It’s my birthday, and I’ll rant if I want to

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

“Il est vilain, il n’ira pas au paradis,
celui qui décède sans avoir réglé tous
ses comptes.” (He’s wretched, he won’t go to heaven, he who dies without having settled his scores.)

— Almanach des Bons-Enfants, cited by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

“There are many forms of confinement. The worse is fear.”

— PB-I

Let’s start in our strictly verbal, non-violent settling of scores (this being the Internet, precision is important to avoid misunderstanding) with the professors who profess to teach a discipline anchored in the Humanities — in other words, to imbue humanistic values in their charges — in the Comparative Literature Studies program of Northwestern University, specifically the “graduate committee.” Among other requirements, the PhD program to which I’d been invited to apply last fall (by invited, I mean that the committee agreed to consider my other accomplishments in lieu of a completed undergraduate degree) expects admitted PhD candidates to read about 50 heavy-duty books, largely though not exclusively in ‘critical theory,’ in the course of about three months (happening to coincide with their summer vacations). (Thus calling for what is apparently known in academic circles these days as “close reading.” Not.) Now, my first question when learning of this intellectual and critical Rubicon — appetizing as the lists looked (one gets to choose between several rubrics, and one can add up to seven titles of one’s own choosing to each of the two lists selected) — was, How the Sam Hill do they expect their students to actually retain any of these wonderful lessons and questions and treatises, from philosophers including Benjamin, Arendt, and Adorno, at a clip of three to four tomes per week?  (On which intensive oral exams follow.) Well campers (or gang, as the noted philosopher Jean Shepherd, who wasn’t but should have been on at least one of the lists, given the expertise and interests of a professor who would have been one of my advisors), I discovered the answer when those crumbs refused to grant me a lousy eight-day extension to complete the application and related essays (they already had the letters from two of my three “recommenders,” and I’d already given the graduate director and at least one other professor a good idea of my potential doctoral research projects, notably a cross-cultural study of artists and writers who have committed suicide and a study of Jean Sénac, the pied-noir poet and Camus disciple who ultimately chose the side of the ‘indigenes’ during the Algerian War, elected to stay there after independance, and  bravely ‘came out’ in explicit ‘corps-poems’ while still living among that conservative culture before being assassinated a la Pasolini in 1973) and complex project descriptions to which I’d devoted most of the previous three months so that I could mourn my father, who died December 7, a death I only learned of December 10 because I’d spent the previous week-end holed up working on my application essays and off e-mail. (I’m too poor, finance-wise, to afford a telephone.) Evidently, when the members of this graduate committee were doing their own PhD program speed-intellectual/critically theoretical dating tour through those 50 books, they must have skipped over the part where Adorno explains — in a German radio exchange — that education is the ideal tool for debarbarization (if it’s not barbaric — i.e., non-humanistic — to deny someone an eight-day extension so that he can mourn his father, I don’t know what is), and the part where Arendt talks about the banality of evil. No, I’m NOT calling the members of the Northwestern University Comparative Literature Studies program graduate committee mini-Eichmanns but rather pointing out that Arendt’s uber-subject (I was studying “Eichmann in Jerusalem” before many of those professors’ expectant mothers were even playing recordings of College de France lectures next to their pregnant tummies to make them what they should have been) was the comportment of those whose defense of repugnant acts is that they were just following orders. In Northwestern’s case, I was essentially told by the graduate director that the system made an extension problematic, specifically that the round-robin candidate elimination process or whatever they call it  would have already progressed too far after eight days, to paraphrase the excuse he gave me. In other words, I may well have thought I was in Evanston, but I was actually in the meat-packing / abattoir district of nearby Chicago, assembly-line processing method-wise, up merde’s creek with neither Upton Sinclair nor even his alter-ego Arthur Stirling anywhere in sight to come to my rescue, the various projects about which I’d spoken to various NU CLS professors just so much cerebrum carcass blood on the library floor. (As the noted turntable philosopher Fat-Boy Slim might have put it.)

Oh and I almost left out the crummiest part of the non-humanistic behavior of these crumbs who profess to give lessons in a humanistic discipline: I made the extension request immediately I learned that my father had died — specifically, December 10. (The deadline was the 12th. As I noted earlier, my father died December 7 but I only learned of his death December 10 as I was holed up working on my PhD program application until then.) But these crumbs waited until that deadline had passed to refuse my request for an extension through December 18 — in other words, until it was too late for me to do anything about it.

As I told the graduate representative or director, whatever his title is (I should have flaired the guiding optic of the graduate committee and perhaps whole CLS program when he kept using the word ‘strategic’ to advise me on how to handle various aspects of my application, albeit with good intentions) in response, if my father had to die, I’m thankful he timed it in such a way as to spare me from spending five years surrounded by people like you. Shame on you, you hypocrites.