Forever Young: the gods, the damned, and Dorian Gray

As I drove home from the party where I had met the two young attorneys and asked my more elderly friends whether they would choose to live for 200 years in a young body, I found myself reaching back into literature for examples. If we try to imagine what it would be like to be forever young, the Greek gods leap to mind. They have power, beauty, strength, and everlasting good looks, and mostly they get to do whatever they want. What’s not to like? Indeed, the gods seem to have much in common with the paragons of success we have just mentioned—the movie stars, tycoons, and generalissimos propped up by makeovers, money, and medals—except that to them it comes naturally rather than by effort and design. The gods have it all. And they don’t even have to work for it. Plus, they’re immortal. Who wouldn’t want to be just like them?

Sebastiano Ricci, Zeus & Semele
Zeus & Semele, by Sebastiano Ricci

But this picture loses some luster when we look more closely at the actual life of the gods. Certainly they don’t lack for drama; they’re deeply involved in human life with all its passion and intrigue. But oddly, they don’t seem to learn anything from their experiences; they just keep doing the same things over and over. Zeus keeps seducing nymphs and mortals, getting them pregnant and then vanishing into the ether; he never matures into fatherhood, as if he were stuck in late adolescence—not unlike the tycoon with the sports car. Ares can’t stop waging war; he’s an old soldier who never dies but can’t fade away. Aphrodite can’t stop primping and having affairs, a Miss Havisham who never loses her looks (think how scary that would be!). Nothing that happens ever seems to register with the gods; you would think they’d get bored. And what is worse, they seem overly dependent on the adulation and rites of their worshippers, as if they needed constant reassurance.

Dore, Paolo & Francesca
Paolo & Francesca, by Gustav Doré

Perpetual youth begins to look even less attractive when we fast forward to the Christian era. In Dante’s Inferno we meet Paolo and Francesca, the murdered lovers whirled and battered by the hurricane of their deathless passion. They still have their looks and their love; they have each other. But they’re not having fun: they’re just going around in circles, suffering without learning. They can’t escape each other—hell, they don’t even talk to each other. Francesca ignores Paolo completely while spinning a heart-wrenching, self-serving tale of glamor, romance, and betrayal. Her attention is fixed on Date and Virgil. As for Paolo, all he can do is weep. This does not look like a very fulfilling relationship. Like everyone else in Hell, Paolo and Francesca are living in the past, obsessed with their earthly life and careers. Francesca talks and acts like a princess out of chivalric romance, idolized and irresistible, an icon of feminine charm. It’s this power that she worships, explaining to Dante that Love is an irresistible force that compels any one loved to love in return. She’s in love with Love, instead of with God. “It wasn’t our fault,” she complains. “Love made us do it. Why should we suffer for how we were made?” But the creepy thing about Francesca is that she doesn’t want to give up this adolescent feeling of power; she doesn’t want to grow out of it; she doesn’t believe there could be anything better. She can’t imagine—doesn’t want to imagine— what it might be like to be Beatrice.

Farinata 3
Farinata, by Gustav Doré

As Dante and Virgil go deeper into Hell, they meet more and more people who are still obsessed with their careers. Farinata, a famous general and statesman damned for denying the immortality of the soul, only wants to know Dante’s ancestry and party affiliation, as if these mattered any more; if he had any sense, he’d ask Dante what he’s doing in Hell, and whether he can help him get out—especially given the fact that he, Farinata, is burning, in blatant refutation of his earlier beliefs. But like everyone else in Hell, he doesn’t learn from experience. It’s the same for Brunetto Latini, Dante’s old professor, who’s amazed to see his ex-pupil favored with a guided tour but attributes it to political talent rather than divine grace. He, too, doesn’t ask for release, but instead urges Dante to remember his book—as if, given the circumstances, that would be a reliable guide to truth!

It isn’t until Dante gets to Purgatory that he meets people who have moved on from worldly accomplishment to embrace the challenge of spiritual growth. And what a change it is! People don’t want to dwell on the past but instead on the climb ahead; kings and rulers who might have waged war now comfort and encourage each other; Oderisi, famous for his illuminations, now cedes the future to painting and the glory to Giotto. Instead of claustrophobic darkness and torments we have clean air and sweeping views, with sunshine by day, starlight by night, and loving companions all the way. What could be better?

Dorian Gray woodcut
Dorian Gray, by Non-Factor

Moving toward our own day, whose worship of youth and vigor provide countless opportunities for decadence, we encounter Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s famous antihero who retains his youthful good looks even as his portrait grows older and uglier. Dorian soon discovers this miracle, but, rather than learn from it, he decides to exploit it. He hides the portrait away while using his charm for power and pleasure. A friend introduces him to J.K. Huysmans’ sensational novel À Rebours (“Against Nature”), whose wealthy protagonist embarks on a quest to explore every sensory pleasure while sequestered in his artfully engineered estate. Dorian takes that as his bible and before long has outdone its hero, Des Esseintes, in both depravity and excess. As the noose tightens around him, Dorian begins to hate the portrait, which exposes his true self.   Fearful that it might be discovered, he decides to destroy it, but when he slashes it, he mortally wounds himself.

These examples all show the danger of not moving on, which amounts to a kind of self-seduction. For youth is something to live through, not to cling to. It gives us strengths and opportunities to use for growth, not to clutch in despair. Learning of any kind depends on relinquishment; the new knowledge and understanding have to displace the old. For scholars this may be bitter medicine. We all hope that our work will last. But doesn’t the ongoing conversation of scholarship depend on both our work and our careers becoming obsolete?

Escape Workplace Hell with Erasogram®

Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared that “Hell is other people.”  And Dante constructed his Inferno by wedging like-minded souls into very close quarters.  You don’t have to attend the MLA Convention to see this principle in operation today.  Just think for a moment about your own department, or classroom, or campus.  No wonder some administrators dream of an ideal university that has neither faculty nor students.  Fortunately, there’s no need to look to another world for solutions.  Just punch up our latest, most revolutionary app:

Dimensions of Academic Life

When Dante comes to himself in the dark wood, he has no idea where he is.  Somehow, he realizes, he has strayed from the right path.  He feels disoriented and confused.  It is only after Virgil appears that he begins to get a sense of where he is and how he might get back on track.  And Virgil’s teaching takes the form of both ideas and stories: ideas that orient, and stories that guide.

In the journey of academic life, it is important to get a sense of where you are.  We find it useful to think of three fundamental dimensions: the person, the profession, and the institution.  At every moment, our experience is configured by some constellation or alignment of these three.  And each of them has both a general and a particular aspect.

Think, for example, about your colleagues.  Each of them shares certain characteristics of temperament and behavior with other academicians, but each also manifests distinctive elements of personality, character, and individual history.  Think about academia: it has the general features of all professions, but these are inflected by distinctive values, practices, and taboos such as academic freedom, peer review, or tenure.  Think about your college or university: it operates the way all institutions do but in a style that reflects its particular history, character, and composition.

Much confusion arises, we believe, from ignoring one or more of these dimensions as we deal with our academic experience.  So, let’s take a closer look.

Where We Are Coming From

Dante’s Divine Comedy begins with the protagonist coming to himself in a dark wood, astray from the right path, lost and depressed. He feels abandoned and alone; he can’t think straight; he’s easily intimidated by phantoms.  Fear clouds his reason and rules his imagination.  The poem tells us that he’s at the middle of the life journey, ripe for crisis.  Fortunately, he finds a guide in Virgil, who combines reason with imagination to show him the way out.  Virgil begins by telling his own story, then guides him through Hell with a combination of story and interpretation.  In the process, Dante the pilgrim gathers the experience and wisdom he needs to become a story teller himself, and eventually, after climbing the mountain of Purgatory and ascending through the heavenly spheres, he is able to write the Comedy—not for angels or saints, but for people like us.

We identify with the Dante of the dark wood.  How many times in the course of our careers have we felt confused, challenged by phantoms, betrayed by our colleagues or even by our own naiveté.  And at the same time, how often have we been helped unexpectedly, buoyed by the generosity or wisdom of friends and colleagues, gifted with moments of healing insight, supported by the unaffected love of our spouses and children, or inspired—yet again—by the excitement of our students after a good class.

We are both at advanced stages of rather unusual careers.  Mark put off college for more than a decade while he worked as a professional skier and mountaineer in the High Sierra.  Then he married and went all the way through for a PhD in English, eventually landing at Keene State College in New Hampshire, where he achieved tenure and became chair of the English Department. Now, with two preteen-aged kids, he strives to balance work and family with professional ventures such as the ASLE mentoring program.  John spent ten years as a regular professor before going over to the “dark side” as a dean and then resuming teaching as a mentor to adult learners in a nontraditional university, which eventually laid off its best faculty in response to a fiscal crisis.  He has run a doctoral program but never held tenure, published books and articles but had only one sabbatical, and seen ecocriticism evolve from a dubious venture to a mainstream field of study.

Along the way both of us have learned the importance of community, family, networking, and balancing.  Wisdom is as important as knowledge, even though the latter is mostly rewarded.  Relationships count for as much as productivity, though they don’t pay as well.  Balance fosters mental and emotional health, although institutions seldom factor it into their planning.  In the end, we must take responsibility for our own happiness, which should not be confused with success.  Mark’s and John’s complimentary but somewhat divergent histories will, we hope, give this blog a stereoscopic view of academic life.

And, if all goes well, our views will be deepened and enriched by yours.  In the end, we all aspire to journey, as Dante did, from suffering through learning toward felicity.  We all aspire, and need, to become story tellers.  As Barry Lopez reminds us, sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.