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Oedipus, Philosophiae Doctor

November 16, 2011

Growing up I had no idea what an “academic” was. I had a sense of what professors where, namely teachers who taught college students. But it wasn’t on my radar, it wasn’t in my ontology of things one could possibly be when one grew up. And it isn’t as though there weren’t any academics in my immediate community: my mother’s sister is an English professor, my father’s brother has a PhD in English and two books on D.H Lawrence, though now he’s a highschool teacher. My friend David, one of my best friends since elementary school, is the son of a Finnegans Wake scholar. David’s apartment is the mustiest, bibliophilic space I’ve ever stepped into, but I didn’t appreciate the names of authors like Pierce, Heidegger, and Derrida until a few years ago. I remember in high school when we would play poker in at David’s place I started a running joke about the bold, red title on the side of thick black hardcover horizontal on a shelf above poker table that read, “HITLER.” In the past few years, as I’ve slowly discovered that this nonexistant job might become me, I’ve also encountered what feels in myself like a taboo. Perhaps it wasn’t simply the case that as a child I was under the impression that academics didn’t exist, but rather that somewhere along the line I internalized the judgment that being an academic wasn’t a “real” vocation. In other words, it wasn’t an option because it wasn’t an option. I think this has to do with my parents’ milieu–their friends are nearly all “[psycho]analysis and artists,” as we would say. Of course, when I was a kid I wanted to be a paleontologist (I still do) and later on I wanted to be a theoretical physicist (ditto), but those, I can’t help but feel, are rather more respectable professions. Our neighbor downstairs, the elderly woman with the short bleached hair who walks her two African Grey parrots to Washington Square Park every day? She teaches Humanities at Cooper Union, and “she’s really a bit mad,” I can hear my mother say. My father’s friend Al Bass (Derrida translator!)? He’s a brilliant analyst and a smart guy, “but he’s an academic.” And so forth. I mean, surely I’ve invented these voices, but I can’t so easily unmake them.

Now, in the past week I’ve had the strange luck to a have first- and a second-hand experience with the two academics who had profound personal influences on my parents when they were young. The first is this guy Vincent Crapanzano, who moderated a panel at the CUNY comparative literature conference where I gave a paper (!) last week. He arrived late to the panel he was moderating (it wasn’t the panel where I was presenting), dapperly dressed in a black suit, and promptly read us a very provocative passage from Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis about “fetishism” (the panel’s theme). The papers were all incredible mediocre, and his comments and anecdotes proved the most interesting feature. From what I gleaned, he was a Harvard trained anthropologist with a psychoanalytic bent who eventually hung up his Indiana Jones whip and took a chair at CUNY’s comp lit department. Real smart guy. Told stories about animal sacrifice rituals in Africa and how Andy Warhol once called him up for help about shooting a movie of a woman getting fucked by a horse. And this Crapanzano fellow turns out to be the anthropology professor who introduced my father, then an undergraduate at Princeton, to Freudian anthropology but who notoriously refused to write my father graduate school recommendations. “He’s a complete jackass,” my father told me last night; “I went up to him a few decades later and told him that he had been a profound influence for me, and he said, ‘Well, how I feel about that depends on what you’ve become.'”

The second weird coincidence is this. I’ve long heard about and done my best to ignore my mother’s reminiscences about her unfinished dissertation on medieval portraiture, undertaken at the then experimental CUNY graduate program under the personal (very personal) tutelage of a young, intense cuban scholar. “I lived with him for most of that year,” (after dropping out of Cooper Union,) “and it just never occured to me to think that there might be something problematic about the circumstance–his wife was always very polite to me… His bedroom was completely bare except for two things, on the wall opposite his bed was he had mounted a real traditional looking, splintering catholic crucifix, and on the wall above his bed he had framed the front page of the Times showing the first picture of the Earth from space.” None of this ever really sank in, or rather it sank straight in so that I didn’t have to think about it. As far as I knew I didn’t know the name of that sultry post-doc who taught my mother. But yesterday, I was in the Strand, looking over the “War” table, and a pretty little hardcover caught my eye entitled The Terror of History, with Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” gracing its cover. Of course it was written by none other than my mother’s erastês, Teofilo (“Teo”) Ruiz. The book looks awesome, and it’s dedicated to his students.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2011 4:20 am

    UCLA! Sulpicia III should look him up.

  2. linebrick permalink*
    November 18, 2011 10:53 pm

    this is quite a nice little essay.

  3. nostalgebraist permalink*
    November 25, 2011 5:50 pm

    This is a bit late, but . . .

    1) The “HITLER” thing made me laugh. I like running jokes like that. When I was reading a book called “Fracture: An Advanced Treatise” for my thesis, I would go around telling people the title in a snooty tone of voice as a joke.

    2) “Of course, when I was a kid I wanted to be a paleontologist (I still do) and later on I wanted to be a theoretical physicist (ditto), but those, I can’t help but feel, are rather more respectable professions.”

    If I have the the antecedent of “those” right, you feel that paleontology and theoretical physics are more respectable professions than being an “academic” is. Shouldn’t those professions count as “being an academic,” though? (Have you ever met a theoretical physicist outside of academia?) If not, then I’m left wondering about the boundaries of the particular notion of an “academic” used by your parents (or by the imprints your parents have made on your own mind).

    Since “analysts and artists” explicitly don’t count as academics, it seems like the core distinction might be the one between people who directly apply their humanistic knowledge/abilities and people who merely interpret the productions of others. That would mean that, for instance, a professional book critic working outside of academia would still, basically, be an “academic” in the derogatory sense. Is that true? Would it be any more “respectable” for you to go into book reviewing than actual academic criticism?

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