Sex and the Ivory Tower
by KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO
Seeing the men in their dirty little tractors spray-paint the lawn green is how you know the tourists are coming. In college, we called any non-student with a camera a “tourist” though I know, in a vague statistical sense, that there must have been a lot of false-positives. I was born near the Galapagos Islands and went to high school in Times Square; I grew up knowing what it feels like to have to dust off the glitter in order to come to terms with a place. Harvard felt like a perfectly organic extension of Times Square, so it took some effort to not resent people who didn’t know the pristine grasses were painted-on. I sometimes played this game where I would spot them by the lanyards around their necks. (I wasn’t very good at this game.)
There’s a biblical sensibility to this resentment, a rallying against the golden calf. It made me uncomfortable to see buses of Japanese schoolchildren swarm around the John Harvard statue in their starched white shirts and navy blazers, rubbing the bronzed booted foot that my douchier friends drunkenly peed on some nights. They loved Harvard because they did not know it, but they could not love it until they did. Luckily, there’s no shortage of people who want to show them around.
The campus novel has been around since the 1950s and has, since its conception, introduced gentiles to the rituals and totems of the ivory tower. There is a lot of tenure-track malaise in these books, but that’s a niche concern. The genre’s real major draw is the sex — and there’s a lot of it. It makes sense. If you want to get to know place vicariously, what’s more fun than entering it through the bedroom door? Illicit sex is a respite from any monotony that the lifestyle might entail; in Willa Cather’s The Professor, the protagonist has a brush with death after a gas stove leaks in his study. I cannot think of a lonelier way to die.
But the genre does more than bring outsiders behind the scenes. It allows insiders to engage in self-fictionalizing. Read solipsistically, “ethical” and “unethical” become null categories replaced by amoral aesthetic designations of beautiful and not-beautiful. If we are all characters in the campus novel, then anything we do can be contextualized, excused, forgiven. Bad behavior, so long as it is written well, is romantically metabolized into a tragic flaw.
Once, in college, a former professor unsuccessfully tried to hit on me by referencing an excerpt from a novel in which the protagonist, a humanities professor (and it is always, or almost always, humanities professors: the genre’s authors rarely place their men in the cold-shower carnal biome of hard science) close-reads what he calls “the podium effect,” a phenomenon whereby the “ugliest and most squalid, horrible, tyrannical, and despicable among [professors] arouse spurious and delusional passions… I’ve seen dazzling women barely out of their teens swooning and melting over some foul-smelling homunculus with a piece of chalk in his hand, and innocent boys degrading themselves (circumstantially) for a scrawny, furrowed bosom stooped over a desk.”
The writer — Javier Marías — is being satirical here, but that’s the thing about satire, isn’t it? Some people don’t get the joke. Still, there is some nuance to Marías. (And an attempt to pretend there are loads of classic academic novels about boys “degrading themselves” for older women in power. There aren’t.) Other novels don’t even invite misinterpretation. Here are titles of the books in Philip Roth’s David Kepesh trilogy: The Professor of Desire, The Breast. You needn’t have read these books to guess what they’re about.
The third book, The Dying Animal, is my favorite. The novel’s protagonist, a literature professor, patronizingly describes a young Cuban-American student’s thinking (he’s already described her “gorgeous breasts”) in this way: “She thinks, I’m telling him who I am. He’s interested in who I am. That is true, but I am curious about who she is because I want to fuck her. I don’t need all of this great interest in Kafka and Velazquez. Having this conversation with her, I am thinking, How much more am I going to have to go through? Three hours? Four? Will I go as far as eight hours?”
Consuela has no interiority. Kepesh fetishizes her because he infantilizes her, and we spend the next couple hundred pages learning to find redemption in his character, because he has found her beautiful, the ultimate pronouncement. He is a professional aesthete and he's chosen her. She, and I, and you, should feel anointed.
In n+1’s review of Elegy, the movie adaptation of The Dying Animal, Molly Young writes, “I do not speak for all women when I say this, but in reading the book it is possible to feel vicariously worshipped for nothing more than sheer femaleness." This is true. Roth’s descriptions of Consuela’s long, black hair made me feel an almost erotic appreciation of my own. This is the power of Roth’s writing (and maybe my vanity, a little bit). But in reading the book — in reading most of these books, The Dying Animal and Herzog and Disgrace and The Gold Bug Variations, it is impossible to not feel infantilized and essentialized and caricatured. It is impossible, in some way, to not feel completely devastated.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once described falling in love as the dipping of all things into an obscuring dye. It consumes. His words have always seemed to me a more accurate description of depression, and I thought about those words often in the days after Javier Marías was used against me. That's how I remember the episode. The devil had cited Scripture for his purpose, and I was sad as hell.
It was made un-sad by one of my mentors at Harvard, a female professor who's read her share of academic novels and doesn't hide behind language to skew reality. She told me about a lot of hard things in the days following Marías' betrayal, about gender and power and bureaucracy and ethics and responsibility and foolishness and sexism and ego. She also told me some things about narration. She told me this: do not let men in power narrate you to you.
There were moving trucks outside the window when I started writing this essay. I’m studying literature at Yale now, reading my way towards a PhD. Student-led tour groups walk across campus, pausing before important-looking buildings so people can take pictures. My ID swipes me into majestic buildings that tourists cannot access, but on sunny days like this, I like to do my work outside, on the wide, grassy lawn. It is open to the public. It is almost winter now, and the green has faded.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New Haven. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here.
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