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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

I am frightened (yellow); I am saddened (blue)

By Peter D. Kramer

No one can pretend to have a clear vision of what happened two weeks ago if he fails to realize that the brightest and most creative people at Harvard were in University Hall at 5 a.m. Thursday morning.

THE features pages of the CRIMSON have made it clear that there are two distinct sets of reasons for seizing, striking, occupying, acting--radicalism and romanticism. The two sets are easily identifiable: the first is associated with words like "demands," or "grievances" or "conscience," the second is associated with any words other than "reasons," with words which deny cause-and-effect. I use the word "reasons" only because I have no other, and that should reveal to you the type of person I am.

Two weeks ago, University Hall was filled with people who took on various combinations of these reasons. They were all of them serious people, those who were there for the power and those who were there for the aesthetic alike were serious. Romanticism is serious business.

One might argue that it must be serious, since it is forbidden. But I would prefer merely to say that it is serious because it is the major commitment of the best undergraduates at Harvard. No one can pretend to have a clear vision of what happened two weeks ago if he fails to realize that the brighest and most creative people at Harvard were in University Hall at 5 a.m. Thursday morning.

I was in bed then, asleep in Winthrop House. At two a.m., I had left those best and most creative people, walked guiltily down the stairs between their files of eyes, walked across that dark yard past the reasonable student-government people who had stayed up to argue and to observe, walked more guiltily yet past the friendly University policeman on Quincy Street, walked home in the cold, past the Houses where slept the Great Uncommitted with whom I felt I had less in common than with those romantics, or even those radicals.

I do not need to tell you why I left the radicals--politics is always a consideration of marginal differences, of weighing gains and losses, of technicalities. At least, so I now flatter myself, having then determined not to act. Besides, radical politics on campus have been written to death.

But romanticism is alive and well.

2

(Definitions -- If you understand already, advance to 3)

WHEN I say romanticism, I am not being purposely insulting. I am not talking about Carlyle or Clean Gene, though clearly the word is the same. Nor is romanticism something to be viewed strictly in contrast with radicalism.

Rather, we might imagine, to supplement the right-to-left line for political stances, a linearly independent vector for romanticism. Left-romantics want to change people because they despair that systems can be changed or because they believe that systems will change to fit the change of people's needs. Left-romantics (pragmatists?) want to change the system to change the man (or perhaps for more abstract reasons, justice, etc.). George Orwell, in his essay on Charles Dickens, recognized the trends, saying, "They appeal to different individuals, and they probably have a tendency to alternate in terms of time." We are now, perhaps at midphase, the most difficult time.

Conservative romanticism has been with us for a while--an example is any form of hero-worship, the idea that the best government is that which in an orderly fashion gives strength to the best governor.

Radical romanticism is what you read about in those oddly-numbered CRIMSON radicalism articles on Wednesdays. It seems, at present, to have something to do with rock music, mysticism, the carpe diem motif, and the notion that "things aren't caused, they just happen--then we react or categorize." It has a lot to do with self-expression. That's why the best and most creative people can afford to be romantics. But perhaps there are times when none of us can afford to be romantics.

3

I LEFT the romantics because they were happy.

Of course, this is because I fear the retribution of a puritanical God. If you enjoy it, it can't be good for you. But there's more.

If I had felt that the painful jolt of the occupation might have the power to open people's lives, I could have stayed. But the enjoyment of the jolt itself, the aesthetic pleasure of rebellion, is a horrifying thought. For it is unanswerable; there is no return. The Faculty can rap on love and the Corporation can let the poor clip its coupons, all to no avail. Grant what concession you will, unless you turn American society upside-down and free the consciousness from the tyranny of the corporate state--and maybe even after all that--there is no answer to a man who enjoys his act of rebellion, who says isn't-it-wonderful-look-at-the-art-and-music-it's-inspiring-o-hear-people-communicate-o-dammit-I-feel-free. What do you concede to a man who has no demands?

Everyone, of course, had the six demands. But for these heroes of my Harvard youth, for these best and most creative people, the act had nothing to do with the demands. It felt so clean to be in that building: The lines were drawn and you were on the right side.

True, the SDS politicos had no sense of humor. And, true, it was only when you explained the situation to yourself, not when you listened to their speeches, that their demands sounded proportional to the means they used. But the cops would probably come, so the situation would cease to be humorous, and your means would be dwarfed by the enemy's means. Besides, the demands were just--I was convinced even then that they were just--and since the occupation would take place in any case, why not support it while using it for your own purposes?

Do you remember the poster which said: "STRIKE FOR THE SIX DEMANDS STRIKE BECAUSE YOU HATE COPS . . . STRIKE TO SEIZE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE STRIKE TO BECOME MORE HUMAN . . . STRIKE TO MAKE YOURSELF FREE STRIKE TO ABOLISH ROTC STRIKE BECAUSE THEY ARE TRYING TO SQUEEZE THE LIFE OUT OF YOU STRIKE?" It defines "co-opt."

Co-optation is not in itself evil. But the SDS demands can be met, SDS is exerting pressure for concrete achevements. "Stop squeezing the life out of me" is unanswerable, and its effect ends when the excitement ends. This type of romanticism provides no plateaus where we can stop and rest. If it does not succeed entirely, it will have entirely failed; and the irate alumni will be right--we will have disrupted a great university to lengthen our spring vacation.

4

FOR THIS, no one deserves amnesty. The CRIMSON has argued in part that those who occupied University Hall should be pardoned because they raised important issues; they pricked our political conscience. And indeed now that the Faculty says they have coped with student demands and thus rectified wrongs, they may find it difficult to punish the demonstrators.

But someone who stayed in the building for romantic goals rather than political goals is making an unfair appeal. He is asking amnesty on grounds distantly analogous to civil disobedience when he is in fact advocating a general change in life style. The Faculty may feel guilty about its political role, but it is unfair to plead to that conscience when you want it to feel guilty about its life style in general.

If hurts me--and I am sure I cannot explain the reasons to you if you do not feel the same hurt--to think that anyone would plead to this sensitive and conscience-ridden institution for amnesty if he meant to prick only its social conscience. To tell a professor that you occupied University Hall to free his life style is insulting and saddening. And, if you can't cope with the whole atmosphere of the place ("because they are trying to squeeze the life out of you") . . . you could leave.

5

BUT of course you can't leave. If you leave, you will be drafted and face consequences more horrifying and restrictive than those you face here. The situation is artificial, we all know that. It is traditionally the prerogative of the best and most creative Harvard men to leave academe, to return when they are ready, to preserve themselves by withdrawal. But how unfair it is to demand that Harvard bring the freeing chaos of the outside world within its gates.

Someday, someday soon we all pray, that wonderful, blind world will again be open to the undergraduates whose youth is being robbed. They are right, my romantic heroes, they should not be at Harvard, it is forcing them to make compromises, it is squeezing the life out of them. Maybe the university will have to recognize this, and change its requirements until the war ends.

But I plead with my heroes to be careful in stating their case. You can't go home again. And there is a need for a place where research and reading and teaching can be done quietly. Culture and Anarchy.

Please note, I am not saying that the university should avoid political stands; I am not saying that the university can fail to restructure or to break its ties with what is most evil in America. Those are political arguments.

But the university is now fulfilling extraordinary social functions for the students, functions which should perhaps not be built into its formal structure. The university is trying to do its proper job, and its proper job is oppressive to some students, here and now. Because not everyone should go to college. And because not everyone should go to college full time.

6

(Digression on discipline)

THIS artificial situation reflects on university discipline. In effect, the university has no punishments for specific offenses. Severance is not a punishment, it is a decision that here and now a student is not a valuable member of this community; probation is a statement that a student's status is unclear. Neither presupposes guilt, neither is truly a punishment. They are merely statements of the Faculty's dissatisfaction with a student; presumably a student could be severed even if he had committed no offense whatsoever. And different students could be placed in different categories as a result of the same action.

But here and now, severance is a heinous punishment. The university should grant amnesty at this time because its function never was to punish. And these are extraordinary times, when we cannot reject members of our community. We will just have to get along with one another.

The only punishment available is civil law, and here the university must remember with the romantics--you can't go home again.

7

WHEN used honestly, "to liberate" is a reflexive verb.

Under normal circumstances, one liberates oneself through quiet thought or tremendous internal crises. Loud acid rock may help some people, it may hinder others.

It is true that an intense, emotional atmosphere can push people strongly in the direction of what a radical-romantic believes to be the right decisions. This raises a fierce moral problem; there is a question of individual conscience, the right to remain constricted, one might say. I hear my heroes laughing at my very rhetoric, so I will switch to a tactical argument: stable liberation, whatever it might mean, must be reaction to internal needs, not to external circumstances. It is mere intellectual arrogance to point out to a Harvard student that the life is being squeezed out of him; if it's true for him he should know that on his own. The arrogance involved in believing that one is qualified to set up etxernal conditions which will allow another man to humanize himself is even greater. To justify disruption, the romantic must subscribe to the unlikely argument that undergraduates have been in some psychological sense blind, and that once a strike ends, they will emerge greatly changed.

8

OF COURSE, the strike doesn't have to end. Maybe we should create the campus equivalent of perpetual revolution, a third act to "Marat/Sade" as it were. My own guess is that even the most devoted romantic found the past two weeks taxing, even boring. You get nervous, you can't be alone when you walk the streets, you hear someone mention "confrontation" or "sincerity" and you want to put your hands on your ears and run and run and run. I believe it was George Orwell who said that the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many weekday nights. Well, the problem with campus disorder is that it takes up twenty-four hours a day. After a certain point, it's not enjoyable.

Revolution, because it requires the concerted action of large numbers of people concentrated in ways that affect other people, is necessarily an institution, one which can be as stifling as a corporation.

My guess is also that most people voted to return to classes because they were tired of striking. I would guess, too, that the first stadium meeting might have voted to suspend the strike if God hadn't sent us such a beautiful spring day. And I would guess that every strike at Harvard--unless its purpose in the eyes of almost every participant is to rectify out-standing political grievances--will run into a gloomy day on which it will end.

So the only romantic argument for real disruption--one which, as I have said, I cannot accept--must be that the disruption will give a non-illusory opportunity for extraordinary communication and, ultimately, real changes of life style.

Anything else is self-indulgence, which is difficult to glorify in any case and particularly difficult to justify when the hero's grievances are temporary and external to the university. Society needs places for sensitization and places for serious academic study. But they can be separate places.

So this, ultimately, is the reason I left my romantic comrades in University Hall. They were enjoying themselves too much. Had they been in pain, I might have been able to stay, as an existential being crying out against an oppressive world I did not really hope to change. And then I would have been justified in quoting Camus. True, one must imagine Sisyphus happy, but only while he experiences "boundless grief" which is "too heavy to bear."

Something there was in me that was disturbed by the happiness which came before the bust. I wanted to stay; I wanted that clean feeling of opposing cops.

I might very well have left for another reason; I left for this one.

9

"It is not rebellion itself which is noble but the demands it makes upon us."

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