Phil Ford

We’ve been talking lately about what it takes to make it in academia — what kind of attitude you should carry with you as your go through the baffling rounds of job applications and interview. Somewhere I said that pessimism and bitterness—a kind of bitterness peculiar to academics, I should have added—will kill you. Maybe literally: in summer 1998, my Dad died at age 61 of a heart attack, the consequence of a lifetime of drinking too much, smoking too much, and being pissed off too much. He was pissed off basically all the time, believing himself a failure, or that everyone else had failed him. He felt that life had passed him by, that his youthful promise had been dissipated by a lifetime of teaching at a poky backwater university in Northern Ontario, and that the final meaning of his life was the sad (but dramatically satisfying) spectacle of a brilliant philosophical mind sunk in drunken obscurity and saddled with a family he never wanted and couldn’t control.

His image of himself veered between self-loathing and a certain romantic grandiosity. When I read Martin Amis’s memoir Experience I recognized the literary sources of my Dad’s self-pitying romanticism: it was the Angry Young Man persona that Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin exemplified for intellectual young men of my Dad’s generation, and especially those, like my Dad, who identified with the English rather than American intellectual world. It was a literary-intellectual cousin to the hipster or beat persona, different in the details but similar in outline: drink rather than weed, Wittgenstein rather than Sartre, Dixieland rather than bebop, and tending to reactionary politics, but still exalting the Thinker as the critical outsider whose mind and morality is on a plane higher than that of the dull squares around him. The Angry Young Man pose was self-consciously, theatrically misogynistic, and it enacted the drama of the misunderstood hipster as a spectacle of domestic misery, with the wife and squalling brood of kiddies standing in for the oppression and witless incomprehension of the square world at large. Of the Thinker’s once-rich inner life there remains only a slow burning rage, doused liberally in liquor and eased, at times, by books. Thus, at any rate, is the literary self-portrait of a middle-aged academic in the sticks.

My father was, as they say (and as one of his old friends from graduate school said at his funeral), a “complicated man,” which is another way of saying that he could be mean and miserable, given to colossal rages, three-day-long benders of anger, followed by sloppy-sentimental hangovers of contrition. As a child, I didn’t understand him at all, but I understand him a little better now, I think. I know better about the corrosive effects of intellectual persona taken too much to heart — what happens when an aesthetic conception of self bursts its bounds and overwhelms a human life. This is something the children of hippies and beatniks know about. I suppose it says something embarrassingly obvious about me that I have spend a most of my academic life thinking about that slippage between life as represented and life as lived, though my own life has been full of hipsters whose mysterious inner/outer life demanded explanation. (I got the idea for writing my dissertation of hipness when I was working in a museum running a self-consciously “cutting edge” music series.) The modern aestheticized life is one of the great riddles of the age.

Being in the academic biz has helped me understand my father in another way. When I graduated in 2003 I went out to lunch one last time with Joel Weinsheimer, who was one of my mentors at the University of Minnesota, and he had one parting thought for me. Many professors in later life feel themselves to be overlooked and unappreciated, he told me; no matter how high they have risen in the academic profession, no matter how many books they have written, or how many honors they have been granted, they resent their colleagues for failing to understand them. They resent the successes of others, feeling they are rightly theirs, and they are full of envy and contempt for the work of younger scholars coming up in the profession. Everybody knows professors like this, but each of these people was once someone just like you, a basically normal nice person motivated in his work by a love of knowledge. So what happened? At some point, Joel said, they reached a point where they had experienced some disappointment or setback, and there the found, dangling before them, the fruit of bitter self-consolation: no-one understands you, so screw ’em. And it’s a low-hanging fruit: it’s right there, just waiting to be picked, and you can reach out and take it without any trouble, and though it’s bitter it tastes like wisdom. But its bitter knowledge is false, and the fruit is poisoned. It’s a long slow poison, and it kills.

Which is why, in those times when you’re at the mercy of powers you can’t control or understand — like when you’re on the job market — you have to stay positive. Don’t pick the bitter fruit; don’t give in to pride and anger; don’t go over to the Dark Side. This is something I’ve had to wrestle with myself many times. Finishing my Ph.D. was, for me, not just an intellectual trial but a spiritual one too. At one low point, when I had decided to drop out of my Ph.D. program, I was talking to my old friend DD Jackson and trying to explain why I was dropping out. I went off on a rant about my stupid students, uncaring professors, an idiotic academic profession, etc., and he said, “Phil, you are one dark motherfucker.” I took it as a compliment and laughed. It’s cool to be a dark motherfucker! Not like all those candy-ass losers out there still beavering away on their useless dissertations and sucking up for jobs from their sclerotic fachidiot professors. It flattered my own developing sense of romantic grandeur. But if nothing else, my Dad’s early death brought me up short. I found that what feels like cynical wisdom is a deep, destructive kind of foolishness. It’s a trap, easy to get into and hard to get out of.

My Dad had no business having children; he was extraordinarily unsuited for it. But for all this I loved him, and it took me a while to recover from his death, even though it was hardly unexpected. Dad was my first and best teacher. For one thing, he taught me to write, being himself a sensitive writer and a ruthless critic of prose. Maybe too ruthless: he published hardly anything in his 30-year academic career, which was one of the causes of his disappointment. Moreover, he offered me a model of intellectual as opposed to academic life. Though he published nothing and had a tortured relationship to the business of academia, he had a pure love for philosophy itself. He would sit up and read philosophy from the time everyone else went to bed until an hour or two before everyone got up and then sleep through the morning. I remember him spending several days making and throwing loaded dice in order to study the way they warped patterns of probability. He was an enthusiast; one the things he didn’t like about academia was how it professionalizes curiosity, how the ideas he enjoyed for their own sake become instrumentalized — we end up only wanting to consider ideas we feel we can turn into some kind of methodology, something we can use to bestow some spurious appearance of novelty on our writings. He was only ever really happy when he was reading, taking pictures, or working in his darkroom. And while his negative example has taught me to take pleasure in as many things as I can, his oddly pure notion of the thinking life has at least given me something positive to strive for.

While we’re thinking about the legacies our parents leave us, you should read Lester Hunt’s beautiful and moving posts about his father’s passing.

(The second part of this post is here. The third is here.)

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Dad

  1. Winifred says:

    This post dropped on a day of deep job-hunt disappointment for me. Thanks.
    I was wondering, why did you start down an academic career after seeing your father’s life? How did you decide to keep on track?

  2. Eric says:

    Phil —
    Why U of MN for the Ph.D? Was it a certain faculty member, the School’s reputation, or the 8 months of winter we enjoy from September to April?

  3. ADA says:

    Phil – beautifully written, as always. And Joel Weinsheimer’s wisdom is truly deep — indeed, a slow poison that kills not only the individual but, quite likely, the potential group dynamic to which the individual belongs… and that can spread outward and be very, very difficult to mitigate.
    Come say hey when you’re back in town, willya? I do miss you.

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Winifred — I’ve been thinking about your question and don’t really know if I have an answer, except to say that I did reach a point where I was able to say, that’s him, and I’m me. Family isn’t destiny; I tend to think that nothing is destiny, except what we make ourselves. I know, I know, very individualistic and idealistic, but at a certain point I knew I loved doing what I do and was at least reasonably good at it, and I decided to play it out and see where it went (that is, work in academia). I figured, if I don’t get a job in academia, OK, that wouldn’t be ideal, but I’d get a job doing something. In a sense, if there was a lesson of my father’s life, it’s that you shouldn’t give up. It’s probably no accident that I decided to return to graduate school to finish my Ph.D. after my father died.
    Eric — I wanted to work with James Hepokoski, and Minnesota in general had a reputation for a strongly interdisciplinary orientation in the humanities. And much of what I got out of my experience was doing work on “the other bank,” with cultural-studies and American-studies people. When Jim left for Yale I ended up doing a co-advised dissertation with Michael Cherlin and David Grayson — two very great scholars. Minnesota isn’t the most high-profile department, but I got a great education there.
    Andrew — I’m going to be in Austin March 5-8, doing a talk at the Ransom center. We should do a thing.

  5. heather says:

    Hey there Phil. Have you read Alison Bechdel’s memoir “Fun Home”? Your description of your dad reminded me of hers in MANY ways. It’s a brilliant book – highly recommended!

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