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A Goddamn Intellectual?

Long ago, in post-coital chat in a hotel bed with a plump woman musician, I engaged in a couple of usual addictions: smoking and dialectical analysis of the scene. (Both I now view as not part of safe sex.) One of my annotations was on her tossed about undergarments, pink with appliqued roses, which I cited as illustration of a "cutesy," put-on petit bourgeois, erotic style. That brought forth the startling "A goddamn intellectual!" Her tone was rather less angry than aghast, as if one had discovered a large lesion on the body of a lover. That affair shorted out, but the charge remains in memory as part of a deep and recurrent pattern. Recently, for example, an anarchist writer I had never met but corresponded with over some years, dismissively diagnosed me as a wayward case of intellectualism. That apparently includes excessive learning, endless contentiousness, and, of course, insistent irony unto involuted self-mockery. Such intellectuals are, the implied charges go, too alienated to achieve truly positive anarchism, and may be consumed by a self-regarding defensiveness which results mostly in intimidation and provocative verbal but otherwise inadequate "reformism." More treason of the clerics.

But whatever truth there may be to that can certainly take varied forms. (Typical intellectual embrace!) Item: A couple of years ago I got a brief note, institutionally forwarded, from a small town fellow I had not heard from for near half a century. Identifying himself as now a comfortably retired dentist who had lately taken up reading around American literature, he had run across some writing of mine. He recalled our ancient connection, which was that I had talked him into fleeing our Minnesota prairie small town and shipping out as merchant seamen. I recalled Joe Mac, the slightly adventure- some only son of tyrannical rural school superintendent, as not lasting long at sea. But I wrote him a long and friendly letter, reanalyzing our rite de passage at seventeen, and wryly noting that his had been a quick return to small town community and conventional class identity. No response from him to my invitation to visit. Had I frighteningly intellectualized the past for him?

I told the anecdote recently to the only fellow I still see now and again who goes back that far in my history. "Ah, poor Joe Mac!" he pronounced, "Here he hesitantly looked for a confirmation of his role and aspirations from you, and half a century later you intimidate him yet again with a demand for a rebellious view. Damned undercutting intellectual!"

"Perhaps so, but at least I've been consistent in my critical role." Pushing that, my ostensible friend, demi-intellectual social worker, suggested that I back track to my earlier hostilities as an orphan shunted amongst various relatives.

Luckily for me, I explained, that may have been alienating, but also liberating.

My caretakers were so antithetical—in social class from shabby genteel to rural proletarian to climbing managerial—that I doubted them all. My younger sister recalls of our many changes of home and school (was it nine?—progressive, slum, parochial, consolidated rural, etc.) that I kept warning her: "Don't believe what they tell us. They're just trying to make us like them." (Probably meant both ways.) Early on, I knew that home/school were places for indoctrination, ideological entrapment. You might say now that I had the benefits of multiculturalism.

As with religion. In pre-puberty (and pre-antibiotic) years I had pneumonia half a dozen times. Various cures were tried. One caretaker snuck me into a Catholic church for a priest's blessing. I got sicker. A distant relative spent hours, hand on my forehead, reciting passages from Mary Baker Eddy. I got worse. A step-relative had me carried to seances. Spirit voices just raised my fever. An outraged other relative hustled me into a hospital. When the doctors announced that my double-pneumonia was terminal, varied relatives gathered around my oxygen tent to variously pray, and variously bicker about paying the bills. I partly recovered, and other relatives put me to a "nature cure." Pneumonia and pleurisy again. In spite of treatments ranging from folk medicine amulets to a medical Calvinist, I survived, though without faith.

So a worried aunt ponied up for a protestant parochial school where I could combine making-up lost months of schooling and lost faith. There I was so quick at fanciful expositions of scripture that I was skipped ahead a couple of terms—is that why I later became a literary scholar-critic?—though dyslexically backward on such trivia as math and language skills. My theological swiftness served me badly when, at thirteen in another small town, the authoritarian Lutheran (Missouri Synod) minister pulled me from catechism class for questioning too much. In a semi-public inquisition, I quoted the Old Testament to prove that his God was mean, and the pre-Pauline New to cast doubt on trinitarianism. He announced my sin as "intellectual pride, Satan's work." In an early attempt at wit, I said I was glad someone was working for me. To the threat of eternal damnation as an apostate, I, vainly learned, countered that didn't apply since my competing relatives had never settled on who would baptize me, hence I was not subject to his rules and threats. In rage, the minister pronounced me an utter atheist, to be barred from the church, and ordered my uncle-by-marriage to punish me.

He did, but soon gave up, and switched religions—argumentative ones, he suspected, might not be good for business. I was therefore supposed to be quiet about my atheism. But I worked defensively at intellectualizing and enlarging it. So there is my pattern, however offensive to rosy pantied women, would-be-cultured dentists, and doctrinaire anarchist writers.

Further episodes in my atheistic pilgrimage were also low comedy. For example, during World War II there was a much trumpeted gross propaganda slogan: "There are no atheists in [American] foxholes!" In a break from infantry combat, I Schweikishly went up to the regimental chaplin, saluted, and reported, "Sir, the no-atheists-in-foxholes is not true!" Crouched in a foxhole under Panzer 88 shelling, I had remained firm in my non-faith. The scarlet-faced chaplin tremblingly ordered pity on me, but no other punishment.

However, I was punished a couple of times for objecting to mandatory attendance at "religious services"—sentenced to extra duty, which in that infantry outfit was seven days at hard labor. Second-time around, I demanded a full hearing, in spite of the announced risk of a harsher sentence. I intellectualized the issues: 1) I could not be further punished because I already had been for the charge—"double jeopardy"; 2) my religious rights were violated in that no services were provided "for my faith, atheism;" and, typical intellectual over-argument, 3) I demanded that my commanding officer be reprimanded: a) for not providing a prompt Special Court Martial; b) for imposing a religion on me; and c) for not providing me dog tags with proper religious identification. All charges were dismissed, with a warning that the next time I was insubordinate I would get a General Court Martial and years in the stockade, "irregardless" my cleverness.

The dog tag issue became a mock-epic. Mandatory on the tags, besides name, serial number, and blood type, was, for proper burial and prayers, religious abbreviation: "P" (Protestant, any and all), "C" (Catholic), and "H" (Hebrew—polite for Jew). Choose one. I demanded an "A" (Atheist). Request denied.

Escorted from battalion to regimental authority, I was ordered to "quit gold-bricking with this unmilitary crap. Take a religion, soldier!" "Yes, Sir, I want all religions due me: 'HCP,' Hebrew first because it is the oldest." Request denied, especially the "Yid" part. Escorted to the high realms of division, I got a more liberal officer who explained that I should take "P" because that included agnostics, like him. I refused such latitudinarianism. Eventually I was government stamped "—" (religion unknown).

But that upset the pious company exec at the next inspection. Up the chain of command, again, curses and threats, and new dog tags marked "X." But my fine new religious category didn't pass inspection by a Colonel: "You think they're going to put up a special marker in the cemetery just for a fuckin' trouble-making private?" I was issued tags with the slot for religion left pure blank. No doubt inconveniently, I didn't quite fill an unmarked grave, just further inspections .

Various other experiences had contributed to my intellectualism, an aggressive-defensive style layered upon my rather mountainous small town boy naivete. Earlier than the military watershed, my intellectual dissidence took some obvious turns, such as expulsion from high school for arguing against various rituals, including play elections, competitive sports hysteria, "good citizenship," and similar mean pieties. But they let me back in to graduate (minus all earned honors). Later, my blasphemies grew more sophisticated, required, in one case, for defense against expulsion from the University of Minnesota, as with arguing before a faculty-administration committee against charges by a vindictive Dean of Students (co-creator of a famous and vicious "personality profile" exam—another damn religion!—which I had refused to finish after an anti-draft protest arrest). Granted, a competing good dean coached me a bit in my successful defense. Pyrrhic victory, as often, for then the bad dean went after me for "moral turpitude," including cohabiting with a female undergraduate. Some liberal faculty came successfully, though a bit narrowly, to my defense. So I thought I better marry the woman to save her from expulsion. We were soon divorced, after I ran off with a senior professor's wife—considered a bit outre in those times—and had to switch universities, fields, and jobs.

So it went in countering intellectualism. I was insistent, though not quite compulsive, sometimes wearily prudent or obfuscatingly casuistical enough to slip into an "honorable discharge," various degrees, even a few honors and awards. But some of my goings were crude, such as firings from factories for "talking too much." Some were more ornate, such as "non-retention" by faculties for "abrasive" publications and violations of "collegiality." Admittedly, some of my dissenting disputes were petty (such as over not wearing a tie or using obscenities in the classroom), some were psychologically ill-chosen (such as with a drunken senior professor who tried pushing my sarcasms and me out a second-story window), and some became, with historical change, conventional enough (such as anti-censorship and anti-war protests). Nor did I avoid intellectual involution, having to defend my prolific literary scholarship for its iconoclastic cast while defending my radical journalism for incorrect complexity and all-encompassing mockery. I admit that, fucked over, I often just settled for trying a strong intellectual gesture.

While I still think I managed some essential resistance, I doubt that I accomplished much institutional reform, or that I saved many souls. The personal price? As with pneumonia, religion, military combat, and some variety of usual institutional repressions, I survived. In retrospect, I now doubt that it was intellectual quality that kept me above water (nor supposed bravery or the indulgence of the hierarchies, whatever) but just good old American confusion, incompetence, which I now anarchistically fear is declining. Muddle and stupidity may be the libertarian's best friends.

Certainly much was fortuitous. As with my first graduate fellowship, a game I knew nothing about. You could say that it was a bit intellectual: I had argued down a quasi-religious fake; he one-upped me by coming up with a fellowship in an alien field, political science, while I was majoring in art.

In his muddled machinations, he meant to undermine something or other. (Much later I learned that he was a longtime CIA operative, no doubt appropriately.)

Other confusions and even flukes followed, and, though almost never shrewd, and constitutionally quite incompetent at sycophancy, I became a marginal academic, only enduring in the muddle of third-rate provincial institutions, though I briefly tried out my iconoclasm at a couple of elite-ruthless semi-seminaries. How does a learned mocking resister last in what are essentially conservative and anti-intellectual institutions? In considerable part, I was cast as the alien token, intellectual-scholar endured, though periodically advised to leave for better places, as tenured-trouble-maker, on the way to semi-official curmudgeon. The anti-professional professional, or the ill-mannered prostitute. Enough students found me provocative, though never more than a saving remnant amongst the vast numbers, to make professing seem worthwhile. I even almost acquired the standard skills, such as under-teaching for over-pay, and other pieties of doing less for more. Still, I suspect, not alone among refugees from the Enlightenment in ambiguous institutionalization in the past American generation or two, we may have blackened a bit the counterfeit cultural pots.

So you might say that I modestly profited from my intellectual iconoclasm, even while I polemicized against the institution—barking at the fist that fed me. All that they could righteously think up was depriving me of second-rate goodies (delayed promotions, cancelled leaves, inappropriate schedules, and the like), which I mostly took as confirmation of my arguments against institutionalization, such as refusing to give exams and competitive grades, and encouraging undergraduates to avoid requirements and graduate students to drop out.

Am I suggesting a defense or a deconstruction of my intellectualism? Both; they merge. Even now, I sometimes read theology, which becomes anti-theology. Long a pacifist, I do a bit pursue military history. And so on, in my calling of blasphemy. That's intellectualism for you. Various authoritarianisms antithetically produce—and partly entrap?—the iconoclastic likes of me. I suppose that in a truly good institution, or society, I would have little role or place. No immediate problem since as atheist-anarchist I now surmise that most of our techno-civilization is a species aberration and speeding to a dead end. While I, too, despise authority-sucking, careerist-farting, pissing-up-somebody-else's-rope intellectualism, I must confess that, with whatever countering, I am a goddamn intellectual.