Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tonsor #4, part 2 -- Confrontation with modernity

Haven Hall from the southwest corner of the Diag
There was a natural break in the conversation as we took the elevator to the fourth floor of Haven Hall. In the quiet of the ride up, I could hear Tonsor breathe with short, shallow puffs. Upon reaching his modest office, my initial impression was that his lair was not so much cluttered as entombed in books. It seemed that every square inch of his desk and table supported stacks of volumes leaning precariously against one another. Even the bookcases were filled two deep with books and I wondered how he kept track of the second row of books behind the first row since he couldn’t see them.

He invited me to sit in a wooden chair that creaked so badly it must have been Methuselah’s. From my perch I scanned the view out of the window. It faced due east onto the Diag. Suddenly it occurred to me that Tonsor literally had a front-row seat at the Sixties Revolution – he had witnessed SDS, Tom Hayden, the Hash Bash, streaking, and all the rest that the Big Chill generation brought us. Back in the day he must have felt like Margaret Mead.

Before I could ask him what he had seen on the revolutionary acres of real estate below his window, he reached for two thick books and handed them to me – the new two-volume collection of Acton’s essays edited by J. Fufus Fears for Liberty Fund. Through no fault of his own, I suddenly felt embarrassed. Those same two books had been given to me on my birthday three weeks before I’d moved from Colorado to Ann Arbor, but I’d flipped through them with superficial haste. Indeed, it seemed the operative word about my performance all morning had been “superficial.” I had hardly anything interesting to say about Lord Acton, Fr. Döllinger, or any other topic in the field I was undertaking to study. Out of fear that I was coming across as a pretender, I started looking for a way to end our conversation.
Aerial photograph of the Diag, looking southwest

Tonsor didn’t seem to notice. “Just essays in those two volumes,” he said. “Despite Acton’s gift for language, and despite his easy access to the printing press, he did not write books. I also do not write books. A collection of my essays came out more than a decade ago,[1] but I do not write books, per se.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

Tonsor gestured to a stack of paper, “It’s the Everest of duties that fall to a professor: grading blue-books, marking papers, attending meetings, serving on committees, corresponding with other scholars – it’s more than the human frame can bear.”

Die Freuden der Pflicht,” I said. “The joys of duty.” It was a German expression in a Siegfried Lenz novel that I'd picked up during my Fulbright year in West Germany two years earlier. It was a relief finally to say something that Tonsor found apt and funny.

Feeling a little more confident now, I asked: “If you were to write a book based on your work in the archives, would it be the History of Liberty or something along those lines?”

"Acton," said Tonsor, "set out on the hopelessly quixotic task of writing The History of Liberty. To him the idea of liberty was the golden thread that tied together not just Western history but also, ultimately, all human history. The work was to range across 2,500 years, encompass numerous nations, and treat innumerable institutions -- political, religious, and social. And because he was by nature a skeptic, no secondary accounts would satisfy him. He himself was determined to visit every archive and do the original research himself." He paused and took a breath as though exhausted by the thought of Acton's audacity.

"It was a futile undertaking," Tonsor said, shrugging his shoulders.

Tonsor waggled his head in anticipation of the next thing he wanted to say. “In the end there are two kinds of historians, Mr. Whitney. Those whose topic grows until it encompasses the known universe, and those whose topic shrinks until all that's left are – bubbles. I try to negotiate a path between the extremes. The tortured course of liberty is certainly among my interests. But my focus is somewhat different. As an intellectual historian, my task is to understand modernity and to teach what I understand. As a cultural critic, my mission is to confront modernity – to sift it and test it.”

I was eager to ask follow-up questions about this, the most profound job description I'd ever heard. To confront, test, and sift modernity? I knew that his answer would be profound, but what exactly did it mean? I recalled discovering Tonsor one year earlier in the essay in which he described the transcendent purpose of civilization as ultimately a quest for truth, goodness, beauty, and even love -- the qualities that most dignified and humanized Home viator, man the pilgrim. Tonsor was a historian who believed that a civilization, although existing in time, could actually be a vestibule of eternity. But before I could ask, my professor preemptively slapped his knees to indicate that our conversation must draw to a close.

As I stood up to leave, Tonsor quickly added: "Mr. Whitney, read, if you have not already, Acton's essay, 'The History of Freedom in Antiquity'; also his essay, 'The History of Freedom in Christianity.' These short works will give you the germ of his projected History of Liberty."

I went away from our first face-to-face meeting feeling exhilarated and deflated at the same time. Exhilarated because I was now at the University of Michigan, launched on a grand adventure of the mind. Deflated because my conversations with Tonsor had amounted to a lackluster performance on my part. Speaking with Tonsor was not like conversing with my undergraduate professors. They feigned eagerness to hear what I had to say even when it was errant nonsense. It was different with Tonsor. It’s not that he was rudely dismissive. It’s just that you soon realized that you had better have your mind -- as he often liked to say -- "full of your subject." Otherwise, you couldn't keep up, and the encounter was less a conversation than an interview.

Walking out of Haven Hall into the humid, late-summer air of the Diag, I realized from these initial encounters that my self-esteem in graduate school was going to take a beating. I don't think Tonsor cared about self-esteem. His gifts were his erudition and seriousness of purpose. All right then: I'd be the student at the feet of the master. I had entered the intellectual equivalent of boot camp.
Looking south across the Diag, toward Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library

[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974).

No comments:

Post a Comment