the most part constant throughout.  The true professional extracts, or derives, the meaning of his life from such a formal axiomatic system and the secondary rules which develop around it.

The antiprofessional is capable, too, of sticking to a system of rules for a while: he may be able to play cards, solve a math problem or write Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnets.  But he refuses to subject his life, whole and without remainder, to any formal axiomatic system.  Instead, there is one and only one principle, above all logic and all formal systems, to which the amateur unconditionally adheres.  It is the principle of unity, or connectedness: live in such a way that any two elements of your consciousness are connected, so that they can stand as metonymies of each other.  The amateur or lover refuses to live in strict accordance with any formal axiomatic system precisely because that would violate the principle of connectedness: all such formal systems leave stuff out.  In fact, a whole lot of stuff: most life experience is automatically excluded.  I am talking of a sort of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, but far simpler to understand.  The professional scientist, for example, will not dwell on his childhood, unless to brag about the precociousness of his genius.  (NB: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was not a professional mathematician.)  More generally, a professional will not reveal his shames (I mean of course his real ones) to the public or even to himself, for professional success depends on perceived reliability.

If you look once more at Gerald Burns’ attack on me, you will notice that it is a cry from the heart, and you will notice that he is intent on putting on display his whole life and its contents and connections all at once, for only thus can he separate himself, at one slash, from professionalism: “My life has been hell, financially speaking, and absolutely wonderful.”  Notice, too, all that talk about love.  It is unexpected.  I had not asked him to love me, or even suggested that he might.  But the amateur’s impulse carries him away; he must talk about love; and since the word is so utterly abased—professionally abused—he must talk about his refusal to love.  Burns’ letter is a desperate struggle to detach himself from the professionalized universe, and that is why all too often it appears incoherent.

At the counterpoint, memoirs written by professionals, even when intended only for family and friends, are really no more than CVs.  That wouldn’t be bad, just boring; the ugliness of it arises when the professional author borrows from the tropes of Western interiority, and offers us a peccadillo, like a canapé à la Saint-Augustin.  In college he once borrowed a book which he never returned, or he cheated in a test, or was jealous of another’s success.

Nothing, nothing that I can conceive, will compete in repulsiveness with a professional’s attempts at introspection or spirituality.  We puke at the politician’s, the preacher’s, or the pardoner’s confiteor.  So if I ever go back to being a professional, it’ll be good-bye to all these musings where the focus is me, myself and I.  I would call a halt to the endless, bottomless know thyself, a fool’s errand if there ever was one, and the one truly infernal Sisyphean task.  A professional knows where the buck stops, and when he’s touching bottom: viz. the rules and postulates of his profession.  There’s no going beyond or under those.  It would be terribly unprofessional.

In other words, it is the examined life which is not worth living, for it is hell.  Groaning and moaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth everywhere.  Scrutinizing the ever-crumbling structure we call our self, and stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the evidence, that the self is amorphous and has no structure until the moment we step forth and profess: this is what I am, these are the postulates which will govern my actions and my thoughts, and this is the group of people with which I want to be compared and those the colleagues by whom I want to be judged.

Pascal, whose Pensées are the most eloquent manifesto against professionalism, saw it most clearly.  “Je ne puis approuver que ceux qui cherchent en gémissant”, I can only approve of those who search while they groan, he wrote.  Do you want to follow in Pascal’s steps?  Very well, but keep in mind that you are likely to end up like him, with an abyss at your feet following you everywhere like a derelict dog.


On Gerald Burns see



Comments? Tell us!

Back to Offcourse home page