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Answering a critic

Alexander Pushkin wrote at the end of his poem “Exegi Monumentum”, “Receive with equanimity both praise and blame/ And do not argue with a fool.” The title is from Horace; the poem satirizes the apologia pro vita sua of an older Russian poet; and these verses come at the conclusion of the solemn Lenten cycle of verses called after Stone Island in Petersburg. But the Russian bard’s advice itself— Do not argue with a fool— comes from Hebrew scripture. Proverbs 26: 4-5 offers this advice:

אַל־תַּ֣עַן כְּ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּֽן־תִּשְׁוֶה־לּ֥וֹ גַם־אָֽתָּה׃

עֲנֵ֣ה כְ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּן־יִהְיֶ֖ה חָכָ֣ם בְּעֵינָֽיו׃

“Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly,
Else you will become like him.

Answer a fool in accord with his folly,
Else he will think himself wise.”

Well, which is it? Mishlei seems contradictory here. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. On the one hand, answering defamation drags you down to the level of your attacker. On the other hand, not responding lets him get away with it. Perhaps the Book of Proverbs means to suggest that one should put a slanderer in his place when necessary. But one should do so fastidiously.

That is my task now. For yesterday an individual wrote this defamatory comment under my Times of Israel op-ed about Trump’s trial, “Dreyfus was guilty”:

“I think Professor Russell is most concerned about his rage against Columbia who did not tenure him (way back). But Harvard did tenure him.  Then something happened and he was out–but this has nothing to do with serious, responsible and rational civilized debate. Trump has nothing do with all the latter either: RAGE AND FEAR. See Goya’s ‘When Reason Sleeps’ or whatever it is called–says it all really”

I have the misfortune to know the author of the above remarks. He teaches at a midwestern college and is a disgruntled former colleague: I’d not heard from him for a year or two— his last communication was an anti-Semitic harassing phone call that two friends of mine who happened to be at my home heard on speaker. But last week I received a letter from him an ostensible note of condolence about my partner of 44 years, who passed away in mid-January. The letter degenerated into a deranged personal attack that was sufficiently alarming for one to contact the relevant authorities. After various insults, the man added that he hoped never to hear from me again. But if that’s what you want, don’t go around attacking people in public in the Times of Israel. You may just hear from them.

The man taught for a few years at Harvard and was terminated— denied promotion at untenured level. I confess to having been his friend then. We had some interests in common: Bob Dylan, Philip Larkin. I supported his promotion there at the time, long ago, despite the fact that at the time he had not yet published a book. I didn’t think it mattered that much, since he was hard at work on it. He published it in the end— after nearly a quarter century it is, indeed, his only book. But it is quite an important book in his field. I have an inscribed copy somewhere.

I served as a tenured professor at Harvard from 1993 to 2020 and have been retired as Emeritus for four years. I published many books and hundreds of scholarly articles, many of the latter of monograph length. This long and very productive scholarly life is what he dismisses as “then something happened and he was out.” Something happens to us and we’re out. It’s called old age and death.

He mentions Columbia. Ah, the Gem of the Ocean. Its college and law school were the alma mater of my Dad of blessed memory. We lived uptown, in Washington Heights. Dad used to take me to campus on Dean’s Day, the annual early spring field day of lectures by Columbia luminaries. Jim Shenton on Lincoln. Joan Ferrante on Dante. I entered Columbia College on early decision with a John Jay Scholarship in 1971, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in my junior year, and was Salutatorian of the Class of 1974. My salutatory address, which was about St. Gregory of Narek, an Armenian mystical poet of the tenth century, was published on the front page of the university’s official bulletin, Columbia Reports. Columbia awarded me a Kellett Fellowship to Oxford. I earned a postgraduate degree in Armenian studies there and went on to get a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London.

I returned to the USA and taught ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia from 1980 to 1992, and received a Chamberlain Fellowship. During my tenure at Columbia I published two scholarly books, and two of my courses were among the top ten in the Columbia-Barnard Course Guide in my penultimate year there.

It’s true I wasn’t tenured at Columbia. One of the people on the promotion committee told me, to my face, “We don’t want a Jew.” I was invited to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on a Lady Davis Fellowship. While I was in Israel, Harvard invited me to the Mashtots Chair in Armenian Studies.

The references to Columbia and Harvard in my piece are not about that distinguished academic career at both institutions over four decades, or about one’s personal experiences there. It is the extreme anti-Semitic outrages in recent months at Columbia and Harvard that one had in mind. They have attracted the attention of the whole world— but they touch me in ways that the pro-Hamas outrages on other campuses do not, because I spent most of my student days, and my whole working life, at those two places. And I saw it all coming: the censorship and woeness, the political correctness. I do not know how my present detractor, who once described himself to me as “a man of the far left”, regards those anti-Israel enormities which have been happening on campuses from coast to coast, including at his own place of work. But I can imagine.

His opinion on these and other issues are a matter of indifference. It is only his ad hominem public assault that one need answer. One has done so. That’s Proverbs 26:5: putting a fool in his place, lest he come out thinking himself wise.

Should one address the rest of his comment, the inchoate imputation of “rage and fear” to President Trump, with the vague reference to the work of a 19th-century Spanish artist thrown in? Would that be a descent to the folly of the fool, that Proverbs 26:4 warns against? I’ll reply, but I’ll be duly careful.

Francisco Goya, who was given to dark and grotesque imaginings, made an engraving with an enigmatic message: a man has fallen asleep at his writing desk. Bats and owls swoop down behind his shoulders; a cat resting near him is looking up in alarm. On the side of the desk this device is emblazoned in white : El sueño de la razon produce monstruos. “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” Like the two verses from the Hebrew Bible I started with, which on the face of it have contradictory meanings, Goya’s single pronouncement is ambiguous. It can mean that in the absence of reason, monsters emerge. But it can also mean that when reason is left unchecked to dream, it creates monsters.

One of my favorite authors, Ursula Le Guin, seems to have taken Goya’s warning literally in her great science fiction novel, The Lathe of Heaven. A quiet, humble man in Portland, Oregon has dreams that retroactively change reality. He goes to a psychiatrist (named Dr. Haber, of course) hoping to be cured, to dream normally. The doctor, a left-wing social warrior who believes in Reason with a capital R, has a machine that enables him to dictate to our hero, George, what to dream. The products of the dreams get worse and worse, and ultimately Haber hooks the device up to his own brain and the world, like the mind of my former friend, becomes unhinged. The sleep of reason produces monsters.

Both meanings of Goya’s phrase, unfortunately, work equally well in the present situation, both as concerns President Donald Trump, and with reference to Israel and the Jews. The extraordinary, feral animus against Trump on the left is driven by an unreasoning fear, yet it is bolstered by the apparatus of what ought to be guided by reason: the American judicial system. That’s what my op-ed was about. The  hatred of the Jews, and of Israel by necessary extension, is rooted in unreasoning fear as well: a stew of ancient myths and medieval prejudices. Yet anti-Semitism is most virulent precisely where the clarity and impartiality of reason should be foremost: in academia, in places like Columbia and Harvard. My defamer has unwittingly provided the perfect example of sleeping reason engendering a monster in his own words. He’s become of Goya’s menacing, bedraggled nocturnal birds.

Pushkin was inspired by Scripture. So, perhaps, was Goya. “Much learning hath made thee mad!” says Festus to Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, 26:24. Too much learning?  He hoped not to hear from me again, much as Hamas hopes not to hear from the IDF after lobbing rockets at sleeping families. Aggressors are aggrieved when their intended victims refuse to be victimized. Well, let’s hope he doesn’t hear from me again: his aim might best be achieved by silence.

My cat has been dozing here on the rug beside me while I have been writing. My mother of blessed memory used to say that the most felicitous state is to be reincarnated as a cat in a Jewish home. I hope my blissful Murka is unaware of what her favorite human has had to endure. St. Basil once rejoiced that his local vernacular, Cappadocian, was not sufficiently sophisticated to express the fine points of heresy. I dare to be thankful that my cat does not know enough of human language to understand this stuff now, either. At least if she does, she doesn’t let on.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.