Friday, March 25, 2005

Lost in the Meritocracy

What glorious twits we all were in college.

We drank our wine from boxes and ate our dinners by adding water and microwaving. We could drink sheer gallons every night without fail, keep a vampire's hours while still managing a class or two during the daylight, and above all else, we knew absolutely everything. Those debates we had! Could you, in all seriousness nowadays, even be in the same room as a conversation that began "To what end standards of beauty?" without pissing yourself at the sheer gall of it all?

And of course, with our eager, panting intellectual posturing, we were total frauds. But endearing frauds. In a recent Atlantic Monthly, Walter Kirn wrote this killer memoir [subscription only, sorry] reminiscing upon his days as a complete fraud at Princeton. He's really hard on himself, but as those of us who recognize ourselves in this description know [I'm looking at you, blogosophere], we totally deserve it.

An excerpt, as my Friday gift, describing Kirn's approach to English courses at Princeton:
With no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumptions, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas disguised as conclusions that I'd reached myself. The deployment of key words was crucial, as the recognition of them had been on the SATs. With one professor the charm was "ambiguity." With another "heuristic" usually did the trick. Even when a poem or a story fundamentally puzzled me, I found that I could save face through terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as "semiotically unstable."

The need to finesse my ignorance through such stunts left me feeling hollow and vaguely hunted. I sought solace in the company of other frauds (we seemed to recognize one another instantly), and together we refined our acts. We toted around books by Jacques Derrida, and spoke of "playfulness" and "textuality." We laughed at the notion of "authorial intention" and concluded, before reading even a hundredth of it, that the Western canon was illegitimate, an expression of powerful group interests that it was our sacred duty to transcend—or, failing that, to systematically subvert. In this rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors—the ones who drank with us in the Nassau Street bars and played the Clash on the tape decks of their Toyotas as their hands crept up pants and skirts—we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place.


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