GEIGER AT ANTIOCH
By Clifford Geertz
I find it odd and more than slightly uncomfortable that I should have been elected to attempt to make George Geiger, the greatest teacher I have ever known, and in many ways the most elusive personality, somehow alive and present to you in a few minutes this winter afternoon. I knew him at all well only briefly, as a student at Antioch between 1946 and 1950. I saw him but rarely, and then but for an occasional half-hour or so, after that, and never outside of Yellow Springs, rarely even off campus. He wasn't, at least with me, much of a correspondent, nor I with him. I have only a number of his brief, unmistakable, scribbled notes, signed "grg" (acerbic, humorous messages in a bottle about some intellectual outrage or another). We never, so far as I can remember, were together on a social occasion, rarely conversed outside of classes, seminars, and special tutorials, hardly were pals or buddies, as perhaps rather too many Antioch professors sought in those days to be.
We were, in short, mere passing acquaintances for a few short years in an unusual sort of place a very long time ago, when I had not even seriously begun to think about what to do with my life, and he was absorbed in the Antioch Review, of which he was a founder, in the philosophy profession, and in the community theater, worlds with which I had no connection and in which, then at least, I had not much interest. Yet he had a greater impact on the direction of my life and the shape of my judgments than any other single individual--as he did, so I gather from not a few of my contemporaries, on those of a number of others who bumped into his mind and temper at a similar point in their trajectory toward what we nervously called "real life."
This enormous influence cannot have been due, I am sure, to Freudian causes. No one could make a father-figure out of Mr. Geiger, as I still must call him, never having been able to address him as "George," no matter how often, and unconvincingly, he asked me to do so after I left Antioch. It had, surely, to do with the fact that he presented an example, such as I at least had never seen before and rarely have after, of what it means to be a concerned and passionate scholar, learned, funny, inquisitive, a bit disenchanted, and stunningly clear--a person caring at once for ideas, their beauty, and their moral consequences. To hear him lecture, to watch him maneuver a cacophonous and opinionated seminar, or when one's fear of his irony relaxed enough to permit one to chance it, to debate a position, an issue, or a text with him was to be convinced forever that thinking was a high and precious art--that it mattered, that the very prospects of the world turned on it. (One doesn't, unfortunately, get the same effect from his books, which seem to me more dutiful than original, without his edge, his humor, his daring, or his rhetorical agility, too bound to available models.) He didn't actually produce many professional philosophers, or even would-be professional philosophers, nor did he intend to. (He more or less touted me, one of the would-bes, out of the field, which he said had fallen into the hands of Thomists, technicians, and--remember Hutchins, Adler, and Richard McKeon?--the University of Chicago.) But he led a large number of people into the sort of life his vision of philosophy not merely suggested and made attractive, but on pain of unseriousness, implacably demanded.
As I am sure most of you are aware, that vision was John Dewey's, from whose path and example he never in the slightest departed, though he did, thank God, depart from Dewey's prolix and ponderous dead-earnest manner. (Our sharpest and most abiding difference, and to my mind the most puzzling, given his feeling for words, was my intense distaste, too often expressed, for Dewey's muttering style.) He was, apparently, Dewey's last graduate student at Columbia. Dewey wrote an introduction to his published thesis, The Philosophy of Henry George (after whom Geiger had been named--i.e., "George"--by his well-off, radical father, founder of the Henry George School of Social Science in Manhattan and a foot-soldier in Henry George's famous ill-starred campaigns for mayor of New York). Dewey's work was the subject of his most considerable book, John Dewey in Perspective. And it was Dewey who, in 1937, suggested him for the post at the college (eventually named, at Geiger's insistence, the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy) that he occupied for fifty years.
The strange thing, or at least it seemed strange to me at the time, about Geiger's devotion to Dewey, to his ideas and his principles, and indeed to his person, is that, at least while I was at Antioch, he could never be prevailed upon to teach him, or even to give a general course on pragmatism--apparently on the assumption, unfortunately not so much honored these days, that indoctrination, attracting adherents to a program, however uniquely superior it might be, was one thing, and teaching, the faithful presentation and close-in examination of positions and arguments, however faulty they all might be, was another. The main course he gave, famous among students as a star turn and a trial by fire, was called History of Ideas, I and II. It consisted, quite simply, of about fifty seamless, conversational lectures (he had notes, but seemed never to consult them) on, one after the other, all the major Western philosophers, from the Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, and Lucretius, through Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Hegel, each a masterpiece of concision and explication, in which Geiger's own views were simply not visible--a feat of ventriloquism I have not otherwise seen the likes of, and which, try as I might, I have never myself been able to duplicate. The experience of taking History of Ideas, a year-long course, perhaps the most demanding in the college (the reading, all in primary sources, was daunting, the exams unforgiving, and half the class normally gave up after the first, obligatory semester), was rather like that, I'm told, of medical students who develop in turn the symptoms of each of the diseases they learn about--brain cancer, heart failure, whatever--as they come to study them. One found oneself an utterly convinced Cartesian this week, an equally convinced Lockean next; a Kantian, worrying about the tree in here and the tree out there on Monday, a Hegelian, contemplating the cunning motions of the objective spirit as it moved toward the absolute, the following Friday. At the end, all the great philosophers--omitting again the contemporaries, Russell, Carnap, Whitehead, Santayana, who were too close to be seen clearly, and possibly too rivalrous, or in Russell's case disrespectful, to Dewey--were lined up like epochs in a Rankean history, equally immediate to God. And to us.
All this may seem, at this distance and in this time, when everything is multi-, post-, neo-, and trans-, rather tame, a bit old-fashioned even--the standard up-from-the-Greeks, I-talk-you-listen survey of the standard canon. (You could ask questions at the end of the hour, but only a few of us, always the same few, dared to attempt it.) To understand how it was, in fact, very much non-standard, why it seemed, not just to me, but to so many people who encountered and absorbed it, who genuinely "got it," so disarranging of our convictions and prejudices, it is necessary to grasp at least something of the distinctive, not to say peculiar environment within which, and against which, Geiger, year in and year out (though I, myself, can again only speak for the late forties), produced this transfixing performance.
Antioch, at that time, was, at first glance, the very model of that most deeply American, and to my mind most thoroughly admirable, of educational institutions--the small, small town, vaguely Christian, even more vaguely populist, Liberal Arts College. With less than a thousand students, only about half of them on campus at a time (the other half were off working somewhere in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and the like, under the work-study program the college is famous for), perhaps seventy-five or eighty live-in, on-call faculty members, and, wedged in between the woods and the railroad tracks in Yellow Springs, Ohio, population two or three thousand, it looked, all broad lawns and brick towers, as though it had been set up on an MGM back lot for Judy and Mickey, or perhaps Harold Lloyd, to play out the passage from home--fumbling at sex, attempting alcohol, driving about in open cars, conning fuddled professors, trying on outrageous selves. There was, of course, some of that; but the place was a good deal more serious, not to say grave, than either its looks or its location suggested. Utopian, experimental, nonconformist, painfully earnest, desperately intense, and filled with political radicals and aesthetic free spirits (or were they aesthetic radicals and political free spirits?), it was counter-cultural before its time. When the GIs, of whom I, just emerged from the Pacific War, was one, arrived, determined not to take anything from anybody under any circumstances ever again, this cast of mind, a sort of political innocence compounded with moral impatience and a quarrel with the world, was powerfully reinforced. Everyone was, like Stephen Leacock's famous Mountie, leaping to horse and riding off in all directions.
To imagine, then, a New York-born, -raised, -trained, and wisedup, seen-it-all Columbia sophisticate from that 1924 class whose gloss and worldliness we are here to celebrate, someone who had been backup first baseman to Lou Gehrig (he said it taught him patience, and that patience didn't help very much), a reporter on the Times (he had a master's from the Columbia Journalism School, writing a thesis intriguingly entitled--I have not read it, but I would like to--"The Columnist and his Self-Revelation"), a paleo-liberal to end all paleoliberals, old left, reformist, unillusioned, and vigorously anti-Stalinist (he also was a fan of Sidney Hook)--to imagine such a man set down in the midst of this Quaker reincarnation of Brook Farm, Arthur Morgan's errand into the wilderness, is but to wonder at the comedy of it all. Geiger at Antioch, powerful, respected, totally committed to its ideals and aspirations, was, in fact, more than a little of an odd man out. He fit so beautifully, because he didn't fit. Without him (and, one needs note, a number of his friends and equally unillusioned, though perhaps less urbane, co-conspirators--the economist Valdemar Carlson, the political scientist Heinz Eulau, the sociologist Everett Wilson, the librarian and former journalist Paul Bixler, the Americanist Louis Filler, the novelist Nolan Miller), the place would have been the sort of diffuse and undirected community of talkative enthusiasts many of its faculty and students seemed to want it to be.
Indeed, in the years after I left, especially in the late sixties and early seventies when Antioch's more-radical-than-thou susceptibility to going off the deep end and calling it boldness very nearly did it in, Geiger struggled, more and more angrily, and more and more openly, against what he saw as the dispersion of the college's energies in foolish and unproductive directions. The spinning off of graduate campuses across the country, the institution of over-ambitious and underfunded fellowship programs for the disadvantaged, the movement into unacademic enterprises, the thinning of the curriculum with peripheral subjects--the construction, in short, of a mock "university"--seemed to him, and again to some others, similarly exasperated, to represent the draining away of resources, never that plentiful, into fashions, schemes, and personal indulgences. He never lost his humor or his determination, but he seemed, to me at least, at times rather close to something I had never seen in him before, uncertainty and bewilderment, an anxious confusion as to how to proceed.
Perhaps the climax of this ascent into muddle came, at least in my mind, in 1973, a couple of years after I had moved to that island of upmarket composure, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Geiger had set up, I'm not sure with what resources, but he had his connections, a distinguished lecture series at Antioch, which even in the best of times wasn't much given to that sort of thing, called (of course) The John Dewey Lecture, and he invited me, a year before the date, to come and give one. I had heard, from the newspapers and from various friends still around there, that the college was going through a rough passage. The students were on strike in response to its inability to honor a large number of four-year, full-expenses scholarships it had set aside for ghetto youth. The faculty hadn't been paid. And the administration, fumbling and bewildered, was under multiple attack from multiple directions. Petitions were flying. But I was still unprepared for what I encountered. That bucolic, back-lot campus was piled high with dark pyramids of half-packaged garbage. The dorm, a nineteenth century building, I think, in which I had lived as a freshman in Spartan luxury, was gutted, all its windows broken, its doors removed, its walls scored. A modern, Saarinen-designed dorm, built when I was there and in which my wife had been a founding resident the year before we married, was similarly trashed, its hallways covered with graffiti, obscene and revolutionary, its Eames furnishings stolen or defiled. The main building, where the administration resided, was closed and vacated. Not a soul was around, and I felt again that I was in the middle of a movie, but not a Garland-Rooney one, an Antonioni one--The Passenger, perhaps. The lecture, it transpired, was going to have to be given not only off campus, but out of town, at a motel, ten miles away in Springfield. Even Geiger wasn't sure if anyone would show up.
But they did show up--an enormous, ragged crowd of them packed into the motel's not all that grand Grand Ballroom, sitting on the floor, leaning on doorjambs, listening, questioning, whispering, laughing, glad, apparently, to be back in something even this faintly reminiscent of a classroom. It would, of course, be nice to think that my presence was the cause of this. (The lecture was on the fine Deweyian subject of the cultural foundations of common sense, and was published a year or so later, in the Review). But it was, in fact, the result of everyone having looked, like Nietzsche, into the abyss and having the abyss look back, the realization of how close they--we--had all come to losing something irreplaceable, or having it taken away from us under the ruse of improving it. The strike was clearly not broadly supported (it soon collapsed), the desire to get back to learning something was strong, and the appreciation of what Geiger and those around him stood for, even in this samzidat, refugee setting, was real and palpable, and to me immensely moving. What I really would like to think is that this was the evening things began to turn around, and the college started the long, hard climb back to reason and viability.
Whether that is the case or not (and who knows when anything begins or ends, or, as Foucault says, what one's doing does), that is what in fact happened. It took a decade or more, a thoroughgoing changing of the guard, an enormous effort by faculty and alumni, a lot of missteps, a lot of money-raising, mostly retail, a rethinking of purposes, a reining in of ambitions, and the putting back together of a comity that had been lost. But by 1992, when I returned again, this time to receive an alumni award on an occasion rather like this one, intramural, nostalgic, a little bit wistful, a little bit self-congratulatory, both the college and Geiger seemed quite back in form, even if, as always, it wasn't precisely the same form. He was nearly ninety then, swimming an hour every day, teaching a little, having increasing trouble reading (he had never had but one good eye), cautiously optimistic about the way things were going, and intensely interested in discovering what I thought about the return of pragmatism to intellectual attention after years of eclipse by formal analysis and the parsing of words. (When I tried to convince him that Rorty wasn't exactly Dewey, or Putnam James, I didn't get much further than I had in the old days trying to convince him that Peirce wasn't.) Now he is, after sixty-two years, at last no longer there to examplify intellect and critique foolishness, and one wonders how the place will manage without him. "If the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it then be savored?" As he would have said, wincing a bit at my recourse to Scripture: A good question.
This talk was originally given at the Princeton Club in New York sponsored by the Columbia University Alumni Association to honor two distinguished members of the class of 1924: Meyer Schapiro, the noted art historian, and George Geiger, a founding member of the Antioch Review and long time supporter of the magazine.
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