The Philandering Professor

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Andersen/Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Robert Stone, Saint-Malo, France, 2004

Novels about middle-aged male college professors brought low by love affairs with their female students are so numerous, by now, as to constitute a genre of their own. That there can be an erotic dimension to the teacher–student relationship is not exactly news—just look at Socrates and Alcibiades; and that such relationships can be perilous, Abelard and Heloise testify graphically. But when we look at characters like David Lurie, in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace; Mickey Sabbath, in Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater; Lawrence Miller, in James Lasdun’s The Horned Man; or Howard Belsey, in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, it becomes clear that in the last twenty years or so the professor who sleeps with his students has exerted a special fascination on our best writers.

That fascination is, if anything, overdetermined. It makes perfect sense that when many writers spend their careers as college professors, they will end up making professors their protagonists. And the movement of creative writers into the academy happened to coincide with a sea change in sexual mores. Just as college students were becoming completely sexually liberated—as parietal rules gave way to the culture of “hooking up” luridly documented in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons—the old-fashioned tolerance for predatory professors was disappearing. In particular, where some male teachers once felt that they possessed a kind of droit du seigneur over their female students, today’s colleges strictly forbid such relationships. As a result, teacher–student affairs may now be the only sexual relationships that still carry the social stigma once attached to adultery; and adultery has always been one of the novel’s favorite themes.

Steven Brookman, the professor in love with the titular girl in Robert Stone’s new novel, is reminded of this new dispensation by his dean:

It’s an age of transition, isn’t it? The old arrangements fall before the new arrangements. That which was unspeakable may thrive and is blessed. That which was tolerated is an abomination. We’ve been living it. The fine old shit don’t float.

That the shit has stopped floating is unquestionably progress. But every progress has its casualties, and as the novelists have shown us, the philandering professor, unable to reconcile his desires with his redefined responsibilities, is one of these.

In life, when a teacher sexually exploits a student and is punished for it, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the culprit. But the best novels about teacher–student affairs dramatize the irony that, when it comes to love and sex, it is very difficult to recognize when we are victimizing another person, since in the face of our own desires we always feel that we are the victims. Lasdun’s The Horned Man makes a neat parable of this situation: Lawrence Miller grows increasingly terrified by the evidence of rapes and murders that, it turns out, he himself has committed …

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