President Obama vs. Walker Percy (and Another Jefferson Lecturer)

by Jason Peters on April 25, 2012 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Writers & Poets


Rock Island, IL

In The Thanatos Syndrome Walker Percy’s beleaguered hero, Tom More, is interested not in the attendant symptoms of his patients but in “the abatement of symptoms”—the abatement

of such peculiarly human symptoms as anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, suicidal tendencies, chemical dependence. Think of it [he tells, Lucy, an epidemiologist] as a regression from a stressful human existence to a peaceable animal existence.

He fears that the cure to these “peculiarly human symptoms” might be worse than the symptoms themselves.

A few pages later we get a larger sense of why he fears this: a physician named Bob Comeaux admits to poisoning, by clandestine means, a segment of the population with doses of heavy sodium. He justifies this with statistics of improved social behavior: fewer murders, fewer teen pregnancies, fewer instances of sexual deviance, etc.—in fine, with evidence of better living through chemistry.

(“Better” is suspect in this novel: tenderness, says the alienated Father Smith, taking a page out of Flannery O’Connor–who distrusted tenderness cut off from the source of tenderness–leads to the gas chamber.)

Tom More is, and Bob Comeaux is not, worried about the how of things. Tom would have symptoms treated at their origin (whatever that is—at this point he isn’t sure); Bob would merely have those symptoms eliminated, whatever the costs. And he would ignore the costs by pointing to the results, which are always unimpeachable. The elimination of symptoms is all he can manage to worry about, whereas Tom worries that their elimination—their abatement, as he calls it—comes too dearly, though at this point in the novel he has no prescription. He, like the novelist, is mostly a diagnostician.

(An example of the difference between Bob Comeaux and Tom More—one not meant for virgin ears: Bob, unconcerned with symptoms, asks Tom if he doesn’t think that the new mosaics made of recycled material and pasted to public cinder blocks aren’t an improvement upon “the old fuck-you graffiti.” Tom’s answer: “No.” He, Tom, would not have a chemically induced morality. Like Milton, he won’t praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.)

One of the things this novel concerns itself with is the context of knowledge. Tom More notices that all kinds of people will answer the question “Where is St. Louis” without first asking why they’re being asking where St. Louis is. Somewhat like computers they have developed server-like brains fully capable of answering questions that have no bearing on their lives, and they can do so because they no longer have the capacity to contextualize the disconnected things that they know, but they aren’t in the least bit curious about why they’re being asked where St. Louis is.

Tom believes that if you ask a normal person to tell you where St. Louis is, he’ll ask you why you want to know before he tells you. Such a man thinks from within a context. Tom’s patients (including his wife, Ellen) do not. They know a great deal, but they cannot contextualize what they know. They are computational geniuses: they “have an average twenty percent increase in IQ,” says Bob, “plus an almost total memory recall. . . . Ask them a question: What did you do on your fifth birthday”? and, Tom, I’m telling you, it’s like watching the mainframe at NIH scanning its data bank. They retrieve it! If it’s in the neurons, they get it!”

As far as Tom is concerned, however, such people make good Bridge players but not good human beings. Who gives a damn if you have total recall of your fifth birthday but can’t call a thing–such as infanticide–by its rightful name?

That I was perusing these passages in a full-blown noplace—namely, the Detroit airport—is bad enough, for airports are interesting only inasmuch as they remind you that everyone has a story. Beyond that they are soul-less loci of waste: of energy, packaging, time, eyesight, and hearing. Everything is in a state of expenditure, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame, as Shakespeare said of lust.

But in a desperate attempt to redeem the time I’m reading Percy, whereupon a TV I’ve purposely turned my back to–and a speaker in front of me I’ve failed to notice–breaks in with coverage of President Obama’s speech in Chapel Hill on the problem of student loans. Bob Comeaux would impinge upon human rights by administering heavy sodium in the drinking water; someone else would infringe upon mine with ubiquitous “news” shows broadcast into every dark corner of the universe, including gate C-32 in Detroit, which is an outer-limit if ever there were one.

I credit Mr. Obama whenever I can. I’m disappointed in him. I preferred him to his witless opponent in ’08, and it appears I’m going to have to prefer him to his next witless opponent in ’12. But still I’m disappointed in him. (This is a theme applicable to all Democratic presidents in the years I’ve been of voting age. But I hasten to say that “disappointed” does not begin to express my dissatisfaction with Republican presidents in that same time period.)

But, sympathetic though I am with the plight of college students, I cannot credit Mr. Obama for the speech he is giving in Chapel Hill.

He tells his audience that he didn’t pay off his own loans until eight years ago. He does this without mentioning anything about the cost of higher education. (This speech is all about borrowing and interest rates.) He calls higher education “an economic imperative” and says that “we can’t price most Americans out of a college education. We can’t make higher education a luxury. . . . Every American should be able to afford it.”

Because it needs saying, I’ll be the one to go ahead and say it: making higher education an “economic imperative” misses the point of higher education entirely. Until we manage to decouple higher education from the job market, we are going to persist in misunderstanding education’s true end. It may well be that in the past—i.e., in a debt-based economy incapable of imagining how top-heavy things eventually fall over—a college degree has been a stepping stone to the middle class, but those days are over. An economy that can’t help a college graduate retire an enormous debt is not going to look upon a college degree as a stepping stone to the middle class. Colleges, obviously, will continue to look thus upon the degree (how they will wield the mighty frame of education, how build, unbuild, contrive to save tuition costs), but this is just one more thing among many about which they will be wrong.

And although it is true that we shouldn’t make higher education a luxury, it is truer still that we shouldn’t make it a commodity. When it once again becomes difficult, it will be neither a luxury nor a commodity. Making it so “every American should be able to afford it” is no different from making it so every American can do it, which is the same thing as rendering it meaningless.

My reading is interrupted by something else that Mr. Obama says:

Previous generations made the investments necessary for us to succeed, to build a strong middle class, to create the foundation for America’s leadership in science and technology and medicine and manufacturing. And now it’s our turn. We’ve got to do the right thing. I want one of you to discover the cure for cancer, or the formula for fusion, or the next game-changing American industry. And that means we’ve got to support those efforts.

I marvel (actually, I don’t) that there is no mention here of music, art, art history, philosophy, theology, literature, history, church history, classical studies, languages, or political theory. And so I return to my book, which continues to work hard on the notion that context matters, that statistics and facts in and of themselves, ripped from their necessary if neglected situation, are not only meaningless but dangerous.

That, at any rate, was in large measure the message delivered at the Kennedy Center the night before. A man giving the Jefferson Lecture (as Walker Percy before him once did) can afford to say so. A man seeking election or re-election apparently can’t.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Harold Stassen April 25, 2012 at 2:27 am

Why on earth should a secular state subsidize theology or church history? Church membership is shrinking all the time among those 20-30; why bother with giving people degrees in useless subjects like “divinity” or “chicana studies”?

avatar Jonathan April 25, 2012 at 6:50 am

Very well put, Jason.

Volokh also noted this slight…correction…in the President’s speech at UNC –

avatar Gabe Ruth April 25, 2012 at 9:52 am

Excellent, thank you.

Mr. Stassen, you lost?

avatar B April 25, 2012 at 1:00 pm

I sat in the airport children’s play area the other day, that being the only place I could read my book without having to listen to the televisions. I don’t even have any children.

avatar Mark Gordon April 25, 2012 at 2:15 pm

I was on hand at the Kennedy Center to hear Berry’s lecture. In it, he quoted lines from E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End” that are apropos of your excellent post: “It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it. . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?”

avatar D.W. Sabin April 25, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Well of course the current President failed to mention anything whatsoever about the arts while salivating over the next big economic generator. He is the current top sales model of technocratic utopianism and while he might absent-mindedly enjoy the arts on a superficial level, they have not contributed to his determined rise to the top of a culture that thinks the ethic of the Cancer Cell is the greatest Good.

His jive is this degenerating culture’s toxic jive . The Swells pat your head and tell you to be a consumer and release yourself to the impulse buys of the next Boom. Arts , of course, might involve self awareness and this is anathema to the technocratic swineherd. Not that Mr. Romney has any greater clue.

But the arts , as an element of culture, though still rich, are equally bludgeoned by the larger fixation on consumerism. Hence the Flower puppy, Diamond-encrusted skulls and Fashion as exemplars of our current “art”. Skill is subsumed by market value and this is a death dirge.

avatar Chris Madden April 26, 2012 at 12:42 am

Mr. Stassen,

The article mentions understanding the “context” of a thing; let me clarify what you seem to have misunderstood slightly. Firstly, it seems that you’ve conflated theology/religion (a subject in which one can earn a B.A.) and Seminary (a theological school that ordains officiating leaders of a particular denomination); they’re not the same thing (also notice to which one the author refers). You’ll notice that at no point is the author suggesting that theology or church history in particular ought to be subsidized by a secular democratic government. However, the author is calling to attention the absurdity that higher education can be exclusively reduced to science and computer labs, completely divorced from the Humanities. He is suggesting that education is not merely an economic springboard in spite of the fact that there are some economic benefits connected to it. Simply put, there is a larger context with higher education than financial gains or returns. Beginning to think about this broader context might, but not necessarily, cause one to hesitate before ejaculating which degrees are “useless subjects.” I will not argue that far too many people between 20-30 treat Sunday mornings as Saturday #2; a portion of these absences can be attributed more to laziness than to dismissive enlightenment. In your comments above, your first question demonstrates faultiness in both reading and critical thinking; and your second question demonstrates bad reasoning in that it uses logical fallacies to support your position, meaning it doesn’t support your position. Each of those skills is taught in the various departments of the Humanities, and those skills are, minimally, reason enough for the need of a healthy marriage between the Humanities and the Sciences.

avatar Lime Remark April 29, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Alas for the Muses. One need not read book 8 of Plato’s Republic to see what happens when they’re neglected — one needs only to look around.

avatar J Galt May 15, 2012 at 5:10 am

If you believe that context matters, then you should never be disappointed with President Obama. He is attempting to accomplish exactly what he set out to do, when he first arrived in Chicago.
The road he is traveling is very long, with many obstacles, but being part of an overall philosophy with an extremely pragmatic battle plan — President Obama has laid the groundwork that the Frankfurt Schools founders would be proud of.
That is the context you should be more concerned with, rather than the the products that are coming out of our schools.
All you need is one generation and history and context disappears.

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