Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Professor

Devon McKinley was an oddity, in two ways. A long-tenured English professor, he was a long-standing social democrat like most of his colleagues. And yet, he had a fascination with the writings of Ayn Rand. Despite finding her political philosophy repugnant, when stated in unstylized language, he found himself carried away by her writing to the point where her defence of laissez-faire didn’t register.

At first, he was puzzled. Then, he hit upon the reason why: Rand was America’s Tolstoy. And he, he was like a pugilist swept away by Tolstoy. There was little chance that a boxer would embrace Tolstoyan pacifism, and there was no chance that Professor McKinley would embrace hard-core libertarianism. But such was the magic of literature to captivate without capturing. Great literature transcended categories left largely unchanged, except for people who were induced by writer’s tricks to see that writer as a great authority on everything.

Hence, he smiled at what his Marxist colleagues would have labelled a contradiction in praxis. On the one hand, a poll revealed that Atlas Shrugged was the second-most influential book in the United States. It was second only to the Bible. On the other hand, political praxis in the United States kept moving steadily away from Rand’s libertarian ideal. As a result, Rand’s political acolytes continually fell into the habit – encouraged by her own stance – of treating the perennially best-selling author as a lone voice in the wilderness. It was a fascinating clash, and it spoke to his point about great literature transcending categories. How many bourgeois read Victor Hugo and returned to their buying and selling, with only occasional qualms and midnight fears about their heads being put into a guillotine?

Professor McKinley was a true professional. Although profoundly disagreeing with Rand’s politics, he did not let that disagreement turn his mind into a bludgeon lashing out at her works. He sometimes pitied his American colleagues, as many of them had a habit of doing so.

His graduate-level course on Rand’s works was explicitly billed as a critical study. Not because he was an aficionado of critical theory, he shying away from it in its heyday because it stirred up too much controversy for his taste, but because he wanted to bat away the people who expected a Rand interpreter to be a Rand acolyte. He started off each year with the pugilist simile, and usually got smiles. Anyone who seemed perplexed was taken aside and given the suggestion that he or she would find the course a hard slog.

With the year almost at an end, he sat back in his office chair and relaxed. He rated a full professor’s office, which meant that he had a fair bit of room. Universities being what they are, roominess did not translate into luxury. His desk, not very neat, was a standard office model. His chair was padded and comfortable, but also standard issue: the so-called manager’s chair sold by discount office supply companies. The floor was cheap tiling. The shelves were built in, and made of serviceable wood that had to be painted. It was a standard office for a full professor.

When it was time for the finals to be marked, he would not have much time for relaxing anymore. In addition to his Rand course, he had the Hugo course and four others. The undergraduate courses, a tutorial assistant would mark the finals. The graduates, he himself would grade. They were the ones who were going into his own field, or were at least preparing to do so. Tragically, funding dry-ups made the latter category large. Still, one never knew which student would join the field and which not. Professor McKinley wanted to see each graduate student’s work personally. It made his recommendations more authentic.

His fingers stroked his neatly-trimmed grey beard as his mind wandered to the price of gold. Although well below $1,500 in Canadian funds, it was well above $1,400. McKinley had been buying gold regularly, ever since he had stumbled upon some American high-school situation comedy that had a scene lampooning the principal as a gold hoarder. Although he had forgotten the context, the idea that a gold buyer would be portrayed as a clown interested him enough to check out the goldbug world. There was also a tie to Rand.

After a fair bit of poking around, he knew what his American colleagues meant when they talked about nonfiction documents being texts too. There was a definite narrative in the goldbug literature, and an ideology lens that was fairly straightforward. At root, they were neo-Oppenheimerites. Although their dependence upon the work of Franz Oppenheimer was admixed with a more obvious tie to the Austrian School of Economics, albeit an anarchist wing of that sequestered school, they all believed that government – the State – was the poisoned flowering of a band of conquerors that had settled down to enjoy a steady stream of exploitation. Unlike Oppenheimer himself, they did not reach the conclusion that social democracy was just recompense for that past and present exploitation.

Their doomsaying lens, he found fascinating even though he did not share it. He did agree with their contention that gold was seriously undervalued. Beginning in the first month of 2001, he had bought his first monthly ration of gold: two ounces. It had cost him less than a thousand dollars.

As the metal’s price continued to ramp up, he had reluctantly turned his monthly two ounces into one when the 2005-6 school year started. By that time, he had accumulated 54 ounces. He had no children, and his wife regarded his new hobby with good humour. By the time 2009 rolled around, he had 106 ounces having sold none. Having stretched his $1000 budget, he even more reluctantly shifted to buying half-ounces. He now had 119.5 ounces, which would be an even 120 ounces by the end of this month. At current prices, his hoard was worth over 170,000 loonies. When no-one cared about gold, he used to stick his Maple Leafs in his desk drawer and show them to visitors for a laugh. It wasn’t until 2006 that he made a concession to security and rented a safety deposit box for them.

In retrospect, the money he made on the gold didn’t seem all that real to him. It had been an engaging and profitable hobby, but he was more interested in observing that section of the world than growing rich on it.

Yes, he was far more observer than participant. Until Morris Gurr came knocking on his door.

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