A Portrait of the Artist as a Naive Student


WHEN NORMAN Mailer '43 came to South House last year, he opened himself to the questions and taunts of a largely hostile audience. Time and again, almost unfailingly, he put his inquisitors on the defensive with his lightning-like ripostes. Finally a student came up with a question that caught him off guard, and he was sheepishly silent for a few moments. "What's your weight, boy?" Mailer snapped. The student looked puzzled, but Mailer's next comment clarified his question. "You threw me a punch I couldn't return."

In past years I subscribed to Mailer's theory of discussion-cum-boxing, and for a long time I've tried to find courses that promise academic pugilism. I looked for that idealized seminar room infused by the hovering spirit of the Marquis of Queensbury. In this age of laxness, I reasoned, men confront law school rather than German troops at the Marne--we must endeavor to substitute verbal missiles for military ones, and to replace infantry swords with forensic ones.

The genesis of this attitude came many years ago, when I was a naive freshman and took two full-year introductory courses--fine arts and psychology--at the same time. A young man hungering for experience and stimulation, I gradually became hypnotized by the slides of archaic paintings flashing ever so quickly on the walls of the Fogg Norton Lecture Hall. An alert mind in a trim body, I became irrevocably anesthetized by distantly-articulated words bouncing lazily up the tiered rows of Burr B. Like the summer I spent in Israel, when I ate so many cucumber-laden salads I was forced to stay away from cucumbers for many years, my first year at Harvard exposed me to such an overdose of large lecture courses that in subsequent years I was very particular about my intellectual nourishment.

When I returned for my sophomore year, after a summer of trying to decide between transferring to another school and dropping out to work in a hamburger stand in Chicago, I decided to turn to alternative education at Harvard. I pored through the course catalogue for hours at a time, through obscure departments, through graduate-level offerings, through special undergraduate courses. I consulted government friends in Washington, talked with artists in Paris, called up old acquaintances on Wall Street. Like Sammy Glick I missed no opportunities, and like a consummate politician I talked glibly at my course interviews. My tactics paid off, and, honing my tongue and rolling up my sleeves, I prepared to make the seminar scene at Harvard.

WHAT I FOUND out over the next several years was that discussion courses here usually conform to one of several types. First there is the Hollywood-Squares-With-Pedant-Moderator type, typified by a graduate seminar I took in the Department of S*******. I came across this course when I was going through a Great Name stage, when I was a Boswell looking for his Johnson, a neophyte looking to sit at the feet of some guru. I found my big name, but the course became more of a quiz show than an investigation of the sociological foundation of literature, and the professor better fit the role of a Bert Parks than a George Kitteridge.


An example. One meeting we were discussing Marxist literary criticism, and the professor went into the background of Marxist history. He lectured the students sitting around the conference table for some time before finally pausing to ask a question.

"What European Marxist was exiled from his native land in 1900 at the ago of 30?" Silence.

"For a while he led a group of revolutionaries in Geneva." Nervous fidgeting.

"He was so committed to his politics that he refused to listen to Beethoven because he thought it would soften him too much." We managed to feel embarrassed for not knowing Lenin's musical preferences, but I didn't do too badly. I kept a record of my point total, and by the end of the semester I had won an all-expense paid trip to a colloquium on literature being held in Berlin.

Then there's the John-Stennis-Debating-The-Civil-Rights-Bill type of seminar, where each student seems intent on leading a filibuster. In one course I took in the Department of G******* a student seemed fixated on the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Whether the day's discussion focused on the plight of agricultural laborers in Brazil, the trade union movement in Argentina, or the economic infrastructure of Venezuela, this loquacious student would ask how it compared with Zapata's noble effort in the Mexican mountains, and then proceed with an interminable, well-documented response. I took to letting out extended sighs during the class, punctuated every so often by contemptuous snorts. But the young professor, whose mouse-like voice was no challenge for the booming tones of the Zapatian undergraduate, paid me no heed. Alas, I lamented to myself, there should be a procedure for voting cloture during seminar discussions.

At least the G********* Department course had the sembalance of academic rigor. The Tea-and-Crumpet type of seminars don't. In these classes you receive lady fingers with your syllabus and scones with your exam questions. It's nice when an instructor believes that the members of a seminar should get to know one another outside of class, but during discussion it becomes difficult to take as serious criticisms offered by someone you've been talking out the past few weeks. When someone else accuses you of having racist attitudes or neanderthal political views, you feel like going over to him, poking him in the ribs, and saying, "That's a good one." Somehow in the Tea-and-Crumpet seminars barbed words turn into marshmallows and pointed comments become enveloped in the type of mist you read about in Wuthering Heights.

By this year I had learned my lesson. Rather than risk discovering new species of seminarus superficialus, I decided to visit my old haunts. Now I sit eagerly with 300 other students and eagerly pen down the gilded words of Professor W****** J***** B**** as he expounds on Samuel Johnson. I am no longer an aspiring Norman Mailer, drifting through classrooms in search of a good fray. Now I'm more like a Philip Roth character, working out my intellectual frustrations alone in my room, the same way Alexander Portnoy allayed his sexual troubles. Harvard encourages intellectual masturbation.