I don’t want to spend a lot of time on campus, nobody does unless they’re a dean of something, and my teaching schedule validates this desire. Being a professor is a pretty cool gig because most of the work you’re expected to do—read and write books—happens off campus, outside the classroom. Wednesdays are the exception, when department meetings happen. Then I’m there all day, from 9:30 AM to 7:30 PM. I get home around 10:00. Ah, poor me, gotta work for a living, and part of that work is dealing with the colleagues, in meetings. But this is not what I imagined! Precious me, I thought the life of the mind exempted me from tiresome routine.
I was wrong about that, of course. The life of the mind just is a tiresome routine. You rehearse what has been said, and then you try to say something new, but the rehearsal is everything. G. L. S. Shackle—now there’s a name—honored this captivity in The Years of High Theory: Invention and Tradition in Economic Thought, 1926-1939, a wonderful, unreadable book that traces a revolution in economic theory, from Piero Sraffa, who made sure that Antonio Gramsci’s book orders got placed, and Joan Robinson, who made sure that Michal Kalecki got taken seriously, on toward John Maynard Keynes, who made sure that Say’s Law got displaced. All Cambridge alum. Beautiful trouble.
Here’s how Shackle concludes. “The innovating theoretician needs a ruthless self-belief. He must overturn the intellectual dwelling-places of hundreds of people, whose first instinct will be resistance and revenge. Yet reconstruction must inevitably use much of the old material. Piety is not only honourable, it is indispensable. Invention is helpless without tradition.”
Roger that. You can’t be a revolutionary unless you learn to synthesize conservatism and radicalism.
But revolution or no, there I am on Wednesday at noon, the meeting’s over, I don’t teach until 4:30, what about lunch, how about a nap, where’s that book I brought, Leslie Jamison’s meditation on addiction? I walk over to Kelly’s, just three blocks from the College Avenue campus, and enter a brave old world.
It’s almost the 19thcentury in the dark of this decidedly Irish tavern (sorry, it ain’t a pub)). Lunch is, practically speaking, free—an edible hamburger costs you $1.00. At noon, the place is bristling with construction workers who need three beers to go with the burger, to go back to their jobs. Later it will be filled with cops at the change of shift, and then, late at night, the students will show up. Right now the building trades rule. They declaim about politics (“Trump is being crucified!”), and then scold each other for letting politics contaminate this space, where they go to heal new wounds, not old ones.
The sound track of the place is classic rock, Dylan, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Stones, Tom Petty, the Boss, occasional Beatles, songs that suspend us in a certain moment in the past but don’t swallow the present, by which I mean the conversation we’re having.
It’s about sports now, because the screens above us have let us abstract from politics, crisis, despair. It’s about balls and strikes. And then it’s about Halloween. The bartender, a large imposing woman who knows her way around the protocols of profanity—she uses the f-word with precision, when it counts—announces that she’s ordered a giraffe costume and will cut off the hooves so she can pull the draft handles on October 31.
At this moment, the Backstreet Boys enter the loop. What are they doing here? A boy band, just a bunch of punks, the Monkees of late modernity, now slotted in with the giants, the real innovators? I stiffen, offended by this intrusion, but as I watch guys hurrying, gulping their beers to get back to the construction site, everybody suddenly crouching, I have to wonder, what happened?
Everybody started singing along, the tough guys and the morons, and the effete professor, too, nobody dancing but shoulders moving, mostly caving in, heads down, resignation arriving. “My one desire,” I never wanna hear you say, “I want it that way.” What, are we at the cosmic Burger King, asking the Lord of Beef to cancel our order, get on line at the McDonald’s? Or are we at Kelly’s, where it doesn’t cost anything to ask for a burger?
I don’t know. But if nothing else I would note this. Silence consumed the bar. Everybody stopped talking and started singing, often in falsetto—these are shitheads, bricklayers, hod carriers, and such, the dregs of the planet, don’t get me wrong, I count myself among them—and there we were, singing foolishness because how else would you make sense of the insanity that is our real lives?
What set us off, what ignited the world that came before us, how did this song tame the beasts that sprang, fully armed, from our heads?
“I never wanna hear you say, that I want it that way.” Yeah. Which way is that? Invention is helpless without tradition. In the absence of tradition, we just wander aimlessly, along with the Backstreet Boys, slouching toward Babylon, wondering where we’re headed. We sing along because we know we’re doomed.