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Daphne Patai on academic affairs

Daphne Patai has written a powerful critique of university policies on student professor relationships and on sexual harassment policies in the context of writing a review essay on six novels dealing with university life.  Following are excerpts from her essay focusing on Roth’s THE DYING ANIMAL which has been adapted as a movie under the title, ELEGY and Prose’s BLUE ANGEL.  All six novels are listed at the end of the essay.

Excerpted from Daphne Patai, “Academic Affairs,” SEXUALITY AND CULTURE, vol. 6, No. 2, June 2002, pp.65-96.

The original publication of this review is located at


DOI- 10.1007/s12119-002-1004-0

While academic bureaucrats busied themselves in the 1990s with a

quixotic but persistent attempt to regulate both speech and personal interactions on their campuses, a group of creative writers struck blows against such a narrowing of our lives by providing us with delicate and nuanced, or satirical and scathing, imaginings of the complexities of actual relationships between real (though fictional) persons who find themselves caught up in the new vigilantism.

Their novels demonstrate that the politically correct script of male/professorial power and female/student powerlessness is a pathetically thin distortion which negates the texture of human life and produces little but propaganda tracts ranting against a purported patriarchy and its hapless victims. In the hands of a spirited and talented writer, the resources of fictional narrative–its potential for shifting points of view, for negotiating huge jumps in time and sudden reversals, for interior monologues and musings, startling imagery and evocative turns of phrase—can at least attempt to do justice to the dense inner life and complex events that define human existence, in the academy and out of it.

The novels under discussion here take for granted a reality so simple

and obvious that it has somehow escaped the notice of many social

critics. People meet each other, and that is how relationshipsbegin.

Many of these encounters take place in schools and workplaces,

where people spend most of their waking hours. Given

thesecircumstances, it is likely that many of the ensuing interactions

will be tainted by one or another kind of “asymmetry,” since no two

humans are exactly alike or occupy precisely the same

positions.What makes the concept of asymmetrical relationships

resonate so negatively in the minds of those who would govern

personal interactions is, of course, the obsession with power.

Asymmetrical relations are bad–so this line of thinking goes–

because no romantic or sexual intimacy should exist where one

person has power over another. Such power imbalances are

inherently evil to those for whom a simplistic conception of

“equality” has become the standard of justifiable social relations.

This phenomenally narrow viewpoint ignores the obvious fact that

the “power” people act out in their relationships is of many and

varied types, and that one person’s predominance in one sphere is

often matched by the others in another sphere. Who has more

brains? More charm? Morebeauty? More vigor? Greater emotional

resources? Better health? Better taste? Not to mention more wealth,

status, and all the other material aspects of life? Might a professor’s

ability to give a bad grade not be countered by his student’s

opportunity to write him a

damaging evaluation? And is not virtually all professorial omnipotence

these days trumped by the threat that the “weaker” party (ostensibly

the student) might initiate a complaint against some

supposedly offensive word or gesture that may or may not have

actually occurred? A mere moment’s reflection reveals that the usual

critique of asymmetrical relations relies on a stunted and feeble

definition that is stacked–and of course is meant to be against


Sex is power, yes; but so are brains, charm, wealth, status, and,

as Philip Roth teaches us over and over again, health and youth.

But since it’s patently absurd to try to outlaw relationships defined

by all or any of these inequalities, the new academic vigilantes

go for the broadest possible category and thus simply target

all personal interactions. For who is there on campus who is not

hierarchically differentiated from some other individual one way

or another? The overly broad definitions of “sexual harassment”

that have ensued, which invariably include “verbal acts” that may

make someone uncomfortable, allow all other imbalances to be

covered, by implication. And the stigma resulting from a charge

of sexual or verbal harassment is so great (and the financial stakes

of potential law suits so high) that, these days, a charge of harassment–

a mere accusation, however flimsy, however transparently

fabricated–may well cost the accused his (for men are the primary

target) job.

Unable to do away with “power” altogether (and without even

considering seriously whether it would be desirable, let alone remotely

possible, to do so), we scurry to regulate relationships. For

the Church fathers’ view of women as representing sexual danger,

capable of luring men from their higher concerns, we have substituted

an opposing view that now dominates our secular society: of

men as a threat to women, compromising, impeding, and exploiting

them at every turn. And since the pattern of young women

seeking out older and more accomplished men does not seem to be

retreating in the face of feminist critiques, what can we hope to do

but discourage those relationships as best we can by stigmatizing

flirtation, invitations, stares, touches, jokes (all of these explicitly

addressed by the latest sexual harassment policy of my own university)

even when they have nothing to do with sexual extortion

or coercion but are merely incidents of ordinary human interaction?

Fortunately, the current preeminence of sexual harassment specialists

and other micromanagers of collegiate life is not without

challenge, as the novels under discussion here demonstrate. True,

these literary works (and others of similar tenor) are small in number-

nothing to compare to the thousands of sexual harassment

codes the vigilantes have composed and are attempting to enforce,

egged on by the federal government and fortified by some rulings

signed into law by, ironically, Bill Clinton. But long after sexual

harassment codes are gone, these novels will be read both as reflections

of American life in the late twentieth century and as examples

of the unique abilities of fiction to reveal the human condition

in all its subtle intricacies and embroilments…

The Human Stain is the third novel in what Roth (in a New York

Times interview conducted with Charles McGrath, May 7, 2000)

described as a “thematic trilogy, dealing with the historical moments

in postwar American life that have had the greatest impact

on my generation”–the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War, and the

impeachment of Bill Clinton each story told through the mediating

perspective of Nathan Zuckerman, whom Roth has referred to

as his “alter brain” The first work in the trilogy was American

Pastoral, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, followed a year later

by I Married a Communist. The Human Stain, in turn, was succeeded

by a short novel once again taking up a character-narrator

we have met before. The Dying Animal, Roth’s most recent novel,

ressurrects David Kepesh, first introduced in 1972 in a Kafkaesque

novel The Breast, and narrator as well of Roth’s controversial 1977

novel The Professor of Desire. Now 70 years of age, Kepesh, in

The Dying Animal, relates the story of his affair, eight years earlier,

with Consuela Castillo, a 24-year-old Cuban-American student of

his, possessed of enormous “erotic power” that is both “elemental

and elegant” (p. 98). Roth does not directly address the issue of

current attempts to regulate professor-student relations except

to ironically note Kepesh’s habit of avoiding involvement with

his students till the semester is over and grades are turned in, at

which time he typically invites them all for a party at his house and

notes which ones stay late. Who is pursuing whom in his various

relationships is never entirely clear. But some of these studentteacher

liaisons persist in the form of lasting friendships, as we

learn near the novel’s end.

Kepesh speaks in a monologue to an unidentified interlocutor

whose questions and comments are implicit in Kepesh’s answers,

but who only on the novel’s very last page (just as in Portnoy’s

Complaint) responds and, indeed, is given the last word. No longer

a professor in The Dying Animal, Kepesh is now a well-known

culture critic and media personality. In laborious detail, on an occasion

that is revealed only at the novel’s end, he tells the story of his

obsession with Consuela, whose voluptuous beauty–and especially

her gorgeous breasts–enraptured him. A year and a half into

their affair, she breaks it off in anger over his failure to put in an

appearance at her graduation party. Recalling this episode, Kepesh


The smartest thing I did was not to show up there. Because I had been

yielding and yielding in ways that I didn’t understand. The longing never

disappeared even while I had her. The primary emotion, as I’ve said, was

longing. It’s still longing. There’s no relief from the longing and my sense

of myself as a supplicant. There it is: you have it when you’re with her and

you have it when you’re without her. (pp. 94-95)

But Kepesh by his own account then spent three more years

longing for her, and a few years beyond that she suddenly re-enters

his life, bringing not joy but tragedy as she tells him she has breast

cancer and not great odds for survival. Kepesh is not particularly

admirable (nor does Roth attempt to make him so) as he confesses

his dismay at the thought of her soon-to-be “mutilated” body, which

undoes his sexual desire even as his heart breaks with tenderness

for her plight (p. 138). Why has she come back? Apparently to ask

Kepesh to photograph, before her surgery, the breasts he so adored.

In recounting his affair, Kepesh delineates his indefatigable efforts

to avoid emotional entanglement and to hang on to physical

lust as the wellspring of manly energy, always contrasted to the

death-in-life that he considers marriage to be. Roth even subjects

Kepesh to some scathing analyses by a disgruntled middle-aged

son (from a failed early marriage that he’d walked out of), telling it

as he sees it, and often quite on target about his father’s many faults

and shortcomings:

Seducing defenseless students, pursuing one’s sexual interests at the expense

of everyone else–that’s so very necessary, is it? No, necessity is

staying in a difficult marriage and raising a little child and meeting the

responsibilities of an adult. (p. 90)

But none of this sensible criticism detracts from the compelling

narrative Kepesh weaves, with its topsy-turvy version of who’s

really in control in this affair between an older man, who sees the

end in sight, and an exuberantly beautiful much younger woman

who shouldn’t have to face her mortality but does, out of season.

Time, Kepesh says, for the young is always made up of what is

past; but for Consuela, sick with breast cancer,

time is now how much future she has left, …Now she measures time counting

forward, counting time by the closeness of death …. her sense of time is

now the same as mine, speeded up and more forlorn even than mine. She,

in fact, has overtaken me. (p. 149)

It is Kepesh’s intimate friend, George O’Hearn, who, in analyzing

Kepesh’s predicament after the affair with Consuela ended,

evokes the earlier novel’s image of Kepesh as “the professor of

desire” (p. 99). Recognizing that Kepesh will “always be powerless

with this girl” (p. 98), O’Hearn urges him to avoid all contact

with her. Lust and life are one thing; love quite another, and O’Heam

worries that Kepesh is “failing in love” Far from restoring a Platonic

unity to the lovers, O’Hearn argues, love is a danger, because,

“love fractures you. You’re whole, and then you’re cracked

open” (p. 101).

But if it is Consuela’s “erotic power” that has kept Kepesh in

thrall to her, the only power he, by contrast, held over her, Kepesh

believes, was his pedagogy, his ability to instruct her in music and

literature (p. 101). Most importantly, orgasm, for Kepesh, meant a

momentary end to the sickness that is desire. It is in this context that

he cites Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” from which the novel takes

its melancholy title, alluding to the process of aging:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is. (p. 103)

Even a dying animal, however, can retain some sense of propriety.

“Ridiculousness” to Kepesh, is relinquishing one’s freedom

voluntarily (p. 104). While fully recognizing this, he had not been

able in his relationship with Consuela to avoid it and had experienced

emotions unbearable to him: jealousy and attachment: “No,

not even fucking can stay totally pure and protected, “Kepesh says

(p. 105), in lines similar to those spoken by Faunia Farley in The

Human Stain. What makes his suffering touch the reader is that

Kepesh doesn’t even know just what he’s longing for: “Her tits?

Her soul? Her youth? Her simple mind? Maybe it’s worse than

that–maybe now that I’m nearing death, I also long secretly not to

be free” (p. 106).

In a nasty review of The Dying Animal feebly entitled “Tedium

of the Gropes of Roth” (The limes [London], 27 June 2001), Elaine

Showalter dismisses the novel as “cowardly, sterile, and intellectually

shallow.” She can muster no sympathy for Kepesh’s insistence

on his “freedom” as being the fulfillment of American individualism.

Showalter considers the novel’s ending to be its protagonist’s

one shot at being a “mensch” a shot we’re not sure he’ll take. But

the novel’s focus on a man who uses sex as a weapon against his

mortality is no reason to despise it, unless we are prepared to judge

all works of art on the basis of whether their civic message is one

we wish to endorse. Showalter quotes with disdain Roth’s line about

the “astonishing fellators” found in this generation of young women

(~ la Lewinsky). Another reviewer, Anthony Quinn, refers to

Kepesh’s obsession with Consuela’s gorgeous breasts as “just a bit

creepy and objectifying” (“An Old Man’s Fancy,” The Times [London],

24 June 2001). It appears that critics are not very eager to

hear what Roth is really saying. We seem to want our aging men to

be heroes, mature and wise. We don’t like seeing them as vulnerable

individuals not yet finished with sexual desire, as Roth insists

on representing them.

To immerse oneself in Roth’s bold and erotic prose is to confront,

however unwillingly, the habitual denigration of eroticism in

American society, which celebrates the marriage-and-commitment

narrative despite its notorious failures in our time. Roth’s Kepesh

wants never to pay any price for his sexual indulgences and egocentric

behavior. But his protest against age and infirmity, his insistence

that desire continues, that sex can be an affirmation of life

against the inevitability of decay and loss–all these are worth hearing,

even coming from a character as complicatedly unsympathetic

as David Kepesh…

Starting with his first novel, Goodbye, Columbus, and ending

with The Dying Animal, his latest one, Philip Roth has, over a 40

year period, lavished an unflagging energy on the effort to dissect

the sexual and emotional lives of male protagonists who often resemble

himself (Jewish author/professors with little talent for marriage

and a great taste for self-analysis). What is at times referred to

by critics as his “misogyny” is, it seems to me, rather a willingness

to probe the heart of the egocentricity and lust that drive his male

characters. It takes courage to do this in Roth’s unabashed way, to

celebrate–as he does in The Dying Animal–“the charm of the

surreptitious” and to make such provocative statements as: “Marriage

at its best is a sure-fire stimulant to the thrills of licentious

subterfuge” (p. 110). Roth does not allow us to see his narrators

and protagonists as unproblematic or admirable exemplars. Nor

does he–like critics such as Bell Hooks and Jane Gallop defend

“asymmetrical” relationships on the self-congratulatory grounds that

brilliant professors and their best students are naturally attracted to

one another and that these associations are crucial to the intellec

tual and creative development of both. He insists that such relationships

need no academic defense. He makes no pretense that there

is a cerebral or pedagogic value to them. Life and lust are their own

justification. Nor does he, on the other hand, idealize the ensuing

relationships. Far from it, he exposes their seaminess and comic

aspects, but also the passion and vulnerabilities from which they

spring, above all the vulnerability of older men confronting their

fear of aging and death, susceptible to female sexual power in a

manner that is presented poignantly and, I suspect, realistically…

Quite a different emphasis governs Francine Prose’s latest novel,

Blue Angel, a darkly comic story of a besotted 47-year-old writing

professor and the talented and ambitious 19-year-old student who

causes his downfall. In a witty and biting third-person narrative

confined strictly to the point of view of her protagonist, Ted

Swenson, Prose exposes the smelly little orthodoxies (as Orwell

put it, in quite another context) of the contemporary academic scene.

Because this novel of a professor ruined by sexual harassment

charges is of particular relevance to the travesties of justice actually

being played out on many university campuses today, it is worth

considering it in some detail.

Ted Swenson, a writer-in-residence at Eust,on College in northern

Vermont, has been married for twenty-one years and is still in

love with his wife, Sherrie, and capable of, as she puts it, “leering”

at her. As a professor in contemporary America, however, he knows

the rules, and the narrative gives us his thoughts about them:

Such are the pleasures of intimacy: he can look [at Sherrie] as long as he

wants. Given the current political climate, you’d better be having consensual

matrimonial sex with a woman before you risk this stare. (p. 16)

At his college’s obligatory meeting to review the sexual harassment

policy, Swenson thinks heretical thoughts:

What if someone rose to say what so many of them are thinking, that

there’s something erotic about the act of teaching, all that information

streaming back and forth like some…bodily fluid. Doesn’t Genesis trace

sex to that first bite of apple, not the fruit from just any tree, but the Tree of

Knowledge? (p. 22, italics in original)

Devoted to his wife and daughter, Swenson acknowledges that

“teacher-student attraction is an occupational hazard” and has therefore

avoided entanglements with his students, though over the years

several have made overtures to him. And he’s well aware, too, of a

case at the State university (where his daughter Ruby studies), involving

a professor who, while showing a classical Greek sculpture

of a female nude, had commented “Yum” Accusing him of

“leering” his students charged that he’d made them uncomfortable.

Suspended without pay, the professor had taken his case to

court. Swenson is wary of a similar climate at his own college, and

of the increasing power of the “Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance”

waiting to pounce on any male word or gesture. And he is suspicious

of a colleague who is head of the Alliance and is also the

English Department’s “expert in the feminist misreading of literature?’

For reasons he can’t fathom (but guesses it’s a “testosterone

allergy”), she seems to want him dead.

How, then, after so many years of sound judgment, does it happen

that he falls into the role of Professor Rath to his student’s Lola

Lola (as in the classic film The Blue Angel, from which the novel

takes its title)? Prose’s autopsy of Swenson’s fall is a bracing work,

funny and sly and politically incorrect at every turn, right up until

the end when Swenson realizes that the movie he should have been

watching was not The Blue Angel but All About Eve.

Can a talent for writing be a seducer? In the case of Ted Swenson,

decades of teaching “creative writing” to mediocre students (whose

stories, often involving bestiality, we get to sample), along with ten

frustrating years of never quite getting around to working on his

long-awaited third novel, have left him fatally vulnerable to talent,

no matter how unlikely its source.

Angela Argo is far from the best looking young woman in

Swenson’s class at Euston College. In fact, she has sat for weeks

squirming and sighing instead of speaking, calling attention to herself

primarily by means of her abundant face piercing, the orange

and green streaks in her hair, and the black leather motorcycle jacket

with theme-related accouterments that covers her skinny body.

But poor Swenson has few defenses against the spark of talent

that Angela reveals to him after seeking a meeting in his office.

And his first reaction to her work is the very thing that today gets

professors in trouble: differential treatment. Wanting to protect her

talent from the ritual hazing that his class has turned into as students

savage one another’s writing week after week, he agrees to

read and comment on Angela’s work in private. Thus begins the

special relationship–initiated by Angela at each successive stage–

that will eventually cost him his reputation, his job, and his marriage.

Interwoven into this realistic tale of a contemporary campus liaison

is a sympathetic portrait of the plight of writing teachers and of

writers, especially those stuck in a dry season that can last a decade.

The novel captures perfectly Swenson’s enraptured response

to the discovery of Angela’s talent. It is a generous, tender response.

Swenson is alert to the students’ ambiguous attitude toward him:

“He’s the teacher, they’re the students: a distinction they like to

blur, then make again, as needed” (p. 10). But this sensibility and

foreknowledge won’t save him from enthusiastically gravitating

toward the genuinely talented. And as Angela feeds him chapter

after chapter of her novel, Swenson falls into the very mistake he

constantly warns his students against: taking the story as autobiography.

Thus, he begins to imagine that he himself is the teacher Angela’s

protagonist is enamoured of, and that her first-person narrative is really

a confession, made to him privately, of her troubled life.

It doesn’t help matters much when a colleague who teaches poetry

tells him about the graphic sexual poems Angela had written

for that class. Soon the sexual content of Angela’s writing and her

intense anticipation of Swenson’s reactions week by week lead

him to sexual fantasies about her. When she says that she thinks all

the time about his reactions to her writing, what he hears is that

“she thinks about him all the rime” (p. 158). So they lurch from one

encounter to the next, each less clear than the last. Everything in

their relationship initially revolves around her writing–her eagerness

for his reaction; her computer’s collapse, which leads her to

ask him to take her shopping for a new one, and in turn leads to his

presence in her dorm room whose door (he finds out later) she’d

locked as soon as they had entered.

Francine Prose explores with great subtlety Swenson’s seduction

and betrayal. She does not present him as a total innocent. As

a man in mid-life, he is aware of his mortality and the appeal of

glowing youth all around him. “Age and death–the unfairness of

it, the daily humiliation of watching your power vanish just when

you figure out how to use it” (p. 145). But Angela’s rapid transformarion

after their brief escapade is no joke; she begins demanding

more of his attention to her writing, berating him when he doesn’t

provide it quickly enough. “What happened to the worshipful student

who hung on his every word” Swenson wonders. “Now that

she’s let Swenson sleep with her she doesn’t respect him anymore”

(p. 187). Prose shows the reversal of all the traditional rules and

values, as Angela quickly moves in for what turns out to be her real

goal: getting him to show her novel to his agent. But still Swenson

argues with himself about her motives:

Does Angela–did she ever–have a crush on him, or is she just using him

for his professional connections? Is Angela blackmailing him, or simply

asking a favor? What does a favor mean when you have the power to wreck

someone’s life? (p. 190)

By coincidence, a woman colleague also wants the same favor:

“This is really too much. Two women in twenty minutes cozying

up to Swenson as a way of getting next to his editor” (p. 191). And

to make matter worse, he must face the open resentment of his

other students when he, with complete sincerity, praises Angela’s

writing in class.

Angela’s fury when she learns that Swenson hadn’t fought for

her book with his agent finally makes her clarify her behavior: “The

only reason I let you fuck me was so you would help me get this

novel to someone who could do something” (p. 236). And next

thing he knows, she’s charged him with sexual harassment, taken a

tape of this last conversation to the dean, and is threatening to sue

the college. The dean immediately urges Swenson to resign.

Reviewing his own responsibility, Swenson thinks:

He knew about the power differential between teacher and student. But

this wasn’t about power. This was about desire. Mutual seduction, let’s say

that at least, lie’s too embarrassed to let himself think, This was about love.

(p. 245)

Barred from his classroom, dangerously indifferent to his school’s

sexual harassment proceedings (not a “court of law”), Swenson

insists on a hearing instead of resigning quietly.

When he tells his wife, in a restaurant, about the trouble he’s in,

she blames him entirely and informs him that Angela spent half her

time at the school’s medical clinic (where Sherrie is a nurse), ostensibly

because she’s suicidal–but actually, Swenson realizes, because

Angela was pumping the staff for details about his life to

work into her novel.

The couple sitting beside them seems to have gotten up and left. At some

point when he and Sherrie were at once so engrossed and distracted, the

lovers must have retreated into their cocoon of protection and light and

grace, of chosenness, of being singled out and granted the singular blessing

of being allowed to live in a world in which what’s happening to

Sherrie and Swenson will never happen to them. (p. 256)

As the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance demonstrates against

him, and Swenson rents the film of The Blue Angel (a film he knows

Angela too has seen), he realizes at last that “there’s no chance of

winning, of proving his innocence” (p. 266).

The night before the hearing, he lies in bed composing and revising

speeches about what he thought he was doing, about his respect for Angela’s

novel, about the erotics of teaching. And the dangers of starting to see

one’s student as a real person. (p. 267)

But he is totally unprepared for the actual hearing process, in

effect a trial in which he faces six colleagues, one of them the head

of the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance (p. 270). As “agreed”

upon (but not by him), witnesses are called, but no cross-examination

of them is permitted, since this “is not, after all, a trial” (p.

273). So much for due process.

When Angela appears, parents in tow, at the hearing, Swenson

notes her changed appearance. Her hair is now a

shiny, authentic-looking auburn . . . . And how bizarrely she’s dressed–

bizarre, that is, for Angela. Neat khakis, a red velour sweater, ordinary

college-girl “good” clothes. For all he knows, the piercing and the black

leather were always the costume, and this is the real Angela, restored to her true

self. For all he knows. He doesn’t know. All right. He gets that now. (p. 272)

In a particularly subtle scene, Swenson, having deluded himself

for so long, having somehow managed to avoid noting that Angela’s

real interest was in promoting her writing, not in him, finds at his

“trial” that he would rather play the “sullen guilty lecher” that his

colleagues think he is, would rather confirm their “image of him as

the predatory harasser” than admit “to the truer story of obsession

and degradation, the humiliating real-life update of The Blue Angel”

(p. 273).

Colleagues and students come forth to testify. A brave student

from Swenson’s writing class, initially showing far more discernment

than his elders, tries to argue: “I can’t see what the big deal is.

Shit happens. People get attracted to other people. It’s not that big a

deal” (p. 284). But Swenson watches the change that comes over

the student as he realizes that what Swenson is charged with is

having extorted sex from Angela in return for showing her work to

his editor in New York. The student’s face shows his perception of

unfairness warring with his sense of loyalty to his teacher: “Swenson

wants to tell him that the real unfairness involves the distribution of

talent and has nothing to do with whatever happened between him

and Angela Argo” (p. 285). Bravely, the student tries to stick to his


But nothing has prepared him to resist the seduction of having the dean of

his college calling him a writer and a half-dozen faculty members hanging

on his every word. How can he disappoint them? How can he not offer up

any scrap of information he can recall. (p. 286)

Francine Prose gets the details of all this just right: the banality

and venality of academic vindictiveness and piety; the stereotypical

assumptions about professorial misconduct; the eagerness to

find sexual wrongdoing; the unavoidable small-minded

Schadenfreude as colleagues and students get to revisit old grievances

and slights, and the sheer cynicism of faculty and administrators

claiming to be concerned with students’ welfare. When Claris,

the class beauty, testifies that he took no inappropriate actions toward

her, Swenson can see that no one believes her. Or they think

Swenson is insane.

How pathetic. What is wrong with him? He never even entertained a sexual

thought about Clads and spent months mooning over Angela Argo? How

abject, how ridiculous. He isn’t a normal male. (p. 288, italics in original)

Another student testifies that they all knew something was going

on because all their work was criticized, while Angela’s was

not. No one is interested in discussing the other possible reasons

for admiring a student’s work. “Swenson’s learned his lesson.

He’ 11 never criticize another student. Not that he’ll get a chance”

(p. 291).

Finally, Angela gets to speak–if she feels “strong enough to

address the committee” (p. 296). “As she moves [toward the table],

Swenson thinks he can still see sharp angles of sullen punkhood

poking through the fuzzy eiderdown of that Jane College getup”

(p. 296). Following the familiar ritual, Angela is praised for her

courage in coming forward, and spared the ordeal of listening

to the tape she had orchestrated to make it sound as if Swenson

had indeed persuaded her to trade sex for showing her book to

his agent.

On her face is that combustive chemistry of wild irritation and boredom so

familiar from those early classes, but now it’s become a martyr’s transfixed

gaze of piety and damage, lit by the flames of the holy war she’s waging

against the evils of male oppression and sexual harassment. (p. 297)

Throughout Angela’s distortions and deceptions; Swenson tries

to keep “his grip on the truth—-on his version of the story….A grip

on recent history…. On reality” (pp. 298-299). The committee, he

sees, is ready to believe the worst because he asked to see more of

a student’s writing. Yet, he admits to himself, her testimony isn’t all

made up:

Well, there is something sexy about reading someone’s work: an intimate

communication takes place. Still, you can read…Gertrude Stein, and it

doesn’t mean you find her attractive …. Once more, the committee’s version

of him–the scheming dirty old man–seems less degrading than the

truth. (p. 301)

Prose avoids turning her story into a postmodern narrative in

which we can never hope to learn the truth. Earlier episodes have

shown us what took place, and we recognize Angela’s lies in her

testimony before the committee, her insistence that the sexual initiatives

were his. But the author’s voice gives us a different perspective

on where the harm really resides:

How pornographic and perverted this is, a grown woman–a professor–

torturing a female student into describing a sexual experience to a faculty

committee, not to mention her parents. Swenson could have slept with

Angela on the Founders Chapel altar, and it would have seemed healthy

and respectable compared to this orgy of filth. Meanwhile he has to keep

it in mind that Angela started all this. Angela chose to be here. (p. 303)

Only at her father’s urging that she share her “good news” does

Angela admit to the assembled group that Swenson’s editor in fact

wants to publish her novel (p. 305). Swenson thinks:

Len Currie is publishing Angela’s novel. So what is this hearing about?

Angela should be kissing Swenson’s feet instead of ruining his life. As she

must have decided to do when she still believed that Swenson, her white

knight, had failed to get her manuscript published. If that’s when she decided.

Who knows what she did, and why? (p. 305)

On cue, Angela describes the lingering effects of the whole

wretched experience, her nightmares, her distress. As Angela’s testimony

draws to a close, the women’s studies professor once more

congratulates Angela and commiserates with her:

“Angela, let me say again that we know how tough it was for you to

come in and say what you did. But if women are ever going to receive an

equal education, these problems have to be addressed and dealt with, so

that we can protect and empower ourselves”

“Sure,” Angela says. “You’re welcome. Whatever.” (p. 307)

When it is finally Swenson’s turn to speak, he knows what he

should do is apologize—but of the many things he is sorry for,

breaking the college’s rules about professor-student relationships is

not one of them:

He is extremely sorry for having spent twenty years of his one and only

life, twenty years he will never get back, among people he can’t talk to,

men and women to whom he can’t even tell the simple truth. (p. 308)

And then, in an entirely predictable almost last-straw moment,

Swenson’s daughter’s boyfriend tells the committee that Ruby told

him her father had sexually abused her when she was a child.

Swenson watches his colleagues’ reactions:

they have taken off their masks. Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather,

Torquemado. Swenson’s crime involves sex, so the death penalty can be

invoked. No evidence is inadmissible. They’re hauling out the entire

arsenal for this mortal combat with the forces of evil and sin. (p. 310)

Thus, at novel’s end, Angela’s career is starting and Swenson’s

careerwalong with his marriage is ending. Sounding somewhat

like one of Philip Roth’s heroes, Swenson finally recognizes the mystery

of femaleness, acknowledging that he can never fathom Angela’s

motives. Only she will ever know the truth. As he hears the campus

bells tolling, he wonders why they’re ringing now, at 5:25 p.m.

Then, gradually, it dawns on him. It’s the Women’s Alliance, announcing

their triumph over another male oppressor, one small step along the path

toward a glorious future. He’s glad to be out of that future and headed into

his own. (p. 314)…

Does it take a woman writer, a Francine Prose, to unabashedly

demonstrate the stupidity of the current shibboleths regarding male

professors’ “power” and female students’ “powerlessness”? To protest

the prurient attitude that lies behind the apparent obsession with

sexual relations on campus? To delineate so scathingly a young

woman’s methodical and self-serving manipulation of her professor?

When men writers do this (e.g., David Mamet in his play

Oleanna), their work is often dismissed with the presumptively

devastating charge of “misogyny.” Francine Prose’s novel is an

effective rejoinder to this canard. It is both touching and true: written

in a melancholy self-deprecating style befitting her protagonist’s

essential decency and ironic awareness, and at the same time profoundly

insightful into the mechanisms of academic life at the present


Philip Roth presents us with a scathing portrait of the harm unleashed

by the stupidity of vigilantism of language and personal

relations in today’s America. In novel after novel, he offers a celebration

(sardonic and pathetic though it often is) of the erotic power

of young women and the deep conflicts of the men who love and

fear them. Nicholas Delbanco portrays a costly and enduring love,

which comes in guises and moments that defy academic proprieties,

and he leaves no doubt that the price is worth paying. Francine

Prose details the seductiveness of talent and the egocentric drives

that motivate women as much as men, despite all the lies currently

circulating on this subject. Eric Tarloff, writing in a far lighter vein

than these three, opts for happy endings as the essential sanity of his

protagonists somehow prevails. Perhaps, indeed, he is the most idealistic

of the group. But all four are writers of great skill, opening our

eyes to the hidden dimensions and potentialities of those “asymmetrical”

relationships conventionally viewed today as merely sordid

or exploitative on the professor’s part, deprived of life, forced into caricatured

tableaux in which all roles are set out in advance according to

the position–in terms of race, sex, and status of the protagonists.

One turns from these works of fiction, these portraits of academic

life at the end of the twentieth century, back to the everyday

reality of sexual harassment officers, codes, and committees, threats,

and public displays of virtue, with a profound sense of wonder.

How can it be that rules and guidelines that should be an embarrassment

to any sensible society now govern every school and

workplace? How have the supposedly powerless so successfully

altered the terms of everyday interactions that the supposedly powerful-

who, we are constantly told, prey on them–are now so

vulnerable, so much at their mercy? Is this some demented dream

from which we’ll soon all wake up? Not, I fear, in the short run.

But the commitment of writers such as these four to the craft of the

novelist rather than to the cant of current ideologies gives us reason-

however fragile–for hope.

Philip Roth, THE HUMAN STAIN; Philip Roth, THE DYING ANIMAL; Philip Roth, THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE; Nicholas Delbanco, OLD SCORES; Francine Prose, BLUE ANGEL; Eric Tarloff, THE MAN WHO WROTE THE BOOK


May 9, 2009 - Posted by | consensual relationships, Daphne Patai, ethics, feminism, Francine Prose, fraternization, higher education, Philip Roth, sex, sexual harassment, sexual policing, sexual politics, sexual rights, student professor dating

1 Comment »

  1. Interesting article–and it underlines why I feel so conflicted about sexual harassment policies. I was in a “hostile environment” situation back in 1985, at a liberal arts college, and it really was pretty bad. The institution required you to have one-on-one meetings with your professors twice a week. This professor required one-on-one meetings every week, on the grounds that his subject was very difficult and complex, which was fair enough–Medieval and Renaissance Comparative Literature. When you got to his office, he had two immense, heavy chairs facing each other at an angle. You had to sit in one, and he sat in the other. You could not physically move the chair back. It was that heavy. So you were forced to sit there with your legs all mixed in with his. I remember shrinking back into that chair as far as I could and desperately trying to keep the conversation on the stated subject (the works of the *Pearl* poet) while he kept trying to steer it to the more racy bits of *Les Liaisons Dangereuses.* I actually argued with him about it. Then I would go to my voice lesson and couldn’t sing because my tongue was all balled up in my throat. I went to the dean’s office and they said there was not a damned thing they could do about it, as he hadn’t actually groped me.

    I talked to my fellow students in the class, and found out that he was very clever about walking the line with every one of us. Mild raciness was enough to upset me, so that’s where he stopped. My classmate who was pulling a C–well, she wasn’t so well protected in various ways. With her, he talked about cunnilingus. He touched other students. He did not dare touch me. No one dared to come forward with me, either, which when you think about it, was their problem, too. If they failed, maybe they earned a failure; if he failed me, the Dean would have wanted to know why.

    I switched out of his class, begging the Art History professor to let me in to his course mid-year (which was unheard-of at Sarah Lawrence back in the day.) I said that 18th century art would be more valuable to me in my future career than Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and he agreed to let me in. No one said out loud that I desperately wanted out and that the art history prof knew exactly why.

    Incidentally, I’m kind of proud of myself for talking back to him, for talking to other people about it, and getting what I needed, including getting out of his class.

    Now, this guy was a predator–a REAL predator. When the new laws and guidelines came out, I have no doubt he just slid his behavior to fit within them. I am pretty sure that his real jones wasn’t flirtation so much as watching the discomfort and distress of his students. In almost 25 years, I have never seen anything like him again. Sure, I have older colleagues who call me “honey” or whatever, and I’m not a huggy girl, but I’m not made of china. It ain’t the same thing. I can even appreciate the affection behind the thought.

    So on the one hand, I understand why the sexual harassment policies are in place. They’re meant to provide some protection from the professor I mentioned above. On the other hand, I’m not so happy about the paranoia that’s taken its place.

    I’d take issue with the idea that bad grade = bad evaluation, when we all know that bad evaluations don’t mean doodly unless they’re in bulk. Complaints and threatened lawsuits, now those are something different and can destroy a career, even someone’s life. I am a total goodytwoshoes and yet I’m sure that if someone really wanted to mess with me, they *might* be able to. Might. (Also–staring? Seriously? Staring is sexual harassment?)

    I also notice that ALL of these cases are older male professor/younger female student, but there’s got to be some variations on that. I have a friend, no longer with my institution, who was pursued by a female undergraduate three years his junior. She sent him emails talking about how tortured and tormented she was because she kept looking at him and couldn’t have him, and so she was dropping out of school. Who’s coercing whom? (He did eventually date her AND regret it, but that wasn’t about harassment or consensual policies or power imbalances as much as being plain old dumb.) I have male students who are older than me. As it happens, I don’t want to date them, but if I did, who has more power there? I’m a bit confused where the power things are on the male/female old/young professor/student spectrum.

    Sorry about the long comment, which I’m sure a lot of people would consider to be teal deer (tl;dr: too long, didn’t read). But it brought up some interesting points.

    Comment by DCP | May 9, 2009 | Reply

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