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Priests and jesters

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Wednesday, Oct 17, 2007

Hopefully the title of this entry doesn’t have you expecting an exegesis of Marillion lyrics or something; instead I wanted to revisit the point I was trying to make in the previous entry about education and try to illuminate it with a concept from an essay by Leszek Kolakowski. In his essay “The Priest and the Jester,” Kolakowski posits two eternally warring approaches to philosophy, which in his view has yet to shake its theological roots and is always taking up eschatological questions.


The antagonism between a philosophy that perpetuates the absolute and a philosophy that questions accepted absolutes seems incurable, as incurable as that which exists between conservatism and radicalism in all aspect s of human life. This is the antagonism between the priest and the jester, and in almost every epoch the philosophy of the priest and the philosophy of the jester are the two most general forms of intellectual culture. The priest is the guardian of the absolute; he sustains the cult of the final and the obvious as acknowledged by and contained in tradition. The jester is he who moves in good society without belonging to it, and treats it with impertinence; he who doubts all that appears self-evident. He could not do this if he belonged to good society; he would then be at best a salon scandalmonger. The jester must stand outside good society and observe it from the sidelines in order to unveil the nonobvious behind the obvious, the nonfinal behind the final; yet he must frequent society to know what it holds sacred.


In the previous post, I was trying to argue that everyday life tends to make jesters of us all, while cultural institutions tend to try to instill us the reverence of the priest and the complacency that comes with believing moral questions have been settled—in Venezuela, in favor of the “new man.” But the “new man” himself was supposed to be a jester; his demeanor was precisely something that can’t be taught, an attitude that self-consciousness and second-handedness destroys.


When I was a college teacher, this dilemma was palpable to me, but I didn’t have this vocabulary to describe it. I could tell that some other English dept. professors clearly took inherited standards seriously and saw these traditions as self-justifying, worth preserving simply because others had saw fit to do the same. These priestly professors would teach appreciation classes and pass off subjective judgments on poetry, etc., without a blush or a moment’s hesitation—to them, that’s why you got credentialed, so that others would have to take your opinion as gospel, so you could essentially say whether various works of art rock, rot, or rule. Others, the teaching assistants especially, wanted to challenge the students to contest everything and reject all hierarchies and make it all up for themselves, as though they weren’t in the classroom to learn from someone else. These instructors wanted to dismantle all authority, particularly their own, and affirm the students’ voice. I would sort of ricochet back and forth between those poles, with an ad hoc pedagogy and a faithlessness in the whole process. Inevitably, one may have to become a priest to become entrenched in academia; one must professionalize and buy into one’s own bullshit, or in other words, have the dignity to take one’s own career seriously. And as a by-product of that, you might so piss off some students with your righteousness that they’ll develop their own jester-like qualities and fulfill their subversive potential.


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