Commentary Magazine


Confessions of a Visiting Professor

Of course, we are all anti-Americans nowadays. So what is there to confess? What is there to say that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam?

Well, let me begin with a brief chapter of literary autobiography. Many years ago I published a little book about my experiences during my first visit to the United States. (To California, to be exact.) The book has long been out of print, and I have no wish to see it resuscitated. In my introduction I declared flatly and boldly, “There are only two kinds of anti-American: the foolish and the sinister.” I intended that sentence to be provocative, a deliberate bit of coat-trailing; and I knew exactly the kind of people in England, where the book was written, whom I wanted to provoke with it. When the book was published, however, none of the English reviewers or, as far as I can recall, any of the casual readers who spoke to me about it, was in the least provoked or irritated by my introduction. And for a simple reason. Most of the book’s English readers took it to present a basically hostile report of my experiences in the United States, and a repellent picture of life in general there. So my remark fell flat on its face: the assumption was that it had been written in rather the same devious spirit as someone like Daniel Defoe, say, might have prefaced a novel about the successful adventures of a whore with the assurance that he intended his story to discourage his readers from venery.

That was fifteen years ago. Do I know my mind better today? Let the reader decide for himself. I have at least learned that it isn’t for me to tell him in advance what I think I think.

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The older buildings of the campus where I lived for the duration of the summer school dated from the days when the university had been a private institution. They were gray, Grecian, decorated with ivy, fronted and backed with much rusticated stonework. They represented one idea of order, of how things should be. The new buildings, put up after the state had taken the place over, were eight- and nine- and ten-story structures, brick for the most part, in peculiarly disheartening shades of darker and lighter tan. The brickwork was relieved by panels of glass or metal up the elevator shafts and stairwells, their colors too being strangely dissatisfying to the eye, even unnerving. Those soft, synthetic off-greens, off-blues, and mauves might just have done in a boudoir, or perhaps in the waiting-room of a child psychiatrist; they were repugnant hanging over one to a height of a hundred feet or more. Scattered about the campus there were also temporary steel structures, like greatly elongated trailers, in the same boudoir colors, with pink thrown in for good measure.

There were wide lawns and some trees. They did little to mitigate the bareness and bleakness of the view, its utter lack of intimacy, its indifference both to the scale of the older buildings and to any imaginable aesthetic predilections of the inhabitants of the place. Farther afield, all around the campus, were flat, asphalted parking lots, wide enough by the look of them for jumbo jets to land on. The parking lots at the rear of the campus were mercilessly floodlit at night, presumably as an anti-crime measure. Those in front did not need to be floodlit, because they abutted on the city’s main street, and the neon signs, street lamps, and passing traffic provided sufficient illumination.

Everything necessary to a campus was to be found there: libraries, cafeterias, a student union, a faculty club, laundromats, a shop, a children’s day nursery, even a fountain that played away conscientiously. But it had all gone wrong. It had all turned into impersonality and tedium. It was the expression of a taste that wanted to do well, to be human, to soften its blow; and that ended up by being merely dismal and unreal. On the weekends, the desolation was complete; then the only sound to be heard was that from the air-conditioning plant of each locked, depopulated building, screaming at a different pitch from every other, across the silent pathways and stretches of shadeless grass. I was reminded of the maniacal shriek of the cicadas in the South African veld of my boyhood.

And the humans? The students? I found those I had to deal with courteous, open, as interested in their work as anybody could reasonably expect, and almost excessively hesitant about advancing their own ideas. I don’t think I was particularly lucky in this respect. The other members of the faculty, both visiting and permanent, said the same about their students. I certainly came across none of the ravening wild men I’d been reading about in the press for the last many years. The present lot of students presumably feel that they owe no loyalty either to the doings of yesterday’s young, or to their middle-aged promoters and flunkeys.

Many of the students looked wild enough, it is true—their hair, their beards, their bare feet, their unslung breasts—but I was more struck by two other facts about their appearance that I’ve not seen mentioned in the voluminous writings of which they have been the subject. The first is that so startlingly many of the young men and women on the campus were prematurely obese. The second and related fact is how slovenly so many of them were—not so much in their clothes, which one knew about, but in their carriage. When they walked, they slouched. When they stood, they slumped. When they sat, they lay. Strangely enough, exceptions to this seemed to be found most commonly among minority groups not usually praised for their briskness of bearing: among the blacks, and among male homosexuals.1

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Beyond the campus, the city. Its permanent inhabitants spoke of its ugliness with something that amounted almost to affection and respect. And I could see why. The main street ran between low, gimcrack business establishments of wood and stucco, with incomprehensible waste spaces here and there, broken pavements everywhere, a few more prominent buildings encrusted with bronze decorations like congealed candle-wax, and innumerable illuminated signs that blinked, revolved, or filled up with color and emptied themselves of it. After miles of this trailing, shabby chaos one came downtown at last, where the buildings gathered themselves together and raised themselves to great heights in shapes as arbitrary as the ransackings of an old movie lot: a Babylonian ziggurat, an inverted golden bowl, a wedding cake surmounted by two begowned female figures holding electric lights in their hands, a hypodermic syringe.

And that was that: that was the city. All around it sprawled tens of thousands of wooden houses; doomed trees suffering from Dutch elm disease; smaller versions of the main street, with their own frontages of funeral parlors, gas stations, and dry cleaners; then factories and warehouses, access roads, underpasses, poles, wires, and yet more suburbs of wooden houses . . . in repetition composed of meaningless change; change that was just another form of repetition. There were no hills or depressions of any kind, and thus the city had no contours or visible natural features—until one reached the lake, where banks of giant industrial plants stretched away to the horizon, fuming into the sky, above the bedimmed, restless water.

It looked like the republic of anomie and dislocation. But it was also, surprisingly, much more familiar to me than I would ever have thought beforehand it could be. It was what I had remembered and forgotten from a visit to a rather similar city five years previously. It was all still there: neither better nor worse, just as the other place used to be. And this came as a surprise not only because I didn’t know how much I had retained in my mind while believing it had gone forever, but also for a less private reason. After the last five years of what had appeared, both to the outsider and to those living in the United States, to be years of slow cataclysm—five years of war, of racial upheaval, of “youth revolution,” of disaffection on an unprecedented scale, of crime, of apocalyptic talk—there it all was, unmoved, with all its blight and disorder, its wealth of material goods and its technological assertiveness, its unkempt air of randomness and provisionality.

What a truism, you may say. What a discovery! It needs no Columbus to come via Air Canada and Eastern Airlines to tell us that. No doubt. I take the point. Indeed, I intend not to let it go. When what has remained essentially unchanged is what I have described, then to record its continued existence is no great pleasure. Yet the sheer stubborn obduracy of what is, is something that Americans themselves are in the habit of trying to deny or pretend away; they have no real belief in the ineluctability of consequence. (Thereby, paradoxically, they reveal themselves to be in the grip of a peculiar American continuity of spirit; but of that more a little later.) One result is that almost anything can be mucked up by anyone, because in theory it can always be replaced by something better. This attitude is obviously good for business. But it isn’t only the businessmen who benefit. As I walked about some of the more hideous suburban sections of the city, or rode in a bus down that never-ending main street, it occurred to me with particular force how many of the more hectic things radical Americans say about their country nowadays are merely the expression of a feeble wish, masking itself in force and aggression, that the world would simply go away; thaw and resolve itself into a dew; vanish like a dream.

It has no intention of doing so. “The world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again and again forever; we can neither forget it nor deny nor dispense with it.” Thus an American writer who (it is true) fled his country to live in England. There isn’t a clapboard hamburger stand or a discarded refrigerator lying like a mammoth’s tooth in the grass of an empty lot that is obligingly going to dissipate itself into so many invisible, inoffensive molecules We have learned that apparently not even the hydrogen bomb—and which of us hasn’t had a heady, swimmy, tight feeling of elation and excitement at the thought of it!—is going to satisfy our depraved taste for absolute transformations, for ultimates. How much less then should we expect to be obliged even by the burdens of an overcomplicated technology, or the terrors of urban rioting, or random crime and violence, or the cannibalistic unreality of the life of the media; let alone by merely hopeful invocations of “breakdown,” “falling apart,” and “disintegration.”

Anyway, I must confess that when all the aesthetic shudders appropriate to the townscape had been shuddered, it remained for me the source also of an oddly fugitive, oddly cheerful kind of self-recognition. Within it, as nowhere else, I knew just how haphazard my own life was, how full of needs, and how perfectly dispensable. The city told me so at every random corner. It was nothing to be ashamed of.

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An encounter. I was standing at a bus stop with a young woman, a student, in a part of the city I had never been in before and would never have occasion to revisit. Sunday afternoon. It was raining steadily; the air was warm; from somewhere behind them, the sun burnished the moving clouds. Around us were a few empty lots and many obscure, slatternly storefronts. All the businesses were closed for the day, except for a filling station and a tiny bar with a neon sign for beer in its window. The surface of the road was corrugated and potholed; water lay in every depression; churned-up mud besieged the paving of the curb from all sides. A traffic light hanging over an intersection went unendingly through its changes of color though there was practically no traffic on the road. But every now and again a car would be caught by a red light, and come to a stop with a conversational babble from its wheels on the uneven road.

Despairing of a bus or taxi ever passing, I went to the garage, followed by my companion, and entered the glassed-in cubicle to be found in all such places. A reek of old oil; a blackened floor; greasy clipboards and advertisements for tires and spark plugs hanging on the walls Four men, three of them white, were standing about a table. All the men, except the youngest, had their bellies hanging over their belted trousers. I asked them how far it was to the campus.

“Oh, three, four miles, at least. It’s quite a ways.”

The black man, who was much the biggest of them, ran his eye over the dripping pair of us. “Well—” he said; then hesitated; then made up his mind. “I’ll take you. I’m going downtown. I can go that way.”

I knew enough about the geography of the city to know that downtown and the campus were in almost opposite directions from one another. So I demurred politely. Whereupon the small, moustached, blue-shirted man who had answered my first question, and who had an air of authority over the others, cut in abruptly.

“It’s all right,” he said. “You can go with him. He’s trustworthy.”

It was quite clear what he meant. So clear that neither I nor my friend had anything to say. Nor had the black man, who looked at me from his height with a distant, patient expression of humiliation. Again, the white man offered us his assurance.

“You’ll be all right. You can ride with him.”

The black man finally stirred. “You wait in my car. I’ll be out in a minute. It’s the yellow Chevy.”

So we left them and waited in the padded cell of his Chevy. When its owner joined us, he made an embarrassed attempt to restore his dignity in his own eyes and ours. “I like to help people out. The only trouble is nowadays, you can’t be too careful just who you help.” In other words, I was quite as capable as he of being a gun-carrying menace, my white skin and female companion notwithstanding.

After all that had passed, it somehow seemed appropriate that we eventually had to walk in the rain, anyway. The car wouldn’t start. “That’s why I brought it here,” the driver cried in despair, hitting his hand on the steering wheel. Only then did I realize that he was a customer, not an employee, of my blue-shirted guarantor. We left the four of them in heated altercation under the upraised hood of the car. We had paddled the length of only the first three blocks of our hike when my companion’s sandals disintegrated; the water had simply washed the glue out of them.

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There is a characteristic glance that people in the United States exchange when one approaches another unexpectedly. I had caught it in that garage. There is too much anxiety in it to call it a look of challenge. Rather, I might have discovered them in something underhanded; they might have surprised me in it; for a charged, blank moment, infinitesimal and protracted, neither of us knows who has really caught out whom. So there is always a special element of relief when the encounter does not lead to accusation and counter-accusation; and this relief colors the mixture of informality and friendly concern that are the usual consequences of such meetings.

During my visit to the United States I came across little of the surliness of manner that I’d been warned had spread everywhere since my last visit. On the whole, people were pleasant and obliging; and this was true both of blacks and whites. Clearly, American friendliness had not disappeared or broken down entirely. As for my commercial dealings, the men and women behind shop counters, or in restaurants, or at the other end of telephone lines, worked a great deal harder—that is, they seemed to take their work more seriously, on its own terms—than their equivalents in England generally do. American energy, on that level, had not lapsed into insolence and indifference. Again, although the natives complained bitterly about the standard of their public services—the telephones, the buses, the clearance of rubbish—they seemed to work efficiently enough in the city I was visiting; they were not noticeably worse, at any rate, than those I had become accustomed to on this side of the Atlantic.

Little things? Not worth writing about? It is perhaps a symptom of our disorder that we are inclined to think of them as such. We are snobs, as well as opportunists, in our armchair pursuit of ultimates. Against many memories of kindness and consideration from strangers, I know of no way of “balancing” the recollection of police vehicles discharging tens of helmeted, revolver-carrying, baton-brandishing police into the main street at dusk, the haphazard buildings around them merging into the night and the whirling neon signs growing sharper with every moment that passed, while a band of black youths retreated defiantly two, three, then four blocks down the street, leaving the town-center, going out of sight. I had no idea what the incidents were that the police had come out to suppress by the sheer weight of their numbers and the display of their weaponry. So far as I could see, no arrests had been made.

Off the streets; and on to the campus. . . . That appeared to be a longer-term approach to the problem of preventing trouble before it occurred. I was surprised to see how large, relatively speaking, were the numbers of poor, black students who had been brought on to the campus under various emergency schemes of educational advancement. Five years previously such a class of students had barely existed. Now they were all over the place, and boisterous and assertive in their demeanor with one another (though not with the white students, or in the lecture rooms). The white students, in response, were generally careful neither to compete with them in their noisiness, nor ever to express disapproval, of even the most polite or delicate kind, of anything the black students did. When the white students made their noise, they did it separately, elsewhere.

So there remained a space between the two groups that nobody acknowledged to be there, and that hardly anybody really tried to cross. It was a way of dealing with a situation that was complicated for all involved. No one I spoke to seemed all that hopeful about the eventual success of the experiment, academically; and the rather hollow hullabaloo from some of the black students suggested to me that they also had their deep doubts on that score. But no one thought of going back on the policy, either. It was noticeable, for example, that when the campus crime problem was spoken of, people made an effort—and it took an effort, in view of the evidence—not to link it explicitly with the university’s admission policies.

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Some time ago I attended a conference on literary and cultural topics at which a majority of the participants were Americans. In the course of the conference many apocalyptic predictions were made (sometimes with evident relish) about the future development of American culture. But a tacit assumption of several of the speakers was that in talking about the culture of the United States, they were talking about culture everywhere. Indeed, when one English member of the conference quietly remonstrated with his American colleagues—“Our past was different from yours, our present is different from yours, and there is every likelihood that our future will be different from yours”—this modest observation was greeted by some of his listeners with unconcealed disdain.

Everything, it seemed, could be said about the United States—but not that. No Declarations of Independence by upstart cultures elsewhere were to be permitted. And this, if you please, from disaffected Americans; anti-American Americans; Americans who had washed their hands of their country’s foreign adventures and the imperialism of its soldiers and business barons! It was an instructive moment, and a depressing one. Even the relish with which it was announced that the traditional modes of cultural discourse were finished, dead, kaput, revealed an incurable, depressing, American optimism, though of a perverse kind. We may not know where we’re going, it seemed to declare, but look how fast we’re traveling, faster than anyone’s ever gone before, to a destination that will surely be amazingly different from anything any human has ever experienced, altogether new, modern, unconditioned. . . .

A year later, recalling those debates, I looked out from my ninth-story window in one of the campus apartment houses, across a busy four-lane highway, on to a golf course where the well-nourished, tartan-capped businessmen of the city padded about with their clubs and little carts. Others practiced archery on a strip of grass near the road, using tall bows of viciously flexed blades of tensile steel, painted in vivid colors. Immediately below, a student or two sometimes lay on the campus lawns, but the spaces were too wide and the apartment houses too high to encourage such pastoral pursuits; generally the students preferred to sprawl about on the steps directly in front of their dormitories or the student union building. In the background, beyond the steel huts and parking lots, were two enormous gray hospitals blocking the horizon; one of them was a veterans’ hospital, reputedly filled with wounded men from Vietnam.

It was a forbidding view; there was nothing unconditioned about it. It was enough to remind one that only the dead are unconditioned; and even then they remain among the conditions governing the living. The Americans I saw going about their leisure or business were surely as much in the grip of their past as any other people. Yet that grip showed its mark not only in what they had created around them, but also in the delusion that they may be able to realize, or at least have a duty to aspire toward, an unconditioned future.

It is a strange trap for a people to have found itself in. Without some such belief—without an assertion of will to the effect that a man or a nation are what they declare themselves to be—the country could not have come into existence; it could hardly exist today, over so huge an area, with so diverse a population, so fiercely competitive a system, and so relatively few shared traditions of civility. With it, even those tartan-capped businessmen, canny enough though they may be in their assessment of their day-to-day chances, seem doomed to a measure of megalomania on one side and a corresponding measure of cynicism on the other. They know the future to which they’re committed to be a phantom state; yet they cannot live without it. Those, precisely, are the conditions given to them by history.

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The summer school came to its end. I gave my final seminar on the later novels of Dickens, and held the last, laborious, therapeutic session over my students’ stories and autobiographical fantasies. Time to go home. But first a weekend with some friends in the country: suddenly I found myself among placid, handsome farmlands—amazingly empty of people to one more accustomed to the English countryside; and amazingly silent to one who had not become accustomed, over the previous few weeks, to having an ever-busy highway outside his window. Then a bus ride to New York City, and the last leg of the journey. At evening the bus crossed the mudflats of New Jersey, where small industrial plants rose forever out of tracts of pallid clay, and marooned diners and liquor stores shone blearily, looking already as though it were four o’clock in the morning inside them.

The lights of the city came up on the horizon: another spread of stars in another sky. They drew nearer; the buildings closed in; the bus banked and lurched like an airliner descending. Far below, across a huge oblong plaza that was vaulted and floored with lights and obscurity, dark patches moved, joined others, and parted from them, as if a segment of the earth’s surface had been cut away to reveal some secret, maleficent process. It was the toll at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Now gliding, now straining at bends, we went down to it and into the city.

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Footnotes

1 Much the wildest looking of the students I had dealings with did not belong to any of my classes. He simply came into my office unannounced one day, and dumped at my feet a travel-stained knapsack that appeared to be stuffed with enough gear and provisions to see him safely to Katmandu. His black hair stood up on end in the style of a Guardsman's busby; his beard flowed down to cover his otherwise bare chest; from below, his great toenails regarded me like so many tortoises. It turned out that he was doing a thesis on Dickens at another university relatively nearby. As soon as he opened his mouth on the subject he began to produce the usual pedantic, boring gibberish about “patterns of symbolism” in The Pickwick Papers. . . .

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