Sunday, November 6, 2011

Malaise of the hobbledehoys

You will not have forgotten, I know, the common sense of Henry James, declining lunch at All Souls to rusticate with the hobbledehoys. Who would not trade, among other things, the ad hoc sartorial mayhem of whatever's hanging on the knob, for the mortarboard and gown of flatulent authority? It is, then, with that regret which you may have found flickering before in these entries, that with an innovation in our time a kind of rescission of virtue seems to keep close company, that I pass along anecdotal evidence of more of that sad association from a friend who is acquainted with our local university.

Bearing in mind, that he was confiding to a near contemporary, in myself, who would remember a time when our demeanor and deportment would flout the annealing strain of the academic forge as best we could, in the consoling flourishes of resistance taught us by the more urbane of our peers - those genius offspring of labour organisers and jazz musicians, who lent such panache to the well-rounded class, or at least humanist cover for the well rounded man; as you will, then, be bearing this in mind, I suppose we must all reckon with the price of the extinction of jazz music and labour organisation, as we endeavour to reconstitute a baseline for appraising the present in terms of its more timeless elements.

It wasn't after all, so long ago, that a youth set out for these rigors with a kit of some sense of departure from this world, and into a kind of fairyland of colloquy with the greats under a gracious if not indulgently lenient supervision. Not that his reunions on holidays mightn't have shocked the conscience of his elders, with whatever radicalism du jour might have been served in his preceptor's study, to the everlasting mortification of his benefactors, there was a tolerant if not active expectation of something life-enhancing's coming forth from this finishing entitlement.

It is precisely this residual illusion which animates my friend's report to me, that undergraduates at the local university have taken to emulating the most egregiously very worst careerism and social climbing of their anxiously overspending parents, in the style they have adopted of addressing each other, much less their mentors. He does not refer, although well he might, to that penchant for self-portraiture which grips, so prematurely, the imagination of all our young these days, and furnishes the curriculum vitae of an entire generation with the fixtures of the same compartment. Even we, there is no harm in confessing, passed the occasional glance into the convex mirror on the way down to dinner - whose table also served, come to think of it, as our messaging device.

What they have done, is to have improv-ised a style of varsity letter for each other, by feeding quite directly off each other's vestigial spare time, that precious interval when a math major might once have picked up a copy of Beaudelaire from his roommate's bed-side. Far from distinguishing them-selves on the field or in examinations, they have set about wheeling and dealing in activities, which trade openly in as many executive stylings as their market demands. My friend tells me, they've been advised to exhibit Leadership Positions, to a culture now evidently obsessed with sinecures, which everything teaches them to respect as cynical transactions.

Now, no e-mail can issue between them without a signature block, impacted with bourgeois zealotry for gilt by association and conspicuousness of title. You bite my neck, I'll bite yours seems to have replaced that whole-some, quickening towel snap of yore, minus the blush of acknowledged honour. How pallidly these registries compare to fertile hours of play and reflection -

the air of liberty to care for the things of the mind assured and secured by machinery which is in itself a satisfaction to sense.

              D'you remember, Auguste,
              when youths could have
              actual friends?

              I was afraid you'd see
              this, Hercule.

Henry James
English Hours
op. cit.


  1. Thank you, Lucien; but now I feel I must avoid comment on Virginia for a decent interval - always assuming the place affords us one - and shift the page to some place good for coffee. Here's to your mug for the day!