We are poor little lambs who have lost our way,
Baa, baa, baa.
We are little black sheep who have gone astray,
Baa, baa, baa.
Gentleman songsters off on a spree,
Damned from here to eternity.
Lord have mercy on such as we,
Baa, baa, baa.
—“The Whiffenpoof Song,” 1910
Emmitsburg, MD. “The great thing about college is that you can be free.” So says Colin Phelps, fictional member of Yale’s class of 2003, in the fall of his freshman year. Partly rationalizing his intended breakup with hometown girlfriend Beth, he is also sincere (or at least, as sincere as possible given his immaturity and heartlessness). Like many young people, Colin imagines college as a chance to escape the bonds of control and conformity. “I think college should be a place where you’re free to think what you want and do what you want, without anybody tying you down or putting moral pressure on you. There should be freedom from all constraints. Freedom from convention. Freedom from everything.”
But really Colin desperately wants to fit in, even if fitting in means trying to square the circle of an elite campus where prestige and recognition matter but snobbery and ostentation are shameful. Beth is baggage from an unsophisticated earlier life. When she visits, he is embarrassed by her—or rather, ashamed of himself with her—in the eyes of his new friends. These include two roommates: Arnie, the confident, clubbable golfer, and Rex, brilliant and iconoclastic and superbly literate (at one point Rex risks defending Alan Tate to Harold Bloom). Not only does Rex know all the Names, he is both learned and crude enough that, late in the novel, he jokes that a college authority would spank Colin with the Codex Theodosianus.
Colin is easily charmed, intrigued, and attracted, and wants to be charming, intriguing, and attractive. He discerns a community of “budding literati” and longs to be counted among them, especially by intriguing and attractive young women. And within the first few pages Colin is pursued—gently and chastely by Julia (a conventionally evangelizing Catholic), more directly and assertively by Margot (a captivating red-head with an “extraordinary neck”).
As if to get simple moralism out of the way, we soon realize that Julia, a pious girl formed by youth-groups and regular Mass, can’t help him (and will lose her faith). She piques Colin’s interest in Catholicism, but her motives are mixed, and Colin misunderstands her own struggles with faith as an intellectual problem. “I think I need to read some books,” he says, “indifferent to her misery.” “Maybe that will clear up the mystery.”
As for Margot, Colin misinterprets her fickle interest, pursuing her awkwardly and self-consciously, but frustrated and pained by “anxious craving”: “This was my first experience with the sufferings of desire, the peculiar anguish that comes of hoping the other person wants you back but suspecting and even knowing that they don’t.” It doesn’t matter that he realizes his mistake, that his “mind had secreted a magnificent, lustrous pearl of budding love around her drunken offer”; he still imagines he can win her over.
The campus novel is a flexible type. Probably most associated with satire (as in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, or various examples by David Lodge), it can also work for traditional mystery (Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night) or more edgy and romanticized intrigue (Donna Tartt’s The Secret History). Taking “campus novel” very loosely, it can even serve as a character study for a single academic life, such as John William’s Stoner or Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House.
An early classic of the genre is Stover at Yale, Owen Johnson’s 1912 big-man-on-campus novel, a superficial coming of age story whose protagonist gains perspective on—but still claims the mantle of—elite establishment success. By contrast, Trevor Cribben Merrill’s Minor Indignities shows the spiritual power of the small-man-on-campus novel.
Merrill includes delightful elements of satire, and with expected targets. Frankly, but without the explicit detail of Wolfe’s Charlotte, he conveys the depressing and confused campus climate of sexual permissiveness and degradation. And the novel pricks the pretentions of literary theory, culminating in a brief appearance by Xavier Mongron, the hottest new continental celebrity who can talk about epistemology and metaphysics but (since “persuasion [is] a form of violence”) won’t actually make an argument. (Mongron is the author of The Archeology of Simulacra, The Resistance of Power, and Subversion and Textuality, books which don’t exist, but we know exactly what they would say.)
Merrill even pokes fun at his own craft, or rather at the academic industry that has evolved around fiction. As Rex explains to Colin, “creative writing is one of the biggest shams ever imposed on the vulnerable undergraduate mind. . . . To what shall we compare it? Perhaps to one of those multi-level marketing schemes where people sell cosmetic products to automatons whom they in turn train to sell cosmetic products.” Genuine literature and humanistic learning is honored, and Minor Indignities is thick with allusions (many more than I could catch, I’m sure) to novels (including Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, Austen’s Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, and Proust’s Swann’s Way), as well as to philosophers and theorists (especially French. In addition to the expected shadows of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, and Lacan, René Girard is a strong but unnamed inspiration).
With so self-aware a novel, and with so much happening at different levels, it took me a while to identify the novel as a modest but serious spiritual coming-of-age story. With Minor Indignities, Merrill (who graduated from Yale in 2000, ninety-nine years after Owen Johnson) has created in Colin a kind of anti-Stover who, in the crucible of freshman year, discovers (despite his best efforts) not much more than the ability to be comfortable in his own skin. Where Stover gained a nominal degree of Socratic ignorance and democratic perspective while still winning the prize—a tap for Skull and Bones—Colin undergoes a thorough humiliation but enjoys the small graces of forgiveness, friendship, and a deeper self-knowledge.
With his last name sharing that of the main gate onto the freshmen residences of Yale’s Old Campus, Colin Phelps could be a kind of Everyman of ambitious undergraduates. (Yale, like Girard, is never actually named in the novel, but the setting is overdetermined.) But this Everyman is an unlikely protagonist. Without a purpose other than desperate self-assertion, he is driven by no dramatic goal, nor hindered by epic obstacles, and even the winning of a woman is for him more about firming up his own self-perception. Hardly heroic, Colin nonetheless inspires in the reader a sympathy, and even a pity, for a character who doesn’t recognize in himself the desire for real friendship, frustrated only by his own habits of self-sabotage.
Suitably unreliable in self-diagnosis, Colin is convinced his problem is being too nice—but also too independent to be satisfied with niceness. “I was one of those anguished souls who rebel against their nice nature. . . . A conformist chained to the dull imperatives of respectability like a cow to a fence.” By this point, the reader discerns Colin is painfully spiritually unaware as a narrator: melancholic, insecure, overthinking—at his worst, subject to “gloomy self-laceration” and capable of habitual dishonesty up to and including self-deception. He is intelligent enough to recognize his sense of shame, self-doubt, and even self-hatred, but deluded enough to expect others to interpret these as evidence of “self-knowledge [which] suggested a still deeper wisdom.”
Emotionally Colin is immature, childlike not in the sense of innocent and trusting but rather impetuous like a stubborn toddler: “As a rule I did not want to change, learn, grow. Where my truest and deepest passion was concerned, I let nobody in, accepted nobody’s judgment. . . . Though driven by no conscious policy, my behavior revealed a preference for failing under my own power, as opposed to succeeding with help.” He is self-absorbed (with allusions to Lacan’s psychological “mirror stage”), looking at his own reflection but obsessed with how other people view him. Plotting how to win back Margot, his “idea was to give [her] the impression, flattering to myself, and, I hoped, intriguing to her, that Colin Phelps was the refulgent center of a miniature solar system, circled by the girls in his life as if by so many lovesick planets.”
Colin lacks even a vocabulary to characterize his characterological shortcomings. With “freedom from constraint” the ideal, “consent” is his sole evaluative metric, which works not only for sexual relationships but for any feelings of offense. When he attends Mass with Julia he objects to being pressed into bringing up the offering: “she had neglected to ask my permission, violating the number one law in my book of morals.” If the individual will is sovereign, it is difficult to account for injustice, or even describe minor vices. Still the pangs of conscience remain. At one point, instead of taking responsibility for failure, Colin seeks “a confraternity of the defeated, united in mockery against the world that had rejected us.” “Rejection”—that is, wanting to belong but being offended by someone else’s withholding of consent.
At that Mass with Julia, Colin hears a homily about how the “truth will set you free,” and the need to trust like little children. The toddler-freshman experiences a moment of grace. “Eyes pressed shut, I threw an interior tantrum. Then a wild petition escaped me: ‘Please God make me like a little child.’ This may have been the first time in my life that I had consciously prayed.” As an epiphany, this is a small moment, and early in the story; Colin becomes genuinely interested in Christianity, though he’s unprepared to pursue it. Christianity is “like this absence at the center of my knowledge. It’s like the thing that explains everything else. But I don’t understand it.” It is easier for him to see this as a cultural failure than a spiritual one: “The more I think about it the more it seems like everyone should be going to church. . . . It should be part of the curriculum, you know? If we are going to be studying history and literature, we should also be studying the religion that’s the underpinning of Western civilization. Even if it’s on the way out. Especially if, maybe.”
By placing Colin’s childlike, prayerful surrender at Mass early in the novel, Merrill allows grace to break further into Colin’s life in less formulaic, and more surprising ways. A climactic, painfully humiliating crisis is resolved with help from a college administrator who, far from being a useless and officious bureaucrat, actually displays psychological insight and healthy paternalistic prudence. And Colin’s deluded writerly ambitions are checked by a literature professor motivated not by bogus theory, but by a disciplined spiritual asceticism. Colin converses with him almost as with a confessor: “I opened up to him completely, asked him for help and advice. . . . However briefly, the person I was to myself had been the same as the person I was to someone else.”
Academic year 1999-2000 was Merrill’s own senior year at Yale, so perhaps one shouldn’t read too much into the author’s choice, but one can’t help but notice a fitting innocence to the setting: not only is this before Bush v. Gore and 9/11, it is also before the proliferation of mobile devices. E-mail plays a minor role, but mostly communication is and has to be in person, walking around or sitting in a room together. The college campus is a setting for the leisure of conversation—rather much as it had been, generations earlier, for Owen Johnson, whose Stover stumbled on the true spirit of college not in the secret society whose privileged membership he craved, but in a haphazard debating society marked by philosophical friendship: “Some of the types that drifted in were incongruous, bizarre, flotsam and jetsam of the class; but in each, patiently resolved, he found something to stir the imagination.”
What united Stover’s unassuming debating club was serious intellectual enthusiasm: “We settle everything here, from the internal illnesses of the university to the external manifestations of the universe.” A century later, Colin finds something similar, if even less formal, in authentic conversation with Rex. After Rex’s own vulnerabilities are exposed, he and Colin form a deeper friendship, in which conversation is the means of spiritual communion: “We spent the rest of that evening together, talking, debating, and sometimes arguing, with an intensity strangely similar to love.”
In this context Colin again wrestles with Christian faith and experience, and though hardly redeemed he is closer to perceiving his predicament: “We walked back to campus across the city green, quarreling over God. Rex dismissed religious belief of any kind as a sign of thoughtlessness; I pronounced Christianity the last authentically non-conformist position. And for a few minutes, irritation rekindled my fading religious fervor. I described for Rex the beauty of the Catholic liturgy. Our world, I said, was living off the legacy of its Christian past but no longer had any understanding of theology, ritual, or tradition.”
In Minor Indignities, discussion and argument are occasions for building friendship and testing new perspectives, but they are not the crucial moments of personal development. Conversation is, at best, the field on which Colin processes decisive instances of a distinct spiritual pain: shame. Shame, as a kind of emotional knowledge, sits between reason and passion; like other fear, it weakens that part of the soul that is the seat of our identity and sense of dignity. Plato called that “the spirited part” of the soul (and Girard was after that same thumotic something with his sense of “mimetic desire”).
In one of his letters, St. Bernard of Clairvaux called shame “a fear, useless, gloomy and cruel, which does not seek pardon and therefore does not obtain it.” By contrast, there is another form of fear, “pious, humble and fruitful, which easily obtains mercy for a sinner however great be his offence. Such a fear produces, nourishes, and preserves not only humility, but also sweetness, patience, and forbearance.” By God’s grace, the experience of shame can be an opening to self-knowledge, signaled by Merrill’s epigraph from another letter of St. Bernard: “Humiliation is the way to humility.”
Connecting the dots, we could even call humility, in its way, a kind of courage. Though it might seem to move in the opposite direction, toward abasement rather than assertion, humility like courage nobly bears risk and vulnerability. St. Thomas Aquinas said that courage perseveres despite physical infirmity, while humility bears awareness of one’s own interior weakness. Humility, like courage, does not eliminate fear but orders it rightly.
By novel’s end, Colin is humbled and encouraged (or, in his words, “cured of postmodern irony”), not necessarily permanently healed of his “devious soul sickness” but at least set on a path of recovery. In the grand scheme of things, freshman year seems hardly significant, and yet for Colin “those nine months contained a density of events that I would not again experience in college, or for a long while after.” All the better if that density of events includes a “gauntlet of humiliations and anxieties” negotiated with the help of other vulnerable, bizarre flotsam and jetsam peers open to forgiveness and friendship in the most unplanned, but Providential, moments. The great thing about college is that you can be free? Colin Phelps is not the first to discover a graced thing in college: it’s the unchosen self-knowledge that is most liberating.