Academic freedom is always under attack in the US and abroad. One might conceivably write a joke about the subject which would end, “Oh, so it’s an old story.” Years ago I heard the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges confound a moist and utterly cerebral undergraduate at Cornell University—the occasion, a “symposium” on the work of Vladimir Nabokov; the poor kid with his ball cap backwards—by saying, “what about Nabokov?” Borges had been the “keynote” speaker, the star, who was expected (or so one imagined) to close the proceedings in Ithaca with a tight, eloquent, “proof” on the Nabokovian Éminence grise. Instead he spoke for fifteen minutes about play as the core ingredient of imagination. He alluded to card tricks. And never once did he mention the author of “Lolita”. He stopped. That is, he said something about playfulness and stopped. He stopped like an old fashioned gramophone record. Borges’ needle had struck the paper label. There was wide silence. And it was long. There were perhaps 300 people in the auditorium. No one moved and no one spoke.
There were some in that room who must have thought Borges was having them on—a reflex at Cornell where the institution’s super-ego always imagines they’re not quite as good as the rest of the Ivy League. Borges must have been making fun of the assembly. (He was.) Or he may have been delivering an elementary sermon on inventiveness which true academics certainly didn’t feel they needed to hear. (He was.) Surely some of the faculty thought Borges was senescent. Ableism works that way. Perhaps the blind poet was out of his depth. But as I say, the silence of the crowd was substantial. I liked it. It was a Victorian silence, the absence of words was balanced on a tight line of epistemic bifurcation. One one side was the serious purpose inherent—Nabokov with a monumental Czarist “N”; on the other, a scurrilous Borgesian joke.
I was fresh back from a Fulbright year in Helsinki where I’d been studying the work of Pentti Saarikoski, A Finnish poet who many now consider to be the first truly post-modern writer. Saarikoski studied Greek and Latin, then Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Karl Marx—and perhaps not in that order but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the play that held his many influences together, and the principle was Heraclitus. Logos resists polarities. In any event I enjoyed the scholastic silence in that hot auditorium.
Then the kid said: “But what about Nabokov?” And Borges said: “Who is he?” “Well,” said the student, “you know, he wrote Lolita?” (By the mid-eighties American students everywhere had adopted that mannerism whereby all assertions must end with question marks—the aim, presumably, either to avoid being wrong, or to never offend anyone with a firm position—god knows.
“Who is Lolita?” Borges asked.
“Well you know,” said the student, “it’s the story of a teenaged girl maybe she’s 13, and she has an affair with a disreputable older man…?”
“Ah,” said Borges, “so it’s an old story.”
That was it for Nabokov. The show was over. A more perfect tribute to the master could not have been delivered.
Let’s be clear: freedom in the realm of inquiry is always a matter of playful risk. It can never be a matter of public relations.
I’m in mind of these things because this morning I read that Professor Alice Dreger, one of this nation’s pre-eminent scholars in the Medical Humanities has resigned her position at Northwestern University because the university has allowed its journal in medical ethics to become a vehicle for PR as opposed to free inquiry. You can read her story here.
It is an old story. Alice Dreger is principled and brave. I admire her.
I solemnly renounce Northwestern University’s medical school and its proprietary censorship.