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Never Settle

"Divorcing your university? I'm just trying to get one to propose to me," said Yonina Hoffman, the future of English Studies. Yonina Hoffman (English) and Alice Gaber (Classics) are newly-minted Ph.D.s this month, looking for jobs in a market I've left. And I hope they find them, despite the chilling effect it will have on our community reading group. But the university they will join in holy tenure-money is richer and more deeply in sickness than they can imagine. It's time for me to lay out the reasons why it was time to leave.

I've written about this in the first chapter of At Fault, which began as a lecture at Northwestern. You can always buy the book, but at this point I would rather have readers than royalties. And this version has pictures (all those pictured have signed waivers to allow their photographs to appear). So here goes.

"The Chair she sat in"

On the first fine day in April, it is my usual custom to take my students on a walking tour of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. There is a logic to this: the poem is a journey, a music-hall performance, an act of ventriloquism, and a transgression of space. Students who have suffered a long winter gazing out at frozen lakes need to come out of hibernation, to walk and wander, to participate in the comedy of return. Ideally, we would have been in London for this purpose, but any campus will do, and Northwestern’s hallowed spaces work better than most for an act of transgression. The point of the exercise, besides the actual exercise, is that The Waste Land is a violation of poetic space, and of poetic tradition. It celebrates itself as an act of wandering, of straying gleefully from the norm of its literary inheritance.

So, led by a student in the class who read the travelling sections of the poem while walking backwards, we conducted a mock tour of the Northwestern campus. I started things off by reading the opening invocation in the Chapel, just before the parson came out to see what the hell was going on. In front of a sign marked “Private Property: No Trespassing” we found roots that clutch, and next to a red rock we watched our shadows rise to meet us in the afternoon sun. At Clark Street we arranged a confrontation with Stetson as a bemused police officer drove away in a state of perfect uncertainty about the legality of our proceedings. Then, of course, we went to the beach, where Cleopatra (here she is) spoke to us from the top of a lifeguard chair: “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Glowed on the marble [...] / Huge sea-wood fed with copper / Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone, / In which sad light a carvèd dolphin swam” (77-96). In this case the chair was of distressed wood, and the dolphins had to be imagined in the far distance, but as Eliot distresses Antony and Cleopatra, so we had our moment of narrative subversion by water, the space neatly validating the force of Eliot’s parody.

"Do you remember / Nothing?"

Then it was on to the catamarans at the Northwestern Sailing Center, where Tom and Viv argued about nothing, as a gathering crowd of tourists wondered what to make of it all. Ezekiel spoke to us from a withered stump of time,

"And other withered stumps of time"

the typist met her young man carbuncular in a barbeque pit,

"The typist home at teatime"

the Rhine Maidens disported themselves in truly Wagnerian fashion,

"Weialala leia"

and Phlebas the Phoenician found an appropriate rock from which to declaim the “Death by Water” sequence:

"O you who turn the wheel and look to windward"

Above all, it was April, it was just turning Spring, as the rock beneath Phlebas says, and we were amateurs. We were in love with the text, with the newly awakening world, with the idea of giving an anti-tour of Northwestern, of speaking of fishing where it said "No Fishing" and swimming where it said "No Swimming," and of bringing this transgressive performance piece to rich and risky life on a day when we were really supposed to be in class.

"Shantih shantih shantih"

Here we are saying the final line of the poem: a round of applause, please, for the members of the class of English 368.22—from left, Becca, Jack, Andréa, Anna, Matt, Charles, Xindi, and Tiffany—who brought a poem to life.

The important thing, of course, is on the rock (it’s always on the rock in Eliot). Let’s zoom in:

"Never Settle"

“Never Settle.” This has been the driving impulse behind all my teaching, and all my work at every university I have taught. After a lifetime in academia, I have become familiar with the patterns of university life. And what I have seen, particularly in the previous eight years as an administrator, is a willingness for students, faculty, and especially deans and other college officers to settle. Let us agree that we are here in the academy to unsettle, to never settle, to always and at all times provoke the mind. But forces that tie these ambitions in increasingly Gordian and improbably constrictive knots are working powerfully against this necessary end. All of us have concrete examples of this settling, this quiescent acceptance of non-transgression. It is not a gradual settling, as in the erosion of a limestone landscape. No. This is more like a flash freeze, a quick-setting concrete that has frozen the academy in place almost literally overnight. Think of the empty spaces where the bodies were in the lava of Pompeii. They represent, caught in negative space, screams of pain, howls of anguish, Goyaesque nightmare visions of living human beings incarcerated and calcified by an uncaring and protective layer of uniformity.

Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii

We have to rage against this. For the people in the hollow tombs are not just professors. They are our students. For universities to work in the modern world, there must be, as it says on the sign, No Lifeguard On Duty.

No Lifeguard on Duty

That’s Tiffany; take a look at Andréa, preparing to do her Cockney accent:


Look how happy she is. She is reading The Waste Land from her iPhone as the sailboat goes by. The sun is shining through the School of Music. A man with a music stand is saying something to her, something that we all need to pay particular attention to:


I have done.

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"Tutto nel mondo e burla!" Check out the fugue.

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