During the Q & A of Alina Gharabegian’s talk  on Matthew Arnold at the last Victorian Seminar, the conversation inevitably turned to the quality of Arnold’s doubt and its relationship to the Victorian Age. I perhaps imprudently spoke of my own doubts a few months ago, mainly doubts concerning academia. In the mean time–whether by intention or accident, right before MLA–somebody posted an anonymous manifesto listing their reasons for leaving academia. It went viral, and you’ve probably read it. If you haven’t, be warned before clicking–despite my compulsive reading of the Chronicle, I still wasn’t inured enough to brush it off lightly.

It hasn’t just been academic doubts I’ve been thinking about–it’s more about doubt itself–and my doubts about doubt. I first came across those lines, “The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” out of context in Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version–I read it when it first came out, while I was in high school. Now, of course, it’s been  made into a movie with Americans in it, so you might know what I’m talking about. Anyway, when I read those lines the first time, I thought of them prescriptively, not descriptively, taking it as gnomic wisdom and not a bitter lament. The subsequent Bush years were not exactly effective at dispelling my misreading. For it to be best to lack all conviction, though–it seemed reasonable enough. After all, it was Socrates’ real method: to put into question what you think you know. I wonder whether this is why so many academics–pretty much all I can think of–describe themselves as slow writers, subjecting their thoughts and words to relentless doubt before putting pen to paper. It was why I was a particularly bad writer of high school and undergraduate essays–the whole idea of having a thesis which you had to think you knew seemed to me antithetical to true mental life.

But this isn’t a manifesto for doubt. What’s really been getting to me lately is my doubt of doubt. Maybe lacking all conviction isn’t such a good thing. It’s certainly not a recipe for happiness. It’s not exactly conducive to political change, as Yeats could tell you. It doesn’t make you a better teacher, or a better interviewee.

What I’ve been calling doubt or lacking conviction might more optimistically be called critical thinking. Here is where my doubts align more closely with Arnold’s–it’s our credo, isn’t it, to teach critical thinking, the way we justify our existence. These espousers of critical thinking, though–for me, lately they’re of both worlds between which famously wanders the “Chartreuse“‘s speaker. There’s a certain sheen to critical thinking not unlike the shiny white Truth of Arnold’s “rigorous teachers,” but there’s also a certain not-necessarily-unattractive morbidity to its professional practitioners:

For rigorous teachers seized my youth,
And purged its faith, and trimm’d its fire,
Show’d me the high, white star of Truth,
There bade me gae, and there aspire.
Even now their whispers pierce the gloom:
What dost thou in this living tomb?

Forgive me, masters of the mind!
At whose behest I long ago
So much unleant, so much resign’d–
I come not here to be your foe!
I seek these anchorites, not in ruth,
To curse and to deny your truth;

Not as their friend, or child, I speak!
But as, on some far northern strand,
Thinking of his own Gods, a Greek
In pity and mournful awe might stand
Before some fallen Runic stone–
For both were faiths, and both are gone.

I began this post intending to talk about our own age’s allergy to doubt. Is it even possible to have religious doubt any more? It’s not like Dawkins et al speak for all the atheists and agnostics of the world, but they’re the only ones, it seems, who would devote as much thought about religious belief as Arnold did. It seems telling that our most prominent skeptics–anthropogenic global warming “skeptics”–should be so passionate and intense in their disbelief of science. Sure, we’ve got our ugly feelings, but paranoia and anxiety seem to have taken the place of melancholy and doubt.

This isn’t a call to revive Victorian doubt. If it’s anything, this manifesto suggests that Victorian doubt for us is as alien, quaint, and unsettling as the Chartreuse’s monks were for Arnold–but then again, Arnold too probably felt his own age to be less friendly to doubt than we’re led to believe.

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