I have led a quiet, protected, uneventful life, or so it has seemed to me. I was born into a stable middle-class family that was virtually unaffected either by the Great Depression or by the Second World War. I pursued a conventional educational path leading, with no more than the usual uncertainties, to a tenured professorship at the age of thirty. My military service, such as it was, occurred during one of those rare moments when the United States was not at war, and though I had some measure of success as an academic and as an author, I did not even quite rise to the level, in Mel Brooks’ classic phrase, of being “world famous in Poland.” My first series of video’ed lectures, On Ideological Critique, had a quite modest success, drawing more viewers than I had ever seen in a classroom but, judging by the other YouTube clips, so few as not even to be worth taking note of. Under these circumstances, it was quite easy for me to assure myself that I cared a great deal more about being a good teacher and a clear writer than I did about achieving even a fleeting moment of fame, let alone the fifteen minutes that Andy Warhol had promised. I compared myself to M. de St. Colombe, playing his viola da gamba for hours on end in a little wooden shack, oblivious to the attractions of Versailles.
Then I began my current series of lectures on the Critique of Pure Reason, and quite inexplicably, they drew thousands of views on YouTube. In a matter of weeks, my carefully cultivated façade of spiritual purity crumbled, and I found myself anxiously checking the tally of views of each lecture. The crash of the viewership for the sixth lecture sent me into John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond. I found myself crying pathetically, like Marlon Brandon in the taxi with Rod Steiger, “I coulda been a contender; I coulda been somebody!”
Fortunately, a long-time reader sent me an email message, in which he recalled me to myself. Here is what he wrote, in part: “Your job is to speak to those who remain. I would remind you that you have mentored individuals, giving them hours of your time. Do not get snagged on the “popularity” nettle.”
I realized that he was right, and returning to my hut, picked up my viola da gamba, (all of which was made easier, needless to say, by the fact that there was then a sharp uptick in the views of Lecture Six.)