Monday, August 03, 2009


Ah, the subconscious!

You may have been interested in MattC's questions about St John's College in his interview with me, and my evasive answer. Mostly I focused on my feelings and thoughts about having been through the Program there (about which I am ambivalent, but usually mostly positive), but I left out two other aspects: the lingering subconscious trauma, and the further salt-in-the-wound I rubbed in (from 1994-2001) by repeatedly applying (and being rejected) for a job there (getting as far as an in-person interview THREE times, so I could be rejected up-close and personal by teachers I actually knew and liked!). Well, my subconscious clearly didn't like being disregarded, so it retaliated with a dream last night!

It's a variation on a recurring one, the general outline of which is that I'm at the SJC campus in Annapolis. The place is always deserted, or only very sparsely populated. I'm always preparing to give a lecture there - not actually giving it, mind you, but wandering around pre-lecture, thinking of what I'm going to say. The topic of last night's lecture was going to be Sophocles' Philoctetes. It's not a favorite of mine, but I do remember the seminar on it, because we had it outside our usual classroom (since it was one of the last seminars of freshman year) in a student lounge with some food and drink, and I remember vividly (like every young man in our class) Ms. Locke (one of the tutors for the seminar). (Mr. White, the other tutor, was nice too - a big bear of a man, and always smoking a cigarette.) I did recently critique an essay on the myth, so I'm assuming that's how it worked its way into my dreamscape.

Well, anyway, that's the whole dream. I didn't meet anyone or have a conversation or confrontation, or do anything. I just walked around the quad on a sunny afternoon and thought about what I'd say about Philoctetes to some people who were attending the same school I did a quarter century ago. So, we have to consider the pertinent details:

1) Why Philoctetes? (Other than the obvious connection I pointed out.) A dude alone, festering wound, people trying to take advantage of him. Yeah, that sounds like my paranoid, self-pitying version of myself. Not a big surprise there.

2) But the basic plot made more sense to me now that I'd talked about SJC with MattC recently. See, I'm always preparing in the dream, never doing, and that's always my fear and lingering doubt about the place - that it seems like great preparation, but for what? For life? How so, when it's the least practical or connected lifestyle that you can imagine, divorced from anything but pure contemplation? What do you DO there, exactly, other than wander around with your head full of ideas and nothing to do with them? And that also explains the lack of people in each version of the dream - there's no one with whom to interact, really, though you fantasize that you'll get up in front of the class and say something so awesome, so amazing, so never-before-thought-of, that it'll make everyone (wherever they've wandered off to at the moment) swoon! But that time never comes.

Well, thank you, subconscious! Your opinions and needs have now been more fully noted. Now, if you could please direct yourself to guiding my fingers to writing a more bloody, violent zombie apocalypse, I think we'd both appreciate it!


Blogger Matt Cardin said...

A sincere thanks for sharing the fruits of your subconscious, Kim.

When you reflect on the uselessness of SJC's educational offerings, I'm instantly drawn to referencing Albert Jay Nock's 1934 essay for The Atlantic, "The Value of Useless Knowledge" (

Anyway, very interesting illuminations. Thanks!

1:27 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Thanks for the encouragement, MattC! One would have to consider (at least) three further questions:

1) Is Nock talking about "useless" knowledge, or about the process of dialectic, and the (almost slavish) devotion to it? (I was more interested, and sometimes dismayed, by the habit and cultivation of the latter.)

2) Is SJC the best instantiation of that life of dialectic? (I wonder - nay, I feel quite certain sometimes that it is not.)

3) Whether it is or not, does it prepare one to bring the Good News of dialectic to those living in the Platonic Cave? Here I am perhaps more optimistic - I like the conversations (disappointingly rare though they be) that I've had post-SJC, and I don't think I would've been equipped for them as well if I'd gone to school elsewhere. As I think I waggishly indicated in the interview with MattC - I could only write the world's greatest - ahem, ONLY - Zombie / Dante mashup, because of SJC. That's got to count for something, and I'd be quite the ingrate if I didn't acknowledge that from my mater.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Matt Cardin said...

This is a two-part comment (because it's too long and being rejected by Blogger when I try to enter it as a single lump).

Nock dwells on the value of "useless knowledge" as a means to highlight the value of culture, as in, high culture. He sets out to define culture, and then, after having offered a preliminary definition along the lines of "Culture is collective knowledge," he then clarifies:

""We all know that useful knowledge gains value by being remembered, and loses value by being forgotten; and it has most value when best remembered. Useless knowledge, on the contrary, gains value only as it is forgotten; and the point brought out is that useless knowledge alone is the concern of culture. Our definition, then, may be made more precise -- perhaps as precise as any that can be made -- if we put it that culture, considered as a process, means acquiring a vast deal of useless knowledge, and then forgetting it.

"Perhaps the prevalence of pedantry may be largely accounted for by the common error of thinking that, because useful knowledge should be remembered, any kind of knowledge that is at all worth learning should be remembered too. By overlooking the fact that useless knowledge, if properly forgotten, has value, the common assumption is that the only kind of knowledge one should try to get is the kind that must be remembered. Here one has a crow to pick with the universities for promoting this error . . . . The university's undiscriminating attitude toward learning, its failure to establish a clear line between useful and useless knowledge, its misapprehension of values and its consequent misdirection of responsibility -- all this the believer in culture is bound to regard as most unfortunate.

"For quid Athenis et Hierosolyma? The business of a scientific school is the dissemination of useful knowledge, and this is a noble enterprise and indispensable withal; society can not exist unless it goes on. The university's business is the conservation of useless knowledge; and what the university itself apparently fails to see is that this enterprise is not only noble but indispensable as well, that society can not exist unless it goes on. The attitude of the university being what it is, one scarcely sees how the exceeding great value of useless knowledge is ever going to be properly appraised; and this is a hard prospect for the student of civilization to contemplate."

Later in the essay, after much explication of the value of a "residuum of useless knowledge" for informing public opinion:

"We hear on all sides that the world is in a bad way, so bad as to give but slim assurance that anything worth doing can be done about it. Some think we are plunging into the chaos of the Dark Ages; others think we are at the end of an era, and entering into a new mediaevalism. One suspects that these views of our situation may be a little excessive, or at least that while waiting for the crash we have time to be cheerful. If it be true, however, that the world is actually perishing before our eyes, there is perhaps some sort of melancholy interest in the thought that it may be perishing largely of inattention to the value of useless knowledge."

And so on.

[Continued in next comment]

4:09 PM  
Blogger Matt Cardin said...

[Continued from previous comment]

On another note, quite a few years ago I owned and read a book titled EMBERS OF THE WORLD that featured conversations with Scott Buchanan, one of the leaders of the Great Books movement and, as you probably know, the founder of the Great Books curriculum at SJC. (You can find the entire text of the book online, btw, at

One of the essays/conversation in the book is titled "The Twentieth Century Search." It was conducted in March of 1968, 21 years after Buchanan had left St. John's and -- interestingly -- only eight days before his death. At one point in it he told his interviewer, Harris Wofford, "We used to say at St. John's that we were preparing people to be misfits, and we meant that in a very broad sense. Perhaps misfits in the universe for the time being. This is strong and some would say very cruel doctrine: ascetic and very puritan. But I think the world at present is asking for something like that."

I don't know if that clarifies anything, but I find it fascinating myself.

4:10 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Yes,MattC, which is why I was questioning Nock in this context - he seems too focused on "useless knowledge" as a kind of ... protector or substance of culture, if you will. I think SJC falls into that trap too - the kind of elitism that says (or at least implies) THIS is culture (and THAT is not), and WE are cultured (and THEY are not). I don't find that too terribly helpful. Something in my lefty, egalitarian consciousness rebels against that formulation. (Something in my Christian consciousness rebels against the arrogance of it, too.)

But what I more associate with SJC (for better and worse) is the whole notion of dialectic - the process more than the subject matter. And I've been known to defend dialectic on many occasions, and I far prefer it to its opposite, indoctrination or fundamentalism - but again, the arrogance almost always seems to creep in - "WE engage in dialectic; THEY engage in sophistry." I engage in dialectic better than I did before SJC, and for that I'm grateful. But I'm really not willing to claim more than that.

4:21 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Or, to take a similar critique, let me paraphrase my favorite Allan Bloom line from Closing of the American Mind: "What's western civilization degenerated to? A pimply-faced teenager masturbating while watching Madonna on MTV! Harumph!"

Well, ahem, teens are going to do the one activity regardless. As for Madonna - well, of course I agree in the abstract that Mozart is better than she (or anyone else on MTV). But how irrelevant do you make yourself if you yell at teens to listen to Mozart instead of Eminem? And why not talk about relative value, instead of either/or? Let's grant that Shakespeare is more valuable than Romero, and Romero is more valuable than Paffenroth. But if Paffenroth creates something with a little beauty and goodness in it
(it all being relative, after all), that leads people to consider some of the same questions that they would've if they'd read Shakespeare, then hasn't he done more good, than he would've done if he'd just railed at people to read Shakespeare (when they are, to be frank, very unlikely to do so, rail though he may).

4:34 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


I know this is responding to an old post, but I have been thinking about your dream. I too applied twice for a position at St. John's (library director) six years apart. Each interview lasted a few days, but led to nothing. After they waited an infernally long time to get back to me, they finally informed me by an unknown assistant to check their web page for other positions - like landscaping. I think the thing that turned them off was that I insisted they include wireless access in the library, not just in the coffee house. That seemed to be just too much technology. Oh well. Both Annapolis and Santa Fe are a lot hotter than Boston. As Sam Cutler asked me in the interview, "Why would you want to leave New England?" Why indeed? So I remain as a director of the library in a small private school. It's decent enough work. I'd be glad to add your novels to our collection... - jeff smith

8:26 PM  

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