Intellectual cowardice

Scholarship can be a fearsome activity, as Chris Walsh discovered when he set out to investigate the figure of the coward

October 16, 2014

Source: Getty

What a bitter note to find in my obituary - couldn’t finish his book on cowardice! The thought had a way of concentrating the mind and fortifying the will

“Are you afraid to finish your book?” My colleague was in the habit of needling his fellow scholars with this question. It struck particularly deep with me, because my book was about being afraid – or rather, it was about being excessively afraid and therefore failing to do what you should do. It was about cowardice.

And, yes, I was afraid to finish it. Ever since I’d begun work on the topic 20 years ago, I’d always been afraid to finish. I did manage to complete a dissertation that was, as dissertations are, narrowly focused and rigidly structured – “intellectually diapered”, as a cheeky novelist friend said: a series of 30-page readings of “craven images” in American fiction. After I submitted it, I ran away as far and as fast as I could.

But after a five-year escape I found that cowardice would not let me alone. The idea was in the news repeatedly in the decade after 9/11, and I returned to the work intent on looking beyond the American context, on writing something more interdisciplinary than my dissertation, less diapered and more, I don’t know, readable. Miraculously, a proposal got me an advance contract with a January 2009 deadline – which I missed by four years – because I was afraid of finishing.

Some of my fears were typical: that the outside reviewers would hate the manuscript, that my method was flawed, that some theorist somewhere would show that the assumptions underlying my project were utterly specious, that the whole enterprise was an exercise in futility and vanity – as if there aren’t enough books in the world!

I also feared that the topic was deservedly obscure. Even Dante’s Virgil, the guide to the tour of sin that is the Inferno, does not want to discuss the numberless cowards just inside the gate of Hell, the abject wretches who lived with neither disgrace nor praise, including those “cowardly angels” who refused to side with either God or Satan. Sometimes called neutrals or opportunists, they were guilty of the sin of cowardice in its most basic form. Fearing to commit or to act, they remained spectators to life, and now in death they have nowhere to go. Paradise won’t have such shades tainting its beauty, and the Inferno is barred lest the condemned have someone to glory over. So there they are, not across the Acheron in Hell proper, but in the anteroom, Hell’s lobby. “Let us not speak of them,” Virgil tells Dante.

This command has echoed down through the centuries. That no scholarly book has been devoted to cowardice in and for itself leaves a gap that calls out to be filled, you could say, and in my more hopeful moments, that is certainly what I thought. But the gap also called to mind the moment in Kingsley Amis’ academic satire Lucky Jim, when the protagonist reads over with horror the first words of his article on the economic impact of developments in Western European shipbuilding techniques between 1450 and 1485: “In considering his strangely neglected topic…” Academics are in the business, it sometimes seems, of exploring justly neglected topics. Was mine one of them? There were times, many times, when I wondered why, if cowardice was so interesting, it had been so ignored.

I also feared that there was something redundant or self-defeating, even self-parodying, in writing about cowardice. The very act of writing can seem evasive – an escape from “real life”. “Trope”, a word for the writer’s rhetorical turn of phrase, comes from the same word (tropē) that the Greeks used for “turning to flight”. Timidity may be especially characteristic of the scholar. As Peter Elbow notes in his essay “Being a writer vs. being an academic: a conflict in goals”, the writer comes to the reader exclaiming, “Listen to me, I have something to tell you!”, while the academic asks meekly, “Is this okay?”. The bespectacled professor citing great thinkers, hedging with “perhapses” and “I would suggests”, and lining the bottom of the page with footnotes to pad against a hard fall: he makes a fine figure of a coward.

My fears only got worse when I told people what I was working on and they asked if I had served in the military. This happened frequently – a reminder that the realm of war is cowardice’s archetypal home. But I also felt an accusation behind the question. Having served would give me a licence to proceed, but I had not so served, nor ever seriously considered it. I felt like Dante, as Virgil tries to convince him to embark on his spiritual journey. He protests that he is not up to such a pilgrimage. “I am not Aeneas, am not Paul,” Dante says. “Nor I nor others think myself so worthy.” I am no Aeneas or Paul either, no Virgil or Dante. Who was I to presume?

Anxiety about being a fraud does seem to be an occupational hazard in academia. Ruth Barcan has written in these pages about the reasons for its prevalence – the increasing demands and complexities of the job, the stratification of the university, the insecurities of teachers and of the institutions they work for, and indeed the insecurity of higher education itself. Surely Barcan is right that a “fractured, competitive system” makes people feel overwhelmed and undermined. It often seems as if neither we academics ourselves nor others think us worthy. How can anyone finish anything in such conditions?

Man hiding beneath umbrella next to 'Hell' sign

An understanding of cowardice became not only the book’s goal but also its motive force. Cowards have something to teach us. Let us speak of them!

Yet I came to think that the final word about feeling fraudulent rests with the person who consents to that feeling. Was I victim of “impostor syndrome” or was I responsible for my fate? If I refused to take responsibility, if I gave in to my fear of finishing, then wouldn’t I make a fine candidate to join Dante’s neutrals? It was only when I learned to confront – and exploit – the deep fear that was at the heart of the project, the fear of being cowardly, that I was able to finish.

I was haunted, for example, by Samuel Johnson’s description of the tendency of would-be writers to invent reasons not to pursue some project. This subject doesn’t suit your cast of mind, we tell ourselves; you’re too old for this undertaking, or too inexperienced. Do not bother. Johnson called this “intellectual cowardice” – and I did not want to be guilty of it.

Also bracing was the description of Dante’s cowardly hesitations before he enters the Inferno, which fits my writing process painfully well. I’m always telling my students to revise because they don’t do it enough; I do it to pathological excess. Virgil says Dante is like “a man who unwills what he wills/changing his plan for every little thought,/till he withdraws from any kind of start”. My plan for the book did indeed change, more times than I can say, and even when I finally committed to a plan, cowardice kept whispering. There must be good reasons why Virgil told Dante not to speak of the cowards, it said, good reasons why, as a Spanish proverb asserts, “De los cobardes no se ha escrito nada.” (“Of cowards, nothing is written.”) “This book will never get published, and if it does it will get bad reviews, or none at all. You never even served in the military!” Such is a small sampling of the voices in my head.

But along with these whispers I heard Virgil’s rebuke of Dante as he wavered again: “Your soul has been assailed by cowardice,/which often weighs so heavily on a man–/distracting him from honorable trials–/as phantoms frighten beasts when shadows fall.”

This scolding steeled Dante to go on. It steeled me to go on, too. Yes, the bespectacled professor carefully substantiating and qualifying claims, acknowledging others’ opinions: he (or she) may seem cowardly to those who buy into the tired idea that the intellectual life is an evasion of real life. But to give in to the fear of appearing cowardly in this way would itself be cowardly, would be like taking off your glasses so the bully won’t hit you, and then being damned to his coarse vision of the world.

I am definitely not saying that this project took an act of courage. What I am saying is that once the idea of writing this book got in my head, once I was convinced that it was an “honorable trial”, I realised that not writing it would be cowardly. What a bitter note to find in my obituary – couldn’t finish his book on cowardice! The thought had a way of concentrating the mind and fortifying the will. When the thrill of discovery faded, when my sense of professional duty faltered, when even my own self-interest (publish or perish!) flagged, the shame of cowardice drove me on.

It can be very dangerous, this shame. Fear of it has driven men (it is usually men) to terrible acts of recklessness. On scales large and small, from battlefields to street corners, the history of violence would be blessedly shorter were it not for humanity’s fear of cowardice. Properly understood, though, the fear of being perceived (even, and maybe especially, by yourself) as a coward can function in a humbly helpful way that the desire to be courageous does not. Students of war have often observed that few soldiers aspire to be heroes, but no one wants to be thought a coward. In allowing fear and self-concern to win out over the call of duty, the coward presents what may be the most dramatic case of moral failure – the perfect anti-role model.

At a certain point, then, proper understanding of cowardice became not only the goal of the book but also its motive force. Cowardice and cowards have something to teach us, I kept telling myself. Let us speak of them!

Such an exclamation suggests the confident resolve of a veritable soldier-scholar, intent on completing his mission no matter the cost. There were days I felt that way. But there were still days when I wanted to desert. Like Dante, if I was going to be brought to advance, I needed one more reminder of the importance of overcoming cowardice. Despite being guaranteed safe passage and being convinced that his journey is the way to salvation, Dante remains daunted by the prospect of going through Hell. When he sees the gate and the inscription on it that famously ends, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”, he hesitates yet again. The words’ meaning is hard for him, he tells Virgil – hard to understand, and hard to take. He feels threatened. But it turns out that it’s the souls who are damned for eternity who need to abandon hope. Dante’s situation is different. He’s engaged in an honourable trial, a pilgrimage down through the circles of Hell, then upward through Purgatory and beyond. Stop hesitating, Virgil tells him; “here you must put all cowardice to death”. Only then can he begin the journey that takes him, eventually, to Paradise.

Finishing my book, my honourable trial, doesn’t quite feel like paradise, but it beats staying in the Inferno’s lobby. Contemplating cowardice pushed me to ponder seriously what I should do, and what it was that I was so afraid of.

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Reader's comments (2)

Last night I listened to Charlie Rose interview a scholar who had just published a book on the Civil War. They smugly discussed Lincoln and Reconstruction as History. Last year at the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at The University of Texas at Austin, President Jimmy Carter told the audience online and at the LBJ School for Public Affairs that there is now more slavery in the US than we had before the Civil War, mostly women and children trapped in the sex trade. Could intellectuals on our garden campuses at least all agree to fight slavery, to discuss reality rather than "safe" specialties. Why aren't we having another Civil War to free these people? Are women and children of all races somehow less important than Black Slaves? I don't understand how academics can act as if we are living in a modern Democracy when we still have not solved the problem of slavery? Maybe I missed something somewhere? Why do we tolerate evil so easily? Surely we can all agree to fight this ancient cruelty? Why aren't we?
Departmentalization. In one word, that's what grows cowards and cowardice. Departmentalization also reduces literacy, given the fact that the cowards, under license to narrow themselves as depersonalized as possible, sink all into the form of literacy singularly shorn of perspectives, void of larger context This in turn bubbles forth more ignorance. It defaults into the wars people of the Earth now have, where they could have better communication with and enjoyment of each other. But all the worse, all the worst, just keeps spewing on, thanks to the cowards who decided, in their need for mutual isolation systems, all to ostrich themselves into their departments.

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