Has two and a half years as a dean at UIC turned the scourge of western civilisation into a softy? Larissa MacFarquhar talks to a 'reformed' Stanley Fish.
Stanley Fish is a loudmouth, a show-off, a mediocre tennis player and a scourge of western civilisation as we know it. He likes to humiliate people in public and is, not surprisingly, widely loathed. He is greedy, neurotic, controlling and short. He has appalling posture and because he cannot deal with tight belts, his trousers are always falling down in a way that does not suit a man of his age (he is 63). His wife has described him as a "slightly pudgy person, who sometimes looked cross-eyed and occasionally wore something that resembled a leisure suit". He is, in other words, a surpassingly delightful human being.
At present, Fish holds the position of dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His assumption of the deanship at this obscure school two and a half years ago, amazed almost everyone who knew him or knew who he was because, until that time, being a scourge of western civilisation as we know it had provided him with a very good living. He wrote essays with titles such as There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too . During the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was reviled as the grand wizard of political correctness - the man who hired Marxists and supported campus speech codes - and was held up as an example of everything that had gone terribly wrong with higher education.
Before Fish became a public menace, he was a Miltonist, who at the age of 29, while a professor at Berkeley, had published a book, Surprised by Sin , that marked him as one of the foremost Milton scholars of the past 100 years. But as the millennium waned, Fish grew restless. He had done the transformation-of-Milton-scholarship thing, he had done the scourge thing. It was time for something different.
In some ways, when Fish took over, UIC was doing just fine: it was a respectable regional university that served its local population and had several good departments. But Fish, and the provost who hired him, figured that UIC could become a school about which people would talk.
Its fortress-like administration building, 28 stories high, dominates the campus from the centre of a bleak plaza that is scoured by tornado-like winds from several directions. A supplicant approaching Fish's office on the 19th floor must set out on a painful odyssey across this plaza, slapped and sliced by the wind. Is this the reason that Fish likes the building so much?
Fish is partial to brutalism, but he has taken a few steps towards making the campus less austere, such as building a new dining facility. But it is not just the architecture of the campus that is 1960s in mood. For decades, UIC has suffered from money woes and a sense of inferiority, vis-à-vis the university's down-state campus at Urbana, and some members of the faculty have adapted to this situation by espousing a kind of hang-dog puritanism, so that low salaries feel like a leftwing sacrifice.
Fish hated the 1960s. He was teaching at Berkeley during the student revolts and says he was one of only two faculty members in his department to refuse to cancel classes for the strikes. As for hangdog lefty puritanism, Fish has written what amounts to a lyric poem on the subject:
"If one listens to academics, one might make the mistake of thinking they would like their complaints to be remedied; but in fact the complaints of academics are their treasures, and were you to remove them, you would find either that they had been instantly replenished or that you were now their object. The reason that academics want and need their complaints is that it is important to them to feel oppressed, for in the psychic economy of the academy, oppression is the sign of virtue. The essence of it all is contained in the very first aphorism I ever formulated, in 1964 as I watched my colleagues at Berkeley turn from abasing themselves before deans and boards of trustees to abasing themselves before students: Academics like to eat ****, and in a pinch, they don't care whose **** they eat ."
This being Fish's perspective on the situation, it is understandable that he is not excessively sympathetic when people complain that, with his policy of hiring stars at what are, by UIC standards, astronomical salaries - these new professors are paid between $130,000 (£91,000) and $175,000 a year; the average senior faculty member gets $90,000 - he is trying to make the university into something it is not and should not be.
Fish has, accordingly, stirred up some resentment in people who dislike his Napoleonic style.
"I am a humble peon in the field," Nancy Cirillo, a professor in the English department, intones with bitter sarcasm. "I toil in the vineyard. Perhaps it is not in the dean's idea of how to run the institution that he should communicate his plans to the workers."
Curiously, agricultural metaphors are also used by those who are in favour of renovation. "Stanley has changed our self-esteem," John Huntingdon, another professor of English, says. "In the past, we were always a little bit apologetic. We were tilling our row and doing it pretty well, I think, but we didn't have ambitions to be part of a larger conversation."
Whether people like Fish or not, they tend to find him fascinating. "He's totally without pretence and totally self-absorbed, which is an unusual combination," one professor says.
Fish came to UIC with such a disquieting reputation for radicalism and belligerence that he now gets extra credit for his customary friendliness. This has, in fact, always been the case for him. One reason for this friendliness is that he is an unusually - he might say neurotically - social person. When he is left alone, he feels suddenly small and vulnerable, and is prone to anxious vacillations between the fear that he will be forced to confront his inner demons and the fear that he does not have any. Fortunately, he is also a neurotically clean and tidy person and he has found that mastering mess through activities such as vacuuming or making the bed goes a surprisingly long way towards filling the void left by the absence of human companionship.
"My wife has explained to me that I'm anal compulsive and that that has its source in my anxiety about losing control," Fish says. "She has told me that many times, and I know it is true, but it is not the case that this knowledge has liberated me."
On Monday evenings, Fish teaches a course on Milton. He started reading Milton by accident, while a new teacher at Berkeley, and discovered that the poet was unforgivingly preachy, syntactically torturous, and boorishly single-minded. Milton suited him to a T.
His new, and possibly last, book is How Milton Works : Fish says he has written all he wants to write and intends to retire from academia in two or three years. The book describes Milton's struggle against aesthetic temptation as he tries to stay faithful to the only valid reason for writing - God. Fish stays faithful to Milton's piety, but in doing so he becomes less interested in God than in Milton's struggle. In the book's epilogue, Fish expresses the ardent, no-way-out romanticism that the philosopher Richard Rorty, to whom he is often compared, does not see, and that Fish himself, while caught up in the daily chores of extracting cash from donors and being the scourge of western civilisation, finds it expedient to put aside.
"What is fortunate about the Fall is that there is somewhere for you to go and something for you to do," he writes. "In the Areopagitica , the sad friends of Truth have the task of gathering up her scattered limbs, but, says Milton, 'We have not found them all, nor shall ever do, till her Master's second coming.' It sounds discouraging and even despairing, but in fact it is full of hope - hope that the task will never be accomplished and that therefore the efforts to accomplish it will never cease."
Doomed struggle is exhilarating. The fall from Paradise is what gives meaning to existence. After all these years of talking about God, it seems that Stanley Fish is of the Devil's party after all.
This is an extract from an article that appeared in a The New Yorker magazine. How Milton Works is published by Harvard University Press, £23.95.