Stanley Fish

Today my time is split between the usual duties of administration (more on what they are later) and the very familiar task of preparing for the first class of a semester. One of the things you hear over and over when you are thinking of doing administration is that you will have to resign yourself to giving up your scholarship and any serious teaching. Like most new administrators, I resist this lesson and believe that while it may be true of everyone else in the world, it is not true of me. And so, I am spending at least some time thinking about what I shall do in the first meeting of my class on political theory (subtitled “Liberalism”) and preparing a syllabus, complete with a schedule of readings, a list of rules (“Class attendance is expected without exception”), and a description of assignments. What I like about preparing a syllabus (however sketchy) is the relationship between the time it takes (which can vary greatly) and the amount of order it brings into the world. I believe that no matter how detailed the prospectus, the effort is worth it because when it is done, you feel (however foolishly) that the next 14 or 15 weeks of your life are already in control. Control is, perhaps, the deepest impulse of my character and it has led me to value almost above all other acts the act of making one’s bed in the morning. For me, the difference between a room with an unmade bed and a room with a made bed is total and the amount of time it takes to bring the difference about is negligible.

This is the benign side of being alert to issues of order and disorder. The not-so-benign side is that you become so sensitive to those moments when something is not quite right that you can be entirely thrown off stride by what is finally a small and minor detail. Today I am bothered to distraction by two small brown spots on the lower right sleeve of my jacket, while last night I didn’t blink an eye, shed a tear, or generate a worry when the renter in a house we own (and might, in time, retire to) told me that he and his family were leaving some six months before the lease is up. I just assumed that this quite large problem would, in some fashion, get taken care of, but even as I write this I am casting an askance eye at those two small spots and wondering which of the many cleaning solvents I favor will remove them.

In the same vein, I count as my greatest accomplishment of the last three days the purchase of a replacement head for the roller-mop necessary to maintain a floor we recently had refinished because, in some spots, it was worn. (My God!) Thinking about all of the similar repositories of my tiny and self-inflating anxieties, I am moved to coin a new proverb: “He who lives by the detail, dies by the detail.”

What this is all about I know–although the knowledge doesn’t do me any good–is the projection into the world of a fear of chaos. The fear is that if everything isn’t in its place, I don’t have a place and perhaps do not exist. I am becoming a textbook example of someone who radically depends for his sense of identity on arrangements in the external world. The irony (or is it inevitability?) is that I have devoted my entire professional life to authors who preach exactly the reverse, who say over and over again that what is important is not whether the world is in good order, but whether you are; for, they say, if you are right with yourself and with the values that animate you, no disharmony in the world’s song can disturb or drown out the inner song you will continue to sing. It is the lesson Milton’s Michael reads to Adam and Eve as they are about to leave the Garden, fearful that in some new and strange place they will be decentered and disoriented. No, says Michael; simply arm yourself with “faith, virtue, patience, temperance, and love” and you will “not be loth to leave this Paradise, but shall possess a Paradise within thee, happier far.” In short, no spots on your soul, no spots on your jacket, no toads in your garden. Sounds good, sounds hard.