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Sunday, April 10, 2016


As a blogger, I always have the option simply not to respond to a comment posted on my blog, but there are some comments that simply must be responded to, and Jim’s comment is most assuredly one of that small number, so here goes.  First, for those of you who have not read it, let me quote the entire comment:

Professor Wolff --

Your post opens up an opportunity to express something I have wanted to confront for some time. You pose a great question, which is:

"How much bad behavior, if any, should the rest of us be expected to put up with from those extraordinary individuals whose musical [or intellectual or other artistic] talents set them apart from the ordinary run of mortals?"

Based on my life experience, I would argue absolutely none. Why? Because they can do better. (Which, by the way, is a constant exhortation of the Sanders campaign, which he has borrowed -- among other themes -- from the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign). There is no reasonable excuse for that kind of behavior. Do you think so? I certainly don't. 

Now, I did not always think this way. From my first encounter with you, Professor Wolff, I have always thought of you as an "extraordinary individual" who I could learn an amazing amount of knowledge from. For Christ sake, you would repeatedly say in class the following statement: "You can learn something from every word I say." Well, I took that statement to heart and still do to this day. Consequently, I accepted your eccentricities and at times dismissive attitude as something I should be "expected to put up with." As a result, when I later met Lawrence Foster in the philosophy department at UMass Boston (circa 1992), I proudly proclaimed that I was a big fan of yours. His blunt and dismissive response: "Hell of an ego with that guy." My absolutely genuine, sincere, and earnest response to him was: "And rightly so, since he is quite brilliant." Professor Foster shook his head and walked away. At the time, my thinking was, what is this guy's problem? But as I grew older and continued to learn more, I realized that great, talented, and extraordinary people do NOT have an excuse to belittle those "below" them. Why? Well you, as a self-proclaimed Marxist should know. We are all in the struggle of life together. Why excuse some asshole who can sing, paint, or write well? Because we culturally "benefit" from his or her work? Even so, that does not give them the privilege to belittle others. On top of that, there are extraordinarily talented people who are actually good, kind, caring, and selfless people who go out of their way to help others. It is an individual, personal trait, not a talented trait. I will never stop quoting Jackson: "We can do better."

At base, there really should be no place for diva behavior. The most genuine and sincere people know this. These kinds of behaviors should not simply be excused but should be deemed unacceptable. I once had patience for it. I certainly don't now. Short answer: I would have canned Battle. 

Keep in mind that I reached this decision based in a large part on your teaching. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Well, finally got that off my chest. Thanks for opening the door.

Your eternally sincere student,


First things first:  If I ever was dismissive, I most humbly apologize.  I never intended that, and I am appalled that anything I said or did came across that way.  Eccentricities, to be sure.  They are the spice of life.  But not dismissiveness toward a student.  Let me be clear:  uncompromising criticism of a student’s writing or reasoning is the absolute precondition of genuine education.  But criticism of what a student has written or said is not dismissiveness of the student as a person and as a student.  Quite to the contrary.  By speaking up in class or submitting a piece of written work, the student has announced his or her desire to learn, and it is the absolute responsibility of the teacher to do whatever is possible to assist in that learning.  That is what I have tried to do for the past sixty years, and if I have failed, that failure is on my head, not on the student’s. 

Was Larry Foster right?  Oh yes, to be sure.  I do indeed have a big ego.  Why on earth do you suppose I like to reference Emily Dickinson, one of the most arrogant poets ever to write!  I may on occasion strive to hide my light under a bushel [though not with as much success as I might imagine], but no one ever accused me of thinking it was a dim light.  I leave it to Brian Leiter to judge its wattage. 

Now to the question at hand.  Of course Kathleen Battle should be ashamed of herself for her boorish and inexcusably self-involved behavior.  Nothing I said suggested there was any excuse for that.  Should she have been fired?  Well, that is an administrative decision, involving all manner of considerations, only some of which are artistic.  But I would hope that the musicians, stage hands, and front office folks, while despising her for the utter bitch she obviously was, would find a way to make it possible for her to continue singing at the Met, because the only reason any of them are there is to make music, and she simply made music better than others.  Shun her, condemn her to Purgatory after death, say nasty things about her on Twitter, never invite her to dinner or share a drink with her, but let her keep singing.

One final word, a propos politics and the struggle.  Karl Marx was, by all accounts, a rather appalling individual, at least as he comes across in Jerrold Siegel’s fine biography, Marx’s Fate.  The great theorist of exploitation exploited everyone around him unconscionably:  he cadged money from colleagues who were living on smaller incomes, he was unthinkingly cruel and unsympathetic to his lifelong colleague Engels on the occasion of the death of Engels’ love, he got the family maid pregnant – he was an all around rotter.  I am quite sure I would neither have liked him nor admired him as a man, and I do not for a moment think that his greatness as a thinker excuses his behavior.  Nor do I think, if I were presented with one of those absurd trolley car cases, that saving his life, because he was such a great thinker, would have any priority over saving the lives of two unimportant workingmen.  But he was the greatest social theorist who has ever lived, and if it had been up to me to do what I could to keep him writing, I would have done it.  I rather think that is what Engels thought secretly.

Well, once more, to Jim, I apologize for having behaved as it seems I did, and I thank you for having the greatness of soul to forgive me.


s. wallerstein said...

Would Marx have been a lesser social theorist if the people around him had insisted that he take out the garbage every night after dinner? Quite the contrary, the experience of taking out the garbage (that's a metaphor) might well have made him even more insightful about society.

I've known lots of people who are too creative or artistic or poetic to follow petit-bourgeois conventions like keeping promises, paying back loans, being punctual, returning their library books or helping out with household chores, and it's a scam: as long as they find suckers who fall for their bullshit, they'll keep it up. When you call their bluff, as long as you've enough power to do that, they join the rest of the human race.

While I agree with you that Marx is the greatest social theorist we know, I've never found him to be an especially attractive person to get to know (when I read, I always have a sense of the person I'm reading or meeting), and now I understand why.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Of course he would not have been a lesser social theorist. He was the favorite son in his family, and pretty much an all around pig, so far as I can tell. We all recall what his mother said about him. "I wish Karl would write less about capital and make some." One of the curious things about him is that so far as I can tell, he never set foot in a factory, and yet he wrote more knowledgeably and accurately about what it was actually like to work in a factory than any other economist of his time.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't know much about Marx's life, but did he have any friends besides Engels (who was more of a disciple or apostle than a friend, that is, a true peer)?

Jim said...

Let's get back to Battle. S. Wallerstein brought up the interesting example of Nietzsche who did happen to boast about his intellectual insight. However, he realized that few of his contemporaries were capable of appreciating his work. Undaunted by this realization, he predicted that within a hundred years time people around the globe would write books about him and that major universities would endow chairs of philosophy in his name. He was indeed correct. Consider the following line from Ecce Homo: “It would contradict my character entirely if I expected ears and hands for my truths today: that today one doesn’t hear me and doesn’t accept my ideas is not only understandable, it even seems right to me.” As a hypochondriac and somewhat reclusive sociopath, Nietzsche could not keep it together enough to hold down a university position. Consequently, there really were no colleagues, students, or disciples around him who he could belittle. Battle, on the other hand, is no doubt highly aware that her vocal skills are held in high esteem by many people. There will always be people who will eagerly pay to hear her perform. Tolerating, excusing, or indulging her behavior is not only unfair to those who must work with her, it is ultimately unfair to Battle herself. No matter how great one indeed is, there is always room for self improvement. Jackson is right: "we can do better." People can and should take pride in their own talents and accomplishments. But it is difficult to justify using those talents and accomplishments to belittle others around them.

-- Jim

s. wallerstein said...

Nietzsche was not a sociopath.

Chris said...

Marx may not have set foot in a factory, or he may have, I'm not sure the claim is provable, but he did have Engels constantly reporting on factory conditions to him, and he did have access to blue books. He also met with and taught workers through the worker's international.

Marx probably wasn't the greatest guy ever. But I also don't think he's the scumbag he's portrayed as, and many biographies demonstrate that point (e.g., Francis Wheen's, and the most recent Mary Gabriel's). His kids had nothing but fond memories and anecdotes about him. And before that is written off as too biased, let it be stated that many children of parents (myself included) do not feel compelled to laud their parents.