The Thinking 

A Literature Student in a Nihilistic Void

February 5, 2013


LEONORA writes:

Your post “Suffering and Purity of Heart” from January 20th caught my attention. A friend showed it to me on the day I had to go back to school after my winter break, and I have been experiencing the deep truth of those words first hand since then. I want to share some of that with you because it might be of interest to you.

I am a 25-year-old woman, studying and teaching language and literature on graduate level at a liberal state university in the Midwest. I would describe myself and my religious as well as political views as conservative for the most part. I am not married or in a relationship, and thus working and studying at the University, though I would be happy to give up my pursuit of a career for having a family and being a housewife with a good husband by my side any time. I will always be thinking about issues, reading, trying to stay informed and keeping my mind going, yet I realize more and more and feel strongly what women were really created for, and that is not to toughen up, be like men and pursue great careers as a primary goal.

Thus far I have been thinking that languages and literature are pretty safe grounds for women – as opposed to the military or other clearly masculine jobs. But yesterday I had to learn that even this can be quite a challenge: two classes made that point very clear.

One class deals with African American literature, Toni Morrison’s writings in particular, and is taught by a black male professor who clearly did not grow up in the United States himself. As he was presenting the African American literary history and African American’s history and development in general, he had a way of subtly making white people feel very guilty.

Listening to him speak about whites being the reason for the damage of black people’s psyche and self-esteem, whites rejecting and disliking them and making them feel inferior, emasculated, invisible, ugly etc., a weird feeling of shame came over me – a shame of being white, a sense of guilt and feelings of pity. That was so strange – what have I ever done to a black person in my life? And why would they blame us now for something that happened way in the past…? Since the professor is very well aware of who I am and that I am genuinely interested in African American literature for various reasons, I feel like he is addressing me personally a lot. And since he is black himself, a man and a professor, I as a white female student feel totally intimidated and in no position to argue with him. All of this was a strange experience that I can’t quite make sense of yet.

Confused from this class I moved on to the next class that started 15 minutes later. There we read German Expressionist literature, and yesterday we talked about poetry by Gottfried Benn. Benn was a physician and specialized in venereal diseases. In his writings he reduces humans to certain physical characteristics – not good ones in any way, but the grossest you can possibly imagine. He chooses diseases and effects of neglected hygiene to name and characterize humans, and makes them interact.

Women are looked at as trashy sex objects, disgusting and good for one thing only to satisfy male gazes and their animal lust. People’s private parts (again especially women’s) are revealed and presented in shocking and disturbing ways. The vocabulary he uses is sick and animalistic. Apparently Benn wrote this in order to mock people who believe that humans are the crown of God’s creation. His overall message seemed to be: “Look at you, how gross and disgusting you are! Do you really think you actually matter and are any better than any other creature in the world? You are nasty, sick and then you die.” These are dehumanizing and degrading texts. And he uses poetry, something that is so beautiful and meant to compose beautiful texts for enjoyment, to produce joy and pleasure, in order to do the complete opposite – to mock and ridicule everything that is good about God’s masterpiece and make it look like something worse than a piece of trash.

Sitting in that class yesterday was painful and felt like torture. I was fighting tears of anger and hurt feelings, just looked down and could not say a single word the whole entire time. I felt even worse when I realized how all the others were laughing and thought it was funny. I could not find a tiny bit of amusement in someone presenting human beings like that and talking about women in such a trashy way. I just wanted to get out of there – as far away as possible – as the again male professor kept repeating those lines over and over again, pronouncing them worse and more disgusting every time he recited them again.

My own strong emotions and reaction made me wonder if there is something wrong with me! Why did this make me so upset and angry while everyone else seemed to enjoy it? As I reflected on it later that night in bed, I realized how God has been tearing down many walls in and around my heart throughout the past six months. He has made me much more sensitive towards other people and also towards sin and things that are just wrong. He has revealed to me what it means to be a woman and how I as a woman should be caring, loving and nurturing. I am to have a soft and tender heart, feel with others and make this world a much more beautiful place. And that’s what I want with all my heart. I want to be captivating, beautiful, inviting and loving. But with a heart soft like that I can’t handle situations like the one in class yesterday.

I told a male class mate about my feelings after class and his response was, “Well, Benn wrote that to make people think and to cause exactly these controversial reactions. You shouldn’t take it personally, just think about the issues he is trying to raise.” I know I could easily try to let this not get to me, build up some walls around my heart again and not care and laugh like everyone else. But that would be at the risk of my heart, my soul, my purity, and in a way even my womanhood. Why do they expect me to do that? How can I even survive as a woman in such an environment that will constantly cause me pain without manning up?

Laura writes:

You are very wise. You are embattled and rightly feel a need to defend your soul as if it were your life itself. It will be a constant struggle for you to maintain your integrity, not to mention your love of literature, in this environment. I can’t tell you what you should do, but I can say that purely in terms of a literary education, leaving aside the issue of job opportunities, you would be much better off if you studied on your own and worked as a waitress, unless you can find a couple of professors who have higher intellectual standards and are not political ideologues.

I would suggest, if you stay, that you work to prevent your mind from focusing on the junk. A housefly lands on a rotting carcass for just a second. Take a taste and fly away. Grit your teeth, wait for it to end and constantly rise above it. You are collecting evidence for future generations. The school you attend — Russell Kirk called his state university Behemoth U. and yours is the same — can’t possibly last. You are documenting in your heart just how low civilization can fall.

Don’t mistake your loneliness for error. Pray every day, and God will most certainly will give you strength. You need to protect what Yeats would call your “radical innocence.” In his poem “A Prayer for My Daughter,” the Irish poet wrote of his hope that his daughter would possess intellectual purity and femininity:

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is heaven’s will,
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

As a woman, your highest task is to preserve this custom and ceremony, which is the root of the greatest literature.

—- Comments —

Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:

For Leonora I feel spiritual kinship and no little sympathy. You are quite right in pointing out to her, in your reference to Russell Kirk, that her experience is nowadays not an aberrant one, but a mainstream one in the vast majority of American colleges and universities. I mostly teach undergraduates and when given the opportunity urge them not to attend graduate school in the humanities; when I occasionally teach graduate students in my department’s MA program, I urge them not to go on for a Ph.D. For one thing, the academic job-market is hopeless and has been for thirty years; for another thing, humanities departments led the way in the politicization of the higher learning and are today, typically, the most ideologically dogmatic and most intellectually degraded domains of the university. Hiring in the humanities is ideologically driven such that to make herself eligible for an academic career Leonora would need to betray her deepest convictions and present a face to the profession of total conformity.

The situation was already quite distressing when I did my graduate work between 1984 and 1990, but the atmosphere has grown steadily darker since then and the details that Leonora reports are quite unsurprising. Guilt-mongering (a form of active resentment) is ubiquitous in the humanities where all subjects have been assimilated to “victim studies” and “oppression studies.” What Alan Roebuck and I call “aschemiolatry” – the cult of ugliness and its accompanying contempt for beauty – is also ubiquitous. The few people who dissent from these perversions of intellect and who manage somehow to survive in the academic environment feel their isolation constantly. They live in danger of their livelihood because the conformism of the departments is total and implacable and tends to seize on any pretext to purge itself of the very “difference” that its tedious rhetoric endlessly celebrates.

My advice to Leonora would be – find a happier situation. The allure of the “professorial life” is indeed great, even after such revelations as she has witnessed, but at this late date in the dissolution of civilized life, the allure is more or less an unrealizable fantasy for a person of moral and intellectual integrity whose deepest convictions clash with the obligatory opinions of Behemoth U.

If it were the case that Leonora is committed to completing her degree (an ambition that I could understand), then I would say to her: Comply as cheerfully as you can with the course of study that your degree requires – but undertake your own, private course of study in parallel. That is what I did at UCLA in the 1980s and it has stood me intellectually and spiritually in good stead.

Mary H. writes:

Leonora, your post very much spoke to me. I am a 58-year-old woman, who raised four sons. Although life was so busy and the work all consuming, like you I had a mind that was active and inquisitive. I relate so well to your comment, “Is something wrong with me!” I am sure you must feel an outsider in this world in which you temporarily reside. And I feel it would help you to keep in mind that this indeed is a temporary situation and, as Laura says, “don’t mistake your loneliness for error” — great advice.

Focus instead on the gifts God has granted you. Your sharp mind, your ability to discern truth and authenticity from the poseurs and the clarity of heart you refreshingly possess. I remember how lonely and aimless I felt in my twenties. For a woman, this can be an unbelievably forlorn time. Even though you have moved on from your own family, you still want and need those same attachments to make you feel whole. And you will create them when you start your own family. In the in-between time, Leonora, cling fast to your faith. View the rest of your time in academia as God challenging you to see what is true. Participate, be polite; but never harden your heart. This time will pass. Do it with integrity and, as Laura said, “grit your teeth.” God bless you.

Karen I. writes:

I truly hope Lenora isn’t taking on student loan debt for the education she is getting.

 Jeff writes:

Leonora obviously hasn’t taken advantage of the Amnesty and Pardon Granted to All Persons of European Descent bestowed upon us by Walter E. Williams.

Will G. writes:

During the 1990’s while taking a photography class at an art school in Chicago the class was assigned to do a series of portraits. One student did a close up series of male genitals that were pierced in various ways. Although I was no innocent, I remember doing an internal eye roll at the spectacle when he pinned up his 8 x 10’s. There were young girls in that class. I remember how thrilled the instructor was with this 19 year old’s “portraits.” He went on about the lighting and film speed and what techniques he could use to change the look. That male friend of Leonora’s told her that the reaction was intended to make her think. That is not true. It is intended to desensitize her and crush her decency. I did not realize what was happening then but when I look back it just makes me angry. Where were the grown ups?

Lydia Sherman writes:

The young lady in [graduate school] needs to quit and get her money back if possible. She would get a lot further in life to invest the same amount of money in property and a house, which can be re-sold. You can’t sell your education. You just become a slave to the system of employment. That’s the glory of the degree: you pay hugely and they put you in a type of indentured servitude for the duration of your youth, where you might have, instead, married and had children and educated them at home. I knew a young homeschool girl who had completed her studies at home and wanted to pursue her interest in literature. She enrolled in a local college and was sickened by the literature class she attended. She described it as “polluting,” and she quit going.

Alissa writes:

Lydia Sherman has great advice on skipping the college experience and debt. I turned 20 years old last year and graduated last year from high school. (I went to an International School so I lost a couple of years by transferring and then the depression which was another problem). Due to my age and other priorities I have, I will not go to university for four to eight years. Instead I will be completing a cheap degree from an American state college this year and after that searching for a sufficient part-time job plus a cheap place (house or rent). I will probably get married by 24-25 years old and not use contraception because God should decide the number of children I should have, whether it’s four, seven or even ten.

Jill Farris writes:

I agree that the class on the German writer/venereal diseases is designed to desensitize you…it is. It was important for you to tell a fellow male student how horrible it was for you to listen to that drivel…he needed to hear that you were violated as you listened to the lecture. Men need to see women being hurt and shocked at what is being called “education” these days.

I was a literature student (an undergraduate) in the 1980’s and still gag over the evil literature that I was required to read in my honors classes. I agree with Lydia Sherman, you would do better to get out of there and do something radically different. What you put into your mind stays there!

One other alternative is to get a graduate degree online for far less money. There are some excellent programs out there with requirements that are far less caustic to your soul.

Daniel S. writes:

I am pleased to see my brief quoting of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Fr. Seraphim Rose on the spiritual benefit of suffering was of benefit to Leonora as she struggles with the malevolent and nihilistic environment of modern academia. I would indeed encourage her to pursuit such Christian writers to fortify both her mind and soul against the intellectual and spiritual wasteland she now occupies (a wasteland I, as an English literature major, know all too well).

As for Mr. Bertonneau’s observation about the dark, soulless conformity one finds in modern academia, as well as Leonora’s comment about her intellectually timid and shallow classmate, I can only think of what Kierkegaard once said, that the crowd is untruth. To hold on to Truth and Tradition is to be outside of and against our times.

A “grizzled and unbowed culture warrior” writes:

Leonora, the disgust you feel is real. The honest response would be to pummel the filthy so-called professors but that would require the presence of men on campus.  Q.E.D.

This is not constrained to Midwestern state schools.  I encountered something similar in a post-graduate setting at our local Ivy, in a program favored by middle-aged professionals already possessing advanced credentials.  In one case, the Jewish professor enjoyed denigrating Christianity, especially while staring down the obviously German-American, Cross-wearing, self-identified faithful Lutheran blonde woman that favored a seat near the front of the classroom.  What this had to do with the alleged purpose of the course eludes me to this day.  However, I acted even if no one else had the guts to act.

One day, after reaching my Popeye moment, I made a deliberate show of staring him in the eye, closing my books, standing tall, and exiting the classroom with a stern, “Good day.”

He got the message.  It was the end of his most blatant bigotry but even so, a leopard cannot change its spots.

Engagement with the enemy is not for the raw recruit; there are too many pitfalls and ambushes.  The enemy is well-studied in tactics and strategies that reduce an unprepared resister to a quivering mass of protoplasm.  (See Festinger’s 1962 Scientific American article on Cognitive Dissonance for one popular technique.)

Long experience shows the best response is a show of non-verbal, uncompromising disgust up to and including departing the scene of the crime.  We once called this “righteous indignation” (or “calling a spade a spade”) and it is proscribed today precisely because it works and it is not refutable.  Your feelings remain your feelings, even in the age of thought crime.


Mrs. Sherman writes:

I agree, the best response is an unfriendly exit. Over the years I have learned that the reason these types of people treat us badly is because we let them do it. If they see we are going to sit still and take the abuse, they will keep doing it, as we have given them that permission and that freedom. We must remove their freedom to do this and give them the message that we are not giving them the go-ahead to assault our sensibilities.

Most people just want to get through the course without a lot of fuss. They do not go to college to cause an uproar. (The colleges prepare them, instead to go out into normal places like churches, homes, etc. and create their programmed uproar). Consequently, they sit there in embarrassed silence and say nothing, knowing it would erupt into an unpleasant showdown if they said anything.

What I have noticed is that if anyone gave any sort of resistance, the perpetrator will be so rattled, he won’t be too quick to instigate it again. Each time they utter a falsehood, someone in the class ought to give them, to use an old expression, the business. Give them the business and expose them.

When I was homeschooling my sons, we engaged in pretend debates where one person would throw out ridiculous statements and the other would correct them. It might be helpful if students who are disturbed by this polluting and pushy information in classrooms, to get feedback from like-minded people at home or online, as to what are the most effective responses.

If you do decide to respond with something other than a walk-out, remember that the things you say can also be learning moments for the professors, so load your answers (acquired from your consultation with others) a bit with extra information that the teachers do not usually confront.

Mrs. Sherman adds:

The silent treatment or the cutting-off of communication from those who would “thought-assault” us, is an affective technique. Years ago when the web was new, trolls hounded the message boards and made people’s experience with the web very unhappy. Through cutting them off and also refuting them constantly, they no longer lord it over the web as they once did. We’ve learned a lot from dealing with them, and have worn a lot of them out by consistently reprimanding them or deleting them. These textbooks and teachers ought to be deleted, and walking out is like banning them. One of the professors of a class I know of, whose students did not sit there and “take it” said that among the staff, his class was known as “the whining class.” Not that they actually whined, but they refuted the teachings. One young man told his professor that he was outraged to have paid a sum of $65,000 to listen to such nonsense, and that he had sacrificed a lot in order to attend University. There was a decided difference in the things that went on in that class, as a result of these so-called whiners.

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