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Dialogue Underground: II

I know such is going to be the case in the future, too, so the best I can do is to say, in however shrinking and terrified a way: All right, that’s the way it will be, and I will do my best. Nor do I believe I am alone. I think all of us are caught up in the tremendous changes now going on, and we simply cannot fall back on the degrees we once obtained, the credentials we have, the certificates we have hanging on our walls. I believe the priesthood is self-creating or self-destroying, almost like one of those new artists’ pieces of machinery which sort of light up and move around and collapse, or suddenly undergo some sort of internal transformation into something else.

I think that, by and large, the professions, all of them, share a common assumption, one which I would like to attack. You have brought it up, certainly: it is that we are, as professional men, a sum, the sum of those energies and talents and achievements we have managed to amass during our long period of training and our “rise” to positions of status and respectability. After we get there no one ought to question us, because that “sum” is static and unassailable, so many dollars of performance and distinction and worth.

So, we get tenure at a university, or in the instance of the Jesuits, we get our degrees and our places of honor in the religious community, or with doctors, we get our appointments on hospital staffs—and at that point we begin to level off, so far as our growth goes. We have only to ride the wave that has developed on our behalf as professionals or as churchmen, as if at a certain point a halt is called to our growth: childhood and adolescence may well be explosive and chaotic and fiery, but adulthood must be characterized by a certain kind of static achievement, with a consequent under-tow. One becomes turned into statuary, turned into a prestigious figure who cannot be seriously questioned, least of all by those bold and impertinent youths we seem to be producing of late in America!

I’ve seen all I’ve just described happen again and again—so blatantly, so outrageously!—on our campuses, where college professors simply stand on their records, their books and articles, their capital, so to speak, and rage at anyone who questions them in a searching, face-to-face manner. And so often, those professors feel called upon to vindicate not only what they have won (what they have come to!) but what others have won—the system!

C: Let me interrupt you to agree that the struggles you have just mentioned—between critics of one sort or another and established professors or religious leaders—plague all professions. When young psychiatrists-in-training start to question their teachers too strenuously or to speak too critically of theories sometimes handed down to them like laws or articles of religious faith, they can be called “troubled,” be told that they need “more analysis,” be asked what their “problem” is that prompts such radical doubt. So ideological postures, professional self-righteousness, power politics, the exploitation of the weak or the aspiring by the strong and self-satisfied—all of that, to me, is universal, the result of man’s capacity for harm, his egoism, his drives and lusts as they become expressed institutionally.

Particularly sad is the way the weak young man (the young doctor or teacher or lawyer or priest) on the rise, on the make, feels compelled to turn upon himself after any rebellious moments he may experience. In order to graduate and be declared certified and authorized and approved, the young man in his own mind becomes a sinner: faulted, troubled, in need of help, in need of a change of “attitude.” In the twentieth century, in the name of science and honesty, professional men (presumably by and large agnostic and with an image of themselves as generous and liberal) can persecute one another, can be vicious toward one another, can be vindictive and narrow-minded and intolerant. So cadres of young “trainees” meet up with rigid and doctrinaire teachers who have this message for all who come to learn: Conform or repent, or you are out of our guild or you will never get in it.

And I wonder whether any profession is immune from that kind of problem. I have heard law students ask questions about the law; ask who has access to lawyers and who doesn’t and who gets sentenced to what length of prison term and who gets pardoned and who doesn’t. But I have also heard them say that there is just so far one can go as a student or young lawyer with questions like those.

B: It seems to me that the hopeful thing about everything we’ve been discussing is that the best of the young people are no longer taking it on the chin, bending and scraping before that kind of “ten commandments from on high.”

C: Are you sure?

B: Haven’t you seen a new attitude among medical students recently?

C: Yes. But perhaps I tend to be pessimistic. I worry that the kind of spirit we have seen in the finest of medical students and law students and divinity students in recent years will gradually be subdued, because in the South in the early Sixties I saw many young idealists get discouraged and give up. You keep talking about the war; well, we will settle this war, and then I doubt so many of our young will be as aroused as they recently have been. I am not at all sure that this nation is changing as much as some social critics say it is; nor do I believe that the majority of our people want any really drastic changes in the way the nation is set up.

B: You mention that the war will eventually end. One can only hope and pray for that day. But I don’t think the war is the only thing that upsets our young people. For many youths, the war and the way we have fought it and our reasons for fighting, all of that is symptomatic of something much deeper. I am not hopeful about what I see happening simply because the war has prompted young people to rebel against this or that. It seems to me that many youths I have met in seminaries, in law schools, in graduate schools, have their sights on a very large picture indeed; they are drawing analogies and making connections between evil abroad and evil at home, exploitation in South America or Southeast Asia and exploitation in the business world and in the professions and universities.

The professional horror that they are subjected to by explicit and implicit pressures no longer paralyzes certain students. Rather, they are as outraged by lies and deceit in a teacher or doctor or local politician as they are by the spectacle of this nation’s international behavior, its coziness with Latin American dictators and Greek dictators and the Spanish one and feudal oil barons in the Middle East. In the university, the essential character of the society comes across; no matter what students are told to read, the values of the world outside those college gates constantly intrude. That is to say, the university’s connections, its sources of power and money, and the way the university responds to the pressures exerted on it by those various sources—all of that is a microcosm of the country at large.

If students get to see the connection, get to see how politicians and military leaders and industrialists and—yes, I am sorry to say—our religious leaders, all work together, get to see how professors join in the act, too, and help make poison gas or pesticides that hurt children, help run that “military-industrial complex” that Dwight Eisenhower spoke of—well, if students get to see all of that, they’ve had some important boot camp training; I mean they have learned how our society works, and they’re in a better position to fight for their beliefs, rather than surrender and take orders from above. They are less naïve. They know we aren’t suddenly asked to serve the beast; all the way along, from our first years in school, we learn to do so.

So I can see how you would feel gloomy, but there are good reasons to feel otherwise. I have talked to students on a number of campuses and am impressed with their determination, come what may, to get at the heart of things, to look at the bare bones of our society, at the junctures of power in it, to analyze the relationship of the trustees of universities to those who run our corporations and own mines or plantations in the Third World. And I don’t see those students getting gloomy. Perhaps they never intend to make the compromises you and I may have felt were necessary to become a Jesuit or a psychiatrist, to become “acceptable” and “accredited” professional men!

C: Perhaps you are right—or perhaps you romanticize those youths. They can no doubt be blind and mean, like other human beings. They can no doubt trick themselves, as well as others. I believe anyone’s mind can fool itself, can draw veils over certain “areas” or “subjects,” can resort to illusions, can protect itself from what you call the “bare bones” of reality. Even people who say that their life work is dedicated to finding out what reality is, be it psychological reality, or the social reality a novelist’s sensibility often tries to evoke, or the reality of “physical matter” a scientist studies—even those people know how to whistle in the dark and to spin elaborate fantasies (sometimes called “theories”) and to ignore all kinds of things while emphasizing what it suits their purposes to emphasize as citizens of a particular nation and as men or women alive at a certain moment in history.

Witting or unwitting, we blind ourselves at certain moments. We are actively clever at not seeing a lot. Our language and literature are riddled with available masks and disguises. In a sense we are all like Blanche Dubois—whom we can laugh at and think of as a pathetic New Orleans woman, a character out of a strange Southern gothic mind. Yet how much like her some of us are—able to make our accommodations, to camouflage ourselves and our beliefs, and to see only what we can safely see.

B: But how much can one safely see?

C: I think it is an individual matter, to some extent; and of course different nations allow their citizens different degrees of leeway. But one has always to ask: What is it that people don’t want to see about the world around them, and why?

B: I’d like to suggest that the power of seeing grows in the very act of seeing. The innate health of the eye grows in the very exercise of the eye. I’ve encountered so much hopelessness, even among young people—and I am referring to the hopelessness of people who see their fellow human beings as incorrigible, as beyond change. Perhaps they don’t dare look—to see the more positive things, the more encouraging signs. We can trick ourselves into despair as well as false optimism! Many of the most sensitive young feel themselves constantly assaulted, and they see no likelihood that those in power, either in the university or in the government or in public or professional life are going to become anything other than what they are. And of course once that view of things becomes a general interpretation of life, then the worst sort of despair follows. Perhaps those who despair resort to their own kind of illusion—and one sees fine young people do so.

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