The Chronicle Review

When I Was Young 
at Yale

January 27, 2014

The Yale English department’s director of graduate studies and I did not like each other. That simple sentence contains conceptual errors, but also some truth. Surely I did not like him. He was tall, fiftyish, balding though handsome, and highly accomplished, with what I took to be an authoritarian aura. I was 26 and generally disliked anyone who had power over me.

Sitting in his office, as I planned my classes for my first term in graduate school, it seemed necessary to dramatize my resistance. I did this by slinging one leg over the arm of the Yale-insignia office chair and making my black-leather jacket creak with what I hoped to be menacing exasperation. He wanted me to take courses in Old English and the Augustan age, subjects in which I had no interest.

Though I did not like the director, it is less than accurate to say that he did not like me. To dislike someone, you must believe that he is made of the same stuff that you are. You must believe that he exists. The director did not believe that I existed, at least as far as I could tell. I was not a Yale undergrad (as the director had been), so I was not one of the elect, a young person bound to rule a portion of the world of culture or finance, government or academe. And I was not a tenured, chaired Yale professor, like the director. I was something that might—after six years of Yale training and 25 years of incessant scholarly production—become such a being. But the odds were against me. Until the day came when I was at least tenured, I was nothing, and so not worth the labor of disliking.

A year or so later, the director showed up at a meeting of faculty and grad students in sympathy with the Yale workers about to go out on strike. What brought the director of graduate studies there I cannot say; I never knew him to be profligate with his sympathies. He was, to be sure, in the company of an especially comely female assistant professor, known for her left-wing allegiances. At the meeting, there came pledges of solidarity with the workers, pledges not to cross picket lines, pledges to join the lines. During one of the rare moments of silence, I and everyone else heard the director grumble, “It’ll never work.” We waited for the explanation. No one loved the director, but his views mattered. “There’s nobody here.”

It was 1979, and I had tumbled out of the garden of youth, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll into the kingdom of the most white, male, and bald English department.

The room became ear-splittingly quiet. Who would answer this outrage? His attractive companion pointed out that there were almost 100 people present. The director looked at her in puzzlement. “There’s nobody here,” he said again. Then, to clarify matters—though surely they should have been clear enough: “There’s nobody senior.”

It was 1979, and I had tumbled out of the garden of youth, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll into the kingdom of the “seniors.” The Yale English-department faculty was mostly white, male, and bald or graying. They wore ties, tweed jackets, thick glasses, and sensible shoes. Some of them even smoked pipes. It was the most aggressively senior group of people that I had yet encountered.

The first time I saw more than a few of them together was at the introductory reception, a couple of days after my first meeting with the director. That day the department served sherry, which I had never seen, much less tasted. For solid refreshments, we got Dunkin’ Munchkins, tiny balls that were, the conceit ran, the punched-out centers of doughnuts. More than half a dozen graduate-faculty members clumped together in a tweedy circle, pretty much ignoring the students. The denizens of the Yale English department seemed about as interested in meeting us graduate students as they were in eating the Munchkins.

The reception was held in the graduate seminar room, which looked like the throne room for a monarch soon to be deposed. There was a grand table, lined with about 20 comfortable leather chairs. Up front was the lion’s seat, a regally worn piece of business, where—we all knew without being told—the graduate professor would install himself to hold court. (I knew that if I ambled over then and sat down in it, I’d be vaporized.) Behind the throne was a bookcase full of genteelly decomposing books, many of them related to the study of Old English. Above the books, I saw a shape that looked like a crude map of Australia but on closer examination proved to be a water stain.

Occasionally a brave grad student tried to edge into the tweed clump, but the clump subtly bunched, closed ranks, and left him outside. Eventually the student returned to us, hangdog. The main objective of our conversation was to identify the faculty members present. We were trying to tie these tweed characters to the amazing works of scholarship that had come out of the department. Here at Yale were the authors of To the Palace of Wisdom, The American Adam, The Poetry of Meditation, The Descent From Heaven, and the learned editors of the Boswell project and the works of Thomas More.

Many of us were in awe of those books, but in 1979 they weren’t the books that Yale’s English department was known for. This was the era of the gang called the Hermeneutical Mafia or the Yale Rat Pack. This was the moment of Deconstruction and Criticism (it would be published in a few weeks), which featured essays by Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Jacques Derrida.

We grad students milled and grazed and (very occasionally) sipped and tried to spy one of those fierce luminaries, none of whom, we finally concluded, had been willing to lend his presence to the sherry-and-Munchkin do.

You couldn’t see Skull and Bones from the seminar room in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, though it was directly across the street. But the building was much on my mind the afternoon of the reception and had been from the day I got to New Haven. To my 26-year-old self, it seemed nearly impossible that literature—Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Whitman—was sharing space with Skull and Bones. I did not know much about Bones, but I took it to be a bastion of reactionary America. The society reached out its withered hand to tap future Wall Street pirates, CIA agents, and the sort of State Department operatives who had leveraged us into Vietnam, where a number of my high-school buddies had gone to be maimed and worse.

At least the Skull and Bones building looked its part. They called it the Crypt—and it did look like it was designed by Edgar Allan Poe. It was all stone and metal, with no real windows, and doors of enormous weight. Those doors must have closed with the grimmest finality, though never in my five New Haven years did I see them open or shut.

The Crypt was a monument to the dark. It looked like the temple of a demon—Moloch or Beelzebub—one of the devils we discussed in our Milton seminar in the elegantly decomposing room of the Munchkin party.

One day I saw that the Crypt’s front door and the wall next to it were blotched with red: the red of the anarchist flag, the red of rage and retribution. Someone had taken a couple of cans of yowling crimson paint and thrown them at the facade of Skull and Bones. I loved it. Perhaps that night people would mass in front of the building, carrying rakes, scythes, and wrenches. A strike force would arrive armed with five-pound sledgehammers and the requisite silver stakes to take care of the nightwalkers inside.

All right, I got a little carried away. I knew that wasn’t really going to happen. But something might. The university and the community were finally showing distaste for the monument to plutocracy and (why not say it?) death.

This was not what I associated with American education. I’d come from Bennington College, a small liberal-arts school in Vermont, where people worshiped Martha Graham and poetry. After I graduated, I taught at the Woodstock school, a Bennington for high-school students. Woodstock was about playing music and smoking weed, writing spontaneous bop poetry and reading Marx and Kerouac. When they completed the curriculum, the kids applied to college, and things being what they were in America circa 1977, they tended to get in—though not to Yale.

I’d been deluded. I thought that university education entailed reading Whitman during the week and listening to the Grateful Dead on weekends. (“I never cared about money,” the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once wrote. “It was not what Country Joe and the Fish taught me to value.”) It seemed that here at Yale, education might be about William Howard Taft and Averill Harriman, all the time. I knew that Yale was renowned for Wall Street connections; I knew that it sent recruits to the CIA; but I thought—what did I think? I thought that the English department, in conjunction with the spirits of Emerson and Whitman, would be at war with what was dark and outdated about Yale. I thought that the English department would win, hands down. But there was the Crypt across the street, and no one was doing anything about it. No one even talked about it.

Then I discovered the opposition at Yale—or at least I thought I did. When I arrived, I was devoted to literature straight out, and my goal was to become learned enough to pass my affection on to students. That was about it. (Though I also liked the hours that professors were rumored to work—I was an expert at engaging in prolonged bouts of doing nothing.) “What we have loved,” Wordsworth says to his friend Coleridge in The Prelude, “others will love, and we will teach them how.” I could teach others how to love Whitman and Ginsberg and be paid for it, if only a pittance. Sign me up.

To my 26-year-old self, it seemed nearly impossible that literature—Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Whitman—was sharing space with Skull and Bones.

But the stuff that had the aura of subversion about it wasn’t literature, it was theory. Maybe that was the true alternative to Bonesmanship. After a while, I dropped any illusions I might have had about running the Bones gang out of town. Still, there had to be some kind of alternative culture to Bones culture, to succor the grad students and maybe even save an undergraduate or two from being swallowed alive by Moloch. Maybe theory was 1968 by other means.

Jameson, Hartman, Bloom, Derrida, de Man: All seemed rebellious, and all were right here at Yale. But the most influential intellectual encounter I had in graduate school was probably not with a text, but with a photograph.

How many times did I stare with raw admiration at the picture of Michel Foucault on the back of my hardback edition of Discipline and Punish? I gazed at the shaved dome, the tightened jaw, the (apparently) titanium glasses, and the eyes behind them that looked as though they could burn steel. It wasn’t steel that they burned through, of course: It was lies. From Foucault’s point of view, something called discipline proliferated everywhere. All of society was organized to squeeze conformity from its members. We were constantly being pressed to act in normative, wearisome ways, though not because the economy demanded it—Foucault would nod in Marx’s direction from time to time, but never genuflect.

No, the tide of life was toward discipline because we lived in an institutionalized world, and institutions demanded as much. The primary disciplinary institution was prison, no doubt. But here was the catch. All the other institutions—government, public schools, social services, psychiatric facilities—were modeled on the prison in one way or another. Do you want to hear the story of the West? Then listen to the story of the prison and how it created what Foucault liked to call “carceral society.”

The word “discipline” was a pun, of course. All of the intellectual disciplines were in cahoots with the disciplinary operations that dotted the landscape. Where would prisons be without sociology to explain the collective origins of criminal behavior and psychology to explore the criminal mind and differentiate it from the virtuous mind? Where would schools be without psychologists and testing experts to relegate some kids to the bottom classes, from there to lives as virtual serfs?

The thinking was arresting, sometimes more than that. But the photograph! Here was the intellectual as outlaw. Here the merger of the warrior and the man of thought. It was what Nietzsche tried to be, a heroic, battle-scarred intellectual, who philosophized with a hammer.

What would Foucault have said about Skull and Bones? One did not have to ask. It was a prison, a holding cell, a box: It was a monument, erected by the ruling class, that testified directly to what that class had made of the world: a jail. The ruling class may not have known what it was doing. Its members were not aware that by building the Crypt, the Bunker, they were creating a monument to their own oppression. But Foucault had taught me—as had Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche—that people never know what they are actually doing and why.

So Skull and Bones did have its enemies. Or so I came to think.

The opening chapter of de Man’s Allegories of Reading contains a famous passage anchored in something that his other work never engages: popular culture. The object in de Man’s sights was a TV show called All in the Family, in which the actor Carroll O’Connor starred as a right-wing bombastic with a half-decent heart, which emerged during the last three minutes of each show and then disappeared until the same time the next week. His name was Archie Bunker.

In one episode, de Man tells us, Archie’s wife, Edith, is lacing up his bowling shoes, and she asks him whether she should lace them over or under. “What’s the difference?” he hollers at her. Edith responds by explaining in detail the dynamics of over- and under-lacing. Archie gets mad. What he’d meant simply was, “I don’t give a damn what you do.” For de Man, the scene was an example of how a grammatically established meaning (How do you want the laces organized?) got in the way of a rhetorical meaning (Who cares which way you do it?).

According to de Man, this sort of thing happened all the time in life, but even more frequently in literature, where the author was never around, as Archie was, to get steamed (and then explain matters). In literature, de Man said, this sort of mash-up creates impediments to reading. And if you couldn’t read the poem in front of you, then you couldn’t plausibly use it as a basis for any kind of ethics or politics.

Archie Bunker didn’t care about that sort of paradox, but when someone like Derrida got a whiff of one, trouble arose, according to de Man. Derrida (and by implication de Man) were more than Archie Bunkers—they were de-Bunkers. In fact, they were arche-debunkers, figures who could demystify our myths of origins (arche being Greek for “origin”) and therefore our myths of stable meaning.

Was deconstruction an enemy of the Skull and Bones bunker as well? Was it, along with Foucault’s thought, a rebuttal to the Crypt and all the myths I’d spun around it and that it had spun around itself?

Theory, it seemed, was a Trojan horse that had made its way inside the gates of Yale. I thought that Yale had been strung up on a paradox of its own devising. Yale wanted the most brilliant minds in the world. Good. Now, in Derrida and de Man, it had a couple of them. Yale’s status was guaranteed. But to this ascendancy there was a cost. The best thinkers in the humanities happened to be opposed to all that Yale, at its most dismal, represented. So I took an interest in these debunkers. I followed their work. I plugged in and tried to cover a few of their tunes.

Theory, it seemed, was a Trojan horse that had made its way inside the gates of Yale.

They’d had an amazing triumph, after all. They’d duped Yale. It was clear they had by the way that the old guard reacted. The philosophy department howled when Derrida got an appointment. They said he wasn’t a philosopher. De Man’s name was tantamount to a curse in the English department even before his anti-Semitic articles became news. If the Tweed Clump hated the de-Bunkers, maybe there was something good about them.

Though truth be told, I liked the tweeds. When they talked about novels, poems, and plays, they showed me qualities I had never seen. They could really read. That sounds small, but it’s not. I remember Thomas Greene talking about a poem by Thomas Wyatt in a low-key, slightly melancholy way. No words wasted, no perceptions beside the point: the force of prodigious learning in the Italian and French traditions brought deftly into play. The poem was astonishingly complex, but when Greene was finished, he’d coaxed the full life out of it. To be understood that well, to be so cared for by another human being—that had to move the poet’s old ghost. And, Greene’s performance suggested, you might not owe that kind of attention only to dead poets.

I felt the same way when Louis Martz read Ovid and Milton, when Charles Feidelson talked about Joyce, when Martin Price discussed Conrad, and when Marie Borroff read the Wife of Bath’s Prologue with a merry bounce. Harold Bloom, who never used the words “anxiety of influence” in class, could make the room quiet beyond stillness when he read a Wallace Stevens lyric. “It is an illusion that we were ever alive / Lived in the houses of mothers, arranged ourselves / By our own motions in a freedom of air.” The lines are not transparent, but after Bloom read them aloud, they emerged slowly into a vital half-light, still suggestive, though more firm, more ours.

But de Man and Derrida: One felt that they were the ones who had commandeered the genuine force of opposition. They were the ones who were blowing the Bunker away.

Flash forward 10 years or so. I’m at the University of Virginia, standing in a classroom with Richard Rorty, who is the most controversial philosopher, or anti-philosopher, of the moment. We’re teaching a class together: pragmatism and Romanticism. I’m Romanticism, Dick’s pragmatism. Dick doesn’t care much for de Man, loves Derrida: He thinks Foucault is something like a genius, but Foucault’s pessimism gives him a pain.

Now and then I’ll give a lecture on, say, the pragmatist William James, and he’ll give one on the Romantically inclined Emerson. But Dick does not like Emerson, not really. He’ll find stuff in Emerson that resonates well with Nietzsche, the godfather of deconstruction, but when Emerson starts going on about becoming a transparent eyeball and seeing the truth in all phenomena, Dick clearly wants to leave the room and take deep breaths.

What’s up here? Dick is supposed to like Emerson. Emerson is the progenitor of American pragmatism, which Dick has seemingly found a way to make compatible with Derrida. Dick is a terrific teacher and as brilliant a person as I’ve met in academe, but he doesn’t like Emerson! Emerson is a god to me, like Whitman, Thoreau, and Ginsberg, like Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, like Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Dick is not crazy about any of those characters, but I chalk that up to generational difference.

This is 10 years after my first sight of the Bunker, 10 years of trying to get Dylan and Derrida together into the same narrative of aesthetic liberation. Dick is up front talking, the 40 or so grad students are scribbling like their writing hands are on fire, the ideas are whizzing through the ether, chalk dust flying, and then I hear it. “The objective,” Dick said, “is de-divinization.” He’s talking about his objective and William James’s and John Dewey’s and also, indirectly, Derrida’s. “The objective is to de-divinize nature, de-divinize language; de-divinize science; de-divinize society.”

How about de-divinizing God? We assume that’s already been taken care of, Dick and I. We assume that no one with any brains believes in God. But we assume that the hunger to believe in the deity is strong. It’s so strong that it will be displaced onto other areas of experience. We’ll stop worshiping God, OK. But then we’ll start worshiping the leader, or nature, or language, or the government, or culture, attributing supernatural powers to them. So what we need is a sort of large-scale de-divinizing psychoanalysis of culture and self.

I understood then what we were out to do with all the debunking theory. We were out to undo ideals.

Something about the word “de-divinize” grabbed me—like a buried hand shooting up from the ground. There was a troubling synonym for the word “divinize”: “idealize.” I understood then what we were out to do with all the debunking theory. We were out to undo ideals. We were out to wipe the highest aspirations of humanity off the blackboard—they were an encumbrance, a burden, a major inconvenience. Courage, compassion, the disinterested quest for ultimate truth: Let’s drop them. They were forms of oppression. They weighed people down. They obstructed the creative spontaneous life that the new man and woman required.

Ten years! I’m slow, but I do get there. There was no Trojan-horse scheme going on at Yale; there was no intellectual fifth column; no insurrection from within. There was nothing in what de Man and Derrida ever wrote to debunk the Bunker. If there were no ideals, or no creditable ideals, then the kids who were headed from Skull and Bones to Wall Street and the CIA were absolved, weren’t they? They didn’t have to be honorable; they didn’t have to seek the truth; they didn’t have to do what Auden told us all we had to try: “love one another or die.” No, the kids from Yale were free.

If all poems were undecidable in their meanings (de Man), then why bother to read and take them seriously? A humanism built on literature, or anything else, could only be bunk if you can’t even read the basic texts. If Plato’s metaphors undermined Plato’s overt moral and political teachings at every turn (Derrida), how seriously did we need to take Plato, or any other philosopher? If all institutions promulgated discipline in about equal measure (Foucault), why should we bother to reform our churches or hold our corporations to a standard of ethical behavior? Why should we try to create colleges that pose the question of what kind of life might be right to live and what kind might be a mistake? It is easy to be brilliant if you do not believe in anything, Goethe said—and easy to be brilliantly successful, too.

If the business of education as de-idealization ended with the revelations about de Man’s wartime anti-Semitism or Derrida’s death, then all this would be semi-ancient history. But it’s not over. Universities made a turn toward the de-Bunkers, and they’ve not turned back. Scholars don’t take ideals too seriously; academics remain pretty much in the de-divinization business, which is the business of deflating or attacking ideals. Few professors in my field, literature, believe that they can distinguish rigorously between pop-culture flotsam and the works of Milton. Few of them know how to mount an argument that values Wyatt’s poetry over a video game. Few believe that reading the best that has been thought and said can give a young person something to live for and teach him or her how to live.

They’ll tell you that studying literature will help you to write more clearly (not a bad thing) and help you engage in something called “critical thinking” (which I suppose is all right, too). But they’ll almost never say what Northrop Frye does in his great book on Blake: that when we’re born, we’re tossed into life as into the great sea, and that we’d better learn to swim and do it quickly because we are not fish.

We need help—the wise who have come before us can be that help. Writing a sociological study of the conditions of their work, or the history of its reception, or teaching others to do so, is not terribly useful if what you need is to learn to swim. The Bunker and the de-Bunkers: part of the same game, alas, though it took me some time to understand it.

I can still see Thomas Greene, hands trembling slightly, face frowning with concentration, trying to get at that poem by Wyatt, trying to get it right, trying to meet the poet there in the seminar room, more than 400 years down the line, and give him what he’d earned. It was an example not only of how a critic treats a poet but also of how one human being can treat another. The learning, the integrity, the spirit of admiration and affection: Those were not common qualities; those were things to remember.

Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His new book, Be a Football Player: My Education in the Game, will be out in the fall from Penguin.