Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

Ricardo Nirenberg: "Against Professionalism," Exquisite Corpse, No.50, 1994/95.


After the January 1993 bombing raid on Iraq a U.S. naval officer was asked on TV, “How’s the morale aboard your ship?” “Ecstatic,” he replied; “all our objectives have been achieved, all the targets taken out; I can tell you it was a thoroughly professional job.”

The word “professional” jarred, and its ring turned offensive when, a couple of days later it became clear that the bombs had not knocked off the missile sites which were the intended targets, but had killed instead a few bystanders.  On reflection one realizes that the miss didn’t detract from the professionalism of the U.S. forces: on the contrary, together with overinflated jargon and intricate organizational charts, wide discrepancies between aims and attainments have become a hallmark of professional activity; besides, the technical complexity of aerial bombing must be such that only highly trained professionals are able to evaluate whether what looks like a miss to the journalistic profession constitutes a miss, too, under the stricter professional standards of the military.

Who, if anybody, is not considered a professional in the U.S.?  Checkout employees at the supermarkets, dishwashers, illegal immigrants who clean the public facilities.  So one may wonder if it isn’t the class structure of American society that is behind the boasting.  When a MacDonald’s manager or a dental hygienist calls herself a professional, I suspect she really means: I’m not like one of those; I’m a better sort.  And when I myself smirk at her claims, what I really mean may be:  I stand above being above people; belonging to the aristocracy of the intellect, a spiritual elite, I freely float above class frays.

But this kind of explanation leaves in the dark the most dramatic features of the explanandum.  Can it be merely class snobbism what has changed the U.S. Marine Corps’ old semper fidelis into semper professionalis, what sends every year hundreds of pious thousands to professional conventions, as pilgrims went, in the past, to Loretto, Compostela or Canterbury?  Can class stratification explain why in the aftermath of the killings in Waco, public discussion centered upon which professionals should have been in charge –law enforcers, psychologists and sociologists from the FBI Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, negotiators, or priests?  And how do we account for the wide, positive use of “pro” as a noun or adjective?  “She’s a (real) pro” is usually higher praise than “She’s a saint,” telling us, astonishingly, that doing something for money is more respectable than doing it for love of the Beyond.  And pro tennis rackets, pro swimming goggles, pro photographic equipment are synonymous with the best available –as opposed to the amateur versions of the same.  A curious opposition that, when one is reminded that the primary meaning of amateur is lover, versus profess and profession, which in English referred originally to the vow made by one entering a religious order (in Latin, profession is a public declaration).  Thus, from the beginning, professionalism stood for contraction, deprivation, ascetic refusal of the manifold life.

Plato’s Phaedrus seems to be the earliest written defense of amateurs against professionals; it presents the conflict in its pure essence, and in the most general, sharp and clear form, as the conflict between lovers and non-lovers.  The dialogue starts with Lysias’ argument that a smart boy ought to favor a man not in love over the man who loves him.  Lysias was a much admired orator and writer of forensic speeches, a thoroughbred professional: one who, having publicly declared that he could write and teach how to, was paid for doing so.  But he is not present: his is a written text, read aloud to Socrates by young and lovely Phaedrus.  Lovers behave erratically, like distraught madmen, while non-lovers behave rationally or, as we say today, professionally: that is the gist of the argument.

Socrates, whose insistence on trying to know his own self would be enough to peg him as unprofessional, actually does call himself “a mere amateur” (translated by H.N. Fowler, Loeb edition).  He uses the Greek word idiotes , whence our English idiot. And before he launches into his impassioned, extempore and celebrated praise of love constituting the major part of the dialogue, he produces, half in jest and with a covered face, his own speech against lovers:  between profession Lysias and amateur Socrates there is a contest for Phaedrus’ admiration going on, and it has ever been a particular point of pride of the amateur to beat the pro –why not?– at his own game.

A curious obsesrvation about Plato’s Phaedrus is that throughout (and not only towards the end, in the Egyptian myth of Theuth and Thamus) writing, the written word, is considered to be the instrument of professionals, according to the scheme: professional/non-lover/absent/writer-at-leisure versus amateur/lover/present/inspired-improviser-of –speeches. The second, and to my mind major, observation has to do with Plato’s handling of the contradiction at the heart of earthly love (as opposed to love for things ideal, symbolic or divine, and as opposed to the lower-risk love for the dead loved ones.  How dare we invest infinite importance (the only-once of my individual life) on a finite being, conferring on something contingent –this body, this pleasure, that person, that house, this corner of the world- an unsustainable transcendence?  We must be madmen –or idiots- to let our life or our emotional well-being hinge on a beautiful girl or a handsome boy, for our hearts shall surely be, sooner or later, broken by change, decay or disappeareance.  Confronted by this scandal we have devised a variety of effective cop-outs, all of which, in effect, negate the ephemeral. Contemplating a skull, the Ascetic turns to a heavenly God who has triumphed over corruption and the flesh; the Gnostic prays to a God who is the archenemy of Matter and Time.  The Stoic and the Scientist enjoy their solitary sovereignity of thought; for them the world is reduced, or is expected to be eventually reduced, to symbolic (hence undecaying) formulas.  The Skeptic and the Deconstructionist effect a further reduction to a single formula, one stating that all symbols are arbitrary and everchanging shadows of a ghost.  Those cop-outs, among others, are still with us, often practiced with skill, vigor and spectacular success:  I claim that professionalism is, today, the most effective and widely practiced cop-out.

In the Phaedrus , Plato justified earthly love by resorting to anagogy: our souls are immortal, and in between incarnations they get a glimpse of the Plane of Truth, a taste of the Universal Soul and a little knowledge of the Eternal Absolute; the sight of beauty on earth, the handomeness of a noble boy, are reminders of the beauty seen Beyond that make our psychic wings spread out in longing.  Plato’s argument, resting on such unlikely hypothesis, fails to persuade most modern readers.  Europe had to wait eighteen centuries, till Nicholas of Cusa and the Renaissance, for a more economical and autonomous justification of earthly love which authorized amateurism and vindicated the Idiota. But we will get into that on some other occasion.

The opposite of justifying earthly love is not justifying hatred, which is a passion, but cool, detached non-love.  The distance between these two opposites is short, much shorter than one would imagine.  Something like the following line of reasoning is constantly being implemented in practice, although explicitely formulated but seldom (notably by Anaximander, Goethe’s Mephistopheles and Nietzsche):  We see that everything perishes, ergo this must be the way it ought to be, and everything deserves to perish.  Now corpses and rotting stuff we reject, push away, flush down, inter, etc.; therefore everything deserrves to be rejected:  all human beings, especially our so-called “dear ones,” are excrement.

The social function of metaphysics is to interrupt that line of reasoning and avoid the catastrophic annihilation of society which would be its likely outcome.  Nietzsche’s making the ephemeral eternal, making the this divine by his doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, is the latest and perhaps the last metaphysical attempt at justifying earthly love.  The freshness of the bud lasts for a morning, yes and alas, but this morning will be (and has been) infinitely repeated.  This is not the place to take up the question of why Nietzsche’s solution was a failure, nor the fundamental question of our time –how to live and love after the demise of metaphysics; the most I can do is to cite some empirical evidence as to what happens when non-love is implemented.  For that, we must jump back to our own century, and to the places where love was brought down, for the first time on this earth, to its absolute zero.  What is it that sustains a human being in Hell?  Primo Levi wrote that his profession (chemistry) was the one thing that saved him from death, and in his Auschwitz memoir, Se questo e un uomo (If this Be a Man, English translation by S.Woolf), he says of his bedmate, a watchmaker, that he was “among the few who are able to preserve their dignity and self-assurance through the practice of a profession in which they are skilled.” It was the one thing appreciated and respected by the masters of the lager and the gulag, who otherwise treated their inmates as lower than excrement.  If this be a man, the Auschwitz man… yes, on the condition that he be a professional.

The brief ages, at a few happy places, when earthly love was sanctified and amateurism justified, were the highest, most vital moments of humanity; the long arid tracts dominated by professionals and non-lovers are those where, in the words of Ortega, “Instead of being a clear and sober repertoire of solutions for living, culture has become an overwhelming, crushing tome.”

Ortega’s words, grave as they are, do not apply to our times of justified non-love:  culture has stopped being an overwhelming tome, because today no one cares to lift it.  What Simmel and Gombrowicz thought of as the tragedy of culture –our lives at the service of Form, instead of the other way around –has stopped being a problem: our only tragedies are fatal accidents, our only real problem the lack of enough jobs.  We don’t aspire to cultivation, having our hands full with professional development: if a young person’s search for vital meanings does not early succumb to “popular culture”, it will promptly be squelched by Campus and the Market; Savonarola’s work is carried out, much more efficiently, by our institutions.  Professionalism is the one ethical value promoted and rewarded, and as for amateurism… among mathematicians amateur is often used as a synonym of crank, and an expert in terrorism recently called the bombers of the World Trade Center in New York “a bunch of amateurs.” To a true professional, confidently wrapped in the Lord’s ordinances, an amateur is more repulsive than a snake, as he hears from both the forgotten memory of a fateful whisper:  “Ye shall be like gods.”

Love, to be sure, is much touted.  Mail stamps, bumper stickers.  But it is a bloodless love, no more than a call to tolerance and social harmony. “As soon as it is preached (and who doesn’t preach it today?) one feels bored and even nauseous; clearly, we all know that the love being preached has nothing in common with human, impassioned love: they mean a calm, good-natured love, powerless to act, used up by the very word.  But as soon as hatred is mentioned, we immediately understand: hatred is still a passion, it really destroys.” Thus wrote Benjamin Fondane in the early 40’s, shortly before he was shipped off to Auschwitz.  Unfortunately he was not a professional, merely a philosopher and a poet, and so he perished.

All the cop-outs from the antinomies of earthly love mentioned earlier (asceticism, stoicism, etc.), though widely divergent, show a concern, or at least the residue of a concern, for the whole life, or at least for the whole universe of discourse. Professionalism is the first defensive posture in total disregard, even contempt, of wholeness and the universal, a new and rapidly conquering way of avoiding the risks attending earthly love, the dangers of rank amateurism.  We are powerless against it, and I would be the last one to try to usher in another Renaissance by preaching love.  On the contrary, I think we should avoid the word.  Olschki, in his monumental Geschichte der Neusprachlichen Wissenschaftlichen Literatur, has shown that the development of modern science required the abandonment of Latin, the language of the Schools, and the adoption of the vulgar tongues; perhaps we will be able to overcome the crushing weight of professionalism only when we get hold of a new language and fresh words to speak of love and of the world.  Till then, let us hush about love, and consider instead, in a lower tone and with a covered face, a lesser feeling.



William Carlos Williams, who knew America well, wrote in In the American Grain that Americans fear to serve one another, or any man, because we wouldn’t be able to retain our self-esteem. “To serve another with a harder personal devotion is foreign to us: a trick for foreigners, a servant’s trick.”

Devotion, however, is essential to life.  We can’t survive without a dollop of devotion.  Aren’t we devoted to our families? The obituaries claim, “Devoted wife”, “Devoted father of…” But, truly, how does it fare on our balance, the life of one of whom it can only be said that he was a devoted father and husband, one who in the end is saluted only by relatives, and not by colleagues, associates or trustees?  Family life may be praised by admen, churchmen and social workers as a last refuge from anomie, a private space where we can carry on the conversation which sustains the reality of our world, where we can act as meaningful transmitters, or even creators, of values.  But in reality, although an excellent breeding ground of neuroses, the family has proved a failure as a refuge from anomie:

Divorce is the sign of knowledge in our time,
divorce! Divorce!

we read in William’s Patterson, and we all know the Larkin line: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

A dollop of devotion then to what? Nation, country, community? Devotion to the smells, the sights of the neighborhood where we grew up, the sounds, the particular inflections of the native idiom, is culturally dysfunctional.  Mature, well adjusted individuals take up the charge of emotion and value which originally dwells in the objects of the native realm, and move it onto the symbolic objects of public life.  This passage has always been the basic aim of public education, and attachment to the hearth was supposed to lead, by a not overly subtle manipulation of fears and symbols, to a willingness to fight and die for the more extended and abstract fatherland.  Modern nationalisms were a late, blood-stained step in the road to effective emotional abstraction.  Our postindustrial societies, however, are not primarily interested in shooting wars, but rather in the ongoing struggle for innovation and ever greater productivity; a willingness to die a sudden, explosive death in the trenches is now less important than the willingness to put our trained brains, and not just the sweat of our brows, into a sustained effort to improve industrial and commercial competitiveness.  Such is the aim of our education system, working arrangements and tax laws.

Management expert Peter Drucker recently wrote that modern society is no longer dominated by communities, nations or families.  These groupings have given way to special-purpose organizations, such as business, schools and hospitals.  And, he might have added, universities.  No doubt this is so, but on closer inspection we see that it is not those institutions which command our devotion.  Devotion to a company? Years ago, perhaps –not any more when employees of more than twenty years standing are fired to save on retirement and health benefits. Our devotion can only latch on to the profession itself, its values, its standards, its peculiar view of the world.

Thus professionalism has become the highest virtue, replacing old patriotism or martial valor, even in the minds of military officers.  For the same reson, a parallel loss of prestige has overtaken the old feminine virtues, with the consequence that our Ideal Man and our Ideal Woman are now virtually identical creatures –He may be less virile, She less chaste than before, but fundamentally and above all, both are Professionals.



An Austrian Jew of my acquaintance who escaped the Nazis as a child, subsequently moved to Italy, England and finally to the U.S. where he became a leading scientist, was once asked which country he considered himself most attached to.  He replied, sparely as was his style, “Mathematics is my only country.”  We would have to search long and hard to find a more thorough shift of devotion to the disembodied and abstract.  And who could blame him?  Ours has not been a good century for lovers of the earthly.  Our senses blunted, the earth ravished, all geniuses of place have taken off their brown masks to reveal the gore.  Mathematics is a vast and peaceful country: wooded Arcady for those who know her paths.  Death has no entry there, and, even better, nor does life.

If today a narrative poet were to imagine a merry group of professionas telling stories on a trip to some convention town, he would have to give pride of place to a Scientist, as Chaucer gave to the Knight.  For science is, among our professions, the most ideal and exemplary (or, to employ a faddish word, paradigmatic. And the prologues of each of the characters would contains some such: “His country was Accountancy, or Chiropractice,” or, “She was from the nation of Renaissance Studies, Erasmus province, township His Late Polemic Stuff.”  Stretching out the boundaries of Science, rather than those of Empire, is now the higher calling.

Remember, too, that the two most terrible personages of our century, Hitler and Stalin, had no known profession, which may be why their energies were displayed in the pursuit of mad utopia and bloody chauvinism.  Indeed, both can be seen as acute cases of unprofessionalism.  With no academic credentials , Hitler fancied himself an artist, a bohemian; accordingly, his administration was a mess, and his overruling the professional generals the blessed cause of his downfall. As for Stalin, he considered himself a genius in such diverse fields as Politics, War, Philosophy, Linguistics… No more certain sign of amateurism than a pretension to such grotesquely polyfacetic talents. Moreover, what moved both Hitler and Stalin was hatred, a passion, and passions are the mark of unprofessionals.  Dare we hope that the two monsters, and the bloodshed they caused, were the last convulsions of a world ready to settle down to a New World Order of “peace and security, freedom and the rule of law” (George Bush’s words), a regime regulated by professional standards and subject to the peer-review system rather than to the whim of tyrants?

Such happy times may come, but not soon, says a Russian exile, another scientist of note, who informs me that Boris Yeltzin, back when he was mayor of Moscow, once had the heads of the science departments at Moscow University get up from their beds after midnight because he had decided to lecture them, at that ungodly hour, on the proper ways to conduct scientific research.  But, I told my friend, Russia was always like that (as if he didn’t know); here, in the U.S., such things are inconceivable.  Here, thanks mostly to professionalism, we are well on the way to achieving peace, justice, long lives, good sex and a chicken in every microwave.  My friend burst into a Scythian guffaw, patted me on the back, and congratulated us both for having moved to America.

We shouldn’t try to impose democracy by force.  We cannot be the world’s cops.  At the time I am writing this, though, our professional armed forces are in Haiti to, in the words of our Government, “professionalize the Haitian army and police.”  Who would quarrel with that?  The U.S. Marines are missionaries of Professionalism.

Play, sports, entertainment are by now professionalized through and through, but in other traditional activities, the process has been strongly resisted and is still not completed.  The care of children is a case in point.  Not long ago, after the furor over Cinton’s first nominee for attorney-general, women’s groups and right-thinking individuals proposed the logical solution: professionalize baby-sitting.  The administration opted for the simpler expedient of nominating a childless woman.  Poetry, like Haiti, is another pocket of resistance. From Cornell University, A.R. Ammons writes in his Sumerian Vistas:

We were talking about our MFA progam
(pogrom) in Creative Writing when I said
should we, can we, professionalize
and what better way to point up need
than by the superfluous.

Can’t we professionalize delight? You bet we can. We must try our best –and kill it.  The idea that beauty should be useless is old, going back at least to the German Romantics; still, anyone moderately acquainted with our nation knows that calling poetry superfluous is an invitation to end all university support for it, so the number of poets will be drastically diminished by starvation; and if you call it a delight, why, they may be thrown in jail and their poems confiscated as narcotics, or smut.  No, poetry, like all arts, from cookery to origami, including baby-sitting, must be professionalized, if poets and artists are to survive.

Recently, as I was pondering this, I had a revealing encounter with contemporary philosophy.  Consider: to think seriously about anything one must do so from some professional point of view, use that profession’s language and conceptual tools, apply its professional standards.  Now, can there be any profession wherein one could think about professionalism?  You see the problem.  There used to be plain common sense, which, having reached its zenith in the 18th century, survived more or less unscathed until our own.  Judges and trial lawyers invariably recommending “common sense” to juries reflect their being stuck with a bunch of not-so-randomly selected amateurs, but the truth of the matter is, right now common sense may be found, pure, robust, only in the backwoods of Maine.  Play is good for children.  Says who?  Well, it does seem obvious, doesn’t it? Sorry, no: you must quote experts entrenched behind batteries of statistics.  A whole specialty within the philosophical profession is known as the common-sense philosophers, but the common-sense-man, the layman, the idiota as such has disappeared.

Anyway, you just don’t write about subject X – it is always a writer standing at Y, in the light from Z, who writes about X.  Confronted with the vast array of information available, one feels like Pascal before the cosmos: terrified. Finding a place to stand in dark intergalactic space must be only a little harder than finding a fulcrum in the constantly expanding universe of the recorded word.  I was mulling over these things, slowly and melancholily walking up and down the aisles of public libraries, downcast, but every now and then casting a hopeless glance toward the shelves, cursing my stars for being an idiot, for not belonging to a profession, any profession, any established gazebo to pore over the inhuman immensity, when suddenly a title caught my eye: The View from Nowhere.  A miracle had put under my hand exactly what I needed!  Thomas Nagel, the author, is a professor of philosophy at New York University.

Like a starved finch before a feeder, I tried a little here and a little there, anxious to learn how to view things from no one’s turf, from neutral, unprofessional ground –as the title promises, from nowhere, and alighted on the following paragraph: “The fact that a pain (of ours) is in prospect rather than in the past has a very great effect on our attitude toward it, and this effect cannot be regarded as irrational.” Yes, indeed, and many have remarked on it;  one could quote any number of philosophic or psychologic authors, added to the professional testimony of torturers.  But here the only reference was Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984).  I turned the pages and found: “I am not going to concentrate here on explaining why death is a bad thing. Life can be wonderful, but even if it isn’t, death is usually much worse. If it cuts off the possibility of more future goods than future evils fro the victim, it is a loss no matter how long he has lived when it happenes.  And in truth, as Richard Wollheim says, death is a misfortune even when life is no longer worth living.”

I rubbed my eyes and went over it again: the only reference here was to Wollheim, The Thread of Life (Harvard, 1984).  It was not so much the ridiculously dogmatic use of concepts like wonderful, worth, bad and usually much worse applied to life and death in general what made it hard to believe I wasn’t dreaming, nor the petulant assurance that nothingness is worse than life (how does he know?), but the absence of any reference to the testimony of the many  who had something to say in the matter.  After all, in Plato’s Apology, Crito and Phaedo, Socrates unequivocally expresses the opposite opinion: for him, at least, nothingness was preferable to life.  And it might not be irrelevant to remember that Nietzsche, in his Twilight of the Idols (“The Problem of Socrates”, 2), told us that making pronouncements for or against the value of life is a stupidity and a mark of unwisdom.  I know: Prof. Nagel does not profess ancient philosophy, Nietzsche is not his special field, and furthermore he’s writing “from nowhere.” Besides, he hates name-dropping.  All the same, when justice theorist John Rawls is brought up to support the notion that no one is more important than anyone else, and one reads that “the question then is whether we are all equally unimportant or equally important, and the answer, I think, is somewhere in between,” one wonders what may be Nagel’s field.

If I may venture a couple of suggestions, how about Costs & Benefits Philosophy (“the possibility of more future goods than future evils…”), or Philosophy of Smug and Complacent Prosperity.  There is an intimate, mutually sustaining relation between professionalism and American philosophy: even Nietzsche –of all people! – has been reclaimed and redeemed among us as a professional (see Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher, Macmillan, 1965). To the objection, “Why does it matter? Philosophy happens to be just another profession,” one may reply: Alas, that is the point.  “Philosophy is about what’s most important, what is most to be cared for, the supreme value,” said Plotinus, and that’s how it used to be, for some people at least, for the tiny minority unable to work up a devotion to anything but Truth.  The turning of philosophy into just another profession (and one rather insecure about its raison d’être) means that now, for them, professionalism is what’s most important, it is the supreme value, and the only object of devotion left.

After reading a few more passages of The View from Nowhere, I looked at the introduction, and understood:  Nagel thanks many of the authors he quotes.  Those are his colleagues, whose texts are intended for each other; those fellows are getting paid to carry on a conversation among themselves, and they shut off and ignore all other conversations, past and present; a concern for what others are saying would send them into a dizzying spin of reference and will get them no grants.

From tuning out the voice, in their willful deafness and gainful blindness to everything but the tiniest portion of this world, there’s the short step to disconnecting the presence of outsiders.  Muted, people soon become disembodied, mere ciphers, occasions for the exercise of one’s profession, whether it be medicine, philosophy, or the making of poems. Often this is advantageous: if you are a bomber, it does help to be insulated from the individual at the receiving end. Understanding his language, knowing his fears and meeting his loves would make the simple task of blowing him to kingdom come considerably harder.  And today, when old tam-tams –God, King, Country, Honor, Civilization, the Unconscious, the Building of Socialism, the Defense of Democracy – have lost their persuasive and insul(a)ting power, to us in the West there’s left only one hide to beat and cover ourselves with: Professionalism.




Marxists, Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, all those pre-professional masons of modernity, bore a grudge against God, Capital and the Bourgeois Family: things a innocuous today as apple pie made with organic apples.  We cannot confront our real monsters merely with a neo-Surrealist or a post-Communist manifesto, proclaiming that we welcome the abyss, swearing that we won’t turn pro just to protect ourselves from earthly love and the raging immensity, promising to jumble things up and use fleishig pots to boil milk.  It’s dashing to declare war on jargon, sure-fire methods, credentials, CV’s, but, sad as it may be, the manifesto, as a genre, belongs to an irrecoverable past, the idyllic time of consciousness-raising, the positivistic age, in T.S.Elliot’s words , “of bustles, programmes and platforms,” when it was still possible to believe that an intellectual vanguard could teach the masses what was hidden in their collective unconscious and where their true interests lie, showing them straight routes to future happiness.

Definitely, then, no manifesto.  The best I can do is issue a convention announcement:

Where: Albuquerque, New Mexico, or some other sunny place.
When: Between Christmas and New Year.
What to wear: anything you fancy, as long as there’s a name badge on it.
What we’ll basically do:

(a) Hold round tables, professional seminars, workshops.
(b) Network while sipping margaritas and take stock, make points, share insights.
(c) Establish task forces for membership development and for training lobbyists who’ll work with Congress and the State Legislatures to get our message across: “unprofessional” is not a dirty word, and praise of professionalism, like other religious worship, does not belong in public schools.
(d) Elect officers, plan career paths and strategies.
(e) Distribute buttons, shirts and our colorful bumper stickers: DON’T SHRINK LIFE: UNFROCK PROFESSIONALS.

Back to article


Gerald Burns: "Anti-(Ricardo) Nirenberg", Exquisite Corpse #51, 1995.

There is an alternative to the professionalism you slam.  It is provincialism. Your mistake is to see professionalism as voting for an “objectivity” you loathe.  Actually it’s a device for getting out of small towns. It’s true the pretensions of university people  ruin your day, but they are (after all) pale vestiges of the admirable if pathetic medieval respect for the Masters, defined by them as those judged able to teach other people their subject., by the Universities of Paris, Bologna and so on. The trouble then and now with professionals is they don’t seem to be able to stop teaching their subject. I’ve a nostalgia for the respect they betray daily, but why should nostalgia turn to rancor? I suppose what you’re doing is sociological polemic, and I was pleased to see you make fun of Arthur Danto, because nobody else does.  It is easier to make fun of Hitler and Stalin (which you also do.) Still, there you are as embedded in sociological discourse as the pundits you hate.  Perhaps I should have seen, after his shaky book on Beauty, that Wollheim would make such a fool of himself.  I’m glad you mentioned it. In the eighteenth century Thomas Nagel would have been written off as a blockhead, a gnat somewhere in Pope’s Dunciad (which for some reason, a lack of gaiety in your prose, I suspect you haven’t read.)

Come off it.  Reading all those bores has made you write like them.  You begin one paragraph “Management expert Peter Drucker recently wrote…” If I found myself even beginning to start a paragraph like that I’d shoot myself. The philosophy you approach so gingerly (“can there be any profession wherein one could think about professionalism?”) includes fine studies of what ten years ago were called validation systems.  That’s where small towns, provincialism, come in.  Everybody wants to be somebody. Those who can’t do math write poems. Those who can’t do that watch Rockford Files. Imagine the unholy joy of announcing you’re a medievalist, or do research in gonorrhea.  Most men think an erect penis is the activity of some kind of muscle.  Imagine being able to tell them it’s from a brilliantly placed tendon and a suffusion of blood.  Provincials are not scholars, are amazed at everything.  A man on the moon is like a coincidence of names. Is identical. Beavis and Butthead will grow up to be sanitary technicians, or loan managers in some bank.  So what? There is a pathos in this. Though they lack the skills of a watchmaker or bombardier, they would make perfectly good concentration camp guards. We all would. You would, given an unthinkable alternative. Your treatment of the Phaedrus suggests to me you’d do it well, even humanely, give the prisoners encouraging looks.  Tell them how silly we were to wait so long for a “professional” defense of love. I’d love to be on a Phaedrus symposium  with you. One thing you don’t notice is that it’s funny, the jokes as destructive as anything in Dog Years.

I struggled through one piece by you and now this, and I think you are a dunce. Do something else with your life.  Stop reading bad writers. Poetry, you say (ironically) must be professionalized to survive. I’m probably the only poet who’s ever written you a letter who’s both won an NEA and the National Poetry Series and has no university connection in twenty-one years. Please list the professional, validating connections you have not got.  Naropa doesn’t count. My life has been hell, financially speaking, and absolutely wonderful.  All right, I can see you’re not a dunce, can see how you might be moved to write these long pieces commenting on life. (“Commenting” doesn’t seem quite right.  Journalists do that).  You hate their smug, exclusivist cruelty.  But at least that Erasmus scholar you pillory so prettily, so wittily, has read his Praise of Folly with attention and delight.

That book deserves to be shelved next to the Phaedrus, a book the eminent Greek philosopher Plato recently wrote.  Hard by them I’d put two passages from Don Quijote. In one a scholar-shepherd has just died and is being buried.  His fellow-scholars are there, throwing flowers and poems into the grave. Suddenly, over a hill, the shepherdess Marcela appears,  just seems to happen by.  As one man the scholars turn to her, point their fingers at her and say, “Shame! How dare you show up at the funeral of one who died for love you? If you’d given in to him he’d still be alive.” Cervantes weights this against her. After all, the guy really is dead. She’s outnumbered by professionals. She rises up and gives a speech so wonderful, on how being loved enforces no obligation, that they’re speechless. Her pride, of which she’s nearly unconscious (and which is why the guy fell in love with her) annihilates them.

In the other passage the guys from Quixote’s village decide to shame him out of the delusion that he’s a chivalric knight.  One dresses in mock-armor with mirrors and tinsel all over it, and calls himself the Knight of Mirrors. He challenges Quixote to combat. The idea is, if Quixote meets what he expects, another knight, he’ll say “Bullshit” and become sane.  Cervantes is a wily beast, and this is one of the relatively few engagements Quixote wins. The eminent Spanish philosopher Unamuno has wonderfully funny things to say about this chapter in Our Lord Don Quijote. His laughter is as cosmic as Socrates’ is when he guesses, in the Phaedrus, that the young man has hidden in his garment a written copy of the speech on Love that’s the dialogue’s pretext.  Look at the Curate, the Barber, the Scholar thinking the way to trick Don Quixote is to imitate him.

My problem is, having a simple mind, that if you set out to do sociology one thing that happens is that you’re doing sociology.  This seems to me impossible to get over. The trouble is that doing it, in spite of your caring, you are dull.  Matthew Arnold barnstormed the United States, giving lectures which showed English Departments they didn’t have, to think well of themselves, to be German polyglot scholars.  Instead, they could be Conservators of Culture and not have to do all those languages. (The latest French fads are, at heart, no different, validating devices first). You mustn’t fall for this.  Preachers, for instance, who used to be village arbiters, became Arnoldians to a man.  Their allies were women.  Excluded from the hum of American business, they chose the curtains.  The last Exquisite Corpse is full of pieces about provincial churches.  The other pet subject was tenure.  I gather our writers feel guilty about being part of the system. I can’t see why.  Most of them don’t seem to know anything they didn’t get just knocking around the world –television, a few magazines.  It’s for this kind of writing that the system exists.  By sounding so much like a sociologist you collaborate with this.   Your length alone says you are profound.  We are obliged to love you.

Allow me to stand with Marcela on her hill and say not at all, not at all.

Gerald Burns
Portland, OR

Back to article


Nirenberg to Burns, Exquisite Corpse #59, 1995.

In a flawed imitation of Marcela, the beautiful shepherdess in Don Quixote, Gerald Burns takes to the hills and proclaims he doesn’t love me.  He would love to be on a Phaedrus symposium with me, but the essential, that is, the living man, he refuses to love.  Haughtily ascetic, like Marcela, he prefers the sky.  Well, what can I do: I’m sorry, for it seems to me we could have been friends, since I like his poems and we love the same books.  Don Quixote is a favorite of mine too. 

The trouble is, Burn’s Marcela rings false, his intemperate style doesn’t fit the bucolic.  Unwittingly, he has done a flawless imitation of another minor character in our favorite novel.  Soon after the Duke and Duchess invite Don Quixote and Sancho to their castle, they are sitting at table, the host and hostess, the Don, and a grave ecclesiastic. When the latter realizes he’s facing the famous knight errant, he launches into an angry and incoherent attack, telling Don Quixote what he should do with his life, calling him a fool, a dunce, etc.  I ask Burns to read this passage again, and catch the eerie resemblance between his tone and the ducal cleric’s. 

To Don Quixote’s dignified and sufficient reply I append this:  Intent on proving that your credentials as a non-professional are better than mine, you ask me to list the professional connections I have not got.  I won’t, you win, no contest:  to vie for non-professional credentials strikes me as the plumb bottom of silliness.

Ricardo Nirenberg
Albany, NY


Back to article

Comments? Tell us!

Back to Offcourse home page