I first observed this phenomenon while I was in seminary, an aspiring college theology professor who hadn’t ever been instructor of record. (I now am an aspiring college English professor teaching his twelfth semester.) In an academic theology class, a fellow student who had already become a legend among the student body (in the way that crazy people do, which is to say in a laughing-at rather than a laughing-with way) started ranting about something from the day’s reading. In under a minute he had begun to weave together catch phrases from God-and-country nationalism, biological racism, and opposition to the teaching of evolution (go back and reread that trio if it doesn’t strike you as strange), and at the end of the tirade, the rest of us looked to the professor either for a scathing rebuttal or a gentle redirect. But the professor couldn’t muster either.
In that moment, I realized that my years of talking with the homeless and the working poor, folks whose thought lives the world neglects as much as their ability to get food for themselves, at my church’s meals ministry was about to come in handy, and I started doing to the rant what a truly crazy rant can’t endure: I took it seriously. I parsed phrases, I explored implications, I proposed analogies. In the last twenty minutes of the class, I got the ranter nodding and agreeing with my points. I had triumphed over crazy, and after class the professor pulled me aside, thanked me, and asked whether I’d encountered similar “teachings” before. I explained to him that there wasn’t any teaching to counter; he had just been spewing nonsense, and I had deconstructed it. (If any deconstructionists are reading, I realize that nobody really deconstructs someone else’s texts, that all texts have the instability in themselves. That said, nobody else in the room was doing any deconstructing, so by grab, I deconstructed!) He nodded, realizing that I had just proved some theory that he had only read before. (At least that’s how I like to remember it.)
It was then that I realized that some academics can’t handle crazy. This professor had and presumably still has a knack for the subtle correction of old ways of thinking. He renders alien strains of theology at least palatable if not appealing to people from fairly conventional devotional backgrounds, and even if most of ESR’s students don’t end up agreeing with him, most can at least concede that the ideas he brings forth have some merit as ideas. The point is that he’s no dummy by any stretch. But a lifetime of work with rigorous and literate and level-minded thinking seems to have disarmed the part of his faculties that spring forth when crazy comes into the room. I had been around crazy folks with some frequency, whereas he had not. I had not lost the ability to carve through multiple levels of blatantly bad thinking, to play Socrates with more material than normal dialectic progression can handle. I could dance on volatile and uninhabitable (for most folks) intellectual terrain, clearing away chunks of it without letting the rest fall on my head. I could isolate the bits of rationality that even crazy has to concede. He couldn’t any more. In my years of graduate school between then and now, I’ve heard more stories of academics who can’t handle crazy, critiquing with some severity students whose speech belies subtle prejudices and hints of ideology but letting go students who rant in discernibly crazy, ideological manners. Perhaps they fear Horowitz and his ilk, but my suspicion is that they’ve just lost their ability to handle crazy.
As an excursus, please do not think that I’m talking about mental illness. Mental illness can be diagnosed and treated, and it more often than not has to do with the complex psychosomatic stew that is the human mind/brain/soul. What I’m talking about, I suspect, has nothing to do with brain chemistry–it’s more of an accretion of unexamined ideology, left to grow monstrous by a world too busy to teach somebody the difference between thinking and crazy. The two do not mutually exclude, but they’re also not the same thing by any stretch.
Anyway, I’m starting to think that I might be losing my crazy-coping faculties myself. I’ve run into some people and overheard some people (see this post) that should have kicked in my deconstruction mechanisms, and they just haven’t. I found myself freezing for fear that I might have to comment. I fear that not too far into the future, I might myself have to rely on some wise guy 22-year-old grad student when crazy comes to town. I suppose that’s just the circle of life.