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Coming to the College
Michael: Maybe we should start by asking how you ended up going to
Seth: I was in high school at Brooklyn Tech, and my mother remembered that
she knew someone from Chicago whom she had met at Dartmouth during the
summer when we were on our vacation. His name was Donald Lamb, and he was
a pupil of McKeon. She wrote to him and he said maybe they would
consider me if I were to apply. So that's how I applied. When I met him,
he was in fact a lamb.
Ronna: He was in the classics department?
Seth: No, Lamb was in philosophy-spent his entire life on Kant-but he was
a worshipper of McKeon.
Ronna: Which there were a lot of, weren't there?
Seth: Well, there was Gewirth, who was much higher up. I think Lamb
only taught in the college and very rarely was given a graduate course.
Robert: Did you know what you wanted to study at Chicago?
Seth: My intention when I left Brooklyn Tech was to go into mathematics.
Ronna: Butyou had already studied Greek, right? Did they have Greek in
the high school?
Seth: No, I went to Brooklyn College to take it.
Ronna: How did you first get interested in it?
Seth: My father said, "You should study Greek."
Robert: But he didn't say why? Did Jose study Greek?
Robert: Did he have something that he was assigned to do, as an analogue
Seth: No, he was into poetry, and then philosophy.
Ronna: Did you immediately take to Greek?
Seth: Yes, but I didn't think I was going to stick with it.
Robert: Was the professor a classicist?
Seth: The professor turned out to be Vera Lachmann, whom I later met
here. But I didn't ask her if she had been my professor years before.
Donald Lamb and a Paper on Don Quixote
Michael: Did you end up actually studying with Donald Lamb when you got to
Seth: Well, you could write an honors paper in the college, and Lamb
agreed to be my adviser. At the end of the year I gave him a paper on Don
Ronna: Do you remember why you chose that?
Seth: I came back after one term and talked to my father, and he said,
"Why don't you write on Don Quixote?"
Robert: This was your first year?
Seth: My first year.
Ronna: You had declared a major?
Seth: At Chicago there was no major. There was just the college, which
only lasted a year. You took all these exams that allowed you to be placed
out of the college.
Ronna: So you got the equivalent of a B.A. degree in that first year?
Seth: Well, it was not equivalent to a B.A. degree anywhere else. Of
course, I didn't go anywhere else with it.
Michael: So you submitted the Don Quixote paper to Lamb?
Seth: And he said, "Oh this can't be submitted, you know this can't be
submitted." So I said "yes," but I never asked why it was nixed.
Robert: Do you remember what the thesis was?
Seth: It was all about how he was very careful not to test reality after
it proved that he was wrong. I remember this thing about Manbrino's
Robert: What's that?
Seth: He made a helmet out of cardboard, which he then brought out in the
backyard and took a sword to it, and immediately it smashed. So he then
made another one, but didn't test it. He knew.
Ronna: That was the solution?
Seth: Right. The solution was never to test anything.
Ronna: So you went through the book and found all these instances ...
Seth: About how he had carefully avoided reality. Anyway, Lamb said, "You
know it won't do. It is interesting," he said, "but you know it won't do."
I never asked him why it wouldn't do. He was so certain. I was so very
shy, I suppose.
Robert: This strange thing he said never got clarified. Did that require
doing something else?
Seth: No, it's just that I didn't get a degree with honors.
The Committee on Social Thought
Michael: How did you get onto the Committee after being in the College?
Seth: It was through Blanckenhagen. He gave a lecture in the spring
that first year. I met him on the walkway of the university and stopped to
ask a question about his lecture. We had a long talk, and he said, "Why
don't you come and join the Committee?"
Robert: Just like that?
Seth: Just like that.
Michael: What did you think you were going to do when you started on the
Committee? You didn't just do it because Blanckenhagen said, come along.
Ronna: Was that going to be your theme?
Michael: Is it true that you always wore black?
Seth: I think that's the only thing I had. There was a guy named Oxman, a
student on the Committee, who was working on the medieval, Nicholas
Oresme-the theory of money, the origin of calculus, and everything else.
Anyway, the Committee was on the fifth floor of the social sciences
building, and what happened was, he was introduced to me as he was
stepping into the hall from the elevator while I was getting in. He asked
me what my subject was, and as the doors closed he heard the word "Death."
Ronna: It came to you on the spur of the moment?
Seth: Right, that this was the way to summarize it. I had no idea that
years later it would turn out to be true that that's what I had been
doing. It was orchestrated from that point by some higher power.
Severn Darden, George Steiner, Stanley Rosen
Michael: What did you do your first year in the Committee?
Seth: I didn't attend the four courses I was assigned, I remember that.
Ronna: You mean you skipped class?
Seth: I skipped class entirely.
Robert: What did you do instead?
Seth: I read, all sorts of things.
Ronna: Do you remember what?
Seth: Zoroastrianism in the ninth-century texts, Cyrus Bailey, Toynbee-I
read all of Toynbee.
Ronna: Any principle of selection?
Seth: No, just things that I came across in the library.
Michael: Were there other people you talked with?
Seth: I had a roommate whose name was Conboy, who came from Nebraska. He
was the son of a sergeant and he had two loves. One was Thoreau. He spent
his entire first year, while I was writing on Don Quixote, translating a
treatise on Thoreau by Georges Duhamel into English. That was his project.
Then he also loved Wagner.
Ronna: What a combination!
Seth: And he looked like Ichabod Crane: you know, very tall, stooped. He
became the butt of many of Severn's jokes.
Robert: Did you already know Severn?
Seth: I'll tell you how I met him. We arrived on the first day at the
dormitory. I was talking to Conboy just outside the door to our room. Then
Severn, who had a room at the other end of the corridor, came and said to
me, "Do you know where we're supposed to go?" I said "No." So he said,
"Well let's go together." That's how we met.
Michael: So your first conversation was a joke.
Ronna: You were both sixteen at the time?
Seth: No, eighteen. He had come from the Putney School in Vermont, an
experimental school. But he was from New Orleans. His father had just
become district attorney there, the first district attorney who said he
would treat any black man the same way he would treat any white man. No
one had ever said that before. So he got some kind of medal from the
Ronna: Did Severn write an honors thesis?
Seth: No, he didn't.
Ronna: Did he ever go to class?
Seth: Yes, he did go to class, that's where some of his best routines came
from. Rosen, who also lived on the same corridor, right next to Severn,
picked up some of those routines.
Robert: How did he do that?
Seth: One episode involved George Steiner. Steiner lived across the
quad. He had been there more than one year and was graduating that year.
He was also a student of Donald Lamb, for whom he did write an appropriate
Michael: Not on Don Quixote.
Seth: No. Well, Severn once went to a class and reported back that someone
had said to the teacher, "I was wondering perhaps whether there is not
another possibility in addition to the two you have so speciously
posited." Rosen was in seventh heaven. He loved this line. There was a
college radio station, which had discussions of books, one of which was to
be on Flowering Judas, and Steiner was going to appear on the program.
Severn was told by Rosen to apply to become a member of this radio
program, and he, Rosen, would supply all the lines he had to speak during
the discussion. So, he got on it. We all tuned in, at 7:30. For the first
twenty minutes, Severn didn't say anything. George Steiner was dominating
it entirely. Then suddenly, a pause, and Severn says, "I am wondering,
perhaps, whether there is not possibly a third alternative to the two
which you have so speciously posited. I am referring of course to the
Cathedral of the Fields and William Morris of the neo-Hegelian
movement ..." It had absolutely nothing to do with anything. And it was all
for the following lines, for George Steiner to say, which he in fact did
say, "I know nothing about Neo-Hegelianism, but-" At this point, the
moderator said, "Surely Mr. Darden is joking." And Severn said, "Certainly
not." And it was exactly the end of the program.
Seth: Severn had a knack of finding locked doors open. They would always
be open for him. He somehow found out there was a way of getting into
Rockefeller Chapel. So he used to go in at midnight, dressed in his cloak,
and play the organ. One night he pulled out all the stops. The whole place
shook. And it awakened the guard sleeping in the basement, who came with a
flashlight, looked at the organ, saw this guy in a cloak, and began this
wild pursuit. Severn didn't know what to do, so he flung himself across
the altar, and shouted, "Sanctuary!" The man dropped the flashlight, and
Ronna: No eyewitnesses?
Seth: No, but this is a story that he told immediately.
Ronna: So it has the stamp of truth.
Seth: He repeated this trick in the girls' shower in the spring term. He
apparently sneaked in late at night, when everyone was asleep. There he
was when they came traipsing in, in the morning, holding onto the curtain
rail, saying "Is this the way to Clark Street?"
Robert: Did he get in trouble?
Seth: I don't recall. That same spring, Severn and I were walking to a
party. He was wearing his cloak, and at the corner we met Allan Bloom,
who had heard about Severn, and said with great disdain to him, "Is it
worth the candle?" Severn immediately pulled out a candle and lit it and
Bloom was absolutely blown away.
Michael: What did Severn look like?
Seth: Well, he said he looked exactly like Charles Laughton. He had a very
bad skin disease, which vanished many years later, some terrible form of
eczema. They thought it was psychosomatic, and he was constantly going to
psychiatrists. He had all these fantastic stories about his analysts, he'd
become so inquisitive about where they hung their clothes.
Ronna: He was always collecting material.
Michael: Did Bloom come at the same time you did?
Seth: No, he had come younger, when he was sixteen, when you were supposed
to, then you had two or three years.
Michael: When did you first meet him?
Seth: That was the first time I met him, on the way to the party. Then I
got to know him when we became students in the Committee the next year.
Michael: That's when you became known as the "gold dust twins"? What was
the origin of that?
Seth: There used to be a soap that had two black figures on it, called
Gold Dust soap powder. We were in a tutorial together and somehow got that
Ronna: Did Severn go on to the Committee?
Seth: No, no, no. I don't think he ever graduated. He went to Bard
College, where he pulled all sorts of pranks. One Christmas they knew that
the president was away from the college. So he got a whole group of people
to build a huge cross, because the president's house was on a hill, with a
very steep slope going up to it, so until the last minute you wouldn't see
anything, but all of a sudden there it would be. So they built this huge
cross, and put Severn, with a little thing around his waist, on this
cross. When the president of the college went up the hill, he would see
him crucified. Severn was expelled.
Ronna: For that episode?
Seth: Yes. As he was being expelled, he said to the president, "You know,
I was about to write you a check."
Ronna: After that, he gave up on academic goals?
Seth: He decided to become an actor.
Michael: Was he very wealthy?
Seth: He had an income of about $3,000 a year, which was a lot of money in
those days. But it didn't look as though it was going to go up for many
years. It kept him in shirts, because he would never go to the laundry.
You went into his room and opened his closet door, there were white shirts
from the bottom up to the top, and he would say, "Oh, I'm out of shirts"
and he would immediately go to Brooks Brothers and buy five more shirts.
And they would go into his closet.
Ronna: You kept up contact with him for quite a long time.
Seth: Oh yes. He bought a Rolls Royce in the spring for $800. It was a
1929 Rolls Royce, which at the time it disappeared in a hurricane in
Louisiana years later was worth a quarter of a million. Anyway we drove
from Chicago to Gloucester, Massachusetts, in this Rolls Royce, and in
every state we were stopped by the police.
Ronna: As a stolen vehicle?
Seth: Yes, but what they really wanted to know was how many miles a gallon
it got. Such an enormous thing, you know, and these two kids were in it.
Ronna: Why was that your destination?
Seth: He was going to an acting school. On the way we stopped off at a
place in Connecticut, late at night, because a friend who had gone to
Putney was there. We were introduced to him in the evening and then
immediately shown to our beds. In the morning, all over the house, there
were these loud speakers blaring out South Pacific. So I said to Severn,
"Can't this junk be turned off?" And he said, "Sure, of course," and
turned it off. We had breakfast with this guy, and then we got into the
Rolls Royce and proceeded on our way.
Excerpted from Encounters and Reflections
by Seth Benardete
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 28, 2013
Is that the shrillness of a grinding axe I hear coming from Mr. Aristocles direction?
This book is both a memoir of perhaps the greatest classicist of his time and a very subtle and wide-ranging discussion of ancient philosophy in general and Plato in particular with various excursions along the way.
Having said that this book is not going to be for everyone. I think it's single greatest benefit might be to awaken more conventional students of Platonism from their dogmatic slumbers. I can't imagine a "developmentalist" or Irwin style "analytical" student of Plato responding to this work with anything less than angry denunciation or a most painful discovery of ignorance. More likely the former.
Posted March 2, 2009
The real usefulness of this book (apart from the opening tale of Nasreddin Hoja at the Turkish bath) is the light it shines on Benardete's teacher Leo Strauss; neither Benardete's comments on others nor the flattering questions posed by his interlocutors are particularly valuable. But even where Strauss is concerned, the book's value is limited for most readers since revealing issues are ignored (e.g. 81-4). Only those scholars intent on getting to the bottom of the Straussian movement will know how to get their money's worth from this immoralist hagiography.
As far as Benardete's version of Straussianism goes, it might be summarized as follows: the nihilist philosopher who has achieved "liberation from shame" (98-100) combined with "knowledge of ignorance" (160-1) propagates through pederasty (158) a private or politic response to any external standard of morality (174-5) and restores an Aristophanic "proud thought" (173-4) of absolute autonomy.