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The Naughty Professor

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Leslie Mitchell. Maurice Bowra: A Life. Oxford University Press. 400 Pages. $50.00

The viciousness of academics, particularly those working in the humanities, never fails to amaze. Here we have people who are supposedly studying all that is great and noble about mankind, yet who are prepared to plunge the stiletto into the backs of colleagues at the first opportunity. The infighting over the chair in poetry at Oxford earlier this year is a case in point. Obliging the holder to give three lessons a year, the position is rewarded with 11,000 pounds a year, so this is not about money, but about prestige. The fight was between the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, from Trinidad, and Ruth Padel, a great grandchild of Charles Darwin.

As an international name, Walcott was favored to win, until emails reached newspapers and prominent Oxford figures with excerpts from a book, The Lecherous Professor, that accused Walcott of sexual misconduct. While a visiting professor at Harvard, Walcott is alleged to have asked a student, “Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?” When the girl refused to engage in this dubious thought experiment, the punishment was a low grade. Walcott made similar overtures later at Boston University, regarding which he settled out of court.

These revelations led to a discussion about how poets behave: Walcott’s supporters argued that history is replete with poets behaving badly; it kind of goes with the territory: Dylan Thomas and Wystan Auden are prime examples. The counterargument was that as a teacher, Walcott was in a position of trust and hence unsuited for the poetry chair. The upshot was that Walcott had to withdraw his name from the contest. Padel expressed her profound sympathy and disgust over the anonymous attacks, which caused “immense damage to people and to poetry.”

The position was now Padel’s, the first woman to hold it in 301 years. Hers, that is, until it was revealed that she was the person behind the smear campaign. After her machinations became public, she had to step down in disgrace, having held the job for ten days. A wag suggested she might want to form her own chapter of pen, the international writers’ organization: poison pen.

However, for those familiar with the Borgia world of Oxford politics, the recent scandal seems small beer compared to the kind of malicious gossip one finds in Leslie Mitchell’s highly amusing biography of Maurice Bowra. Bowra was the famous wit and raconteur who for decades served as the Warden of Wadham College and also for a period was vice chancellor of the university, with an equal emphasis on vice and chancellor. Bowra personified Oxford values — such as they are — and he has often been portrayed in literature. He was both a very public man and a very private one, living in his own carefully constructed world with enough contradictions to keep a psychoanalyst busy for years.

Built like a sandbag, Bowra was short and square with no neck and possessed a huge “bittern booming voice.” According to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, “the words came in short, sharp bursts of precisely aimed, concentrated fire as image, pun, metaphor, parody, seemed spontaneously to generate one another, in a succession of marvelously imaginative patterns, sometimes rising to high, wildly comical fantasy.” Another writer compares his way of entering a room to “a naval vessel with all the guns run out”; Evelyn Waugh notes that “Maurice formed the habits of speech of a whole generation.”

In addition to Isaiah Berlin, the circle of so called “Bowristas” included names like art historian Kenneth Clark, the poets John Betjeman and Stephen Spender, the warden of All Soul’s College, John Sparrow, and the critic Cyril Connolly. On Bowra’s spell, Kenneth Clark cites him as being the “strongest influence on my life. I was timid, priggish, and inhibited. I was not even a scholar and ‘scholarly,’ repeated several times was one of the first words of praise in Maurice’s vocabulary.” Equally important, he said “all the dreadful things one was longing to hear.”

A dinner with Maurice Bowra is described in John Betjeman’s long celebratory poem about Oxford, “Summoned by Bells”:

The learning lightly worn; the grand contempt
For pedants, traitors and pretentiousness.
A dozen oysters and a dryish hock;
Claret and tournedos; a bombe surprise.
The fusillade of phrases (‘I’m a man
More dined against than dining’) rattled out
In that incisive voice and chucked away
To be re-used in envious common rooms
By imitation Maurices.

Born in 1898, Bowra was the son of a British diplomat, and his early years were spent in China, surrounded by servants. As he later wrote, “I feel at home in Asia . . . because there are no rules, no discipline, no fixed laws for anything, infinite emptiness relieved by magnificent things to see, a most agreeable hugger-mugger in the bazaars . . . the smell of the East which reminds me of my childhood.”

His contempt for rules meant that he never felt quite comfortable in England: He detested team sports and the public school spirit, which according to Mitchell he survived by developing a protective armor of wit. This also worked when doing national service. He fought in World War I as a gunner. “I am not a pacifist, could not forgive conscientious objectors,” he wrote, but he hated the discipline and the generals who sent soldiers to their death. Having survived the trenches, he returned to Oxford to read classics and whoop it up in true 1920s style; he was rewarded with a position as a fellow at Wadham College at the age of 24.

As an academic, Bowra was an old fashioned belles-lettres man. The historian Noel Annan, another Bowrista, wrote of Bowra’s Memories: “Maurice and his generation thought that people were the most important thing and all their literary criticism is colored by this fact. Indeed, what is literature for but to tell us how peculiar, idiosyncratic, and dotty people are? The dottiness is the important part. Life is only tolerable according to this view — when it is viewed as comedy . . . though it is thought now to be deeply shocking, not merely by [Cambridge literary critic F.R.] Leavis and his disciples, but by the Marxists and the Existentialists.” All Souls Fellow A.L. Rowse characterized him as “a Greek pagan, guilt free unlike Judeo Christians.”

Bowra was particularly scornful of the efforts by German scholars to turn literature into science and a subspecies of sociology-psychology. At the same time, however, he was beset by doubts about the quality of his scholarship, of it not being quite up to the rigorous standards set by the Germans: His uneasiness was partly caused by his unhappy relationship with his Oxford tutor, partly by a brush with T.W. Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt School who lived in exile in Oxford. Adorno had asked Bowra to contribute an article to his publication but did not feel it measured up, as it lacked the all important connection to social theory. He dismissed Bowra’s writings as “naïve” and having “the tone of good journalism” — and the piece had to be extensively revised.

According to Mitchell, this experience lead Bowra to be more cautious as a writer than as a person. Thus, he defensively characterized his own book, The Greek Experience, as “rather abstract and generalized, but bless it, it could corrupt the Xtianity of good English public school boys.” He failed to obtain the Oxford Chair in Greek in 1936, but after a brief stint as a visiting professor at Harvard, he was offered the wardenship at Wadham College in Oxford, a position he held until 1970.

Oxford colleges are self-governing institutions which together form the University of Oxford. From being a rather sleepy backwater, Bowra turned Wadham into a lively place of scholarship and debate. According to Mitchell, he was remarkably free of class prejudice. What he wanted were clever students. His selection criteria were, “Clever boys, interesting boys, pretty boys.” He was also helpful to ex-soldiers. When one soldier confessed that he lacked Latin, one of the entrance requirements, Bowra replied, “No matter. War service counts as Latin.”

As a proponent of high culture and aristocratic values, his main concern as an educator was the spreading of Greek thought, hoping that some of the values that permeated Greek culture would survive in the democratic era. He was a champion of the individual:

The essence of Greek political thought is that a man is an individual, who lives among other men in his own right and for his own worth, that he is entitled to be himself as he would wish to be, and that in this he realizes natural endowments, which vary from person to person, but are all the gifts of the gods and not to be thrown away. The individual must be given the freedom to exert his full capacities, to be an end in itself, not a means for the use of others.

Such ideas came under intense pressure from collectivist thought in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s and 1970s.

As an administrator, Bowra became the ultimate Oxford infighter. Apart from the ideologues, his enemies were the scientists, whose incessant demands for funding meant that the government, which alone could provide it, would get an increasing say in university politics, with the colleges losing some of their autonomy as a result. Bowra realized he was fighting a losing battle, but fought it nevertheless, seeking to place his own friends in influential positions. “Integrity was an empty concept to him. He lied like a trooper, to win, to enhance life, to humiliate an enemy, to do good for a friend, to get out of a corner,” says Isaiah Berlin.

The cattiness of Bowra’s correspondence is indeed extraordinary, and it is not limited to his enemies. Mitchell briefly alludes to Bowra’s dislike of what he referred to as historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s “awful book,” The Last Days of Hitler. Indeed, as Anthony Kenny, former master of Balliol College recalls in the London Times, Trevor-Roper was among the people who had considered themselves to be on good terms with Bowra only to find out after the man’s death that Bowra had encouraged Evelyn Waugh to attack him and his book, and to “persecute him as much as you can,” airily dismissing him as a person of little standing in Oxford. “And I thought Maurice was my friend, “ Kenny quotes a hurt Trevor-Roper as saying. That Trevor-Roper could be a pretty poisonous individual himself — see his correspondence with art connoisseur Bernard Berenson — is another matter.

The other field of Bowra’s efforts was poetry: The poet, of course, had held an honored position among the Greeks, and Bowra’s favorites were poets of the soothsayer variety like Yeats and Hardy. Though Bowra eventually obtained the poetry chair at Oxford, he regarded himself as a failed poet. Instead, notes Mitchell, he became a great promoter of others, among them Dylan Thomas and Edith Sitwell, the latter tall and stooped, looking like some renaissance queen with her aquiline nose and countless ringlets, every inch the prophetess, and definitely not mass taste.

By contrast, Bowra disliked Auden, who never “had any taste or interest in high accomplishments” and concerned himself mainly with “rumpled bedclothes,” and he intensely disapproved of the Bloomsbury crowd, “with its little philosophy about beautiful states of mind.” During his rare trips to London he much preferred staying with one of his protégés, Maurice Hastings, than visiting Bloomsbury: “In London I alternated between Mr. Hastings’s champagne dinners and suppers at the Berkeley and some dim garrets in the . . . circle of Bloomsbury. I realized that Bloomsbury is like the early church. Fanatical, dirty, persecuted, jealous. I preferred Mr. Hastings at 45/- a bottle.”

To Bowra, their sexual shenanigans and wife swapping had the marks of duty, part of an intellectual program. Underneath, they were “cold and puritanical.” They “kept asking themselves what they had done wrong. No good aesthete ever does that.” Virginia Woolf’s novels get short shrift: “I find her a bore, dislike her imagery, suspect her psychology.” Amen to that.

As to his relationship with Evelyn Waugh, it was one of guarded respect: He admired Waugh’s talent as that of “a powerful demon,” but was very careful around him, and with good reason. Waugh used him as the model for Mr. Samgrass, the fawning academic in Brideshead Revisited who sponges on the powerful Marchmain family. However, as Mitchell points out, the shoe does not fit, since Bowra was an intellectual snob, not a social snob. He was a meritocrat. Indeed, Waugh was himself annoyed that very few people made the connection.

Of one point in his life Bowra was defensive: his sexuality. From his early youth, his looks gave him an inferiority complex. Though he paid for the occasional French tart, this made him forswear women, believing he could not have a serious relationship with one. Afraid of rejection, he “created rebuffs before I am rebuffed.”

Instead, he batted for the other side, as the phrase has it, signing up for what he referred to as “the immoral front” or “the homintern.” The book quotes Noel Annan: “Let’s get it clear. He was the centre of the great homosexual mafia if you like to call it, of the twenties and the thirties.” Bowra described homosexuality as “the natural state” for those with half a brain.

In this he had to be careful, as buggery was against the law. The actors John Gielgud and Alec Guinness had both been arrested for lurking around public lavatories. Instead, during the Weimar years, Bowra went to Berlin to satisfy his desires.

Oxford has produced plenty of poseurs, most notably Harold Acton and Brian Howard, the latter the prototype for Waugh’s hilarious Anthony Blanche, who declaimed T.S. Eliot through a loudspeaker and hankered for b-b-beefy b-b-boys. But Bowra did not approve of camp or effeminate men, Mitchell notes, or people who define themselves exclusively by sexual preference and who try to claim every important figure in art and history as a homosexual. What separated Bowra from the shallow aesthetes, writes Mitchell, was his emphasis on hard work.

Occasionally, for respectability’s sake, Bowra considered marriage, but his heart was not in it. When informed that one of his candidates was a lesbian, his relief was palpable: “Buggers can be choosers.” He also briefly pursued Ann Fleming, the wife of the creator of James Bond. Overall, Mitchell notes, in his personal life, he felt safer in a master-to-pupil relationship than in friendship or love of equals.

In his political views, one finds a similar confusion. He espoused highly aristocratic ideas and the rights of the individual, but still he voted left of center. Among foreign writers and poets, he championed Anna Akhmatova, for whom he secured an honorary degree, he lectured on Pasternak, and he regarded Yevgeny Yevtushenko a collaborator. Yet, he defended the Cambridge spies, taking the E.M. Forster line that friendship is more important than love of country. “I can’t really mind spies,” he wrote. “After all, they believe that knowledge should not be locked up in secret boxes, as our Cabinet loves to do, and in peace they can’t do no harm, and in war anyone else can do quite as much.”

This kind of frivolousness is infuriating. As the author points out, the Cambridge spies did tremendous damage and lives were lost because of them. They were not even his friends: Burgess had “unpleasant things under his fingernails,” Bowra once noted. Though Mitchell finds it ironic that the British government trusted Philby, Burgess, McLean, and Blunt, but could find no use for Bowra during World War II, it is hardly surprising that the British government had not entrusted Bowra with important war work, given his talent for indiscretion.

Comparing Bowra to strychnine, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis calls him “a tonic best taken in small doses, but, if one took too much, one bent into a hoop and died.” That sounds right.

On one level, of course, as an outsider, one is tempted to follow Bowra’s own prescription and delight in the comedy of it all, the dottiness of human behavior. On another level, since this involves people with important positions in society, one must disapprove, thereby running the risk of being charged with hypocrisy; that is the ever-present danger to the moralist who, after having described human folly and perverseness with great glee, ends up disapproving mightily. But so be it.

Again, like in the recent Walcott case, what is at issue here is being in a position of trust. Granted, boys need less protection than girls, but still there is something distasteful about elderly men ogling their 18-year-old charges: As will be remembered, Bowra’s selection criteria were “clever boys, interesting boys, pretty boys.” Not surprisingly, some headmasters refused to send students to him, regarding him as a harmful influence on the young.

One is left with the distinct feeling that Mitchell underplays this aspect. He cites Isaiah Berlin’s view that “Maurice did not corrupt any young man, as far as I know,” yet, on Bowra’s influence on Cyril Connolly, Kenneth Clark at one point notes, “Maurice, though he encouraged him to read, also encouraged a disastrous vein of malice and a very tiresome taste for sex as the only topic of conversation.” And one of Bowra’s undergraduates is quoted as saying that “vice had more compensations than virtue,” a somewhat unfortunate conclusion to draw from a stay at the country’s finest university.

Finally, the image of highly cultured men, upholders of Western civilization, seeking an outlet for their urges in some seedy Berlin nightspot or lurking around public lavatories seems neither sophisticated nor particularly elegant. And no amount of fancy Bowra-speak about the male friendship practices of noble ancient Greeks will alter that.

In the 1970s, Oxford began admitting women to the men’s colleges. Predictably, Bowra had opposed the idea, believing it would change the nature of the place, which of course it did. It put some needed fresh air into a rather claustrophobic men’s club.