The Culture

American Civilization: Dead, or Playing Possum?

"The Intellectual Killer Elite gathered recently in Saratoga Springs to ponder efflorescence and relevant antimonies"

by

“Knowledge Is Good? Intellectuals Bomb Out of Town”
May 5, 1980

Saratoga Springs, April 10. Lining the streets of North Broadway are the sort of threatening-looking trees that pelted Dorothy and Toto with apples on their way to Oz. After hanging a left, the visitor finds himself in the bosom of Skidmore College, where squirrels carelessly frolic and “Knowledge Is Good.” Before long, however, the true cheery horror of campus life comes flooding back: Frisbees! beer busts! student elections! (Pinned to a bulletin board in the student lounge was a sign that read “Simon Sez: Vote for Garfunkle.”) What could possibly lure an unsuspecting soul into this godforsaken wilderness? 

The back cover of the literary quarterly Salmagundi’s winter issue announces the following: 

SALMAGUNDI 

15th Anniversary Conference

AMERICAN CIVILIZATION: FAILURE IN THE NEW WORLD? 

Participants: 

George Steiner
Christopher Lasch
Stanley Kauffmann
John Lukacs
Bharati Mukherjee
Roben Garis
Dwight Macdonald
Susan Sontag
Leslie Fiedler
Ronald Paulson
Gerald Graff
John Gagnon
Ben Belur
Robert Boyers
& others 

This intellectual Killer Elite would participate in nine sessions concerning the current state of American culture — “the civilizational perspective/the novel/poetry/the idea of history in america/dance/theater/film/character types in american social science/painting”… When I read the announcement chapel bells pealed in the distance and a host of doves fluttered against the windowpane: omens beckoning me to Saratoga Springs. So off to Skidmore I scooted, keen on seeing whether or not American civilization would be given a send-in-the-lions thumbs-down. 

***

Inside Filene Hall, murmurs, gossip. At stage right, a man fiddled with knobs behind a portable console, taping the weekend’s proceed­ings for National Public Radio; near him stood a lectern, and left of the lectern a fold-up table with microphones taped to its top. Except for clusters of Skidmore coeds (strawberry-haired pretties in jeans and sneaks), the audience was infested with the sort of young academics who haunt the classified pages of The New York Review of Books: A Witty, Erudite Sybarite snuggled up to a Warm, Appealing Scorpio; behind them, a Woody Allen Admirer in a patched-elbow corduroy jacket scanned the room for Sensitive Wasps (no fatties please)…

Suddenly a door flipped open and out trooped the Salmagundi all-stars: and a grimmer group of gangsters I’ve seldom seen. LESLIE A. FIEDLER went to his seat with the defiant waddle perfected by Norman Mailer in Maidstone; STANLEY KAUFFMANN looked as if he had just emerged from a Marguerite Duras double feature; and on the panelists’ table converged CYNTHIA OZICK, CHARLES MOLESWORTH, JOHN LUKACS, and HENRY PACHTER. Hold­ing forth at the lectern was host and moderator ROBERT BOYERS. And who, squeaks a voice from the back of the room, is ROBERT BOYERS? 

ROBERT BOYERS is a bearded young academic with a peculiar fondness for salmon-pink ties. Sleeplessly industrious, BOYERS as­sembles lit-crit anthologies, teaches English at Skidmore, contributes to London’s Times Literary Supplement, and edits not only Salmagundi (a deep-think quarterly modeled on Partisan Review) but The Bennington Review (a large, handsome, graphics-oriented slick). He has also composed book-length appreciations of critical mentors R.P. Black­mur, F.R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling. The Trilling study is a jawbreakingly titled Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance, and there are those of us who feel Trilling might have been wiser had he accepted more and avoided less. Shabbier mortals might smoke in the balcony or root in the bleachers; Trilling apparently spent every evening brooding on the cliffs of Dover Beach. (Mused Harold Rosenberg, “When I first encountered the gravity of Lionel Trilling, I did not get the joke; it took some time to realize there wasn’t any.”) In March 1974, BOYERS convened a two-day sym­posium at Skidmore to discuss Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, a gray occasion lightened only by Trilling’s brief rumination on the nude­-running craze — “We won’t go into the sincerity or authenticity of streaking, which is a very ambiguous thing,” he observed. Lionel Trilling could find ambiguity in the damndest places. 

Even with Trilling hovering like the Holy Ghost above its pages, Salmagundi manages issue after issue to be one of the few quarterlies worth a serious skim. It isn’t as lively as the Hudson Review — which has a bullpen full of hard-throwing critics (Marvin Mudrick, William Pritchard, Roger Sale) — but it has far more juice and rigor than the now-moribund Partisan Review. Ironically, Salmagundi represents a chaste retreat from the flirtation with pop culture indulged in by Partisan Review contributors in the late ’60s, a flirtation which provoked culturally conservative power-brokers like Philip Rahv to make grousing remarks about nihilistic “swingers.” Instead of medita­tions on camp, the Beatles, and the significance of Muhammed Ali, Salmagundi entices its academic audience with articles like “The Extraterritoriality of Siegfried Kracauer,” “Johan Huizinga— The His­torian as Magister Ludi,” “ ‘Shipwreck, Autochthony, and Nostos’: An Approach to the Poetry of John Peck,” and (a real pearl, this) “Performance as Transformation: Richard Schechner’s Theory of the Play/Social Process Knot.” 

After welcoming us to Skidmore, BOYERS announced that the keynote speaker — GEORGE STEINER — was too ill to attend (he has a frail ticker), and that he would read STEINER’s paper on the parched emptiness of American culture — “Archives of Eden.” A thankless task, though BOYERS made things easier on himself by slicing STEINER’s speech from two hours to one. “Failure in the New World.” STEINER sent word through BOYERS that the “awkward” and “vulnerable” paper we would hear was his presence — a lightly sounded note of mock-humility. In Clive James’s comic epic about the London literary world, “Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage,” GEORGE STEINER appears as “Doc Stein,” a pompous polymathic whiz whose vocabulary consists of “words a cockroach uses to its mother/And Barthes and Levi-Strauss use to each other.” Early on, STEINER lived up to his reputation as “Doc Stein” by sprinkling his paper with phrases like “relevant antinomies” and “quotidian awareness” and “Puritan theodicy.” He also indulged in his notorious flair for name-dropping, unbuckling the velvet rope that separates the gum-chewing rabble from the great to usher in Nietzsche, Kafka, Heidegger, Sartre, Goethe, Mann. “…I take it that American culture has no extraterritoriality to time… densities of obtuseness… howl with the wolves of the so- called counter-culture… from Thoreau to Trilling… make excel­lence fully accessible to the vulgate.…” Imagine a village in which, one by one, the lights are going out — that’s what happened to the audience as “Archives of Eden” snuffed the flame from their minds. Coughs began to echo like yodels across Alpine crags. 

The paper was, in short, a Pseud Masterpiece. STEINER’S argu­ment: America has not created a rich, loamy culture, but serves as the custodian of European art and thought. Our museums display the sculpture and paintings of Euro-masters, our libraries house their manuscripts; America itself, however, has created little of lasting value in art or literature or mathematics or metaphysics. According to STEINER, this country was founded by immigrants with pinched minds who “opted out” of history to create a New Eden. Instead, they created a gluttonous empire teeming with goopy, provincial Babbitts­ — “In the New Eden,” he intoned, “God’s creatures move in herds.” As damning proof of America’s philistinism, he sourly observed that the country has a Hall of Fame for baseball players but no classic editions of American writers. In Europe, he told us, a good student carries Gramsci in one pocket, another carries Bonhoeffer; and the best will carry both. He concluded: “It is the book in the pocket that matters.” Which made me a touch sheepish, since the book in my pocket was a P.G. Wodehouse entertainment in which Bertie Wooster fretted about spending a weekend with Sir Roderick Glossop, a loony-bin doctor who sits on his patients’ heads. Sir Roderick might have cocked an inquisitive eyebrow had he heard STEINER’s speech, which was filled with references to schizophrenia, sclerosis, contagion, infection, can­cer, and leprosy. Perhaps (thinks Glossop, stroking his chin thoughtfully) it’s not Western Civilization but STEINER’s fragile health which makes him think everything has turned to rot and ennui. 

After this soul-sick lamentation came a panel discussion, and it was something of a shock to hear panelist CYNTHIA OZICK proclaim S.’s speech a “thrillingly stupendous” voyage that carried her along on waves edged with “a snowy plenitude of flakes.” Gifted as she is, OZICK is something of a flake herself. In D.A. Pennebaker’s film Town Bloody Hall, she draws a big laugh when she confronts Norman Mailer with a quote he made about writing with his balls — Norman, she wanted to know, exactly what color ink do you dip your precious testicles into? When not being mischievously cute, OZICK enjoys playing the pixie-victim; she told the Skidmore audience that she suspects her apartment is the target of vandalism because she’s the only one in her working-class neighborhood who frequents the library and has a kid who doesn’t use double negatives. Though OZICK coyly poor-mouthed herself as a “philistine scribbler,” she launched an analysis of STEINER that was as tortuously academic as an article in, well, Salmagundi. Quarreling with Steiner’s concept of the artist as a Romantic Sufferer, OZICK climbed a spiral staircase in her mind, step by creaky step, arriving at the top only to flick on a small dim switch marked “Irony.” Had the Skidmore audience been in a rebellious mood, OZICK might have been bonked on the beezer with a well­-aimed avocado, but she read from her notes for a half-hour without a single missile whistling through the air. After she concluded her incomprehensible rebuttal, several couples grabbed their coats and bolted for freedom. 

CHARLES MOLESWORTH, a professor of English at Queens College who has a too-high regard for the later poetry of Robert Lowell, wisely kept his comments brief, noting only that STEINER’s attack ignored the contributions of Duke Ellington and IBM. Just as the goggle-eyed audience began to resemble a netful of contaminated fish, JOHN LUKACS slapped some life into the evening. LUKACS, a Hungarian emigre whose books include Historical Consciousness and the Last European War, didn’t needle STEINER with irony, as OZICK had done; he demolished him with a scorn that can only be called Nabokovian. After a funny discourse on the Puritan heritage and that “medieval Levittown” known as Massachusetts, LUKACS ridiculed the notion that the mass of European immigrants “opted out” of history, or that the emigre intellectuals so admired by STEINER nourished America with their greatness. Einstein, with his baggy trousers and “astral hair,” played the role of genius long after his genius had been tapped; George Lukacs (my namesake, LUKACS ruefully noted) was “a Weimar Age fossil” dug up by fatuous lefties; and Paul Tillich — well, Tillich devoted his sacred days to pornography and other unsavory pursuits (Hannah Tillich, in From Time to Time: “One of the nudes came to our table, where we placed a silver coin. She turned around and took it with her sphincter muscle”). LUKACS unsettled some people with a contemptuous aside about “the vomitorium of Brecht,” but his attack on universities that have turned the Holocaust into a “cultural industry” had heads nodding with vigorous approval. After praising American pop composers like Johnny Mercer and George Gershwin, LUKACS cited a passage in STEINER’s speech in which he lamented that a Washington museum houses a roomful of Stradivariuses. To STEINER, this roomful of unplayed violins is damning proof that America is a custodian and not a creator of fine culture; to LUKACS, it proves that the country isn’t bound to a desiccated classicism. “The violins may be mute,” he concluded, “but the fiddler is still on the roof.” 

When LUKACS was finished, STEINER’s thesis lay in a smoking, bone-hacked heap, a burnt offering to the Homeric gods. Unfor­tunately, the evening was not yet done. HENRY PACHTER, an author and historian who reminds one less of Nabokov than of one of his bewildered academics (Pnin, perhaps), dawdled for 10, 15, 20 minutes, dropping pellets of scorn on STEINER’s loftier conceits. Fingers began to twitch with fear and boredom, for PACHTER is one of those speakers who never reaches a full stop but keeps connecting clause to clause to clause, his sentences forming a string of boxcars stretching endlessly into the night. Finally, mercifully, the caboose whistled off, and the audience began to volley forth comments. Two seats away from me, a Passionate, Caring Young Intellectual complained about the absence of a Marxist perspective on the panel, saying that the dialogue lacked a “dialectical dimension.” When PACHTER said that “dialectical” was one of those intellectual buzzwords that ought to be retired, the Passionate, Caring Young Marxist Pseud snapped, “Excuse me, sir, but I didn’t interrupt you while you were speaking, so please don’t interrupt me.” Before I could reach over and smack the twerp over the head with my clipboard, BOYERS diplomatically cooled things down by saying that the PCMP’s comments were “well taken” (whatever that means). Before the session adjourned, there was an odd exchange between OZICK and FIEDLER. FIEDLER, sitting in the front row, cheerfully re­marked that GEORGE STEINER “aspires to snobbery” but lacks the confidence to be a true snob. (He’s wrong, I think: STEINER has a snootful of confidence.) “Are you a snob?” asked OZICK. “Yeah,” answered FIEDLER with a Mailerish growl, adding, “I live in a working-class neighborhood and feel at home.” 

The next afternoon, the two of them would again lock antlers. 

***

As Friday spread its colors with the glory of a Ronald Firbank epiphany (“The turquoise tenderness of the sky drew from her heart a happy coo”), American civilization seemed secure: The opening address had been trampled beneath a stampede of ridicule, and the Holiday Inn stood undisturbed, a symbol of everything STEINER and the steinettes despise in our materialistic wasteland. Legging it out of the Inn, I arrived at Skidmore shortly before LESLIE FIEDLER’s well-rehearsed attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the American novel. 

When the spotlight is on, FIEDLER doesn’t waddle or slomp. Riding his stomach like a chariot, he rolls past mere worldlings like a Jewish Sun God. His untidy locks and bulging brow may remind one of the bust on Linus’s piano, but the manner is Steps of the Pentagon 1967, jovial, combative, ironically grandiloquent. Like Mailer, FIEDLER enjoys teasing the audience by suggesting that the air is alive with existential possibilities — that his talk may swerve around unanticipated corners. The title of his address: “The Death and Rebirth of the Novel.” He began by saying that he wasn’t sure what he was going to say until a few minutes before he arrived. Which seemed a trifle disingenuous, since he contributed a paper to John Halperin’s 1976 anthology, The Theory of the Novel: New Essays titled “The Death and Rebirth of the Novel,” and has been fanning the flame of the phoenix since Cross the Border — Close the Gap. “The novel,” FIEDLER announced, “is dead as a final form; as an end itself.” And from that RIP he wandered down familiar paths, tracing the novel from its humble beginnings as Bourgeois Entertainment to its ascendance into its various subgenres (Jewish-Feminist, Neocolonial, Sci-Fi, etc.). Echoing Gore Vidal, FIEDLER noted the proliferation of University Novels: novels which exist only to be taught, explicated, embalmed. And, again echoing Vidal (V.’s essay on the best-seller list in Matter of Fact and Fiction), FIEDLER observed that most novels these days have their roots not in Parnassus or Grub Street but in Hollywood, as future movie projects. Stale as most of this news was, FIEDLER was never less than engaging: He embroidered his talk with comic anec­dotes and odd bits of fact about Saul Bellow, Samuel Clemens, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Resistance, however, began to percolate on the panel. 

OZICK declared, “The sociology of the novel is of no interest to me,” explaining that what did interest her were paragraphs, punc­tuation. “The colon is dead,” she lamented, to much applause. (OZICK’s concern for colons later became the subject of indecent mirth.) GERALD GRAFF, a humorless scold whose new book, Literature Against Itself, tries to fend off the semiotic police, tugged on his mustache and did some earnest huffing about “values” and “content.” When he reminded the audience that Shakespeare’s work has “a humanistic dimension,” a hundred pair of eyes rolled heavenward in exasperation. Watching his rivals commit harakiri, FIEDLER buoyantly lit up a long thick cigar, a foul-smelling number that had the panelists turning darker shades of green. 

It took SUSAN SONTAG (who was sitting in the front row wearing baby-blue cowboy boots) to say what sorely needed saying, that Fiedler’s categories have not only lost their usefulness but now clutter his (and our) vision. At one time, his heady love of myth and genre and archetype allowed him to detect patterns in American literature that had eluded less foolhardy critics. FIEDLER’s unashamed love of pop — sci-fi, comic books, Russ Meyer flicks — was also liberating at a time when academic critics tended to be ponderously Olympian (Lionel Trilling), hyper-aesthetically gnomic (I.A. Richards, R.P. Blackmur), or sneeringly severe (F.R. Leavis and the Scrutiny spear carriers). In recent years, however, FIEDLER’s love of pop has turned into a love of a love of pop. He extravagantly admires his appetite for trash; it’s his way of proving that he isn’t a prissy academic prig — that he’s one of the kids. Similarly, FIEDLER’s schlock-Freudian methodology is now used onanistically — his allegiance is not to the artist but to his own technique. An artist who doesn’t fit FIEDLER’s archetypes has his limbs lopped off. 

In FIEDLER’s new book, The Inadvertent Epic, a study of race melodramas from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Roots, he unleashes a squadron of archetypes — Good Good Nigger, Good Bad Nigger, Black Rapist, Wicked Slavedriver, Old Testament Mother. When a black artist like Ishmael Reed criticizes such stereotypes or tries to subvert them in his own fiction, FIEDLER dismisses him as the darling of “elitist critics,” adding that Reed’s reservations “are clearly cued by the fact that [Roots] not merely outsold but obliterated his own book [Flight to Canada]. For FIEDLER, success is the only thing that matters — the roar of the masses imbues even the shoddiest work with mythopoeic power, leaving losers, like Ishmael Reed, to chew up their spite. The Inadvertent Epic concludes with FIEDLER’s by-now familiar celebration of the privileged insanity and “dionysiac, demonic” ecstasies released by such books. “But it doesn’t occur to him” [writes Marvin Mudrick of another would-be Dionysian] “that nothing in life or literature is more exciting than goodness: that Troilus, Criseyde, and Pandarus are all both good and wonderfully interesting; so too Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, Sophocles’ Antigone, Pushkin’s Ta­tyana, Trollope’s Plantagenet Palliser, Lawrence’s Tom Brangwen… when someone takes me to the zoo, I want to see the swans.”

SONTAG didn’t toss crumbs to the swans or snip roses from the hedges of Mansfield Park, but she did come to the defense of OZICK, who became teary-eyed after FIEDLER made sport of her endangered colons. She said OZICK was one of the few good writers in America; an unclassifiably good writer. (Had SONTAG known I was in the audience, she would of course have lobbed my name into the conver­sation.) With the smell of FIEDLER’s stogie polluting the room, the session broke up, Skidmore students dashing to the exits for gulps of fresh air. 

After a brief breather, a panel on film and theater convened, hosted by Salmagundi‘s film critic, ALAN SPIEGEL, an eager young blister who dresses in a manner FIEDLER would doubtless describe as Academic Funky (earth-colored corduroys, rolled-up shirt sleeves, scuffed Hush Puppies). At his side were STANLEY KAUFFMANN of the New Republic, dance critic ROBERT GARIS, and that legendary dreadnought, DWIGHT MACDONALD. Speaking first was KAUFF­MANN, a movie critic who has an unhealthy respect for alienation, whether it’s packaged as American lower-depths naturalism (Wanda) or European art-house asceticism (The Left-Handed Woman). A connoisseur of anomie and artful fatigue, KAUFFMANN isn’t a writer who surfs on the crest of giddy passion; his sentences drip and dribble, forming stagnant pools of commonplace opinion. Like Trilling’s grav­ity, KAUFFMANN’s “gentlemanly” tact is taken as the refusal of a fine mind to lose its moorings. In other words, Inertia equals Integrity. Happily, the energy missing in his writing is spurtingly present in his public appearances. Here, he talked about how America gave film to the world and, during a discussion of the impact of movies on private lives, fondly reminisced about receiving his first kiss from a lass named Rosie Schultz — “As she kissed me, she turned into Joan Crawford.” 

After KAUFFMANN came MACDONALD, once described by Norman Mailer as conceivably the world’s worst public speaker: “It was true. Macdonald’s authority left him at the entrance to the aura of the podium. In that light he gesticulated awkwardly, squinted at his text, laughed at his own jokes, looked like a giant stork, whinnied, shrilled, and was often inaudible. When he spoke extempore, he was sometimes better, often worse.” Friday was one of MACDONALD’s better days. After saying that he wasn’t used to being at events where words like “antinomian” were bandied about so freely, he declared that STEINER’s speech and OZICK’s da capo recapitulation “turned me off culture — and I don’t know when I’ll get back to it.” Admitting that only a few films had pleased him in recent years — Amarcord, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, Coppola’s two Godfathers — MACDONALD wondered if he had really missed anything by hanging up his spikes as Esquire‘s movie critic in 1966. Suddenly the session (weirdly, com­ically) turned into a discussion of what MACDONALD should have done with his career, the panelists serving as guidance counselors. Well, Dwight, maybe you should have hung in there until Fassbinder squeezed into his first leather jacket…

As the afternoon waned, KAUFFMANN played the Soul of Liberal Reason, MACDONALD the Curmudgeonly Crank. After KAUFFMANN said that he didn’t wish to speak slightingly of “the popcorn crowd,” MACDONALD backed, “Aw, go ahead.” KAUFFMANN: “No, no; Ingmar Bergman has remarked that those who go to see a Doris Day film — forgive me, is she still alive? — may go to see one of his films the following week. Often in the same theater.” MACDONALD: “They shouldn’t be allowed to.” 

The afternoon’s climax came when a woman in the audience complained that in this session on American film and theater, the-ah-­tur had gone totally undiscussed. (“Fine with me,” someone muttered, and several heads nodded in agreement.) “Well,” said KAUFFMANN, “American playwriting is in a sorry state; there are, however, interesting productions around.” And he launched into an aria over Elizabeth Swados’s “Passover Cantata,” The Haggadah. As KAUFF­MANN explained that the show’s Moses is played by a half-black, half-­Chinese nine-year-old named Craig Chang, MACDONALD began shaking his storky head in disbelief. Then, spreading his arms wide, KAUFFMANN said that the work possessed “a beautiful efflores­cence” — which was too much for MACDONALD. “Stop! Stop,” he sputteringly pleaded, teasing KAUFFMANN with the word (“efflores­cence… efflorescence?”) as K. tried vainly to defend Swados. 

KAUFFMANN explained to the audience that MACDONALD comes from the H.L. Mencken generation, which believes that a resounding No is always more convincing than a Yes. “Deliquescence, maybe,” chuckled MACDONALD amiably, “but efflorescence…” 

***

Saturday, April 12. I sauntered in near the end of the session on social sciences starring CHRISTOPHER “Anything-for-a-laugh” LASCH. From the microphone, a voice tonelessly droned, and slumped in their chairs were people trying to pass themselves off as corpses. Clearly the Freudian heritage wasn’t something that made the corpuscles dance. After a short break, the symposium’s grand finale commenced: an audience participation session featuring FIEDLER, KAUFFMANN, GRAFF, MACDONALD, SONTAG, and CHRIS­TOPHER “Stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one” LASCH. In this press-­conference setup, the audience could sharply probe the panelists’ minds and feelings on the current drift of American culture. 

It was a Luis Buñuel nightmare, invisible hands gripping us to the chairs as swallows chirped in Esperanto — a subcommittee meeting at the United Nations couldn’t have been more soul-stifling. It wasn’t all boredom: SONTAG, after needlessly fluffing her feathers to inform us that she had slaved “five years on the six essays” in On Photography, spoke at some length about the Americanness of American photography; FIEDLER, ebullient as Falstaff in an alehouse, claimed that a male sexist conspiracy was responsible for Harriet Beecher Stowe being denied her great due (sighs, groans); and GRAFF stirred the audience to hisses when he told them they didn’t ask good questions. As if to prove his point, a Vietnam veteran who had asked a question the previous day complained that his query hadn’t been satisfyingly answered. KAUFFMANN said, “Excuse me, I thought I had answered your question”; “No,” said SONTAG, “I don’t believe you did, Stanley.” “Well, why don’t you ask your question again?” said KAUFFMANN, the Soul of Liberal Reason. And, dropping a needle into a groove, the man said, “I’m a Vietnam veteran…” and re-asked his question word for tiresome word. Later, a man in the last row who assured us all that he was a friend of Michael Herr said that a lot of young Americans had the time of their lives in Vietnam. “I don’t think the Vietnamese had as much fun as the Americans,” SONTAG dryly remarked. And from a conversation about the political emptiness of Vietnam films (“Wasn’t there a film called The Deer Hunter?” wondered MACDONALD), the discussion detoured into the cultural impact of feminism. By this time, the panelists were leaning on the table with such bad posture that they all looked like a truss advertise­ment, their spines bending under all the weight and wisdom and guilt of Western Culture. And then SONTAG said something startling: Re­sponding to a comment from one of the feminists in the peanut gallery about her being the only woman on the panel, she half-ruefully confessed, “I’ve spent all my life being the only woman on the panel.” 

My God, I thought, this woman shouldn’t be allowed out without a note from Sir Roderick Glossop! What compels an intelligent soul to drag one’s pride from powwow to powwow, leaning into squawky microphones as whiffleball questions flutter feebly from the back row? Money, sure; lecturing is easier and more lucrative than bending over the typewriter. And, writing being the lonesome vocation that it is, symposia offer one the opportunity to mingle and gossip and toss off casually brilliant pensees. Still, to trod through this vale of tears as the Only Woman on the Panel… it’s almost Brechtian. Mother Courage pulling a wagonload of Salmagundis from campus to campus. 

As a question from the audience tediously unraveled, the Only Woman on the Panel slipped her arms into her coat sleeves, signaling that the glorious occasion was about to end. After FIEDLER suggested that from now on serious drinking should be done before the symposium, panelists and acolytes trudged like a defeated army over to the Surrey Inn, a dark, cozy cove across the street from the Skidmore campus. Conviviality reigned: ALAN SPIEGEL made “cheese” smiles for James Hamilton’s camera; CHRISTOPHER LASCH curled his fingers to form shadow-graphs on the wall (“…this is a duck, and this is a bunny”). Somewhere across the Atlantic, however, an embittered GEORGE STEINER was lining antinomies up like toy soldiers, contemplating a fresh assault upon the New World. 

Evil never sleeps. 

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 5, 1980

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