Like most of my scholarly projects, it began as a joke. I had just entered an English doctoral program, where my fellow students hotly protested the blood drives held on campus by the Red Cross. As a gay man, my heart bled with the crusaders, who opposed the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on donations from men who have had congress with men.
But, again as a gay man, I recoil from groupthink with Pavlovian predictability.
My new program placed me smack-dab in a crowd of radical queer compatriots, and I instinctually cringed about jumping on the gay-blood bandwagon. Suddenly, a wicked impulse seized me. I started drafting an essay in support of the FDA’s embargo, which appeared as an op-ed in The Advocate.
With a lust like de Sade for unfettered reason, my essay gorged on intellectual perversity. The essay did not reflect my actual views but merely celebrated rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake. Soon, however, I grew ever more skeptical about the leftist activism so prevalent in the humanities. My whole life, I have espoused progressive views — but graduate study steadily drove me to conservatism. At first, I performed conservative poses only in order to resist the tedium of conformity, but soon those postures seduced me, as they provided a resource for dealing with some of the excesses of leftist thought.
Let me clarify what I intend by “conservative.” I proudly pay my union dues, and I cohabitate with another dude. And I write plenty of poems about sodomy. Most citizens would register me as a New York City liberal, and right-wingers might denounce me as a bohemian. But friends have cautioned me about my old-school rep, and some of my colleagues have condemned me as a conservative — a word that they use as a slur. It seems that, in the academic cloisters, moderates look like reactionaries. So when I say that the university made me conservative, I mean this literally. Academic culture has defined me as such. And as the liberal catechism teaches, people tend to conform to the categories placed upon them. Slotted as a conservative, I became one — that is, in the sense that Roger Scruton defines the term: someone who believes that they have inherited traditions worth hanging on to.
I consider my conservatism a queer positionality for three reasons. First, it arises not essentially, but in response to social norms. My conservatism responds to the culture of my department, which sees the “good, beautiful and true” as oppressive. But it does not seem truly conservative relative to the culture of my hometown in Appalachia, which sees English professors as propagandists for decadence, decline and decay. Second, it finds expression in camp — in rhetorical pranks that decline sincerity (like this sonnet). And, third, such an ambiguous stance defies partisan classification and often incites phobia and panic. Someday I hope to make this positionality more legible by writing about my coconspirators in the secret subculture of queer academic conservatives. But to make my own Brexit from theoretical exposition, let me turn to my story proper, and let me tell, as a cautionary tale, how I came out to myself as an academic conservative.
I began to feel the latent stirrings of my tendencies during my last semester of doctoral course work, in a seminar on textual criticism (i.e., the tricky process by which “Old, learned, respectable bald heads / Edit and annotate the lines / That young men, tossing on their beds / Rhymed out in love’s despair”). My classmates, like the lovers of Yeats’s poem, despaired of ever arriving at any certainty in editorial matters. But I found myself proposing that, at least, we can accept the basic existence of facts. “Some things,” I said, “are true, like that we are here in Manhattan.” This naïve statement turned me into an object of pity and derision.
Another student insisted, “But there’s no such thing as facts! Everything is just a social construction!” And my professor more politely offered, “There’s no guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow.” Horrified, I realized that no other member of this graduate-level university course would dare to defend a priori truth. At this moment, I experienced my first full-fledged conservative yearning: “If I ever have children,” I promised myself, “then I must homeschool them — to protect them from this nihilism!”
Mind you, I understand that culture inflects knowledge and that humans participate in the creation of facts. But — call me old-fashioned — I still assume that truth exists (perhaps beyond our grasp) and that scholars ought to quest for truth (even if futilely). Whereas one of my previous articles cites Saint Augustine ironically (as an argument for queer identity), now I took honest refuge in the Bishop of Hippo. In Against the Academicians, Augustine eloquently responded to those who claim that humans can never know anything for certain. Augustine pointed out that such a claim must call its own certainty into doubt, thus nullifying itself and demonstrating that reason demands faith.
During this first flower of my conservatism, I started to craft a dissertation prospectus, and my interest in theology irked some of my medievalist co-workers. Christian doctrine, as you can imagine, plays no small part in the culture of medieval Europe. And as a scholar of medieval literature, I feel comfortable saying that no full account of the subject can ignore its Catholic context. In any case, my dissertation, like most of my scholarly projects, began as a joke. I proposed to examine the ways that premodern theologians and poets thought about language using metaphors of the foreskin.
The topic titillates me. Yet I also consider the project swishy in its ambitions, since it cruises the locker rooms of literary history, peeping at the ways that male poets related to one another by way of the prepuce — a tissue that queerly belongs to, but elides, the phallus. I know that certain queer scholars have called my relationship with theology “reactionary,” while theologians are just as likely to consider my project perverted. Maybe publishing offers some degree of protection. But it seems as though there is no way not to offend somebody.
Reflecting on how some queer scholars dislike Augustine, my ears became more attuned to such biases. Teaching a class on Chaucer last semester, I noticed that several of my students felt free to describe Chaucer’s religious references as “weird.” And I noticed how many of my students share the same lukewarm prejudices and postmodern platitudes. Like the student who announced in my linguistics class this semester that she disliked a certain medieval devotional lyric because “I don’t like anything that’s religious.” I noticed, too, how few of my students converse with the ancient spiritual traditions that might provide some electricity for defibrillating contemporary culture.
And — though I feel nervous about saying this publicly — I also noticed that my Muslim students, most of them quite pious, rarely suffer from such clichéd thinking. In my Chaucer course, one such student earnestly investigated Chaucer’s abiding love for the Christian stoicism of Boethius. This student, in an email, recently prayed for me, writing, “God reward you with good and make your studies successful!”
This prayer fills me with fear and trembling. This prayer makes me regret the flippancy with which I have participated in the culture wars, and it makes me wonder how a belief in revealed truth might redefine what humanists think of as successful studies. Too much of my own work — shaped by the fashion for partisan scholarship — has promoted cynical, one-sided mythologies instead of seeking a genuine encounter with the summum bonum. But many conservatives partake of the same type of cynical mythologizing. And my student’s prayer reminds me that successful scholarship means trying to escape the trap of easy binaries by queerly accepting ambiguity, ambivalence and mystery.