A 'learned' journal savages defenselessly dead scholars

On Books

June 20, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

It would be more engaging -- and perhaps more entertaining -- if I could give evidence here that the visigoths of the radical academic elite have sacked and pillaged yet another major temple of civilized reasoning and scholarship.

There's no doubt they have overrun another campus, another faculty -- just this week. But thus far, at least, the American Scholar -- despite dire fears -- has not collapsed into extremist politicization of art, literature, history and culture.

That journal is the quarterly publication of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. From 1975 until almost two years ago, its editor was Joseph Epstein, whom I consider the premier essayist writing in English today, a man of sublime indifference to culture fads. Under Epstein, the journal was a joy of clear minds, scrupulous language and moral guidance.

Epstein was dismissed by the Phi Beta Kappa Senate, the group's ruling body. No one denied that the reason was political. Epstein was insufficiently -- well, visigothic. He found neither interest in or space for the extremes of multiculturalism, ultra-radical feminism, structuralism, gay and lesbian agendas for the arts, new historicism -- the doctrines Epstein once designated "O.K.isms."

In this space on Jan. 18, 1998, I lamented: "The message of Epstein's firing is stark: If his successor strays millimeters from the narrow dictates of the radical-left culture theorists, her tenure at the American Scholar will last roughly 11 minutes."

Well, I have followed the five issues edited by Epstein's successor, Anne Fadiman. I have found not a single ritual anthem to O.K.isms. Whew!

But now comes a quite different anxiety.

It arises from the publication of the article -- and an editorial supporting it -- that leads the current, Spring 1999, issue: "My Father and the Weak-Eyed Devils," by James Trilling, a historian of Byzantine ornaments who lives in Providence, R.I., and who was the only child of Lionel (1905-1975) and Diana (1905-1996) Trilling.

Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Harold Bloom are the three greatest American critics in the 20th century. Trilling's collections of essays and studies are magisterial. His only novel, "The Middle of the Journey," written in 1947, is a superb examination of politics and morality. Diana Trilling's memoirs and essays are sound, courageous, important.

In 24 pages, the son savages both, barely mentioning their work except as incidental footnotes to his rage against his parents.

The core of the piece is the insistence -- without reservation or admission of alternatives -- that "My father's worst problem was not neurosis, it was a neurological condition, attention deficit disorder." He then unequivocally defines the problem: "Whether the symptoms are violent or merely unfocused, attention deficit disorder is a physical impairment of the moral will." He flays his mother as, at best, co-conspirator or enabler.

I, like James Trilling, am neither psychiatrist nor neurologist. But Paul R. McHugh, chief of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins medical school and hospital, is board certified as both, and a distinguished scholar of the humanities as well. McHugh resigned from the editorial board of the American Scholar because Fadiman published the James Trilling article without review by anyone with appropriate scientific credentials.

McHugh (whom I treasure as a friend) is a courtly gentleman. Fadiman (whom I have never met, though I was immensely fond of her father, Clifton) is a thoroughly civilized lady -- or so I say fearlessly on the basis of a single 40-minute telephone talk with her last week. Neither is rude about the other.

But about the Trilling article, McHugh is unequivocal. "I read it and realized that this is a travesty of psychiatric abuse of another person," he told me last week. "I decided right then I could no longer have my name on the masthead of this magazine. I had not been allowed to even speak about this matter in advance of publication."

McHugh also took exception to Anne Fadiman's editorial. "The problem," he said, "was compounded by the fact that the article was prefaced by an editorial by the editor ... who claimed to know something about attention deficit disorder and that acknowledged ... this is an article about a psychiatric condition afflicting an important man."

McHugh called the article "a series of misuses of psychiatry" and concluded that James Trilling "ultimately abuses his father in a way that adds to the stigma of diagnosis in psychiatry."

Fadiman stands behind her judgment and declares nothing she has commissioned is tainted by political consideration. "I hate cultural politics," she told me. "I want it to be a magazine that has the best writing I can find ... [even] sometimes trivial, but provocative. ... I think the Scholar is a journal for people who think. ... I find the application of political theory to be perfectly ridiculous."

Splendid! I wish her health, happiness and long tenure. But I worry.

I find James Trilling's article an amateurish screed attacking a couple of people far too dead to defend themselves. An article in the New Republic called it "filial porn." I find that too charitable.

Among the more strained and straining bits of language amid Trilling's 7,500 or so words is this: "I knew him as a wonderfully flexible and imaginative teacher who seemed compelled to use his imagination to hobble his flexibility."

If there's a formal critical term for that sort of rhetorical conceit, it is something like "cutesy-poo." There's a lot more of such preciosity. The rest is unreasoned, repetitive, trite -- a whining tantrum.

The visigoths may have been repelled -- but, in their stead, have the victimhood vandals conquered the American Scholar? Judgment must wait.

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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